Fathers of the Church
Letter LIII: to Paulinus
by Jerome in 394 | translated by W. H. Fremantle, M.A., G. Lewis, M.A., W. G. Martley, M.A
1. Our brother Ambrose along with your little gifts has delivered to me a most charming letter which, though it comes at the beginning of our friendship, gives assurance of tried fidelity and of long continued attachment. A true intimacy cemented by Christ Himself is not one which depends upon material considerations, or upon the presence of the persons, or upon an insincere and exaggerated flattery; but one such as ours, wrought by a common fear of God and a joint study of the divine scriptures.
We read in old tales that men traversed provinces, crossed seas, and visited strange peoples, simply to see face to face persons whom they only knew from books. Thus Pythagoras visited the prophets of Memphis; and Plato, besides visiting Egypt and Archytas of Tarentum, most carefully explored that part of the coast of Italy which was formerly called Great Greece. In this way the influential Athenian master with whose lessons the schools of the Academy resounded became at once a pilgrim and a pupil choosing modestly to learn what others had to teach rather than over confidently to propound views of his own. Indeed his pursuit of learning— which seemed to fly before him all the world over—finally led to his capture by pirates who sold him into slavery to a cruel tyrant. Thus he became a prisoner, a bond-man, and a slave; yet, as he was always a philosopher, he was greater still than the man who purchased him. Again we read that certain noblemen journeyed from the most remote parts of Spain and Gaul to visit Titus Livius, and listen to his eloquence which flowed like a fountain of milk. Thus the fame of an individual had more power to draw men to Rome than the attractions of the city itself; and the age displayed an unheard of and noteworthy portent in the shape of men who, entering the great city, bestowed their attention not upon it but upon something else. Apollonius too was a traveller—the one I mean who is called the sorcerer by ordinary people and the philosopher by such as follow Pythagoras. He entered Persia, traversed the Caucasus and made his way through the Albanians, the Scythians, the Massagetae, and the richest districts of India. At last, after crossing that wide river the Pison, he came to the Brahmans. There he saw Hiarcas sitting upon his golden throne and drinking from his Tantalus-fountain, and heard him instructing a few disciples upon the nature, motions, and orbits of the heavenly bodies. After this he travelled among the Elamites, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Medes, the Assyrians, the Parthians, the Syrians, the Phenicians, the Arabians, and the Philistines. Then returning to Alexandria he made his way to Ethiopia to see the gymnosophists and the famous table of the sun spread in the sands of the desert. Everywhere he found something to learn, and as he was always going to new places, he became constantly wiser and better. Philostratus has written the story of his life at length in eight books.
2. But why should I confine my allusions to the men of this world, when the Apostle Paul, the chosen vessel the doctor of the Gentiles, who could boldly say: "Do ye seek a proof of Christ speaking m me?" knowing that he really had within him that greatest of guests—when even he after visiting Damascus and Arabia "went up to Jerusalem to see Peter and abode with him fifteen days." For he who was to be a preacher to the Gentiles had to be instructed in the mystical numbers seven and eight. And again fourteen years after he took Barnabas and Titus and communicated his gospel to the apostles lest by any means he should have run or had run in vain. Spoken words possess an indefinable hidden power, and teaching that passed directly from the mouth of the speaker into the ears of the disciples is more impressive than any other. When the speech of Demosthenes against AEschines was recited before the latter during his exile at Rhodes, amid all the admiration and applause he sighed "if you could but have heard the brute deliver his own periods!
3. I do not adduce these instances because I have anything in me from which you either can or will learn a lesson, but to show you that your zeal and eagerness to learn— even though you cannot rely on help from me—are in themselves worthy of praise. A mind willing to learn deserves commendation even when it has no teacher. What is of importance to me is not what you find but what you seek to find. Wax is soft and easy to mould even where the hands of craftsman and modeller are wanting to work it. It is already potentially all that it can be made. The apostle Paul learned the Law of Moses and the prophets at the feet of Gamaliel and was glad that he had done so, for armed with this spiritual armour, he was able to say boldly "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds;" armed with these we war "casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; and being in a readiness to revenge all disobedience." He writes to Timothy who had been trained in the holy writings from a child exhorting him to study them diligently and not to neglect the gift which was given him with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. To Titus he gives commandment that among a bishop's other virtues (which he briefly describes) he should be careful to seek a knowledge of the scriptures: A bishop, he says, must hold fast "the faithful word as he hath been taught that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers." In fact want of education in a clergyman prevents him from doing good to any one but himself and much as the virtue of his life may build up Christ's church, he does it an injury as great by failing to resist those who are trying to pull it down. The prophet Haggai says—or rather the Lord says it by the mouth of Haggai—"Ask now the priests concerning the law." For such is the important function of the priesthood to give answers to those who question them concerning the law. And in Deuteronomy we read "Ask thy father and he will shew thee; thy elders and they will tell thee." Also in the one hundred and nineteenth psalm "thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage." David too, in the description of the righteous man whom he compares to the tree of life in paradise, amongst his other excellences speaks of this, "His delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night." In the close of his most solemn vision Daniel declares that "the righteous shall shine as the stars; and the wise, that is the learned, as the firmament." You can see, therefore, how great is the difference between righteous ignorance and instructed righteousness. Those who have the first are compared with the stars, those who have the second with the heavens. Yet, according to the exact sense of the Hebrew, both statements may be understood of the learned, for it is to be read in this way:—"They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever." Why is the apostle Paul called a chosen vessel? Assuredly because he is a repertory of the Law and of the holy scriptures. The learned teaching of our Lord strikes the Pharisees dumb with amazement, and they are filled with astonishment to find that Peter and John know the Law although they have not learned letters. For to these the Holy Ghost immediately suggested what comes to others by daily study and meditation; and, as it is written, they were "taught of God." The Saviour had only accomplished his twelfth year when the scene in the temple took place; but when he interrogated the elders concerning the Law His wise questions conveyed rather than sought information.
4. But perhaps we ought to call Peter and John ignorant, both of whom could say of themselves, "though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge." Was John a mere fisherman, rude and untaught? If so, whence did he get the words "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God." Logos in Greek has many meanings. It signifies word and reason and reckoning and the cause of individual things by which those which are subsist. All of which things we rightly predicate of Christ. This truth Plato with all his learning did not know, of this Demosthenes with all his eloquence was ignorant. "I will destroy," it is said, "the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." The true wisdom must destroy the false, and, although the foolishness of preaching is inseparable from the Cross, Paul speaks "wisdom among them that are perfect, yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world that come to nought," but he speaks "the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world." God's wisdom is Christ, for Christ, we are told, is "the power of God and the wisdom of God." He is the wisdom which is hidden in a mystery, of which also we read in the heading of the ninth psalm "for the hidden things of the son." In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He also who was hidden in a mystery is the same that was foreordained before the world. Now it was in the Law and in the Prophets that he was foreordained and prefigured. For this reason too the prophets were called seers, because they saw Him whom others did not see. Abraham saw His day and was glad. The heavens which were sealed to a rebellious people were opened to Ezekiel. "Open thou mine eyes," saith David, "that I may behold wonderful things out of thy Law." For "the law is spiritual" and a revelation is needed to enable us to comprehend it and, when God uncovers His face, to behold His glory.
5. In the apocalypse a book is shewn sealed with seven seals, which if you deliver to one that is learned saying, Read this, he will answer you, I cannot, for it is sealed. How many there are to-day who fancy themselves learned, yet the scriptures are a sealed book to them, and one which they cannot open save through Him who has the key of David, "he that openeth and no man shutteth; and shutteth and no man openeth." In the Acts of the Apostles the holy eunuch (or rather "man" for so the scripture calls him) when reading Isaiah he is asked by Philip "Understandest thou what thou readest?", makes answer:—"How can I except some man should guide me?" To digress for a moment to myself, I am neither holier nor more diligent than this eunuch, who came from Ethiopia, that is from the ends of the world, to the Temple leaving behind him a queen's palace, and was so great a lover of the Law and of divine knowledge that he read the holy scriptures even in his chariot. Yet although he had the book in his hand and took into his mind the words of the Lord, nay even had them on his tongue and uttered them with his lips, he still knew not Him, whom—not knowing— he worshipped in the book. Then Philip came and shewed him Jesus, who was concealed beneath the letter. Wondrous excellence of the teacher! In the same hour the eunuch believed and was baptized; he became one of the faithful and a saint. He was no longer a pupil but a master; and he found more in the church's font there in the wilderness than he had ever done in the gilded temple of the synagogue.
