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Jerome |
The Latin Bible

Jerome is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 150, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

He was cherished by his admirers and denounced by his critics, but none could deny that crusty old Jerome, who worked in a cave, knew his stuff

Jerome - The Latin Bible’s testy translator

Jerome - The Latin Bible’s testy translator
The Renaissance artist Caravaggio (1573—1610) evinced a remarkable fondness for painting Jerome, founder of monasteries and translator of the Bible; he produced nearly a dozen moody portraits. The saint is invariably shown naked, except for the seemingly incongruous red cloak, which bespeaks high rank in the church. On Jerome’s desk, the artist has set a skull, an item the saint was said to have kept in view to remind him of his death and judgment.

He was irascible, argumentative, sarcastic and disdainful of all who disagreed with him. In the heat of debate, he and his opponents would spit in each other’s faces, and he actually prayed for more of these confrontations with doctrinal foes. Of one of his enemies he said: “If he will only conceal his nose and keep his tongue still, he may be taken to be both handsome and learned.” Embroiled in the Pelagian controversy (see sidebar page 160), he referred to Pelagius as a “dolt weighed down with Scots porridge.”

Yet Jerome was also one of the fourth century’s greatest Christian scholars, and for this and other positive attributes would be declared a saint. As a linguist, the rapier-tongued academic shone with particular brilliance. Notably testifying to his expertise is his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, which stood as the standard Roman Catholic version until 1979, and even then was merely revised, not retranslated. Both this and his extensive scriptural commentary reflect a remarkable mind–and the man whose mind it was did much of his work in a cave.

Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius (“Hieronymus” became “Jerome” in English) was born about 340 at Stridonius in what is now Croatia. His Christian parents, probably prosperous Greek settlers, dispatched him to Rome to study. Although he enthusiastically embraced the classical pagan writers, he was baptized there, and is said to have spent Sundays deciphering grave inscriptions in the catacombs.

Jerome’s travels ranged from France to the eastern Mediterranean, where for five years he lived as a hermit in the Syrian Desert. He did not enjoy the experience. “My hideous emaciated limbs were covered with sackcloth,” he later wrote; “my skin was parched dry and black, and my flesh was almost wasted away. The days I passed in tears and groans, and when sleep overpowered me against my will, I cast my wearied bones, which hardly hung together, upon the bare ground, not so properly to give them rest, as to torture myself.”

Even in these extremities, however, he forced himself to study Hebrew, which he called a language of “hissing and broken-winded words,” compared to his beloved Greek and Latin classics. He records a dream of Christ’s final judgment that testifies to the importance he attached to literature. The Just Judge inquires as to his spiritual condition. “A Christian,” he asserts. The Judge responds: “You lie. You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian. Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” (Cicero was the greatest orator of the Roman republic.)

When a three-way struggle broke out over who should occupy the see of Antioch, Jerome aggressively argued that such decisions were the prerogative of the bishop of Rome, as successor to Peter. Also at Antioch, he was ordained priest by the pro-Roman bishop. Then he moved on to Constantinople, where he studied theology under Gregory of Nazianzus, and became the friend of Gregory of Nyssa. (See sidebar, page 60.)

At about age forty, he returned to Rome, where Pope Damasus assigned him the daunting task of providing a complete and official Latin Bible. Books of the New and Old Testaments were circulating by then in a variety of unofficial Latin translations, and this assortment, which modern scholars call the Vetus Latina (Old Latin Versions), was both confusing and varied widely in merit. Jerome began by revising the four Latin Gospels. For the Old Testament, however, he decided he must not simply retranslate the Greek Septuagint. He must go back to the original Hebrew, a revolutionary idea, and a controversial one as well, since this venerable text had come to be considered sacrosanct. Jerome’s translation would finally win popular acclaim, however, through its sheer excellence.

In Rome, he also helped establish an upper-class Christian community of holy women. “I had the joy of seeing Rome transformed into another Jerusalem,” he writes. “Monastic establishments for virgins became numerous, and there were countless numbers of hermits. In fact, so many were the servants of God that monasticism, which had before been a term of reproach, became subsequently one of honor.”

A number of his ascetic female devotees would later be regarded as saints, among them Melania the Elder, Albina and her daughters, Marcella and Asella, and Paula and her daughters Blesilla and Julia Eustochium. Jerome’s letters to them, the last three in particular, would greatly influence medieval convents. At the time, however, his numerous foes spread all sorts of malicious speculation about his relations with these ladies.

His eloquent castigation of women who caked themselves with cosmetics, wore wigs and so on, increased the number and indignation of his critics. So did the vitriol he poured upon pagans, heretics, and luxuriously clothed clergy. When his papal protector Damasus died in 384, Jerome prudently emigrated to the Holy Land, where he was joined by Paula. With her wealth, they established three convents for women.

In a letter to his friend Pammachius back in Rome, Jerome reports: “I, for my part, am building in this province a monastery and a hospice [for pilgrims] close by, so that if Joseph and Mary chance to come to Bethlehem, they may not fail to find shelter and welcome. Indeed, the number of monks who flock here from all quarters of the world is so overwhelming that I can neither desist from my enterprise nor bear so great a burden.” To further finance the relief work, his brother Paulinian returned to Italy and sold their family property.

Jerome himself never could be accused of lavish living. His workplace, for example, was in a cave near Bethlehem, where he is said to have secretly studied Hebrew under Bar Ananias, a famed Jewish scholar. He in turn taught the language to Paula, whose death in 404 came as a fearful blow to him. “All of a sudden, I have lost her who was my consolation,” he lamented. (Paula too would be recognized as a saint.)

The sack of Rome by Alaric’s Goths in 410 triggered a flood of refugees to Palestine. Jerome writes: “Who would have believed that the daughters of that mighty city would one day be wandering as servants and slaves on the shores of Egypt and Africa, or that Bethlehem would daily receive noble Romans, distinguished ladies, brought up in wealth and now reduced to beggary? I cannot help them all, but I grieve and weep with them. . . . For today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds. Instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them.”

Controversy was his natural habitat, however. “It seems,” observes Butler’s Lives of the Saints, “that sometimes he unwarrantably assumed that those who differed from himself were necessarily the church’s enemies.” Thus, during the Pelagian fight, a mob had forced him into hiding. In 393, he had attracted great hostility by attacking the belief that Mary had children other than Jesus, and by just as vigorously defending clerical celibacy and veneration of relics. Nor did sentiment subdue his zealous pursuit of heretics, as when he targeted Rufinus, a childhood friend who appeared to support Origen’s controversial ideas. And when Augustine questioned his exegesis of the second chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Jerome blasted the sage of Hippo, too.

His scholarly production was prodigious, reportedly compiled at the remarkable rate of a thousand lines per day. Besides his momentous translation work, he wrote biblical commentaries, historical essays, spiritual advice and more. All this would win him the title “doctor of the church,” awarded to the most exemplary interpreters of the divine word.

At his death in 420, Jerome was entombed beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. His reputation for pugnacity in defense of his ideals and ideas would vividly survive the centuries. Sixtus V, a sixteenth-century pope, contemplating a painting of Jerome beating his breast with a stone, is said to have commented sardonically: “You do well thus to use that stone. Without it, you would never have been numbered among the saints.”

This is the end of the Jerome category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 150, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Jerome from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at