Tuesday, 30 September 2014

St Jerome, or "why the moderns don't always know best"

"Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls." Jeremiah 6.16

One of the many infuriating things about me when I was younger, and for all I know perhaps remains so, was my conviction that modern ways are best. Not that I was alone: it's pretty common for moderns to laugh off and dismiss older ways as backward or regressive. Nor is it anything new. Today's saint, Jerome, suffered the fate of the traditionalist. 

Active at the turn of the fourth century, Jerome went through the not uncommon route to sainthood of a pious upbringing, a period of youthful and wanton depravity, repentance, conversion, priesthood and devotion to the study and teaching of the faith. In this, he was much like his contemporary Augustine, with whom he did not always get on. They could both be pretty irascible. 

If Augustine's greatest contributions to Christian thought were in doctrine and ecclesiology (the theology of the structure of the Church), Jerome's was to Scripture, of which he was a profound, sensitive and learned exponent. In his lifetime, Jerome mastered Latin - his native tongue was Illyrian - Greek and Hebrew, and translated the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New into Latin, the common (in Latin, 'vulgatus')  language of the time. His 'Vulgate' Bible became the authoritative edition and was unchallenged until the Reformation. 

The Reformers, of course, knew better. They had rediscovered the 'original' Greek in manuscripts newly brought from the East, and had for the first time since in the West before the Dark Ages mastered enough Greek to translate them. They found that the 'original' differed in many respects from Jerome's, and in ways which were conducive to their new Protestant thinking. So, they ditched Jerome. 

The problem was, their 'original' Greek manuscripts were actually 11th or 12th century editions, whereas Jerome back in 382 was comparing several different versions whose pedigree he checked exactingly. It was not until the rediscovery of some of those ancient manuscripts in the 19th century that scholars realised that in many cases, Jerome was right and the Reformers were wrong. 

This is just one example of how arrogant views of the past can lead to error. We still live with it today, in a Church divided by errors of doctrine caused by the arrogance of those who thought they knew better. A good day, then, to pray for unity in the Church and to thank God for the work of those saints who truly lead us into His truth. 

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