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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 176. Jerome as a Divine and Scholar.


Comp. the Literature at § 41; and especially the excellent monograph (which has since reached us) of Prof. Otto Zöckler: Hieronymus. Sein Leben und Wirken aus seinen Schriften dargestellt. Gotha, 1865.


Having already sketched the life and character of Jerome (born about 340, died in 419) in connection with the history of monasticism, we limit ourselves here to his theological and literary labors, in which he did his chief service to the church, and has gained the greatest credit to himself.

Jerome is the most learned, the most eloquent, and the most interesting author among the Latin fathers. He had by nature a burning thirst for knowledge,20822082   As he himself says, Ep. 84, c. 3 (Opera, ed. Vallarsi, tom. i. 523): “Dum essem juvenis, miro discendi ferebar ardore, nee juxta quorundam praesumptionem ipse me docui.” and continued unweariedly teaching, and learning, and writing, to the end of a very long life.20832083   Sulpicius Severus, who describes from his own observation the learned seclusion of the aged Jeromeat Bethlehem, where, however, he was much interrupted and stimulated by the visits of Christians from all parts of the world, says of him, in Dial. i. 4: “Totus semper in lectione, totus in libris est; non die, non nocte requiescit; aut legit aliquid semper, aut scribit, ” &c. His was one of those intellectual natures, to which reading and study are as indispensable as daily bread. He could not live without books. He accordingly collected, by great sacrifices, a library for that time very considerable and costly, which accompanied him on his journeys.20842084   He confesses that the purchase of the numerous works of Origen had exhausted his purse, Ep. 84, c. 3 (tom. i. 525): “Legi, inquam, legi Origenem, et, si in legendo crimen est, fateor; et nostrum marsupium Alexandrinae chartae evacuarunt.” When he saw, and was permitted to use, the library of Pamphiltus in Caesarea, with all the works of Origen, he thought he possessed more than the riches of Croesus (De viris illustr. c. 75). He further availed himself of the oral instruction of great church teachers, like Apollinaris the Elder in Laodicea, Gregory Nazianzen in Constantinople, and Didymus of Alexandria, and was not ashamed to become an inquiring pupil in his mature age. His principle in studying was, in his own words: “To read the ancients, to test everything, to hold fast the good, and never to depart from the catholic faith.”20852085   “Meum propositum est, antiquos legere, probare singula, retinere quae bona sunt, et a fide catholica numquam recedere.”

Besides the passion for knowledge, which is the mother of learning, he possessed a remarkable memory, a keen understanding, quick and sound judgment, an ardent temperament, a lively imagination, sparkling wit, and brilliant power of expression. He was a master in all the arts and artifices of rhetoric, and dialectics. He, far more than Lactantius, deserves the name of the Christian Cicero, though he is inferior to Lactantius in classic purity, and was not free from the faulty taste, of his time. Tertullian had, indeed, long before applied the Roman language as the organ of Christian theology; Cyprian, Lactantius, Hilary, and Ambrose, had gone further on the same path; and Augustine has enriched the Christian literature with a greater number of pregnant sentences than all the other fathers together. Nevertheless Jerome is the chief former of the Latin church language, for which his Vulgate did a decisive and standard service similar to that of Luther’s translation of the Bible for German literature, and that of the authorized English Protestant version for English.20862086   Ozanam(Histoire de la civilisationchrét. au 5. siècle, ii. 100) calls Jerome, ”Le maître de la prose chrétienne pour tous lea siècles suivants.” ZöcklerSays (l. a. p. 323): “As Cicero raised the language of his time to the classic grade, and cast it for all times in a model form, so, of the Western church fathers, Jeromewas the one to make the Latin language Christian, and Christian theology Latin.” Erasmus placed him as an author in several respects even above Cicero.

