Jerome, Paula and Women in Christianity

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A month or so ago, I saw a stained glass window displayed in a museum. The glass image depicted St. Jerome, who is credited with the creation of the Vulgate, a late fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible. In 382, Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to revise the Latin biblical texts then in use by the Church, going back to the Hebrew and Greek versions to restore lost sections and repair errors that had crept into the Latin version then in use. The final format of the text Jerome produced used the Latin which was spoken at the time, called the vulgate. The Catholic Church made this version its official Latin Bible at the Council of Trent (1545–63).

Or so the official story goes.

Yet a woman named Paula was key to this translation effort. It is said that the work was done at her suggestion. She was a wealthy and educated woman, a widow, and she provided the financial resources needed to pursue the undertaking. Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew was not strong. Paula, who had been educated in Greek and was better at Hebrew than Jerome, edited Jerome’s manuscripts, did much of the translation herself, and then she and her daughter Eustochium also copied the work for circulation, a laborious task in the days before printing. A writer named Palladius, a contemporary of Jerome, believed that Jerome actually got in Paula’s way on the project: “For though she was able to surpass all, having great abilities, he hindered her by his jealousy, having induced her to serve his own plan.”

St. Jerome shows up in a multitude of stained glass windows and mosaics holding a thick book, representing his great work. But Paula and Eustochium don’t get books in windows. At the tombs of St. Paula and her daughter Eustochium, they are described as holy women who left Rome and made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem with Jerome c.485 and later settled there, while St. Jerome is described as a church father. We don’t see the three of them depicted as an intellectual team. In a rare painting of the three, it looks like Jerome is lecturing to the women, priest to congregants. Most histories of this period barely mention Paula and Eustochium.

In fact, Jerome’s enemies – inspired, perhaps, by Jerome’s hedonistic youth – did the customary slander about a boss and female subordinate, characterizing his close relationship with Paula as an amorous one. These rumors even made their way into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the foundation for the prologue to The Wife of Bath’s Tale, from which we can assume that the slanderous version of things was the one that was retold.

(How little we have changed over the years! Even today, when a woman succeeds in business, there is still almost always gossip that she “slept her way to the top.” )

And here we are in the 21st Century and the Catholic Church still encourages women to donate money for various causes, as well as to serve as nuns and teachers. Yet women are denied any position of authority in the Church. In fact, the Women Religious are harassed by Papal investigators and told to mind their P’s and Q’s. Even the new, beloved Francis has reiterated his decision that women will not be eligible to become priests.

And the Church wonders why women have been dropping out in droves.

(My thanks to Wikipedia and Google for aiding me in my research for this blog. While I had read about much of this over the years, my facts were fuzzy and I needed images.)

September 30 is the feast of St. Jerome.