Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies
In the final decades of the fourth century, Latin Christianity produced three great leaders, whose actions and ideas have influenced Western Christendom to this day. Ambrose of Milan’s excommunication of the emperor Theodosius I in 391 for allowing 7,000 innocent citizens of Thessalonica to be massacred by his troops asserted that no one was above moral law, which was enforced by the Church, and assured the primacy of spiritual over secular authority in the West. Augustine of Hippo’s legacy permeated medieval thought and included many seminal ideas of the Reformation and Counter Reformation.
But what of Jerome, the third member of this trio? He compiled the Vulgate. He is often pictured as a venerable figure standing near a pet lion against the background of a cave; but anything else? He was a Doctor of the Church, yet he has never been the subject of a comprehensive study in English, and with two exceptions, those of Cavallera and GrĂźtzmacher, has fared little better among Continental scholars. The fact is that after he left Rome for Bethlehem in 385 the remainder of his life was occupied largely in embittered long-distance quarrels, sometimes with erstwhile friends. Origenism, asceticism, and Pelagianism are not themes to set the world afire today. In the eyes of his contemporaries too, his ill humor, and his jealous and quarrelsome nature outweighed the very real services he had rendered to the Church. Though no one hoped that a boulder would be put over his grave to prevent his return to earth, as was wished for his younger contemporary Cyril of Alexandria, there were sighs of relief when he departed this life on September 20, 420.
A study of Jerome also presents some technical difficulties. We do not know when he was born, or the exact location of his birthplace, Stridon in Dalmatia. If the Gallic chronicler Prosper Tiro is correct, Jerome was born in 331 and was therefore about 90 when he died. Thus through nearly all his recorded activity, which begins about 370, we are dealing with a middle-aged or aged character of increasing irascibility and nastiness as the years went on, but also with someone endowed with such superhuman energies as to be able to conduct a hard-hitting correspondence with opponents and friends up to the ninetieth year of his life. This hardly seems possible in the unstable conditions of Palestine in the early fifth century.
Then, against the dates given by Prosper, is Jerome’s statement that he heard, “as a youth,” of the almost miraculous death of Julian the Apostate in battle against the Persians. Even allowing for a theologian equating youth with immaturity (as Augustine does), it is not an apt description for a man of thirty-two, the same age as Julian himself. In addition, for Jerome to have had a brother nearly twenty-eight years younger than himself and a sister just a few years older loses credibility. A birthdate between 345 and 351 (Prosper mistaking it by a round twenty years) would seem more plausible. This would put Jerome’s conversion to asceticism at the age of twenty-five, his journey to Syria at twenty-eight to thirty (not “just over forty” as Kelly suggests), his secretaryship to Pope Damasus at thirty-eight, his withdrawal to Palestine at forty, and death at age seventy-five.
The biographer of Jerome must make his choice, and by accepting Prosper’s date, Dr. Kelly has to my mind chosen wrongly. Since history is silent about Jerome until 369/370, when he saw “as a young man” in Gaul some captured members of the barbarous British tribe of Attacotti, we are always being presented with the portrait of a man who had no youth and therefore no years of developing ideas and attitudes. Even the famous dream in which the Lord seated in Judgment challenged Jerome for being at heart a Ciceronian and not a Christian, on Kelly’s reckoning took place in Jerome’s middle life instead of during his youthful enthusiasm for the classics.
With this all-important exception, Dr. Kelly has written a superb biography. His study is so readable that it is easy to forget that practically every sentence is the fruit of research. The last thirty years of the fourth century, in which Jerome emerges into the light of day, saw the Christians gathering in the legacy of previous centuries of classical civilization. For a few years before the onset of the Germanic barbarians, they produced a synthesis of cultures to which the Renaissance was the true heir. This was the last period for many centuries in which Christian laity could influence seriously the teaching of the Latin Church. Even more so, it was the last period in which educated Christian women had a role to play. Paula and her daughters Eustochium and Blesilla had no successors in the ancient world as students of Greek and Hebrew.
The triumph of Christianity had, however, brought its own problems. The pattern of religious conformity might now lead to worship in church instead of temple, but conformity it remained. Jerome’s family, probably immigrants from the east to Dalmatia, were Christian by tradition. The young Jerome, converted to a stricter Christian ideal of asceticism, revolted against their formal pieties. In an early letter he describes the Bishop of Stridon as “an ailing captain of a sinking ship,” and went off with a few friends to found a monastic settlement in Aquileia, the largest city in north-east Italy and a Christian metropolis. There was a scandal, the first of many that centered around Jerome. He left Aquileia for the more exacting Syrian desert. There for four years (372-376) he experienced some of the more exotic types of individualistic monasticism and also the ferocity of clerical feuds. He should have taken heed. Instead, he became embroiled with the monks in asserting his loyalty to the Bishop of Rome. He returned to Antioch, was ordained presbyter by the bishop of the minority but fiercely orthodox community. Then he went on his travels again, heading for Rome via Constantinople, having also acquired a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.
