Saint Jerome: Dedicated to God or to Ministry?

Saint Jerome in His Study ( circa 1530)

Of the fourth century theologian, church historian Justo Gonzalez said, “None of the great personalities of the fourth century is more intriguing than Jerome. He is outstanding, not for his sanctity, like Anthony, nor for his keen theological insight, like Athanasius, nor for his firmness before authorities, like Ambrose, nor even for his preaching, like Chrysostom, but rather for this titanic and endless struggle with the world and with himself. He is called a saint, but, his holiness was not humble, peaceful, and sweet, but rather proud, stormy, and even bitter.” (The Story of Christianity, Vol.1, p. 234)

Born in northern Italy in the mid-4th century, Jerome fell in love with classical learning at an early age. By the time he was a young man, however, a dream he had changed the course of his life. In this dream he was asked to define himself; he responded by saying I am a Ciceronian (not a Christian). This revelation led him into a life devoted to the study of Scripture and Christian literature.

In order to fulfill this dedication to the Christian faith, Jerome withdrew from society and became an eremetic (hermit) monk. He struggled with temptation and engaged in ascetic practices as well as study to keep himself from falling into sin. One of the most infamous ascetic practices he is known to have engaged was to deny himself the ‘luxury’ of a bath. He is known to have said bathing was unnecessary because ‘Christ had washed’ him. Jerome’s study primarily consisted of learning Hebrew, as a method of his dedication to God.

After a few years in the wilderness, Jerome returned to the city. He found himself in Antioch and was soon offered the job of secretary to Pope Damasas (the same Pope who called the Council of Constantinople). Because of his knowledge of the biblical languages, Jerome was encouraged by Pope Damasas to translate the bible into Latin. Jerome gathered a group of four women in Rome who became his ‘apprentices’ in learning biblical languages. He found their companionship comforting and advantageous. They supported his ambition to translate the bible into Latin.

Pope Damasus died and Jerome, having lost his major support, decided to visit the Holy Land with his companions. On the journey, they observed desert monasticism in Alexandria. This encounter led them to establish two monastic houses (one for women, led by Paula, and one for men, let by Jerome) in Bethlehem. It was here that the massive project of translating the Bible into Latin progressed.

Bypassing the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), Jerome and his companions consulted the Hebrew texts directly and ultimately developed the first Latin translation of the bible: the Vulgate. This translation quickly became the standard biblical text to be used in western Christendom.

His translations have been well-criticised by later scholars. One particular passage highlights the challenges examining texts can pose. Exodus 34.29-35 (NRSV)

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Jerome translated the word for “shining/shone” to “horned/horn,” thus, according to the Latin Vulgate, Moses’ face was “horned” after he met with God on Sinai. An image of this translation began to appear in Christian artwork. Moses is depicted as a horned man.

Jerome is most famous for his translation work, but one wonders how well Jerome read the text for himself. A dream became the catalyst for his life of dedication to ascetic practices and study, which for some may seem a pious decision. But for others, it raises the question of faith and works. Could it be that this ‘proud, stormy and bitter’ man’s lifelong work was a vain attempt at seeking approval of a God who wanted not only his dedication to work, but his dedication to Him?

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