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St. Jerome

St. JeromeAKA Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus

Born: c. 340 AD
Birthplace: Stridon, Dalmatia
Died: 30-Sep-420 AD
Location of death: Bethlehem, Palestine
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Religion

Nationality: Ancient Rome
Executive summary: Church Father, translated Vulgate

St. Jerome, in full Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, was born at Strido (perhaps modern Strigau), a town on the border of Dalmatia fronting Pannonia, destroyed by the Goths in AD 377. What is known of Jerome has mostly been recovered from his own writings. He appears to have been born about 340; his parents were Christians, orthodox though living among people mostly Arians and wealthy. He was at first educated at home, Bonosus, a lifelong friend, sharing his youthful studies, and was afterwards sent to Rome. Donatus taught him grammar and explained the Latin poets. Victorinus taught him rhetoric. He attended the law courts, and listened to the Roman advocates pleading in the Forum. He went to the schools of philosophy, and heard lectures on Plato, Diogenes, Clitomachus and Carneades; the conjunction of names shows how philosophy had become a dead tradition. His Sundays were spent in the catacombs in discovering graves of the martyrs and deciphering inscriptions. Pope Liberius baptized him in 360; three years later the news of the death of the emperor Julian came to Rome, and Christians felt relieved from a great dread.

When his student days were over Jerome returned to Strido, but did not stay there long. His character was formed. He was a scholar, with a scholar's tastes and cravings for knowledge, easily excited, bent on scholarly discoveries. From Strido he went to Aquileia, where he formed some friendships among the monks of the large monastery, notably with Rufinus, with whom he was destined to quarrel bitterly over the question of Origen's orthodoxy and worth as a commentator; for Jerome was a man who always sacrificed a friend to an opinion, and when he changed sides in a controversy expected his acquaintances to follow him. From Aquileia he went to Gaul (366-370), visiting in turn the principal places in that country, from Narbonne and Toulouse in the south to Treves on the north-east frontier. He stayed some time at Treves studying and observing, and it was there that he first began to think seriously upon sacred things. From Treves he returned to Strido, and from Strido to Aquileia. He settled down to literary work in Aquileia (370-373) and composed there his first original tract, De muliere septies percussa, in the form of a letter to his friend Innocentius. Some dispute caused him to leave Aquileia suddenly; and with a few companions, Innocentius, Evagrius, and Heliodorus being among them, he started for a long tour in the East. The epistle to Rufinus (3rd in Vallarsi's enumeration) tells us the route. They went through Thrace, visiting Athens, Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia and Cilicia, to Antioch, Jerome observing and making notes as they went. He was interested in the theological disputes and schisms in Galatia, in the two languages spoken in Cilicia, etc. At Antioch the party remained some time. Innocentius died of a fever, and Jerome was dangerously ill. This illness induced a spiritual change, and he resolved to renounce whatever kept him back from God. His greatest temptation was the study of the literature of pagan Rome. In a dream Jesus Christ reproached him with caring more to be a Ciceronian than a Christian. He disliked the uncouth style of the Scriptures. "0 Lord", he prayed, "thou knowest that whenever I have and study secular manuscripts I deny thee", and he made a resolve henceforth to devote his scholarship to the Holy Scripture. "David was to be henceforth his Simonides, Pindar and Alcaeus, his Flaccus, Catullus and Severus." Fortified by these resolves he betook himself to a hermit life in the wastes of Chalcis, southeast from Antioch (373-379). Chalcis was the Thebaid of Syria. Great numbers of monks, each in solitary cell, spent lonely lives, scorched by the sun, ill-clad and scantily fed, pondering on portions of Scripture or copying manuscripts to serve as objects of meditation. Jerome at once set himself to such scholarly work as the place afforded. He discovered and copied manuscripts, and began to study Hebrew. There also he wrote the life of St. Paul of Thebes, probably an imaginary tale embodying the facts of the monkish life around him. Just then the Meletian schism, which arose over the relation of the orthodox to Arian bishops and to those baptized by Arians, distressed the church at Antioch, and Jerome as usual eagerly joined the fray. Here as elsewhere he had but one rule to guide him in matters of doctrine and discipline -- the practice of Rome and the West; for it is singular to see how Jerome, who is daringly original in points of scholarly criticism, was a ruthless partisan in all other matters; and, having discovered what was the Western practice, he set tongue and pen to work with his usual bitterness (Altercalio luciferiani et orthodoxi).