6. These instances have been just touched upon by me (the limits of a letter forbid a more discursive treatment of them) to convince you that in the holy scriptures you can make no progress unless you have a guide to shew you the way. I say nothing of the knowledge of grammarians, rhetoricians, philosophers, geometers, logicians, musicians, astronomers, astrologers, physicians, whose several kinds of skill are most useful to mankind, and may be ranged under the three heads of teaching, method, and proficiency. I will pass to the less important crafts which require manual dexterity more than mental ability. Husbandmen, masons, carpenters, workers in wood and metal, wool-dressers and fullers, as well as those artisans who make furniture and cheap utensils, cannot attain the ends they seek without instruction from qualified persons.As Horace says
"Doctors alone profess the healing art And none but joiners ever try to join."
7. The art of interpreting the scriptures is the only one of which all men everywhere claim to be masters. To quote Horace again
"Taught or untaught we all write poetry."
The chatty old woman, the doting old man, and the wordy sophist, one and all take in hand the Scriptures, rend them in pieces and teach them before they have learned them. Some with brows knit and bombastic words, balanced one against the other philosophize concerning the sacred writings among weak women. Others—I blush to say it—learn of women what they are to teach men; and as if even this were not enough, they boldly explain to others what they themselves by no means understand. I say nothing of persons who, like myself have been familiar with secular literature before they have come to the study of the holy scriptures. Such men when they charm the popular ear by the finish of their style suppose every word they say to be a law of God. They do not deign to notice what Prophets and apostles have intended but they adapt conflicting passages to suit their own meaning, as if it were a grand way of teaching—and not rather the faultiest of all—to misrepresent a writer's views and to force the scriptures reluctantly to do their will. They forget that we have read centos from Homer and Virgil; but we never think of calling the Christless Maro a Christian because of his lines:—
Now comes the Virgin back and Saturn's reign, Now from high heaven comes a Child newborn.
Another line might be addressed by the Father to the Son:—
Hail, only Son, my Might and Majesty.
And yet another might follow the Saviour's words on the cross:—
Such words he spake and there transfixed remained.
But all this is puerile. and resembles the sleight-of-hand of a mountebank. It is idle to try to teach what you do not know, and—if I may speak with some warmth—is worse still to be ignorant of your ignorance.
8. Genesis, we shall be told, needs no explanation; its topics are too simple—the birth of the world, the origin of the human race, the division of the earth, the confusion of tongues, and the descent of the Hebrews into Egypt! Exodus, no doubt, is equally plain, containing as it does merely an account of the ten plagues, the decalogue, and sundry mysterious and divine precepts! The meaning of Leviticus is of course self- evident, although every sacrifice that it describes, nay more every word that it contains, the description of Aaron's vestments, and all the regulations connected with the Levites are symbols of things heavenly! The book of Numbers too—are not its very figures, and Balaam's prophecy, and the forty-two camping places in the wilderness so many mysteries? Deuteronomy also, that is the second law or the foreshadowing of the law of the gospel,—does it not, while exhibiting things known before, put old truths in a new light? So far the 'five words' of the Pentateuch, with which the apostle boasts his wish to speak in the Church. Then, as for Job, that pattern of patience, what mysteries are there not contained in his discourses? Commencing in prose the book soon glides into verse and at the end once more reverts to prose. By the way in which it lays down propositions, assumes postulates, adduces proofs, and draws inferences, it illustrates all the laws of logic. Single words occurring in the book are full of meaning. To say nothing of other topics, it prophesies the resurrection of men's bodies at once with more clearness and with more caution than any one has yet shewn. "I know," Job says, "that my redeemer liveth, and that at the last day I shall rise again from the earth; and I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh shall I see God. Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. This my hope is stored up in my own bosom." I will pass on to Jesus the son of Nave—a type of the Lord in name as well as in deed— who crossed over Jordan, subdued hostile kingdoms, divided the land among the conquering people and who, in every city, village, mountain, river, hill-torrent, and boundary which he dealt with, marked out the spiritual realms of the heavenly Jerusalem, that is, of the church. In the book of Judges every one of the popular leaders is a type. Ruth the Moabitess fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah:—"Send thou a lamb, O Lord, as ruler of the land from the rock of the wilderness to the mount of the daughter of Zion." Under the figures of Eli's death and the slaying of Saul Samuel shews the abolition of the old law. Again in Zadok and in David he bears witness to the mysteries of the new priesthood and of the new royalty. The third and fourth books of Kings called in Hebrew Malachim give the history of the kingdom of Judah from Solomon to Jeconiah, and of that of Israel from Jeroboam the son of Nebat to Hoshea who was carried away into Assyria. If you merely regard the narrative, the words are simple enough, but if you look beneath the surface at the hidden meaning of it, you find a description of the small numbers of the church and of the wars which the heretics wage against it. The twelve prophets whose writings are compressed within the narrow limits of a single volume, have typical meanings far different from their literal ones Hosea speaks many times of Ephraim, of Samaria, of Joseph, of Jezreel, of a wife of whoredoms and of children of whoredoms, of an adulteress shut up within the chamber of her