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Jerome. Letter 120 (Ad Hedibiam). To Hedibia, on biblical problems (Excerpts)


Although I have never seen your face, you are very well known to me by the ardour of your faith.  And you have written to me from the far end of Gaul and come to search me out in my hiding-place in the wilds of Bethlehem, to get me to respond to some little questions on holy scripture, ending me a little text by the man of God, my son Apodemius; as if you do not have anyone in your province competent and perfect in the law of God.

But perhaps you don't seek me so much for your own instruction as to test my ability; and after having consulted others on the difficulties that have stopped you, still you want to know what I think about it. Your ancestors Paterus and Delphidus, of whom the former taught rhetoric at Rome before I was born, and the other during my youth shone among all the Gauls by power of his prose and verse, both now dead, silently reproach me for the liberty that I take to give instructions to a member of their family. They excelled, I admit, in eloquence and litterae humaniores; but they were less versed in the science of the law of God, in which no-one can be instructed except by the Father of Lights, who enlightens every man coming in this world (John 1) and who is found in the middle of the faithful who are gathered in his name. (Matt. 18).

So I tell you then, without fear that I shall be accused of vanity, that in this letter I shall not use any pompous terminology, which belongs to the human wisdom that God must destroy one day, but instead the language of faith, treating spiritually spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:23), so that the "deep" of the Old Testament "calls to the deep" of the Gospel "with the roar of the waterfall," (Ps. 42) i.e. the prophets and the apostles, and that the truth of the Lord shall rise up to the "clouds" which he has commanded not to rain on the unbelieving Jews and instead to water the lands of the gentiles, and soften the torrent of thorns and the Dead Sea. 

So pray that the true Elijah will make living the dead and sterile waters in me and to season the meats that I present to you with the salt of the apostles, to whom he said, "You are the salt of the earth" because nothing can be offered to God that is not seasoned with salt. (Lev. 2:13) Don't look here for the thunder of that worldly eloquence that Jesus Christ saw fall from heaven like lightening (Luke 10); cast your eyes rather on He who had neither beauty nor attraction (Is. 53), the man trapped in misfortune, and who understands infirmity.  In responding to the questions that you put to me, you may know that I do not count on my own erudition and ability, but on the promise of he that said, "Open your mouth and I will fill it" (Ps 81:10).

Question 1

You ask me how one can become perfect, and how a widow should live who has no children.

In the gospel a teacher of the law put this to Jesus Christ. "Master", he said, "what must I do to gain eternal life?" The Lord answered him, "Do you know the commandments?"

"Which commandments?" he said. But Jesus said, "Do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not rob; do not bear false witness. Honour your father and mother, and love your neighbour as yourself." When he replied, "I have kept all these commandments from my youth," the Lord added, "You lack still one thing: if you want to be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor; then come and follow me" (Matt. 19:16-21).

And so I will respond to you with the words of our Lord: if you want to be perfect, to carry your cross, to follow the Saviour, and imitate Peter who said, "You see, Lord, that we have left everything to follow you," (Matt.10:28) go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and follow the Saviour. 

He did not say, Give it to your children, your brothers, your parents -- by this rule, the Lord must come first -- but "Give it to the poor," or rather to  Christ, whom you help in the person of the poor; he, being rich, made himself poor for the love of us, and who says in the 39th psalm, "For me, I was poor and destitute, and the Lord took care of me." (Ps. 40:17) And immediately at the beginning of the 40th psalm, "Happy is he who understands the needs of the poor and indigent." (Ps.41:1) 

He does not mean those who live in beggary and squalor and at the same time in their vices; but those of whom the apostle Paul spoke when he said, "They only asked us not to forget the poor." (Gal. 2:10) It was for the relief of these poor that Paul and Barnabas undertook to collect money on the first day of the week in the congregations of (believing) gentiles, and that they hurried themselves, not sending others, to take it to those who had been stripped of their goods for Christ, who were suffering persecution and who had said to their father and mother, to their wife and children, "We do not know you." (Deut. 33:9) These carry out the wish of the Father and of whom the Lord Saviour said, "These are my mother and my brothers, those who carry out the will of my father." (Matt. 12:50, Luke 8:21)

I say this, not because we should not be charitable to Jews, gentiles, and to all the other poor, of whatever nation they may be; but we must always prefer Christians to unbelievers, and even among the Christians we should put a great distance between a man who is a sinner and one who is holy. This is why the apostle, who exhorts charity to all in  many places, recommends them to do so mainly towards fellow believers (Gal. 6:10). This is one with whom we are linked by religion, and who is not separated by sin from the brotherhood. If we are called to give food to our enemies when they are hungry, to give them drink when they are thirsty, and so to pour coals of fire on their head (Rom. 12:10), how much more towards those who are not our enemies, and who are Christians and holy? 

