Latin versions of the Bible

A. The Greek Bible in Latin (Old Latin)

1. Origin. During the first centuries of Christian expansion, the vernacular language of the Mediterranean world was mainly Greek, even in the West. The books of the OT were read in the early Christian churches according to the LXX and the NT in Greek. When the necessity arose—as early as the 2d century in Roman Africa—the Bible was translated into Latin from the Greek. In many places,Tertullian (ca. 160–220) used a Latin version already at his disposal, certain peculiarities of which remained throughout the history of the Latin Bible. When, in the middle of the 3d century, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, quoted Scripture at great length and not from memory (Libri III ad Quirinum, commonly called Testimonia), he did it according to a Latin translation which was itself a revision and had already a complex history. This process of successive revisions continued for centuries and is aspecial feature of the Latin Bible. The Acta martyrum, in Africa again, mention sacred books as early as180.

2. Unity and Diversity. As it appears from patristic quotations and from manuscripts, the Old Latin is not constant and contains many divergencies. Augustine and Jerome were aware of this vitiosissima varietas (most vicious diversity). But, with the exception of some special cases, the differences do not attest the plurality of translations for a given book. Similarities are too characteristic and numerous, and differences only attest successive and even parallel revisions. The quotations of Novatian (ca. 250) do not succeed in demonstrating the existence of a distinct European translation independent of the African. The use of testimonia (anthologies of scriptural quotations) is an adequate explanation for some of the major divergencies. Liturgists know that the Latinization of the Christian community in Rome was slow and did not succeed completely before Pope Damasus. The history of the Latin version of the Greek Bible is, on  the one hand, that of revisions according to Greek models (LXX and NT) different from those used by the first translator and, on the other hand, that of alterations in Latin vocabulary and style following the evolution of the language.

a. Revision According to Greek Models. The first translation was done from Greek witnesses differing considerably from texts commonly received in the 4th century. In the NT, the model was, as a rule, a witness of the ―Western Text‖; the OT (LXX) was marked by many of the so-called Lucianic variants,  which were certainly prior to the martyr Lucian (died ca. 310) and which sometimes went back to the oldest known form of the LXX (Old Greek). Before Cyprian and repeatedly afterwards especially at those points where the differences were apparent, the Latin was revised on Gk mss akin to the great uncials.

From this point of view, the Latin version had no independent authority; its authority depended on its reliability when compared with received Greek witnesses. It is worth noting that the stability of liturgical use and the memorizing of texts slowed the process of alteration.

b. Changes in Vocabulary. At the same time, a progressive change in vocabulary and style took place.

Some technical words, some common words, and even some form-words (e.g. itaque) disappeared, and others came into use. At the outset, these may be called ―African‖, later being replaced by the term ―European. The change is probably no less a matter of chronology than of geography. It is clear from quotations by Augustine that the Italian ―European‖ use was soon to return to Africa.

The joint use of these two types of observation permits the modern investigator to distinguish some marked stages in the evolution of the text which are attested in the majority of the books of the OT and of the NT: the old African text (Cyprian), a more advanced African text (Ticonius, died before 400), an Italian text, and another European text (Lucifer of Cagliari, middle 4th century). The final victory, from the Carolingian Times onwards, of the Hieronymian translations and the success of some other texts not revised by Jerome involved the disappearance of nearly all non-conform witnesses. The terms ―Old Latin‖ and vetus latina perfectly suit translations and revisions prior to Jerome. They are extended to old revisions the absolute date of which we do not know.

3. Witnesses. The sources of our knowledge of the Old Latin versions may be listed as follows: (1) Quotations in patristic literature (inventory in Frede 1981; 1984; 1988). Most relevant on account of the number and the length of the quotations are the works of Cyprian, Lucifer of Cagliari, Jerome, Augustine and some florilegia, such as the Liber de divinis scripturis. All the patristic material is available on files in the Vetus Latina Institut of Beuron (West Germany) and is being published. Biblical texts from quotations are approximately dated and localized by their context.

(2) Biblical manuscripts written in the period when the Old Latin was still in use. Many are fragmentary or palimpsests; some are well preserved (Lowe 1934–1972).

(3) Carolingian and medieval Bibles. Especially for books not translated by Jerome from the Hebrew, it may be that their text is copied according to an archaic form in the middle of a Vulgate Bible. Examples are known even in 13th century Bibles.

(4) Glosses or additions to the translations of Jerome, especially when the Hebrew and Jerome are notably shorter than the Greek and the Old Latin (Samuel, Proverbs).

(5) Biblical lessons, canticles, and antiphons in early and medieval liturgical books of the various rites (Milanese, Roman, Gallican, Mozarabic). Liturgy is conservative.

