The bible “in the original Latin”: The Vulgate.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 January

Every so often, when I tell people I study the bible in the original languages (not that I go round bragging I can read the original languages; it’s just they ask me how I do bible study, so I tell them) they comment, “Ah, in the original Latin.”

Nope, not Latin. I can stumble through Latin, but the bible’s written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The very few Latin words in there, were transliterated into the Greek alphabet.

Most accept the correction. A few foolhardy few—you know the sort who’ve always gotta be right?—actually try to stand their ground. “But didn’t Jesus speak Latin? He did in The Passion of the Christ.” Yeah, that movie’s not as historically accurate as you think. The fact a white gentile plays Jesus—no matter how good a job he did—should usually tip you off.

Latin was the language of the western Roman Empire—and Greek the language of the eastern. Which includes Israel. Which includes Jesus and his apostles. When Christianity was legalized in the 300s, the western Romans of course wanted a bible in their language—just like the eastern Romans did, for the Septuagint and New Testament are both in Greek. Most of the bible had been translated into Latin already, but some parts were well done… and some parts sucked. Some OT books were translations of the Septuagint (the Greek OT), not the Tanakh (the Hebrew/Aramaic OT) —so, translations of a translation. There was no consistency throughout.

In 382 Rome’s bishop Damasus (they weren’t yet called popes), tasked his personal secretary, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus—whom we nowadays call St. Jerome—to fix the Latin-language bibles by doing a fresh retranslation of the gospels. Jerome did way more than that: He went to Israel, learned Hebrew and Aramaic, translated the entire Old Testament, and updated other parts of the New Testament. He’s largely responsible for the Latin translation we call the Vulgate 'vəl.ɡeɪt, from the term versio vulgata/“common version.” It was the bible of the western Romans—and after the Roman Empire receded to the east and historians relabeled it the Byzantine Empire, the official bible of the Roman Catholics. Until 1979, when Catholics came out with the New Vulgate.

Calling the Vulgate “the original Latin” is just as inaccurate as assuming the King James Version is the original. (Or as good as the original.) But for pagans, and newbie Christians who know nothing of church history, they don’t know any better, so of course they’re gonna make that mistake. Correct them kindly.

Jerome’s feat.

Yep, it all began with Damasus realizing his copy of the gospels sucked. Jerome knew Greek, so he was assigned the job of redoing them. He went to Bethlehem, Israel with the intent of getting hold of the very best copies of the gospels he could. Didn’t take long before Jerome realized Latin-speakers lacked any good translations of the Old Testament either.

Jerome’s Old Testament initially came from the Hexapla 'hɛks.ə.plə, a parallel bible edited by Origen of Alexandria in the mid-200s, which went phrase-for-phrase through the Tanakh, and compared it with five different Septuagints. We only have fragments of the Hexapla today; the rest is long gone.

Schaff-Herzog’s reconstruction of what Origen’s Hexapla looked like, starting at Psalm 46. Current editions tend to just bunch ’em into paragraphs. Escritura Sagrada

Yeah, it’s a lot like an interlinear bible—but with all the known Greek variants to choose from. Using that, Jerome quickly cranked out his first Latin OT.

And now that he had a far better understanding of Hebrew, Jerome took another pass at it—this time focusing more on the Tanakh than the Greek translations of it—and translated the OT again. And that’s the OT which is now in the Vulgate. (Well, except for Psalms. People grew to like his previous version better, so they swapped it out at some point in the 1000s.)

While he was at it, Jerome wrote thorough commentaries on what he translated, and why he translated it that way. Some of them took the form of books; some are found in the many letters he wrote Damasus and other Latin-speaking Christians of his day, all of whom were very interested in what Jerome was up to. (Some of whom were huge fans of him translating from the original Tanakh; others who loved the Septuagint and wanted to know why he wasn’t using that bible for his translation.) As his translations quickly spread round the Roman Empire, and became the new standard for Latin bibles, he even offered suggestions for improving his translations.

Jerome stuck to Hebrew custom for the books: Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra/Nehemiah were made one book each, not two. (Later editors of the Vulgate split 'em back into two, like the Septuagint did.) He translated some of the books Protestants consider apocrypha, like Tobit and Judith; he found Aramaic originals and put 'em into Latin. The Septuagint has extra chapters of Esther and Daniel which aren't in the Hebrew bible, so Jerome translated them from Greek.

Yes, Jerome was the first to coin the term “apocrypha” to describe the books which are in the Tanakh but not the Septuagint. Protestants who are leery of the apocrypha love to point this out. Sometimes they even claim he fought to keep them out. He actually didn’t. Like I said, he translated some of them. Not all, and no he didn’t quit in protest. They just weren’t a priority for him. So the Vulgate’s versions of those other books were translated by other folks—and it shows.

As for the New Testament, the gospels are Jerome’s. The other books have some of Jerome’s corrections, but they’re largely by other translators—and considered good enough.

The Vulgate and the Catholics.

