Today we celebrate the memorial one of the great Early Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church, Saint Jerome. He is known as the “Father of Biblical Science” for it was he who translated the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament to what we know as the Latin Vulgate.
His famous words when speaking about the relationship with Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures should ring loud in our ears, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” If you don’t know the Holy Scriptures, then you don’t know Jesus Christ. For more teachings from Saint Jerome, read the complementary post, The Words of Saint Jerome.
Saint Jerome was born in Dalmatia, Italy in the year 342. His father was responsible for his early education, which consisted of religion and the humane letters. After his studies at home, he was sent to Rome to continue his education. While in Rome, Jerome studied under the great pagan grammarian, Donatus. He was gifted in languages and quickly picked up Latin and Greek, where he was proficient in reading and writing.
However, after his studies under the pagan, although he wasn’t completely lost, Jerome did lose some of his morality and virtues that were taught to him as a boy. The one positive thing outside of his studies was his baptism in Rome. After three years in Rome, along with his friend, Bonosus, Jerome traveled to Trier. During his time in Trier, his heart was awakened to God and the religious spirit that would become his life was born.
After spending time in Aquileia with a group of clergymen for a few years, Jerome met an Eastern priest of Antioch, by the name of Evagrius, who introduced him to the East. In 374, Jerome arrived in Antioch with two friends, but was found to have a rather strong virus. His two friends died from the illness. At one point from the sickness, he fell into a state where he was before the judgment seat of Christ. This experience made a lasting impression on him. For the first four years in the Antioch region, he remained in poor health and was often tempted by struggles of the flesh.
During this time in Antioch, there were some disputed doctrinal and disciplinary disagreements occurring that caused schism. Although Jerome was persuaded to join one side or the other, he remained neutral. He decided to write to Pope Damascus for answers. Not receiving an answer the first time, he wrote another letter. Damascus wrote back after the second letter, but the content of his letter is not fully disclosed. In the end, Paulinus became bishop of Antioch and Jerome received the order of priesthood from him, although he never celebrated the Holy Eucharist nor wanted to be ordained. He said his only vocation is to be a monk or recluse.
He eventually left Antioch and traveled to Constantinople where he studied the Holy Scriptures under St. Gregory Nazianzen. When St. Gregory departed from Constantinople, Jerome left for Rome in 382. Along with Paulinus of Antioch and St. Epiphanius, he attended a council declared by Pope Damascus to correct the schisms in Antioch. After the council concluded, Jerome stayed in Rome and became secretary to the Pope.
While in Rome, Jerome did some marvelous things but was also attacked by a variety of people, especially the pagans whom he condemned quite frequently. He was outspoken and had a sarcastic wit that turned some people off. Although his personal holiness was an example to all, he did face false scandalous gossip when it came to some of the women he ministered. Anything that could be brought against Jerome to persecute him was found – his smile, his walk, his personality, and his simplicity. The majority of his troubles came after the death of Pope Damascus, who protected him as his secretary. After enduring many persecutions, he left Rome and returned to the East.
While back in Antioch, he was rejoined by St. Paula, Eustochium, and other Roman women that left to be with him in exile. Along with the help of Paula’s generosity, a monastery for men was built near the basilica of the Nativity of Bethlehem as well as some buildings for the women in the vicinity. Jerome chose to live separately in a cell that was created from a cave near Bethlehem. He also opened a school and a hospice in and around the area. It was during this time in Bethlehem that Jerome learned the Hebrew language. He developed study groups with some of the women teaching them the Holy Scriptures. These could be considered the first “bible studies.”
The years ahead were somewhat peaceful for Jerome, but since he was such a faithful Christian and obedient to the teachings of the Church, he could not stand back when Christian doctrine was attacked. He fought against Helvidius and Jovinian, who attacked the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. He wrote three letters to Jovinian, two that were harsh and derogatory, and the third was an apology for his harshness.
He also engaged Vigilantius, a Gallo-Roman priest who opposed celibacy and condemned the veneration of relics. From 395-400, Jerome took on Origenism. Writers began to use him more, but Jerome was completely opposed to the works since his texts brought confusion and scandal to some in the East. He even had a disagreement with St. Augustine of Hippo over the exegesis of St. Paul’s second chapter in the letter to the Galatians, but the disagreement was quietly settled through Augustine’s pastoral nature.
Saint Jerome did many great things throughout his life and defended the doctrines of the Church, often with great zeal, but his most spectacular contribution to the Catholic Church is the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into the Latin Vulgate. While in Rome and working for Pope Damascus, he began the translation of the gospels, the psalms in the Old Latin text, and then the rest of the New Testament.
While in Bethlehem, after learning Hebrew, he then translated the books of the Old Testament beginning with the book of Kings. He translated the rest of the books over time as well. He chose to translate the Psalms again using Origen’s, Hexapla, and the Hebrew text. The Latin Vulgate (vulgar – common Latin that differs from Classical Latin and Ecclesiastical Latin which common people could understand) became the official Church translation of the Holy Scriptures and remained so for many centuries.
After years of defending the faith, watching his friends die later in life, and seeing the rise of the Pelagians who attacked monks and nuns, Saint Jerome, worn out by life, with his voice and eyesight failing, died a peaceful death and entered Heavenly glory on September 30, 420. His body is now buried under St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome.
Walsh, Michael, Butler’s Lives of the Saints. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.