St. Jerome’s Sexist Racism: The Denigration of Melania and of the Shulamite
The women were clearly also scholars from what was said about them, but we do not have any of their writings. We can’t easily assimilate into our own thinking how these couples operated, since it seems that class, gender, wealth and faith created a context at that time that we cannot replicate today.
— Suzanne, “Melania the Elder“
In our own context today, where some Christian men would use Paul’s writing in the New Testament as their proof text so that they may point to gender difference in order to perpetuate patriarchy (in which their natural, God-given position in the hierarchy of the church and of the home is over women because of their sex), it is important to look for the sources of the sexist marginalizations. Blogging sometimes helps. Rachel Held Evans, for example, last week posted and encouraged a number of others to post on mutuality of men and women (vs. the marginalization of women by men). One of her most important posts is the one in which she asks, “Is patriarchy really God’s dream for the world?” There she questions what the man Denny Burk promotes as “counter-cultural,” as his Christian work against “the feminist spirit of the age,” as “the biblical ideal.” Suzanne then writes a post on mutuality, “Melania the Elder,” and gets us all looking at a few “couples in the early church [who] defy our present [sexist] framework [that Burk would perpetuate] for male-female relationships.”
To be clear, by “sexist” I mean, as per the Oxford English Dictionary, “A person who advocates or practises sexism; esp. a man who discriminates against women on the basis of sex.” There may be additional bases for discrimination: “class, gender [i.e., John Piper’s notions of masculinity, femininity], wealth and faith.” These additional reasons for discrimination against women are those, Suzanne notes, that Jerome seems to have had against Melania the Elder.
In this post, I’d like to suggest that Jerome’s discrimination against Melania the Elder was also a form of racism. He marginalized her, it seems, tried to silence her because of her teachings, not only because of her sex but also because of her skin color.
The other thing I’d like to contend is that Jerome’s view of the Scriptures colored his view of race. I’m sure we might argue that it was his racism, rather, that influenced his view of the Bible. It’s hard to tell which comes first sometimes. But there was a definite genesis to the sexist racism. My point is to say – along with Rachel and Suzanne and so many others now – that men’s view of what religious writings must mean (whether Jerome’s view of the Hebrew Scriptures or Denny’s view of the New Testament writings of Paul) does have beginning. Sexist “ideals” and those doubly-marginalizing sexist racist “ideals” don’t just appear out of thin air. They are constructed by men writing and speaking exclusively. They are constructed by men who would denigrate the writings and speech and teachings of women as lesser than the writings and speech and teachings of men. (It’s little surprise that all we know most directly about the deacon, the woman St. Olympias, is through the letters of the man St. John Chrysostom. We know nothing about her from her own writings nor him from anything she wrote. And this sort of silencing had a start in patriarchy, in sexist constructs that we might do well to trace.)
History tells us that Jerome literally began to denigrate the name of Melania the Elder, once he started disagreeing with her concerning her views on Origen. For example, Tim Vivian gives us a little bit of what Jerome said. This is in a little footnote in Vivian’s introduction to his translation of Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius Of Egypt, And Macarius Of Alexandria: Coptic Texts Relating To The Lausiac History Of Palladius. He translates Macarius of Alexandria calling her “Melania, queen of the Romans”; and, in that introduction, he chronicles Melania’s great positive impact on Evagrius. There, in the footnote to associate Melania “with Egypt and Origenism, and thus with the Anthropomorphite controversy,” the translator-historian Vivian points us to the following, concerning Jerome’s negative statements about her:
Jerome calumnied Melania, cuius nomen nigredinis testatur perfidiae tenebras (“whose black name testifies to the darkness of her perfidy”); Epistle 133/3 (CESL 56.246).
In this statement, Jerome is using her Greek name negatively to denigrate Melania’s reputation. At first glance, her sex and her race may not seem what’s in focus. And yet, there are apparent attitudes in Jerome elsewhere that might, without too much of a stretch, seem to color his views of her views. Again, I hope this post can show the source, some of the beginnings of such sexist racism.
So now, let’s turn to the very important work, The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture: A History of the Other, written in 2002 by Abraham Melamed, and translated from Hebrew into English in 2003 by Betti Sigler Rozen. On page 63, there’s the discussion of particular points “in Hellenistic-Roman culture” when “negative expressions make their appearance” concerning “dark skin” and “black skin.” The historian continues, on page 64, noting what happened at certain points in early Christianity:
Early Christianity was much influenced by these [Hellenistic-Roman racist] images. An outstanding example is the series of homilies on ‘the black bride’, from the Song of Songs, ‘I am black and comely’. Like the Sages and apparently following them, the church fathers present ‘black’ as a metaphor for paganism and evil-doing, which ‘comely’ was a metaphor for becoming a Christian, i.e., choosing to do good. St. Jerome translated the Song of Songs into Latin accordingly in the fourth century. Earlier, the Septuagint Greek translation followed the Hebrew faithfully (melania eimi kai kale), and Origen’s second-century Latin translation was still nigra sum et. speciosa, black but comely. St. Jerome’s Vulgate version, however, is nigra sum sed formosa, black but comely: despite being black, I am still beautiful. Beauty no longer parallels black skin but exists in spite of this totally negative feature, just as in rabbinic literature. The Song of Songs, then, underwent ‘racist’ transformation along stereotypic skin-colour lines in the course of its translation into Latin, obviously because of the accepted standards of beauty in Jerome’s time. It is a fact that the Septuagint, translated into Greek [according to the legend] by seventy Jewish elders, faithfully follows the [Hebrew] Scriptures, which in this case shows a neutral if not a positive attitude towards dark skin, while the Christian translation into Latin [by Jerome] displays a clearly ‘racist’ position. Some twelve centuries later, this rendition influenced the King James Version’s ‘I am black but comely’, and the classic English translation of the [Hebrew] Scriptures adopted the stereo-typic approach to the black dating back to the church fathers.
The “reading” or translation of the Scriptures by St. Jerome appears to be a sexist racist interpretation. He seems to have adopted his attitudes from patriarchal and race-dominant views of the later Hellenists and the Romans. These prejudices extended not only to his disagreements with and his mistreatment of the woman Melania but they also seem to have continued on to the English translators of the Bible commissioned by King James. Maybe “we cannot replicate today” the context of Melania back then. I’m afraid, however, we may still be struggling in it to some degree.
Please know that we need not invariably confuse classism with sexism, or sexism with racism, or biblicism with any of these sorts of discrimination of one against the other as if the one is inherently over the other. But sometimes one form of discrimination will reinforce the other. In the case of Melania, she was multiply marginalized by Jerome, it seems. This may not be the case for our own present day context, where all women are invariably silenced in church or in their home because of Scriptural interpretations that use different differences to put them down. Nonetheless, we do get suspicious when the ones with voice, with power, use their own position to tell everybody else what the Bible must now mean, when it has to mean simply that the interpreter’s interpretation gives him privilege. Bible translators and teachers who are fathers and church fathers like St. Jerome did, and perhaps still do, exercise their privilege, so it seems. Such sexist racism does have a beginning point in history. The hope is it can have an ending point too.
I just want to end this post, then, with Paul Celan’s lines that contrast the color, the races, of two women in his poem, Todesfuge. The ending lines seem to get at the later racism in the discriminatory ideal of one kind over the other:
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith
In English translation, by John Felstiner, the attention given to race difference might start:
your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamith
And Anselm Kiefer’s paintings portray the difference of the one higher than the other: