Saint Jerome (c. 347-420 AD) was an important scholar and theologian who translated the Bible into Latin. He is considered one of the four Great Doctors of the Latin Church. Here is an overview of his life and accomplishments:
Jerome was born in Stridon (in modern-day Slovenia or Croatia) to a wealthy Christian family. As a young man, he was educated in Rome and was baptized there. After completing his education, Jerome traveled extensively and lived as a hermit for several years in the Syrian desert, dedicating himself to study and ascetic practices.
In 382, Jerome was called to Rome by Pope Damasus I to serve as his secretary. During this time, Jerome undertook a monumental project – the translation of the Bible into Latin. Prior to Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate, there were several Latin translations but no definitive version. Jerome started with a revision of the Gospels, then worked on the Psalms and other books of the Old Testament translated from the Greek Septuagint. He also translated parts of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew, with the aid of Jewish scholars. Jerome’s completed Vulgate translation became the authoritative Bible text for the Western Church.
In addition to his biblical scholarship, Jerome was a prolific writer of letters and treatises. He engaged in many theological disputes, advocating for positions such as the perpetual virginity of Mary. As a polemicist, Jerome could be argumentative and blunt, but his vast learning served the Church well in clarifying doctrine. He countered early heresies like Pelagianism which taught that divine grace was unnecessary for salvation.
Jerome was also deeply devoted to the monastic life. In 385, he returned to the Holy Land and founded a monastery in Bethlehem. The monastery housed a school, library, scriptorium and hospice. Jerome lived and worked there for over 30 years until his death. He took in students and continued his theological writings, Biblical commentaries and translations. Major works from this period include translations of biblical commentaries by Origen, biographies of monks, and a defense of monasticism against its critics.
In art and iconography, Jerome is often depicted as a scholarly monk in the wilderness, sometimes shown with a lion. This reflects the legend that Jerome befriended and removed a thorn from a lion’s paw. The lion then became docile and was said to guard Jerome’s monastery.
Jerome greatly influenced medieval monastic culture through his advocacy of asceticism and focus on Biblical studies. His extensive commentaries were highly valued by later scholars. In particular, his legacy was established through the Vulgate translation which became the lens through which Western Christianity understood the Bible until modern times. The Council of Trent in the 16th century reaffirmed the Vulgate’s primacy for the Catholic Church.
Saint Jerome is recognized as a Doctor of the Church for his extraordinary contributions as a translator and early theologian. His feast day is September 30th. Jerome’s life was dedicated to scholarship and the pursuit of Truth. His vast corpus of writings and translations established him as a Father of the Latin Church and one of the most learned figures of antiquity. Over 1500 years after his death, Jerome’s teachings and Biblical work continue to be studied and inspire new generations of Christians.
Early Life and Education
Jerome was born around 347 AD in Stridon, a town near the border between the provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia (likely in modern Croatia or Slovenia). His family was Christian and relatively wealthy, owning a large estate. As a youth, Jerome was educated by Aelius Donatus, a famous Roman grammarian. He learned Latin literature and the classics in preparation for further studies in rhetoric.
Around the age of 12, Jerome traveled to Rome for advanced education. He studied grammar, rhetoric and philosophy and read widely in classical authors and poetry. According to his letters, Jerome disliked the licentiousness he observed among the Roman students. In 366 AD, Jerome was baptized as a Christian in Rome, along with his friend Bonosus. This signified his commitment to the faith.
After completing his education, Jerome undertook travels through Gaul, Illyria and Asia Minor. Scholars believe he may have already started learning Greek and Hebrew. This language skill would serve him well for future theological work. Jerome briefly returned to Stridon but soon set out again, drawn to a religious life.
Ascetic Life in the Desert
In his early thirties, Jerome chose an ascetic lifestyle, seeing it as the ideal path to Christian perfection. Around 373 AD, he traveled into the Syrian desert and joined a monastery near Antioch. For the next decade or so, Jerome lived as a hermit, following a strict regimen of prayer, manual labor, fasting and study. Other monks practicing mortification of the flesh inhabited the deserts of Syria and Egypt, but Jerome stood out for his single-minded focus on learning.
Jerome spent five years studying Scripture intensely, learning Hebrew from a Jewish convert. He copied manuscripts, consulted Jewish scholars, and pored over Greek classics. Jerome later wrote that he “sat alone…so that the things I had learned might take root in my memory.” The desert monks valued Jerome’s scholarly gifts and he was ordained a priest there in Antioch.
This solitary phase was pivotal in Jerome’s intellectual development. His mastery of languages equipped him to study Scripture deeply and undertake new translations. The desert experience fortified his faith and spirituality as well. It established Jerome as a model of holiness and theological wisdom in the early Church.
Secretary to Pope Damasus
In 382 AD, Jerome was summoned to Rome by Pope Damasus I to serve as his confidential secretary. Jerome’s reputation as a learned ascetic monk had spread far and wide. The Pope sought his help responding to theological queries and addressing disputes over doctrine. Jerome also advised Damasus on key matters like relations with Constantinople and the Roman Empire.
While serving Damasus, Jerome undertook his most momentous project – a new Latin translation of the Bible to replace the Vetus Latina (Old Latin) versions then in circulation. The Vetus Latina translations originated in the 2nd century AD but variant texts created confusion. Jerome’s comprehensive translation from the original languages aimed to make an authoritative Bible for Western Christianity.
