Jerome Letter 77.3

On Roman and Christian laws

Name of the author: 
399 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Letter 77

Jerome (347-420 CE) was born into a wealthy family in Stridon, Dalmatia (near to modern day Slovenia), and became one of the Church’s most renowned scholars, translators, exegetes, and theologians. His most famous project, perhaps, is his Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), but his catalogue of writings is vast, including letters, biblical commentaries, and his work describing notable Christian individuals, On Illustrious Men. While only provincial elites themselves, his parents sent him to be educated alongside the sons of Roman senators. He initially began his schooling in Stridon, before moving to Aquileia and then Rome. At around the age of twenty, Jerome and a childhood friend from Stridon travelled to Trier in Gaul at the former’s parents’ request (the city was the capital of the emperor Valentinian), and became interested in Christian asceticism (see Megan Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book, p. 16-17). Here, the pair joined a group of ascetics which included the church historian Rufinus, and possibly the future bishop of the city, Chromatius. Within three years the group disbanded and Jerome left for Antioch. He spent the next several years practicing asceticism in the desert nearby. In 380-381 CE Jerome moved to Constantinople to study exegesis with Gregory Nazianzus before returning to Rome and becoming acquainted with a circle of aristocratic widows who lived as ascetics (on Jerome’s wealthy ascetic patrons, see Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book, chap. 7). One of the women whom he met was a certain Fabiola, who was at the time married, and on the periphery of the ascetic circle. Initially married to an adulterous man, Fabiola divorced him and remarried, but the Church would not accept the validity of her second marriage because her first husband was still alive. The marriage was, however, perfectly acceptable under Roman law. When her second husband died, Fabiola decided to completely devote herself to the ascetic lifestyle that Jerome and his friends practiced (for further details on Fabiola, who features in more than one of Jerome’s letters, see Susan Wessel, Passion and Compassion, p. 65-70; Letters 64 and 78 were addressed to Fabiola, but it is the present Letter 77 which contains the most information about her life).

The present extract is from Jerome’s Letter 77, which is essentially a eulogy for Fabiola, who had died in 399 CE, in which Jerome narrates her life of sin and repentance to one of her relatives, Oceanus. In relation to Fabiola’s situation, the passage above is taken from a section which sees Jerome commenting upon the lenient nature of Roman divorce law in comparison to the teachings of the New Testament. Matthew 19:9 states that a man who divorces his wife for any reason other than unchastity (πορνεία, porneia) and marries someone else is considered to be committing adultery. Elsewhere, Jerome also expresses his disgust regarding a couple in Rome who married each other despite having had numerous spouses between them already (the woman twenty-two and the man twenty; see Letter 123.10). In 331 CE, towards the end of his reign, the emperor Constantine issued an edict which harshly punished divorce apart from in very particular circumstances (see Theodosian Code 3.16.1). A woman could not divorce her husband without proving that he was a murderer, a preparer of poison, or a defiler of tombs at the risk of losing her entire dowry and being deported to an island. The punishment for men was less harsh, however, as if he divorced his wife without proving that she was an adulteress, a preparer of poison, or a “procuress” (see Caroline Humphress, “Civil Law and Social Life,” p. 215), he merely had to return her dowry. He was not at risk of exile (see Judith Evans Grubbs, Law and Family, p. 255-256). Although, if the man remarried, his ex-wife could come to his home and take the dowry of his new wife (Constantine’s law was not popular, and was overturned under the emperor Julian). Evans Grubbs states that the divorce law of 331 “represents a complete overhaul of the procedures for unilateral divorce in effect since Augustus” (Law and Family, p. 223). Some scholars have argued that Constantine’s legislation was influenced by Christian ethics (see, for example, Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, p. 51; Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine, p. 202, n. 40). However, others disagree (see, for example, Caroline Humphress, “Civil Law and Social Life,” p. 215). Evans Grubbs concludes that Julian the Apostate’s rescinding of Constantine’s divorce law suggests that he must have seen a specifically Christian edge to it (Law and Family, p. 232-233).

Regardless, this law, which was contemporary with Jerome’s letter, did not punish men and women equally, and this is one of the problems which Jerome brings up, introducing his critique by contrasting the laws of Caesar and Christ, which are represented through Papinian and Paul the Apostle respectively (Papinian was a renowned Roman jurist first under Marcus Aurelius and then under Severus. He was eventually put to death by Caracalla). Jerome claims that “earthly laws” (i.e. those of the Romans) allow men a great amount of freedom when it comes to unchaste behaviour, with the use of prostitutes and sexual relations with slave girls going unchecked, and any associated guilt placed more on the prostitutes and slaves than on the men who use them. Christian laws, on the other hand, view men and women as equally culpable in such matters, because they are ultimately answerable to God above any human legislation, in whose eyes sin is the same regardless of who commits it.

As Andrew Jacobs discusses, even in the fourth century, when Christianity was legal and the official religion of the emperor, Christians still wrestled with their own sense of identity within the empire. One of the areas where this was most noticeable was in that of civil jurisprudence (see Jacobs, “Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 85). Relevant to the discussion is also Jerome’s Letter 22.30 to the virgin Eustochium, where he speaks of a vision from his youth, when he was in the Syrian desert as a monk, in which he was dragged before the judge’s tribunal and asked his status. He replies that he is a Christian, but the judge accuses him of being a follower of Cicero. The dream highlights a clash of cultures—secular and religious—and demonstrates how the “discourse of Roman law was a fertile imaginative ground for the articulation of ambivalent loyalties” (Jacobs, “Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 86). While the legal status of Christianity itself was no longer at issue, the conflict between—or at the very least the inequality between—the laws of God and those of the Roman empire still proved problematic. With the Christianisation of the empire, and Caesar understood as God’s representative on earth, what were Christians to do when they found a discrepancy between the two bodies of law? Which took precedence? The efforts of the fourth-century, anonymous, likely Christian author of the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum to synchronise Old Testament laws with those of the Romans indicate that for some, accommodation with the legal institutions of the empire was desirable. If, as is probable, this text is the work of a Christian lawyer, then it seems that he was eager for his pagan colleagues to view the two as wholly compatible, and not at all at odds. The present passage from Jerome, however, reveals that for this author, there was still a “critical moral gap between God’s law and the Empire’s” (Jacobs, “Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 85). Indeed, as Andrew Jacobs highlights, the use of the phrase “noster Paulus” (“our Paul”) emphatically distinguishes the Apostle Paul from the third-century jurist Julius Paulus, adding to the “us and them” rhetoric of his argument (“Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 85, n. 4).

Essentially, this short extract reveals the crisis of identity that Christians faced in the period after Constantine’s conversion and the subsequent adoption of Christianity in the empire. It was now not as easy to completely disown and malign the world and its institutions, as these were understood to be run by faithful, divinely chosen rulers. Rome was no longer imposing laws which persecuted Christians, but rather was the “benevolent dispenser of laws,” supported by the Supreme God (Jacobs, “Papinian Commands One Thing,” p. 87). The feelings of being torn between wanting to be distinct from Rome and wanting to accommodate to it (indeed, submitting to Roman rule was advocated from the New Testament onwards; e.g. Romans 13:1-7) were very much alive, and the theme of law proved to be one of the most prominent illustrations of this conflict of identity.

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“Civil Law and Social Life”

Humphress, Carolinearticle-in-a-bookThe Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, Volume 13Noel Lenski205-225“Civil Law and Social Life”CambridgeCambridge University Press2006
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