The years, from 382 to 385, he spent in Rome were the most eventful in his life. Loyalty to Roman interests was rewarded by Pope Damasus with his appointment as the Pope’s secretary. Damasus was an unscrupulous prelate and a womanizer, who combined unremitting zeal for the authority and wealth of his see with a dilettante interest in scholarship. Jerome was his man. He was consulted on the best formula to secure the condemnation of the followers of Apollinaris of Laodicea, on questions of Biblical knowledge, and finally was commissioned to write a revised Latin version of the Psalms and the New Testament so as to provide a uniform text.
This was a much needed task. As Jerome wrote to Damasus, the various Latin versions of the Bible were in a mess, made worse “by corrections inflicted by presumptuous ignoramuses and the additions and emendations of sleepy copyists.” Had Jerome stuck to his scholarship, he might have suffered the occasional hard-line criticism from those who feared that his work might threaten the supremacy of the Greek Septuagint, but he would have flourished. Instead he launched himself into the complexities of Roman aristocratic society and fell disastrously. By this time many of the great families in Rome had their own Christian chaplain. Pelagius was protected for years by the patronage of the Anicii: Jerome found himself the spiritual director of the women members of the Aemilian family, including Paula and her two daughters. Eustochium and Blesilla. They formed a pious group, the women studying their Bibles in Hebrew, and observing a strict and uncompromising asceticism.
This way of life, however, was not popular even among Christians in the West. It was associated with the secretive, dualistic sect of Manichees, often suspected of practicing obscene parodies of Christian rites. Jerome knew the risks. “When they see a woman with a pale, sad face, they call her ‘Miserable Manichaean nun,”’ he wrote to Eustochium. He went his own way and he was jealous of the success of others. An easy triumph over the lay theologian Helvidius, who claimed that Mary enjoyed a normal family life after Jesus’ birth, was followed by excessive preoccupation with Blesilla’s spiritual state. The poor girl died from her exertions. Jerome was met with a howl of execration. Rome had lost an outstanding heiress. “The monks to the Tiber,” the crowd roared.
The death of Damasus on December 11, 384 removed Jerome’s last support. He had to go. By then he had completed the first installments of what became the Latin Vulgate, the revision of the Gospels and the Psalms. With rage in his heart he left “Babylon” for good, accompanied by Paula and Eustochium.
Dr. Kelly guides the reader with learning and dexterity through these episodes. He is at his best in describing the intricacies of the controversies in which Jerome engaged during his long self-imposed exile in Palestine, where he built up a monastic community served by his devoted women companions. In his comfortable cell at Bethlehem, he deepened his knowledge of Hebrew and absorbed the principles of Alexandrian allegorical interpretation of Scripture as exemplified by the great masters Origen and Didymus the Blind, and got on with his translations and expositions of Scripture. The Vulgate of the Old Testament translated direct from the Hebrew occupied him for fourteen years, from 391 to 404. At the same time, he set out to provide for the Latin-speaking world a series of commentaries on the books of the Bible that would be completely up to date and supersede all previous Latin interpretations of Scripture, some of which still owed a debt to Judaism and even to Q’mran.
We see Jerome at work. A visit to Caesarea had given him access to the magnificent library there begun by Origen, where he found an original copy of that master’s Hexapla. This was Origen’s edition of the Old Testament set out in six parallel columns, in which the Greek Septuagint was compared critically with the Hebrew version (very similar to the Masoretic text) and with four other Jewish or Jewish-Christian versions. Jerome took full advantage of this rare piece of scholar’s luck. The Hexapla provided him with what he needed to revise fully the existing Old Latin texts, and when he was in doubt he did not hesitate to consult local rabbis. Though one of the reasons for his work was to provide Latin-speaking Christians with the means to confute Jewish Biblical exegetes, his personal relations with Jews seem to have been good. Famous Jews such as Philo and Justus of Tiberias figure among his “famous men” whose lives he published in 391. In his voluminous commentaries, however, the polemicist reappears. His prefaces contain a full share of attacks on opponents, “his friends” as he calls them, and much self-justification.
