St. Jerome (c. 347-420)

Jerome (Eusebius Hieronymus) was a Father of the Church and Doctor of the Church, whose great work was the translation of the Bible into Latin, the edition known as the Vulgate. He was born at Stridon on the borders of Dalmatia and Pannonia of a well-to-do Christian family. His parents sent him to Rome to further his intellectual interests, and there he acquired a knowledge of classical literature and was baptized at the age of 19.

Shortly thereafter he journeyed to Trier in Gaul and to Aquileia in Italy, where he began to cultivate his theological interests in company with others who, like himself, were ascetically inclined.

In about 373, Jerome set out on a pilgrimage to the East. In Antioch, where he was warmly received, he continued to pursue his humanist and monastic studies. He also had a profound spiritual experience, dreaming that he was accused of being “a Ciceronian, not a Christian.” Accordingly, he determined to devote himself exclusively to the Bible and theology, although the translator Rufinus (345-410), Jerome’s close friend, suggested later that the vow was not strictly kept. Jerome moved to the desert of Chalcis, and while practicing more rigorous austerities, pursued his studies, including the learning of Hebrew.

On his return to Antioch in 378 he heard Apollinaris the Younger (c. 310-c. 390) lecture and was admitted to the priesthood (379) by Paulinus, bishop of Antioch. In Constantinople, where he spent three years around 380, he was influenced by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus.

When Jerome returned to Rome, Pope Damasus I appointed him confidential secretary and librarian and commissioned him to begin his work of rendering the Bible into Latin. After the death (384) of Damasus, however, Jerome fell out of favor, and for a second time he decided to go to the East. He made brief visits to Antioch, Egypt, and Palestine. Jerome fixed his residence at Bethlehem in 386, after Paula (later Saint Paula) founded four convents there, three for nuns and one for monks; the latter was governed by Jerome himself. There he pursued his literary labors and engaged in controversy not only with heretics Jovinian and Vigilantius and the adherents of Pelagianism, but also with monk and theologian Tyrannius Rufinus and with Saint Augustine.

Because of his conflict with the bishop of Jerusalem, by about 395 Jerome found himself threatened with expulsion by the Roman civil authorities. Although this threat was averted, Jerome’s later years were overshadowed by the sack of Rome in 410, the death of Paula and her daughter, and his own increasing isolation.

Jerome’s literary activity was extensive and varied. In the years 379-381 he translated the homilies of Origen on Jeremias, Ezechiel, and Isaias, and about the same time translated the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea, which covered sacred and profane history from the birth of Abraham to 303 AD. In 384 he corrected the Latin version of the Four Gospels; in 385, the Epistles of St. Paul; in 384, a first revision of the Latin Psalms according to the accepted text of the Septuagint (Roman Psalter); in 384, the revision of the Latin version of the Book of Job, after the accepted version of the Septuagint; between 386 and 391 a second revision of the Latin Psalter, this time according to the text of the Hexapla of Origen.

In 382-383 he wrote The Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary, and in 387-388 the commentaries on the Epistles to Philemon, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, and to Titus. For his De Viris Illustribus (On Famous Men), written in 392, Jerome drew upon the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius. In 401 came the Apology for Himself Against the Books of Rufinus, and from 403-406 Against Vigilantius.

The writings of Jerome express a scholarship unsurpassed in the early church and helped to create the cultural tradition of the Middle Ages. He developed the use of philological and geographical material in his exegesis and recognized the scientific importance of archaeology. In his interpretation of the Bible he used both the allegorical method of the Alexandrian and the realism of the Antiochene schools.

A difficult and hot-tempered man, Jerome made many enemies, but his correspondence with friends and enemies alike is of great interest.