Jerome (ca. 347 – September 30, 420), (full name Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus) is best known as the translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Jerome's edition, the Vulgate, is still the official biblical text of the Roman Catholic Church. He is recognized by the Vatican as a Doctor of the Church.
In the artistic tradition of the Roman Catholic Church it has been usual to represent him, the patron of theological learning, as a cardinal, by the side of the Bishop Augustine, the Archbishop Ambrose, and the Pope Gregory I. Even when he is depicted as a half-clad anchorite, with cross, skull, and Bible for the only furniture of his cell, the red hat or some other indication of his rank is as a rule introduced somewhere in the picture.
Jerome was born to Christian parents, but was not baptized until about 360, when he had gone to Rome with his friend Bonosus to pursue his rhetorical and philosophical studies. Here he studied under Aelius Donatus, a skillful compiler of language techniques which Donatus called "grammar". Jerome also learned Koine Greek, but yet had no thought of studying the Greek Fathers, or any Christian writings.
After several years in Rome, he travelled with Bonosus to Gaul and settled in Trier "on the semi-barbarous banks of the Rhine" where he seems to have first taken up theological studies, and where he copied, for his friend Rufinus, Hilary's commentary on the Psalms and the treatise De synodis. Next came a stay of at least several months, or possibly years, with Rufinus at Aquileia where he made many Christian friends.
Some of these accompanied him when he set out at about 373 on a journey through Thrace and Asia Minor into northern Syria. At Antioch, where he made the longest stay, two of his companions died and he himself was seriously ill more than once. During one of these illnesses (about the winter of 373-374) he had a vision which determined him to lay aside his secular studies and devote himself to the things of God. In any case he seems to have abstained for a considerable time from the study of the classics and to have plunged deeply into that of the Bible, under the impulsion of Apollinaris of Laodicea, then teaching in Antioch and not yet suspected of heresy.
Seized with the desire for a life of ascetic penance, he went for a time to the desert of Chalcis, to the southwest of Antioch, known as the Syrian Thebaid, from the number of hermits inhabiting it. During this period, however, he seems to have found time for study and writing. He made his first attempt to learn Hebrew under the guidance of a converted Jew; and at this time he seems to have been in relation with the Jewish Christians in Antioch, and perhaps as early as this to have interested himself in the Gospel of the Hebrews, asserted by them to be the source of the canonical Matthew.
Returning to Antioch in 378 or 379, he was ordained by Bishop Paulinus, apparently with some unwillingness and on condition that he still continue his ascetic life. Soon afterward he went to Constantinople to pursue his study of Scripture under the instruction of Gregory Nazianzen. There he seems to have spent two years; the next three (382-385) he was in Rome again, in close intercourse with Pope Damasus and the leading Roman Christians. Invited there originally to the synod of 382 held for the purpose of ending the schism of Antioch, he made himself indispensable to the pope, and took a prominent place in his councils.
Among other duties he undertook the revision of the text of the Latin Bible on the basis of the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint, in order to put an end to the marked divergences in the current western texts. This commission determined the course of his scholarly activity for many years, and is his most important achievement. His translation of the Bible from Greek to Latin was called the Vulgate (vulgar) because it was in the common, or vulgar, tongue of the people. He undoubtedly exercised an important influence during these three years, to which, outside of his unusual learning, his zeal for ascetic strictness and the realization of the monastic ideal contributed not a little.
He was surrounded by a circle of well-born and well-educated women, including some from the noblest patrician families, such as the widows Marcella and Paula, with their daughters Blaesilla and Eustochium. The resulting inclination of these women for the monastic life, and his unsparing criticism of the life of the secular clergy, brought a growing hostility against him amongst the clergy and their supporters. Soon after the death of his patron Damasus (December 10, 384), and having lost his necessary protection, Jerome left his position at Rome.
