Christian History Home > Blog > 2009 > July > Why St. Jerome Is an Icon for Our Times
Why St. Jerome Is an Icon for Our Times
The thunderbolt of Bethlehem struggled with the need to synthesize classical learning and Christian truth. So did the brightest lights of the Renaissance and Reformation. And so do Christians today.
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Guest blogger James Edwards is Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington. He is the author of The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (Eerdmans, September 2009). Dr. Edwards is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a contributing editor to Christianity Today magazine.
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If you spend any time in the great art museums of Europe you will see with surprising frequency a more or less stylized portrait of an emaciated monk in a wilderness den, often pummeling his body with a stone. I have been interested in this figure for a number of years, but rarely have I seen other museum visitors recognize or relate to the subject. The monk who captured the imagination of the Renaissance painters is St. Jerome, who lived from 345 to 420. I believe that Jerome should capture our imagination as well, and serve as an icon of our times.
In nearly all the portraits, Jerome is depicted as a tormented ascetic, praying, with his four hallmarks somewhere on the canvas: a crucifix, a skull (symbolizing meditation on mortality), a recumbent lion (which Jerome reputedly befriended by extracting a thorn from its paw and which may symbolize the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11), and a red cardinal's hat (symbolizing Jerome's status, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, as one of the four great doctors of the Latin church).
Before considering why Renaissance painters memorialized Jerome in this way, let me summarize his life.
Born in Dalmatia (modern Croatia), Jerome became a prolific scholar, translator, biblical exegete, and father of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Augustine remains better known than Jerome, but even Augustine envied Jerome's scholarly prowess, especially his mastery of Greek and Hebrew.
Jerome studied at Rome, traveled to Gaul (France), and in his late twenties became a monk in Syria, where for five years he learned Hebrew from a Jew. He was ordained a priest in Antioch, and then went to Constantinople where he entered the theological galaxy of Gregory of Nazianzus, who was Patriarch of Constantinople; Gregory of Nyssa; and Amphilochius of Iconium. In 382 he was back in Rome as the secretary of Pope Damasus, where he made the friendship of Ambrose, bishop of Milan. From Damasus he received a commission to do what perhaps no other scholar of the day was capable of doing: to translate the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into Latin, which had become the lingua franca of the day.
Completed in 406, Jerome's Latin Vulgate ranks with the Septuagint as one of the most influential translations of all time. Jerome had hoped - and he probably had a right - to succeed Damasus as pope, but he was passed over.
In disappointment he left for the East with a widow named Paula, and her daughter Eustochium. They arrived in Jerusalem in 385, and from thence journeyed to Egypt where Jerome entered briefly into the monastic settlement of Didymus the Blind. A year later, Jerome, Paula, and Eustochium returned to Bethlehem where they founded one male and three female monastic communities. For the last three decades of his life, Jerome's quasi-monastic cell, which today is commemorated beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, was a prodigious epicenter of exegesis, translation, hermeneutics, and history. He made supreme use of the great library in Caesarea founded by Origen and resourced by Pamphilus and Eusebius. He chronicled the history of Christianity to his day, wrote commentaries on many books in the Old and New Testaments, and contended vigorously for orthodoxy against Origenism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and Rufinus.
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