Jerome was brought up as a Christian but during his education in Rome he became attracted to reading the classics. Like students down the ages, he enjoyed sampling all the world had to offer him. Later he chose to dedicate his life to God and this led him to travel, to try out the life of a hermit, to learn from the best Christian teachers of the day and finally to spend his time living in the Holy Land. He is particularly remembered for translating the Bible into the Latin of the people. This gave rise to the term ‘Vulgate’ for the version he created. It stood the test of time, being the Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries.
On Thursday 30 September we remembered Jerome in our 2pm service. The readings were Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-17, Luke 24:44-48. Jerome’s story is given below:
Jerome was born around 342 AD to Christian parents in the town of Strido on the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia. His father, Eusebius, a local land owner, made sure Jerome was well educated. He started his education at a local school and then went on for further education in Rome. He had a classical education, being taught by Donatus, a famous pagan grammarian, and Victorinus, a Christian rhetorician. His native tongue was Illyrian but in Rome he became fluent in Latin and Greek which enabled him to read the literature of those languages, something he enjoyed very much.
Like students down the centuries, Jerome enjoyed worldly ideas and pleasures, turning his back on the piety of his upbringing. He wrote of one of his activities: ‘it was my custom on Sundays to visit, with friends of my own age and tastes, the tombs of the martyrs and Apostles, going down into those subterranean galleries whose walls on both sides preserve the relics of the dead.’ There is some suggestion that this might have acted as a sort of penance for his excesses. Jerome did not turn his back on Christianity completely, and after some scepticism he was baptised in 360 by Pope Liberius.
After staying for three years in Rome, Jerome began to travel around Europe. During this time he decided to renounce worldly pursuits and dedicate himself wholly to God. He began to build up a library of religious books, copying them out himself. He then returned to his home and settled for a while in Aquileia where many eminent Christians had gathered. Having studied for some years there, Jerome headed towards Syria with a group of friends, Innocent, Heliodorus, and Hylas, travelling overland through places we have heard of in the travels of St Paul – Athens, Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia, and Cilicia.
Jerome arrived in Antioch in 373 and attended lectures by Apollinaris before heading to the desert of Chalcis where he lived the life of a hermit for four years. He spent his time in study and lived austerely. He suffered greatly from temptations and began the study of Hebrew as a discipline to try to help himself. The study was not easy as this quote from 411 tells: “When my soul was on fire with wicked thoughts, as a last resort, I became a pupil to a monk who had been a Jew, in order to learn the Hebrew alphabet. From the judicious precepts of Quintilian, the rich and fluent eloquence of Cicero, the graver style of Fronto, and the smoothness of Pliny, I turned to this language of hissing and broken-winded words. What labour it cost me, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired and abandoned it and began again to learn, both I, who felt the burden, and they who lived with me, can bear witness. I thank our Lord that I now gather such sweet fruit from the bitter sowing of those studies.”
Jerome suffered from the malicious behaviour of the other hermits and so left. On leaving the desert Jerome was ordained by Paulinus, bishop of Antioch, but made it clear he did not want to be a priest of a church, but a monk. He went to Constantinople in 379 to study the Scriptures with Gregory of Nazianzus and two years later he returned to Rome. He acted as secretary at a council held by Pope Damasus and then remained as secretary to the pope from 382 to 384. The pope asked him to revise the text of Latin New Testament and the Latin psalter. The Latin he used for the translation was that of the common people, rather than classical Latin, and so his translation became known as the Vulgate.
During this period, Jerome was also the spiritual director for several Roman noblewomen who were interested in Christian asceticism. Several of these women eventually became saints. When Damasus died his successor, Siricius, was not as encouraging of Jerome. Jerome was known for his holy living and his integrity but he made enemies by being outspoken in his condemnation of people whom he saw behaving wrongly. He wrote about some Roman clergy: “All their anxiety is about their clothes…. You would take them for bridegrooms rather than for clerics; all they think about is knowing the names and houses and doings of rich ladies.”
Jerome was subject to rumours about his behaviour towards some of the women who came to him and decided to leave Rome and go to the Holy Land. He set out in August 385 with his brother Paulinian and a few others. He was joined, probably in Antioch, by some of the ladies from Rome including Paula, a widow. Paula and Jerome had enough financial means to build a monastery for men near the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and accommodation for three communities of women. Paula headed one of the women’s communities while Jerome chose to live in a cave in the area. He founded a school and a hospice for pilgrims.
Jerome seemed content in Bethlehem and began a very productive time of his life. He began to translate the Old Testament into Latin. He was well placed to do this with his knowledge of languages enabling him to go back to the original Hebrew. He was surrounded by the places and lifestyles which form the backdrop to the Bible so was well placed to create an authentic translation. In order to improve his work further, he enlisted the aid of a Jewish scholar called Bar Ananias who taught him Hebrew in secret at night. Beginning with the Books of Kings, Jerome managed to translate all except Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and Maccabees.
In 404 Jerome’s great friend, Paula, died. Another piece of terrible news came in 410 when Rome was sacked by Alaric the Goth. Jerome found himself helping women who had once been among the nobility but were reduced to the status of refugees and found themselves in Bethlehem. He was unable to study as the practical care of these women absorbed his time. As he said, “For today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds; instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them.” Later he himself was disturbed by attacks by barbarians who came north from Egypt to Palestine. Later a group of Pelagian heretics sought to disperse the monks and nuns. Some people were beaten, some killed, and monasteries were destroyed by fire. Jerome was forced to go into hiding for a while.
From 418-420 Jerome suffered ill health. His sight failed as did his voice. He died on 30 September 420 and was buried under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. His body was moved in the thirteenth century and is now somewhere in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
At the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, the Vulgate Bible was declared to be the authoritative Latin Bible of the Catholic Church and remained the standard text until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Jerome is recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church and by the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is the most learned Father of the Western Church. In addition to his translation of the Bible, he produced commentaries on most of its books. He is recognised as the patron saint of librarians, translators and encyclopedists.