Jerome’s Holy Vulgarity

Saint Jerome (Nicholas Regnier) (christies.com)

All saints change history, often in ways that are mysterious and opaque, but at times more obviously so. Such is Saint Jerome, to whom we may attribute the first truly ‘critical’ edition of the Bible, an edito typica, an official version of the Holy Word of God.

As a youth, Jerome, Hieronmyous as he would have been known, seems to have been dissiipated, indulging in the usual hedonistic student pastimes; but he would always repent, visiting the catacombs, meditating on death, eternity and the possibility of hell. A classicist, the words of Virgil would haunt him: Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent.

His conversion is dated to about 360, give or take, leaving him many decades in labouring the Lord’s vineyard: And work he did, for after years of intense study, prayer and penance, Pope Saint Damasus I in 382 commissioned Jerome, then his secretary, to translate the first true ‘official’ Bible from the best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.

Although Jerome wrote much, commentaries, letters, treatises against heretics, not least the Pelagians who had no need of God’s grace, the Vulgate – so called for it was written in what was becoming the ‘vulgar’ or ‘common’ language of Latin, after the dominance of Greek in the early Church – was his magnum opus, for which he is best known. Jerome vigorous letters often signify what we would now mean by ‘vulgarity’, and he was not loathe to use vivid epithets to describe his opponents and their heresies, but all, we may believe, in the spirit of charity and truth. Saint Jerome is often depicted in art holding a stone with which he would beat himself, to quell his rebellious spirit; as one Pope put it, were it not for that rock, the disputatious Jerome, perhaps too aware of his own genius and gifts, would not have been canonized.

Whatever the case, the Vulgate was, to put things mildly, the work of a lifetime. Jerome eventually settled down in a cave in Bethlehem, surrounded by his manuscripts and books, with a strict regimen, supported by his benefactors, the holy women whom he helped spiritually direct, the ascetic laboured tirelessly with an intensity rarely equalled in the annals of history.

The Bible as we know it really is a Catholic book, whose origins are divine, but whose versions and translations require careful scholarship, research and Magisterial authority, and we owe much indeed to Saint Jerome. Luther would not have a Bible to translate (and truncate) were it not for Jerome. It was his version, more or less still the same, that the Council of Trent proclaimed in one of its first acts in 1546 as the official Bible which, with a further revision under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, remains so to this day.

As Saint Jerome wrote, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, for it is the very word of God Himself, adumbrating and manifesting the Word, in Whom all truth, all that God willed to reveal for our salvation, is found.