4. Editions. The editions are scattered in many publications and not always easily accessible. Only editions of at least one biblical book are mentioned here. The Vetus Italica of P. Sabatier (1743) remains useful. The Vetus Latina Institut of Beuron started in 1949 the critical edition of the Old Latin Bible (manuscripts and quotations). The volumes of the Vetus Latina already printed are masterpieces of scholarship.

5. Relevancy. The Old Latin, not the Vulgate, has been the Bible used and commentated on by the Fathers of the Church; the translations of Jerome are discussed, although rarely quoted by late authors.

The lemma of the commentaries has often been changed by copyists to conform with the Vulgate but the commentary itself may offer a clue to the original. Identifying the quotations may be a difficult task because, in some books of the OT especially, the LXX (followed by the Old Latin) and the Hebrew differ greatly. In such cases, concordances of the Vulgate are of no use; only the Greek concordance of Hatch and Redpath gives assistance after tentative retroversion. The earlier forms of the Old Latin are older witnesses to the Greek than the preserved Greek manuscripts. The Old Latin sometimes attests the Old Greek, itself witnessing an Old Hebrew prior to the MT.

B. The Books Translated by Jerome

It would be erroneous to identify the Vulgate with the translations of Jerome (see C below).

Nevertheless Jerome occupies an unequalled position in the history of the Latin versions of the Bible. His genius as a translator and an exegete did more for the diffusion of his works than his choice of the veritas hebraica (against the LXX), which was much criticized in his own time and afterwards.

During his stay in Rome (382–385), Jerome revised the Latin Gospels, using old models of a European type (b, ff2), correcting them most probably according to Gk mss of koinē type (―K‖ in H. von Soden terminology). Pope Damasus accepted the dedication (prologue Novum opus), thus involving his high authority in this venture. Jerome also did a first revision of the Psalter of which nothing is known.

At Bethlehem (after 387), Jerome began to translate the Origenian or hexaplaric edition of the LXX, easily recognizable by the use of the asterisk and the obelus. He published a new Latin Psalter, called hexaplaric or, commonly, Gallican (it was used for the liturgy in Gaul), which subsequently became the Vulgate Psalter. He also published in this way a translation of Job (extant), Proverbs, Canticles (extant), Ecclesiastes and 1–2 Chronicles (the prologues are extant). It is not known if he translated more from the hexaplaric Greek. The material he did translate was to appear in the codex grandior of Cassiodorus.

With the assistance of the Greek translations of Aquila and especially of Symmachus, Jerome undertook a translation of the OT from the Hebrew. He probably began with the Psalter (iuxta Hebraeos), continued with the Prophets, including Daniel and its Greek supplements (390–392), 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings (392 or 393), Job (before 394) and, in one book called Esdras, Ezra-Nehemiah (394). Then followed 1–2 Chronicles (395–396), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles (398), the Pentateuch (ca. 400). He achieved the whole Hebrew Bible with Esther and its Greek supplements (shortly before 404) and with Joshua, Judges and Ruth (405–406). Again, using his often declared principles, he translated Tobit and Judith, without much care and using Old Latin texts (before 407).

No experienced scholar ever attributed to Jerome the translation or the revision of Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, 1–2 Maccabees, Baruch, and the Epistle of Jeremiah, which are to be found in Vulgate mss. It is also accepted today that Jerome did not touch the Pauline and Catholic Epistles, Acts, or Revelation. The Pelagian circles in Rome and Rufinus the Syrian are likely the authors of the Vulgate revision of those NT books.

At the outset, Jerome‘s new translations did nothing but add to the multiplicity and the diversity he fought against. Nor did they end other attempts at translation. Moreover Jerome was certainly not the editor of a complete Latin Bible and not even of his own grouped translations.

C. The Vulgate

1. The Term “Vulgata.” In the usage of the Latin Fathers, including Jerome, the term vulgata (koinē, ―common‖) is applied to the Greek Bible in the current and nonrevised text and to its Latin version.

However, since the 16th century, the term has been used to refer to the current Latin Bibles containing the translation of Jerome. No decision was taken in patristic times to give the translation of Jerome an officialcharacter, and his short canon (without the so-called deuterocanonical books) was never received. But the mention of Pope Damasus in the prologue of the gospels is likely to have subsequently extended his authority to the rest. Probably in the middle of the 5th century, the Hieronymian translations were completed with others and put together by an editor who used the terminology of Rufin of Aquileia. This compilation is rather well preserved in the Bible of Saint-Germain-des Prés (Paris, B.N., lat. 11553 ca. 800).

