Jerome of Stridon and the Ethics of Literary Production in Late Antiquity

Thomas E. Hunt, Jerome of Stridon and the Ethics of Literary Production in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2020). 9789004417465.

Reviewed by Sarah Teets, University of Virginia,

Thomas Hunt’s Jerome of Stridon and the Ethics of Literary Production in Late Antiquity explores the relationship of the literary practices of reading and writing to the material world in Jerome’s writings of the period 386–393 CE. Hunt argues that for Jerome, Christian literary production is inherently ethical. That is to say, practices of reading and writing engender relationships and obligations both amongst humans and between humans and God. For Jerome, practices of reading and interpreting scripture are at the core of how Christians should live. Thus, these practices are fundamentally what constitute the Christian self and the Christian community.

This book makes the significant contribution of arguing for the consistency of Jerome’s theology of language across his writings. Hunt has produced a study impressive for its depth and subtlety that has much to offer both scholars of late ancient Christianity as well as literary historians of late antiquity. The author situates Jerome in the broader context not only of late ancient Latin Christianity, but also of the Second Sophistic, a literary movement in which authors and sophists of various identities expressed an acute concern for the ways that language makes the self and situates the speaker/author in relations of power. Hunt demonstrates how Jerome’s literary ethics incorporate elements from sources ranging from Origen to classical education to the sophists.

In the introduction, Hunt situates this study in Pierre Macheray’s concept of literary production, which is grounded in Marxist notions of labor and emphasizes the materiality of the literary product.1 Hunt’s engagement with Macheray allows him—successfully—to locate literary production within Jerome’s asceticism. The emphasis on the materiality of text situates text within the realm of the material creation, the arena of flesh and sin that is also suffused with the divine as not only the location of the incarnation, but also of Christians’ encounter with God.

One difficulty with this book is that the author at times veers from the definition of literary production outlined in the introduction (that is, as the material textual product of the labor of writing) to encompass virtually any aspect of linguistic exchange in its role in shaping relationships (e.g., 232, 249). Now, the author clearly frames this study as–to a degree–concerned with Jerome’s relationship to language in general, and thus discussion of non-textual linguistic exchange is not out of place. Yet the lack of clarity over the referent of “literary production” at times confuses Hunt’s argument. Nevertheless, Hunt’s discussion of Jerome’s theology of language is illuminating. I would add that Hunt’s writing style is refreshingly engaging and pleasant to read.

In Chapter 1, Hunt examines how Jerome presents language as essentially ethical in his commentaries on Philemon and Titus. Situating these works in the Pauline renaissance of the fourth century, Hunt argues that for Jerome, the practice of reading and interpreting scripture forms communities—whether of Christians or heretics, depending on the correctness of their readings. The genre of the commentary is highly useful in this regard, as it allows the author to shape the reader’s interpretation of the authoritative biblical text. Hunt interprets Jerome’s affirmation of the validity of the Old Testament against Marcionite and Manichean rejection in his commentary on Titus as a defense of correct scriptural reading, which constitutes Christian group identity. In the commentary to Philemon, Jerome defends this text’s canonicity against critics who found it either too mundane or too brief. For Hunt, this defense illustrates yet another instance of Jerome’s insistence on proper reading practice: brevity should not be confused with pointlessness, nor mundanity with sinfulness, since it is in the material world that the Christian comes to know God.

The second chapter explores the creation of a Christian textual ethic in the theology of Jerome’s treatment of Ephesians 1:10b in his Commentary on Ephesians. Hunt presents Jerome as operating in close relationship to the Latin tradition of typology and recapitulation. He argues that Jerome’s interpretation is to a degree Pauline in its emphasis on the unity of the whole in Christ, while it also reflects the distinctive concerns of the material turn of fourth century Christianity. By displacing the deferred eschaton into a practice of reading, Jerome locates traces of God and important elements of salvation in the materiality of the text.

In Chapter 3, Hunt traces the theme of mimesis in Jerome’s commentary on Ephesians. For Jerome, imitation is both corporeal, in that the Christian imitates the life of Christ as incarnation, and also textual, as it is the biblical text that exhorts the reader to imitation. In Ephesians, Jerome sees a hierarchy of imitation, as Paul calls the reader to imitate himself, who in turn imitates Christ. Hunt’s analysis of Jerome’s comments on his activity as translator are particularly interesting, as he argues that Jerome presents translation as an act of mimesis in which the translator imitates both the original text and the target language of Latin authors that Jerome recognizes as Latin auctores. This act has a distinct ethical dimension, however, as Jerome has a responsibility to both the text and to the auctores.

In Chapter 4, Hunt discusses the theme of crossing in the Latin verb transeo in Jerome’s commentary on Ephesians and letter to Lucinus of Baetica. In recapitulating his arguments about these and the preceding chapters on language, sermo, and reading as an ethical practice for the Christian, Hunt remarks: “The Christianity that Jerome sketches out is an ethics that is not a set of prescriptions about how to behave in the world, but a recognition that the world itself petitions us in its everyday abjection. God, through the world, calls out to his creatures. Hearing this call, Christians should respond with more words” (123).

Chapter 5 explores Jerome’s engagement with the Hebrew language. Hunt demonstrates how Jerome develops the concept of “Hebrew truth” as analogous to the concept of “Greek truth” that his translation of the gospels rested on. For Jerome, the knowledge of Hebrew allowed him to stabilize the manuscript tradition of the Latin Old Testament. Jerome’s “correction” of the “distortions” of the Septuagint contains an element of anti-Judaism, consistent with Hunt’s elucidation of how the late antique Christian relationship to Hebrew is bound with power structures. At the same time, for Jerome, the Hebrew language is ambivalent, as it brings order to Christian literary production while also containing an undercurrent of disorder and disruption.

In Chapter 6, Hunt explores how Jerome uses narrative in the Life of Hilarion, as well as in epistles 46 and 108, to instruct the reader on the role of the divine in the material world. Against the backdrop of “Pharisees,” who are defined by their failure to properly understand the relationship between the material and the spiritual, Jerome presents narratives of lives to be imitated and invites the reader to emplot their own life into the general narrative of salvation. Like the events of Life of Hilarion, the topography of Palestine is also woven into Jerome’s narratives as the material landscape of the text of scriptural Christian history, meant to stimulate ethical contemplation. Yet Hunt also explores the ambiguity in Jerome’s presentation of the relationship of the material and the spiritual in the conclusion of the Life of Hilarion, in which the location of Hilarion’s burial is unknown, yet miracles attach to two potential burial sites.

Chapter 7 examines with great subtlety Jerome’s concept of simulatio, particularly with reference to his commentary on Galatians 2. Situating Jerome’s reading of Galatians within the context of the Origenist controversy, Hunt develops Jerome’s concept of simulatio as a form of imitation of Christ located in literary production with all its attendant ethical considerations. In contrast to Augustine, who interprets Jerome as advocating sinful deceit, Jerome views adaptation of the self for the benefit of others as not only Christomimetic, but constitutive of Christian identity.

In Chapter 8, Hunt examines Jerome’s arguments with Jovinian in Against Jovinian. In contrast to Jovinian’s belief that the incarnation did not fundamentally alter the Christian’s relationship to the created world, Jerome argues forcefully that imitation of Christ is the only means for the Christian to have a correct relation to the cosmic and social order. Situated within late antique understandings of systems of obligation and gratitude, Jerome presents asceticism as a form of remuneration for the debt humanity incurred in the crucifixion of Christ. As ever, Hunt argues that for Jerome, the ascetic life is fundamentally grounded in literary production, as it is intrinsically bound with scriptural practices.

In the final chapter, Hunt examines failures of language in two of Jerome’s writings: Homily on Luke and On Famous Men. Borrowing extensively from Origen, Jerome examines how the image of the ruined city stands in for the supersession of Jews by Christians. Hunt concludes the chapter with a discussion of Vessey’s concept of the jeromanesque,2 and argues that the issues of imitation and Romanness that it contains originate in Jerome’s own self-presentation in relationship to his works. Jerome, argues Hunt, appropriates Romanness in his own literary practice, which was intended to serve as a model for future generations of Christians living in the ruins of the empire.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–29)
1. Writing across the Sea: Jerome’s Commentaries on Philemon and Titus (30–56)
2. Recapitulation and Literary Ethics in the Commentary on Ephesians (57–85))
3. Imitation in the Commentary on Ephesians (86–105)
4. Reading and Being in the Commentary on Ephesians (106–23)
5. Hebrew in Jerome’s Literary Production (124–46)
6. Ethics and the Self in the Life of Hilarion (147–80)
7. Paul and the Incarnation in Jerome’s Commentary on Galatians (181–202)
8. Against Jovinian and Ascetic Responsibility (203–28)
9. On Famous Men and the Ruins of Late Antiquity (229–48)
Conclusions (249-56)


[1] Pierre Macherey, Pour une théorie de la production littéraire (Paris: Maspéro, 1966).

[2] Mark Vessey, “Jerome and the Jeromanesque,” in Jerome of Stridon: His Life, Writings, and Legacy, ed. Andrew Cain and Josef Lössl (Farnam: Ashgate, 2009), 225–35.


