405 Jerome Completes the Vulgate
Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, thankfully known as Jerome, took a roundabout path to becoming one of history’s most significant Bible translators. He was born in northeast Italy in 345. By the age of 29, he was a disciplined scholar and an ascetic Christian. Then he had a dream that accused him of being preoccupied with secular learning (“You are a follower of Cicero,” the dream said, “not of Christ”). So for the next several years Jerome lived an ascetic life in the Syrian desert, studying and transcribing the Scriptures and mastering Hebrew. He became secretary to Pope Damasus in 382, which proved to be his date with destiny. By the time he entered Damasus’s service, he was probably the greatest Christian scholar in the world.
In Jerome’s day, Common Greek, the language of the New Testament, was widely known throughout the Roman Empire. The Old Testament also existed in a popular Greek form, the Septuagint, so anyone who knew Greek had access to the entire Bible.
But some populations in the Empire knew no Greek. Thus, early translations appeared in various languages, notably Latin (becoming the standard language of the Western Empire), Syriac, and Coptic. Despite the early translators’ zeal, they didn’t always possess a good command of Greek. Soon many Old Latin manuscripts, poor in quality and often differing from each other, were in circulation.
In a letter to Pope Damasus, Jerome explained the problem and proposed a solution: “If we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies. If, on the other hand, we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek and correct the mistakes ...