Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume VI/Prolegomena/Estimate of the Scope and Value of Jerome's Writings

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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume VI/Prolegomena
Philip Schaff et al.
Estimate of the Scope and Value of Jerome's Writings

V.—Estimate of the Scope and Value of Jerome’s Writings.

General. The writings of Jerome must be estimated not merely by their intrinsic merits, but by his historical position and influence. It has already been pointed out that he stands at the close of the old Græco-Roman civilisation: the last Roman poet of any repute, Claudian, and the last Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, died before him. Augustin survived him, but the other great Fathers, both in the East and in the West, had passed away before him. The sack of Rome by Alaric (410) and its capture by Heraclian (413) took place in his lifetime, and the Empire of the West fell in the next thirty years. Communication between East and West had become rarer and mutual knowledge less. Eusebius knew no Latin, Ambrose no Greek; Rufinus, though a second-rate scholar, was welcomed in Italy on his return from the East in 397 as capable of imparting to the Latins the treasures of the Greek Church writers. The general enfeeblement of the human mind, which remains one of the problems of history, had set in. The new age of Christendom which was struggling to the birth was subject to the influence of Jerome more than to that of any of the Fathers.

Secular Learning. As regards general learning, indeed, it was impossible that any legacy should descend from him. He had systematically disparaged it (35-36, 498), though making use and even a parade of it (101, 114, 149, 178); and had defended himself by disingenuous pleas from the charge of acquiring it after his mature convictions were formed (Apol. i. 30, 31, Vol. iii. 498–499). His influence, therefore, would but increase the deep ignorance of literature which now settled upon mankind till the times of the Renaissance. His style indeed, is excellent, correct, and well balanced, full of animation and of happy phrases (see Index—Proverbs), and passing from one subject to another with great versatility. It is contrasted by Erasmus with the barbarisms of the Schoolmen, as that of the Christian Cicero. But it has also Cicero’s faults, especially his diffuseness. His Latinity is remarkably pure, and with the exception of the frequent use of the infinitive to express a purpose, and of a few words of late-Latin like confortare, we are hardly aware in reading him that we are 400 years away from the Augustan Age. His mastery of style is the more remarkable because he wrote nothing but a few letters and a very poor Commentary till about his thirty-fifth year.

Letters. His letters gain their special charm from being so personal. He himself, his correspondents, and the scenes in which they moved, are made to live before our eyes. See especially his descriptions of Roman life in the Epistles to Eustochium (Ep. xxii.), to Paula on the death of Blesilla (Ep. xxxix.), to Læta (Ep. cvii.) on the education of her child, and Ageruchia (Ep. cxxiii.); his account of the lives of Fabiola (Ep. lxxvii.), of Paula (Ep. cviii.), and of Marcella (Ep. cxxvii.); his description of the clerical life in his letter to Nepotian (Ep. lii.), and of the monastic life in his letters to Rusticus (Ep. cxxv.) and to Sabinian (Ep. cxlvii.); his letters of spiritual counsel to a mother and daughter (Ep. cxvii.), to Julianus (Ep. cxviii.), and to Rusticus (Ep. cxxii.), and of hermit life in his letter to Eustochium (Ep. xxii., pp. 24–25); his satirical description of Onasus (Ep. xl.), Rufinus (p. 250), and Vigilantius (p. 417); his enthusiastic delight in the Holy Land in the letter written by him to Paula and Eustochium inviting Marcella to join them (Ep. xlvi). Other characteristic and celebrated letters are those to Asella (xlv.) on his leaving Rome; to Pammachius (lvii.) on the best method of translation, which shows the liberties taken by translators in his time; to Oceanus (lxix.) in defence of a second marriage contracted by a Spanish Bishop, the first having been before baptism; to Magnus (lxx.), indicating his use of secular literature, and showing the great range of his knowledge; to Lucinius (lxxi.) on the copying of his works; to Avitus (cxxiv.) on the book of Origen, Περὶ ᾽Αρχῶν; to Demetrias (cxxx.) on the maintenance of virginity; to Ctesiphon (cxxxiii.) on the Pelagian controversy. (See also Index, words Stories and Pictures of Contemporary Life.)

