Early Christian History

St Jerome of Pannonia

St Jerome’s legacy is the Bible as we know it. While he did not personally select the Biblical canon, he did translate the books which eventually did become canon, into the vernacular (or “vulgar”) Latin of his time (hence, his translation is called the Vulgate). For a thousand years, his late-classical Latin version of the Bible was “the” Bible, for most of Christianity. A man of letters (which one would expect of a polyglot), Jerome also commented on doctrinal issues.

Jerome the Linguist

Jerome was born and reared in Pannonia, just north of Dalmatia. (This ancient Roman province is now divided between Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Bosnia.) Here, the eastern and western worlds met. Both Latin and Greek were spoken here, and it appears that Jerome was bilingual from childhood. As Pannonia in his time had stronger ties to the west than the east (which was not always the situation), Jerome and the rest of his generation tended to favor Latin, and Roman influence, over Greek and Hellenic influence.

Interested in texts, Jerome discovered many problems with the Christian documents he saw. Many of those translated into Latin, particularly, were problematic. A large number were mere fragments, consisting of what we know as only 2 or 3 chapters of a book. Furthermore, translations were inconsistent and poor. And many were in an archaic, classical, aristocratic form of Latin which most people did not understand. (A modern comparison may be made between colloquial American English, and the English of Shakespeare and his compatriots.) Jerome looked to the Greek texts for guidance, as they were considered more authentic, but there, too, he encountered fragments, poor copying, and so on.

The Vulgate Project

Jerome brought this to the attention of the Pope, who was alarmed and commissioned him to set things right. He began by assembling the Latin texts of what we know as the New Testament and attempted to make sense of them, piecing the books together like a puzzle. He didn’t feel the need, except on a few occasions, to refer back to the Greek while he was working on the New Testament; apparently he considered the Greek texts to be a poor guide (for the reasons stated above).

Later, he turned to our Old Testament books, beginning with the late 1st millennium BCE translations of Judaic scripture into Greek (works known collectively as the Sepatuagint). These proved problematic, also. There were different versions of the Septuagint in Jerome’s time. Furthermore, the translation had not been done all at once — the first five books, the Pentateuch or Torah, had been translated first, in the middle of the 3rd century BCE; others were translated in groups later on, some not until the early 1st century BCE. And the translations were done all around the east; the Torah first, in Alexandria by a single team of scholars, the rest in blocks elsewhereby any number of translators.

Thus, portions of the Septuagint were written in several dialects of Greek, influenced by time and locale. Jerome tried to make sense of it nevertheless, but ultimately gave up, deciding the Old Testament books could only properly be translated from the original Hebrew.

Jerome went to the Levant, learned Hebrew from rabbis there, and in seclusion somewhere in what is now the “West Bank,” he completed his translation of the Bible into Latin. He submitted this work — which took him years to write — to the Pope, who happily approved. Eventually his translation — due to its being written in vulgar Latin which easy for many to read — became the sole Bible version in western Christendom, for centuries (it was even used in the mostly-Greek-speaking east). Jerome’s Vulgate became the de facto Biblical canon.

Jerome the Commentator

Jerome was arguably the most brilliant of all the Church Fathers, but his intellect was matched by his ferocious temper. Small offenses turned him into a bitter, unrelenting, unforgetting enemy; he penned horrific polemics condemning, in unbridled insulting manner, many who’d offended him.

His temper often made him contrarian; that is, he sometimes took the opposite view of someone he hated, merely because it was that person’s opposing view, not because he genuinely believed it to be true.

Despite Jerome’s temper and passion, his commentary cannot easily be dismissed. Even those who disliked Jerome, appreciated his intellect; he influenced Christian thinking immensely.

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