Once again, his enthusiasm led him to disaster. At first, his admiration for Origen was unstinted. “Do you see how the labours of this one man have surpassed those of all previous writers, Greek and Latin?” he wrote. He had been most unjustly condemned. Then doubts largely inspired by the archheresy hunter Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis and by monkish friends began to crowd in. He became involved in a dispute with John, Bishop of Jerusalem. The ensuing quarrel with his former friend Rufinus was the most bitter of his career, and Rufinus’ association with powerful Roman aristocrats set the seal on his exile. The pious Melania and her senatorial friends would never have him back. From the depths of his cell he remained the unswerving champion of chastity. Some of his choicest comments are to be found in his writing against Jovinian, who was rash enough to declare that among baptised Christians marriage was on the same level of spiritual perfection as chastity. The unfortunate Gallic presbyter Vigilantius, who criticized the superstitious worship of martyrs’ relics, he castigated as “Sleepyhead [his name denoted vigilance] who vomited forth a torrent of filth against the relics of the holy martyrs.”
There was, finally, his grand barrage against Pelagius, his rival in Rome thirty years before, now himself an exile in Palestine. There was no love lost between the two. Jerome’s description of “the esteemed professor,” “teacher of perverse doctrines,” as “the dung of Grunnius’ [Rufinus] family,” “belching Scots porridge,” has found its place in the folklore of theology. This time, however, Jerome did not have it his own way. Not only was Pelagius vindicated temporarily by the council of Diospolis (Lod) in December 415, but “ruffians” believed to be Pelagius’ supporters sacked Jerome’s cell. The curtain fell with the old man wrestling with yet another vast commentary, appropriately on the prophet Jeremiah.
As a biography of Jerome, this work will stand for a long time. It is also a fine account of the development of Biblical interpretation and doctrine in the West, as one would expect from this scholar of early Christian doctrines. Yet one has to ask whether biography is not too narrow a field of historical study. Can the major issues of a period be summed up around the life of an individual, however eminent? Unless the reader is already well versed in the history of late antiquity, he may be at a loss to understand the significance of Jerome’s apparently endless disputes. Monasticism and the ascetic life formed part of a popular movement of religion in the East, while in the West they remained until the fifth century largely the foibles of the wealthy. Why? How did the aristocratic households of the capital become the battlegrounds for theological debate? Why did Stoicism fail to leave its impress on Western Christianity while the Christian Platonists of Alexandria have influenced the theology of orthodoxy to our own day? Why did Augustine and Jerome eventually triumph over Pelagius and his supporters?
The answers to these broader questions can only be glimpsed at through the author’s pages. Where Jerome himself is concerned, one sometimes feels that not all the relevant facts have been assessed. Just how could he be so unpleasant and yet hold the unswerving devotion of his friends? Scrupulously fair, Dr. Kelly points to the robust tradition of Roman satire, to which Jerome was the Christian heir; and yet we find that Juvenal the archsatirist was not among the authors to whom he was indebted. Jerome, too, was not merely a satirist. He was incredibly pugnacious, showing contempt and loathing for those less able than himself whose opinions he destroyed. It was his capacity for hatred that so impressed Pelagius when they were both in Rome in the 380s. Today one would pinpoint vanity and passion for notoriety as his abiding sins.
Sexual frustrations apart, there were other contradictions in his complex character. At heart he was intensely patriotic, caring deeply for the fate of the people he had left in anger in 370. The invasion of his homeland by the Visigoths in 378 affected him deeply. Years later, he felt numb with despair at the news of Alaric’s capture of Rome in 410, which reached him in Bethlehem. Not for him the facile excuses of Augustine or the indifference of Paulinus of Nola. He would not have taken it as a token of divine providence that Alaric’s soldiery behaved “with Christian gentleness.” There was something of the officer manquĂŠ about him. He knew every rank and grade in the Roman army and could dilate about their duties like an encyclopedia.
In Palestine, for all its proximity to the Holy Places, he felt an exile, surrounded by heretical and unfriendly Greeks, beset by marauding Arabs, who cared nothing for Latins whether or not they were world-renouncing.*
In the end, the Latin Bible was to be his lasting monument. This would be enough for any man. If the Council of Chalcedon in 451 provided Christendom with a definition of the person of Christ that has lasted until our own day, fifty years before Jerome provided the Latin half of the Church with its official Bible. The fastidious stylist showed his genius by writing a translation in direct and popular Latin that ensured its survival. Only with the discovery of the Q’mran texts has Jerome’s Vulgate finally become outdated. The rest is regret, for the faults of the man also left the Roman Catholic Church with a legacy of arrogant and brutal controversy, and a basic refusal to understand the views of opponents. In this fine biography Dr. Kelly has laid bare the hopes, ideas, and finally the disappointments of this sensitive and frustrated man. He has told with rare distinction the story of Jerome’s relations with his times.
Curiously enough, his relations with the Jews seem always to have been cordial and here the author might have told us more.↩
Curiously enough, his relations with the Jews seem always to have been cordial and here the author might have told us more.↩