Jerome’s biography and missed opportunities to make heresy work for me

It was a pleasant surprise that Uppsala university library, Carolina Rediviva got hold of “Jerome His Life, Writings and Controversies” by J.N.D. Kelly, London (1975) so quickly so that I could read it while my mind was on the patron saint of translators

I have a much better grasp of Jerome’s life now. The location of his birthplace (Stridon on the border of the then Dalmatia and Pannonia) has not been determined exactly but was then in the Roman sphere of influence in perhaps what is now Bosnia. His education took place in Rome and he was later in Antioch and Constantinople and finally in Bethlehem for many years.

I knew before that he had a reputation for being cantankerous but had a very vague notion of what he was cantankerous about. He certainly grasped the nettle when he undertook to produce a translation of the Old Testament, going back to the Hebrew source to produce a new or at least extensively revised Latin translation, the Vulgate as he thought that there were many problems and distortions with the existing Latin translation from the Greek.

His project met resistance as many wished to defend the long-used traditional text originating from the Septuagint produced by 72 translators who were supposed to have produced identical versions (to the best of my knowledge and belief, this experiment has not been successfully replicated).

This was a very tumultuous period for the Christian church after Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. From having been an oppressed clandestine group with many local variations, it was now able to set up institutions and to define what was regarded as orthodox and what was heretical.

Jerome was deeply involved in this process and many of his writings address different positions in the Christian church. His approach was often vituperative, frenetically ad hominem, even against people whom he had long been friends with such as Rufinus; he made many enemies. He was a very profilic writer and Kelly has great admiration for him but points out that Jerome often made mistakes under pressure of time and that considerable portions of his commentaries were recycled from other thinkers (for example, Origen) without the source being stated.

Christianity strikes me as resting on fragile foundations with the Virgin Birth, the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus creating particular problems, giving rise to endless disputes when trying to produce a coherent and credible narrative.  But the period after Constantine was even stranger with feuds developing on, for example, whether the Devil could be rehabilitated and whether the soul had always existed independently of the body. Not to mention the development of ideas among the Gnostics, who, as I understand it, rejected the material world as being the product not of a creator God but of an inferior demiurge.

I have understood that Jerome was cantankerous but that that did not just concern translation but broader issues of Christianity. It is fascinating that so much of his writing has been preserved so that we can read 1,700 years later about his attitude to translation, literal translation v paraphrase and the additional problems posed by the source text being regarded as revelation (my customers don’t generally go quite this far).

I understand now why Jerome was so popular in the period 1400-1500. He was not only a superb Latin stylist (according to Kelly, my credentials as a judge of Latin style are flaky) but he also had a grasp of the Latin classics, Virgil, Cicero, etc. This struck a chord with renaissance thinkers eager to relate to the classical world but still operating in a Christian environment where the influence of the church was great.

These Renaissance thinkers created their own Jerome myth – the historically incorrect cardinal’s clothing but also the very many paintings of Jerome as a hermit in the desert. In fact, his period of isolation in the Syrian desert was fairly short and truncated by ill health. And later, although he lived in relative poverty in Palestine, he was hardly cut off from the rest of humanity, being accompanied by the wealthy Roman convert Paula and others. The pictures of Jerome in his study are those that most accurately reflect his life, as his works of translation and commentary on the Bible were perhaps the most typical activities of his life (I also much prefer these pictures to the others).

The book was also interesting for the connections between Greek philosophy, Neo-platonism and Christianity. It increases my desire to re-read some basic text about the history of philosophy.

On a personal level, I wish that I had had some of this knowledge when my parents drove me away unwillingly to confirmation classes with the local priest (I realised that I couldn’t incorporate Christianity into my view of life at a relatively early age). What a nuisance I could have made of myself with discussions about the nature of the Trinity, the filioque controversy and all the rest of it. I could have surfed out of confirmation classes on a wave of heresy. Instead, I sat through these sessions in mute resistance and eventually let myself be trundled away to the local church for the bishop to lay his hands upon my head. In response to the bishop’s words that we would remember the day for the rest of our lives, I made great efforts to forget the day, so great that I still remember which month it was.

To do my parents justice, they at least admitted later that they thought it had been a mistake.

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