Origen, Jerome, and their books

A man once told me that in 1959 he picked up a magazine off the table to read and suddenly realized that he should invest his extra time in study of Scripture rather than other “superfluous” literature . He claims not to have read anything else since, and that I should reconsider how I invest my time. Let me also say that this man is one of the godliest and most biblically knowledgeable men I have ever met. But let me also say that I do not share his conviction.

According to Megan Williams’sThe Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship, the early church fathers Origen and Jerome had vastly different approaches to the relationship of literary scholarship to “sacred studies.” She provides the following anecdote from Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History concerning Origen’s abandonment of his library when he devoted himself to sacred studies:

Deeming the teaching of grammar discordant with training in divine learning, without hesitation he ceased to engage in grammatical studies, which he now held to be unprofitable and opposed to holy erudition. Then, having come to the conclusion that he ought not to depend on the support of others, he gave away all of the books of ancient literature that he possessed, though formerly he had fondly cherished them, and was content to receive four obols a day from the man who purchased them. (Eusebius, Hist. eccles. 6.8-9; cited in Williams, 133).

Williams then goes on to describe how Jerome’s writings, including his biblical commentaries, are laden with every evidence of the use of a vast personal library:

For every page of Jerome’s commentaries implies a library. The citations of multiple versions of the Bible, the historical information taken from Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, the explanations of Hebrew names drawn from the Jewish and Christian onomastic literature, and especially the lengthy interpretations translated and paraphrased from a variety of Christian commentators–all of this material came from books that Jerome must have had on hand as he worked. Many of Jerome’s other works, too, can be shown to rely very closely on his sources, including both Christian and non-Christian writings. (Williams, 134).

I understand that people may often be led to different convictions determined by the avoidance of past sins and idolatries (see Paul’s advice concerning meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians), but I’m with Jerome on this one. Besides, I’m a theological librarian.

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