Jerome on Ambrose: “the black croaking raven”

JeromeI mentioned in another post that St. Jerome didn’t like St. Ambrose.  He really didn’t like him.  This needs an explanation.  Why?  Do you ever get the sense these days that many think the chief role of a priest is to be a nice guy?

Let us consider St. Jerome.  He has a mixed reputation for a saint.  Right?  

First, keep in mind that Jerome (+420) was not canonized in the modern sense of the term, which involves a detailed examination of the life and works of a Servant of God so as to discern within a reasonable doubt that he lived a life of heroic virtue.

What’s with Jerome and Ambrose?  Well, to get at this we have to bring in a third character, Tyrannius Rufinus of Aquileia.  

You are no doubt aware that Jerome and his old friend of his youth Rufinus (+410) had a titanic clash over the writings and teachings of the early Alexandrian exgete Origen.  When they were young, they were very close, forming part of a group of dedicated Christians at Aquileia and then later at Jerusalem.  They began to argue over the theology of Origen, but they patched things together before Rufinus left Palestine for Italy. 

However, once in Italy Rufinus began to translate Origen Peri archon (De principiis).  In his preface Rufinus made the mistake of assuming that just because Jerome had translated some of Origen’s work, therefore Jerome was a fan of Origen.  People around Jerome also thought Rufinus purposely made Origen sound more orthodox than he was.  These folks wrote to Jerome to let him know what they thought Rufinus was up to and asked Jerome to explain what was going on.  In response Jerome translated Origen himself.  In a letter he strongly denied being a partisan of Origen’s theology, even though he admired Origen’s skill.   Jerome focused his laser on Origen’s statements about the resurrection and the preexistence of souls, and how the Persons of the Trinity related to each other which made him sound like a subordinationist.  Jerome, in this second phase of translation, interpreted Origen in a very strict and harsh way.

When you look at the way Jerome spoke of Origen the first time around, 12 years before, and what he did to him in the second round, it is pretty clear that this was a reaction to Rufinus’s written assumption about Jerome.  Jerome was afraid that his own reputation was going to be damaged by a positive association with ideas which seemed very strange to many people, especially in the West.  In short, he turned savagely on both Origen and Rufinus in order to defend his reputation.  In defending himself Jerome was a little less than sincere.  

Rufinus responded, of course.  He had too.  Rufinus pointed out, for example, that in a commentary on Ephesians Jerome had referred without objection to ideas of Origen about the preexistence and fall of souls into bodies.  There are other points as well.  Jerome responded with vitrolic force saying that some people (e.g., Rufinus), "love me so well that they cannot be heretics without me."

Of course the ways of saints are strange and fraught with problems.  The postal service, or lack of one, actually plays an importance role in all of this.  Jerome wrote a friendly letter to Rufinus assuring him of his high esteem and speaking of their past friendship and the passing of his mother.  He expressed his desire to avoid a public fight.  

The letter never reached Rufinus.  Jerome’s friend Pammachius kept it, and pubished instead a letter of Jerome which accompanied his translation of Origen’s De principiis.   Not having seen Jerome’s irenic gesture, Rufinus published his Apology, in response to Jerome the attacker.

raven In Book II of his Apology, Rufinus points out how Jerome had attacked Ambrose.  He mentions, as a matter of fact, Ambrose’ work De Spiritu Sancto which I wrote about yesterday.  Thus, Rufinus about Jerome’s view of Ambrose.  Rufinus relates more of Jerome’s distain for his "rival" in Milan (Apology 2,23-25) as he digs into accusations of plagiarism which were being hurled around.  Rufinus says in 2, 23 that Jerome referred to Ambrose as a raven, a bird of ill omen, croaking and ridiculing in an strange way the color of all the others birds on account of his own total blackness… "praesertim cum a sinistro oscinem corvum audiam croccientem et mirum in modum de cunctarum avium ridere coloribus, cum totus ipse tenebrosus sit."

