Jerome's Bible Legacy

  • Diane Severance, Ph.D.
  • 2010 3 May
Jerome's Bible Legacy

One of the pivotal figures in the history of the preservation and transmission of the Bible was a brilliant, temperamental, dedicated, irascible scholar named Jerome. He was born in 331 AD in northeast Italy and became the most learned man of the 4th century, Latin-speaking church.

A Disturbing Dream
His parents were well-to-do Christians who sent Jerome to Rome to be educated when he was about ten. In Rome, Jerome became an accomplished classical scholar with an insatiable passion for learning. After completing his schooling, Jerome traveled throughout the Roman empire, from Gaul (France) to Palestine. He studied Christian theology in Trier, Germany and became part of an ascetic community in Aquilea, Italy. Jerome moved on to Antioch where he had a dream which strongly convicted him - Christ was scourging him and accusing him, "You are a Ciceronian, and not a Christian." Jerome felt he had devoted too much of his life to studying the pagan classics at the expense of Christian truth, and he vowed not to study pagan literature - a vow he kept for ten years.

From 374 to 377 Jerome lived as a hermit in the desert east of Antioch, fasting and studying. He found a Jewish Christian nearby from whom he learned Hebrew, eventually mastering Hebrew as no other Christian of his day had. Jerome also had to battle with the desires of the flesh. When he dreamed of dancing girls in Rome he simply fasted and studied more than before. Jerome stated his own principle in studying was: to read the ancients, to study everything, to hold fast to the good, and never to depart from the Christian faith.

When he returned to Antioch from the desert, Jerome was ordained a presbyter. However, Jerome never ministered in a church, preferring the monastic life.

Jerome returned to Rome when he was about fifty and became the theological advisor and Secretary to Pope Damasus. In Rome he began his great service to the church of Christ - translating the Bible into common Latin. Jerome's knowledge of languages and his travels throughout the west and east made him perfectly equipped for this gigantic task.

Reliable Latin Version Needed
Latin was the common language of the western Roman Empire, and there were already many Latin versions of the Scriptures in circulation. These, however, varied greatly in accuracy and readability. Pope Damasus wanted Jerome to revise the translation of the Gospels and the Psalms. In revising the Psalms, in Rome, Jerome used the Septuagint text. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament which had been made in Alexandria, Egypt.

The legend was that seventy-two translators worked in individual cells, and when they came together to compare their work, their translations were exactly the same! Many thought that the Septuagint (or LXX for the 70 elders) was divinely inspired. The apostles often quoted from the Septuagint translations. Early Latin translations of the Old Testament, including Jerome's work in Rome, were all from the Septuagint.

While in Rome Jerome also lashed out against the immorality and corruption of the imperial city. He protested that the clerics and the monks were worldly and self-seeking; the language he used towards them was often harsh and venomous. When Pope Damasus died in 384, Jerome went to Bethlehem, accompanied by some loyal followers, including several wealthy Roman ladies who had taken vows of chastity.

Love the Scriptures
In Bethlehem Jerome and a wealthy woman named Paulina established two monastic communities, one for men and another for women. Paulina also established a hospice for pilgrims, since Joseph and Mary had not found lodging in the town! Away from the politics and turmoil of Roman life, Jerome could live the ascetic, monastic life he so desired and devote himself to study. For the next fifteen years Jerome went behind the Greek Septuagint and translated the books of the Old Testament Bible from the Hebrew into Latin. These translations of individual books were often done for his friends. Jerome believed that the knowledge of the Scripture was the riches of Christ; ignorance of the Scripture was ignorance of Christ. He repeatedly exhorted others to saturate their minds with the Scriptures: Make knowledge of the Scripture your love and you will not love the views of the flesh....I beg you, dear brother, live with them, meditate on them, make them the sole object of your knowledge and inquiries. His work was accompanied by the prayer that his Latin translation might speak the truth of God as clearly and powerfully as the original Hebrew or Greek.

He Did "More than Anyone Will"
Jerome's Latin translation steadily increased in importance in the following centuries. He had stood at the twilight of the ancient world and had prepared the Scriptures which would be used throughout the dawning Middle Ages. Latin was the universal language of Europe during these years, and Jerome's translation of the Scriptures into the common tongue became the Vulgate (or common) Bible. For ten centuries the phrases of the Vulgate shaped the liturgy of the church as well as Europe's theology, literature, and law. When Wycliffe translated the Bible into English and Luther translated it into German, they translated from Jerome's Latin Vulgate. Though Martin Luther disliked Jerome's monastic ideals, he had to admit that St. Jerome has personally done more and greater in translation than any man will imitate.

Criticized for using Hebrew
Jerome was often criticized for using the Hebrew text rather than the Septuagint as the basis for his translation, but he rightly argued that the Septuagint was not inspired and that a better translation could be made from the Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament.