Latin Bible translations



The Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh. To a great extent it corresponds to the Old Testament in the Christian Bible (see The sequence of the books of the Bible). Most of the scriptures were written in Hebrew at various times during the centuries preceding the birth of Christ. There were probably different text versions of one and the same book, and eventually certain versions came to predominate. The oldest Hebrew biblical manuscripts date from 100 AD and were found at Qumran on the Dead Sea (the Dead Sea Scrolls). They present quite a wide textual variation. During the first century after the birth of Christ a biblical text crystallised which achieved a great impact and was finally recognised as canonical. The composition of the Hebrew Bible was finally settled in about 100 AD. Most of the surviving manuscripts, though, date from a later period, the end of the twelfth century onwards.

The Greek translations

In the third century BC the Hebrew Torah (the Pentateuch) was translated into Greek at the instance of the Greek-speaking congregation in Alexandria. That translation is known as the Septuagint (Lat. for seventy) in memory of the 70 scholars from Jerusalem who, legend foretells, made the translation. Translation of the remaining Old Testament scriptures was probably completed at some time in the second century AD. Eventually the name Septuagint was applied to the Greek translation of the entire Old Testament. The Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Bible in that it includes a number of books which the latter does not, such as the deuterocanonical scriptures and the apocryphal scriptures, and also because certain books in it (Esther, Jeremiah, Daniel) have textual additions. A very large number of Septuagint manuscripts are extant. The best of them, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus dates from the fourth century. The Septuagint is still used by the Greek Orthodox Church. The New Testament was written in Greek – not classical Greek, but koiné, the lingua franca of the Hellenic world.

Translation of the Greek text into Latin

The oldest Latin Bible translations were produced in North Africa in the mid-second century AD and included only odd books or groups of books. Translations of the Old Testament were based on the Septuagint. The very earliest versions have only survived in the form of quotations, above all in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Most of the quotations are from the Psalms and the New Testament, and some of them are very long.

The origin of the Latin Bible translations is possibly to be looked for in the use of Latin as the language of the liturgy. At first Latin was used conjointly with Greek, but from the mid-third century onwards Latin became standard in the Western Church.

Developments as regards translation and linguistic usage moved very fast and without control. The sources indicate a very wide variation in the texts, which can be divided into two main regional groups, namely an African one and a European one, a distinction not always connected with the manuscript’s place of origin. The same books were translated several times over and by different translators. The oldest surviving manuscripts are from the fourth century. Several of them include the New Testament, but none of them contains the whole of the New Testament. Many manuscripts are fragmentary or else palimpsests. The most important of them is Codex Bobiensis, written in Africa in the fourth century. It is now in Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria, Turin, and was partly damaged by a fire in the library at the beginning of the twentieth century. Codex Bobiensis contains parts of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew in an old version of the African type which can be dated to the end of the third century, but it is probably rooted in a second century original.

The oldest translations, i.e. those preceding Jerome’s Bible translation (see below), are called Vetus Latina (Lat., Old Latin). Vetus Latina is very important as the Biblical scriptures of the Fathers of the Latin Church. It is also of special interest for studies of the Bible of the fathers of the Greek Church, namely the Septuagint, and its history.

Jerome’s assignment

In 383 Pope Damasus (366-384) summoned Jerome to Rome and commanded him to translate into Latin the four Gospels of the Apostles Matthew and John and the disciples Luke and Mark. The Pope felt that the existing manuscripts had been corrupted by repeated copying. Jerome shared the pope’s opinion and accepted the task. He revised the Gospels slightly by comparing different Vetus Latina versions with Greek manuscripts. Jerome is also supposed to have been working at this time on a translation of the Psalms, but we only have his word for it. Perhaps the reference is to the version of the Psalms now known as the Roman Psalter.

Jerome and Origen

After the pope died, Jerome moved to Bethlehem and in 386 resumed his work on the Latin Bible. At his disposal he had the now lost Hexapla (Gr., six-fold) biblical manuscript which had been compiled by Origen (c. 185-254), the principal theologian of the Eastern Church. Origen’s aim had been to revise and standardise the Septuagint text on the basis of the version recognised by the Jews. The Hexapla contained six different texts of the Old Testament, synoptically arranged in six columns: a Hebrew text, a Hebrew text transliterated into the Greek alphabet, three different verbatim Greek translations and a critical edition of the Septuagint prepared by Origen. Jerome devoted renewed attention to the Psalms, revising them by comparing the old Latin translations with the Hexapla versions. The result of these labours has been dubbed the Gallican Psalter. (This version of the Psalms was first used liturgically in the lands which in Roman times were known as Gaul – now North Italy and France – and subsequently spread throughout large parts of Latin Christendom.) Jerome then continued working by the same method, translating Job, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes and the Chronicles.

Eventually Jerome wanted the translations to be more faithful to the Hebrew original. This work, which he carried on between 390 and 405/406, probably began with the books of Kings, continuing with the Psalms (this version came to be known as the Hebrew Psalter), the Prophets (Daniel included) and then Job, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon and the Pentateuch. He concluded his translation of the Hebrew Bible with Esther, Joshua, Judges and Ruth. He also made a very summary revision of the Vetus Latina versions of two deuterocanonical books, Tobit and Judith.

Opposition to Jerome

Jerome’s translation ran into heavy opposition at first. The Vetus Latina versions died hard. But by the eigth century it had gained universal currency. The reforms of Charlemagne at the end of the eigth century, aimed at producing good, correct and uniform books for teaching and for liturgical requirements, further consolidated its position as the standard translation of the Bible, but the Vetus Latina versions of certain books – in particular, Esther, the deuterocanonical books and the Acts of the Apostles – remained in use for a long time. Those version were also used in manuscripts which also included Jerome’s translation of the Bible. Even one and the same Bible volume could contain a hybrid text.

The Vulgate version

Jerome’s translation came to be known in the sixteenth century as the Vulgate (‘common, general’). But the Vulgate is actually a collection of essentially different texts, containing as it does books which Jerome translated between 390 and 405, together with a Gallican Psalter, and also Old Testament books which are not his translations but were included in Vetus Latina versions (Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus and Maccabees), and finally the New Testament, of which only the Gospels had been partly revised by him and which were otherwise presented in their Vetus Latina versions.

The modern edition of the Bible is a Vulgate version.

Codex Gigas

Codex Gigas is one of a group of three late manuscripts from the second half of the twelfth century and the first half of the 13th still including Vetus Latina versions of certain books; in Codex Gigas these are Acts and Revelation. Both books are very important sources for the European textual tradition. Acts here is nearly identical with the version quoted in the writings of Lucifer, Bishop of Cagliari, Sardinia. His quotations comprise more than one-eighth of the Acts of the Apostles. Given that he was writing between 355 and 362, the Codex Gigas text can be dated to about the mid-fourth century, which makes the version of the Acts in this manuscript one of the oldest and best-preserved version of the text.

The Vetus Latina version of Revelation survives in only seven manuscripts, of which Codex Gigas is the best source for the European textual tradition. The text has been dated to the second half of the fourth century.

The Gospels and the Pauline Epistles all include certain elements of Vetus Latina versions. The Epistles text typifies a regional tradition from Eastern Bavaria and Bohemia. Interesting to note, the Codex Gigas book of Psalms is the Hebrew version.