Jerome, one of the four Latin doctors, who we commemorate on the 30th September is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin in the fourth century. This became known as the Vulgate and until last century it was the standard version for the Catholic Church. What is not known, little less recognised, is the role of a holy woman in the project, St. Paula whom is commemorated on 26th January.
Before Jerome arrived in Rome in 382 holy women lived in two noble households on Aventine Hill, one group under Marcella and the other under Paula. Both households lived a community existence irrespective of status. They had learnt the Orthodox faith and monastic life according to St. Anthony from St. Athanasius during his exile when Marcella's mother, Albina, had invited him to her home in 340. They thus spent their days in praying, studying, reciting the psalms and practising the ascetic life in order to grow more Christ like.
When Jerome arrived in Rome in 382 Marcella invited him to instruct these holy women living this quasi-monastic life in the Scriptures. As he found, these women avid pupils, he had them practise scriptural exegesis themselves and taught them the psalms in the original Hebrew language, which they sang throughout the day. Jerome was an irascible character, but his friendship with these women gave some stability to his life, despite his overall misogyny.
Pope Damasus also employed Jerome, as his secretary, and directed him to produce a Latin version of the Bible. However with the death of his patron in 384 Jerome was forced to leave Rome and left for Jerusalem. He would remain in the vicinity of the holy city for the rest of his life where he taught, wrote and studied. He was accompanied by Paula and her daughter, Eustochium, whose wealth enabled Jerome to continue his scholastic works, including the completion of the Vulgate. I have always maintained that Paula made some contribution to this great work, but Jerome remained silent, even though he recognised her great ability. However the historian Palladius, a contemporary, gave an interesting insight to the relationship of these two when he wrote how Paula was hindered by Jerome. "For though she was able to surpass all, having great abilities, he hindered her by his jealousy, having induced her to serve his own plan."
After travelling throughout Egypt and the Holy Land, the two women and Jerome founded a double monastery in Bethlehem where all followed basically the same rule. The women were divided into three groups for meals and work, but came together at the third, sixth and ninth hours, at evening and in the middle of the night for the singing of the psalms. On Sunday they walked to Mass as a corporate body, and on returning were handed their individual work assignments for the week such as scrubbing floors, cooking, sewing, and helping the poor. Much stress was placed on knowing the Scriptures, which they had to learn by heart. This included the psalter, which in the course of the day was sung in its entirety. Paula wrote often to Marcella to join them, but she always refused, which led Jerome to accuse her of anti-semitism. Still she was content to lead her community with its increasing numbers to pray and study until her home was razed during the sacking of Rome by Alaric in 410. Marcella died shortly afterwards. Just prior to her death Jerome had dedicated his commentary on Galatians to her, wherein he expressed his desire "that I may heal her grievous wound with the balm of the scriptures."
Despite the fact that Jerome's scholarship was marred by his quarrelsome character there is no doubt that his learning has been unmatched, except perhaps by Augustine. In an age when Greek forms dominated much of the intellectual output of Christianity, Jerome demonstrated that important Christian learning could be expressed as well in Latin. He did much to restore the importance of the Church's Jewish inheritance, evincing an enthusiasm for Hebrew texts that would not be seen again in the West until the Reformation.
With the death of Paula in 404, Eustochium became the superior of the monastery in Bethlehem. Jerome would outlive Paula by sixteen years. He was buried under the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem next to Paula and Eustochium. A famous 12th century initial to Jerome's commentary on Isaiah depicted Paula's burial under this church. The epitaph letter that Jerome wrote to Eustochium was probably the finest he ever wrote. "I have felt a grief as deep as your own." Indeed he should have, as without Paula, this remarkable woman, he never would have been able to pursue his studies. I have always wondered beside financial help for Jerome how much she contributed to the compilation of what we know as the Vulgate.