Jerome and John Chrysostom: Orthodox Enemies

While recently working on a bit of patristic minutia involving Jerome and John Chrysostom, I was reminded of this striking paragraph describing their relationship. From J. N. D. Kelly:

There was no love lost between [Jerome] and John, whom he must have known (even if he did not meet him) during his sojourn in Antioch as a devoted disciple of Meletius, the bishop [Jerome] regarded as heretic and usurper, and who had been ordained in 386 by Meletius’ successor, Flavian. Although he must have been aware of his distinction as a preacher, he had dismissed him with a disparagingly curt entry in Famous Men. He rejoiced, we may be sure, at John’s downfall, in spite of the fact that his trusted friend Chromatius came out strongly in his support and wrote to the western emperor, Honorius, on his behalf. He must have been appalled when the new pope, Innocent I (402–17), in autumn 404 recognised the justice of John’s cause, and finally broke off relations with Theophilus and the rest of the persecutors. Even so, staunch Roman though he professed to be, he continued to back the Egyptian Pharaoh [Theophilus of Alexandria] blindly. Late in 404, made all the more implacable by the pope’s support of John, Theophilus composed an invective of hysterical violence, denouncing the exiled patriarch as a foul murderer, an enemy of the human race, a godless priest who made sacrilegious offerings, a blasphemer of Christ who would share the fate of Judas. There was much more abuse of this kind in ‘the monstrous document’ by which, as its horrified sixth-century preserver noted, Theophilus hoped to show the western world exactly what kind of man John was; and it was Jerome who made this possible by putting it into Latin. Even the death of the tragic patriarch in exile (407) did not still Jerome’s rancour, for years later (in 413) he was to characterise him as one who had been led astray by Origenism as Barnabas had by the Judaisers in the apostolic Church, and who had been guilty of murder, not in deed, but in intention.[1]

Even if one could quibble with how Kelly colors the dynamics—after all, Jerome never seems to have come out and directly denounced Chrysostom as a heretic, as he so often did to his opponents—the substance of the history still startles us awake from overly idealistic, triumphalist visions of the early Christian world. In multiple cases of severe, high-stakes factionalism from around the turn of the fifth century, two of the most famous Church Fathers of all time stood on opposing sides.

So what?

If the reader will indulge a bit of autobiography to serve as a (hopefully relatable) illustration: I first encountered this particular subplot of patristic history at the very beginning of graduate school. Among other questions I brought to this field, I had wanted to better understand the first several Christian centuries. At the time, polemics more than real history shaped my underinformed views of this era. Having studied classics and a lot of early modernity as an undergraduate, I intuited that much of the middlebrow, polemical-apologetic Catholicism struggled to account for certain messy aspects of Christian history that didn’t fit into its standard stadial narrative.[2]

Even so, I still had a poor, fuzzy picture in my head about how Christianity had played out in antiquity: while Protestants of various stripes had a much easier time explaining and incorporating the NT into their theology (which was the preferable situation), the subsequent centuries largely “supported” or anticipated Catholicism or Orthodoxy. That is, late ancient Christianity was basically monolithic and institutionally unified, a status quo that held through the Middle Ages until Luther et al. came and smashed it. Of course, this caricatured impression was chiefly my fault for not having read widely or deeply enough yet.

Discovering Jerome’s hostility to Chrysostom—and a host of similar anecdotes—dramatically blew the lid off those hazy preconceptions. Apparently, not all the “orthodox” giants were on friendly terms and they not infrequently disagreed on major doctrinal issues; many of the period’s ostensible heroes were not especially saintly; sometimes, those denounced as heretics or heterodox had the better theological argument but ended up on the wrong side of the politics; ecclesiastical institutions only had so much leverage to effect unity. Put differently, the situation much more resembled the jumble of the Reformation era than I had ever suspected.

In hindsight, learning this history had an one amusing effect on me. When they learned what I would be studying in grad school, multiple Catholic friends confidently predicted I would convert. Alas, getting to know late antiquity has left me much more of a Baptist on many points. But that’s a story for another venue.

  1. J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), 262-3. Emphasis added.

  2. I don’t mean to turn polemical here. There are, of course, stronger Catholic accounts of history and far worse Protestant ones.


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