Again, going on about Jerome’s accusation against Ambrose of plagiarism, in 2,25 Rufinus continues about Jerome’s treatment of Ambrose with his own counter charges:

25. You observe how (Jerome) treats Ambrose. First, he calls him a crow and says that he is black all over; then he calls him a jackdaw who decks himself in other birds’ showy feathers; and then he rends him with his foul abuse, and declares that there is nothing manly in a man whom God has singled out to be the glory of the churches of Christ, who has spoken of the testimonies of the Lord even in the sight of persecuting kings and has not been alarmed. The saintly Ambrose wrote his book on the Holy Spirit not in words only but with his own blood; for he offered his life-blood to his persecutors, and shed it within himself, although God preserved his life for future labours.

Suppose that (Ambrose) did follow some of the Greek writers belonging to our Catholic body, and borrowed something from their writings, it should hardly have been the first thought in your mind, (still less the object of such zealous efforts as to make you set to work to translate the work of Didymus on the Holy Spirit,) to blaze abroad what you call his plagiarisms, which were very possibly the result of a literary necessity when he had to reply at once to some ravings of the heretics. Is this the fairness of a Christian?

Is it thus that we are to observe the injunction of the Apostle, “Do nothing through faction or through vain glory”? But I might turn the tables on you and ask, Thou that sayest that a man should not steal, dost thou steal?

I might quote a fact I have already mentioned, namely, that, a little before you wrote your commentary on Micah, you had been accused of plagiarizing from Origen. And you did not deny it, but said: “What they bring against me in violent abuse I accept as the highest praise; for I wish to imitate the man whom we and all who are wise admire.” Your plagiarisms redound to your highest praise; those of others make them crows and jackdaws in your estimation. If you act rightly in imitating Origen whom you call second only to the Apostles, why do you sharply attack another for following Didymus, whom nevertheless you point to by name as a Prophet and an apostolic man?

For myself I must not complain, since you abuse us all alike. First you do not spare Ambrose, great and highly esteemed as he was; then the man of whom you write that he was second only to the Apostles, and that all the wise admire him, and whom you have praised up to the skies a thousand times over, not as you say in two, but in innumerable places, this man who was before an Apostle, you now turn round and make a heretic.

Thirdly, this very Didymus whom you designate the Seer-Prophet, who has the eye of the bride in the Song of Songs, and whom you call according to the meaning of his name an Apostolic man, you now on the other hand criminate as a perverse teacher, and separate him off with what you call your censor’s rod, into the communion of heretics. I do not know whence you received this rod. I know that Christ once gave the keys to Peter: but what spirit it is who now dispenses these censors’ rods, it is for you to say. However, if you condemn all those I have mentioned with the same mouth with which you once praised them, I who in comparison of them am but like a flea, must not complain, I repeat, if now you tear me to pieces, though once you praised me, and in your Chronicle equalled me to Florentius and Bonosus for the nobleness, as you said, of my life.

And from Jerome’s own pen we have this vicious attack on Ambrose (ep. 69,9).  Jerome was writing in the year of Ambrose’ death, 397, to a Roman named Oceanus who wanted Jerome to help him fight against a bishop in Spain who had married a second time.  Jerome tells Oceanus to drop it, since that bishops’ first marriage had been before baptism.  However, Jerome uses the occasion to take a somewhat less than oblique swipe at Ambrose.  Ambrose had been popularly proclaimed bishop in Milan in 374 even though he had not even been baptized and had no theological training. The emperor, who wanted peace, acceded and within a week Ambrose was baptized and consecrated bishop.  Jerome, who had probably been disappointed that he hadn’t been made bishop of Rome, surely felt the sting of this meteoric rise of Ambrose.  In any event, listen to Jerome:

One who was yesterday a catechumen is today a bishop; one who was yesterday in the amphitheatre is today in the church; one who spent the evening in the circus stands in the morning at the altar: one who a little while ago was a patron of actors is now a dedicator of virgins. Was the apostle ignorant of our shifts and subterfuges? Did he know nothing of our foolish arguments? (Heri catechumenus, hodie pontifex; heri in amphitheatro, hodie in ecclesia; uespere in circo, mane in altari; dudum fautor strionum, nunc uirginum consecrator: num ignorabat apostolus tergiuersationes nostras et argumentorum ineptias nesciebat?) 

