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WHO IS ST. JEROME?



347 A.D. - 420 A.D.

Like any good translator, Jerome had a flair for languages. He was "trilingual." He could speak, write and understand Latin, Greek, and Hebrew-something that few others could do.

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Jerome also studied Aramaic and could read it competently, but he admitted having a problem with pronunciation. He could speak Syrian and had some acquaintance with Arabic.

What made Jerome the logical choice for the pope's commission in addition to his linguistic competence in the languages of the East was his training in the Latin classics. He began his study of rhetoric in Rome when he was a boy of 12. Donatus, his teacher, was a famous Latin grammarian.

Jerome seems to have reproached himself later in life for the secular color of his education. He wrote that he spent his youth in the company of grammarians, rhetoricians and philosophers. He once had a nightmare in which he saw himself before the judgment seat of God, who asked Jerome, "Who are you?" Jerome replied, "A Christian," but God corrected him: "You are a liar. You are not a Christian but a Ciceronian."

When Jerome awoke, he promised to read the books of God with greater fervor than he devoted his study of "the books of men." Jerome was uniquely prepared to translate the Scriptures into Latin because he was both a Christian and a Ciceronian. The touch of an outstanding linguist and scholar-like the Roman Cicero-was sorely needed.

Jerome fulfilled his commission by producing a revision of the Gospels. He took care to concern himself not only with his literary craft but also with his own moral response to the Gospel. He must have enjoyed his work because he produced a Latin translation of the Psalms and a few Old Testament books, too. This experience led Jerome to commit himself to a project that occupied him for more than 20 years and proved to be his lasting claim to fame: the translation of other parts of the Bible from the original languages into Latin.

In the case of the Old Testament, Jerome decided that his translation had to consider the Hebrew version of the books. He could not rely on the Septuagint alone. This was not an easy or popular decision. Christians accorded a high status to the Septuagint. Many thought that this Greek version of the Old Testament was itself inspired, making any reference to the Hebrew version unnecessary. Jerome disagreed.

At a time when there were conscious efforts to distance the Church from its Jewish background, Jerome not only went to the Hebrew Bible, but also sought help with difficult texts from Jews. In particular, Jerome acknowledged his debt to his Jewish teachers for helping him with the Book of Job whose Hebrew is difficult.

The result of efforts to provide a new Latin translation of the Bible is popularly known as the Vulgate, a word derived from the Latin and meaning "common" or "commonly known." But Jerome was not responsible for the Vulgate as it has come down to us. The only New Testament books he worked on were the Gospels. It is natural to assume that, after completing his work on the Gospels, Jerome would have then turned to the rest of the New Testament, but there is little evidence that he did. After he published his revision of the Old Latin Gospels, Jerome turned to the Old Testament. In the course of 15 years of work, Jerome translated all the books of the Hebrew Bible.

Jerome was more than a translator of the Bible. He was a gifted interpreter as well. His major contribution was a series of commentaries on the prophets. At first, Jerome followed the approach common in his day. For example, his commentary on Obadiah was allegorical. He ignored the historical dimensions of the prophet's words and focused on a spiritual interpretation that sought to edify readers.

While Jerome never completely abandoned allegorical interpretation, his work as a translator led him to appreciate the historical and literal approach more. He sought to understand the biblical text in its original cultural and historical setting. Many students of the Bible find Jerome's commentaries still helpful.

There is no other person who has had greater influence on the way Catholics read the Bible than St. Jerome. He had worried that his influence would be restricted to aesthetics rather than to faith. His worries were groundless because Jerome was a sincere believer who used his talent and education to help other believers find, as he did, that the Scriptures are the Word of God-the word of life.

Jerome traveled extensively in Palestine, marking each spot of Christ's life with an outpouring of devotion. Mystic that he was, he spent five years in the desert of Chalcis so that he might give himself up to prayer, penance and study. Finally he settled in Bethlehem where he lived in the cave believed to have been the birthplace of Christ.

On September 30, 420, Jerome died in Bethlehem. [His feast is now celebrated on September 30.]


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