2. “Bibliotheca” and “Pandectes.” No Latin Bible in one codex is known with certainty before the middle of the 6th century. The Bible was actually a bibliotheca (nine or more codices), and this custom remained common until the 9th century. The parts of such bibliothecae were not necessarily homogeneous and it was not easy to produce a general edition. The first mention of Bibles in one volume comes from Cassiodorus, under the term pandectes (complete collection). Their use spread slowly. The oldest two are the palimpsest Bible of Léon (Catedral 15; 7th century) and the Amiatinus written in Wearmouth-Yarrow between 689 and 716. They became the common practice in the scriptoria of Alcuin (Tours) and Theodulf (Orléans) from the very beginning of the 9th century. In those Bibles, which were widely disseminated, the translations of Jerome were privileged and, for the other books, the choices of Alcuin and Theodulf (under Spanish influence) rather similar. Regional differences continued to remain and certain attempts at revision on the Hebrew will interfere until, at the beginning of the 13th century, the University of Paris and its librarians generalized a type of Latin Bible (Biblia Parisiensia) quite similar to what we call the Vulgate. At the same time, Stephen Langton (1150–1228) introduced those chapter divisions still in use today.

3. Content. Since the beginning of the 9th century, the following parts are common in the mss: (1) the translations from the Hebrew by Jerome, including Judith, Tobit, and the supplements to Esther and Daniel; (2) the hexaplaric version of the Psalter (also called gallicanum) by Jerome, used in the Carolingian liturgy and chosen by Alcuin, and not as one might have expected the iuxta Hebraeos, although chosen by Theodulf (on the respective diffusion of the Latin Psalters, see Fischer 1985: 407– 415); (3) the revision of the gospels by Jerome; (4) in the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, 1–2 Maccabees, and the rest of the NT, the Alcuinian text, sometimes influenced by the Theodulfian and with persistent regional differences. Baruch which was not separated from Jeremiah in the Old Latin, is often absent between the 8th and the 13th centuries; the Bibles of Theodulf preserved a type of text of Baruch which became common only in the Biblia Parisiensia (13th century). These Bibles usually put 3 Esdras (Esdras A in the LXX), which was a part of the Old Latin Bible, after Ezra and Nehemiah (counted as 1–2 Esdras). The book of 4 Esdras, which entered under Spanish influence, followed 3 Esdras. The short Prayer of Manasseh follows 2 Chronicles. These books, which the Council of Trent did not recognize as canonical, were nevertheless printed as an appendix in the Sixto-Clementine Bible (1592 and following editions).

4. History. Medieval erudition marked the transmission of the Latin Bibles, introducing new series of capitula, prefaces, and marginal and interlineary glosses. Some revisors tried to produce a text nearer to the Hebrew than Jerome‘s (e.g., an anonymous scribe of the school of Theodulf, Étienne Harding). Others aimed at eliminating errors and wrote correctoria. Humanists in the 16th century printed Latin Bibles corrected according to the Hebrew and to the Greek. The first to look for reliable old Latin mss to prepare an improved text was Robert Estienne especially in his edition of 1540. It is to him that we owe the present verse numbering (1553, 1555), which he introduced to subdivide the chapters of Stephen Langton.

The Council of Trent, which recognized the Vulgate as the authentic (authoritative, official) Latin version, gave only a list of canonical books and commissioned scholars to provide the Church with a new edition.

It was published by Sixtus V (1590) and a better edition appeared under Clement VIII (1592) with the assistance of Robert Bellarmin. The continuity from Alcuin to the Sixto-Clementine via the Biblia Parisiensia, the Gutenberg Bible (1450–1455), the Estienne Bible and the Louvain Bibles (1547, 1583) is manifest. In its final stabilization, just as in its long and complex history, the Vulgate appears as the result of two main trends: respect for the original tradition (the first vulgata, the Greek Bible translated in Latin) and the translations of Jerome according to the hebraica veritas. When they conflicted, the latter supplanted the former. The result is the Vulgate in the usual sense.

5. Critical Editions. The NT has been critically edited by J. Wordsworth, H. J. White and H. F. D. Sparks (1889–1954). The OT has been critically edited by the Benedictines of San Girolamo in Rome (H. Quentin, R. Weber, J. Gribomont, H. de Sainte-Marie, J. Mallet, A. Thibaut, 1926–1987). Only 1–2 Maccabees have not yet been published (see De Bruyne and Sodar 1932). R. Weber, with the help of others, has given an excellent edition of the whole Vulgate with an abridged apparatus (1969).

D. The Neo-Vulgate

In 1979, John Paul II promulgated a new official Latin translation of the Bible which was the final product of the Pontifical Commission for the Neo-Vulgate created by Paul VI in 1965. This new version respects the tradition of the Christian Latin language and is a revision of the Vulgate according to the Hebrew and to the Greek. It follows with caution the present state of modern exegesis. There are notable innovations in the deuterocanonical books; e.g., Judith and Tobit are translated from the Greek with the help of the Old Latin.


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