Church History I
First Baptist Church Dandridge
Dr. Justin Terrell
In what’s been called “the golden age” of the early church fathers, the 4th and 5th centuries produced some of the richest theology, apologetics, and preaching in church history. During this time, different figures emerged who are remembered for their individual achievements, such as John Chrysostom for preaching, Athanasius for his theological insight, and Ambrose for his boldness with authorities. But if there was a patristic giant known for his scholarship it was Jerome. It’s been noted that outside of Augustine of Hippo, Jerome had the most fame and influence among Western Christians throughout the Middle Ages (Needham, 286). He is remembered as the most accomplished Christian scholar of the early church.
- Early Life
- Birth: Jerome was born in A.D. 348, to a wealthy Christian family in at Stridonia, a small town in the northeastern corner of Italy, which is located today between Croatia and Slovenia. Because of his elevated maturity, it has been said that Jerome was “born an old man” (Gonzalez, 201), as someone way ahead of his time as he was being raised.
- Education: From an early age, Jerome loved classical education – logic, rhetoric, and philosophy. However, he became burdened when he discovered that much of what he was learning was based on pagan traditions rather than Christian principles, and he considered such an academic pursuit as sinful. During this struggle, he had a dream one night that he was standing before God in the final judgment. He was asked, “Who are you?” He responded, “I am a Christian.” However, the Judge declared, “You lie. You are a Ciceronian” (Cicero was a pagan scholar). Being unnerved by this dream, he resolved to devote himself fully to the study of Scripture and of Christian literature (Gonzalez, 202). He was baptized in Rome in A.D. 370.
- Monasticism: As Jerome grew in his walk with the Lord, one struggle he faced was the temptation of sexual sin. To help overcome this issue, in AD 372, he made the decision to take a journey through the Middle East, where he would finally settle as a monk in the Syrian desert. He thought that he could overcome his fleshly temptations by living the rigid and disciplined life of monasticism. However, he confessed, even after living thousands of miles away from his homeland, he was “followed by his dreams and by the memories of dancers in Rome” (Gonzalez, 202).
- Hebrew: But not everything about the monastic life was in vain. While in the Syrian desert, in an effort to replace his mind with something besides the temptations back in Rome, he decided to study the ancient Hebrew language. Even though the strange alphabet and grammar seemed strange and “barbaric,” he believed that since the Old Testament was first written in Hebrew, the language must be divine. His education in Hebrew set him apart from many other Christians at the time because few people had ever learned the ancient language of the Jews. However, learning the Hebrew language would pay enormous dividends later in his life.
- Presbyter: After three years living as a monk, Jerome made the decision to return to civilization. He found his way to the church in Antioch, where he was appointed as a presbyter. Then he traveled to Constantinople and studied theology under the great Cappadocian father, Gregory of Nazianzus, who was bishop of Constantinople.
- Vulgate: Following his theological training under Gregory, Jerome traveled to Rome where bishop Damasus made him is private secretary and encouraged him to continue studying and writing. It was here that Damasus asked Jerome to prepare a new Latin translation of the Bible. There were several popular translations circulating at the time, but none of them were considered really good. So, Jerome began a fresh translation of the Greek New Testament and of the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. This work began in Rome and took twenty-three years to complete. When he finished in AD 405, this massive scholarly work was called the “Vulgate.” The name “Vulgate” comes from the Latin word for “common,” because this translation was destined to be “the common Bible,” the one most common in use. The Vulgate would become the accepted translation of the Western church until the Reformation of the 16th century.
- Septuagint: One of the reasons that Jerome translated the original Hebrew Scriptures was that the current translations of the Old Testament were based on a Greek translation of the Bible called the “Septuagint.” The word Septuagint literally means “seventy,” because it was believed that seventy or seventy-two scholars were commissioned by the Greek Pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy, to translate the Torah from Biblical Hebrew to Greek for inclusion in the Library of Alexandria. As legend has it, the king placed each of the scholars in a different room to translate, and when they were all finished, each translation was identical from the other. Such perfection was a “supernatural sign” that this Greek translation was divinely inspired.
- Controversy: However, Jerome noticed that the Septuagint contained certain books that were not found in the Hebrew Old Testament. These extra books are known as the “Apocrypha,” which is Greek for “hidden things.” The name was given because these particular books were not read out in public worship, and the church did not consider them to be on the same level as the rest of Scripture. Each of the fourteen additional books were written during the 400 year intertestamental period, which Jews considered as non-inspired and non-canonical. Therefore, Jerome argued that Christians must accept as part of the authentic Old Testament only those books which the Jews included in the Hebrew Old Testament, and must reject the extra books in the Septuagint (Modern Protestants use the Hebrew Old Testament as Jerome defined it; however, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1546) decreed that the apocrypha was divinely inspired and part of the Old Testament, even anathematizing all who disagreed!). The Apocrypha books include 1-2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Rest of Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Manasseh, Epistle of Jeremiah, Ecclesiasticus, 1-2 Maccabees.
- Reception: While the new translation was generally received well, some were disturbed that their favorite texts had been changed. Others debated whether the Septuagint should be abandoned because it was the result of a “supernatural” event. However, the Vulgate would become the standard Latin text for the next 1000 years.
- Reforms: While he was in Rome, Jerome led many of the Roman aristocracy to practice various elements of the monastic life. Local pagans were astonished to see these wealthy and prestigious Romans give away large sums of their fortunes to the poor and transform their massive homes in humble monasteries. However, when Jerome began calling out local clergy for their low moral standards, they responded with criticism and mockery. Such a response led Jerome to mock them in return, using both public speech and writing.
- Character Flaws: It’s been said that while he gave up following pagan scholars and authors in his younger years, their crude style would pervade his speaking and writing for the rest of his life. Even as a distinguished scholar, he was often remembered as one who sought revenge over enemies, always wanted the last word, enjoyed embarrassing people through debate, and had little patience for those who got in his way. Gonzalez remarked, “Although he was known as ‘St. Jerome,’ he was not one of those saints who are granted in this life the joy of God’s peace. His holiness was not humble, peaceful, and sweet, but rather proud, stormy, and even bitter. He always strove to be more human than human, and therefore had little patience for those who appeared indolent, or who dared criticize him.”
- Refuge: After many back-and-fourths with the locals, bishop Damasus finally died, and Jerome no longer had special protections and privileges. As a result, he fled Rome with a band of disciples and traveled to Jerusalem. From AD 386 onward, Jerome lived out the rest of his life in a monastery in Bethlehem. He opened a school for the children of the neighborhood. He produced many scholarly commentaries on the different books of the Bible, and translated a number of important Greek theological writings into Latin. He would take part in critical controversies, such as the Pelagian controversy, where he assisted Augustine in his battle with Pelagius of Palestine.
- Paula: While he was in Rome, Jerome found a great deal of help from a group of wealthy and devout women who lived in the palace of a widow named Albina. In this home lived her widowed daughter, Marcella, Ambrose’s sister, Marcellina, and a female scholar named Paula, who was joined by her daughter, Eustochium. Jerome visited the home regularly, teaching these ladies the Bible, along with Greek and Hebrew. After Jerome left for Bethlehem, Paula and Eustochium followed. Jerome and Paula would work together to open two monastic homes, one for men and one for women. In all, Paula would open three nunneries. However, there was never a hint of immorality or romantic attraction between them.
- Death: Paula died in AD 404, and Jerome felt alone and desolate. By AD 420, Jerome was sick and almost blind, and went on to die in Bethlehem.