Jerome is one of the four Latin doctors. Whenever one thinks of Jerome one immediately thinks of the Vulgate, his Latin translation of the Bible, which was the standard version until Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church. His translation of the Old Testament came from the Hebrew, and the New from Greek Texts. It was a task that took him some fifteen years. Indeed it is not so much his piety that has endeared him to others over the centuries but his dedication to scholarship. His library became one of the most famous in the world, in which most of the books had been self copied.
Born to wealthy parents c. 347 in Strido, Dalmatia he was well educated at Rome, firstly by his father, secondly by the grammarian, Aelius Donatus, and thirdly by undertaking a study of rhetoric, a skill all so evident in his writings. He was baptized by Pope Liberius when he was about twenty and already showing an interest in ecclesiology. He also travelled extensively, and it was whilst he was in Trier that he decided to be a monk. He returned home and joined an ascetic group near his home-town under the direction of Bishop Valerian. After a quarrel, the first of many in his life, he left for Palestine. He set out with two other monks, both of whom died en route, and Jerome himself was seriously ill by the time he reached Antioch. Here he stayed and in this state dreamt that he was before the Judgment seat where he was accused of being more Ciceronian than Christian.
This gave a new direction for his life and he became a hermit in the desert of Chalcis, south of Antioch where he learnt several languages in order to translate writings. Jerome thirsted for knowledge. So he engaged a convert Jew to teach him Hebrew and Chaldaic, and attended regularly the lectures of Apollinaris of Laodicea, from whom he learnt much about the Bible but never accepted his teaching about its interpretation. As he said, "I was not so foolish as to try and teach myself," "What a toil it was! How difficult I found it! How often I was on the point of giving it up in despair, and yet in my eagerness to learn took it up again! Myself can bear witness of this, and so, too, can those who had lived with me at the time. Yet I thank God for the fruit I won from that bitter seed."
In 378 he was ordained a priest by Paulinus in Antioch, after which he left for Constantinople, where for nearly three years he studied Holy Scripture under Gregory the Theologian, the Patriarch of this See and at the height of his fame as a teacher and preacher. While there he translated into Latin Origen's Homilies on the Prophets and Eusebius' Chronicle; he also wrote on Isaiah's vision of the Seraphim. He then returned to Rome on ecclesiastical business, and Pope Damasus admitted him into his court. However, he let nothing distract him from his continual occupation of studying the Bible and copying various manuscripts. When Damasus appointed Jerome to be his secretary in 382, he also entrusted to him the task of having a complete version of the Bible in Latin. What a task this was as evident in Jerome's reply.
"You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all; and how can I dare to change the language of the world in its hoary old age, and carry it back to the early days of its infancy? Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language, and call me a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein? Now there are two consoling reflections which enable me to bear the odium-in the first place, the command is given by you who are the supreme bishop; and secondly, even on the showing of those who revile us, readings at variance with the early copies cannot be right."
During this stay in Rome Jerome also became a mentor for a group of holy women: Paula, Marcella, Eustochium and others who lived semi-monastic lives in their homes. He helped them in their study of Scripture and in pursuing a better Christian life. He even taught them to sing the psalms in Hebrew. After Damasus' death in 385 Jerome left Rome and eventually settled in Bethlehem, where he lived in a double monastery established by one of these remarkable woman, Paula and later joined by her daughter, Eustochium. With Paula's monetary help, Jerome could now pursue his literary interests and his learning more intently. He wrote:
"Though my hair was now growing gray and though I looked more like professor than student, yet I went to Alexandria to attend Didymus' lectures. I owe him much. What I did not know I learned. What I knew already I did not lose through his different presentation of it. Men thought I had done with tutors; but when I got back to Jerusalem and Bethlehem how hard I worked and what a price I paid for my night-time teacher Baraninus! Like another Nicodemus he was afraid of the Jews!"
Nor was Jerome content merely to gather up this or that teacher's words; he gathered from all quarters whatever might prove of use to him in this task. From the outset he had accumulated the best possible copies of the Bible and the best commentators on it, but now in Bethlehem he worked on copies from the Jewish synagogues and from the library formed at Caesarea by Origen and Eusebius. He hoped that by assiduously comparing texts he would ascertain at greater accuracy of text and its meaning. With this same intent he also scoured Palestine. He thoroughly believed as he once wrote to Domnio and Rogatian:
"A man will understand the Bible better if he has seen Judaea with his own eyes and discovered its ancient cities and sites either under the old names or newer ones. In company with some learned Hebrews I went through the entire land the names of whose sites are on every Christian's lips."
