St. Jerome is known as many things – scholar, historian, translator, and polemicist. In this blog I give an overview of his life and explain why he came to be known as the Patron Saint of Translators. Born in 347 AD in Stridon, a province of ancient Rome now situated on the Balkan Peninsula, his scholarly journeys would take him to Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and finally Bethlehem, where he died on 30 September 420 AD.
Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus left Stridon at the age of 12 for the capitol of the Roman Empire and to further his education in grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. It is said that he offset the feelings of guilt generated by his lifestyle in Rome, by visiting tombs of the martyrs and the Apostles in the catacombs. Around 366 AD he was baptised by Pope Liberius and left the city as a serious scholar with a penchant for Latin literature.
He travelled to Trier where he studied theology and copied Tyrannius Rufinus’ commentary on the Psalms and the treatise named “De synodis”. After this he moved to Aquileia on the shores of the Adriatic. His journey eventually took him to Antioch in northern Syria via Thrace and Asia Minor. In Antioch he fell ill and had a vision of being called before a tribunal of God. In this tribunal he was accused of being a Ciceronian (a follower of the famous Roman orator) rather than a Christian and was consequently whipped. This vision made such an impression on him that he vowed to never read, nor own Pagan literature ever again. He was attracted to the ascetic lifestyle and withdrew to the desert of Chalcis – here he devoted his time to studying and writing. The subject of the former was Hebrew and the latter were letters to Jewish Christians in Antioch. He also copied a Hebrew gospel and translated parts of this into Greek. This gospel came to be known as the Gospel of Matthew. Even though this was a testing time for Jerome, correspondence, prayer, and fasting sustained him. Here he also became involved in scholarly disputes on the nature of God and Jesus, and was even suspected of heresy.
Throughout his life he resisted the Catholic Church’s attempts to ordain him, however on his return to Antioch in 378 AD or 379 AD he submitted and was ordained by Bishop Paulinus. Jerome maintained that it should not interfere with his pursuit of an ascetic lifestyle.
The journey continues
After his time in Antioch he spent two years in Constantinople to study scripture under Gregory Nazianzen and then three years in Rome as secretary to Pope Damasus I. Eventually St. Jerome filled a prominent position in the Pope’s council and was invited to the synod of 328 AD.
Pope Damasus I commissioned St. Jerome to revise the Latin Bible. His revision was based on the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. St. Jerome also produced an updated version of the Psalms, which in turn was based on the Septuagint (the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament). Eventually he translated most of what was later to be known as the Vulgate, adopted by the Catholic Church as the standard Latin version of the Bible.
Jerome and his brother returned to Antioch in 385 AD and undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the holy sites in Galilee, and finally Egypt, where the catechist Didymus the Blind interpreted Hosea and reminisced about Anthony the Great. In 388 AD he returned to Bethlehem, where he worked on scriptural commentaries, dialogues, and polemics until his death on 30 September 420 AD.
Jerome is primarily remembered for his Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible. During his lifetime he engaged in various polemics with heavyweights in the early Church: from Origen, Rufinus and John of Jerusalem to St. Augustine, Jovian, Pelagius and Plagius. He revised many significant Bible books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Chronicles, and Job. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica* he had “a predilection for allegorical interpretation”. His commentary of Ecclesiastes however, is viewed as a milestone in exegesis because it is the first Latin commentary based on the original Hebrew text. This same encyclopaedia also states that his best commentaries are on the prophets of the Old Testament.
Jerome will be remembered as the quintessential scholar with a deep understanding of the classics, the Bible, and the Christian tradition. He was a favoured subject of artists during the Renaissance who frequently and incorrectly dressed him in the robes of a cardinal. That monument of translation, the Vulgate, demonstrated the influence of a translation of a major work on world history.