The version of the Bible used by the Roman Catholic church for over a millennia and a half, the Vulgate is a Latin translation
of the original bible texts, created mainly by St. Jerome during the end of the third and start of the fourth centuries CE. Vulgate derives from the phrase versio vulgata
, or common translation.
The Need For A Standard:
Christianity initially spread using Greek texts: the New Testament was written in Greek and the Old Testament had been translated from Hebrew/Aramiac into a Greek version called the Septuagint
; even in Rome, the Greek language dominated Christian thought. However, much of the known world spoke something other than Greek, and as people carried the Christian message they translated their biblical texts into local languages. The first two large strains were in Latin and Syriac.
There was no official process of translation, just scholarly Christians doing what they needed to when they needed it; because their skills and interpretations differed so did the meaning of their work. By the end of the fourth century, when the Roman church switched to Latin, many translations had appeared, but because they all differed in meaning and in geographical acceptance it was impossible for arguing theologians or interested readers to refer to a standard work.
The church needed a definite Latin bible, one that was accurate, sanctioned and easily understood. In 383 Pope Damascus asked Jerome, a trilingual scholar who also happened to be his private secretary, to revise the existing New Testament translations. Jerome collated many different works, compared them to Greek versions and worked hard to remove crude or parochial language and dubious interpretations. In 384 he had completed the four gospels and already made large changes.
We don't know how much more of the New Testament Jerome revised – it may have been only a little - because between 385-9 he worked on a new translation of the Old Testament based on the Septuagint Greek; he only completed Job, Chronicles, Solomon before stopping. Since Damascus’ death in 384 Jerome had worked on his own initiative, and he now felt that the Septuagint was insufficient: a true, correct translation of the Old Testament would have to be based on the Hebrew original.
A New Old Testament:
In many circles of the late Roman world, the Greek version of the bible was considered as holy and inspired as the Hebrew original, so when Jerome because discussing with Rabbis and working from the real source some fellows, including St. Augustine, were deeply critical. Nevertheless, by 405 Jerome had finished everything he deemed canonical. The new text contained readings that were very different from the old, as Jerome translated meanings rather than swapping word for word.
There was resistance to Jerome's new Old Testament - it sounded different and deliberately so - but the quality of his work ensured people slowly listened: he had created a stylistically coherent and highly learned text. In addition to the above, Jerome also produced three versions of the Psalter
, one a revision called the Roman Psalter, the second a fresh translation made from the Septuagint and Origen called the Gallican Psalter, and the third a new version from the Hebrew.
Although summaries often otherwise, Jerome didn't retranslate the whole bible, but his books formed the core of a new version which challenged the fragmented old. When his works were distributed people had to fill the gaps with New Testament books revised from the Old Latin (which Jerome may have done himself), with most of the Old Latin Deuterocanonical books (which Jerome considered uncanonical and left), and the old Paslter: Jerome's version was considered too extreme a change.
At first, the 'Jerome' version was called the editio nostra (new edition) and it competed with the existing editio vulgata (common edition), the Septuagint. Over time, Jerome's work overcame stubborn tradition to become the dominant version of the bible, the editio vulgata/versio vulgata or Vulgate, the common translation. Pope Gregory the Great accepted the Vulgate as equal with the Old Latin in the 6th century and by the 12th there were few regions in Latin Christendom not primarily using it.
In 1546, the Council of Trent declared the Vulgate as the only recognised version of the Bible in the Roman Church - an affirmation of the existing situation - in an attempt to ward off new, Protestant, readings. Popes of the time also took advantage of printing technology to restandardise the wording after centuries of slow corruption by erroneous scribes. This led to two new versions, the Sistine Vulgate – the first attempt at standardization in the sixteenth century - which was quickly replaced by the Clementine Vulgate, produced in 1592 on the orders of Pope Clement VIII. This remained the sole authorised bible text until the 1960's, when the Catholic Church allowed vernacular languages in worship. There is another official version: the Nova Vulgata, started in 1907 and still obscure, which improves upon Jerome's judgement thanks to modern biblical scholarship.
No book had a greater impact on western European history than the Vulgate (the Septuagint retained a similar impact in the east). The language it introduced affected the vocabulary of every country, the ideas and interpretations it forwarded affected culture, politics, philosophy and religion from the late Roman age until the modern era, when different translations began to flourish, and it was – fittingly – the first book ever printed.