Publication. Two circumstances conduced to the vividness and importance of this series of letters. One of these is the fact that no distinct line separated private documents from those designed for publication. In the Catalogue of his works (De Vir. Ill. 135)1 he says: “Of the Letters to Paula and Eustochium, the number is infinite: I write them every day.” And, when he became celebrated, he says (79) that whatever he wrote was at once laid hold of and published, alike by friends and enemies. We have therefore frequently his most confidential utterances; while on the other hand his letters frequently pass into treatises, and he turns to address others than those to whom he is writing (59, 273, 274). But the process of publication was precarious; so that between Letters xlvi. and xlvii. there is a gap of seven years (386–93) without any letter. The other circumstance is the difficulty of communication, which made letters rare and induced greater care in their composition. Both these circumstances are well illustrated by the early correspondence of Jerome with Augustin. Augustin wrote from Hippo in Africa a long and important letter to Jerome (Ep. lvi.) in the year 394, which did not reach Jerome at Bethlehem for nearly ten years. It was committed to a presbyter named Profuturus to carry to Jerome; but he, being elected to a bishopric before he started, turned back, and soon afterwards died. The letter was neither forwarded to Jerome nor returned to Augustin; but it was copied by others and became known in the West, while its somewhat severe criticisms were unknown to Jerome himself. After a time Augustin became aware by a short letter of introduction written by Jerome to a friend that his first letter had miscarried, and he wrote a second (Ep. lxvii.) much in the same strain; but Paulus, to whom it was entrusted, alleging his fear of the sea, failed to go to Bethlehem; and a copy of the letter was found a year or two afterwards by a friend of Jerome’s bound up with some of Augustin’s treatises in an island of the Adriatic. Jerome on hearing of this was naturally incensed; and it was not till the year 404 that he received an authentic copy of both letters direct from Augustin, and was able to return an answer. His answer, however, and a knowledge of his views are fuller than they might have been had personal communication been easier.

Knowledge. His knowledge was vast and many-sided [See especially the enumeration of Christian writers who used Pagan literature (149–151), the curious stories about marriage gathered from all ages (383–386), the descriptions of various kinds of food and medicines (392–394) and the account of Pythagoras and his doctrines (Apol. iii., 39, 40, in this Series, Vol. iii. 538)], but it was rather the curiosity of the monks of a later day than the temper of the philosopher or the historian. He was well acquainted with the history and literature of Rome and of Greece; he translated the Chronicle of Eusebius; he speaks of the various routes to India (245), of the Brahmans (97, 193, 397), of the custom of Suttee (381), and of Buddha (380). But he is quite uncritical; he makes no correction of the faults of the Chronicle, and his own additions to it reveal his credulity. He was deeply affected by the sack of Rome, and recurs to it again and again; but his reflections upon this and similar events hardly go beyond those of a mediæval chronicler. He is a recluse, and has no thought of the general interests of mankind.

Church History. This lack of criticism and of general interests combined with lack of time to prevent his making any considerable contribution to church history. That he had some faculties for this is shown by several passages in his Dialogue with a Luciferian (328–331) and his Catalogue of Ecclesiastical Writers (On Illustrious Men, Vol. iii. 361–384). But his conception of church history is shown by his declaration (315) that he intended the Lives of Malchus and Hilarion as part of a series, which when completed would have formed an ecclesiastical history. Such a history would have been nothing more than a prolix edition of Rufinus’ History of the Monks. Jerome’s value to the church historian is quite of another kind; it lies in the illustration of contemporary life furnished by his own life and letters and by the controversies in which he was engaged.

Theology. These controversies bring us to consider Jerome’s position as a theologian. Here he is admittedly weak. He had no real interest in the subject. The first of his letters which deals with theology, that written from the Desert to Pope Damasus, points out clearly the difficulty raised by the difference of phraseology of East and West, the Eastern speaking of one Essence and three Substances, the Western, of one Substance and three Persons. But he makes no attempt to grasp the reality lying behind these expressions, and merely asks not to have the Eastern terms forced on his acceptance, while he professes in the most absolute terms his submission to the decision of the Bishop of Rome. This lack of genuine theological interest best explains his conduct in relation to Origen, his extravagant laudation of him at one time (46), his violent condemnation at another (187). He was carried away by Origen’s genius and industry in the department of biblical criticism and exegesis in which he was himself absorbed, and though in his earlier discussion of the Vision of Isaiah (22), which touched the doctrine of the Trinity, he had put aside Origen’s view that the Seraphim were the Son and the Spirit as wrongly expressing their relation to the Father, the doctrinal question was feebly present to his thoughts, and he repeated Origen’s exposition without blame as to the pre-existence of souls and the restoration of Satan (Ruf. Apol. ii. 13, Vol. iii. 467). When the subject of Origen’s orthodoxy was raised at a later time, he was unaware of any inconsistency when he fell in with the general condemnation of his doctrine. So with regard to Eusebius of Cæsarea. In the Preface to the translation of his Book on the Site and Names of Hebrew Places (485), he is “vir admirabilis”; in his controversy with Rufinus, Eusebius is nothing but a heretic. In his controversy with Augustin as to the quarrel between St. Peter and St. Paul in Gal. ii., which he interpreted as fictitious and pre-arranged with a view to bring out St. Paul’s solution of the question about the Gentile converts, he was manifestly in the wrong, and eventually seems to have felt this, yet as one who was silenced rather than convinced. At a later period he says to Augustin (Ep. cxxxiv.), “If the heretics see that we hold divergent opinions they will say calumniously that this is a result of hatred, whereas it is my firm resolution to love you, to look up to you, to defer to you with admiration, and to defend your opinions as my own.” His dread of heresy may be gathered from passage in the Anti-Pelagian Dialogue (i. 28) in which he expressly declares that, while sin can be forgiven, heresy, as being impiety, is subject to the threat: “They that forsake the Lord shall be consumed.” It is true that in his Catalogue he shows wider sympathies, and defends himself in writing to Augustin for the admission into it of men like Philo Judæus and Seneca. But this, though it might have led him to the larger views of the heathen world held by Origen and Clement, did not prevent his condemning to eternal torments even the most virtuous of the heathen. He tells Marcella, a Roman lady (41–42), that one object he has in writing to her is to instruct her that the consul-elect Vettius Agorius Prætextatus, who was known as a model of public and domestic virtue, and who had then recently died, is in Tartarus, while their friend Lea, who had died the same day, is in heaven.

