Pandemic Letter – Saint Jerome

On 30 September we will celebrate the feast of St Jerome.  Anyone who listens to, or reads the Bible, is indebted to St Jerome, as an early example of what is required, both in translating, and commenting on Sacred Scripture.

To understand St Jerome, one must understand that the Roman world was conquered intellectually and culturally by the Greeks.  The Greeks, militarily conquered by the Romans, were the intellectual and cultural conquerors of the Romans.  While the Roman armies were militarily successful, Latin language and thought was regarded as second best to that of the Greeks.  In the first century after Jesus Christ, Greek language and culture prevailed throughout the Empire, at least amongst the trading and intellectual elites.

The Jews, who were widely spread throughout the Empire, in many cases, knew only Greek.  The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible was in Greek.  The Jews were amongst early converts to Christianity.  Originally Christianity was regarded, not without reason, as a Jewish sect.  Early on, Christian leaders wrestled with the requirements of the Law established in the Torah.  St Paul deals with this in Galatians and RomansHebrews deals with the relation between the Jewish faith and the Christian faith.

For some hundreds of years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, in perhaps 30 AD, the Scriptures were read in Greek.  What we call the New Testament was written in Greek.  Yet, increasingly over time after the 1st century A.D., the mass of citizens of the Roman Empire would speak Latin.

By translating the Bible from its original sources, Hebrew and Greek, into Latin, St Jerome made the Bible available to the people in the popular (literally the vulgar tongue, and so it became known as the Vulgate).

St Jerome spent most of his life translating, while living in a community of monks, not far from where Jesus was born, what was, and is today, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem, where is to be found the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, encompassing Calvary and the tomb from which Jesus rose from the dead.  St Jerome had long since abandoned the reading of the classics in which he was superbly educated.  He was immersed in Scripture, the word of God.  St Jerome understands the subtleties of language, and various possible translations.

St Jerome understands all of Scripture in the light of Christ, whose word Scripture is.  St Jerome’s homilies, delivered ex tempore, disclose a mind totally immersed in Scripture, which brought a powerful and subtle intellect, not only to the translation of Scripture, but also to its analysis, and commentary.

St Jerome understands the unity of Scripture.  Nothing is to be understood in isolation, but every verse is to be understood in the light of God’s word as a whole.  Apparent anomalies, even apparent mistakes, are considered in the light of Scripture as a whole.  According to St Jerome, Scripture is like a necklace held together by the union of its links, so that whatever link you pick up, another suspends from it.  All of Scripture is animated, and held together by the one Spirit.

In St Jerome we see respect for both faith and reason. Where St Jerome comments on a particular passage of Scripture, he typically is aware of different possible interpretations.  He provides reasons for preferring one interpretation as opposed to another.  He is aware of the nuances of meaning of particular words and phrases.  Invariably, he will look at a particular passage in the light of other passages of Scripture, both from the Old and New Testaments, thereby providing a more profound commentary than if he were to look at a particular passage in isolation.

St Jerome goes beyond a simply literal understanding of Scripture to understand its theological depth.  Commenting on the passage in St Mark about Peter and Andrew – “at once they left their nets, and followed him” – St Jerome says that true faith does not hesitate; it responds at once, believes at once, it follows at once, becomes a fisherman of men’s souls at once.  “At once they left their nets” – they left behind the vices of the world.  It was impossible, indeed, for them to keep their nets and follow Jesus.  St Jerome urges, recognize your true Father of the soul and of the spirit, and leave your natural father.  The apostles leave their father; they leave the boat; in a moment, they leave all their wealth.  They leave the world and innumerable possessions.  They surrendered all that they had.  God does not consider the extent of property, but the disposition of the soul that renounces it; they who had given up little would have given up much, just as promptly.  St Jerome constantly provides us with a spiritual interpretation of the words of Sacred Scripture.

Illustrative of the depth of St Jerome, and his overall understanding of Scripture, which involves his reading of the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, is his homily on the following from Psalm 5:7-8:

“But I through the abundance of your merciful love will enter your house, I will worship toward your holy temple in the fear of you. Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”

St Jerome understands the house as the Church. God’s way is through reading of Holy Scripture. So, St Jerome understands the prayer of the psalmist to direct his steps in the reading of God’s Word by which he desires to enter God’s Church, so that he have Christ, the Truth, on his lips and in his heart.

Without faith, St Jerome would not have excelled as a translator, nor as a commentator on the Word of God.  St Jerome asked for constant prayer that he might translate the sacred texts “in the same Spirit by which they were written”.

Pope Francis has captured St Jerome in his Apostolic Letter Scripturae Sacrae Affectus: on the 1600th Anniversary of the Death of St Jerome.  St Jerome realised the entire Old Testament is essential for understanding the truth and riches of Christ – and Christ is indispensable for understanding the Old Testament.  St Jerome was a servant of the Word devoted to understanding the sacred deposit entrusted to us in Scripture. The meaning of Sacred Scripture is not always apparent.  So, like the Ethiopian eunuch, we need a guide to understand what we are reading. Reading Sacred Scripture will always lead us to Christ. We all need to engage in prayerful reading of the Bible. The words of Jesus – “Whoever does not eat my flesh and drink my blood” – apply to the Eucharist, but also Sacred Scripture.  At a time of great disunity in the Church, St Jerome looked to the Chair of Peter as a sure reference point:

 “As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but Your Holiness, that is, with the Chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the Church is built.”

Second Vatican Council
One of the great goods which has come from the Second Vatican Council is that ordinary Catholics have had greater access to Sacred Scripture – both in the various readings of the Mass celebrated in the vernacular, and also in the availability of Bibles, sometimes with useful introductions and commentary, without which it is often difficult to understand particular passages, or even particular books.

The Gospels are the heart of Sacred Scripture, because they are the principal source for knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Church, from the earliest time, has seen typology in the events of the Old Testament, which finds it fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.  The practice of reading a chapter from the Gospels each day is a way of coming closer to our Lord.  The Protestant emphasis on regular reading of Sacred Scripture is to be emulated.  Even culturally, this practice of daily reading of Sacred Scripture has greatly enhanced Western civilisation.

The Church regards the study of Sacred Scripture as the very soul of theology.  As St Jerome says, “ignorance of Scripture, is ignorance of Christ.”

Word of God
Sacred Scripture is the Word of God.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church comments, the Church has always venerated Scripture as she venerates Our Lord’s Body.  The Church presents to the faithful the bread of life, taken from one table of God’s Word, and Christ’s Body. 

All Lead to Christ
God is the author of Sacred Scripture, inspiring the human authors of the various books of the Bible.  These Books of Sacred Scripture teach the truth.  But, as the Catechism reminds us, Christianity is not a “religion of the book”, but the religion of the Word of God, a word which is not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.  If Scripture is not to be a dead letter, Christ must open our minds to understand the Scripture. 

In order to discover the Sacred Author’s intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. 

Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.  In reading Scripture, one must be attentive to the content and unity of scripture.  One must read Scripture within the living tradition of the Church.  One must be attentive to the analogy of faith.  By “analogy of faith” is meant the coherence of the truths of faith amongst themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation. 

In a sense, St Jerome set the stage for Biblical Studies.  St Jerome is one of the four first Doctors of the Latin Church, together with St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Gregory the Great.  We stand on the shoulders of giants.  If we are to make progress in knowledge of the Faith, St Jerome is one of those giants, to whom we must turn. 

Michael McAuley
17 September 2021