NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 21.4
Today in Tom Lee's study of the Origins of Christianity we take a look at three iconic figures in the history of Christianity — Ambrose, Chrysostom and Jerome. Each in their own way made decisive contributions with key ideas that became part of the collective wisdom of Christians and Catholics.
Two Emperors, Two Creeds — the Comedy Continues. Part 21.4
The break with the Armenians in 374...
Jerome, following his eastern sojourn, returned to Rome and became secretary to Pope Damasus, who was not the most exemplary Vicar of Christ. Having fought for power, he took care to enjoy it. He was notorious for pomp and luxury, and also for his court of rich ladies, that spawned the nickname the matron's ear tickler.
Damasus remarked, "although the East sent the apostles, yet because of the merit of their martyrdom Rome has acquired a superior right to claim them as citizens". Damasus is the first known Pope to speak of Rome as the Apostolic See. He is also the only Pope to have been taken to court for adultery. He was exonerated but a prominent pagan luminary Praetextatus who served in several civic priestly roles, and whose wife was priestess of Hecate, joked that he would become a Christian at once if he could be bishop of Rome.
Damasus promoted the liturgical commemoration of martyrs, and had the Roman shrines decorated with long metrical inscriptions. It is believed that the liturgy of the church at Rome was first performed in Latin rather than Greek during his reign. But his diplomatic skills cannot have been great. He offended the Catholicos [Patriarch] of the Armenians and that church severed all ties, with Rome in 374 and has gone its own way ever since.
The same year at Milan the thirty-four year old governor of the province, son of a praetorian prefect, was unanimously chosen to be its bishop. Ambrose who was only a catachumen and not yet baptized, was both surprised and unwilling at first. He had attended the election in his civic capacity and had spoken eloquently in an attempt to reconcile two hostile factions. Milan was then the administrative hub of the western half of the empire. The bishop who had just died was an Arian, his Catholic predecessor having been driven into exile.
Ambrose was a lawyer and he spoke and thought like a lawyer. But once he was bishop he immediately began to distribute his wealth to the poorest members of the diocese, setting a powerful example of humility and holiness for those who worked with him. Paulinus of Nola wrote in his Life of Ambrose that the governor "bestowed all the gold and silver he possessed on the poor. He even gave the Church the landholdings he owned ... and left nothing that he could call his own."
The episcopal household was run as a monastic community, his brother Satyrus joining him in Milan and participating in his charity work. The choir or decumeni of Ambrose's cathedral consisted of both men and women, cannons and canonesses who lived in community.
Having been precipitated unexpectedly into the priesthood, Ambrose began a serious study of theology and Scripture and quickly became the most eloquent opponent of Arianism in the Latin Church. A friend and confidant first of Emperor Gratian and then of Valentinian he came into dispute with Valentinian's mother the empress Justina. She was a militant Arian and demanded that Ambrose hand over a basilica in Milan for the use of the Arians.
Summoned to debate his Arian counterpart, Auxentius, Ambrose refused and was besieged in his own church building, surrounded by imperial troops. It was during this period of virtual house arrest that Ambrose wrote his most famous treatise, The Sermon Against Auxentius, which discussed the proper relationship, in his view, between Church and State. His words formed the basis of the Catholic notion that government has no right to prohibit the practice of one's faith.
Ambrose's message was addressed to the Roman Empire and stated unequivocally "The emperor is within the Church, not above the Church". He maintained that the Church had the right to govern itself without interference from the emperor or the imperial council. The Church, furthermore, had the right to the protection of the State. The bishop, who represented the Church, had the duty of correcting and reprimanding those in civil authority. With no fear for his own safety, Ambrose continued to reiterate those principles throughout his life.
In 381 Bishop Meletius of Antioch ordained John Chrysostom (Golden Mouth) as a deacon. The son of an army officer and raised by his widowed mother, he had studied oratory with the emperor Julian's famous pagan teacher Libanius at Athens, before retreating to ascetic austerities in a mountain wilderness for a number of years. He became one of the most famous preachers of the age.
Meanwhile, Damasus of Rome is credited with standardizing the canon of Christian Scripture, both Old and New Testament, specifying what, in his opinion, were the authentic books of the Bible. He commissioned Jerome to translate the whole Bible into Latin. African missionaries had made the first Latin translations, not at one time or in one place, but piecemeal as occasion arose, padding out the structural brevity of the Hebrew scriptures to amplify the passages claimed as prophecies of Christ. The many individual efforts were united and became the first Latin Bible. Though it was extremely uneven and contained numerous inaccuracies it was firmly established as the Authorized Version, so that Jerome's revision of it aroused deep suspicion and opposition.
Under Damasus, Jerome was insolent in his prosperity, treading on many influential toes in the process, not without reason. What he scathingly attacked was the laxity and pomp of many of the new breed of ambitious and opportunist clergy. But when the Pope died and there was some likelihood of Jerome becoming Pope, he was expelled from Rome.
Jerome repudiated the eternal city, now become for him "the scarlet-clad whore" and once again went east. He gave away his money and encouraged others to do the same. Without some well-heeled female followers who revered him and looked out for him he might have perished. An impoverished exile, he carried around his past as if it were a shield.
In 386 Jerome and his followers settled at Bethlehem, one of them, Paula, paying for the construction of separate male and female monastic buildings. She was a Greek scholar and Jerome's collaborator in the Latin translation of the Bible. A hospice was opened for travelers and a free school where Jerome taught both Greek and Latin to the local children.
As Jerome got older he got angrier — his eyesight, his teeth and his digestion were bad, and he wrote viciously insulting letters to his theological rivals. Whips were his words and scorpions his syllables, and neither were greatly to anyone's taste. His idea of heaven was a vow of silence for everyone but himself. He little understood the political purposes for which he was occasionally used — and from his un-Christian diatribes one can only conclude that in his accession to sainthood he lost none of his old wickedness — but his Latin Bible, despite a few doctrine-embellishing mis-translations, exhibited a desperate skill and is one of the greatest achievements of that age.
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