Note that it is necessary to take in a good way and not in a bad sense what is said, "In so doing you will pour coals of fire on his head." He means that by doing good to our enemies we will overcome their malice and hate with our goodness, we will soften the hardness (of their heart), we will deflect the angry soul towards amity and benevolence, and thus pour on their head these "coals" of which it is written, "The sharp arrows of the mighty, with the coals that lay waste." (Ps.120:4) Because, just as the Seraph of whom Isaiah speaks purified the lips of this prophet with a coal of fire which he had taken from the altar (Is.6:6-7), so we will purify the sins of our enemies, overcoming evil with good (Rom.12:21), blessing those who curse us, and imitating our Father who "makes the sun rise on the good and on the wicked, and make it rain on the just and on sinners." (Matt. 5:45) 

As you don't have small children, "use riches from swindling to make yourself many friends who will receive you into the eternal tabernacles." (Luke 16:9) Rightly it speaks of swindling, because all riches arise from swindles, and unless someone loses out, no-one can gain.  So this proverb appears very true to me, that a rich man is either a swindler, or the heir of a swindler.

The teacher of the law heard this and could not (bring himself to do this), because he had great riches, and the Saviour, turning to his disciples, said to them, "How difficult is it for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven!" (Matt.19:23, Mark 10:23, Luke 18:24) He did not say, 'impossible', but,  'difficult', although the example that he gives shows an absolute impossibility. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." 

Now this is more impossible than difficult, because it will never be possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, and in consequence never will a rich man enter into the kingdom of heaven. But the camel is a twisted and hunchbacked animal, and it usually carries heavy burdens, so we, when we involve ourselves in unfortunate ways which lead to sin, when we wander off the straight road of the Lord, and when we are loaded with the burden of riches or the weight of our sins, it is impossible that we could enter into the kingdom of God. But if we rid ourselves of this overwhelming weight, and take on the wings of a dove, then we will fly away ourselves, we will find rest, and it is said to us, "When you can sleep in the middle of the campfires, you will become like the dove, whose wings are silver and whose back is as bright as gold." (Ps.67:14) Our back which was ugly and the heavy burden are crushing us; cover us with this "bright gold" that represents the spiritual sense of the divine scriptures, and these "silver wings" which signify the literal sense; and then we will be able to enter into the kingdom of heaven. 

The apostles said that they had abandoned all that they possessed and boldly demanded from him recompense for this virtue, and the Lord responded to them, "Whoever shall abandon for my name his house, or his brothers, or his sisters, or his father, or his mother, or his wife, or his children, or his lands, he will receive a hundred-fold, and will possess eternal life." What happiness to receive much in return for little things, the eternal in return for the temporary, ever-living in return for the perishable, and to have the Lord in your debt!

So if a widow has children, especially if she is of an upper-class family, she must not leave them destitute, but let her love them equally, and take care of the interests of her soul, and regard it like one of her children. She must split with them what she gives them and not abandon everything to them; or rather, she must make Christ a co-heir. You will tell me that this is difficult, and hard, and against nature. But you will hear the Lord reply, "He that is able to perform such a thing, let him do so;" (Matt.19:12) "If you want to be perfect, go, sell all that you possess, etc." And if you want to be perfect, he does not make this a forced yoke, but concedes the choice to your children.

Do you want to be perfect and raise yourself to the height of virtue? Imitate the apostles, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and follow the Saviour, let you follow him with nothing, with only a cross, with nothing and alone. 

Do you not wish to be perfect, and are you content to remain in the second degree of virtue? Relinquish all that you have, give it to your children and parents. None will reprehend you, if you follow this lesser way, provided that you also accept that it is with justice that that which tends to perfection is preferred to you.

You will tell me that this can only be for apostles, but that it is impossible for a gentlewoman, who needs a thousand things to exist in her walk in life. So listen to what the apostle says: "I do not mean that the others are helped and that you are overloaded, but that, to remove inequality, your abundance compensates for their poverty, so that your poverty also is relieved by their abundance." (2 Cor. 8:14) This is why the Lord says: "Let him who has two coats gives one to he that has none at all." (Luke 3:11) But if we lived among the ice of Scythia and the snows of the Alps, where not only two and three coats, but the very skins of animals are scarcely enough to protect them from the cold of such a severe climate, would we be obliged to strip ourselves in order to clothe others? By "a coat" we must understand all this that is necessary to clothe us and to provide for the necessities of the nature, since we are born naked; and by "the provisions of a single day" we must understand all this that is necessary to nourish us. 

This is the sense in which it is taught: "Do not worry about tomorrow," (Matt. 6:34) i.e. for the future, and what the apostle says, "While we have enough to eat and to cover us, we must be content." (1 Tim. 6:8) If you have more than enough food and clothing than you need, spend that, and know that you are in that respect a debtor (repaying a debt).  Ananias and Saphira deserved to be condemned because they had quietly put to one side part of their goods. (Acts 5) Is it a crime, you will ask, not to donate one's all? No, but the apostle punished them because they tried to lie to the Holy Spirit, and that while reserving for themselves what they needed to live they were pretending to perfectly renounce everything of the world, they were only seeking the approval and pointless praise of men. Otherwise we are free to give or not to give, but he that renounces all his goods in order to be perfect must expect to see a day when his poverty is rewarded with the possession of future wealth.

