Vetus Latina (“Old Latin”; hereafter, VL) is the term used in modern scholarship for Latin translations of the Bible from the Greek Septuagint (hereafter, LXX) text of the Jewish scriptures and the Greek text of the New Testament done before Jerome; Vulgatum (“Vulgate”) is the traditional term for Jerome's translation of the Jewish scriptures into Latin from the Hebrew text and his revision of Latin translations of the Greek New Testament.

The Vetus Latina (Old Latin) Tradition.

We do not know when Latin translations were first made of the Greek Septuagint or Greek New Testament. A tantalizing glimpse of the need (at least) for Latin versions of the New Testament appears in a statement in the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (securely dated to 180 C.E.), where the Roman proconsul at Carthage inquires of a rural Christian on trial what he has in his book bag; the answer is “books and letters of Paul, a law-abiding man.” Exactly what these items consisted of is a matter of debate, but the response of the defendant strongly suggests some translations into Latin of New Testament texts, for there is little evidence that the village folk in North Africa could read Greek. Indeed, the defendant's other responses include a quotation clearly based on a Latin rendering of 1 Timothy 1:16. We therefore assume that in the decades before 180, in Roman North Africa, at least, Latin translations of the New Testament circulated.

Our first unambiguous evidence of Latin translations of the Bible comes in the works of the Christian rhetorician and apologist, Tertullian, writing in Carthage circa 196–212 C.E. Tertullian clearly used Latin versions of some, but not all, biblical books. His Against Praxeas (ca. 213), for example, indicates a Latin translation of Genesis, perhaps of the entire Pentateuch. He also frequently made his own Latin translations from the Greek (sometimes more accurately than known Old Latin versions), as in his treatise On monogamy (ca. 217). A revealing text is Tertullian's On the veiling of virgins, composed before 207 in Greek, then translated by Tertullian into Latin, presumably for wider diffusion. Those two linguistic versions of the same work suggest Tertullian's awareness that, while the Christian urban aristocracies of North Africa might have some reading knowledge of Greek, the great majority of those whom Tertullian wished to address knew only Latin.

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage 248/9; martyred 258 C.E., and his contemporary at Rome, Novatian (251–258), in their letters and Cyprian's treatises, demonstrate that there were established Latin versions of probably two types: African (earlier?) and “European” (that is, Roman). Novatian's citations, in particular, indicate a Latin translation of the Gospels distinct from what Cyprian used. For the New Testament, both versions were based on a “western” Greek text of which a cogent witness is the Codex Bezae (at Cambridge University). For the Old Testament, both Latin traditions used what would be later styled a “Lucianic” (Antiochene) recension of the LXX (from Lucian, martyred 311/312, who gave his name to a Syrian Greek Christian tradition of the LXX and the New Testament).

No complete VL Bible survives. What has come down to us are manuscripts including part or all of the Gospels in Old Latin in what were, originally, several different translations. Many manuscripts contain differing versions of other biblical books. Indeed, several traditional sections of the Jewish scriptures (the Pentateuch and Joshua, Judges, and Ruth; Psalms; Chronicles; the Prophets; Maccabees) have separate textual tradition. For example, it has been demonstrated that an early manuscript at Lyon exhibits a possibly unique Latin translation of the Heptateuch. For the New Testament, the evidence indicates, for example, two different versions of Hebrews and Revelation, while the VL Pauline epistles seem to descend from a single translator. As suggested above, the manuscript evidence indicates that there are two distinct traditions of early Latin biblical translations. First, an “African” tradition of which we have three incomplete texts redacted before 550 C.E. An example of this tradition is the Codex Bobbiensis (ca. 400) containing Mark and half of Matthew; the text of this codex closely agrees with Cyprian's citations of Mark and Matthew. The “European” (perhaps primarily Roman) tradition is represented by seven major manuscripts written before 1250; most contain only the Gospels or portions thereof. The earliest extant manuscript of this “European tradition” is probably the Codex Vercellensis, dating before 370.

