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St. Jerome’s Sexist Racism: The Denigration of Melania and of the Shulamite

June 11, 2012

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 todaythe 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:

Dein goldenes Haar, Margarethe (1981)
Anselm Kiefer

“Dein Aschenes Haar Sulamit,” (1981)
oil on canvas, 51 by 67 inches
Anselm Kiefer

Dein aschenes Haar, Sulamit (1981)
Anselm Kiefer

Shulamith, 1990.
Book made from soldered lead, with female hair and ashes
64 pages, 101 x 63 x 11 cm.
Anselm Kiefer

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 12, 2012 12:57 am


    I am a little confused. Are you suggesting Melania was black?

  2. June 12, 2012 10:32 am


    No, I can’t be sure of her skin color. Why would a Greek-named girl born in Spain have such a name? But if our histories ever could recover the reason(s) she was originally named, or called, Μέλαινά, then would that really alter what we know Jerome has intended to do to her?

    He’d earlier written that she was “nobilissima mulierum Romanorum” and “inter Christianos nostri temporis vera nobilitas” (or the “noblest of Roman women” and “among the Christians in our time truly noble”). Then he denigrates her name, writing: “cuius nomen nigredinis testatur perfidiae tenebras” (or “whose very name – black [woman] – testifies to the darkness of her faithlessness”).

    This seems very clearly a reversal for Jerome. He’s using sexist racist language to do this.

    Notice how Revd Dr. Susan Durber tracks the reversal Jerome caused with his Latin translation of the Bible:

    But there is a problem. It was the Latin of the Vulgate version of the Bible that introduced the but. ‘Nigra sum sed formosa’ – I am black but comely. Not black and comely, but comely despite being black. Where African Christians celebrated Sheba’s colour, European Christianity gradually marginalised and tried to forget it. In Sheba they had a story of a heathen, foreign woman who had surrendered to the true faith. In her surrender, apparently, she lost her colour too. So from being the story of a wise and resourceful woman, the story changes to one of terrifying will to power and carries with it the church’s terror and dread of otherness. The ‘other’ is overwhelmed, seduced and tamed. Sheba capitulates to Solomon, woman to man, pagan to believer, black to white. Only rarely in European art is Sheba portrayed as black. In one appalling depiction she is black, but with the long golden tresses of a Rapunzel. In Piero della Francesca’s fresco in Arrezzo she is almost an English rose, with only one maid in the middle distance wearing a strange hat to hint that she has any connection with Africa at all.

    Sheba might have been a match for Solomon and the Bible text almost has it so. But [the Christian Patriarchal] tradition has made him her conqueror and so inspired and validated many other victories of Europe over the orient, of man over women, of ‘Truth’ over error. But Jesus promised that Sheba would have her day, that she would rise up in judgement. We still live in a world in which the old conquerors are still at work, a world marred by racism, sexism, imperialism, and terrifying will to power. And, as Jesus promised, the Queen of Sheba still rises in judgement.

    Notice how differently St. Paulinus of Nola writes of her. In a letter to his friend Sulpicius Severus, a rhetorician, Paulinus refers to Melania, intentionally it would seem, by the Latin masculine form of her name: “Melanius.” In the same letter, he compares her to the patriarch “Father Abraham,” father of Isaac, and describes her this way after mentioning he had “welcomed that holy lady who was returning from Jerusalem after twenty-five years,” saying: “What a woman she is, if one can call so virile [i.e., manly, or masculine] a Christian a woman!” (Letter 29, in Letters of St. Paulinus of Nola). There’s a good sketch of all it appears we have now on the family origins of Melania, including her possible relationship by blood or by marriage to Paulinus, who writes much of her; the sketch is Francis X. Murphy’s “Melania the Elder: A Biographical Note” (Traditio, Vol. 5, 1947, pp. 59-77). What I’m interested in is how little of Melania’s own words we have, and how men write about her in sometimes praising and other times disparaging ways. Jerome’s disparagement seems to portray this woman by sexist racist language, and it’s “biblical.”

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 12, 2012 10:34 pm

    Its very interesting what Jerome did in Song of Solomon. About Melania, her son was a Roman senator, and his daughter, Melania the Younger was called the richest woman in the Roman Empire. This family controlled tremendous wealth. How likely is it that she was not of full Patrician bloodline? I am not sure since Patricians could intermarry with the Equestrian class. I would assume that visible minorities were not accepted in the senate but I am not certain.

  4. June 13, 2012 12:11 pm

    Melania the Younger was called the richest woman in the Roman Empire. This family controlled tremendous wealth. How likely is it that she was not of full Patrician bloodline? I am not sure since Patricians could intermarry with the Equestrian class. I would assume that visible minorities were not accepted in the senate but I am not certain.

    Melania the Younger was a slave owner who lived in Africa. Kyle Harper in his Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (page 44) goes on about the problem in some detail:

    The seventy-five slave-girls and eunuchs that Melania [the Younger] took with her after her renunciation of the material world were only a fraction of her once-great Roman household. Jerome, always ready with unsolicited advice for the wealthiest of women of the Roman senate, imagined a massive center of textile production within the rich household. The property of the senator Symmachus helps us to visualize how a small army of male agents might be employed in a large senatorial household. Within these households the degree of specialization and level of investment in human capital was greatest; the Illustrious household was a conglomerate agro-firm.

    The question of how many rural slaves the typical Illustrious household owned is a particularly important and intractable problem…. [I]t is worth eliciting a few immediate indications of the scale of agricultural slavery on the land of Illustrious slave-holders. The best-known case is the property of Melania the Younger, whose wealth is described in some detail by multiple sources. One witness claimed that she owned well over 8,000 slaves; her biography depicts a single estate complex with 2,400 slaves and claims, in a cautiously worded passage, that she free thousands of her slaves.

    In contrast, Melania the Elder once was mistaken as a slave, was imprisoned “while wearing [as seems typical of her] the garb of a young slave.” The consul of Palestine who had her put in jail also mistakenly thought [as seems common too] that she was a man. Her reply, as Palladius records the whole event, was: “For my part, I am so and so’s daughter, and so and so’s wife, but I am the slave of Christ. Do not despise the cheapness of my clothing.” This is from page 69 of Francis X. Murphy’s biography. Murphy makes clear that this Melania has a very unclear lineage, that she was born in Spain, was married very young as a teenager, and that she appeared often to be poor and sometimes to be a slave (a man).

    Interesting how Harper brings Jerome into the picture (as in the quotation above).

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 13, 2012 12:30 pm

    Thanks for those details. Until I do some research on this, I am going to guess that senatorial families were not of visible mixed race. I don’t know about this for sure, but perhaps if I read enough something will turn up on this subject. Going to Africa meant heading to Alexandria, a centre of learning. They owned estates in many regions.

    There is a lot written about the way that these patronesses gave away their wealth. Apparently there was a lot of controversy about it. You can’t just free up thousands of salves. They have to have somewhere to go. I think someone else in the family had to take them on.

    The other problem is that they gave away funds instead of endowments or lands with income. It was considered more responsible to keep the land and make its income into an endowment. Augustine seems to have been not altogether happy to have Melania the Younger and her husband in his church, and moved them along.

    There was a conflict set up by the desire to follow Christ’s command to the rich man to give away all that he had, even though this might be considered irresponsible. Unfortunately, when the richest people in Rome are trying to sell vast estates, especially just before the invasions from the north, it created some problems.

    In any case, it seems that wealthy patronesses, and some patrons, bankrolled the early church. Chrysostom, Origen (in translation by Rufinus) and Jerome, as well as other early church fathers, owe their life of scholarship to the patronage of women. I was not aware of the extent of this patronage system before, or of how many women were committed patronesses. There is a long list of other wealthy widows who also gave to the church.

    I am sure that there were many submissive Christian wives in this culture, but there were clearly also these women who went against the wishes of their family entirely, and disposed of their wealth as they wished.

  6. June 15, 2012 2:31 pm

    Until I do some research on this, I am going to guess that senatorial families were not of visible mixed race.

    Augustine seems to have been not altogether happy to have Melania the Younger and her husband in his church, and moved them along.

    Have you read Kim Power’s wonderful history, Veiled Desire: Augustine on Women? Powers mentions Melania the Edler some in it, and in one place (pages 61-62), there’s this:

    In fact, there is evidence that there was a consequential hidden agenda centered on the power struggle between the two new high profile groups within the church — the bishops [including Augustine] and the noble laity [including Melania] — both of whom wished to become the publicly established patrons of the Christian communities…. In encouraging women in alms-giving, the bishops thus gave them access to the ceremonial life of the city technically [having] denied them in the all-male definition of the city as a political unit. John Chrysostom, Jerome and Rufinus all had powerful women patrons in Olympias, Paula, Eustochium and Melenia the Elder. Women’s control of their own finances in this regard raised such fears about the redistribution of wealth that in 370, 390, 455 and 458 CE the emperors acted to prevent them willing bequests to the church….

    The emergence of a group of autonomous and powerful women, who were both noble patrona and ascetic, further exacerbated the tensions. Scholars agree that celibacy was the source of the ascetics’ freedom to overcome racial, social and secular barriers. When the two roles were combined in one woman, such as Melania the elder, or Paula of Jerusalem, such women had the potential to become a very real threat to the newly emerging institutional episcopate which needed to be circumspect in its dealings with powerful women. [My bold font emphasis.]

    Power does not say what she means by “racial barriers” when mentioning Melania the Elder by name. I don’t think this necessarily means that the historian (Power) thinks that the Spanish-born person (Melania) was of a dark(er) skin race. And I can’t find now or remember reading earlier about Melania’s race or skin color in this book.

    (Power does early confess her own biases, and there she does (pages 13-14) mention race:

    Thus no more than Augustine’s can my research be entirely value-free. In all my research I am informed by a feminist perspective, and in the theological arena would align myself with those who understand feminist theology as a critical theology of liberation.3 Sexism, racism and classism are interdependent and inherent in any ideology that posits hierarchies of human being as constituent of the natural order. Fundamentally, I am concerned with critiquing structures which constrain both women and men to remain half-human, and demonstrating how interpretations of sexual difference are central to Christian anthropology.

    I would only add that if Jerome were denigrating Melania for being a woman of power, then his racist statements – the Vulgate translation of Song of Songs and his comment about Melania’s name – suggest there may have been skin color racism complicated by sexism and by classism.)

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 16, 2012 12:29 am


    Discussing who among North Africans was or was not black is totally beyond me. Clearly there were many born in Africa who were Roman citizens and of the senatorial rank. Some were of mixed parentage. Thanks for opening up the discussion of race and ethnicity in ancient Rome.


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