It wasn't until the fourth century that the church finally decided which books from the Jewish writings and which writings from the time of Jesus should make up the canonical text of the Bible. The trouble was that there had been several translations into Latin, and they were all different. No two seemed to agree. Jerome was probably the most learned man of his day, and he was given the urgent task of producing a reliable, consistent version. His translation into Latin, the so-called Vulgate (or people's) bible was the great achievement of his life. This version is still used internationally, and set a standard for the King James version in English 1,200 years later.
Jerome (or Eusebius Hieronymus as he was called in Latin) was born at Strido in Dalmatia (now in Croatia) in about the year AD342 (maybe it was 341). He was educated at first by his father, and, when he was 10, he was taken under the wing of Donatus, a leading grammarian of Rome whose learned accomplishments went far beyond what we mean by grammar today. Although he was brought up a Christian, like many of his contemporaries, he was not baptised till he was 18 and classed as an adult. He travelled widely, visiting such places as Gaul, Dalmatia and Italy. While he was in Trier, then in Gaul but now in Germany, he decided to become a monk, and for this reason went to Aquileia with some like-minded friends. While there they became involved in a dispute caused by some real or imaginary scandal, and they decided to go to Palestine. The party reached Antioch in 374, where unfortunately, some of them, including Jerome, became seriously ill, two of them dying. During this illness he had a dream in which he appeared before God's Seat of Judgement accused of not being a true Christian, and was found 'Guilty'. He took this seriously to heart, and decided to become a hermit. Like his Eastern contemporary Chrysostom, Jerome went to live among the desert hermits in the wilds near Antioch in Syria. There he stayed for five years. While there he learnt Hebrew from a Jewish rabbi so that he could study Scripture in its original language, and then went to study under Gregory Nazianzus, one of the holiest and deepest of the theologians of Cappadocia (in modern central Turkey). As he already knew Greek he was now equipped for his future achievements as a writer and translator.
Jerome was ordained a priest at Antioch in 379, but he was convinced his vocation did not lie in that office, which he refused to exercise. In fact, he never said Mass once. He spent some time studying in Constantinople before returning to Rome. Between 382 and 385 he served as secretary to Pope Damasus I, a saintly and learned man energetic in reforms. In Rome, Jerome somehow became the leader of a group of pious and high-born women. At the same time he fell out with many good men, for he was astonishingly acerbic and contentious and his judgment was of a rigorist bent.
He made many enemies, and, after the death of Pope Damasus, he was forced to return to the East, where he lived in Bethlehem. Paula, the widow of a Roman senator with five children, who, with her daughter, had followed him from Rome, organised and paid for the building of a sort of holy academy there with a communal house for men and another for women. She had learnt Greek from her father, and she now learnt Hebrew so that she might sing the Psalms in the language of their composition. Paula (now known as Saint Paula) also founded three convents there for nuns and a monastery for monks, the latter being governed by Jerome himself. Pilgrims were offered hospitality, and the local children were taught by Jerome free of charge. He sensed that Paula possessed the calm efficiency and tact he lacked, though he criticised her excessive penances and financial generosities: she gave away so much money that when she died in 404 her daughter was left with little money and lots of debts.
All the while Jerome kept up controversial correspondences with various people. He even argued with his friend from childhood, Rufinus. Now Rufinus had translated works by the theologian Origen, quite faithfully as it happened, into Latin. Jerome had used Origen too, not only his various translations of the Bible but also his doctrinal works. Jerome complained that Rufinus, a convinced follower of Origen, was heretical. Rufinus responded energetically, pointing out that Jerome himself had quoted without disapproval from supposedly suspect passages of Origen. It seems the truth of the matter was that Jerome did not entirely understand Origen but tended towards orthodoxy; while Rufinus did understand Origen but was not always honest.
But Jerome's main work was the translation of the Bible. This was finished by about 404, and not a moment too soon, for, with the influx of warlike barbarians, Jerome's world soon became dangerously upset. Refugees from the sack of Rome in 410 flocked to Bethlehem. Huns and other pagans made raids uncomfortably near. Houses of learning that he had founded were destroyed by religious separatists. He died in 420 and was buried under the Church of the Nativity, close to the grave of Paula, close also to the traditional site of the birth of Jesus. His feast day is 30th. September.
Later pictures show him with an attendant lion, from whose paw he had removed a thorn, (no doubt the story on which George Bernard Shaw based his play 'Androcles and the Lion'). Others show him with a wide, red, tasselled cardinal's hat (which is surprising because cardinals weren't invented until quite a while after his death). Sometimes renaissance paintings show him wearing spectacles at his desk. The pictures of him beating his breast with a stone as he fasts in the desert are probably more true to life than any of the others.
page last updated 1 MAY 2001