Paula of Rome

Paula of Rome

Paula (347-404): A Woman of Influence, Intellect, and Concern for the Poor

Written by Kimberly Dickson

Paula, although nearly unknown today, can be considered the mother of the best western translation of the bible for one thousand years.  She was part of a circle of aristocratic 4th century women who were tired of their lives of gossip and intrigue, so instead put their education and minds to work in the study of Christianity.  Paula was widowed after five children and then devoted herself to the study of God under Marcella, a renowned scholar consulted by clergy regarding theology and difficult Biblical questions.  Jerome, arguably the best biblical scholar of his age, fellowshipped with Marcella and came to be friends with Paula in this circle.

After five years under Marcella, Paula became attracted to desert asceticism (includes a vow of celibacy and self-denial in the search for God) through the letters of her friend Melania, who had also left the aristocratic Roman salon to experience God away from the world.  Paula, with her daughter Eustochium who had also taken the vows of celibacy, left behind their family and ventured to learn first-hand about the Christianity of their faith.[1]  They and other Christian women like them in the 4th Century were the first to assert this type of independence in Roman history, defying cultural and legal expectations of marriage and reproduction.[2]

After traveling through Egypt and Palestine with Jerome as their guide, Paula used her great wealth to establish three monasteries – one for women (which she oversaw), one for tourists, and one for men, which Jerome oversaw.  Her monasteries were not only places of learning scripture, language and theology, but also of copying the ancient manuscripts.[3]  Though Paula was completely convinced of the ascetic value of self-denial in order to more fully experience God, she did not limit her spiritual walk to a self-focused asceticism and learning.  Jerome writes that her commitment to the poor was so extreme that she ultimately impoverished herself and her families’ riches so as to care for the poor.  She then used her aristocratic influence to beg for resources to care for those sick, impoverished and in need.[4]

As evidenced by their early asceticism with Marcella in Rome, Paula and Eustochium were avid scholars.  In Jerusalem they tutored under Jerome, who was adept in all the Biblical languages.   At Paula’s urging, Jerome conceded to read them the entire Old Testament in Hebrew, teaching them Hebrew as they studied.  This allowed Paula and Eustochium to glean the deeper Hebrew meanings that they were missing with the poor Latin translation of scriptures.  Jerome reports that Paula was natural at language and her Hebrew ultimately far surpassed his own, without even the awkward Latin accent.[5]

The Latin Vulgate Bible

Because of the poor quality Latin translation of the Bible, Jerome was asked by the Pope to make a new Latin translation.  But it was Paula and Eustochium who encouraged Jerome to begin the project and who ensured it was completed.  At Paula’s own expense she procured the original books and manuscripts that were needed for the translation – many of which were very rare and expensive.[6]  Proficient in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, it was Paula and Eustochium who proof-read Jerome’s work and compared it to the other versions available.  Their suggested edits were accepted and incorporated into the Latin Vulgate Bible.  Furthermore, it was Paula and Eustochium who corrected the poor translation of the Psalms for the Latin Vulgate, leaving their lasting imprint on the Latin worship in the Roman Catholic church to this day.[7]

The Latin Vulgate Bible provided the sole Western scripture for 1000 years and its influence on both the Roman Catholics and later the Reformation cannot be overstated.  It was Jerome’s preface to each book that was used over 1000 years later by the reformers and Roman Catholics to clarify which scriptures would form their respective bibles.  The work of three brilliant people who worked as a committed team, the Vulgate still stands as the greatest biblical feat of all time.

Evaluating Paula’s Life through our Current Christian Lens

People are complex and cannot usually be simply characterized.  There were few choices for women in Paula’s era beyond marrying young and reproducing.  Paula represented an aristocratic woman of her era that was willing to defy cultural expectations to fulfill the calling of God.  Both now and then she was viewed with suspicion.[8]  Among other things, she left her children and family responsibilities, she impoverished their fortune, and one of her daughters died of starvation due to the extreme religious asceticism which she embraced as she sought to emulate her mother.[9] On the other hand, Paula rejected the shallow gossip of her class and dug deep into the meaning of scripture.  She honored the brilliant mind God gave her, and studied to become fluent in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.  She led her monastery into deep study and through their work helped to preserve ancient manuscripts that are invaluable to our own study and scriptural understanding today.  Furthermore, Paula and Eustochium’s version of the Psalms has endured the test of time and is still used in Latin worship.  Through Paula’s encouragement, Jerome dug deeper and provided more exhaustive resources for the Christian world.  She exhausted her wealth not in pursuit of earthly riches but to care for the poor.  And she left a lasting legacy of scripture that still influences us today.

