St. Jerome

St. Jerome
An Author Profile

By Gabriel Blanchard

We might accuse St. Jerome of many faults—most of them connected with his severe disposition and hot temper—but he cannot be denied a singular presence and style.

❧ Full name: Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, normally called Jerome in English* [ū--bē-ŭs sø-frōn-ē-ŭs hī-ŕ-ŏn-ĭ-mŭs, jĕ-rōm; see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: ca. 342-420
❧ Areas active: Dalmatia (modern Croatia and Bosnia); Italy, particularly Rome and Aquileia (east of Venice); Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) and its environs (mostly in modern northern Syria); Constantinople (modern Istanbul); Alexandria; Judæa (modern southern Israel-Palestine), mainly around Bethlehem
❧ Original language of writing: Late Latin
❧ Exemplary or important works: Commentary on Daniel; Letters; Against Jovinian; The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary

Perhaps on analogy with the Gospels, four authors have traditionally been identified in the Latin-speaking West as the four great Doctors—i.e., teachers—of the Church. One, St. Ambrose of Milan, does not appear on our Author Bank; two, Ambrose’s pupil St. Augustine and the great Pope St. Gregory I, have already appeared in our series profiling the Bank. We now come to the fourth, one of the great fathers of monasticism and the framer of the Vulgate: St. Jerome.

Born in the Roman province of Dalmatia, he came to Rome at or a little before the age of twenty, to pursue what we would now essentially call a college education, studying philosophy and rhetoric. Then as now, freshly-independent students were apt to be a rowdy, intemperate bunch, and Jerome was at first no exception; however, at some point in the 360s, after a period of lingering not unlike that of Augustine, his contemporary, Jerome accepted Christianity and was baptized. Delaying baptism, sometimes for decades, was not uncommon in this period, as it was seen as a grave commitment to a holy life—for instance, the Emperor Constantine I spent most of his reign as a catechumen and was baptized only on his deathbed—so the mere fact that Jerome chose to be baptized while in his twenties suggests something of his character.

He went on to pursue a monastic life, which at the time was a comparatively new movement in the Church. Celibacy, small-c communism,† fasting, and nonviolence were all long-familiar practices to Christians, and universally considered praiseworthy. However, beginning with the hermit-saint Anthony of Egypt (who may himself have been imitating the example of John the Baptist, and whose laudatory biography had been written by the patriarch Athanasius), monasticism pushed all of these practices to their extremes—for example, not merely keeping the common practice of fasting twice a week, but adopting a wholly vegetarian diet and eating a maximum of once per day—and combined them with retreating from society to live in the wilderness. Though it would come to be considered a normative element of the Church in time, there were contemporary Christian critics of the new ascetic movement; Jerome penned ferocious rebuttals of several of these critics, sometimes shocking even his theological allies with his caustic rhetoric. It was in part thanks to his badly-moderated language that, about twenty years into his ecclesiastical career, St. Jerome was more or less chased out of Italy; he traveled east, ultimately settling himself into a hermitage in the Holy Land, outside of Bethlehem.

Negotiatorem clericum, et ex inope divitem, ex ignobili gloriosum quasi quandam pestem fuge.
A businessman-clergyman, the rags-to-riches sort who rises from obscurity to fame—flee him like the plague.

Much of his surviving output is in the form of letters, mostly offering counsel on the spiritual life to acquaintances who requested it, or commentary on much of the Bible. Jerome’s most famous work, of course, is the Vulgate, which is conventionally considered to be his—and the—Latin translation of the Bible. The truth is more complicated. Latin renderings of the Bible had been made throughout the second and third centuries, known collectively as the Vetus Latina (or “Old Latin Bible”). However, this was a collection of ad hoc translations by various people, showing widely varying styles and degrees of skill: the late Bruce Metzger, one of the foremost Biblical scholars of the twentieth century, found that for Luke 24:4-5 alone, the Vetus Latina contained over two dozen variant readings! Accordingly, at the behest of Pope Damasus I, St. Jerome set to work to produce a single, sound rendition of the Bible into Latin, for which he naturally began with the existing texts. He revised many parts of this version, replaced others wholesale, and left some of it unretouched; even today, there are bits and pieces of the Vetus Latina that, unchanged, remain part of the authoritative Latin text of the Mass,‡ including the “Our Father” itself. Nevertheless, his edition of the Biblia Sacra Vulgata was both meaningfully his and meaningfully new, so perhaps we can forgive convention for oversimplifying the situation a little.

One of his choices, which drew a great deal of angry criticism, was to prefer translating from Hebrew manuscripts rather than the Septuagint. The Septuagint was the most widespread and oldest Greek edition of the Hebrew Bible§; it had been used by Christians since the first century—even the Apostle Paul quotes it in some places in his letters (though others show he had independent knowledge of the Hebrew text). Christian apologists since had exerted much energy defending its legitimacy in controversies with the synagogue. Jerome’s decision to go ad fontes was therefore, if wrongly, fairly naturally resented by many Christians at the time. He carried this preference so far as to deny canonical status to most or all of the Deuterocanonicals,|| an opinion in which most of Christendom has declined to join him. Nonetheless, the commitment to intellectual rigor which his decision for the original Hebrew represents was, and remains, an important legacy for scholars in all fields.

*If you’re wondering how we got Jerome out of Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, it took us a long time! The simple version: we slurred Hieronymus into Hierome, which then shifted to Jerome partly because J for Y (as in “hallelujah”) used to be much more common in English. It so happened that the spelling stuck after the pronunciation of J had changed.
†I.e., shared ownership of property by a commune. Naturally, applying communism specifically to Marxist groups and ideas did not develop until the late nineteenth century.
‡The Mass has normally been celebrated in the local vernacular since the late 1960s. However, the text from which vernacular translations are taken is still in Latin, and it is possible (if rare) to celebrate the current recension of the Mass in Latin.
§This collection of books and what to call it form a thorny issue in Judaic-Christian and intra-Christian relations. Jews call their sacred book the Tanakh, from a Hebrew acronym of its three parts: Torah “law,” Neviim “prophets,” and Ketuvim “writings.” However, these categories were not used by the translators of the Septuagint; moreover, they split some books that appear as one in the Tanakh, and included material not present in it. Christian Bibles follow the Septuagint “table of contents”—which is why although most Protestant Bibles contain only the books of the Tanakh, they are not named or ordered the same way. Catholic, Orthodox, and Tewahedo Old Testaments contain varying selections of the Septuagint’s extra material, and are thus a distinct set of books from the Tanakh.
||These are known to most Protestants as “the apocrypha,” though this name is not very useful as it can designate a wide range of disputed books. It includes Tobit, Judith, Baruch, the Wisdom of Joshua Ben Sirach (usually called “Sirach”), the Wisdom of Solomon (or “Wisdom”), I and II Maccabees, and a few additions to the books of Daniel, Esther, and Baruch. Further works are sometimes included in Orthodox and Tewahedo Bibles, e.g., in the latter only, the famous Book of Enoch. Hebrew versions of Tobit, Sirach, and I Maccabees are known today; St. Jerome knew about the Hebrew version of I Maccabees, and may have accepted it as Scripture (his Prologus Galeatus, discussing the matter, is not absolutely clear).


Gabriel Blanchard, a proud uncle to seven nephews, has a bachelor’s degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park; he came to work for CLT in 2019, and serves as its editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other content here at the Journal, like this author profile of Anna Julia Cooper, this “Great Conversation” introduction to the topic of related-ness, or this poem contributed by one of our outstanding students—and be sure not to miss out on our podcast, Anchored. Thank you for reading the Journal, and enjoy your day!

Published on 11th September, 2023. Page image of a selection from a ninth-century manuscript, the Codex Sangallensis 63, containing most of the Vulgate New Testament (the Gospels and II and III John are not included) and an etymological dictionary. The manuscript is written in Carolingian minuscule, then a relatively recent innovation, prized for its clarity; note the distinction between upper and lower-case letters (not previously used), the presence of “long s” (ſ, derived from the Roman cursive form of the letter), and the frequent occurrence of the sign ~ over letters, which indicates a following m or n.

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