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 introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake?”
Damasus suggested that Jerome produce a new Latin translation of the Bible, one that would throw out the inaccuracies of older translations. Damasus wanted the Western church to be clearly Latin; one way to accomplish this was to provide a trusted translation of the Bible in Latin.
Jerome began translating in 382. He also preached strict asceticism and won many women to his way of life. Soon, however, accusations about his relationship to them and the charge that ascetic rigors led to one woman’s death caused Jerome to move from Rome to the Holy Land, shortly after Pope Damasus’s death in 384. He settled in Bethlehem, writing and studing, overseeing a monastery, and advising some of the women who had followed him from Rome.
After twenty-three years of labor, Jerome finished his translation in late 404 or 405. If twenty-three years seems like a long time for a translation, consider that Jerome was working alone. Also, he was churning out volumes of commentaries and other writings, and he involved himself in every theological battle of the day, contributing some eloquent, often caustic, letters.
At first Jerome worked from the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. But then he established a precedent for all good translators: the Old Testament would have to be translated from the original Hebrew. In his quest for accuracy, Jerome consulted Jewish rabbis.
In translating the Old Testament, something struck Jerome: the books the Jews regarded as Holy Scripture did not include the books we know as the Apocryphal. These books had been included in the Septuagint, the basis of most older translations, and Jerome was compelled by the church to include them. But he made it clear that in his opinion the Apocryphal books were only liber ecclesiastici (church books to be read for edification), as opposed to the fully inspired liber canonici (canonical books to establish doctrine). Over one thousand years later, the leaders of the Reformation would follow Jerome’s lead and not include the Apocrypha in the Protestant Bibles.
“The Divine Library,” as Jerome called the Bible, was finally available in a well-written, accurate translation in the language commonly used in the churches of the Western Empire. Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate (from the Latin word vulgus, meaning “common” language), became the standard. A millennium later, for example, Martin Luther, though he knew Hebrew and Greek, quoted Jerome’s Vulgate throughout his life. The Vulgate was highly regarded by scholars and was used as the basis for translations into other languages for a thousand years. The Council of Trent, in 1546, declared the Vulgate the only authentic Latin text of the Scriptures.
Sadly, the text of the Vulgate that circulated throughout the Middle Ages was a corrupt form of Jerome’s work, encumbered by copyists’ errors. (In the late sixteenth century, corrected editions were published.) Further, Jerome’s work became so widely revered that until the Reformation, translators worked from the Vulgate; not for a thousand years did scholars again translate directly from the Greek New Testament. And ironically, Jerome’s Bible added impetus to the use of Latin as the church’s language, resulting centuries later in a worship service and a Bible that lay people could not understand—precisely the opposite of what Jerome had first accomplished.
In the Vulgate, Jerome left an enduring legacy of biblical scholarship.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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