With respect to contents, a typical text of the Latin Bible is Codex Gigas (early thirteenth century). This codex contains the entire Latin Bible as we define it today plus other works. In this codex, the New Testament books of Acts and Revelation are VL texts of considerable antiquity: the texts of those two NT books agree with quotations from Lucifer of Cagliari, a Christian scholar of the mid-350s. Gigas thus represents a common phenomenon: even when Jerome's Vulgate was widely available, many communities used VL texts plus the Vulgate, and thus there are a large number of manuscripts in which some books are VL (especially the Gospels) and others Jerome. Some of these early Latin versions were perhaps interlinear texts (Greek and Latin), as in the surviving ninth-century text from the abbey of St. Gall containing Luke. Interlinear translations would have a lengthy afterlife. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels codex of the seventh-eighth centuries for example, has an interlinear translation from Latin into Anglo-Saxon (950).

It is difficult to generalize about the quality of these early Latin versions. Some of the Gospel versions are literate and accurate; other VL texts (especially of the Jewish scriptures) are often inaccurate as to technical terminology and typically exhibit very literal renderings and transliterations rather than translations of abstract Greek terms (for example: agape, rather than amor or caritas). The manuscript tradition indicates continual revision of these VL texts down to and after Jerome's era.

In general, what we know of the VL translations suggests that Jerome did not exaggerate when, in the preface to his own translation from the Hebrew into Latin of the book of Joshua, he declared: “Among Latin speakers there are as many distinct texts as there are manuscripts and each person has added or subtracted what, in his judgment, seemed best.”

Jerome's Vulgate.

Eusebius Hieronymus, better known as Jerome (ca. 347–419 C.E.), translated the four Gospels freshly from Greek and dedicated them to Pope Damasus in 383/84; he also composed a detailed commentary on Matthew, as he did in lesser detail on other New Testament books, notably, the Pauline Epistles Galatians, Ephesians, Titus, and Philemon. Apart from the Gospels (especially Matthew), he may have only slightly revised the other books of the New Testament, if at all, from existing Latin translations. (Only his translation of the four Gospels received a formal preface.) The precise manuscripts Jerome used for his New Testament translation/revision cannot be convincingly

Vulgate and Other Ancient Latin Translations

St. Jerome in His Study.

Engraving by Albrecht Dürer, 1514.

PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

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identified, but there is evidence he employed New Testament manuscripts closely related to the three oldest and distinct surviving Greek manuscripts: Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Vaticanus.

In 392, Jerome wrote that he had not only translated the New Testament from the Greek, but had also translated the Old Testament “according to the Hebraic text.” In fact he had at that time only begun his translation from the Hebrew. He had, however, translated, with critical annotations, at least some of the Old Testament books (Psalms, Job, Chronicles, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) into Latin from the Septuagint. These new Latin translations did not survive, except for his translations of Job and Psalms. The latter, translated circa 387, enjoyed wide diffusion and was used throughout Europe, until the Counter Reformation, at least, and was known as the “Gallican Psalter” because of its use in the liturgy in northern European churches. (A separate Psalter, used solely in the Roman liturgy, is not by Jerome, but of equal antiquity.) What became of the other books of the Old Testament he translated from the Septuagint is something of a mystery. In 415 or 416, when Augustine requested a copy of Jerome's translation (Letter 82), Jerome replied, somewhat unconvincingly, that he lacked sufficient Latin scribes for a copy to be made and, in any case, he had lost much of his earlier work “because of the fraud of someone” (Letter 134.2). Perhaps he simply suppressed his initial attempt at a new Latin translation of the Old Testament.

By circa 390, Jerome's study of Hebrew had convinced him of the need for a Latin translation of the Old Testament based not on any revision of a corrected Septuagint text, but on the Hebrew text. His rationale for this new translation from what he liked to style the hebraica veritas (“Hebrew truth”), was two-fold. First, Christians deserved a more accurate translation of the Old Testament books than the LXX, not to mention the many old Latin versions currently circulating. Furthermore, a Latin translation directly from Hebrew would answer those Jews who sneered at the LXX (and the VL derivatives of the Greek) as full of inaccuracies.

Jerome spent from 390 to 405 working on his translation of the Old Testament. From 390 to circa 395, he completed his translation of Samuel and Kings, with an important preface on his sources and methodology, followed by a new translation “according to the Hebrews” of Psalms. Then, circa 396, he completed Job and the Prophets and the postexilic books Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. From 398 to 404, he worked on the Pentateuch. In 405, he could boast that he had completed his translation into Latin from the “Hebrew truth” all of the Old Testament.

We cannot identify any specific manuscripts Jerome used for his translations from Hebrew while he was in Rome. After his settlement at Bethlehem (from 387/8), he had access to the great biblical research instrument the Greek scholar Origen (d. ca. 254 C.E.) had compiled, the Hexapla, an edition of most of the books of the canonical Jewish scriptures. The Hexapla, the “Six-part thing,” contained, in parallel columns (1) the Hebrew text; (2) the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek; (3) a very literal Greek version of the Hebrew by Aquila (a Jewish proselyte; ca. 130 C.E.); (4) a literal, but more elegant and idiomatic Greek version by Symmachus (perhaps a Samaritan who “converted” to Judaism; ca. 190 C.E.); (5) the received Greek Septuagint; (6) a revision of the received text of the Septuagint as revised and corrected by Theodotion (a Jewish Christian? ca. 160 C.E.). Jerome could, and did, according to his frequent mention of the Hexapla, consult this work at the episcopal library at Caesarea in Palestine.

Jerome's translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew original is an important stage in the transmission of the Hebrew Bible. In many respects, Jerome's translation was far more accurate than the Greek Septuagint translation in circulation. Furthermore, his translation sometimes—as does the LXX—testifies to a Hebrew version earlier than the surviving Masoretic Text. While Jerome aimed at a literal and accurate Latin version of the Hebrew, he frequently simply transliterated Hebrew words and names. Some of his translations reveal acquaintance with current Jewish scholarship and interpretation as recorded in the Mishnah. He himself asserted that he consulted “native informants”—that is, literate Jews. While Jerome was in ascetic retreat in Chalcis (Syria) (ca. 377–379), he studied Hebrew with a Jewish Christian (Letter 125.12); when in Rome (383–386?), he made use of the linguistic knowledge of a Jewish friend (Letter 22.1); after he settled in Bethlehem, where he would complete his translations ex Hebraica veritate, he declared, in 398, that he frequently consulted a Jew named Baraninas (that is, Bar Hanina), who, Jerome asserted, visited him only at night, out of fear of other Jews (Letter 84.3). He said that he used other learned Jewish consultants for his translations of specific books (Chronicles and Job, for example).

In his translation of the “Hebrew truth,” Jerome aimed at an accurate rendering, but explicitly not one in a high literary style (of which he was perfectly capable), but a simple, literate Latin that would be accessible to the common folk who would use it for devotions and especially in church readings. He was particularly concerned to render into correct Latin archaic and unusual Hebrew terms frequently mangled in the LXX and VL translations (especially plants and animals). Because of his firm belief that the prophets should be read allegorically, his translations of passages like Isaiah 45:8 and 62:2 and Habbakuk 3:18 emphasized a messianic reading. Occasionally, moreover, his less than perfect knowledge of Hebrew produced curiosities. Famously, at Exodus 34:29–35, Moses’ face is described as “radiant.” Jerome misunderstood the verb qaran (to radiate light) as the noun qeren (horn). Jerome's Moses is thus cornuta, “horned.” That mistranslation led Michelangelo to sculpt his Moses (1513–1515) for the tomb of Pope Julius III, in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, with horns emerging from Moses’ forehead.

Throughout this period of translation of the Old Testament “Hebraic truth,” Jerome composed extensive commentaries on what he was or had been translating, especially for the Major Prophets. These commentaries are a valuable resource for our knowledge not just of Jerome's knowledge and interpretations, but also of previous scholarship Jerome cited concerning these texts.

As with practically any new translation of the Bible, Jerome's major accomplishments, his translation into Latin of the current Hebrew text of the Old Testament and his new translation/revision of the Latin versions of the Greek New Testament, were not readily accepted. In two letters, Jerome acknowledged Roman opposition to his version of the Gospels (27.2 [384] and 45.3–4 [385]; see also Letters 71.5; 112.20). An important contemporary witness to the reception in the Latin west of Jerome's translation was Augustine. In two letters sent from North Africa to distant Bethlehem, Augustine made very clear that, while he deeply respected Jerome's erudition and linguistic abilities, he was very suspicious of any attempt to supplant the VL translations from the LXX (Letters 71 and 82; after 402). He objected for two reasons. First, Augustine firmly believed that the LXX translation itself was divinely inspired. But his arguments were founded on a long-standing familiarity with the VL versions of the LXX and tended to be more sentimental than cogent. Second, although he came to acknowledge that the VL translations of the LXX were frequently flawed, when not demonstrably wrong—errors he attributed to malevolent Jews (Letter 82.35)—Augustine was deeply concerned that Jerome's renditions would, because of their unfamiliarity, cause consternation among the less-learned faithful. To appreciate how serious was Augustine's second concern, we need read only his Letter 71, where Augustine reports great consternation in churches at Jerome's rendering of Jonah 4:5. Greek and Latin readers were familiar with a translation where the Lord causes a squash vine to grow and shade Jonah. Jerome rendered the Hebrew qîqāyôn as hedera (climbing ivy) rather than the LXX and VL's familiar colocyntha (squash; gourd). Jerome was well aware of the opposition his Hebrew translations provoked among those comfortable with older Latin versions. His response was that, while the LXX and its derivative, the extant VL translations, were “useful for churches,” Christian scholars should surely appreciate that, as did “apostolic men” (Luke and Paul), he too used reliable Hebrew sources (see Against Rufinus 2.34–5 and Letter 57.10). In time, Augustine acknowledged that, while many Latin churches relied on the VL, Jerome was indeed a man “most learned and knowledgeable of all three languages” (City of God, 18.43). Indeed, in his On Christian Education, Augustine explicitly stated that he was now using not the LXX, nor the derivative VL translations, but Jerome's translation of the Bible (De doctrina Christiana 4.48 & 117; completed 426/7).

Jerome's Vulgate survives in many manuscripts. Some present a “mixed” text: some books in Jerome's translations, some (especially the Gospels) in Old Latin versions. Probably the oldest surviving manuscript of the Vulgate is the Codex Amiatinus of the seventh-eighth centuries, now at Florence. This codex contains all of the Old and New Testaments and certain of the Apocrypha or deuterocanonical works (Judith, Tobit, etc.). This codex may represent the revised text of Jerome's Vulgate undertaken by the Christian scholar Cassiodorus (ca. 550? C.E.).

Jerome's translation (or, rather, corrected and revised versions of it) was not formally endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church until 1546, when the Council of Trent declared the Vulgatum to be authoritative.

[See also SEPTUAGINT and OTHER ANCIENT GREEK TRANSLATIONS.]

Bibliography

Texts

  • Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgatum versionem. 5th ed. Edited by Robert Weber, Roger Gryson et al. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2007. The best current and complete scholarly text of Jerome's Vulgate.
  • Vetus Latina—Resources for the Study of the Old Latin Bible.” www.vetuslatina.org. This website (displayed in English or German) is the primary resource for VL texts, scholarly studies, and a selection of relevant early manuscripts beautifully displayed and described.

Studies

  • Barnes, Timothy David. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. See pp. 276–278 for an insightful discussion of the probability of Latin translations of (some of) the biblical books (only of the New Testament?) circulating in North Africa before 180 C.E.
  • Botte, B. “Latines antérieures à S. Jérôme.” In Dictionnaire de la Bible. Supplement, vol. 5, edited by L. Pirot et al., 1900–1947. Paris: Letouzy, 1957. A thorough review of the extant manuscript tradition of the VL. Compare Tkacz, below.
  • Brown, Dennis, Vir Trilinguis: A Study in the Biblical Exegesis of Saint Jerome. Kampen, Netherlands: Pharos, 1992. A highly readable review of Jerome's knowledge of biblical Hebrew. See especially pp. 55–120.
  • Burkett, F. C. “The Old-Latin Heptateuch.” Journal of Theological Studies 29 (1928): 40–46. Concise and cogent essay-review of the distinct VL traditions of the Old Testament books concerned.
  • Burton, Philip. The Old Latin Gospels: A Study of their Texts and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Precise, perceptive, readable.
  • Dunn, Geoffrey D. Tertullian. London & New York: Routledge, 2004. See pp. 3–23 on knowledge of Greek and Latin scriptures in Roman North Africa, circa 180–220.
  • Elliot, J. K. “The Translations of the New Testament into Latin: The Old Latin and the Vulgate.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II. 26.1, edited by Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, pp. 98–245. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1992. Especially valuable for a descriptive listing of pertinent manuscripts and the modern bibliography on those manuscripts.
  • Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. An accessible, scholarly introduction to what we know of the written word—including the Bible—in early Christian communities. See especially pp. 130–132, 230–231.
  • Kelly, J. N. D. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Still the standard English biography of Jerome. See especially pp. 141–167 on Jerome's biblical translations and commentaries.
  • Kotzé, Annemaré. “Augustine, Jerome and the Septuagint.” In Septuagint and Reception, edited by Johann Cook, pp. 246–260. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009. An excellent discussion of Augustine's evolving attitudes to the inspiration of the LXX and his responses to Jerome's Vulgate.
  • Loewe, Raphael. “The Medieval History of the Latin Vulgate.” In The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. 2: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation, edited by G. W. H. Lampe, pp. 102–154. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969. A classic exposition of the complicated manuscript history of Jerome's translation. See especially the chart on pp. 104–105.
  • Meershoek, G. Q. A. Le Latin biblique d'après Saint Jérôme. Nijmegen and Utrecht: Dekker & Van De Vegt, 1966. Detailed discussion of Jerome's choice of words to render Hebrew text, with consideration of neologisms and Jerome's rendering of difficult Hebrew nouns (e.g., the hedera of Jonah 4:6).
  • Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. See especially pp. 100–109: a conservative assessment, with excellent, illustrated discussions of the primary Old Latin manuscripts. See also Tkacz, below.
  • Sparks, H. F. D. “Jerome as Biblical Scholar.” In The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. I: From the Beginning to Jerome, edited by P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, pp. 511–541. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970. A thoughtful, eminently readable discussion of Jerome's work as translator of, and commentator on, the Old Testament.
  • Tkacz, Catherine Brown. “‘Labor Tam Utilis’: The Creation of the Vulgate.” Vigiliae Christianae 50 (1996): 42–72. A thorough review of the compositional chronology of Jerome's translation and of modern scholarship on the Vulgate.
  • White, Caroline. The Correspondence (394–419) between Jerome and Augustine of Hippo. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1990. An idiomatic, accurate translation of the surviving letters between these two contemporary Christian scholars. See especially pp. 35–47 on Augustine's fidelity to the VL versions and his concern for Jerome's aim of supplanting poor Latin translations of the LXX by his own Latin translation from the Hebrew.

Paul B. Harvey, Jr.