St. Jerome (c. 340–420)
Born in Aquilea, Dalmatia, Jerome was educated in Rome. He was interested in learning all things, but was especially attracted to classical poetry. One night in a dream he was told to devote himself to the Gospels. Upon awakening, Jerome decided to devote his life to studying God's words.
Like many of his contemporaries, Jerome decided to become a hermit. He retreated to the desert to live an austere life, although he did take his books with him. Instead of Latin he studied Hebrew, and he devoted himself to writing. He lived among other hermits, who managed to get under his skin. After four years, disillusioned by the experience, he came out of his hermitage, saying, “Better to live among wild beasts than among such Christians!”
Figure 9-3: Literary vocation
A Life's Work
Jerome was ordained in Antioch, which was, until the rise of Constantinople, the third most important city of the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. After more traveling and studying, he eventually took a post as secretary to Pope Damasus. The pontiff gave Jerome a special assignment: translating the scriptures from the Greek, which had been translated from the Hebrew, into Latin. Jerome elected not merely to translate the Greek into Latin, but to translate the original Hebrew into Latin. The job took him the rest of his life.
During those years he also wrote
Jerome was a fiery priest. He made some enemies with his sermons, especially those detailing the virtues of celibacy, and those attacking the pagan lifestyle. Unfortunately, he couldn't resist citing some influential Romans by name in his sermons. Overall, Jerome was difficult to get along with; some say he was downright cantankerous.
Although Jerome was a brilliant scholar, he was cautious about judgingthe less educated. He wrote, “He who is educated and eloquent must not measure his saintliness merely by his fluency. Of two imperfectthings, holy rusticity is better than sinful eloquence.”
When Pope Damasus died in 384, Jerome lost his protector. Rumors circulated that he had an improper relationship with Paula, and he knew it was time to leave Rome. He traveled to Antioch, where others of the Roman group of friends, including Paula, joined him. They traveled to Egypt and Palestine and eventually settled in Bethlehem.
Always the Scholar
Jerome remained principally a thinker and writer, continuing the Latin translations and writing essays. He even sparred with St. Augustine, who questioned Jerome's critical interpretation of the second chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans.
Jerome is best known for his translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew and his revision of the Latin version of the New Testament. His version, the Vulgate, was declared the official Latin text of the Bible for Catholics by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. From it almost all English Catholic translations were made until the last part of the twentieth century, when Pope John Paul II replaced it with the New Vulgate in 1979.
Jerome's prolific writings included over 100 letters, which are still read and interpreted by hagiographers. He died in Bethlehem on September 30, which is also his feast day. He is a Doctor of the Church and is the patron saint of librarians and students.