Monday, September 30, 2019

"You Urge Me to Make a New Work from the Old" ~ September 30, Feast of St. Jerome

Saint Jerome instructs Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium in this 16th century
painting by Francisco de Zurbarán.
For this date in the year AD 420, the Chronicon of Prosper of Aquitaine (written in the mid-5th century) contains the following notice:
Hieronimus presbyter moritur anno aetatis suae XCI pridie kalendas Octobris.
That is, in English: “The priest Jerome died at the age of 91 on 30 September.”

His full name was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, but he is known to later ages simply as Saint Jerome, Doctor of the Church. Along with Augustine of Hippo, Jerome was one of the most voluminous scholars of antiquity whose works have come down to us. In his own book entitled: De Viris Illustribus, Jerome provides the following staggering summary of his written works:
I, JEROME, son of Eusebius, of the city of Strido, which is on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia and was overthrown by the Goths, up to the present year, that is, the fourteenth of the Emperor Theodosius, have written the following: Life of Paul the monk, one book of Letters to different persons, an Exhortation to Heliodorus, Controversy of Luciferianus and Orthodoxus, Chronicle of universal history, 28 homilies of Origen on Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which I translated from Greek into Latin, On the Seraphim, On Osanna, On the prudent and the prodigal sons, On three questions of the ancient law, Homilies on the Song of Songs two, Against Helvidius, On the perpetual virginity of Mary, To Eustochius, On maintaining virginity, one book of Epistles to Marcella, a consolatory letter to Paula On the death of a daughter, three books of Commentaries on the epistle of Paul to the Galatians, likewise three books of Commentaries on the epistle to the Ephesians, On the epistle to Titus one book, On the epistle to Philemon one, Commentaries on Ecclesiastes, one book of Hebrew questions on Genesis, one book On places in Judea, one book of Hebrew names, Didymus on the Holy Spirit, which I translated into Latin one book, 39 homilies on Luke, On Psalms 10 to 16, seven books, On the captive Monk, The Life of the blessed Hilarion. I translated the New Testament from the Greek, and the Old Testament from the Hebrew, and how many Letters I have written To Paula and Eustochius I do not know, for I write daily. I wrote moreover, two books of Explanations on Micah, one book On Nahum, two books On Habakkuk, one On Zephaniah, one On Haggai, and many others On the prophets, which are not yet finished, and which I am still at work upon. {Jerome, De Viris Illustribus, Chapter CXXXV]
Jerome’s writings are filled with anecdotes of historical import. One such work is his famous letter to Eustochium mentioned above which he wrote to a young woman who had recently taken a vow of perpetual virginity. Also called De Custodia Virginitatis (On Maintaining Virginity) and written in AD 384, this lengthy missive is filled with allusions to the type of moral behavior prevalent in Rome of late antiquity, not withholding his condemnation from Christians in high places who behaved hypocritically. Here is one example from the letter:
Today you may see women cramming their wardrobes with dresses, changing their gowns from day to day, and for all that unable to vanquish the moths. Now and then one more scrupulous wears out a single dress; yet, while she appears in rags, her boxes are full. Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying. When they hold out a hand to the needy they sound a trumpet; when they invite to a love-feast they engage a crier. I lately saw the noblest lady in Rome — I suppress her name, for I am no satirist — with a band of eunuchs before her in the basilica of the blessed Peter. She was giving money to the poor, a coin apiece; and this with her own hand, that she might be accounted more religious. Hereupon a by no means uncommon incident occurred. An old woman, full of years and rags, ran forward to get a second coin, but when her turn came she received not a penny but a blow hard enough to draw blood from her guilty veins. [De Custodia Virginitatis, Chapter 32]
Jerome here foreshadows the tone of Saint John Chrysostom who would write only a little later. Also in the same letter, Jerome admits that the course Eustochium had chosen for herself will be difficult and fraught with peril. But he encourages her to endure by holding fast to Christ:
Love finds nothing hard; no task is difficult to the eager. Think of all that Jacob bore for Rachel, the wife who had been promised to him. Jacob, the Scripture says, served seven years for Rachel. And they seemed unto him but a few days for the love he had to her. [Genesis 29:20] Afterwards he himself tells us what he had to undergo. In the day the drought consumed me and the frost by night. [Genesis 31:40] So we must love Christ and always seek His embraces. Then everything difficult will seem easy; all things long we shall account short… [Jerome, De Custodia Virginitatis, Chapter 40]
But perhaps the most famous work of Saint Jerome was his Latin translation of Sacred Scripture. This task was enjoined upon him by Pope Damasus in AD 384 and not completed until over twenty years later. This monumental labor would result in the creation of a work which would come to be known in later years as the Latin Vulgate—the standard version of Sacred Scripture in the Latin language. In his preface on the Gospels, Jerome himself explains why he undertook this tremendous task which would cause his name to be well remembered even 1,600 years after his death:
To the blessed Pope Damasus, from Jerome,
You urge me to make a new work from the old, and that I might sit as a kind of judge over the versions of Scripture dispersed throughout the whole world, and that I might resolve which among such vary, and which of these they may be which truly agree with the Greek. Pious work, yet perilous presumption, to change the old and aging language of the world , to carry it back to infancy, for to judge others is to invite judging by all of them. Is there indeed any learned or unlearned man, who when he picks up the volume in his hand, and takes a single taste of it, and sees what he will have read to differ, might not instantly raise his voice, calling me a forger, proclaiming me now to be a sacrilegious man, that I might dare to add, to change, or to correct anything in the old books?
Against such infamy I am consoled by two causes: that it is you, who are the highest priest, who so orders, and truth is not to be what might vary, as even now I am vindicated by the witness of slanderers. If indeed faith is administered by the Latin version, they might respond by which, for they are nearly as many as the books! If, however, truth is to be a seeking among many, why do we not now return to the Greek originals to correct those mistakes which either through faulty translators were set forth, or through confident but unskilled were wrongly revised, or through sleeping scribes either were added or were changed? Certainly, I do not discuss the Old Testament, which came from the Seventy Elders in the Greek language, changing in three steps until it arrived with us Nor do I seek what Aquila, or what Symmachus may think, or why Theodotion may walk the middle of the road between old and new. This may be the true translation which the Apostles have approved. I now speak of the New Testament, which is undoubtedly Greek, except the Apostle Matthew, who had first set forth the Gospel of Christ in Hebrew letters in Judea. This (Testament) certainly differs in our language, and is led in the way of different streams; it is necessary to seek the single fountainhead. [Jerome, Preface to the Gospels]
The complete works of Saint Jerome are a vast treasure-trove of information on life and Christian belief in the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD. If you dare to dip your toe into this ocean of late antique data, helpfully translated into English, click the link below [Note, this link will open up a PDF in your browser sourced from]:

The Principal Works of Saint Jerome.

No comments: