Four hundred years after the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an aged monk named Jerome spent the final decades of his life in a small cave, known today as “Jerome’s Grotto.” Although the life and legacy of Saint Jerome is shrouded by the mists of fifteen hundred years of history, there are many authentic facts that we can learn about his life and many genuine contributions that we can appreciate.
Many Protestants have a natural distaste for Saint Jerome because of the highly elevated status that his memory holds in traditional Roman Catholic hagiography. At the Council of Trent, the Roman Church upheld the Latin Vulgate of 1590 to be authoritative. This was a major revision of Jerome’s work, and such recognition should not make the Protestant Christian shy away from acknowledging the vast and important achievements of this early Hebraist and scholar of the Old Testament. Although Jerome is most famous for the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin, his life was a varied and interesting pilgrimage that began in the Roman province of Dalmatia, continued to the vast and populous city of Rome, to the blazing deserts of Syria, the hallowed streets and sepulchers of Jerusalem, and finally to the quiet village of Bethlehem.
Jerome was born in the Roman province of Dalmatia sometime around 340 A.D. His parents were reputed to be wealthy Romans who inclined strongly to the Christian faith. Although the family were Christians, they sent their son to the city of Rome to study under a celebrated heathen Roman grammarian named Aelius Donatus. Under the tutorship of this scholar, he learned both Latin and Greek. Sadly, he also apostatized from the Christian faith. His exposure to Roman and Greek literature taught him pagan philosophies and exposed him to the immoralities of Roman culture. He lost both his faith and his chastity, and indulged in all the vices of the immoral society of Rome.
His immorality burdened him with guilt, knowing the piety of his Christian parents. To appease his conscience, Jerome would frequently go to visit the tombs of the martyrs in the dark corridors of the catacombs beneath the streets of Rome. Here he reflected on the temporary tortures of these Christian martyrs and the eternal glory that awaited these martyrs in heaven. By contrast he saw that his own life of temporal pleasure was destined for an eternity of fire and brimstone in hell.
At the age of thirty, Jerome was finally brought to repentance. He renounced his life of ungodliness and sensual pleasure, and sought peace and pardon through the Lord Jesus Christ. He was baptized as a believer in Rome in the year 370. This was the era of the growth of asceticism and monasteries. Caught up in the ascetic zeal of the age, he renounced the world and all the pleasures of it, burned his pagan books, forsook his heathen scholarship, and applied himself to a rigid study of the Bible.
Jerome traveled to Antioch in Syria, and associated himself with a group of strict monks who inhabited the barren wasteland of the Chalcis Desert in northern Syria. Here, Jerome lived in a cave cut off from the pleasures of the world. It was from this period of his life that an oft-repeated story emerged of a lion that had a thorn in his paw approaching Jerome to find relief. Jerome reputedly pulled out the thorn, and the lion befriended the monk and attended him for the rest of his days.
Alas, Jerome found out the hard lesson that many monks in a similar situation have discovered. A man can remove himself from sin, but he cannot remove sin from his heart. Even in his remote cave, Jerome was tormented by temptations. He imagined himself back in Rome, enjoying the pleasures of sin again. Helpless, Jerome cast himself at the feet of the Lord Jesus, seeking righteousness only in the mercy of Christ. He began an intensive study of the Scriptures, desiring to learn Hebrew that he might better understand the Bible in its original language. He met a converted Jew and began learning Hebrew. A few early fragments of the Gospels written in Hebrew were translated by Jerome from Hebrew into Greek.
Throughout his long life, Jerome traveled back and forth from the East to the West several times. After his days in Syria, he journeyed to Constantinople and plunged himself into the heart of the Arian controversy. His skill as a translator became widely known, and he translated some Greek theological works into Latin for the benefit of the west. Damascus I, the Bishop of Rome, became a close friend, and he invited Jerome back to Rome to undertake scholarly projects for the benefit of the church. Jerome revised the Latin Gospels and also published an updated version of the Latin Psalter.
A wealthy Roman lady named Paula became Jerome’s patron. She provided Jerome with the funds needed to undertake the project of traveling to Jerusalem, perfecting his knowledge of Hebrew, and translating the Old Testament directly from Hebrew into Latin. After exploring the land of the Bible for many months, taking in the scenes of Old Testament history, Jerome lived for a time in Jerusalem. In 386, Jerome took up residence at a monastery in Jerusalem. Here, Jerome labored night and day to finish what he knew was the greatest project of his life, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. From time to time, he was distracted by literary controversies. He even engaged in a debate with Augustine over what was the proper exegesis of the discussion between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2:14. However, he took Augustine’s side in the controversy against Pelagius concerning free will.
In spite of these minor distractions, Jerome finished his translation work after almost two decades of labor in 405 A.D. For the rest of his life, he lived in his grotto near the birthplace of the Savior. He operated a “hospital” (more like a modern hotel) and gave food and shelter to any pilgrim that sought refuge in Bethlehem.
In 410, the city of Rome was destroyed by the Visigoths. Many of the Roman nobility, knowing of Jerome’s hospital in Bethlehem, fled to take refuge there under his care. For many years, Jerome’s only food consisted of small loaves of barley. It is believed that Jerome suffered from a Vitamin A deficiency for most of his life. He lost his eyesight in his final days and finally died of fever at the age of 80.
The remains of St. Jerome were and still are venerated all across Europe by the superstitious. But Jerome’s spiritual legacy is one that every true Christian can appreciate. He taught the church the value of Biblical scholarship, of an accurate translation, and of the faithful exegesis of the Hebrew and Greek originals.
History of the Christian Church: Volume Three by Philip Schaff