Jerome had written a letter to Pope St. Damasus between 376 and 377, asking Damasus to intervene in a crisis that was currently embroiling Jerome’s home see of Antioch. In 330, a synod at Antioch, instigated by Eusebius of Nicomedia, deposed and subsequently exiled Eustathius on the grounds the he held to the doctrine of Sabellianism The see of Antioch was held by a succession of Arian and Semi-Arian bishops, culminating with Eudoxius in 358.299 Meanwhile, the Nicaean resistance in Antioch, led by a presbyter named Paulinus, continued to consider Eustathius to be the rightful bishop of Antioch until his death in 337. When Eudoxius became the bishop of Constantinople, Meletius was elected to succeed him. Socrates wrote that Meletius “at first avoided all doctrinal questions…but subsequently he expounded to his auditors the Nicene creed, and asserted the doctrine of the homoousion. The emperor being informed of this, ordered that he should be sent into exile and caused Euzoius, who had before been deposed together with Arius, to be installed bishop of Antioch in his stead.”
Despite this demonstration, at cost, of adherence to the doctrine of Nicaea, the followers of Eustathius still refused to recognize Meletius as rightful bishop due to his prior connections with the Arian party. In 361, Constantius died and was succeeded by Julian, who annulled all his predecessor’s decrees of expulsion in an effort to weaken the Christians with division. In this, he succeeded. Along with Meletius, returned the rigorist Lucifer of Cagliari. Soon to start a schism of his own, Lucifer exacerbated the one at Antioch by beating Meletius to the city and consecrating Paulinus as bishop.302 The adherents of Nicaea were thus divided and unable to present a united front against the Arians.
In his letter, Jerome explained that members of the Meletian party were harassing him in an effort to ascertain which candidate he supported and determine his orthodoxy.303 Eastern Christians tended the use of the formula of “three hypostases in one ousias” to describe the Trinity. In so doing, they hoped to avoid the charge of Sabellianism that the followers of Arius so often hurled at the adherents of Nicaea. For rigorists adherents of Nicaea, including the followers of Eustathius, this was a dangerous innovation on the Nicene Creed that bordered on Arianism. Although he claims to be neutral, Jerome shows himself to at least a sympathizer of Paulinus by referring to the three hypostases as an “unheard of formula” and calling the Meletians “Arians.”
In the letter, Jerome urges Damasus to use his position as bishop of Rome to do something about the schism. Ever the student of rhetoric, Jerome uses grandiose and hyperbolic language to describe his allegiance to the bishop of Rome. He goes as far as to state that he will abide by whatever ruling Damasus might give, even if it were to go against the doctrine established at Nicaea. Jerome indicates that he has such great trust in Damasus because as bishop of Rome, he is the successor of Peter.
“My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church was built!”
Surprisingly, Damasus does not take this opportunity to assert the authority Jerome strongly believes him to possess. Less than a year later, Jerome once again wrote to Damasus to renew his plea. He opens the letter with allusions to a number of New Testament parables where a supplicant receives that for which he asks through unrelenting persistence. Jerome reiterates his submission to the authority of the pope by stating “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.” His additional statement that all three claimants to the see of Antioch claim to do so as well, indicates the prestige that the see of Rome held at this time. There is no recorded response of Damasus to this letter.
The crisis came to a head at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Damasus supported Paulinus, but the Meletian party stubbornly elected Flavian to succeed Meletius when he died during the course of the council. Following the close of the Council of Constantinople, Jerome travelled to Rome with Paulinus. In Rome, Jerome met Damasus, who recognized the presbyter’s skills and employed him in a secretarial capacity. Jerome himself wrote of “helping Damasus bishop of Rome with his ecclesiastical correspondence, and writing his answers to the questions referred to him by the councils of east and west.” In his letter to Asella, Jerome writes that “Damasus, of blessed memory, spoke no words but mine.” This simple, albeit no doubt exaggerated, comment reflects the level of influence Jerome exerted, or thought he exerted, on the aging pontiff. In that way, it would fit well with Jerome’s earlier statement, in the same latter, that “almost everyone” judged him as a viable candidate to succeed Damasus as bishop of Rome. Although Jerome did not enter the orbit of Damasus until the last five years of his pontificate, he played a substantial role in the elderly pope’s expansion of power. In his extensive study of the relationship between late antique Christianity and monetary wealth, Peter Brown argued that Damasus consciously presented himself as a patron of the finest arts. To this end, Damasus had scholars and other experts work on projects that he patronized. One such artist was Furius Dionysius Filocalus, who had designed and carved the script for the epigrams of Damasus.
Working for Damasus
Jerome was another scholar/expert whom Damasus patronized. Brown argued that Jerome saw an opportunity and played on the need of Damasus for scholars. “Jerome knew that Damasus needed experts. He was quick to present himself as indispensable as a translator and a critic of the texts.” Damasus had a great deal to gain from patronizing Jerome. In the preface to his translation of Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs, Jerome states that his work “would require almost boundless leisure and labor and money.”These were the very thing which an aristocrat possessed that allowed them to patronize artists and scholars. By patronizing the work of Jerome, Damasus was able to further the image of himself that he wished to project.
