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On the Kalendar: Jerome, Presbyter, Doctor

September from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“September”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

Jerome is one of the greatest theologians of the Church. Born in the middle of the fourth century in a village on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia (Roman provinces on the Adriatic coast), he was a protégé of Pope Damasus I. He wrote extensive commentaries on the Bible. He was also a noted historian and hagiographer (i.e., a biographer of saints or other ecclesiastically important people). He was also a prodigious letter writer.

But the work for which Jerome is most known and honoured is his translation of the Bible. Jerome knew Latin and Greek, but his Hebrew was lacking, so he moved to Jerusalem to learn the language and become familiar with Jewish scripture commentary. Previous to Jerome’s work, translations of the Old Testament had been based on the Septuagint, a project by a group of 70 (or 72) Jewish scholars in the third century B.C. The project, sponsored by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, translated the Hebrew Tanakh into Greek, which was the lingua franca of the time. This was particularly important for Jews in the Diaspora, many of whom no longer spoke Hebrew and couldn’t read scripture in the original language. Jerome based his Old Testament translation on the original Hebrew texts, and he also corrected the existing Latin translation of the New Testament (known as the Vetus Latina). (It should be remembered that the New Testament was originally written in Greek.)

Jerome’s translation is known as the Vulgate, because it was a translation into the “common” or “vulgar” language. It has remained the most prominent and widely accepted Latin version of scripture to this day.

A note on Jerome’s letters: Jerome had a reputation for being quite a polemicist. As John Buckler writes: “Jerome employed caustic and even disreputable abuse, his opponents generally being branded fools, charlatans, heretics, or all three. He was particularly adept at disparaging his opponents’ literary style, which was all the more effective because he of all the church fathers wrote a Latin that was almost classically pure. (Encyclopedia of Religion)” Jerome would feel quite at home on the internet.

Jerome’s feast day is 30 September.

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