Reviews of

The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity

In Andrew CAIN, Early Christianity, Epistolography, Jerome, Justin A. Mihoc, Oxford University Press, Patristics, Reception history, Scripture on January 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm

2012.01.02 | Andrew Cain, The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv + 286. isbn: 978-0-19-956355-5 (Hardback). £67.00.

Reviewed by Justin A. Mihoc, Durham University.

This is a pre-print version of the review published in Sobornost: incorporating Eastern Churches Review 33.1 (2011), pp. 90-93.

This highly erudite and fascinating monograph by Andrew Cain, an already prominent Jerome scholar, focuses on Jerome of Stridon’s epistles and their (intended) reception. The Letters of Jerome, based on the author’s doctoral dissertation (Cornell University, 2003), consists of six chapters, excluding the Introduction and Conclusion, and three very helpful appendices, that will be briefly summarised below. Scholarly yet highly comprehensible, Cain’s book sets up to systematically explore the epistolary corpus from a fresh perspective, arguing that in these writings ‘we see their author most deftly re-inventing himself to accommodate the ever-changing demands made upon him by ever-changing audiences’ (p. 4). Rather than analysing each of the 123 extant genuine letters, Cain supports his case by concentrating on the less researched ones.

The first chapter (‘The Voice of One Calling in the Desert’) presents Jerome’s intentions to legitimise himself as an ascetic-scholar at the beginning of his career, an idea drawn from his Epistularum ad diversos liber. Upon his return to Rome (382) and in order to support his scholarly endeavours, Jerome had to attract funds and affluent members of the Christian aristocracy. Here, Cain sets out from the assumption that by releasing this epistolary collection Jerome ‘sustained its own explicit propagandistic agenda’ (p. 19), and shows how an unknown and obscure monk managed to gain such a positive reception in Rome. Making use of his two-year stay in Maronia (a desert settlement near Chalcis, in Palestine), Jerome portrayed himself in the Epistularum ad diversos liber as a model of eremitic holiness. In his letters, the author shows his fine rhetoric and compositional ability, constructing ‘mosaics out of biblical inter-texts to serve as instruments of reproach’ (p. 29). By means of ascetic experience and biblical erudition, Jerome introduced himself to Marcella and the ‘Aventine circle’, a group of aristocratic Christian widows and virgins who practiced askesis and bible study. Thus, Jerome became their spiritual advisor and bible mentor and formally established himself ‘as a figure of spiritual authority in Rome’ (p. 42).

In the second chapter (‘A Pope and His Scholar’), Cain tackles the relationship between Jerome and Pope Damasus, examining the famous correspondence between the two prominent figures (Epp. 19-21, 35-36). Cain’s concern here is to examine the representation of this relationship within Jerome’s writings and its purpose to legitimise him in the face of his opponents. By releasing this correspondence, Jerome showed to his audience that Pope Damasus had the utmost confidence in his scholarship and biblical exegesis (especially since Jerome mastered Hebrew).

The epistolary collection of personal correspondence between Jerome and Marcella is investigated in the third chapter of this monograph (‘Claiming Marcella’). Ad Marcellam epistulam liber consists of sixteen diverse letters, from exegetical to apologetical and exhortative, that served as a portrait of Christian excellence. In Cain’s view, their publication and circulation was intended to support Jerome in the controversy that lead to his exile in the summer of 385. The theological controversy involving Jerome and his subsequent expulsion from Rome are treated in the fourth chapter (‘Expulsion from Rome’). His increasing popularity and influence among the Christian aristocratic women, but also his excessive praise of virginity and insinuation that ‘marriage was a necessary evil reserved for second-class spiritual citizens’ (p. 102), attracted Jerome harsh opposition.  Following Blesilla’s sudden death, a young virgin who was under his spiritual guidance, Jerome was seen as morally guilty of ascetic fanaticism. Pope Damasus’ death in December 384 further deteriorated Jerome’s already delicate situation and gave rise to vocal critics that accused him of mischief and obscure intentions (especially in relation to the Christian women). Jerome appeared before an episcopal court and, as Cain asserts, the verdict was against him. Furthermore, Cain identifies the initial instigators of the case with ‘Paula’s immediate family unsympathetic with her ascetic piety and upset over her close association with Jerome’ (p. 10). In what the sentence of the trial is concerned, it might have been an order to leave Rome immediately, as Jerome develops the image of an exile and ‘dramatizes his expulsion as an event of epic biblical proportions’ (p. 126).

The fifth chapter examines selected Hieronymian letters written from Bethlehem in the years following his departure from Rome (386-c. 419), and containing spiritual instructions. Again, by disseminating them Jerome allegedly intended to offer a guarantee of his ‘orthodoxy’ and confirmation that his counsel was still highly regarded. He tried to overcome his rivals by substantiating others’ ‘supposed inexperience and lack of expertise with his own superabundance of both’ (p. 167).

In his final chapter, Cain examines several of Jerome’s exegetical letters, showing his intentions to establish himself as an authoritative biblical scholar. In these epistles, Jerome defends the Hebrew verity and, as Cain asserts, they served both didactic and propagandistic purposes. The prominence that Jerome attained in the following centuries was due, Cain emphasises, to his ‘magnificent talents as a self-portraitist’ (p. 202), as it resides in his epistolary corpus. Three appendices conclude this monograph: in the first, Cain proposes a new classification of Jerome’s extant epistles, according to the ancient Latin epistolographic norms and context; in the second appendix we find a brief discussion on Jerome’s lost letters, while the third analyses medieval manuscript tradition, proving once again that Jerome carefully selected the letters to be released.

At times, the sense that too much emphasis on the falsified picture of Jerome that he himself created in order to legitimate his image and work could lead to a misinterpreted Jerome. Undoubtedly, Jerome did this in his writings (cf. his autobiographical description in De viris illustribus) and Cain correctly observes Jerome’s exaggerations, but this cannot devalue his remarkable achievements and works. Apart from some minor typographical misprints, Cain’s monograph suffers from limitations especially in discussion about the relationship between Jerome and his major exegetical opponent, Ambrosiaster. However, Cain is following his argument throughout this admirably written volume, and its publication can only be received with interest and enthusiasm. It illustrates not only Jerome’s struggle to become an authoritative figure in order to produce and disseminate his works, but also the contemporary Latin world as the context for this ‘propagandistic’ literary artistry.

Justin A. Mihoc
Durham University
j.a.mihoc [ at ] durham.ac.uk

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  1. […] Justin Milhoc reviews Andrew Cain’s The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2009). […]

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