Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.13


J.H.D. Scourfield, Consoling Heliodorus: A Commentary on Jerome, Letter 60. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Pp. xxii + 260. $65.00. ISBN 0-19-814722-8.


Reviewed by J.J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

Jerome is a hard case. After a time in the Renaissance and after when his fame and image (the scholar with his lion) were ubiquitous, he gradually subsided. He has no distinctive doctrines (no one would think of paperbacking The Essential Jerome) and his personality could be off-putting. He never wrote the one or two luminously accessible books that could give him, like Augustine, a life and influence beyond the range of those who shared his obsession with Christian scripture. Accordingly, he is a linchpin of late antique Latin Christianity, and he struggles to be recognized.

The present volume brings us Jerome on the dust jacket in Antonello da Messina's famous portrait in the National Gallery in London, complete with lion and peacock. The text chosen for intensive study is a single letter, a letter of consolation written around the time Augustine was writing Confessions. The addressee is a Christian bishop, the decedent the bishop's nephew. The author has chosen this text because it presents not the familiar image of Jerome, Christian anxiously indebted to but struggling to be free from the 'Classics', but a Jerome whose Christianity in many ways is an inextricable part of the classical civilization Jerome inherited. Consolatio as Jerome practices it here partakes of Christian ideas and themes, but it is still recognizably the same genre and exudes much the same atmosphere as the work of Cicero or Seneca. Still, a deathbed scene (section 13.2 of the text) in which the dying man sees the blessed dead beckoning him to join them ('intellegeres illum non emori sed migrare, et mutare amicos, non relinquere': 'you would have thought he was not dying but moving on, exchanging friends, not leaving them behind') has its surprises for the classically sensitive.

The volume presents a Latin text based on the entirely unsatisfactory, but only usable, edition, that of Hilberg, with a few revisions, and puts it opposite a self-effacing and serviceable translation. The Latin text runs to about 15 pages. Forty pages of introduction and 150 pages of commentary complete the volume. The main interests of the commentary are historical and intertextual, and the main focus of the intertextual notes is on classical sources and analogues, with which indeed the author seems more comfortable and more familiar than with Christian texts and techniques. Every commentary strikes a balance between supplying comprehensive information and exhaustive discussion on the one hand, and supplying all that in the most concise and useful way on the other. Given the relative brevity of the text, the author has taken advantage of the opportunity to strike his balance in favor of fuller quotation and presentation of information and more abundant discussion. How far each reader finds this useful will depend on the appeal of the text. There is little in the introduction or commentary that will surprise the reader or alter our views of the text or its genre or its author, however, and the volume as a whole would probably have benefitted in the eyes of most readers from a somewhat tighter, more disciplined presentation.

For those, however, with the curiosity and the leisure to make their way carefully through this text, it will offer a valuable introduction to late antique Latin Christianity at just the point when the 'Library of the Fathers' was beginning to coalesce and Latin Christianity beginning to be defined by its variously contentious and deferential relations with the writings of authoritative figures. Jerome belongs to the generation that saw an explosion of such presumptively authoritative, or else heretical and rejected, texts in Latin, and he himself with his translations not only of scripture but also of Origen and other Greek texts, went a long way to contribute to creating the body of literature that needed to be dealt with by those who came after. Jerome as classic who is Christian, and who by his words and example defines how others who come after will receive those categories, is a subject of great interest.