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.

The Monk and the Book Book Cover The Monk and the Book
Megan Hale Williams
University of Chicago Press
October 7, 2014

In the West, monastic ideals and scholastic pursuits are complementary; monks are popularly imagined copying classics, preserving learning through the Middle Ages, and establishing the first universities. But this dual identity is not without its contradictions. While monasticism emphasizes the virtues of poverty, chastity, and humility, the scholar, by contrast, requires expensive infrastructure—a library, a workplace, and the means of disseminating his work. In The Monk and the Book, Megan Hale Williams argues that Saint Jerome was the first to represent biblical study as a mode of asceticism appropriate for an inhabitant of a Christian monastery, thus pioneering the enduring linkage of monastic identities and institutions with scholarship. Revisiting Jerome with the analytical tools of recent cultural history—including the work of Bourdieu, Foucault, and Roger Chartier—Williams proposes new interpretations that remove obstacles to understanding the life and legacy of the saint. Examining issues such as the construction of Jerome’s literary persona, the form and contents of his library, and the intellectual framework of his commentaries, Williams shows that Jerome’s textual and exegetical work on the Hebrew scriptures helped to construct a new culture of learning. This fusion of the identities of scholar and monk, Williams shows, continues to reverberate in the culture of the modern university. "[Williams] has written a fascinating study, which provides a series of striking insights into the career of one of the most colorful and influential figures in Christian antiquity. Jerome's Latin Bible would become the foundational text for the intellectual development of the West, providing words for the deepest aspirations and most intensely held convictions of an entire civilization. Williams's book does much to illumine the circumstances in which that fundamental text was produced, and reminds us that great ideas, like great people, have particular origins, and their own complex settings."—Eamon Duffy, New York Review of Books

Leave a Reply