Saint Jerome Creates the Vulgate Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Jerome, an influential Christian scholar whose life blended several ideals of late antique Christendom, created a Latin translation of the Old Testament and Gospels, which along with translations of the remaining New Testament books by other scholars, became known as the Vulgate and remained the standard translation of the Bible until the sixteenth century.

Summary of Event

By Saint Jerome’s death, the Roman world in its former glory had come unraveled, and so had Jerome. His life’s pursuit of holiness and spiritual perfection was instead filled with rancor and conflict, but on the anvil of his sharp letters and other writings was forged the teaching authority that earned him a place among the fathers of the Christian Church. Jerome, Saint Damasus I Paula Eustochium Augustine, Saint

Born in north Italian obscurity, Jerome (originally Eusebius Hieronymus) set out on a lifelong journey across the Roman Empire. Rome was the first stop, where he received his primary training. This initial foray into classical learning later blossomed into fluency in Hebrew and Greek, enabling his master achievement, the translation of the Bible into Latin.

A trip to Gaul introduced him to monasticism. He joined a group of men in the common life, separated from the world through fasting, prayer, and study. He would wrestle with the memory of Roman dancing girls and worldly pleasures, both of which entranced his imagination as he pursued holiness. This form of self-renunciation, known as asceticism, had gained impetus across the ancient church through the early example of Antony of Egypt, who was popularized by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.

The young scholar-monk crossed the Roman Empire to Asia Minor in 370 c.e., pagan and Christian books in tow. From Antioch, he retreated to the desert for two years, all the while honing his linguistic skills and wrestling with temptation. Eastern desert hermits lived in solitude, repudiating worldly company. Such a life was too much of a stretch for the more social Jerome, and he did not stay long. The monks he did meet found his western theological views troublesome. Significant during his sojourn there was his dream that, at the Last Judgment, Christ accused him of having given in to another temptation, worldly learning. “You are a Ciceronian,” said the Christ of his nightmare, “not a Christian.” This curse on his learning never troubled him enough to discard it.

Jerome returned the thirty miles to Antioch and was ordained to the priesthood there by his friend, Bishop Paulinus. There, he was introduced to the writings of Origen (c. 185-c. 254), the Alexandrian theologian whose ideas would have a profound effect on him. Origen’s methods of biblical interpretation and his particular sort of asceticism were to prove troublesome for Jerome in time. He moved to Constantinople in 380 c.e., in time for the Second Ecumenical Council the following year. He studied there with another great church father, Gregory of Nazianzus, and began translating Greek texts for a western audience. Such translation occupied much of his career and formed a cross-cultural bridge within the Roman Empire.

Pope Damasus I in Rome called him to be his personal secretary in 382 c.e. Recognizing his abilities, Damasus embarked the scholar on the biblical translation project that would be his greatest contribution. He was commissioned to produce a Latin translation of the Greek scriptures. He began in Rome with the Gospels. This project would span his stay in Rome and much of his later career in Bethlehem. It would also win him disapproval from readers who questioned everything from his word choices to his authority for altering the Bible.

Pope Damasus also opened the door for him to noblewomen in Rome whose asceticism and learning made Jerome their apt companion. These aristocratic women included Paula and daughters Blesilla and Eustochium, Marcella, Asella, and Lea. Anxiety over sex did not keep him from retaining the company of this circle of Roman women. These widows, unmarried daughters, and others devoted to the consecrated life came to know a side of the fiery Jerome rarely exposed to his intellectual opponents, who felt the satirical lash of his tongue in the letters they received from him on theological controversy, asceticism, and churchly politics. A lion to his enemies, he was a lamb among these women who shared his interest in biblical study.

Jerome was prepared to grant women a privileged place in conversation because he was steeped in Origen’s thought. Origen taught that human bodies were but temporary homes for eternal spirits. Male and female minds were not essentially different. Borrowing this idea, Jerome thought that men and women could commune together intellectually without succumbing to temptation because the intellect kept the lower appetites subdued.

However, if he affected a cool demeanor in his relationships with women, he wrote to other ascetics of the constant battle they should wage with fleshly desire. The Roman monk Jovinian declared that all forms of life, married or celibate, were equally virtuous. One estate was no higher than another. Jovinian’s egalitarianism earned a stern rebuttal from Jerome, who denigrated marriage in his reply. To marry once, he wrote, was a compromise with the physical state. To marry a second time was little better than prostitution.

