Revisiting Jerome

Who are the great Doctors of the Church in the West?

Conventionally, there are four: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome. Boniface VIII declared them such in 1298 and was establishing by statement what had been implicit in Western practice for centuries.

Why Jerome?

It’s a simple question with an obvious answer which, I believe, is not necessarily the best answer. The simple answer is that Jerome was the translator and editor of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Scriptures that has served as the basis for Western practice down to the Enlightenment and beyond. Indeed, one of the greatest ruptures of the Reformation was a move away from the Vulgate and back to the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. Related to Jerome’s work on the Vulgate is his profusion of biblical commentaries and other resources, particularly his work on places names and his (often fanciful) etymologies of Hebrew names.

The knee-jerk answer, then, is that Jerome’s place is due to his biblical work. And there is a great truth to this answer—but it is incomplete.

A more complete yet disconnected answer is provided by the editor to Jerome’s work in the NPNF:

St Jerome’s importance lies in the facts: (1) That he was the author of the Vulgate Translation of the Bible into Latin, (2) That he bore the chief part in introducing the ascetic life into Western Europe, (3) That his writings more than those of any other Fathers bring before us the general as well as the ecclesiastical life of his time. (NPNF 2.6.ix)

The more I read early Western monastic sources, the more clearly I see point 2 and its wider influence. Furthermore, I think we err if we see his biblical and his monastic work as separate and not intimately related.

For one thing, a great portion of Jerome’s biblical commentaries are properly translations rather than “original” works (recognizing that the term “original” makes little sense and holds little value in the patristic/medieval world). Origen looms large throughout Jerome’s corpus.  The Origien connection in particular reminds me of points made by Jean Leclercq to which De Lubac assents:

Medieval monastic culture is based on the Latin Bible. But the Bible cannot be separated from those who commented it—that is to say, the Fathers. Often called simply the expositores, even in their writings which are not commentaries they did little else but explain Holy Scripture. Moreover, monasticism is inclined toward patristics for a very special reason: its basic text and its origins. One one hand, the Rule of St Benedict itself is, in fact, a patristic document; it assumes, it evokes an entire ancient spiritual milieu. On the other, St Benedict prescribes the reading in the Divine Office of the expositiones written by those he calls the Fathers; in his last chapter, he again urges the monks to read the Fathers. The word occurs four times in this chapter and designates more especially the Fathers of monasticism. The latter are Easterners, and this fact results in something new: Benedictine monasticism is attracted, not only to patristic sources in general, but Eastern ones in particular. (Leclercq, Love of Learning and Desire for God, 89)

If we read the introductions to the different volumes of the critical edition of the Latin Origen, we note that almost all the manuscripts are of monastic origin and that most date from the ninth and the twelfth centuries. Other indications point to the conclusion that in every period or place where there was a monastic renewal, there was a revival of Origen. It is true of the Carolingian reform; it is even more definite, or in any case more readily apparent, in the monastic revival of the twelfth century. (Leclercq, Love of Learning and Desire for God, 94)

To separate the Scripture from the commentaries from the ascetical writings is a fool’s errand and the academic balkanization of the study of religion that perpetuates it in this era obscures from the eyes of the Church important pieces which must be seen in relation.

All of Jerome’s writing is ascetical even if not all of it is explicitly so.

Speaking of the strictly and explicitly ascetical, though, there are two genres in particular where Jerome’s ascetical doctrines are most clearly laid out—the lives and the letters.

Jerome wrote three documents that fall under the category of lives: the Life of Paul the Hermit, the Life of Hilarion, and the Life of Malchus, the Captive Monk. As I’ve alluded in an earlier post, the third is more properly thought of as the first monastic novella. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a fictional vehicle for communicating Jerome’s theology of the ascetical life which is focused primarily (and perhaps overly) on the centrality of chastity. The second, the Life of St Hilarion, is a life in the conventional sense, written concerning an historical figure who lived in Palestine and Cyprus. The first is a toss-up as to the balance between empirical history, theological reification, and fiction. As the introduction to the Life of Hilarion makes quite clear, questions as tho the historicity of Paul the Hermit are not simply modern:

And so we in taking up the work begun by [Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis] do [St Hilarion] service rather than wrong: we despise the abuse of some who as they once disparaged my hero Paulus, will now perhaps disparage Hilarion; the former they censured for his solitary life; they may find fault with the latter for his intercourse with the world; the one was always out of sight, therefore they think he had no existence; the other was seen by many, therefore he is deemed of no account. It is just what their ancestors the Pharisees did of old! They were not pleased with John fasting in the desert, nor with our Lord and Saviour in the busy throng, eating and drinking. But I will put my hand to the work on which I have resolved, and go on my way closing my ears to the barking of Scylla’s hounds. (Life of Hilarion, 1; NPNF 2.6.303)

What Jerome did do—and quite cleverly—was to piggy-back on the most successful work of its kind, Athanasius’s Life of Antony. With his Life of Antony, Athanasius single-handedly created the genre of the ascetic biography and introduced the monastic way of life to the Christian world. Jerome’s one-time bishop Evagrius of Antioch (not the other Evagrius) translated Athanasius’s work into Latin and Jerome “linked” to it with a vengeance; the Life of Paul the Hermit isn’t properly a life at all, but after an introduction to Paul details a meeting between Paul and Antony. Likewise, Hilarion also meets with Antony who praises the Palestinian monk. Due to these links, Jerome’s lives are almost invariably found in western manuscripts that contain Athanasius’s Life of Anthony, then Jerome’s other three—the first two as further records of Antony, the third trailing along to round out Jerome’s set.

As far as the letters go, Jerome wrote many letters of advice to correspondents across the Mediterranean, often giving direction on living the ascetic life or raising children to be ascetics. (Yes, Jerome is the ultimate source of the comment from Benedict XVI a year or so ago when he said something to the effect that marriage is a wonderful institution because it creates people who can be celibates… [“I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins.” (Letter 22.10; NPNF 2.6.30)])

Several letters are justly famed as being central ascetical documents, especially Letters 22, 52, 107, and 130. That having been said, cherry-picking is the least pleasurable way to encounter Jerome; his letters deserve to be read through. In doing so you’ll be introduced to a man with few illusions as he looks at others, and receive confirmation that an acid and sarcastic tongue is no bar to becoming a great saint! (Come to think of it, given Luther, perhaps that’s a prerequisite for being a major biblical translator…)

Jerome deserves to be revisited and read more widely especially given his place in the ascetic life of the West. Jerome is a primary conduit for the ideals of the monastic life moving from East to West. In his transmission of Origen and Origenian spirituality, in his evocative construction of the monastic life in his Lives, and in the practical and theoretical directions found in his letters, he is truly one of the founding fathers of the ascetic life in the West and justly earns the designation Doctor of the Church.

5 Replies to “Revisiting Jerome”

  1. Happy to see this. Once upon a time I asked a famous patristic scholar (and potential advisor) why it is we don’t take Jerome more seriously, why he isn’t read as widely, and why no one seems to write about him. Without missing a beat, he said Jerome isn’t very interesting because he isn’t that smart.

    The only acceptable topic on Jerome would have been why he dislikes woman.

  2. I can totally see famous patristics scholar saying that…

    Particularly in his treatises Jerome is not terribly original. (Again, the value of “original” in that time and placing being…?) However, the man was extremely sharp, and I can conceive of several projects that I’d love to do on Jerome had I but the time and financing.

  3. Do you know where and in what context Benedict XVI quoted Jerome? I mentioned this to two liberal RC friends today, who couldn’t believe it (in the sense that they could all too easily believe it…) and wanted more details.

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