His scholarship embraced the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages and literature; while even Augustine had but imperfect knowledge of the Greek, and none at all of the Hebrew. Jerome was familiar with the Latin classics, especially with Cicero, Virgil, and Horace;20872087   Virgil is quoted in the Letters of Jeromesome fifty times, in his other works much more frequently; Horace, in the Letters, some twenty times; of the prose writers Cicero more than all, next to him Varro, Sallust, Quintilian, Seneca, Suetonius, and Pliny. Virgil, however, is viewed by Jerome, and by Augustine, who likewise admired him greatly, simply as a great poet, and not, as he afterwards came to be considered in the Latin church, especially through the influence of Dante’s Divina Commedia, as a divine and prophet of heathenism. and even after his famous anti-Ciceronian vision (which transformed him from a more or less secular scholar into a Christian ascetic and hermit) he could not entirely cease to read over the favorite authors of his youth, or at least to quote them from his faithful memory; thus subjecting himself to the charge of inconsistency, and even of perjury, from Rufinus.20882088   Comp. § 41 above, and Zöcklerl.c. p. 45 ff., 156, and 325. It is certain that Jerome, after that dream of about 374, almost entirely suspended and even abhorred the study of the classics for fifteen years (comp. the Preface to his Commentary on the Galatians, written a. 388, Opera, tom. vii. 486, ed. Vallarsi), but that afterwards at Bethlehem he instructed the monks in grammaticis et humanioribus (Rufinus, Apol. ii. 8), and inserted quotations from the classics in his later writings, although mostly as reminiscences of his former reading (“quasi antiqui per nebulam somnii recordamur, ” as he says in the preface above referred to), and with the obvious intent of making profane literature subservient to the Bible (comp. his Epistola xxi. ad Damasum, cap. 13). Both Jeromeand Rufinus permitted themselves to be carried by passion to exaggerated assertions at the expense of truth. Equally accurate was his knowledge of the literature of the church. Of the Latin fathers he particularly admired Tertullian for his powerful genius and vigorous style, though he could not forgive him his Montanism; after him Cyprian, Lactantius, Hilary, and Ambrose. In the Greek classics he was less at home; yet he shows acquaintance with Hesiod, Sophocles, Herodotus, Demosthenes, Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Galen. But in the Greek fathers he was well read, especially in Origen, Eusebius, Didymus, and Gregory Nazianzen; less in Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil, and other doctrinal writers.

The Hebrew he learned with great labor in his mature years; first from a converted but anonymous Jew, during his five years’ ascetic seclusion in the Syrian desert of Chalcis (374–379); afterwards in Bethlehem (about 385) from the Palestinian Rabbi Bar-Anina, who, through fear of the Jews, visited him by night.20892089   Ep. 84 ad Pammach. et Ocean. c. 3 (tom. i. 524, ed. Vallarsi): “Veni rursum Jerosolymam et Bethlehem. Quo labore, quo pretio Baraninam nocturnum babui praeceptorem! Timebat enim Judaeos, et mihi alterum exhibebat Nicodemum.” This exposed him to the foolish rumor among bigoted opponents, that he preferred Judaism to Christianity, and betrayed Christ in preference to the new “Barabbas.”20902090   So Rufinus wrested the name, with reference to Mark xv. 7. Comp. Rufinus, Apol. or Invect. ii. 12, and the answer of Jerometo these calumnies, in the Apol. adv. libros Ruf. l. i. c. 13 (tom. ii. 469). He afterwards, in translating the Old Testament, brought other Jewish scholars to his aid, who cost him dear. He also inspired several of his admiring female pupils, like St. Paula and her daughter Eustochium, with enthusiasm for the study of the sacred language of the old covenant, and brought them on so far that they could sing with him the Hebrew Psalms in praise of the Lord. He lamented the injurious influence of these studies on his style, since “the rattling sound of the Hebrew soiled all the elegance and beauty of Latin speech.”20912091   In the Preface to his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians: “Omnem sermonis elegantiam et Latini eloquii venustatem stridor Hebraicae lectionis sordidavit.” This, however, is to be understood cum grano salis. Yet, on the other hand, he was by the same means preserved from flying off into hollow and turgid ornamentations, from which his earlier writings, such as his letters to Heliodorus and Innocentius, are not altogether free. Though his knowledge of Hebrew was defective, it was much greater than that of Origen, Epiphanius, and Ephraem Syrus, the only other fathers besides himself who understood Hebrew at all; and it is the more noticeable, when we consider the want of grammatical and lexicographical helps and of the Masoretic punctuation.20922092   That there were at that time as yet no vowel-points or other diacritical signs in writing Hebrew words, has been proved against Buxtorf by L. Capellus, Morinus, and Clericus, and among modem Oriental scholars, especially by Hupfeld (Studien und Kritiken, 1830, p. 549 ff.). Comp. Zöckler, l.c. p. 345 f.