I am sure Paula assisted Jerome immensely in his work as the latter corrected some of the earlier Latin versions of Scripture; translated New Testament Greek into Latin and nearly all the books of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin. Although immersed in this work he gave time to those who visited him about the Bible and also corresponded with those wanting answers about the Bible. Meditating on Holy Scripture was indeed the love of Jerome's life and he poured over it day and night even in his old age. Indeed for Jerome and many after him, knowledge of Scripture was like the "pearl beyond price".
Like all scholars of his time Jerome believed that Scripture was inspired by God, yet he never questioned that the individual authors/editors of the various Books worked in full freedom under the divine inspiration, according to his own individual nature and character. Jerome was able to convey something of this individuality in the Vulgate.
Apart from trying to provide a more accurate account of Scripture, there was another purpose in Jerome's mind for his work. This was to enhance the preaching of priests. To him it was imperative that they could quote from the Bible. "Let a priest's speech be seasoned with the Bible," for "the Scriptures are a trumpet that stirs us with a mighty voice and penetrates to the soul of them that believe," and "nothing so strikes home as an example taken from the Bible," insisted Jerome. This Latin doctor had eight-eight formulation of sound principles regarding reading and studying the bible, which he believed provided a safe path for all to follow in getting from the Sacred Books their full meaning.
Another cause dear to Jerome's heart was asceticism, and was reflected in the biographies he wrote on some of the early ascetics or hermits: Paulus of Thebes, whom Jerome regarded as the first hermit, Hilarion and old Malchus. He maintained that the monastic life should be based on a systematic lectio divino, that is, a prayerful and serious study of Scripture and the Fathers.
He also directed some of his energy addressing the heresies of his age. Against Helvidius who taught that Jesus had other siblings he wrote The Perpetual Virginity of Mary. Against Pelagius whose teaching implied that a Christian did not need God's grace in life, he wrote Dialogue Between Atticus, a Catholic and Critobulus, a Heretic. This was his last major work, written three years before his death in 417, and it had disastrous results for the old Jerome. Pelagius' supporters burned the monasteries at Bethlehem, and it led also to his falling out of favour with John, the Bishop of Jerusalem.
Overall Jerome's writings were immense. Apart from the Vulgate, he wrote commentaries on many books of the Bible. He also worked on Origin's commentaries, and it is by his labour that so much of Origen's works survive (although he contributed to Origen being declared a heretic). He updated the Chronicle of Eusebius, continuing its sequence from 325 to the year 378 and in his De viris illustribus he produced a survey of distinguished writers up to 393, the first extant example of a patrology, beginning with Peter.
Alas Jerome's temperament did not endear him to many. As he suffered from a sense of insecurity he was often quarrelsome and offensive, which of course broke relationships and made enemies. One was with his boyhood friend, Rufinus after the latter published a new and rather free translation of Origen's "De principiis", to demonstrate that their former mentor was indeed orthodox in his teaching. The ensuing years witnessed a bitter feud between the two, during which Jerome wrote his own translation of "De principiis " to reveal the heresy of Origen (this work is now lost). Jerome also made personal attacks on Rufinus in "Apologia adversus libros Rufini". Indeed John the Bishop of Jerusalem excommunicated Jerome for a time over his anti-Origen writings. Often his verbal attacks on others proved to be more negative than positive. For example, even in his final years when attacking Pelagianism, he spent more energy vilifying Pelagius' supporters rather than against their teachings.
Nevertheless in an age when Greek forms still dominated much of the intellectual thoughts of Christianity, Jerome demonstrated that Christian learning could also be expressed in Latin. He also helped to restore the importance of the Church's Jewish inheritance, evincing an enthusiasm for Hebrew texts that would not be matched again in the West until the Reformation. So we thank God for Jerome unstinting devotion to the Scriptures and pray, like him we may always ponder them as the avenue to know God and His teaching better. Undoubtedly this contribution to the life of Christians helps us to pardon him for his often aggressive, argumentative, distorted and demeaned behaviour.
O heavenly Father we thank you for the life and work of Jerome, Your servant who had a deep love for Holy Scripture and was a careful translator of it. Help us to be as single-minded as Jerome in seeking knowledge of You through Scripture, and to share that knowledge with others. This we ask through Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives with You and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.