The lack of deep theological conviction is shown in his Dialogue against the Pelagians, where it is evident that he is far from that original and deep view of human corruption which Augustin maintained; indeed, he appears at times to be arguing against his own side, when he says (471) that, “Till the end we are subject to sin; not,” (as the opponent falsely imputes to him) “through the fault of our nature and constitution, but through frailty and the mutability of the human will, which varies from moment to moment”—a sentence which might be taken as expressing the doctrine of Pelagius himself. It is evident that in these cases he is swayed not so much by the force of truth as by the authority of certain powerful Bishops and the wish to maintain his orthodox reputation. In his other controversies, with Helvidius, Jovinian, John, Bishop of Jerusalem, Vigilantius, and Rufinus, his method is take for granted the opinion current among the Christians of his day, and to support it by copious (sometimes excessive) quotations from Scripture, and by arguments sometimes well chosen and acutely maintained, as in the book against Helvidius (339), sometimes of the most frivolous character, as in that against Vigilantius (422). In the three last of these controversies the opposition is embittered by personal feeling, and Jerome hardly places any restraint on the contempt and hatred which it engenders.

In his criticisms on Scripture, however, he has a freer judgment, as when he says (337): Whether you think that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, or that Ezra re-edited it, in either case I make no objection;” or (349) that it was the Book of Deuteronomy which was found in the Temple in the reign of Josiah; or contrasts “the flickering flame of the Apostles” with the brightness of the lamp of Christ” (468). There are three points especially on which Jerome reached an independent conviction, and maintained it courageously. (1) He made a clear distinction between the Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha (194, 491, 492, 493) and this although he records the fact that the Nicene Council had placed the Book of Judith in the Canon (494). For this he is justly commemorated in the Articles of the Church of England (Art. 6). (2) He maintains the essential identity of Bishops and Presbyters (288) and the development of the Episcopal out of the Presbyteral office (288, 289), in the face of the rapid tendency to the extreme exaltation of the Episcopate (92). (3) In the great work of his life, the composition of the Vulgate, he showed a clear and matured conviction, and a noble tenacity, unshaken either by popular clamour (490) or authority like that Augustin (189).

A few words may here be said on the asceticism which Jerome so eagerly promoted. If we ask how it was that he embraced it so fervently as to read it into almost every line of the Scriptures, we can only answer that it was part of the spirit of the time. Jerome had not the elevation of mind which might have enabled him to exercise a judgment upon the current which was bearing him away, or the higher critical power which would distinguish between what was in the Scriptures and what he brought to them. His habit of mind was to accept his general principles from some kind of church authority, which was partly that of the Bishops, partly the general drift of the sentiment of the Christians of his day; and having accepted them, to advocate them vehemently and without discrimination. Jerome could indeed exercise a certain moderation, even in matters of asceticism (246, 267). But his general attitude is that which disdained the common joys of life, which thought of eating, drinking, clothing or lodging, and most of all marriage, as physical indulgences which should suppressed as far as possible, rather than as the means of a noble social intercourse; and dread of impurity haunts him to such an extent as to entirely vitiate his view of society, and to cause him to disparage, and all but forbid, the married relation (29, 384, etc.). His view of monasticism in its inner principles is seen in his treatises against Helvidius, Jovinian, and Vigilantius. The reader may be specially referred to a passage in the last-named treatise, p. 423. If we ask the further question, how the tendency arose which so completely swayed him, we can only attribute it to the state of Roman society in the fourth and fifth centuries, which laid earnest men open to influences already working in other parts of the world. Jerome knew of the Brahmans and the Gymnosophists of India (97, 193, 397), and he several times mentions Buddha (380) as an example of asceticism. But students of Buddhism have failed to trace any direct filiation between the asceticism of the East and the West.[1] The existence of Essenes in Palestine and the Therapeutæ in Egypt, and the unquestionable fact that Christian asceticism originated in Egypt, make some connection with the East probable; and the system of Manes, though at once repudiated, may have exerted some subtle influence. Certain states of the human mind seem all-pervasive, like the causes of diseases which spring up at once in many different places; and principles like those of asceticism maybe communicated through chance conversations or commercial intercourse when the soil is prepared for their reception.