Jerome worked quickly, revising the four Gospels from Greek manuscripts between 382-385 AD. He then translated the Old Testament Psalter directly from Hebrew. For the remaining Old Testament books, Jerome primarily used the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Consulting the Septuagint helped Jerome finish translating the vast Old Testament in only 15 years.
Damasus may have commissioned the initial translation, but Jerome continued the painstaking work long after Damasus’ death in 384 AD. The completed translation became known as the Vulgate (meaning “common”) because Jerome’s Latin rendered the Bible accessible to ordinary Christians in the Western church. Until the Reformation, the Vulgate was the most influential Bible translation in Europe.
Return to the Holy Land
In 385 AD, Jerome returned to the East and settled in Bethlehem. He founded a monastery which included a hospice for pilgrims, library, scriptorium for copying manuscripts, and school. Jerome lived the rest of his life in Bethlehem, continuing his scholarly pursuits while governing the monastery.
Jerome took on many young students and monks to train in theology and Biblical languages. He taught them through scriptural commentaries, sermons, letters and by example. Jerome’s monastery offered a stable community in contrast to his earlier solitary life. But he maintained a simple and austere lifestyle, eating little, sleeping on the ground, and devoting himself fully to prayer and study.
From Bethlehem, Jerome produced numerous commentaries on Scripture and spiritual writings. Major works include:
– De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men) – a catalogue of 135 Christian authors through the 4th century AD. This became an important historical reference.
– Commentary on Ecclesiastes – focused on allegorical and spiritual meanings behind the text.
– Commentaries on the Prophets – including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Jerome explored their historical contexts and prophetic significance.
– Against Jovinian – defending the superiority of virginity over marriage and criticizing moral laxity.
– Against Helvidius – affirming the perpetual virginity of Mary against those arguing she had other children after Jesus.
– Lives of the hermits Hilarion and Malchus – biographies illustrating models of sanctity for monks.
– Letters – over 150 surviving letters on theological issues, advice to individuals, and relations with contemporaries like Augustine.
This Christian literature by Jerome joined his Vulgate translation in shaping Western theology and spirituality during the Middle Ages.
In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Jerome was drawn into the theological controversies of his day. He defended orthodox teachings against various heresies and attacks on the Christian faith. Jerome was blunt and fiercely argumentative at times, but his expertise strengthened the doctrine of the early Church.
Some key issues Jerome addressed include:
Monasticism – Jerome was an ardent defender of monasticism and asceticism. Against critics who saw desert monks as extreme, Jerome argued their practices followed Christ’s model and the way of perfection. His writings, like the biography of St. Malchus, encouraged others to adopt the monastic life.
Virginity – Jerome believed celibacy and virginity were superior states reflecting man’s original innocence. In his treatise Against Jovinian, Jerome argued strongly for virginity over marriage and sexuality.
Mariology – Jerome advocated for the perpetual virginity of Mary against skeptics like Helvidius who claimed Mary had children after Jesus. Jerome saw virginity as Mary’s holiness.
Origins of sin – Jerome opposed the ideas of Pelagius who argued individuals could choose good through free will. Jerome argued Adam’s fall had inclined humanity to sin, and divine grace was necessary. This countered early Pelagianism.
Scriptural authority – Jerome affirmed the divine inspiration of Scripture and biblical canon endorsed at Councils like Rome and Carthage. But he argued the Hebrew original (rather than the Septuagint) should be considered most authoritative.
While provocative in rhetoric, Jerome’s stances generally aligned with emerging orthodox views in the Church. His great learning helped clarify disputed doctrinal issues.
Death and Legacy
Saint Jerome died at his monastery in Bethlehem on September 30, 420 AD. He was originally buried in Bethlehem, but his remains were later transferred to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome.
Jerome was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1295 for his extraordinary contributions to theology, Biblical scholarship and the Latin Church. He is considered one of the four original Doctors of the Latin Church, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Jerome greatly influenced medieval Biblical exegesis and monastic culture through his many treatises and letters.
But Jerome’s most lasting legacy was his monumental Vulgate translation of both the Old and New Testament into Latin. For over a thousand years, the Vulgate was regarded as the authoritative Scripture text in Western Christianity. It was affirmed by Church Councils like Trent against Protestant challenge and impactfully shaped theological development in the West.
While lost Hebrew and Greek manuscripts have challenged some readings, the Vulgate remains influential even today as a key textual witness. Modern Catholic translations like the New Vulgate (1979) rely significantly on Jerome’s work. Few individuals have matched Jerome’s pivotal role in transmitting and expounding Biblical texts in the early Church. He continues to be honored as a Father of Biblical scholarship.
Saint Jerome’s feast day is celebrated on September 30th in the Catholic Church. He is the patron saint of archaeologists, Biblical scholars, librarians and translators – a testament to his own prolific contributions in these areas. Jerome dedicated himself wholly to the study and propagation of God’s Word. His ascetic lifestyle, learned writings and translation work solidified Jerome as an authoritative voice in early Christianity. Sixteen centuries after Jerome’s death, his teachings still inspire new generations of Christian scholars and those who seek to draw nearer to the Bible.