The basis of Jerome’s career had been the patronage of Damasus: therefore, the reputation of Jerome rested on that of his patron. As such, Jerome was eager to present a favorable image of Damasus. In De viris illustribus, Jerome writes that Damasus, “had a fine talent in making verses and published many works in heroic meter.” If Damasus had indeed been talented in composing poetry, then he could certainly be trusted as a connoisseur who would only patronize work of the highest quality. Modern critics have not been as kind as Jerome to Damasus. J.N.D. Kelly found the epigrams of Damasus to be “sonorous-sounding, if rather vacuous.” Even less kindly, Alan Cameron characterized Damasus as a “poor stylist” and described one particular epitaph as “typically frigid…a tissue of tags and clichés shakily strung together and barelysqueezed into the meter.”
Kelly argued that Jerome’s secretarial position was initially only supposed to last for the duration of the synod, but that Jerome proved his worth and stayed on in the same position after the synod. The document known as the Decretum Gelasianum takes its name from Pope Gelasius I (492-496) during whose pontificate the document likely took its final form. However, the beginning part of the Decretum is likely based on earlier documents dating from the synod convened by Damasus at Rome in 392, in which Jerome took part. In these earlier parts, the Decretum contains the canon or list of approved Scriptural texts. It is clear that in the closing years of his pontificate, Damasus began to take an interest in Scripture. To this end, it was at this time that Damasus commissioned Jerome to revise the Old Latin translations of the Gospels from the Greek. This was the beginning of the project for which Jerome is best known: the Latin Vulgate. Jerome addressed the preface of his revised translation to Damasus. He wrote,
“You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures…and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all.”
Andrew Cain has argued that Jerome was fully aware that this new translation would generate significant controversy. For this reason, he carefully crafted the preface to “insulate himself pre-emptively from criticism” and emphasize “Damasus’ ultimate accountability for the project.” Jerome often defended himself and his work by appealing to the authority and, after his death, the memory of Damasus. In one instance, he pointed out that Damasus, whom he called an “excellent man—versed in Scriptures as he was,” found nothing objectionable in Jerome’s discourse on the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. Cain argued that Jerome intentionally circulated the correspondence between himself and Damasus in order to validate his exegetical expertise with the aura of papal approval and “to announce to Christians there that he was the personal Scriptural advisor to a renowned pope.” Cain also mentions a theme of Hebraica veritas running through the letters Jerome writes in response to Damasus. Jerome strongly advocates going back to the original Hebrew when there are conflicts between the Latin and Greek translations of the Scriptural texts. This idea will figure prominently in the work that Jerome will do on the translation of the Old Testament following the death of Damasus. In the last letter that Damasus wrote to Jerome, he presents five exegetical questions for Jerome to answer. Another exegete at Rome named Ambrosiaster had already posed and answered these questions. Damasus is apparently asking Jerome for a second opinion.
Translating the Vulgate
Annelise Volgers argued that Damasus was merely interested to know what Jerome thought on some exegetical matters he had heard being discussed recently.294 Jerome on the other hand, according to Cain, carefully crafted his response in order to subtly demonstrate the superiority of his own method of exegesis over that of Ambrosiaster. Cain offered the possibility that the criticism of Ambrosiaster was deliberately indirect because “Jerome knew or suspected that Damasus was partial to Ambrosiaster’s work or the man himself.” Brown identified Ambrosiaster as a member of the Roman clergy of Damasus.296 While this hardly indicates partiality, it does demonstrate that Damasus had a certain degree of familiarity with Ambrosiaster and familiarity can be leveraged into influence. Jerome certainly would have needed to walk a fine line between assuring that Ambrosiaster did not supplant him and offending Damasus by criticizing one of his presbyters too strongly. Ambrosiaster and Jerome would have agreed on one thing. Ambrosiaster had argued that a congregation praying in a language that it could not understand offered no gain for the people involved because they could not understand what they said. Thus it is likely that Ambrosiaster would have been in favor of changing the liturgical language to Latin, a process that began under Damasus. However, unlike Ambrosiaster, Jerome was someone who could actually assist in the implementation of the Latinizing initiative through his revision of the old translations of Scripture. Damasus understood that Jerome was someone with whom he could work in advancing his aims. Ambrosiaster was not. Thus, Jerome had little to fear while Damasus lived.
Ultimately, Ambrosiaster was a member of the Roman clergy, the “low-profile but tenacious body of men” who had “rallied behind” Damasus. The clergy had always seen the monastic Jerome as an outsider and interloper. After Damasus died on December 11, 384; the clergy elected the deacon Siricius to succeed him as pope. With Damasus gone to his eternal reward, Jerome no longer had anyone with either the ability or desire to support him in Rome. By August of the next year, Jerome had left Rome at the express orders of the new pope, never to return. He returned to the East, where he would spend the next twenty-two years of his life completing the great work his friend Damasus had given to him.