Essay / On This Day


For St. Jerome (347-420). His full name was Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus, and he died on this day (September 30); A bit of jangly rhyming from Phyllis McGinley’s Saint-Watching:

God’s angry man, His crotchety scholar,
Was Saint Jerome,
The great name-caller,
Who cared not a dime
For the laws of libel
And in his spare time
Translated the Bible.

Quick to disparage
All joys but learning,
Jerome thought marriage
Better than burning;
But didn’t like woman’s
Painted cheeks;
Didn’t like Romans,
Didn’t like Greeks,
Hated Pagans
For their Pagan ways,
Yet doted on Cicero all his days.

A born reformer, cross and gifted
He scolded mankind
Sterner than Swift did;
Worked to save
The world from the Heathen;
Fled to a cave
For peace to breathe in,
Promptly wherewith
For miles around
He filled the air with
Fury and sound.

In mighty prose
For almighty ends,
He thrust at his foes,
Quarreled with his friends,
And served his Master,
Though with complaint.
He wasn’t a plaster
Sort of saint.

But he swelled men’s minds
With a Christian leaven.
It takes all kinds
To make a heaven.

Jerome was a scholar, a trilingual genius who decided to take the Old Testament straight from Hebrew to Latin, bypassing the Greek filter of the Septuagint. This was controversial at the time, and Jerome was never good at staying out of a fight. He knew what he was getting into: “With my eyes wide open, I thrust my hand into the flame,” he said of undertaking the translation. Partly he meant it was very hard work to learn idiomatic Hebrew well enough to translate it into the very different Latin tongue; but partly he knew he was courting controversy by deviating from the ancient Septuagint, which had come to be considered all but inspired throughout Christendom. Jerome won this battle, and even Augustine ended up accepting Jerome’s view late in life. Jerome’s Vulgate triumphed, and it deserved to.

McGinley’s poem may make a bit too much of his irascibility, but Jerome did manage to pick fights with just about everybody (including Ambrose and Augustine). Partly this was because he had a mind for what mattered, and he got himself involved in things worth fighting about. Partly it was because he changed his own mind about things (the value of the Septuagint, the influence of Origen, the relative status of marriage and celibacy, etc.) and had to keep arguing with people who still thought what he used to think himself. But partly it was because he was grumpy. How could the patron saint of scholars and translators be any other way?

Share this essay [social_share/]