1. In your introduction, you briefly situate this study in current strands of scholarship on religion in late antiquity that focus on the self as an object of formation through discursive processes. In your discussions of how Jerome sees the role of embodied Christian textual practices, you use the language of “self” to describe the individual and “community” to describe the collective. For those who are uninitiated in this broader scholarly thread, would you elaborate on what you mean by the terms “self” and “community”?

The book is particularly interested in how the material world is understood in fourth-century Christian theology. One strand of scholarship that’s important here goes back through Peter Brown and Pierre Hadot. Ethical discussions about what to do with the human body are intertwined with developing ideas about a specifically Christian interior life. This is “the self.”

I try to combine this reading of the body and the interior life with a particular way of thinking about ethics. When Hadot talks about ethics, he’s thinking about how particular ways of acting towards oneself or others were valorised: give up sex, eat only dates, have your death always in mind, and so on. In this book, however, I think about ethics as the ways in which we’re brought into relation with others. My focus is less on which actions and behaviours are OK for Jerome, and more on the ways language itself draws us in to responsibility to and for the other.

In language, thinks Jerome, we encounter the Word. This encounter places us under an obligation to respond, to speak with others about the Word. Here I’m working with the reception of Emmanuel Levinas and particularly Edith Wyschogorod, who says “ethics rather than metaphysics [is] the discursive ground of theology.” For me, we look at the way Jerome talks about what language is and about how it binds humans into relationships. Humans doing language together; this is where we find Jerome’s theology happening.

2. In your introduction, you introduce Macheray’s concept of literary production as the material, textual products of a certain kind of labor. As you elaborate, this approach to Jerome illuminates a number of important elements of his views on his own writing. Yet at times throughout this study (e.g., 232, 249), you use the term “literary production” to refer to something that appears to me to be distinct from what you outlined in the introduction: linguistic exchange between humans and the relationships that this exchange creates. These exchanges can be spoken or textual. Can you elaborate further on the connection between this relational element, the fact that this is not exclusive to written text, and Macheray’s concept?

Great question. Macherey’s ideas are about literature in capitalist modernity, so my use of him was necessarily loose. I took two concepts and used them freely. First, that we need to attend more closely to the material conditions that determine how literary works are produced. Second, that criticism should be less focussed on what the author intended to say and more interested in how the text emerged from a specific material context and a particular network of relationships.

Although Macherey’s target here is modern literary criticism, these ideas were useful in thinking about how the actions of reading and writing tuck us in to the world. They helped me begin to shed some assumptions I had about how writing and speaking were related.

I characterise fourth century Christianity as anxious about the relationship between the world and God. What happens when human bodies become holy? How do the loves and antagonisms of human society reflect the divine?

Language is part of this world. It’s written on material things and spoken when mouths manipulate air. I don’t think it’s helpful here to make a sharp distinction between written and spoken language. Shane Butler talks about ancient writing “as voice, written.” So, I’m happy to efface the (modern) distinction between writing and speech. This means that writing is always acutely relational, always a kind of direct speaking-with. Language is bodies and being with others. And so acts of writing, speaking, and reading themselves become theologically important, even before we ask what was written, spoken, or read.

3. You’ve developed at length Jerome’s intermediary role in his self-concept as translator and commentator, and even in his descriptions of the topography of Palestine in the Life of Hilarion. In the opening of Chapter 2, you briefly sketch the idea that Jerome views himself as an intermediary of sorts between the Greek East and the Latin West. I find this brief discussion tantalizing and, though this is a bit tangential to the core of this study, I would love to hear more. Does Jerome view himself primarily as the linguistic and spiritual intermediary or is there a cultural dimension as well?

Jerome talks about transmitting the “Hebrew Truth” to his readers. This means not only a more reliable Latin biblical text translated from the Hebrew (he claims), but also knowledge about the flora, fauna, and topography of the biblical lands, as well as questions of religious lore.

Whether this constitutes “culture” is a tricky question and depends on how we think about that word now. I think it’s important to pause here because, as you say, so much of Jerome’s work teases language away from the places where it’s spoken and the people that speak it.

One of the claims that I make in the final chapter of the book is that Jerome fashions a way of being Latin that dislocates the language. After Jerome, as long as one is a Christian, one can be embedded in Latinity. One no longer needs to approach Latin through Romanness. Thinking about your question, maybe this begins to look something like one modern understanding of “culture”: all the diverse, partial, and localised ways of telling about the world can be understood when they’re positioned in a general, universal account of humanity and its development.

If I were to begin the book again, I’d start by asking how Jerome manages to abstract language and knowledge from those who hold it in their mouths, minds, bodies, and lands. I’d ask what that has done to us academics, who inherit from Jerome a particular model of dislocated, extractive, bookish scholarship.

I think this question gets at something really important that maybe the book should have paid more attention to. Thanks for asking it. And thank you so much for the other questions too!

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and stimulating responses!

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s