Jerome – Monk, Scholar and Bible Translator

Quote: “Make knowledge of the Scripture your love and you will not love the views of the flesh.”

“Make knowledge of the Scripture your love and you will not love the views of the flesh.” These are the words of Jerome (c. 331 – 420), who is regarded by some as the greatest of all translators of the Bible. He was far more than a Bible translator, however. In addition to his Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, he wrote numerous biblical commentaries and was deeply involved in theological controversies of the day as well as with matters of asceticism and spiritual formation. His historical writing and vast correspondence offer a fascinating insight on an era when doctrinal disputation blends easily with the asceticism of the Desert Fathers.

Jerome is also the subject of a medieval legend that draws from pre-Christian stories. In one account Jerome removes a thorn from the paw of a lion, who returns the kindness by staying on to guard the monastery and watch over the donkey. When the donkey goes missing, the lion is blamed, but Jerome stands by his pet, and the lion takes over the work of the donkey. When the donkey is eventually found, they all live happily ever after. In medieval art, Jerome is depicted with a grateful lion lying at his feet.

At age twenty Jerome journeys to Rome to be baptized. Following his baptism, Jerome’s educational pursuits and various ministries take him from one region to another until he eventually settles down at a monastery in Bethlehem, the setting for the legend of the lion. Jerome’s celebrated wisdom and kindness is only one side of this often-volatile man, however. He is harsh in his criticism of other church leaders and pointedly condemns the corruption of the bearded clerics in Rome, of whom he sarcastically writes, “The only thought of such men is their clothes—are they pleasantly perfumed, do their shoes fit smoothly. . . . If there is any holiness in a beard, nobody is holier than a goat.”

Having been forced out of Rome in his forties, he resents these enemies of the truth. But more controversies continue while he is residing in Bethlehem. One of his best-known correspondents is his younger contemporary, Augustine, who first writes to him challenging his translation of a phrase in Galatians. The letter takes nearly a decade to reach its destination in Bethlehem, after apparently being read by many people along the way. And, as Jerome assumed, it may very well have been written for public consumption: “It is a sign of youthful arrogance to try to build up a reputation by assailing prominent figures.” Nevertheless, the correspondence—both harsh and pleasant—continues for many years.

Jerome’s writings span a wide range of subjects, including his perspective on marriage and monasticism. In comparing celibacy with marital bonds, he gives marriage a numerical value of thirty, rating widowhood and virginity sixty and one hundred, respectively. He insists, however, that he has high regard for marriage—but only for its potential to increase the number of virgins: “To prefer chastity is not to disparage matrimony. . . . Married ladies can be proud to come after nuns, for God Himself told them to be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth. . . . A child born from marriage is virgin flesh. . . . I praise matrimony. But only because it produces virgins.”

The wealth of Paula, Jerome’s friend and intellectual partner, funds his library in Bethlehem, and from his cell comes a steady stream of scholarly works. During his thirty-four years in that location he writes commentaries and annotated bibliographies as well as treatises against heresies, particularly against the teachings of Pelagius and Origen. In fact, so blistering are his attacks on Pelagianism that some partisan thugs break into the monastery, set fire to the buildings, and assault the monks, killing one of them, although Jerome himself escapes. He dies some years later, poring over manuscripts to the very end.

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