Sixteen Centuries of St. Jerome

Dominik Markl, SJ

 Dominik Markl, SJ / Church Thought / 22 October 2020

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Jerome has been one of the most influential Bible scholars in the history of Christianity.[1] He was the first to translate most of the biblical texts into Latin, and his translation, known as the Vulgate, was commonly accepted as authoritative in the Christian West for more than a millennium. Already during his lifetime his exegetical works were used by eminent figures such as Augustine of Hippo. Throughout the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the modern era he was considered an excellent example of ascetic learning. Along with Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory, he was revered as one of the great doctors of the Latin Church, and Pope Boniface VIII confirmed him as such in 1295. Still today one of the most popular single-volume commentaries on the Bible is called The Jerome Biblical Commentary.

What was the key to Jerome’s success? In the following pages we will explore some aspects of his life and show how, mutatis mutandis, they can serve as a model for contemporary Bible scholars.

Literary and linguistic studies

Born around 347 in the town of Stridone, in present-day Croatia, an outlying region of the Roman Empire, Jerome spent his adolescence in Rome studying Latin language and literature under Aelius Donatus, who was then the most respected grammarian in the field and whose books continued to be reference works even in medieval times. “With regard to Latin,” wrote Jerome in his Prologue to Job, “I spent my life, almost from the cradle, among grammarians, rhetoricians and philosophers.” It seems that he perfected his knowledge of Greek during his first trip to the East when he was about thirty years old (373-379). More exceptional, however, was the study of the Hebrew language, which Jerome began at the same time, spending two years in the Syrian desert. His knowledge of Hebrew became deeper and deeper as he translated the books of the Old Testament with the help of Jewish experts. He also learned the rudiments of Aramaic and Syriac.

Unlike today’s Hebrew students Jerome did not have textbooks or Hebrew grammars. He had to acquire his understanding of Hebrew texts, devoid of pointing, through scrupulous personal study and with the help of his teachers. In his writings he recalled the suffering caused him by the study of the language. After reading great Latin works, such as those of Cicero and Pliny, “I had to learn,” he wrote, “a new alphabet and repeat the strident and aspirated [Hebrew] words. I will not tell you the hard work that it cost me and the difficulties I had to face! Every once in a while I despaired, several times I gave up; but then I started again because of the obstinate decision to learn. My conscience knows something about it (I know what I suffered!) and that of those who lived with me. Now I thank the Lord that from the bitter seed of such studies I reap tasty fruits” (Letter 125, 12).[2]

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