Be ever engaged, so that whenever the devil calls he may find you occupied.
This is part one of a two part series on Saint Jerome. In part two, we will explore more in depth his writings and influences.
Saint Jerome was born Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus sometime in the year 347 AD in the town of Stridon in Dalmatia (modern day Slovenia or Croatia). Around the age of 12, he left for Rome to study grammar, rhetoric and philosophy with his friend Bonosus of Sardica under the grammarian Aelius Donatus. Saint Jerome was fascinated with Roman literature often explored the crypts of the martyrs and Apostles in the catacombs. He would later write of these trips to the catacombs:
Often I would find myself entering those crypts, deep dug in the earth, with their walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead, where everything was so dark that almost it seemed as though the Psalmist's words were fulfilled, Let them go down quick into Hell. Here and there the light, not entering in through windows, but filtering down from above through shafts, relieved the horror of the darkness. But again, as soon as you found yourself cautiously moving forward, the black night closed around and there came to my mind the line of Virgil, "Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent"
Towards the end of his formal education in Rome, he moved past an initial skepticism of Christianity and converted. In 366, he was baptized by Pope Liberius. After his baptism, he travelled with Bonosus to Gault, then with Rufinus at Aquileia. In 373 he set out with friends he had made in Aqueleia to travel through Thrace, Asia Minor and finally northern Syria. A serious illness grasped him at Antioch. One night, during the illness, he had dream where he was brought before a tribunal of the Lord and accused of following Marcus Cicero's philosophies rather than being a Christian. He vowed to never purse reading or even possessing pagan literature after this dream.
For some time afterwards, he left for the desert of Chalcis, southeast of Antioch to purse a life of ascetic penance. Here he learned Hebrew and wrote frequently to Jewish Christians in Antioch. He was given a copy of a Hebrew Gospel, known as the Gospel of the Hebrews (Nazarenes believed it to be the actual Gospel of Matthew) and he translated parts of it into Greek. After two years he returned to Antioch where he met and spent time with Bishop Paulinus. The Bishop convinced Saint Jerome that he should be ordained, which Jerome agreed to only if the ordination meant he could continue his ascetic life and that no priestly duties would be pressed upon him.
For the next three years he travelled to Constantinople and studied under Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. Here is knowledge and mastery of Greek was truly grasped and he began translating sermons into Latin. Famously, he translated 14 of Origen's homilies on Old Testament writings into Latin and Eusebius's Chronicon into Latin as well. In 382, he left Constantinople and returned to Rome.
Arriving in Rome, he became the secretary to Pope Damasus I. Under the Pope's urging, he wrote several exegetical tracts and translated two more homilies of Origen on the Song of Solomon. He revised the Psalter by translating passages from the Septuagint, held classes for a monastic minded circle of Roman widows and virgins, and frequently wrote in defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary. He also famously wrote critically of lax laity and hypocritical virgins. He left Rome in August 385 just a few months after the death of Pope Damasus to pilgrimage and study through the Holy Land.
At the school of Alexandria, he spent time and studied with the catechist Didymus the Blind. Eventually, in the year of 388, he returned to Palestine to the cave near Bethlehem (where it is believed that Jesus was born) to study and write. For the next 34 years he produced an incredible number of writings. Instead of using the Septuagint, he translated the Hebrew Bible to Latin using the original Hebrew. This is a truly remarkable achievement, as not only did he face opposition from Christians at the time to do the translation (most, including Saint Augustine believed the Septuagint to be Inspired Scripture) but also because of the lack of infrastructure and support in Bethlehem. Among many, many other writings he also completed the following during this time:
Liber locorum (Book of Places - a translation of Eusebius's work on Palestinian place-names)
Liber interpretationis Hebraicorum nominum (Book of Interpretation of Hebrew Names)
Liber Hebraicarum quaestionum in Genesim (“Book of Hebrew Questions on Genesis”)
A commentary on Ecclesiastes (important as it was the first original Latin Commentary using the original Hebrew)
Commentaries on the minor and major prophets of the Old Testament
Commentary and explanations on the Gospel of Matthew
Interpretations on Philemon, Galations, Ephesians, and Titus
Commentaries on the Book of Revelations
Saint Jerome died on September 30th, 420 AD near Bethlehem. His remains were originally buried there and then transferred to the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. His Vulgate (the Latin translations from Hebrew) was declared authoritative in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions at the Council of Trent. Many of his writings and letters are also found in collections of literature from Saint Augustine.
Saint Jerome is represented as one of the four Latin Doctors of the Church with Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose, and Pope Gregory I and is the patron saint of Bible scholars, librarians, students, translators and archaeologists.