When Origen’s views fell out of favor in the late fourth century c.e., Jerome abandoned them in writing, but no change resulted in his ascetic practices. Now, however, the virgin physical body would rise not to a world of ethereal spirits in eternity, as Origen had suggested, but rather to a Paradise resembling a great monastery, a desert in bloom with virginal, embodied holiness.

Jerome merited Roman disfavor, this time from among the aristocracy, who were realizing that his asceticism disrupted families and made folly of the social stability they underwrote. Damasus died in 384, leaving Jerome without a sponsor, so Jerome set sail to the Holy Land the following year. Paula and her daughter Eustochium met him there, and together they established monastic houses for men and women in Bethlehem. He spent the remainder of his life there, mostly involved in translating the scriptures into Latin, writing commentaries on biblical books, and sending and receiving letters far and wide. Commentaries on the text served to bolster his translation and distinguish himself as not simply a grammarian, but a scholar worthy of wealthy patronage. Thus, in no way did the move afford isolation and that was not his desire. Rather, westerners flocked to his monastery, and the ink flowed long from his pen. The crowds, some days, became too much for the productive scholar.

In Bethlehem, he continued to translate scripture and Greek theologians, especially Origen, into Latin, but by 393 c.e., Origen was under fire. Theologians began to criticize his views. Bishops denounced the new heretic’s memory. Jerome did not stand against the prevailing tide but instead laid aside his admiration for the bygone teacher. If Jerome valued one thing above Origen’s writings, it was orthodoxy. He would not suffer himself to be remembered as the advocate of a heretic.

That Jerome could choose different words for familiar passages in his Latin Bible raised the eyebrows, and ire, of some opponents. Among them was the rising star of North Africa, Bishop Augustine of Hippo (later Saint Augustine), who questioned points of his translation. The two scholars maintained a peppery correspondence for more than a decade. The approbation Jerome later extended the bishop was rare. Augustine and Jerome joined ranks on a new Western controversy, the idea of the monk Pelagius that human beings were capable of meriting divine grace. Augustine countered Pelagius’s stress on human freedom to choose good over evil with the doctrine that, in the absence of human ability to choose God, God chooses some humans for eternal life apart from their own merits. Jerome’s opposition to Pelagius was not quite as adamant as Augustine’s. Jerome believed that the human will was capable of joining with the divine in working out salvation. Nevertheless, Pelagius’s teaching was an extreme.

If Jerome was sustained by the friendship of Paula and Eustochium, their deaths in 404 and 419, respectively, enervated him. In between, the end of the Roman Empire in 410 cut empire flesh from empire spirit. Similarly spent and left alone, Jerome died, probably in 420.

Significance

Saint Jerome’s legacy would extend far into the Middle Ages, as the Vulgate (Latin Bible) remained the standard Latin biblical text. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century brought new biblical translations. The Vulgate continued to be used in the Roman Catholic Church until superseded by newer translations in the twentieth century.

Jerome’s career marks the symbiosis of two ideals celebrated among Christians of late antiquity. The ideal of asceticism, or self-renunciation, was a key determinant in his career. However, he is not distinguished by this common mode of life in his age. It is when his particularly stringent asceticism is combined with the intellectual ideal taken over by Christians from Greek culture that Jerome’s achievement stands forth. His powerful mind was not devoted to theology in any systematic sense but instead to linguistics, biblical translation, and commentary. He finds a place among the four Latin doctors of the Church, with Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose, and Gregory the Great. Among them, he represents the importance of biblical scholarship to the overall theological enterprise.

Much has been made of Jerome’s stridency, sexual anxiety, and intellectual abilities. Balanced scholarship avoids reductionism in estimating the impact of this complex figure. His letters provide excellent examples of the art of polemic in late antiquity. His varied relationships with men and women are a study in social location in his time, and his scholarship provided a benchmark for centuries of biblical interpreters.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. This collection of essays by the author links Jerome with his ascetic milieu. Virginity and other forms of renunciation are viewed both socially and intellectually.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gonzalez, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. Vol. 1 in The Story of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984. Gonzalez provides the general reader with a broad introduction to the early church and its key figures. Illustrations and maps included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, J. N. D. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. Kelly provides a detailed account of Jerome as a great mind of the patristic era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rebenich, Stefan. Jerome. London: Routledge, 2002. This study provides selections from Jerome’s writings and an analysis of his biblical interpretation and interactions with those he mentored.
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