husband, sitting for a long time in widowhood and in the garb of mourning, awaiting the time when her husband will return to her. Joel the son of Pethuel describes the land of the twelve tribes as spoiled and devastated by the palmerworm the canker-worm, the locust, and the blight, and predicts that after the overthrow of the former people the Holy Spirit shall be poured out upon God's servants and handmaids; the same spirit, that is, which was to be poured out in the upper chamber at Zion upon the one hundred and twenty believers. These believers rising by gradual and regular gradations from one to fifteen form the steps to which there is a mystical allusion in the "psalms of degrees." Amos, although he is only "an herdman" from the country, "a gatherer of sycomore fruit," cannot be explained in a few words. For who can adequately speak of the three transgressions and the four of Damascus, of Gaza, of Tyre, of Idumaea, of Moab, of the children of Ammon, and in the seventh and eighth place of Judah and of Israel? He speaks to the fat kine that are in the mountain of Samaria, and bears witness that the great house and the little house shall fall. He sees now the maker of the grasshopper, now the Lord, standing upon a wall daubed or made of adamant, now a basket of apples that brings doom to the transgressors, and now a famine upon the earth "not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord." Obadiah, whose name means the servant of God, thunders against Edom red with blood and against the creature born of earth. He smites him with the spear of the spirit because of his continual rivalry with his brother Jacob. Jonah, fairest of doves, whose shipwreck shews in a figure the passion of the Lord, recalls the world to penitence, and while he preaches to Nineveh, announces salvation to all the heathen. Micah the Morasthite a joint heir with Christ announces the spoiling of the daughter of the robber and lays siege against her, because she has smitten the jawbone of the judge of Israel. Nahum, the consoler of the world, rebukes "the bloody city" and when it is overthrown cries: -"Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings." Habakkuk, like a strong and unyielding wrestler, stands upon his watch and sets his foot upon the tower that he may contemplate Christ upon the cross and say "His glory covered the heavens and the earth was full of his praise. And his brightness was as the light; he had horns coming out of his hand: and there was the hiding of his power." Zephaniah, that is the bodyguard and knower of the secrets of the Lord, hears "a cry from the fishgate, and an howling from the second, and a great crashing from the hills." He proclaims "howling to the inhabitants of the mortar; for all the people of Canaan are undone; all they that were laden with silver are cut off." Haggai, that is he who is glad or joyful, who has sown in tears to reap in joy, is occupied with the rebuilding of the temple. He represents the Lord (the Father, that is) as saying "Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations and he who is desired of all nations shall come' Zechariah, he that is mindful of his Lord, gives us many prophecies. He sees Jesus, "clothed with filthy garments," a stone with seven eyes, a candle- stick all of gold with lamps as many as the eyes, and two olivetrees on the right side of the bowl and on the left. After he has described the horses, red, black, white, and grisled, and the cutting off of the chariot from Ephraim and of the horse from Jerusalem he goes on to prophesy and predict a king who shall be a poor man and who shall sit "upon a colt the foal of an ass." Malachi, the last of all the prophets, speaks openly of the rejection of Israel and the calling of the nations. "I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord of hosts, neither will I accept an offering at your hand. For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, my name is great among the Gentiles: and in every place incense is offered unto my name, and a pure offering." As for Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, who can fully understand or adequately explain them? The first of them seems to compose not a prophecy but a gospel. The second speaks of a rod of an almond tree and of a seething pot with its face toward the north, and of a leopard which has changed its spots. He also goes four times through the alphabet in different metres. The beginning and ending of Ezekiel, the third of the four, are involved in so great obscurity that like the commencement of Genesis they are not studied by the Hebrews until they are thirty years old. Daniel, the fourth and last of the four prophets, having knowledge of the times and being interested in the whole world, in clear language proclaims the stone cut out of the mountain without hands that overthrows all kingdoms. David, who is our Simonides, Pindar, and Alcaeus, our Horace, our Catullus, and our Serenus all in one, sings of Christ to his lyre; and on a psaltery with ten strings calls him from the lower world to rise again. Solomon, a lover of peace and of the Lord, corrects morals, teaches nature, unites Christ and the church, and sings a sweet marriage song to celebrate that holy bridal. Esther, a type of the church, frees her people from danger and, after having slain Haman whose name means iniquity, hands down to posterity a memorable day and a great feast. The book of things omitted' or epitome of the old dispensation is of such importance and value that without it any one who should claim to himself a knowledge of the scriptures would make himself a laughing stock in his own eyes. Every name used in it, nay even the conjunction of the words, serves to throw light on narratives passed over in the books of Kings and upon questions suggested by the gospel. Ezra and Nehemiah, that is the Lord's helper and His consoler, are united in a single book. They restore the Temple and build up the walls of the city. In their pages we see the throng of the Israelites returning to their native land, we read of priests and Levites, of Israel proper and of proselytes; and we are even told the several families to which the task of building the walls and towers was assigned. These references convey one meaning upon the surface, but another below it.