Questions:

  1. Paula did not want nor did she receive recognition for her great contributions to theology or the Latin Vulgate Bible.  Only now is the deep respect and teamwork that existed between her, Eustochium and Jerome being recognized. What are your thoughts about the fact that the Latin Vulgate Bible has always been attributed solely to Jerome?  As Christians, does it matter who gets the credit?  How does the way recognition is offered affect our sons, daughters and the development of our Christian faith?
  2. Paula made the very difficult decision to leave her family to pursue her passion for God.  What sacrifices have men and women made in order to move away from family and cultural expectations?  How do we evaluate what is right and God honoring and what is destructive?
  3. The 25 years of teamwork and respect between Paula, Jerome and Eustochium is striking. In an era where women were not considered rational, the reality is that women were often Jerome’s closest companions precisely because of their deep intellectual acumen. Jerome so deeply respected Paula’s mind that he often stopped his own projects to pursue the projects in which she was interested.  Because of this, the Latin Vulgate Bible was completed.  How do we pursue relationships in the midst of challenging cultural trends so that deep respect and mutuality define the reality rather than the stereotypes surrounding us?

About the Author

Kimberly Dickson is pursuing her Masters in Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary.  Her career has been focused on Community Health and Development, through her Masters in International Public Health (MPH).  She has worked with Emmanuel Hospital Association in rural India as a Project Manager in community health and development, and has also been involved in addressing human trafficking both in India and the United States.  Locally, she has developed a program to transition homeless women and children to independent living.  She has also worked with her local Public Health Department to increase access to medical care for the poor and vulnerable of her county.

About the Art

St. Paula is depicted here as a woman in fashion and hair typical for 3rd and 4th century Rome. Due to the intermixing and bustling nature of ancient Rome, many ethnicities and cultures were represented and influenced Rome as its territory sprawled across Greece, Asia and Egypt.  We know from recent discoveries in art history that the skin tones in classical scripture were greatly varied as can also be seen in pottery and mosaic work from the same time period. The perception today that ancient Romans looked primarily like western Europeans today has been proven inaccurate due to the more recent work of scholars and art historians. Paula’s portrait is inspired by the Fayum burial portraits, discovered in Egypt from around the same time period, these (over 1,000) portraits provide us with amazingly preserved records of humanity as well as the standards of beauty and fashion from the earliest centuries. In the background of Paula are patterns and shapes found in mosaics of the same time period, an art form used by Romans to tell dynamic stories, record history and capture beauty.


Notes

  1. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII To Eustochium, Memorials of Her Mother, Paula,” in In Her Own Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, ed. Amy Oden, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 69.
  2. Anna Yarbrough, “Christianization in the 4th Century: The Example of Roman Women,” in Church History, 45 no 2 (June 1976), 154-157. Accessed December 9, 2018.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/3163714.; James Romano, “First Timothy 2:8-15, slide 2,” Lecture, NE517, Fuller Theological Seminary, Fall 2019.
  3. A.H. Johns, “Woman’s Work in Bible Study and Translation: The Study of St. Jerome, St. Marcella, St. Paula, and St. Eustochium and the Latin Vulgate,” in The Catholic World, (July 1912), 463-477. Accessed April 24, 2019.https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=2945.
  4. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII ,” 70.
  5. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII,” 73.
  6. A.H. Johns, “Women’s Work,” 463-477.
  7. A.H. Johns, “Women’s Work,” 463-477.
  8. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII,” 71.
  9. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII,” 70; Yarbrough, “Christianization in the 4th Century:” 155.