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Jerome and the Vulgate

Watch Week Six, Day Three

Now let’s turn to another church father of the fourth century—one whose impact on modern Christianity is also incalculable: Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, the language of the people. You can’t get far into looking at Jerome’s life before getting a sense of his strong personality. Centuries later, one of the things Jerome is most remembered for was offending friend and foe alike with his colorful insults. But beneath his rough exterior, Jerome passionately loved the Lord and spent his life serving the church through his scholarship.

rebellious youth

In a small town called Strido in the Northeastern part of Italy, Jerome was born into a wealthy Christian family around 348. When he was old enough, his parents sent him to Rome for his higher education. Students in the mid-fourth century acted similarly to college students today, and Jerome was no exception. At the center of the empire, he found plenty of opportunity to indulge in temptation—something he would deeply regret later in life. In Rome, he also fell in love with the classics. While he eventually felt conflicted about admiring secular works so highly, they still had a profound impact on his own work.

At about the age of twenty, Jerome left for Gaul. While traveling he and his companions fell extremely ill. Two of his friends died. While he lay on his sickbed, Jerome had a vision that prompted him to renounce his secular career and devote his life to God. He returned home and dedicated himself to an ascetic life (a life of intentional poverty) and the study of Scripture.

the surly scholar

After this change of direction, Jerome felt the need to escape the city and its temptation. He fled to the Syrian desert in 373, reasoning that to fight his temptations toward sexual sin he needed to fill his mind with something else. He settled on learning Hebrew and continuing his studies in Greek. This strategy succeeded, and he returned to civilization a few years later.

In 381 he took part in the Council of Constantinople and studied with Gregory of Nazianzus while there. Afterwards, he returned to Rome where Bishop Damasus befriended him and appointed him his secretary. Damasus planted the seed that would grow into the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, by charging Jerome to complete a new translation of portions of Scripture into Latin, the language of the people.

Due to his surly disposition, Jerome had few, if any, male friends. He quickly insulted those who disagreed with him. Upon his return to Rome, Jerome found community among a group of noble women. They became his disciples and he taught some of them Greek and Hebrew.

When Damasus died, Jerome found himself without his chief protector and surrounded by those he had offended due to his lack of tact. He decided to return east to Bethlehem with two of the women from his circle, Paula and her daughter Eustochium.

translating the vulgate

Paula had independent wealth. So when they arrived in Bethlehem, they set up two monastic communities, one for women under Paula’s direction and another for men under Jerome. It was during this time period that Jerome set himself to the laborious task of translating all of the Scriptures into Latin.

While the previous Latin translation had used the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, Jerome went back to the original Hebrew. When the first copies of the Vulgate were published, they caused an uproar because Jerome had translated some well-known passages with a slightly different, though still accurate wording, much like the variation between our translations today. After hearing one translation for so long, readers were surprised by the differences in translation. Eventually though, the Vulgate came to be the standard text for the church for well over a thousand years.

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