9. [In Migne, 8.] You see how, carried away by my love of the scriptures, I have exceeded the limits of a letter vet have not fully accomplished my object. We have heard only what it is that we ought to know and to desire, so that we too may be able to say with the psalmist:—"My soul breaketh out for the very fervent desire that it hath alway unto thy judgments." But the saying of Socrates about himself—"this only I know that I know nothing"—is fulfilled in our case also. The New Testament I will briefly deal with. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the Lord's team of four, the true cherubim or store of knowledge. With them the whole body is full of eyes, they glitter as sparks, they run and return like lightning, their feet are straight feet and lifted up, their backs also are winged, ready to fly in all directions. They hold together each by each and are interwoven one with another: like wheels within wheels they roll along and go whithersoever the breath of the Holy Spirit wafts them. The apostle Paul writes to seven churches (for the eighth epistle— that to the Hebrews—is not generally counted in with the other). He instructs
Timothy and Titus; he intercedes with Philemon for his runaway slave. Of him I think it better to say nothing than to write inadequately. The Acts of the Apostles seem to relate a mere unvarnished narrative descriptive of the infancy of the newly born church but when once we realize that their author is Luke the physician whose praise is in the gospel, we shall see that all his words are medicine for the sick soul. The apostles James, Peter, John, and Jude, have published seven epistles at once spiritual and to the point, short and long, short that is in words but lengthy in substance so that there are few indeed who do not find themselves in the dark when they read them. The apocalypse of John has as many mysteries as words. In saying this I have said less than the book deserves. All praise of it is inadequate; manifold meanings lie hid in its every word.
10. [In Migne, 9.] I beg of you, my dear brother, to live among these books, to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else. Does not such a life seem to you a foretaste of heaven here on earth? Let not the simplicity of the scripture or the poorness of its vocabulary offend you; for these are due either to the faults of translators or else to deliberate purpose: for in this way it is better fitted for the instruction of an unlettered congregation as the educated person can take one meaning and the uneducated another from one and the same sentence. I am not so dull or so forward as to profess that I myself know it, or that I can pluck upon the earth the fruit which has its root in heaven, but I confess that I should like to do so. I put myself before the man who sits idle and, while I lay no claim to be a master, I readily pledge myself to be a fellow-student. "Every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." Let us learn upon earth that knowledge which will continue with us in heaven.
11. [In Migne, 10.] I will receive you with open hands and—if I may boast and speak foolishly like Hermagoras—I will strive to learn with you whatever you desire to study. Eusebius who is here regards you with the affection of a brother; he has made your letter twice as precious by telling me of your sincerity of character, your contempt for the world, your constancy in friendship, and your love to Christ. The letter bears on its face (without any aid from him) your prudence and the charm of your style. Make haste then, I beseech you, and cut instead of loosing the hawser which prevents your vessel from moving in the sea. The man who sells his goods because he despises them and means to renounce the world can have no desire to sell them dear. Count as money gained the sum that you must expend upon your outfit. There is an old saying that a miser lacks as much what he has as what he has not. The believer has a whole world of wealth; the unbeliever has not a single farthing. Let us always live "as having nothing and yet possessing all things." Food and raiment, these are the Christian's wealth. If your property is in your own power, sell it: if not, cast it from you. "If any man ... will take away thy coat, let him have the cloke also." You are all for delay, you wish to defer action: unless—so you argue—unless I sell my goods piecemeal and with caution, Christ will be at a loss to feed his poor. Nay, he who has offered himself to God, has given Him everything once for all. The apostles did but forsake ships and nets. The widow cast but two brass coins into the treasury and yet she shall be preferred before Croesus with all his wealth. He readily despises all things who reflects always that he must die.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (PNPF II/VI, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.