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Jerome: a model scholar?

The Renaissance vision of Jerome (c. 347-420 AD), as depicted by Albrecht Dürer in a world-famous engraving of 1514, seems to represent an ideal type of the scholar: secluded in the desert, far removed from the bustle of ordinary life (with a lion to prove it), well-established in his institution (as shown by the cardinal’s hat), and devoted to his studies. However, even a casual reader of Jerome’s letters and pamphlets can see that the reality was much more tumultuous. Jerome left Rome for Bethlehem in 384 AD not out of pious devotion but because of a feud with the Roman clergy, who resented his ascetic programme. Even his Hebrew biblical translations, which would later form the core of the authoritative Latin version of the Catholic Church, were frowned upon by contemporaries, including Augustine, who upheld the sacred status of the Greek Septuagint. Moreover, Jerome’s close attachment to a rich and noble Roman widow, Paula, had given rise to salacious gossip. What sort of model can such a man be?

John Norman Davidson Kelly’s classic biography, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies, depicts him as a quarrelsome man rarely at peace with himself and whose writings were often produced in a rush and could be severely lacking in tact. A case in point is the attack against the priest Jovinian in 393 AD, who had dared to claim that Christian virgins were not automatically superior in holiness to Christian married women. Jerome’s exaggerated and aggressive response caused embarrassment even to his supporters, who had urged him to respond to Jovinian’s claim in the first place. To us, his text reads like a choice piece of misogyny, the sort which many still associate with the Catholic Church. Yet at the time, the official church failed to embrace his stance. More interestingly, many of Jerome’s arguments in favour of celibacy have their roots in the classical–that is to say, the ‘pagan’– tradition, which abounds in misogynistic treatises raging against marriage. In short, anyone who was prepared to be offended could find something to offend in Jerome.

But is there a way to combine Dürer’s idealised picture of Jerome with the one outlined by Kelly? Andrew Cain’s monograph, The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity, has taught us how to read Jerome’s often immodest and immoderate statements. They are in fact part of a deliberate strategy to advertise his abilities as a writer and his authority as an ascetic scholar as widely as possible. Cain shows that, for Jerome, it was an essential necessity to attract patrons and sponsors if he wanted to continue his monastic life. He had little wealth of his own and even the vast resources of his friend Paula dried up in the process of supporting Jerome and maintaining the Bethlehem monastery they had founded together. Jerome’s outrageous provocations can be seen as part of a wider effort to draw attention to himself and his projects. It appears that there were just enough people at the time with an interest–political or otherwise–in feeding this particular type of troll.

The taste for Jerome’s opinions and the way in which he expressed them kept changing with the times. He presented a model for the twelfth-century maverick Abelard in his autobiographical Historia Calamitatum, as well as for the less excitable Erasmus of Rotterdam. More recently, Jerome’s feast day on 30 September 1980 was ‘demoted’ from a ‘Lesser Festival’ to a mere ‘Commemoration’ in the festival calendar of the Church of England. Now a well-publicised campaign has been started by Andrew Lenox-Conyngham to restore his former status to Jerome. The aim is to honour his lasting literary and scholarly achievements despite the fact that he was ‘not, perhaps, a very pleasant character.’

Looking back at Dürer’s engraving, we appear to witness a scene of utter serenity, but what Jerome is actually writing we cannot see. Knowing the explosive content of his work, we may wish to re-interpret the blaze around the saint’s head. Conversely, and without too much of a contradiction, we can argue that his fiery rhetoric was not necessarily a sign of fundamental psychological derangement. It may instead have been a calculated attempt to keep himself in the public eye while continuing with the slow, patient work of translating and commenting on the Bible. If we look at him in this light, Jerome appears to have proceeded exactly as the modern funding regime now demands of many scholars: plying a solid, laborious craft to create lasting work while producing a steady stream of funding applications along with evidence of his impact.

Image Credit: “Saint Jerome in his Study” by Albrecht Dürer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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