September 21, 2016

Saint Jerome's Commentary on the Book of Jonah (1 of 5)

By St. Jerome


About three years have now passed since I first started writing the commentaries on the five Prophets: Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai. Detained by another work, I was not able to finish what I had undertaken. For I was writing a book on famous men and two volumes against Jovinian, an apology and an essay on 'the best way to translate' which was addressed to Pammachius, two books to or about Nepotian, and other works which it would be lengthy to recount. Therefore I retake up my commentaries with Jonah after such a long absence.

Jonah, a type of the Saviour, who prefiguring the resurrection of the Lord by spending "three days and three nights in the belly of a whale,"[1] was able to attain the first ardour so that we might deserve the arrival of the Holy Spirit to us. If indeed Jonah is to be translated as 'dove,' and if the dove can be seen as the Holy Spirit, then we can also interpret the Dove [Holy Spirit] as signifying the dove's entrance into us.

I know that some classical authors, both Latin and Greek, have spoken much about this book, and through all of their questions have less enlightened than obscured the ideas, so that in effect their interpretation needs to be interpreted and with the result that the reader comes away feeling less sure of the meaning than beforehand. I am not saying this to criticise these great minds, to abase others in order to extol myself, but rather because it is the place of the commentator to clarify in short and clearly what is obscure; they should be less concerned with displaying their eloquence than with explaining the meaning of the author.

We ask therefore where else the prophet Jonah appears in the Holy Scriptures apart from this book and the allusion made to him by the Lord in the Gospels.[2] And if I am not mistaken he is mentioned in the book of Kings in this way: "In the fifth year of Amasiah, the son of Joash, King of Judah, began to rule the son of Jeroboam son of Joash King of Israel in Samaria, for forty-one years. He did much wickedness before the Lord and did not distance himself from all the sins of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin. He re-established the frontier of Israel in Samaria from the entrance of Emathia to the Sea of Solitude, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which was spoken by the mouth of his servant Jonah, son of Amittai the prophet, from Gath which is in Ofer."[3] The Hebrews recount that he was the son of the widow of Sarepta, incited by the prophet Elijah; his mother later said to him, "I know now that you are indeed a man of God, and that the word of God is truly in your mouth;"[4] on account of this the child was called Truth. For Amittai in Hebrew can be rendered 'truth' in our language, and because Elijah spoke true, he who was encouraged was called the son of Truth. And Gath is located two miles from Sepphoris, which is now called Diocaesarea, when you are travelling to Tiberia: there is a small castle where his tomb can be seen. Others, however, prefer to place his birth and tomb near Diospolis, which is in Lydia. They do not see that when he writes 'Ofer,' this is to distinguish Gath from other towns of this name that can be seen now near to Eleutheropolis or Diospolis. The book of Tobit, though not in the canon, is all the same used by the men of the Church, and it mentions Jonah when Tobit says to his son, "My son, I am old and ready to leave this life. Take your sons and go to Media, my son. For I know what the prophet Jonah has said about Nineveh: she will be destroyed."[5] And, indeed, according to the Hebrew and Greek historians, Herodotus in particular, we read that Nineveh was destroyed in the time of King Josiah according to the Hebrews, and King Astyage of the Medians. From this we understand that in the past Jonah predicted that the Ninivites would repent and seek pardon; but afterwards, as they persisted in their sins, they brought the judgement of God upon themselves.

The Hebrew tradition is that Hosea, Amos, Isaiah and Jonah prophesied at the same time. This is historical tradition. Not forgetting the others of course, the venerable Pope Chromatius, who took great pains to recount to the Saviour the story of the prophet: he flees, he sleeps, he is thrown into the sea, he is swallowed by a whale, thrown back onto the shore and prays for repentance. And saddened by the safety of this town of many people, he finds comfort in the shade of a fig tree. There he is reproached by God for having taken more care of a green vine which had dried up, than of such a great number of men, and the other details I will try to explain in this volume.

But to grasp the complete meaning of the prophet in this short preface there is no better interpretation than that which inspired the prophets and which marked out the lines of the truth of the future for its servants. He therefore speaks to the Jews who do not believe his words and are ignorant of Christ, the Son of God: "The men of Nineveh will rise up at the time of judgement with this generation and they will condemn it, for they repented as Jonah required, and here there is one greater than Jonah!"[6] The generation of the Jews is condemned, while the world has faith and Nineveh repents, Israel the disbeliever dies. The Jews have the books themselves, we have the Lord of books; they hold the prophets, we have an understanding of the prophets; "the letter kills them," "the spirit makes us live;"[7] with them Barabbas the robber is released, for us Christ the Son of God is freed.


[1] Mt. 12:40.
[2] Mt. 12:39; Luke 11:30.
[3] 4 Kings 14:23-25.
[4] 3 Kings 17:24.
[5] Tob. 14:3.
[6] Mt. 12:41.
[7] II Cor. 3:6.