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“Jerome Letter 53 to Paulinus - original Latin Text with English translation”

Chapters 4-7 and 10 of this letter in which Jerome stresses the importance of Scripture and states that a guide and teacher is needed to understand Scripture.

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Click here to read at earlychurchtexts.com in the original Latin (with dictionary lookup links). The English translation below is from the NPNF series.

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Letter LIII. To Paulinus

Jerome urges Paulinus, bishop of Nola, (for whom see Letter LVIII.) to make a diligent study of the Scriptures and to this end reminds him of the zeal for learning displayed not only by the wisest of the pagans but also by the apostle Paul. Then going through the two Testaments in detail he describes the contents of the several books and the lessons which may be learned from them. He concludes with an appeal to Paulinus to divest himself wholly of his earthly wealth and to devote himself altogether to God. Written in 394 a.d.

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. . . . .

10. 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.

 



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Letter 53 to Paulinus
Epistle 53 to Paulinus
Importance of Scripture
Importance of the Bible
Guide and Teacher needed for understanding Scripture
Migne Latin Text
Patrologiae Latinae Cursus Completus
Patrologia Latina
 

 

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