The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity.
Andrew Cain envisages two audiences for his book: "Hieronymists and scholars of the Latin epistolographic tradition" as well as "those who cultivate interests broadly in the literature, religion, history, culture, and law of the late antique world" (v). I write as a member of the second camp who has spent some time in the company of Cain's fellow Hieronymists. Cain speaks to both audiences with intellectual sophistication and authoritative clarity. With a prominent voice Cain has joined a chorus of scholars who have for the last two decades driven a renaissance in scholarship on Jerome. These include Stefan Rebenich, Mark Vessey, Alfons Fiirst, Josef Lossl, Neil Adkin, and Megan Hale Williams.
Cain directs our attention beyond the status, evident in much of modern scholarship, of Jerome's letters "as either textual artefacts or passive historical documents" (6). We learn that the letters are rhetorical performances in their own right that promoted Jerome's "astral career ambitions" (197) of asserting himself as a leading authority on asceticism and biblical scholarship in Latin Christianity. In ably demonstrating "Jerome's strategies for manufacturing authority across the whole range of his extant correspondence" (6), Cain sets out on a trail already blazed by Rebenich and Vessey. In Hieronymus als Briefschreiber (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), Barbara Conring too acknowledged Jerome's rhetorical self-fashioning in his letters as a superior authority in Christian exegesis, ethics, and doctrine. For the benefit of both his audiences, Cain could have outlined the points of contact with and departure from Conring's book. Whereas Conring limited her focus to a detailed analysis of four letters, the virtue of Cain's book is to analyze the letters in dossiers, as they often appeared in medieval and Renaissance codices.
Cain's project entails cogent reconstruction, keen rhetorical analysis, and bold correctives to existing research. Taking his cue from Jerome's autobibliography at the end of the De viris illustribus, Cain deftly establishes the precise contents of two epistolary collections mentioned by Jerome: letters written to various recipients in the 370s from Syria and letters to Marcella, the aristocratic Roman widow, written in the following decade in Rome. Cain corrects J. N. D. Kelly's view of Jerome as a resentful young ascetic by arguing that his criticism of his correspondents for not replying to his letters should be read as rhetoric of reproach firmly established in ancient epistolography. The eminent patristic scholar Pierre Nautin comes in for the most correction. Cain rejects, for example, Nautin's arguments that epp. 35-36 do not represent a genuine exchange between Jerome and Pope Damasus and that Marcella refused the invitation to join Jerome in the Holy Land owing to a disagreement that she had with him.
Readers will appreciate Cain's tenacity, for he never strays from an insightful and penetrating reading of Jerome to prove the book's central thesis. He shows Jerome's unflagging determination to assert his authority. Positioning himself as an exponent of the Hebrew verity with the papal blessing of Damasus, Jerome dismisses the exegesis of his Roman contemporary, Ambrosiaster, for his ignorance of Hebrew. He revises the humiliating course of events that led to his exile from Rome in 386 to appear blameless and popular. To outshine the prestige of Sulpicius Severus as an authoritative spiritual guide he misleadingly imbues himself with "an Egyptian monastic pedigree" (155). It is hard to believe that he quickly dashed off his long analysis of the priestly vestments mentioned in the Torah (ep. 64).
Why did Jerome persistently blow his own horn even to the point of distorting historical reality? Cain posits two sound answers. First, Jerome did all he could to advance his controversial hermeneutic of appealing to the original biblical languages, especially Hebrew. Second, and equally controversially, as a novus homo or a provincial outsider he sought to plant his flag squarely among the Christian literary elite, whose authority usually rested on episcopal dignity. Cain admirably supports the second claim, which seems to attract his attention more compellingly than the first. He believes that in documenting Jerome's constant effort to assert his tenuous authority he has pursued "a more neutral line" than the "reductive" cynicism of the scholars who view Jerome's "apparent bravado" as a product "of a character defect or of rhetoric gone awry" (198). That may be his intention, but cynics might yet take comfort in Cain's exposition of the rhetorical strategies of Jerome, who comes off more as an egotistical "rogue priest" (141) than an exegete to be pitied for crying in the wilderness. His book is by no means a hagiography, but the parenthetical reference to "Jerome's sincere sense of Christian charity" (152) in the analysis of ep. 125 is surprising, given the relentless and riveting scrutiny of Jerome's "triumphalist rhetoric" (198).
Cain completes his study with three appendices. They propose a new taxonomy for Jerome's letters, identify lost letters, and review the early manuscript tradition of epistolary collections. Sixty years ago, Paul Antin dismissed the effort to classify the letters as "arbitrary," a critique that obviously did not deter Cain. In classifying Jerome's letters into seventeen genres, some of which apply to only one or two texts, Cain resurrects an old editorial preoccupation, which had already anticipated elements of his "new" taxonomy. His classification is more elaborate than the twelve "distinctions" (including a gathering of sermons) that Adrian Brielis used to organize the letters in the gargantuan edition printed by Peter Schoeffer in Mainz in 1470, but it must take second place to the twenty-four "tractates" into which Teodoro de' Lelli apportioned the texts in the editio princeps of the letters that appeared in Rome by 1467. In his celebrated edition (1516), Erasmus contented himself with fewer and broader categories: familiar, polemical, exegetical, and spurious letters.
Rhetoric, not taxonomy, is Cain's focus, of course. He admirably succeeds not only in revealing the deliberate, rhetorical performances that Jerome's letters are but also in reviving interest in a collection of fascinating documents of ancient Christianity. Cain has emerged as an indispensible Hieronymist for his colleagues as well as for a wider readership.
Hilmar M. Pabel
Simon Fraser University
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|Author:||Pabel, Hilmar M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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