Jerome, who unfortunately was not free from vanity, prided himself not a little upon his learning, and boasted against his opponent Rufinus, that he was “a philosopher, a rhetorician, a grammarian, a dialectician, a Hebrew, a Greek, a Latin, three-tongued,” that is, master of the three principal languages of the then civilized world.20932093   Apol adv. Ruf. lib. iii. c. 6 (tom. ii. 537). His claim to be a philosopher may be questioned. In the same place he calls “papa” Epiphanius πεντάγλωττος, a man of five tongues, because besides the three chief languages he also understood the Syriac and the Egyptian or Coptic. But his knowledge of the languages was far inferior to that of Jerome. Augustineregarded Jeromeas the most learned man among all mortals.“Quod Hieronymus nescivit,” he said, “nullus mortalium unquam scivit.” Comp. also the enthusiastic praise of Erasmus, quoted § 41, p. 206, who placed him far above all the fathers; while Luther acknowledged his learning indeed, but could not bear his monastic spirit, and judged him harshly and unjustly. Comp. M. Lutheri Colloquia, ed. H. Bindseil, 1863, tom. iii. 135, 149, 193; ii. 340, 349, 357.

All these manifold and rare gifts and attainments made him an extremely influential and useful teacher of the church; for he brought them all into the service of an earnest and energetic, though monkishly eccentric piety. They gave him superior access to the sense of the Holy Scriptures, which continued to be his daily study to extreme old age, and stood far higher in his esteem than all the classics. His writings are imbued with Bible knowledge, and strewn with Bible quotations.

But with all this he was not free from faults as glaring as his virtues are shining, which disturb our due esteem and admiration. He lacked depth of mind and character, delicate sense of truth, and firm, strong convictions. He allowed himself inconsistencies of every kind, especially in his treatment of Origen, and, through solicitude for his own reputation for orthodoxy, he was unjust to that great teacher, to whom he owed so much. He was very impulsive in temperament, and too much followed momentary, changing impressions. Many of his works were thrown off with great haste and little consideration. He was by nature an extremely vain, ambitious, and passionate man, and he never succeeded in fully overcoming these evil forces. He could not bear censure. Even his later polemic writings are full of envy, hatred, and anger. In his correspondence with Augustine, with all assurances of respect, he everywhere gives that father to feel his own superiority as a comprehensive scholar, and in one place tells him that he never had taken the trouble to read his writings, excepting his Soliloquies and “some commentaries on the Psalms.” He indulged in rhetorical exaggerations and unjust inferences, which violated the laws of truth and honesty; and he supported himself in this, with a characteristic reference to the sophist Gorgias, by the equivocal distinction between the gymnastic or polemic style and the didactic.20942094   Between γυμναστικῶςscribere and δογματικῶςscribere. Ep. 48 ad Pammachium pro libris contra Jovinianum, cap. 13. From his master Cicero he had also learned the vicious rhetorical arts of bombast, declamatory fiction, and applause-seeking effects, which are unworthy of a Christian theologian, and which invite the reproach of the divine judge in that vision: “Thou liest! thou art a Ciceronian, not a Christian; for where thy treasure is, there thy heart is also.”



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