At Antioch in 379 he was ordained presbyter. From there he went to Constantinople, where he met with the great Eastern scholar and theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, and with his aid tried to perfect himself in Greek. The result of his studies there was the translation of the Chronicon of Eusebius, with a continuation of twenty-eight homilies of Origen on Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and of nine homilies of Origen on the visions of Isaiah.

In 381 Meletius died, and Pope Damasus I interfered in the dispute at Antioch, hoping to end it. Jerome was called to Rome in 382 to give help in the matter, and was made secretary during the investigation. His work brought him into intercourse with this great pontiff, who soon saw what he could best do, and how his vast scholarship might be made of use to the church. Damasus suggested to him to revise the "Old Latin" translation of the Bible; and to this task he henceforth devoted his great abilities. At Rome were published the Gospels (with a dedication to Pope Damasus, an explanatory introduction, and the canons of Eusebius), the rest of the New Testament and the version of the Psalms from the Septuagint known as the Psalterium romanum, which was followed (c. 388) by the Psalterium gallicanum, based on the Hexaplar Greek text. These scholarly labors, however, did not take up his whole time, and it was almost impossible for Jerome to be long anywhere without getting into a dispute. He was a zealous defender of that monastic life which was beginning to take such a large place in the church of the 4th century, and he found enthusiastic disciples among the Roman ladies. A number of widows and maidens met together in the house of Marcella to study the Scriptures with him; he taught them Hebrew, and preached the virtues of the celibate life. His arguments and exhortations may be gathered from many of his epistles and from his tract Adversus Helvidium, in which he defends the perpetual virginity of Mary against Helvidius, who maintained that she bore children to Joseph. His influence over these ladies alarmed their relatives and excited the suspicions of the regular priesthood and of the populace, but while Pope Damasus lived Jerome remained secure. Damasus died, however, in 384, and was succeeded by Siricius, who did not show much friendship for Jerome. He found it expedient to leave Rome, and set out for the East in 385. His letters (especially Ep. 45) are full of outcries against his enemies and of indignant protestations that he had done nothing unbecoming a Christian, that he had taken no money, nor gifts great nor small, that he had no delight in silken attire, sparkling gems or gold ornaments, that no matron moved him unless by penitence and fasting, etc. His route is given in the third book In Rufinum; he went by Rhegium and Cyprus, where he was entertained by Bishop Epiphanius, to Antioch. There he was joined by two wealthy Roman ladies, Paula, a widow, and Eustochium, her daughter, one of Jerome's Hebrew students. They came accompanied by a band of Roman maidens vowed to live a celibate life in a nunnery in Palestine. Accompanied by these ladies Jerome made the tour of Palestine, carefully noting with a scholar's keenness the various places mentioned in Holy Scripture. The results of this journey may be traced in his translation with emendations of the book of Eusebius on the situation and names of Hebrew places, written probably three years afterwards, when he had settled down at Bethlehem. From Palestine Jerome and his companions went to Egypt, remaining some time in Alexandria, and they visited the convents of the Nitrian desert. Jerome's mind was evidently full of anxiety about his translation of the Old Testament, for we find him in his letters recording the conversations he had with learned men about disputed readings and doubtful renderings; the blind Didymus of Alexandria, whom he heard interpreting Hosea, appears to have been most useful. When they returned to Palestine they all settled at Bethlehem, where Paula built four monasteries, three for nuns and one for monks. She was at the head of the nunneries until her death in 404, when Eustochium succeeded her; Jerome presided over the fourth monastery. Here he did most of his literary work and, throwing aside his unfinished plan of a translation from Origen's Hexaplar text, translated the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew, with the aid of Jewish scholars. He mentions a rabbi from Lydda, a rabbi from Tiberias, and above all rabbi Ben Anina, who came to him by night secretly for fear of the Jews. Jerome was not familiar enough with Hebrew to be able to dispense with such assistance, and he makes the synagogue responsible for the accuracy of his version: "Let him who would challenge aught in this translation", he says, "ask the Jews." The result of all this labor was the Latin translation of the Scriptures which, in spite of much opposition from the more conservative party in the church, afterwards became the Vulgate or authorized version; but the Vulgate as we have it now is not exactly Jerome's Vulgate, for it suffered a good deal from changes made under the influence of the older translations; the text became very corrupt during the middle ages, and in particular all the Apocrypha, except Tobit and Judith, which Jerome translated from the Chaldee, were added from the older versions.

Notwithstanding the labor involved in translating the Scriptures, Jerome found time to do a great deal of literary work, and also to indulge in violent controversy. Earlier in life he had a great admiration for Origen, and translated many of his works, and this lasted after he had settled at Bethlehem, for in 389 he translated Origen's homilies on Luke; but he came to change his opinion and wrote violently against two admirers of the great Alexandrian scholar, John, bishop of Jerusalem, and his own former friend Rufinus.

At Bethlehem also he found time to finish Didymi de spiritu sancto liber, a translation begun at Rome at the request of Pope Damasus, to denounce the revival of Gnostic heresies by Jovinianus and Vigilantius (Adv. Jovinianum lib. II and Contra Vigilantium liber), and to repeat his admiration of the hermit life in his Vita S. Hilarionis eremitae, in his Vita Malchi monachi captivi, in his translations of the Rule of St. Pachomius (the Benedict of Egypt), and in his S. Pachomii et S. Theodorici epistolae et verba mystica. He also wrote at Bethlehem De viris illustribus sive de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis, a church history in biographies, ending with the life of the author; De nominibus Hebraicis, compiled from Philo and Origen; and De situ et nominibus locorum Hebraicorum. At the same place, too, he wrote Quaestiones Hebraicae on Genesis, and a series of commentaries on Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Twelve Minor Prophets, Matthew and the Epistles of St. Paul. About 394 Jerome came to know St. Augustine, for whom he held a high regard. He engaged in the Pelagian controversy with more than even his usual bitterness (Dialogi contra pelagianos); and it is said that the violence of his invective so provoked his opponents that an armed mob attacked the monastery, and that Jerome was forced to flee and to remain in concealment for nearly two years. He returned to Bethlehem in 418, and after a lingering illness died on the 30th of September 420.

Jerome is one of the few Fathers to whom the title of Saint appears to have been given in recognition of services rendered to the Church rather than for eminent sanctity. He is the great Christian scholar of his age, rather than the profound theologian or the wise guide of souls. His great work was the Vulgate, but his achievements in other fields would have sufficed to distinguish him. His commentaries are valuable because of his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, his varied interests, and his comparative freedom from allegory. To him we owe the distinction between canonical and apocryphal writings; in the Prologus Galeatus prefixed to his version of Samuel and Kings, he says that the church reads the Apocrypha "for the edification of the people, not for confirming the authority of ecclesiastical doctrines." He was a pioneer in the fields of patrology and of biblical archaeology. In controversy he was too fond of mingling personal abuse with legitimate argument, and this weakness mars his letters, which were held in high admiration in the early middle ages, and are valuable for their history of the man and his times. Martin Luther in his Table Talk condemns them as dealing only with fasting, meats, virginity, etc. "If he only had insisted upon the works of faith and performed them! But he teaches nothing either about faith, or love, or hope, or the works of faith."


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