Saint Jerome, translator of the “Vulgate” Bible: the story of his female disciples

Every 30 September we celebrate International Translation Day, commemorating the death of Jerome or Saint Jerome (Stridon, Dalmatia, 345-350 AD – Bethlehem, 30 September 420 AD), considered the patron saint of translators.

Jerome’s great feat is well known: the titanic effort of devoting a large part of his life to translating the Holy Scriptures into Latin.

Historical context of St. Jerome, patron saint of translators

At a time when Rome, now under the pontificate of Damasus I (366 AD – 384 AD) abounded in Latin copies of books of the Bible based on translations made by clerics, priests and pious but lax individuals, a plethora of versions, now called Vetus Latina, were produced. To put things in order, Damaso called on the ingenuity and talent of his personal secretary, the translator Saint Jerome, whose exquisite training in grammar, literature and philosophy, as well as his well-known experience as a writer and translator, qualified him for the task. Let us not forget that at this time Christians considered their original Bible (Old Testament) to be the one written in Greek back in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, called the Septuagint or the Bible of the Seventy. This Greek Bible (with some versions also in Greek, such as the well-known versions of Aquila, Simmacchus and Theodotion) was the highest authority and reference throughout the Christian world. St. Augustine and other scholars of the time underline this in their epistles.

It will not escape the reader that, although the New Testament is originally written in Greek (with perhaps the exception of the Gospel of St. Matthew, according to some authors), the Old Testament is a Hebrew original, and constitutes the Bible of the Jewish people.

What did St. Jerome do?

It was the genius of St. Jerome that led him not to follow the authority and tradition of the Greek Bible as the source of his Latin translation. On the contrary, the Bible translator decided to use the original Hebrew text as the basis for his translation. A novel idea that earned him quite a few enemies (hebraica veritas vs. graeca veritas).

The story of St. Jerome and his female disciples

But today we want to focus on the story of St Jerome, and specifically on those years from the time he received the pontiff’s mandate to produce a unique and inspired translation of the Bible into Latin until the end of his life.

It so happens that during his years in Rome, Jerome met and became the guide and spiritual coach of a large group of women of the high Roman nobility who renounced the usual frivolities of their social environment to deepen their knowledge of Christian teachings through asceticism and, in particular, to dedicate themselves to the study of the Holy Scriptures. Around this group of women, led by Marcella together with Paula, her daughters Eustochium and Blesilla, Fabiola and other women, a Centre of Biblical Studies of the highest level was created, which met daily in Marcella’s house, led by Jerome, the Bible translator.

This group of women who possessed a solid basis of knowledge and were also fluent in Latin and Greek, thanks to their membership of the aristocratic elite, soon went from being pupils to being Jerome’s true collaborators.

Collaborations with St. Jerome for the translation of the Bible

There are several aspects to mention in this collaboration. Firstly, the financial aspect, since it was they, especially Marcella, Paula and their daughter Eustochium, who financed Jerome’s long stay in Bethlehem, where he travelled and spent more than thirty years devoted to his magnum opus and other writings. In particular, Paula and Eustochium, who would follow him to Bethlehem, founding several women’s convents there, would pay all his expenses, not only for room and board, but also for the very expensive parchments and manuscripts he needed and the copyists he employed.

Another aspect of this collaboration with the Bible translator St. Jerome is that they were always at his side, encouraging him and prodding him with questions of great depth and erudition to provoke his literary genius. In the words of Jerome (In Gal. Prol.): “Whenever she (Marcella) saw me she was quick to ask me something from the scripture. She was following the Pythagorean method, not taking for granted everything I had already told her…”. The numerous surviving letters of Jerome addressed to Marcella, Paula, Eustochium, the many dedications to them in many of his works and translations, are the expression of the special intellectual relationship and mutual respect with his women disciples. It is worth noting the providential preservation of a single letter written by them, authored by Paula and Eustochium, which reveals beyond any doubt their great ability to interpret Scripture.

Female Bible translators

This group of women biblical scholars, to which we must add Blesilla and Fabiola because of their special relevance, allow us to hypothesise that they collaborated with St. Jerome in his task of translating the Bible, preparing texts and writings. And this in several stages, ranging from copying, reading and transcribing the manuscripts, to revising his works and proposing new ideas. We can by no means exclude the redaction of certain fragments of biblical texts.

And finally, thanks to these women, it was possible to ensure the publication and dissemination of Jerome’s works and in particular of the Vulgate Bible, which otherwise (remember that Pope Damasus had already died and Jerome did not have the sympathy of the new Roman ecclesiastical authorities), could have been forgotten and cornered in a convent in Bethlehem.

Author: Manuela Maza Ruiz.

Recommended literature:

Honorato Vázquez. “San Jerónimo y sus discípulas”.1922 Ed. Quito S.E.

Fernando Rivas Rebaque. “Iguales y diferentes”, capítulo “Jerónimo y las mujeres del Aventino”. Ed. San Pablo, Madrid, 2012.

Fernando Rivas Rebaque. “¿Quién compuso la Vulgata? Las mujeres romanas del entorno de San Jerónimo”, en María Jesús Fernández Cordero, Henar Pizarro Llorente (eds.), “Las mujeres en el cristianismo. Once calas en la historia”. Ed. Sal Terrae. Santander. 2012.

Eusebio González Martínez. “Jerónimo, traductor de la Biblia. Hebraica veritas vs. graeca veritas.

Joan O’Hagan, Jerome & His Women. Sydney: Black Quill Press, 2015. pp. x + 272. ISBN 978-0-646-94370-1