A Name that Remains: Jerome

by Travis Bookout

(c) Nottingham City Museums and Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This will serve as the first of a series of posts that will sporadically appear on this blog entitled “A Name that Remains.”  When Hector asks Achilles why he is in Troy, he answers, “they’ll be talking about this war for 1000 years.” Hector responds, “In a thousand years the dust from our bones will be gone.” “Yes, prince.  But our names will remain.”

There are some names that reverberate throughout history.  They are remembered for their great impact over time.  Some good, some bad, but usually a mixture.  And it is these names, these men, and their impact that largely shapes who we are today.

Jerome’s Life:

One of those names that remain is Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, or more commonly known as Jerome.  He has been honored as a “Saint” in many religious traditions, and as one of the four most eminent “Doctors of the Church” in the Middle Ages.  A “Doctor of the Church” is one who has greatly advanced the Church through their teaching and understanding of doctrine.

Jerome was born around AD 347, in Dalmatia, to wealthy Christian parents and given a great education.  He was baptized as a teenager, and mastered Greek and Hebrew, learning Hebrew under a Jewish convert.  Even the renowned St. Augustine desired Jerome’s grasp of Greek and Hebrew.

Jerome spent several years of his life with an ascetic group living in Aquileia, probably in his 20’s to early 30’s.  He then became an ordained priest in Antioch, before furthering his studies in Constantinople.  Eventually he made his way to Rome and for 3 years held the prestigious position as secretary of Pope Damasus.  Jerome was commissioned by Damasus to use his language expertise to translate portions of the Bible into Latin.

While in Rome, Jerome made some enemies.  He was quick tempered and did not mind letting people know exactly what he thought of them.  After several years of living an ascetic lifestyle he repudiated the luxury and grandeur of many of his fellow clergy.  He claimed they cared only about their clothes and their beards.  “If there is any holiness in a beard, nobody is holier than a goat!”  Needless to say, he did not endear himself to their hearts.  When Pope Damasus died in 384, Jerome was passed over to replace him.

In response, he left Rome and made his way to Bethlehem with a wealthy female supporter named Paula.  He lived in a monastery and resumed his life of study and asceticism.  He was difficult to get along with, and had very few friends or supporters.  In artwork he is nearly always depicted with a lion and a skull.  The skull depicts his focus on his own mortality; he writes that he would make trips to crypts and catacombs as a reminder of his mortality.  The lion is seen as his only friend in the world.  Tradition has it that while he lived in the monastery he pulled a thorn from a lions paw, and the two formed a unique friendship.

In this monastery He completed his translation of the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament into Latin (the Latin Vulgate).  He also completed most of his commentaries and writings on theology and history.  Primarily he wrote to oppose heresies and to promote monasticism as the superior Christian lifestyle.  He died in Bethlehem the September of AD 420.

Internal Conflict:

While in Antioch, shortly after his time with an ascetic group in Aquileia, he had a dream where he was dragged to judgment before God and condemned for loving Cicero more than Christ.  Jerome loved Christian literature but he also loved reading classical pagan and Greek literature.  He vowed after this dream to never again own or read pagan literature.  This vow did not last.

Jerome was a man who was torn between worldliness and asceticism.  Living as a monk did not come easily or naturally for him.  While devoting himself to monasticism, he struggled to remove worldly desires from his heart.  He writes of being in a monastery, seeking purity, but still dreaming of the dancing girls of Rome.

Great Works:

Jerome wrote a massive amount.  He wrote, translated, edited, and copied countless documents.  For this reason, Jerome has been honored as the Patron Saint of Librarians.

The Latin Vulgate is Jerome’s greatest contribution to church history.  Completed in AD 406, this translation reigned supreme for over 1000 years.  John Wycliffe’s English translation (AD 1382) was based on the Latin Vulgate.

It is called the Latin Vulgate because it was written in the common or “vulgar” (Vulgate) form of every day Latin.  It was Latin for the commoners.  I always find it ironic that church leaders, who condemned men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale for translating the Bible into the “vulgar” English tongue, were using the “Vulgar Latin.”

Jerome wrote 14 homilies each on Jeremiah and Ezekiel, 39 on Luke, and numerous others.  His commentaries included: Jonah, Obadiah, Isaiah, Zechariah, Malachi, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah (unfinished), Philemon, Galatians, Ephesians, Titus, Matthew, Mark, and portions of Luke, Revelation, and John.

He wrote myriads of letters against fellow teachers of his day.  Many of these letters were arguments in favor of monasticism against those who denied its superiority.  He also wrote theological books which argued against heresies like Arianism, Originism, and Pelagianism. He wrote many histories of earlier Christians like Lives of Illustrious Men.  He was a strong supporter of Trinitarian theology.  Jerome wrote countless letters and most of his ideas have held sway in Catholicism and many religious traditions since his time.

View of Scripture:

Jerome was both a Hebrew and Greek scholar.  A deep grasp of Hebrew was rare for Christians during that time.  Most Latin translations of the Old Testament were from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), but Jerome was familiar with Jews from his time learning Hebrew, and he translated and commentated directly from the original Hebrew.  That being the case, he argued against the inclusion of the Deuterocanonical (or Apocryphal) books in the Christian canon.  He favored of the Jewish canon over the Catholic canon.

He believed in the inspiration and infallibility of all Scripture, and that it should be translated for the church to understand.  He felt it necessary to make Scripture understandable in Latin, while at the same time honoring the original meaning of the Greek and Hebrew.

A Name that Remains: Jerome

In short, Jerome was a Trinitarian theologian who believed that the best way to honor God was by self-denial and asceticism.  He sought to convince others of this view through his writings.  He was viewed as difficult and contrary and did not conform to the expectations of his day.  He was extremely well read in both Christian and pagan literature and used both in his innumerable theological and historical writings.

He is commonly honored in the artwork of Renaissance painters, revered as a “Saint” and “Doctor of the Church,” and is still read and studied diligently nearly 1600 years after his death.  His “Latin Vulgate” was his largest contribution to church history.  And his internal battle between worldliness and self-denial is something with which every Christian can sympathize.