For Roman Catholics the Vulgate was the bible. There were no other translations competing for popularity. It’d been translated by a bona fide saint. And by the time the bishop of Rome evolved into the pope, and his church and its network into Catholicism, the Vulgate had been in use three centuries. Like the KJV, people didn’t even debate about whether it was a good translation, or whether they really oughta hang their hats on its teachings, or whether it might need an update: They just accepted it. ’Cause it’s the bible.

Because “the bible” was in Latin, it encouraged Catholics to spread Latin as well as Christianity. ’Cause you gotta know Latin to read the bible!—plus all the other bible-based Latin-language literature in existence, plus all the other Latin-language literature period. Latin, Catholics figured, was the language of the bible, the Roman Empire (and after 700, the Holy Roman Empire), and every seriously important work. Like Greek-speakers, Latin-speakers translated everything they could get hold of into Latin, and it became the language to know if you wanted access to everything worth knowing. It's why so many formal inscriptions, mottos, and scientific terms are still in Latin.

And as the bible, the Vulgate became the most influential book in the west. Y’might remember the first book ever printed in the west was the Gutenberg Bible in 1455; y’might not realize the translation was the Vulgate. But what else would it be? Martin Luther’s translation wouldn’t exist for another century.

Jerome’s original copy is long gone, so the copies of the Vulgate we have come from various medieval manuscripts. The oldest full copy (except the apocryphal books of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah) is the Codex Amiatinus, produced by Anglo-Saxon monks around 700. Other sections date back to the 500s.

Catholics decided to standardize the Vulgate in the 1500s—partly because errors and variants had been creeping into the bible for centuries, and partly ’cause of Protestants making their own bibles. Pope Sixtus 5 came out with the Sistine edition of the Vulgate in 1590, and Pope Clement 8 produced the Clementine edition in 1592 (and corrected in 1593 and 1598). That’s been the standard Vulgate since.

Because functioning as one church—not as thousands of individual congregations—is important to Catholics, they strive to do everything in sync. Everybody prays the same prayers, uses the same missal and order of service, reads from the same scriptures. That includes the same bible—and for centuries the only bible they used was the Vulgate. Go to any Catholic church anywhere, and the verses would all come from the Vulgate. In Latin. Which meant the rest of the service would also be in Latin. Which meant you’d better be up to speed on your Latin!

Problem was, many weren’t. Sometimes they were uneducated, sometimes lazy. So they missed the point of a lot of scriptures, prayers, and lessons. That’s part of the reason history is littered with sucky Christians. To be fair they’d have sucked regardless: If you truly cared about Jesus, you’d make an effort to hurdle any language barrier. (Like, say, hiring scholars to translate the bible into your language.)

Certain conspiracy-theorist Protestants claim Catholics wouldn’t let people translate bible into local languages because they wanted to keep the scriptures away from the people. Entirely false. It’s because they wanted every Catholic to use the same bible—and therefore every translation had to be consistent with the Vulgate. There are hundreds of local-language translations of the bible, all approved by the Catholics. There’s the English-language Douai-Rheims bible, completed and published a year before the KJV. There’s the more-recent New Jerusalem Bible and the New American Bible. The problem the Catholics had with certain local-language bibles, like William Tyndale’s, was they were translated by people whom Catholics deemed heretic. We can debate whether Tyndale and other translators were really heretic, but I think we’re wholly agreed: We don’t want heretics producing bibles!

As I said, the Catholics have since replaced the Vulgate with the Nova Vulgata, the New Vulgate. They stopped trying to deduce what Jerome’s original text said, and stopped trying to adjust it to fit the original languages better; they simply retranslated the Tanakh and Greek New Testament into classical Latin—and kept the old Vulgate’s phrasing when appropriate. That’s been the official Roman Catholic bible since 1979, and all current English translations of Catholic stuff (like English bibles and the missal) are expected to sync up with that too.

What’s this have to do with English-speaking Protestants?

Not a lot, I admit.

But there are a lot of conspiracy-theorist Protestants who think the Vulgate, and anything else the Catholics produce in the way of bibles and bible translations, are part of some evil plot to suppress Protestantism. As if the Catholics’ sole mission in this world is to fight Protestants, not grow their church.

If you talk with Catholic bible scholars, you’re gonna find all of them regularly work and correspond with Protestants. Because we’re all following the same Lord Jesus, y’know. We’re all interested in the same things: Figuring out what the original text said, and figuring out how to best render those ideas into our local languages so we can share them with people. Catholic and Protestant traditions are obviously gonna differ a bit, but it’s the very same Jesus in all our bibles—whether they sync up with the Vulgate or New Vulgate, or not.

Whereas the Catholics and Protestants who wanna fight one another, snipe at one another, and rant about how our different traditions are heresy: These are the idiots who don’t study the bible any. Who particularly ignore everything Jesus told us about loving one another. Who don’t wanna love one another, and are looking for every excuse not to. They’ll answer to Jesus for it; meanwhile the rest of us are gonna take our Lord seriously and obey him.

Anyway. The anti-Catholics are the folks who spread all kinds of hearsay and foolishness about what the Vulgate is and isn’t. I prefer facts, so I figured I’d provide some.

Bible translations.