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Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies Paperback – August, 1998
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About the Author
The late J. N. D. Kelly was Principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, from 1951 to 1979. He was the author of many books, including Early Christian Creeds (1950); Early Christian Doctrines (1958); Jerome (1975); the Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1986) and Golden Mouth (1995).
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Top Customer Reviews
The difficulty of the biography is inherent in the diversity of Jerome's life. He spent time living in both the eastern and western empires, and he lived through a remarkable series of transitions in church and empire. He was educated in Rome in the middle of the fourth century. He spent two years with the desert fathers in Syria. He lived in Antioch during the time when the church in Antioch was divided among three factions. Returning to Rome, he became Bible teacher and spiritual advisor to a group of highly educated upper class Roman women. From there, he returned to the east, establishing a new monastery in Bethlehem, where one of the women he knew in Rome (Paula) established a convent. His life spanned a time frame from 331 to 420, ranging from a time of persecution, through controversy over the views of Arians, Origen and Pelagius, and through the siege of Rome in 410. He held opinions about St. Ambrose (whom he hated), St. John Chrysostom (a follower of a different bishop in Antioch and thus an adversary), and St. Augustine (who sought out Jerome through letters, taking great care to avoid offending the temperamental but warm hearted Jerome, and who encountered conflict nonetheless but eventually became a close friend and ally against the Pelagians).
Kelly did an admirable job of assembling information from Jerome's extensive writings and from other historians' earlier work about Jerome. His book is remarkably well written and detailed, and it is nonetheless concise.
However, in the process of covering Jerome's life and thought in so few pages, Kelly necessarily omitted much background material. Some of Jerome's life would seem almost nonsensical without knowing more of the historical context than is given in this biography. For example, Kelly described Jerome as moving into a Syrian desert monastic community with his ever expanding library and a group of copyists. To someone with a familiarity with the Egyptian desert hermits, thinking of them as solitaries who only interacted with each other on Sunday, that might sound preposterous. However, the Syrian monks of the same era were more communal than those in Egypt, meeting together every day for prayer. Kelly did not offer the pages of explanation of the desert fathers and mothers that would have helped to make sense of that.
Similarly, Kelly devoted limited space to background information about the Roman education system. Kelly explained that Jerome would have studied rhetoric, and that he probably learned little Greek and little philosophy while in Rome. Later, Kelly discussed Paula, Marcella, and other upper class Roman ladies who were educated in the Latin and Greek poets and the Bible, and at least some of whom decided to learn Hebrew so that they could chant the Psalms in the original language. A more thorough discussion of the Roman education system of that day would have helped to make more sense of both Jerome's and the women's lives.
Similarly, Kelly provided fairly limited information about monasticism in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and about the siege of Rome in 410.
However, if Kelly had included background material to explain fourth and early fifth century Rome, Antioch, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, desert fathers and mothers, and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he would have produced a book of at least the length of Peter Brown's biography of St. Augustine or Homes Dudden's 2 volume biography of St. Ambrose. Whether there would have been a market for another such lengthy biography of a fourth century saint is uncertain.
Kelly's work is complete and detailed in covering information unique to Jerome. The absence of background material is not disappointing if it is read together with - or after - other authors who have covered that background. Some of these can be found in Kelly's detailed footnotes. Others include biographies of other fourth century church fathers, including Peter Brown's biography of St. Augustine and Homes Dudden's biography of St. Ambrose. Other helpful sources of background information include recent books about desert monasticism, such as Joseph Patrich, "Sabas, Leader of Palestinian Monasticism: A Comparative Study in Eastern Monasticism, Fourth to Seventh Centuries" (Dumbarton Oaks Studies, No 32, 1995).
The Hendrickson edition, by the way, is a very nice reprint, with a gorgeous cover.
Jerome was also quite prickley. He heaped verbal abuse on his opponents that made me cringe. And his exegesis tended toward plagiarism of Origen and heavy allegory. I don't have any of his commentaries, but since I'm not a big fan of Origen or allegory, I probably wouldn't like them.
Still, it interesting to read about such an important and influential historical figure. If you want to learn about Jerome, I recommend this book.
Jerome struggled with the passions and he hints some of those were sexual in nature (cf Letter 22.7). Unlike other monks who engaged in more bodily deprivations, Jerome found deliverance in learning a new language: Hebrew (Kelly 50, quoting letter 125).
Besides his translations and commnetaries, Jerome's key legacy to the church is his collection of letters. In them we see his response to a wide variety of pious practices. And Jerome's response is usually the same: study Scripture, commit to celibacy, and if you aren't on his good side, you get called names. It's funny, though.
Other aspects of his life were tragic. The fallout with Rufinus was unnecessary, since neither of the men held to Origen's heresies and both of the men acknowledged his spirituality.
This book isn't as key as Kelly's bio on Chrysostom, simply because Chrysostom is a much more important individual. Still, a wonderful biography.