Frustrated Father

Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies

by J.N.D. Kelly
Harper and Row, 353 pp., $15.00

Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome; drawing by David Levine

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 Grützmacher, 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…

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