Augustine of Hippo painfully experienced this truth in writing to Bethlehem to the Scripture scholar, St Jerome. There was not precisely a quarrel between them, since a quarrel requires two persons both to be incensed at each other. There was, however, a misunderstanding which threatened to cause a wide breach, a misunderstanding by Jerome not only of Augustine's meaning but also of his motives.
Image (below): Left to right, Saints Augustine and Jerome. These two formidable clerics never met, but maintained a correspondence between Hippo and Bethlehem. Both are honoured with the title, saint, although they lived long before the subsequent canonical process of beatification began.
It caused Augustine many unhappy moments, as he did not enjoy having somewhat inappropriately incurred Jerome's wrath and distrust. A difference of interpretation of Sacred Scripture, a fateful letter and a curious set of circumstances are the elements that constituted the misunderstanding and the resulting tension.
In the year 394 A.D., Augustine, a priest at the time, wrote a letter (his Letter 28) to Jerome in Bethlehem, a person he had never met. The tone of the letter was friendly and respectful. Augustine very tactfully criticized the interpretation of Galatians 2:11-14a in Jerome's Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. It was the text in which St Paul states that he withstood Peter to his face and rebuked him for withdrawing himself from the Gentiles when the Jews of the circumcision (the so-called Judaizers) came to Antioch.
In his Commentary, Jerome followed an interpretation which claimed: 1) that Paul was not serious in rebuking Peter and in declaring that Peter had acted wrongly; 2) that this rebuke was planned beforehand by Peter and Paul as a polite fiction, as an innocent means of winning over the Judaizers and of showing them that the Mosaic Law with all its observances was entirely abrogated; 3) that Paul knew that Peter was merely pretending to fall in with the Judaizers, merely a tactic arranged by Peter and Paul in order to win over the Judaizers to Christ. Augustine disagreed with Jerome, and firmly declared so in his letter. He wrote that Jerome's interpretation undermined the entire Scriptures, for to concede that Paul “lied” in this instance would be to open the way to private interpretation in any other scriptural passage; thereby, anyone would be free to believe what he likes in the Scriptures and to refuse to believe what he does not like.
Augustine's interpretation of the text is that Paul truly did rebuke Peter in all seriousness, precisely because Peter was wrong and deserving of correction. Paul rebuked Peter only for his dissimulation and pretence in following the Mosaic Law by withdrawing from the Gentiles, an action performed by Peter because of his fear of the rigidly Mosaic Judaizers. By that action, which both surprised and disturbed the Gentiles, Peter seemingly was compelling the Gentiles to live as Jews, to follow the observances of the Mosaic Law in all of its rigor - a thing he could not do, since these practices were not necessary for salvation after the coming of Christ. Peter was guilty of a deceitful pretence in giving the impression that, along with the Judaizers, he too considered Jewish observances necessary for salvation. In that he was wrong and deserving of Paul's correction.Image (below): Jerome (left) and Augustine: a painting by Alonso Sánchez Coello Alonso (1532 – 1588). Alonso was a portrait painter of the Spanish Renaissance and one of the pioneers of the great tradition of Spanish portrait painting. Coello worked on religious themes for most of the Spanish royal palaces, particularly for El Escorial, and larger churches. In this painting, Jerome wears the robes of a cardinal, and Augustine those of a bishop.
Before the advent of a postal service, to have a letter delivered meant finding some person travelling to the letter’s destination who would carry it with him on his journey. Because of this uncertain mode of delivery, the first letter (28) Augustine sent to Jerome did not reach him because the messenger chosen, Profuturos, never actually made the journey to the Holy Land. While preparing for the voyage, Profuturos was elected and consecrated Bishop of Cirta in Northern Africa, where shortly afterwards he died. Consequently, Augustine wrote another letter (40) in 397 A.D. By this time he was a bishop. In this letter, he repeated the difficulty with Galatians 2:11-14a he raised in his first letter, and urged Jerome to revise his interpretation.
With Augustine’s first letter to Jerome undelivered, Augustine’s second letter also suffered an unfortunate fate. The intended bearer, Paul, never made the journey to Palestine. He was afraid of the perils of the sea and decided not to go. Instead of returning the letter to Augustine, however, he let it fall into other hands. This proved to be a drastic mistake. Copies of this second letter were made, apparently without Augustine's knowledge, and became widely circulated in Italy and at Rome. Jerome's enemies at Rome were quick to pounce on this letter, and only too happy to hold it up in derision of Jerome's scholarship. Both news of the commotion and a copy of the letter eventually reached Jerome in Bethlehem. The seeds of Jerome's misunderstanding and distrust of Augustine were thereby sown.
ln 403 A.D., five years later, Augustine, as yet not having heard from Jerome concerning his difficulty in Galatians 2:11-14, wrote another short letter (67) to Jerome. Its tone was both humble and respectful. He had heard that his letter reached Jerome, but presumed that there was something to prevent Jerome from answering it. Augustine heard that someone had told Jerome that he, Augustine, had written a book against him and had sent it to Rome. Augustine, in this third letter (67), denied this as utterly false. He said that, although some of his writings contained views which were different from Jerome’s, no attack on him was thereby intended.
He added that such views were merely statements of opinions which seemed true to him. He expressed his readiness to receive from Jerome any contrary opinion Jerome might have in taking exception to any of his (Augustine's) writings; he would, in fact, take pleasure in his own correction and in Jerome's goodness in pointing out his mistake. In the same year, 402 A.D., Jerome, having received Augustine’s latest letter (67), replied with a short, polite, kind, yet slightly troubled letter (68). He wrote that he had not exactly heard that Augustine was supposed to have sent a book against him to Rome. But though a certain deacon, named Sisinnius, he had received copies of a letter supposedly written to him by Augustine.
Although the writing and the arguments seemed to be Augustine's, Jerome did not want to answer it lest Augustine be hurt and justly upbraid him for not proving that the letter was genuine before making a reply. If the letter was really his (It was, in fact, Augustine’s Letter 40, but may have been inaccurately copied), Jerome requested Augustine to send a more exact copy of it, “so that we may engage in a debate over the scriptures without any personal feeling and may either correct our mistake or learn that someone else made a heedless remonstrance."
Jerome wrote that he was not so foolish as to think himself injured if Augustine's interpretations differed from his, any more than Augustine would be injured by Jerome's interpretations. In this letter Jerome showed his regard for Augustine by exclaiming: "How I wish that I might deserve to embrace you, and that we might teach or learn something by mutual conversation."
He did, however, intimate that he thought that Augustine, if he did write Letter 40, was guilty of childish boasting and looking for cheap popularity. Augustine had not yet received Jerome's last letter (68) when in 401 A.D. he again wrote to Jerome. The contents of this letter (71) treat mainly of Jerome's translation of the Scriptures. With it, Augustine again sent copies of letters 28 and 40 (his first two letters to Jerome), for he believed that they had not yet reached Jerome, since no answer had been received.
In 403 or 404 A.D., Jerome, not yet having received Augustine’s latest letter (71), wrote his first really harsh word to Augustine. After commenting on the indirectness of Augustine's letter (40), Jerome wrote that his friends were saying that Augustine's motive in writing it was a desire of praise and cheap popularity. At first he did not wish to answer Augustine, because he was not sure that the letter was his. Later, he did not want to be disrespectful to Augustine as a bishop of his own communion, especially since he considered some things in that letter of "reproof" as heretical.
Jerome herewith again requested that Augustine send that same letter signed by his own hand or else "cease to harass an old man. (In fact, Jerome, 347-419, was only seven years older than Augustine.) If you want to show-off or practice your learning, seek out young, fluent, well-known men - they say Rome abounds in them. . . . Otherwise, if you push me far into writing, I might recall the story of Quintus [Fabius] Maximus who broke down, by his endurance, the youthful ardour of Hannibal."
Jerome was angry about the whole affair, and showed it. He argued that if Augustine did not write a book against him, ". . .how was your writing, with its criticism of me, brought to me by others? Why does Italy possess what you did not write? How can you ask me to answer what you say you did not write ? I am not so foolish as to think myself injured if you have different views from mine. But if you attack my writings with knockout blows. . . then by that conduct friendship is indeed injured and the bonds of intimacy are broken."(Continued on the next page.) AN2155