St. Ambrose: copycat, rookie, disliked by St. Jerome

In the ancient world, invective was a standard tool of debate.  Interlocutors would often pour acid on each other in a way we today… well, perhaps not some who read blogs today… find quite unsettling.

St. Jerome (+420), not known for his easy-going, gentle character, genuinely had if out for St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) and didn’t spare him one little bit.

My conjecture is that Jerome was jealous of Ambrose, who had “made it” in the Church in Italy, whereas Jerome always played second fiddle. But I digress.

What’s with Jerome about Ambrose?

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 exegete Origen.

When Jerome and Rufinus 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.

St. JeromeWhen 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, Jerome 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 to. 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 published 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.

And now we arrive finally at the point of this entry.

In Book II of his Apology, Rufinus points out how Jerome had attacked Ambrose. He mentions Ambrose’ work De Spiritu Sancto. Thus, Rufinus about Jerome’s view of Ambrose.

Rufinus relates more of Jerome’s disdain 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 amphitheater 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 a big “NO!” vote from Jerome.

Regardless, today is the feast of St. Ambrose, who seemed to bring out both the worst and the best in people.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Linking Back, Patristiblogging, Saints: Stories & Symbols, Throwing a Nutty and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. JohnE says:

    Not sure about this talk of crows and jackdaws, but I’m fairly certain there was a Schoolhouse Rock song on pronouns about a kangaroo named Tyrannius Rufinus of Aquileia. Sorry.

  2. As my parents used to say “Fight nicely, Christian children!”

  3. susanna says:

    I hope Hollywood doesn’t pick up this story.

  4. I think we may be sure they get along like a house on fire now!

  5. MJ says:

    Wow I didn’t know all this! This was a way more dramatic tale than that of St. Nicholas punching the heretic Arius during the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea! :-P

  6. Tom in NY says:

    Ad jucundum:
    Perhaps it was better to anonymous to Hieronymus!
    Salutationes omnibus.

  7. catholicmidwest says:

    I love hearing about St. Jerome. A lot of people think that all there is to being Christian is being nicely-nice to the point of political correctness and general boot-licking. All the rest simply gets lost amongst the plastic flowers. It’s disgusting.

  8. catholicmidwest: All the rest simply gets lost amongst the plastic flowers.


  9. Gregorius says:

    I still like the Eastern Orthodox descriptions of the saints. To take St. Nicholas the wonderworker for example:
    “Unable to put a stop by argument to the senseless blasphemy of Arius against the Son of God and His most pure Mother, St. Nicholas struck Arius in the face. The holy fathers at the Council strongly disapproved of such behavior, and they banned Nicholas from the Council and stripped him of all marks of his episcopal rank. That very night, several of the fathers had the selfsame vision: how the Lord stood on one side of Nicholas with the Gospels and the Mother of God on the other with a pallium, offering to the saint those marks of rank that had been stripped from him. Seeing this, the fathers were amazed, and quickly returned to Nicholas that which they had taken from him. They began from that time to respect him as a great man, and to interpret his action against Arius not as some senseless rage but as the expression of great zeal for God’s truth. “

  10. JMody says:

    I’m reminded of a column I saw during the 1996 election where people were saying that the rhetoric was “too partisan” and was taking the place of substantive debate “that politicians used to have” — so the columnist actually did some research and found some supporters of John Adams had written against Jefferson (I think these were the contestants in question – memory fading already), promising that if Jefferson won, the country would be ruined immediately, because bestiality and incest would be practiced openly in the streets.

    I wonder if it’s a price we pay to philosophic materialism wherein we forget that just because wealth, power, and technology were different 16 centuries ago doesn’t mean that the human concerns like pride and envy and avarice and fear for our reputations was any less intense. Thanks a TON Father — you have shown a very human side of the saints and a very enduring side of humanity in one post.

    But it is a bit too long to be a “fell swoop”.

    [About “rhetoric” see this.]

  11. swamp_rabbit says:

    You shamed me out of my silence via the Colbert post, Father!

    I seriously enjoyed this and it’s given me a lot to think over today. A lot of meat on the bones here.
    I really have nothing more to add — just thanks for all the work you put into it. It would make an excellent novel….

  12. Great post! I learned a lot.

    It certainly confirms what one of my fellow-seminarians once said: “Jerome proves that you can be a jerk…and yet still be a saint.”

    Except, he didn’t use the word “jerk.”

    Thanks again for the great information.

    ad Jesum per Mariam,

  13. irishgirl says:

    Boy, that St. Jerome sure had a sharp tongue-and a pen to match!
    I echo what Anita said: ‘I’m sure they get along like a house afire now’!
    Great post, Father Z! Goes to show that sometimes the Saints didn’t always get along with one another on earth!

  14. Andrew says:

    Dear Fr. Z:

    Was St. Jerome jealous of St. Ambrose’s ecclesiastical dignity, as you infer? Hardly. Was he perhaps indignant? Perhaps. And rightly so. In hind sight we know that Ambrose was a great Saint but that does not mean that his appointment to become a Bishop before he was even baptized was not objectionable. It was a violation of the canons at the time and it was on a purely human level imprudent. Ambrose himself thought so.
    As for making some further comments here is my thinking: I could spend two hours trying to refute some of your statements, looking up sources and translating them from Latin into English and building up a case in defense of Jerome, to show that he was a master of spiritual life, a beacon of humility and of virtue and that your depiction of him is based on refutable arguments. If I did that, most readers would skip over it because they’d find it too long and you would not appreciate it and – at best – dismiss it with some short remark, or post 20 photos of birds and move it out of sight. What I’m saying is: this is not a forum suited for some serious lengthier discussion.
    It pains me however that some folks will walk away with the impression that “hey, if such a jealous creep could be a saint, so can I”. As Jerome wrote somewhere, there are those who “remedium poenae suae arbitrantur, si nemo sit sanctus: si omnibus detrahatur: si turba sit pereuntium: si multitudo peccantium.”
    I am a fan of your blog and I have no intention to rip at anything you’ve said. On this one I just happen to disagree. [Thanks! You didn’t change my mind but I appreciate the opinion.]

  15. Dr. Eric says:

    Didn’t cranky ol’ St. Jerome hate the jovial St. Augustine as well?

  16. Dr. Eric: I am not sure that Augustine was jovial. He and Jerome had a pretty tough argument about translation of Scripture, but they came to some meeting of minds.

  17. Stvsmith2009 says:

    I find this most interesting. Last night, I was looking a Jerom’es “Lives of Illustrious Men” and was curious as to why he so was indifferent towrads Ambrose. He had written this:

    “Ambrose a bishop of Milan, at the present time is still writing. I withhold my judgment of him, because he is still alive, fearing either to praise or blame lest in the one event, I should be blamed for adulation, and in the other for speaking the truth.”

    Thanks for clearing this up Father!

  18. Andrew says:

    I’d like for someone to explain why Jerome included Ambrose in a book titled “of illustrious men” written for the purpose (as stated at the beginning) of showing that the Church did not lack learned, eloquent and praiseworthy writers. We know that Jerome was familiar with some of Ambrose’s writings because he praises them elsewhere for their “singular eloquence”.

Comments are closed.