But it seems better to look to the social and political state of the world as the predisposing cause of monasticism. Even in the East it is thought that the miserable conditions of practical life have been the main cause of a religion of despair; and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries offered similar causes in abundance. The grace which is completely absent from the great Christian writers of that epoch is hope. Such hope as is found even in the Civitas Dei of Augustin is entirely that of the world to come. The world before them seemed hopelessly corrupt. The descriptions of private morals given by Jerome are borne out by Ammianus Marcellinus; the failure of public spirit and military valour was equally conspicuous; and Gratian and Stilicho appear on the scene only to be murdered. When the crash of Alaric’s sack of Rome shook the existing world, no one realised that a new Christian world was coming, and the flight which Jerome witnessed of thousands of citizens from the sinking city to the mountains of Palestine was but one symptom of the despair which made them, to use Jerome's words, “quit the most frequented cities that in the fields and solitude they might mourn for sin and draw down on themselves the compassion of Christ” (446).

As an illustrator of Scripture, Jerome did much, and in some respects excellent work. The Book of Hebrew Names was no doubt of much use in the ages in which men were ignorant of Hebrew, although it has the clumsy arrangement of a separate glossary for each book of the Bible; it is very faulty and uncritical; there is no explanation, for instance, of Lehi in Judges, or of Engedi or Ichabod in 1 Samuel, or of Bethabara or Bethany in John, and the meanings given to words are extremely uncritical and sometimes absurd. Cherubim is said to mean a multitude of knowledge; Jezebel, “flowing with blood, a litter, a dung heap”; and Laodicæa, “the tribe beloved of the Lord, or, they have been in vomiting.” It is worthless now except as showing the state of knowledge of the fourth century A.D., and that of the author of the Vulgate.

The Book of the Site and Names of Hebrew Places belongs rather to Eusebius than to Jerome, being translated from Eusebius, though with some additions. An account of it is given in the Prolegomena to Eusebius. The arrangement of this book is, like the former, very inconvenient, the names under each letter being placed in separate groups in the order of the books of Scripture in which they occur: for instance, under the letter A we have first the names in Genesis, then those in Exodus, and so on. But there is less room here for what is fanciful, and the testimony of men who lived in Palestine in the fourth and fifth centuries is of great value still to the student of sacred topography. When the places are outside the writer’s knowledge, credulity is apt to creep in, as when the author tells us that in Ararat portions of the ark are still to be found.

The Book of Hebrew Questions on Genesis is simply a set of notes on passages where the reference to the Hebrew text gives a different reading from that of the LXX., which was received as authoritative up to Jerome’s day. For instance, in Gen. xlvi. 26, the LXX. says that Joseph’s descendants born in Egypt were nine, the Hebrew, two. Jerome accounts for the discrepancy by the supposition that the LXX. added in the sons of Ephraim and Manasseh, who were subsequently born in Egypt, and who in the LXX. are enumerated just before. Jerome states in the preface his intention to compose a similar set of notes to each book of the Old Testament, but he was never able to go beyond Genesis. What he gives us is of considerable interest and value, so that it is a matter of regret that he could not go further.

As a commentator, Jerome’s fault is a lack of independence; his merit lies in giving fully the opinions of others which we might otherwise not have known. This he considers, as seen in his controversy with Rufinus, the principal task of a commentator (Apol. i. 16, Vol. iii. 491). In the passages there at issue, he states the most incongruous interpretations without criticising them, and Rufinus can hardly be blamed for suggesting that he is sometimes expressing his own opinion under that of “another.” In matters of ordinary interpretation his judgment is good. But fanciful ideas are apt to intrude, as when, in the Commentary on Ecclesiastes, the city delivered by the poor wise man is made to mean the individual delivered from Satan by the better man within him, or the Church delivered from the hosts of darkness by Christ. When an occasion for the introduction of asceticism occurs, Jerome never hesitates at any process, however absurd, which will draw the passage to a sanction of his peculiar views (Against Jovin. i. 30, p. 368). We should have been glad, had space permitted, to have given a specimen of his better style of exposition, but it was found necessary to suppress this.

It is as a translator of Scripture that Jerome is best known. His Vulgate was made at the right moment and by the right man. The Latin language was still living, although Latin civilisation was dying; and Jerome was a master of it. It is only to be regretted that he did not give fuller scope to his literary power in his translation of Scripture. In his letter to Pammachius on the best method of translation (114), he advocates great freedom of treatment, even such as amounts to paraphrase, and even to the insertion of sentences congruous to the sense of the author. He takes the fact that the quotations in the New Testament from the Old often present discrepancies in words and sense as justifying similar discrepancies in a translation. He does not, however, appear in dealing with ordinary books to have used this license in any extreme way; and his translations, without departing from correctness, read as good literary composition. But from the operation of his rules of translation he expressly excepts the Scriptures. “In other books,” he says (113), “my effort is not to express word by word, but meaning by meaning; but in the Holy Scriptures even the order of the words has a secret meaning” (et ordo verborum mysterium est). He even says (80): “A version made for the use of the Church, even though it may possess a literary charm, ought to disguise and avoid it as far as possible.” This belief in a secret meaning in the words and their order as apart from the sense goes far to injure the Vulgate translation. His principles, indeed, are excellent, namely, (1) never to swerve needlessly from the original; (2) to avoid solecisms; (3) even by the admission of solecisms, to give the true sense. But it is evident that they must be vitiated by the supposition of a hidden sense in the arrangement of the words; and the result is a style which frequently deprives a passage of its proper elegance, and the pleasure which it should give to the reader, and a too frequent introduction of solecisms and abandonment of the attempt to make sense of a passage. It also gives an air of saintly unreality to many parts of the Scriptures and thus to produce confusion. The merits of the translation are also very various, as was the time which Jerome bestowed on the different parts. The Books of Solomon, for instance, he translated very rapidly (492), the Book of Tobit in a single day (494). For some parts he trusted to his own knowledge, for others he obtained aid at great cost of money and trouble (Preface to Job and to Tobit, 491, 494). But, while we thus go behind the scenes, we must not fail to look at the completed work as a whole. It was wrought out with noble perseverance and unflinching purpose amidst many discouragements. It was highly prized even in Jerome’s lifetime, so that he is able to record that a large part of the Old Testament was translated into Greek from his version by his friend Sophronius, and was read in the Eastern Churches (492). After his death it won its way to become the Vulgate or common version of Western Christendom; it was the Bible of the Middle Ages; and in the year 1546 (eleven centuries after its author’s death) was pronounced by the Council of Trent to be the only true version, and alone authorised to be printed.

A few personal details must be given to illustrate his method of composition and his surroundings. Nothing is known of his personal appearance. His health was weak, and he had several long illnesses, especially in the years 398, 404, and in the last year of his life. His eyes began to fail during his stay at Constantinople in 380–382, and he usually employed an amanuensis; but he still wrote at times, and what he wrote was more polished than what he dictated. “In the one case I constantly turn the stylus; in the other, whatever words come into my mouth I heap together in my rapid utterance” (Ep. lxxiv. 6). He composed with great rapidity, and dictated at times as much as one thousand lines in a day (Comm. on Ephes., Book ii. Preface). He often, especially when in weak health, lay on a couch (Ep. lxxiv. 6), taking down one volume after another to aid in the composition of his Commentaries. And he often sat late into the night [his book against Vigilantius was “the lucubration of a single night” (423)], the days being occupied in business of various kinds, as stated above—the monasteries, the entertainment of strangers, the teaching of boys, the exposition of Scripture to his brethren in the monastery, and, according to Sulpicius Severus, the charge of the parish of Bethlehem. As has been mentioned above, he was interrupted again and again by illness, and on several occasions was in alarm from the threatened invasions of the Huns and Isaurians, and at the end of his life from the violent adherents of Pelagius. He also suffered from poverty, and his friends one by one were taken from him. But he persevered against all obstacles; and his latest works, the Anti-Pelagian Dialogue and the Commentary on Jeremiah, show little if any diminution of power.


  1. See a remarkable article on “The New Testament and Buddhism,” by Professor Estlin Carpenter, in the Nineteenth Century for July, 1879.