As for the life that a widow must live, the apostle prescribes this in a few words when he says, "The widow that lives in luxury is dead, even while she lives," (1 Tim. 5:6) and we have dealt with this matter thoroughly in the two books which we have written to Furia and Salvina.

Question 2 : How must we understand what the Saviour says in Matthew: "But I say to you, I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the Kingdom of my Father"? (Matth. 26. 29).

This passage is the origin of a certain fable of a thousand years, in which they say that Christ will reign in the flesh and will drink that wine which he has not drunk since that time until the end of the world. But we think that the bread that the Lord broke and gave to his disciples is the body of our Lord and Saviour, when he himself said to them, "Take, eat, this is my body: and that the chalice is the one about which he said, "Drink of this, all of you: for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many." (Matth. 26. 26. 27. 28; Marc. 14. 22. 24) This is the chalice of which we read in the prophet, "I take the chalice of salvation" (Ps. 115. 4). And elsewhere, "How admirable is your chalice which makes me drunk!"  (Ps. 23. 5).

So if the bread that came down from heaven is the body of the Lord, and the wine that he gave to his disciples is his blood, the blood of the new covenant, that was shed for many for the remission of sins, let us reject the fables of the Jews, and ascend with the Lord into this chamber all furnished and prepared, and there receive from his hand the chalice of the New Covenant; and there celebrating Easter with him, let us get drunk with that wine of sobriety. For the kingdom of God isn't food and drink, but justice, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14. 17). It wasn't Moses who gave us the true bread, but the Lord Jesus, himself the diner and the dined-up, the eater and that which is eaten. We drink his blood, and cannot drink it without him, and every day in his sacrifices we press the grapes of the true vine and of the vine of Sorec, which means "chosen", and we drink in this wine of the kingdom of the Father, not in the literal old way, but in the newness of the spirit: singing a new canticle, which no-one can sing except in the kingdom of the church (Rev. 14. 3), which is the kingdom of the Father. The patriarch Jacob also wanted to eat this bread, saying, "If the Lord God is with me, and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, etc" (Gen. 28. 20).

For when we are baptised in Christ we put on Christ (Gal. 3. 27) and we eat the bread of angels, and we hear the Lord saying, "My food is to do the will of the Father who sent me and to carry out his work" (John 4:34). Let us therefore do the will of the Father who sent us, and carry out his work; and Christ will drink his blood in the kingdom of the church with us.

Question 3: What is the reason that the Evangelists spoke about the resurrection and appearance of the Lord differently?

Here you ask first why Matthew said that, "But when the evening of the Sabbath had begun to dawn, on the first day of the following week the Lord rose again", and Mark relates that his resurrection happened in the morning, thus writing, "However when he rose again, on the first day of the week, in the morning Mary Magdalen arrived, from whom he had expelled seven demons: and she departing announced to those who were mourning and weeping with her.  And these hearing that he was alive, and that she had seen him, did not believe in him". 

The solution of this question is two-fold; for either we do not accept the testimony of Mark, that is carried in few gospels, almost all the books of Greece not having this passage at the end, especially and since it seems to speak various and contrary things to the other evangelists; or this must be replied, that both speak truly: Matthew, when the Lord rose again on the evening of the Sabbath, Mark however, when Mary Magdalen saw him, that is, on the morning of the first day of the week. 

For so it must be distinguished: for when he had risen again, and being for a short while restricted by the spirit, it must be supposed, on the first day of the week in the morning he appeared to Mary Magdalen, so he had risen again on the evening of the sabbath (according to Matthew), [but] he appeared to Mary Magdalen on the morning of the first day of the week (according to Mark). 

Which indeed John the Evangelist also signifies, stating that he was seen on the morning of the second day.

Question 4: TBA

How is it that according to Matthew Mary Magdalene saw the Lord rising again on the evening of the Sabbath, while the evangelist John says that she was weeping next to the tomb on the morning of the first day of the week? (John 20) 

By "the first day of the week? one must understand the day of the Lord, because the Jews counted the week by the day of the sabbath, and by the first one, the second, the third one, the fourth one, the fifth one and the sixth day of the sabbath, which the pagans mark by the name of idols and planets. From this the holy apostle Paul orders the faithful at Corinth to store up on "the first day of the week" the alms that they intended for the relief of the poor.   ...

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This text was translated by Roger Pearse, 2007. All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

The bible numbering is as for Protestant bibles, but Jerome refers to the arrangement of the Vulgate (see English version).

Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts