The beginning of the long and often volatile correspondence between Augustine and Jerome was, as it would be for some time, racked with good intentions, misunderstandings, gossip, hurt feelings, rebuke, and subtle rhetoric. The first five extant letters between the two were composed and received over a decade straddling the turn of the fifth century, Augustine in Hippo (initially a priest, then later a bishop) and Jerome in Bethlehem (already a priest and well known for some time). Though Jerome was only seven years his elder, at the time of the first letter’s composition Augustine had been converted less than a decade earlier, while Jerome was already firmly established as a public figure of high regard. There is a great deal of maneuvering on display in the rhetorical back-and-forth between the two, revealing much about their respective official personas and theological inclinations, as well as their feelings toward each other.
The letters reveal as much about the nature and culture of letter-writing at the time as they do about the parties involved; for much of the initial rancor and miscommunication between the two men resulted from Letter 28’s having been read widely in Rome, and Letter 40’s being lost on an island, before either found their way, years later, to Bethlehem. In both letters, Augustine is effusive in praise of Jerome and explicit in deferring to his wisdom, yet in each he outlines and reiterates his difficulties with Jerome’s interpretation of the Antioch scene in Galatians 2. Augustine bristles at Jerome’s interpretation of the story—a falsehood, but serving to calm controversy raging at the time—for “it is no question at all” whether it is acceptable for Scripture to contain a lie (28.3). In Augustine’s second attempt at addressing the issue, he goes so far as to call Jerome to “emend that work” and to recant his interpretation (40.7)!
So it is not without reason that Augustine later attempts preemptively to forestall further conflict by “call[ing] God to witness that I have not done this” (67.2)—namely, written a book against Jerome and sent it to Rome for all to read. For while Jerome’s first letter to Augustine is brief, cordial, and knows nothing of such a rumor (39.1-2), his next reeks of resentment at the upstart African bishop, both for presuming to call him to recant his views and for such a rebuke to have passed through so many hands in Rome. Therefore, in an act supposedly of love, he will not even stoop to reply to the challenge concerning Galatians and falsehood in Scripture (68.3).
It is clear Jerome feels insulted by a mere “youth in the field of scripture” who is so bold as to “challenge an old man,” “seek[ing] a reputation for one’s own name by attacking illustrious persons” (68.2). Four times in the opening paragraph alone he suggests the inappropriateness of Augustine’s challenge by referencing his own desire not to blame Augustine for something he may not have written (e.g., “if it is your letter, write openly, or send better copies”). Rhetorical skill, too, is under scrutiny, for he feels compelled to reference or quote pagan poetry at least three times in the letter, even stating his justification: “so that you do not think that you alone have alluded to a passage from the poets” (68.2). Jerome concludes with a rhetorical slight of hand, demonstrating “how much” he “loves” Augustine by not responding to “having been provoked” by him, though the provocation “would perhaps [be] reprehend[ed] in another” (68.3).
In Augustine’s case, he begins each of his first two letters—mirroring each other in intent and content—discussing his desire to be in Jerome’s “physical presence” (28.1), having “not seen the face of your bodily person” (40.1). Subtly, Augustine is creating rhetorical space for the two men to become friends and partners in the faith: though the appeal is direct, its subtlety lies in the fact that, as a younger man and an even younger Christian, he is seeking formally to establish a literary relationship with the Latin Catholic scholar in the world. He does this through constant praise and open yielding to Jerome’s authority, yet also by challenging him—“flexing his muscles”—in the exact areas Jerome’s expertise ought to render discussion moot!
The first area is that of biblical translation, as Augustine, at once praising Jerome’s “careful effort” in Greek commentary, unflinchingly calls on him to give “the very weightiest authority” to the Septuagint over the Hebrew texts, “without any controversy” (28.2). The implication is that Jerome’s insistence on translating the Hebrew is misguided and requires correction. The second area is citation of Origen, a favorite Father of Jerome’s, whose heretical views render questionable his inclusion in an account of “famous men”; thus Augustine requests Jerome “inform us of his mistakes,” even going so far as to “ask that... you publish” an entire book on heretical teachings (40.9)! The question lingers in the air, whether Jerome’s beloved and oft-cited theologian renders his own views problematic.
Which of course returns to the primary challenge: the frightful notion that Jerome “undertook the defense of a lie” (28.3) such that “the authority of the divine scriptures is crumbling” (28.5). In the next letter Augustine moves from humble questions to actual exegesis, articulating the issue of “the sacraments of the Jews” (40.4) and its resolution in the New Testament. In the boldest move of any of the letters, Augustine calls on Jerome to “take up genuine and truly Christian severity with love to correct and emend that work, and sing, as they say, a palinodian” (that is, issue a formal retraction of his previous position; 40.7). However roundabout or poetic the composition, Augustine of Hippo has rebuked Jerome of Bethlehem.
The correspondence went on, but clearly the first steps were wobbly. Apart from difficulties of postage, curious power was leveled and negotiated in a mere handful of letters between the two, and while Jerome’s words were defensive and acerbic, they were not totally uncalled for. Augustine was playing with fire in his attempt to establish a relationship with this man while also raising himself up as one who could admonish and advise; though ultimately he succeeded, his boldness reveals both what he thought of Jerome, and what he thought of himself.