Question: "Who was Saint Jerome?"
Answer: The man who came to be known as Saint Jerome was born as Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymusin around AD 345 in Stridon, Dalmatia (possibly in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina). Jerome is considered one of the early church fathers for his work in translating the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into Latin, the most widely used language at that time. This translation of the Bible is called the Latin Vulgate and was a critical part of the expansion of Christianity in the early centuries.
Vulgate means “common or commonly known.” Jerome’s desire was that the Word of God would be readily available to the common man in a language he understood. His desire became reality, and it was the Vulgate that brought the Scriptures out of the churches and into everyday life. The Latin Vulgate is still the official Latin Bible of the Catholic Church. Jerome was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint in 1767. He is also considered a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. (In the Bible, saints are all believers within the Body of Christ. So Jerome was a “saint” in that sense, but he is not exalted to a higher spiritual plane as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches imply.)
Jerome had planned to become a lawyer, so he became fluent in several languages. However, his interests were captured by the study of Scripture and the pursuit of a simpler lifestyle. For nearly five years, Jerome lived alone in the desert, studying Hebrew and Greek. When he returned to normal life, he practiced his newly acquired language skills by translating from Greek to Latin some writings of one of his heroes, Origen.
In a day when Christians and Jews were estranged, Jerome insisted upon consulting the Hebrew text for his translation rather than the popular Greek Old Testament called the Septuagint. This choice provoked great hostility in many, as the Greek Septuagint was thought by some to be inspired. However, Jerome pressed on and sought out the oldest possible Hebrew manuscripts in order to render the most accurate Latin translation possible.
Although the Latin Vulgate is attributed to Jerome, he did not translate the entire Bible himself. Jerome first translated the four Gospels from Greek to Latin and then turned his attention to the Old Testament. His passion was Hebrew, and he spent much time in the Old Testament, seeking help from Jewish scholars and priests. It took 15 years to translate all the books of the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin. But the Latin Vulgate used today includes New Testament books translated by other scholars.
As Jerome’s Latin Vulgate gained attention, it also drew criticism from noteworthy opponents such as Augustine. Jerome’s critics reacted negatively to the unfamiliar wording of his Latin texts and accused him of tampering with the Word of God. Because the Latin of the time often did not have words equivalent to those in Hebrew, Jerome translated thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word. This type of translation is called “dynamic equivalence.” The result at times was a rendering of familiar passages that seemed to be in error. Jerome defended his methods by stating that, while the words may differ, the meaning did not. He cited as examples the many passages in the New Testament that quote from the Old Testament loosely or incompletely.
Once the Vulgate was complete, Jerome turned his interpretation skills to specific books of the Old Testament. Beginning with Obadiah, Jerome wrote commentaries on many of the prophets. While his interpretations of the words of Scripture are insightful, he also had a passion for expository writing and inserted his own opinions into his commentaries. Some of those opinions were not accepted by the established church, and for that he was further criticized.
Jerome spent the latter years of his life visiting each geographical location important in the life of Christ, giving himself to study, prayer, and the pursuit of the presence of God. In Bethlehem, he moved into a cave thought to have been the birthplace of Christ. While in Bethlehem, Jerome founded a school for boys and served as a spiritual guide for the monks and nuns who had moved there to be near him. Jerome died in Bethlehem on September 30, 420. That date is still celebrated as a feast day by the Roman Catholic Church in honor of Saint Jerome. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates June 15 as his feast day.