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Saturday, September 17, 2011
Saturday Saints Alive: Jerome
Of all the scholars of the early Church, Jerome was perhaps the most important. He was the first to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into the everyday Latin of his time, and his translation, the Vulgate, set the standard for Western Christianity until the time of the Reformation.
Jerome was born around 347. He converted to Christianity and was baptized as a young scholar in Rome. After a brief, unsuccessful stint as a desert hermit, Jerome returned to school in Antioch, where he studied both Hebrew and Greek, and then became the student of the noted Gregory of Nazianzus. He then became the secretary of Pope Damascus I; he also became spiritual director to a number of well-born, educated widows and their unmarried daughters who were interested in entering into the monastic life.
In Jerome's time the Bible had already been translated into formal Latin; but Jerome was interested in a translation that reflected everyday language -- "vulgar," as opposed to classical, Latin. He also decided to translate the Old Testament directly from Hebrew instead of relying on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that had long been used by both Jewish and Christian communities.
In addition to this enormous task, Jerome was a tireless author of theological works and polemics -- written arguments against opponents. He was very opinionated and judgmental toward other theologians, labeling as "Antichrist" anyone who disgreed with him. He was also a severe ascetic, following a strict rule of life and expecting others to do so as well. (Pictures of Jerome tend to depict him as a gaunt individual dressed only in a cloth.) Although Jerome had the support of the wealthy Roman women who came to him for spiritual guidance, he made enemies among many of his peers and the public in general. Rumors spread about the nature of his relationship with at least one of his spiritual direction clients. Then, when one of the younger women died after undertaking especially difficult physical deprivations on Jerome's counsel -- Jerome then telling the girl's distraught mother not to cry for her daughter -- much of Rome's Christian population was outraged.
Jerome's impatience with what he saw as the corruption of the Roman clergy, and his problems with opponents, led to his departure for the East. He finally moved to Bethlehem, and spent the remainder of his years as a hermit living in a small cell, with a small circle of male and female friends and students. He died in 420 of natural causes.
Martin Luther was highly critical of Jerome -- and with good reason -- for helping create a culture within the Church where extreme physical deprivations and mortifications were seen as good works. Lord only knows what Jerome would have said about Luther. But the two Christian leaders, though many centuries and theological points apart, did share something in common besides their basic Christian faith: a desire to translate Scripture into the common language of their place and time.
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