In August 385 he returned to Antioch, accompanied by his brother Paulinianus and several friends, and followed a little later by Paula and Eustochium, who had resolved to leave their patrician surroundings and to end their days in the Holy Land. In the winter of 385 Jerome accompanied them and acted as their spiritual adviser. The pilgrims, joined by Bishop Paulinus of Antioch, visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the holy places of Galilee, and then went to Egypt, the home of the great heroes of the ascetic life.In Alexandria Jerome listened to the blind catechist Didymus the Blind expounding the prophet Hosea and telling his reminiscences of Anthony the Great, who had died thirty years before; he spent some time in Nitria, admiring the disciplined community life of the numerous inhabitants of that "city of the Lord," but detecting even there "concealed serpents," i.e., the influence of the theology of Origen. Late in the summer of 388 he was back in Palestine, and settled down for the remainder of his life in a hermit's cell near Bethlehem, surrounded by a few friends, both men and women (including Paula and Eustochium), to whom he acted as priestly guide and teacher.
Amply provided by Paula with the means of livelihood and of increasing his collection of books, he led a life of incessant activity in literary production. To these last thirty-four years of his career belong the most important of his works -- his version of the Old Testament from the original text, the best of his scriptural commentaries, his catalogue of Christian authors, and the dialogue against the Pelagians, the literary perfection of which even a controversial opponent recognized. To this period also belong the majority of his passionate polemics, which distinguished him among the orthodox Fathers, including notably the treatises occasioned by the Origenistic controversy against Bishop John II of Jerusalem and his early friend Rufinus. As a result of his writings against Pelagianism, a body of excited partisans broke into the monastic buildings, set them on fire, attacked the inmates and killed a deacon, which forced Jerome to seek safety in a neighboring fortress (416).
Jerome died near Bethlehem on September 30, 420. The date of his death is given by the Chronicon of Prosper of Aquitaine. His remains, originally buried at Bethlehem, are said to have been later translated to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome, though other places in the West claim some relics -- the cathedral at Nepi boasting the possession of his head, which, according to another tradition, is in the Escorial.
Jerome was a noted scholar of Latin at a time when that statement implied a fluency in Greek. He knew some Hebrew when he started his translation project, but moved to Bethlehem to perfect his grasp of the language and to strengthen his grip on Jewish scripture commentary. A wealthy Roman aristocrat, Paula, founded a monastery for him in Bethlehem - rather like a research institute, today - and he completed his translation there. He began in 382 by correcting the existing Latin language version of the New Testament, commonly referred to as the Itala or Vetus Latina (the "Italian" or "Old Latin" version). By 390 he turned to the Old Testament in Hebrew, having previously translated portions from the Septuagint Greek version. He completed this work by 405.
For the next fifteen years, until he died, he produced a number of commentaries on Scripture, often explaining his translation choices. His knowledge of Hebrew, primarily required for this branch of his work, gives also to his exegetical treatises (especially to those written after 386) a value greater than that of most patristic commentaries, although he is as a rule too much hampered by Jewish tradition, and indulges too often in allegorical and mystical subtleties after the manner of Philo and the Alexandrian school. But he deserves credit for the distinctness with which he emphasizes the difference between the Old Testament apocrypha and the Hebraica veritas of the canonical books (cf. his introductions to the Books of Samuel, see Prologus Galeatus, to the Solomonic writings, to the Book of Tobit, and to the Book of Judith). His commentaries fall into three groups:
- His translations or recastings of Greek predecessors, including fourteen homilies on Jeremiah and the same number on Ezekiel by Origen (translated ca. 380 in Constantinople); two homilies of Origen on the Song of Solomon (in Rome, ca. 383); and thirty-nine on Luke (ca. 389, in Bethlehem). The nine homilies of Origen on Isaiah included among his works were not done by him. Here should be mentioned, as an important contribution to the topography of Palestine, his book De situ et nominibus locorum Hebraeorum, a translation with additions and some regrettable omissions of the Onomasticon of Eusebius. To the same period (ca. 390) belongs the Liber interpretationis nominum Hebraicorum, based on a work supposed to go back to Philo and expanded by Origen.
- Original commentaries on the Old Testament. To the period before his settlement at Bethlehem and the following five years belong a series of short Old Testament studies: De seraphim, De voce Osanna, De tribus quaestionibus veteris legis (usually included among the letters as 18, 20, and 36); Quaestiones hebraicae in Genesin; Commentarius in Ecclesiasten; Tractatus septem in Psalmos 10-16 (lost); Explanationes in Michaeam, Sophoniam, Nahum, Habacuc, Aggaeum. About 395 he composed a series of longer commentaries, though in rather a desultory fashion: first on the remaining seven minor prophets, then on Isaiah (ca. 395-ca. 400), on Daniel (ca. 407), on Ezekiel (between 410 and 415), and on Jeremiah (after 415, left unfinished).
- New Testament commentaries. These include only Philemon, Galatians, Ephesians, and Titus (hastily composed 387-388); Matthew (dictated in a fortnight, 398); Mark, selected passages in Luke, the prologue of John, and Revelation. Treating the last-named book in his cursory fashion, he made use of an excerpt from the commentary of the North African Tichonius, which is preserved as a sort of argument at the beginning of the more extended work of the Spanish presbyter Beatus of Liébana. But before this he had already devoted to the Book of Revelation another treatment, a rather arbitrary recasting of the commentary of Saint Victorinus (d. 303), with whose chiliastic views he was not in accord, substituting for the chiliastic conclusion a spiritualizing exposition of his own, supplying an introduction, and making certain changes in the text.
- One of Jerome's earliest attempts in the department of history was his Chronicle (or Chronicon or Temporum liber), composed ca. 380 in Constantinople; this is a translation into Latin of the chronological tables which compose the second part of the Chronicon of Eusebius, with a supplement covering the period from 325 to 379. In spite of numerous errors taken over from Eusebius, and some of his own, Jerome produced a valuable work, if only for the impulse which it gave to such later chroniclers as Prosper, Cassiodorus, and Victor of Tunnuna to continue his annals.
- Three other works of a hagiological nature are:
- the Vita Pauli monachi, written during his first sojourn at Antioch (ca. 376), the legendary material of which is derived from Egyptian monastic tradition;
- the Vita Malchi monachi captivi (ca. 391), probably based on an earlier work, although it purports to be derived from the oral communications of the aged ascetic Malchus originally made to him in the desert of Chalcis;
- the Vita Hilarionis, of the same date, containing more trustworthy historical matter than the other two, and based partly on the biography of Epiphanius and partly on oral tradition.
- The so-called Martyrologium Hieronymianum is spurious; it was apparently composed by a western monk toward the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century, with reference to an expression of Jerome's in the opening chapter of the Vita Malchi, where he speaks of intending to write a history of the saints and martyrs from the apostolic times.
- But the most important of Jerome's historical works is the book De viris illustribus, written at Bethlehem in 392, the title and arrangement of which are borrowed from Suetonius. It contains short biographical and literary notes on 135 Christian authors, from Saint Peter down to Jerome himself. For the first seventy-eight authors Eusebius (Historia ecclesiastica) is the main source; in the second section, beginning with Arnobius and Lactantius, he includes a good deal of independent information, especially as to western writers.
Jerome's letters or epistles, both by the great variety of their subjects and by their qualities of style, form the most interesting portion of his literary remains. Whether he is discussing problems of scholarship, or reasoning on cases of conscience, comforting the afflicted, or saying pleasant things to his friends, scourging the vices and corruptions of the time, exhorting to the ascetic life and renunciation of the world, or breaking a lance with his theological opponents, he gives a vivid picture not only of his own mind, but of the age and its peculiar characteristics.
The letters most frequently reprinted or referred to are of a hortatory nature, such as Ep. 14, Ad Heliodorum de laude vitae solitariae; Ep. 22, Ad Eustochium de custodia virginitatis; Ep. 52, Ad Nepotianum de vita clericorum et monachorum, a sort of epitome of pastoral theology from the ascetic standpoint; Ep. 53, Ad Paulinum de studio scripturarum; Ep. 57, to the same, De institutione monachi; Ep. 70, Ad Magnum de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis; and Ep. 107, Ad Laetam de institutione filiae.
Practically all of Jerome's productions in the field of dogma have a more or less violently polemical character, and are directed against assailants of the orthodox doctrines. Even the translation of the treatise of Didymus the Blind on the Holy Spirit into Latin (begun in Rome 384, completed at Bethlehem) shows an apologetic tendency against the Arians and Pneumatomachi. The same is true of his version of Origen's De principiis (ca. 399), intended to supersede the inaccurate translation by Rufinus. The more strictly polemical writings cover every period of his life. During the sojourns at Antioch and Constantinople he was mainly occupied with the Arian controversy, and especially with the schisms centering around Meletius of Antioch and Lucifer Calaritanus. Two letters to Pope Damasus (15 and 16) complain of the conduct of both parties at Antioch, the Meletians and Paulinians, who had tried to draw him into their controversy over the application of the terms ousia and hypostasis to the Trinity. At the same time or a little later (379) he composed his Liber Contra Luciferianos, in which he cleverly uses the dialogue form to combat the tenets of that faction, particularly their rejection of baptism by heretics.
In Rome (ca. 383) he wrote a passionate counterblast against the teaching of Helvidius, in defense of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, and of the superiority of the single over the married state. An opponent of a somewhat similar nature was Jovinianus, with whom he came into conflict in 392 (Adversus Jovinianum, and the defense of this work addressed to his friend Pammachius, numbered 48 in the letters). Once more he defended the ordinary Catholic practices of piety and his own ascetic ethics in 406 against the Spanish presbyter Vigilantius, who opposed the cultus of martyrs and relics, the vow of poverty, and clerical celibacy. Meanwhile the controversy with John II of Jerusalem and Rufinus concerning the orthodoxy of Origen occurred. To this period belong some of his most passionate and most comprehensive polemical works: the Contra Joannem Hierosolymitanum (398 or 399); the two closely-connected Apologiae contra Rufinum (402); and the "last word" written a few months later, the Liber tertius seu ultima responsio adversus scripta Rufini. The last of his polemical works is the skilfully-composed Dialogus contra Pelagianos (415).
He surpasses the others especially in his knowledge of Hebrew, gained by hard study, and not unskillfully used. It is true that he was perfectly conscious of his advantages, and not entirely free from the temptation to despise or belittle his literary rivals, especially Ambrose. As a general rule it is not so much by absolute knowledge that he shines as by an almost poetical elegance, an incisive wit, a singular skill in adapting recognized or proverbial phrases to his purpose, and a successful aiming at rhetorical effect. He showed more zeal and interest in the ascetic ideal than in abstract speculation. It was this attitude that made Martin Luther judge him so severely. In fact, Protestant readers are generally little inclined to accept his writings as authoritative, especially in consideration of his lack of independence as a dogmatic teacher and his submission to orthodox tradition. He approaches his patron Pope Damasus I with the most utter submissiveness, making no attempt at an independent decision of his own. The tendency to recognize a superior comes out scarcely less significantly in his correspondence with Augustine (cf. Jerome's letters numbered 56, 67, 102-105, 110-112, 115-116; and 28, 39, 40, 67-68, 71-75, 81-82 in Augustine's).
Yet in spite of the defects and weaknesses already mentioned, Jerome has retained a rank among the western Fathers. This would be his due, if for nothing else, on account of the incalculable influence exercised by his Latin version of the Bible upon the subsequent ecclesiastical and theological development. But that he won his way to the title of a saint and doctor of the Catholic Church was possible only because he broke away entirely from the theological school in which he was brought up, that of the Origenists.
Biblia Sacra Vulgata Stuttgart, 1994. ISBN: 3438053039
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