Okaayyyy!   That’s "NO!" vote from Jerome. 

This is all very discouraging, in a sense, but important matters in the Church are sometimes hammered out through the instrumentality of weak men who are driven by love and zeal.  Sometimes nice guys finish last, too.   Still, all of us are bound to seek the truth and God will be the final Judge of our intentions.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Patristiblogging. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Andrew says:

    I hope this is not too excessive:

    From Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Tomus XXIII, p. 395: “Dissensionis Hieronymum inter ac Rufinum longe notior historia est, quam nostra explicatione ut indigeat. Causa mali tanti Latina versio librorum Origenis fuit, quam Rufinus elaboraverat Romae circa annum 398. Nam ut Origeni dogmata, SUBDOLAE INTERPRETATIONIS FUCO OBLITA, (my caps) Latinis auribus tutius propinaret, praefationem operi praefixit, in qua Hieronimum figuratis laudibus praedicabat, veluti opinionum suorum fautorem, suaeque sententiae socium: ipsum vero librum ab erroribus Origenis expurgatum, opera sua iactabat. [] Alii Hieronymo suadebant ut purgaret suspicionem favoris in Originem ab aemulo iniectam, ne si criminantem convincere differret, consentire illi videretur. Hieronymus igitur, datis primum Rufino litteris, amice conquestus est: deinde anno 400 Origenis librum in sermonem Latinum vertit, ita ut haereses statim innotescerent: (my note: what kind of heresies?: docebat Origen v.g. animas ex alio in aliud corpus “migrare” quod uti patet non congruit doctrinae Christianae) deditque una epistulam, in qua calumniam omnem a se longe amovet, quove animo legerit aliquando, aut laudavit Origenem exponit. (my note: quo animo? animo veritatis, dicens e.g.: “Laudavi eum “in ecclesiastica historia, in digestione temporum, in descriptione sanctae Terrae; num ex eo hereticus sum, quia is qui hos libros condidit, hereticus est?”). Hinc porro ingens in Ecclesia incendium exortum est; nam Rufinus Apologiam pro sua fide ad papam Anastasium scribit, ubi non tam pro se nititur satisfacere, quam in sui defensionem NOVAS HIERONYMO CALUMNIAS STRUIT (again my capts). Tum tres libros sequenti anno contra S. Hieronymum scripsit: quibus respondit Hieronymus tribus libris q.t. ‘Apologia adversus libros Rufini’.”

    My comment: Si quis hos legerit, nihil falsi, nihil malevoli, nihil irascibili illic inveniet. Scribit Hieronymus ad Rufinum, ut aliquod saltem proferam exemplum: “Tali constrictus articulo, ausculta quid scripserim: “Hoc mihi praestiterunt amici mei (non dixi ‘amicus meus’ ne te viderer arguere) ut si tacuero, reus; si respondero, inimicus iudicer. Dura utraque conditio. [Si tu] me nescius vulneraris, quid ad me, qui percussus sum? Num idcirco curari non debeo, quia tu me bono animo vulnerasti? Etc., etc.” The times were different and there was a lot of stuff flying around, but Jerome never treated anyone without charity while he himself was treated badly by others, as v.g. by Palladius, another follower of Origen who wrote about the saint the following calumny: “Tanta fuit ejus invidia ut ab ea obrueretur virtus doctrinae. Cum ergo multis diebus cum eo versatus esset sanctus Posidonius, dicit mihi in aurem, “Ingenua quidem Paula, quae ejus curam gerit, praemorietur, liberata ab ejus invidia. Ut autem arbitror, propter hunc virum non habitabit vir sanctus in his locis, sed ejus pervadet invidia usque ad proprium fratrem.”-Pallad. Hist. Laus., §78, cf. §82.” What insanity: Paula liberata ab Hieronymi invidia? Ridiculosissimum. Legamus epistulam S. Hieronymi ubi Paulae perpulcherrime enarrat vitam, epistulam sc. CVIII (Ad Eustochium Virginem Sanctae Paulae filiam) cuius hic, otio deficiente, saltem finem adiungo:

    “Vale, Paula, et cultoris tui (i.e. Hieronymi) ultimam senectutem, orationibus iuva. Fides et opera tua Christo te sociant, praesens facilius quod postulas, impetrabis. (intellige: praesens Christo in caelis). Exegi monumentum aere perennius (Horat. Od. Ultim. Lib. 3. Carm.), quod nulla destruere possit vetustas. Incidi elogium sepulchro tuo, quod huic volumini subdidi, ut quocumque noster sermo pervenerit, te laudatam, et in Bethleem conditam lector agnoscat.

    Titulus sepulchri: (nota Paulam ex antiquo Romanorum nobilitatis genere duxisse originem)

    “Scipio quam genuit, Pauli fudere parentes, Graccorum soboles, Agamemnonis inclyta proles, hoc iacet in tumulo: Paulam dixere priores, Eustochii genitrix, Romani prima Senatus: pauperiem Christi, et Bethlemitica rura secuta est.”

    In fronte spelunchae:

    “Aspicis angustum, praecisa in rupe sepulchrum? Hospitium Paulae est, caelestia regna tenentis. Fratrem, cognatos, Romam, patriamque relinquens divitias, sobolem, Bethlemiti conditur antro. Hic praesepe tuum, Christe, atque hic mystica magi munera portantes, hominique, Deoque dedere.

    Dormivit sancta et beata Paula, septimo Kalendas Februarias, tertia sabbati post soli occubitum. Sepulta est quinto Kalend. earumdem. Honorio Augusto sexies, et Aristaeneto Consulibus. Vixit in Sancto proposito, Romae annos quinque, Bethleem annos viginti. Omne vitae tempus implevit, annos quinquaginta sex, mensibus octo, diebus viginti et uno.”

    Invidia? Pppphlease!

    Overall: Hieronymus gets a bad wrap. I don’t know why but he keaps getting a bad wrap to this day. But he is in heavenly glory with Christ. Bitter grouches don’t get to be inscribed in the catalogus sanctorum. Hieronymus was a sweetheart. I could quote tons of citations to prove it, but excederet unius epistulae modum his de rebus fusius disputari.
    As for the quote from Ep. 69: I searched and nowhere does Jerome make mention of Ambrosius. How do we know that this comments pertains to Ambrosius? But even if it did: wasn’t there some valid reason to question the process whereby the episcopal election was done hastily? Sure he turned out to be a great saint, but that does not justify a hasty process in violation of certain canons, does it?

    Wishing you a blessed father’s day, for being a priest you are certainly a father of many juxta illud: “Filioli mei, quos iterum parturio, donec formetur Christus in vobis.”

    PS As for the words of Ruffinus about the raven: I don’t believe everything he wrote: he is proven to having been a deceptive character.

  2. Okay. Another county heard from.

  3. Andrew says:

    I guess that means that I’ve made some worthless comments? Fiat!

    Do I get a second chance if I reduce it? How about this:?

    As for the quote from Ep. 69: I searched and nowhere does Jerome make mention of Ambrosius. How does anyone know that this comment pertained to Ambrosius?

  4. Yes, that comment of Jerome, “Heri catechumenus, hodie pontifex … Yesterday a catechumen, today a bishop”, written in 397 (the year of Ambrose’ death, pertained to Ambrose.

    Also, I don’t think it does any harm to point out that Jerome had an truly wide grouchy streak in him. If nothing else, his correspondence with Augustine of Hippo shows that. This takes nothing away from his accomplishments. Also, I do actually believe that Rufinus accurately cites Jerome on Ambrose.

    Let it also be said that Jerome does mention Ambrose by name about 20 times in his extant works. He makes favorable comments about Ambrose as well! In ep. 49,14 he calls him “holy” (sanctus) Ambrose in reference to his works about windows – something Jerome clearly had a interest in. In another place, ep. 114,20, he calls him “our” (noster) Ambrose.

  5. Andrew says:

    Thank you for you kind reply, Father. The exchange between Jerome and Augustine is indeed challenging. Lots of misunderstandings, lots of confusion, even lots of harshness perhaps, but in the end – wonderful concord. (Even though some of the subjects discussed havn’t been resolved to this day, v.g. the question of unbaptised infants). Yet, if one sees all of that appearant disagreement in light of –say – what Cicero had to say about true friendship in his “De Amicitia”, it all makes better sense:

    “Ita fit verum illud, quod initio dixi, amicitiam nisi inter bonos esse non posse. Est enim boni viri, quem eundem sapientem licet dicere, haec duo tenere in amicitia: primum ne quid fictum sit neve simulatum; aperte enim vel odisse magis ingenui est quam fronte occultare sententiam, etc.”

    One thing is sure: no one ever needed to be confused where St. Jerome stood. He always called his shots as he saw them. That particular virtue, so refreshing, is indeed rare these days – me judice.

    In fact, (here I go stretching this out again but I suppose it is better to respond than to ignore someone completely) charity without a certain amount of bitterness is somewhat flat. In his letter 31 Jerome has this to say: “mihil tantummodo suave placet; nisi quod in se habet mordacis aliquid veritatis. Pacha Christi cum amaritudinibus manducatur.” I wonder if this “mordacitas” is not a common trait of saints and saintly individuals everywhere. Mel in sacrificiis ob nimiam dulcedinem non offertur.

    I promise I won’t stretch this out any more.

  6. mike aquilina says:

    I just went back and re-read randomly in De Viris Illustribus, and he sure reads like the grump I remembered. Jerome interprets rather liberally the task of “praising” famous men. His profile of Ambrose is brief and withering. Here it is (in Thomas Halton’s translation for CUA):

    “Ambrose, bishop of Milan, continues writing down to the present day. Concerning him I postpone judgment in that he is still alive lest I get blamed for flattery, on the one hand, or, on the other, for telling the truth.”


    In a footnote to the passage, Halton points out that Jerome didn’t hesitate to comment on other living authors.

  7. Jeff says:

    Jerome wasn’t the only grouch among saints!

    St. Cyril of Alexandria is one of my favorites. Another is St. Simeon Stylites (anyone would be a grouch perching on top of a pillar and being surrounded by hectoring crowds of spectators all the time.)

    I’ve got myself a list of Nasty Saints and I have frequent recourse to their intercession. I figger they’ve mellowed out over time, as it were. But who better to understand our own tantrums? Or to sympathize with us in this modern age where “Nice” is everything and no one can suggest that anyone else might be doing something “bad”?

    I should turn them into a litany sometime! :

    “From felt banners covered with ‘LUV’:
    Deliver us, O Lord!”

    “When a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing grouchily!”


  8. Interesting stuff Fr. Z

    St. Jerome makes my blog sound downright friendly :)

  9. Yes, some of our dourest saints never pulled punches when the truth was at stake. I’m sure that there are volumes of writings and utterances of the saints that are less than cordial. God bless them all, and may all of them pray for us.

  10. Everyone thanks for the comments. May I also kindly suggest that when we quote Latin extensively it is a good idea to provide a translation? Two reasons. First, a prof of mne years ago, the ineffable Basil Studer, once shouted at our class “Mentio non fit expositio!… Mentioning something doesn’t constitute an explanation!”. Second, it probably makes it easier for the average reader to follow and learn and remember what is going on. o{]:¬)

Comments are closed.