Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

7 May 2012

The Latin Vulgate as Background to the Version Debate

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In light of Bill Combs’s recent posts on the King James Version, I thought it might be helpful to look briefly at another Bible translation that dominated Western Christendom for even longer than the King James. From time to time, KJV-only advocates have argued for the superiority of the KJV based on the fact that it was the most commonly used translation of the Bible for more than three centuries. In other words, antiquity and long use are sometimes cited as proof that the KJV is the best translation of the Scriptures. However, such reasoning usually overlooks the fact that one translation has the KJV beat by more than a half millennium.

Jerome (c. 345–420) was born in or near Italy to wealthy Christian parents who made sure he received an outstanding education. Around the age of 20, he was apparently baptized, and after pursuing an ascetic lifestyle for a number of years, Jerome was ordained around 380. Within a few years, he was living in Rome where he was employed in the service of Pope Damasus (d. 384). At the request of Damasus, Jerome began a revision of the Latin NT. Damasus did not live to see the work completed, but Jerome finished the NT around 391. He also eventually completed a new Latin translation of the OT in the early fifth century. Jerome’s translation of the Scriptures would later become known as the Vulgate, in distinction from the Vetus Latina (the collective name for Latin translations that pre-dated Jerome’s work).

When Jerome undertook his translation of the Scriptures into Latin, multiple Latin versions already existed. But the OT of most of these versions had been translated from the LXX rather than the Hebrew Bible, and the existing Latin versions differed from each other in significant ways (Kelly, Jerome, p. 86). Some church leaders felt that the church needed a single Latin translation that would be accepted by all Western Christians as the authoritative text of Scripture. Little did they realize the staying power that Jerome’s work would have or the extent to which Christians would eventually be cut off from the Scriptures when the Vulgate remained the standard translation of the Bible but few could understand spoken Latin much less read it for themselves.

For most of the Middle Ages, the Latin Vulgate was the accepted Bible of Western Christendom. It was read in the churches and was considered the standard text in theological discourse. When various individuals began producing Bible translations in the vernacular languages of Europe in the Late Middle Ages, such versions, though welcomed by some, were largely viewed with suspicion by ecclesiastical leaders. Following the spread of the printing press in the late fifteenth century, the dissemination of vernacular Bible translations provided the foundation of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.

Largely in response to the Reformation, the Council of Trent met between 1545 and 1563. During one of its early sessions (April 1546), the council fathers declared that the Latin Vulgate, which had been used “for so many hundred years,” is the only “authentic” version of the Bible. Versions produced in the common tongue were not so recognized, for, among other reasons, they lacked the approval of antiquity and centuries of common use. Likewise when Catholic scholars produced an English translation of the OT in 1609, they defended their decision to translate from the Latin Vulgate by noting that “the old Vulgate Latin edition hath been preferred and used for the most authentical above a thousand and three hundred years.” Once again, antiquity and long use were cited as proof of the Vulgate’s superiority.

The desire for a single, authoritative translation of the Bible is not of recent origin. Although KJV-only advocates are usually very careful to distance themselves from Roman Catholicism, their insistence upon a single “authentic” version of the Bible bears some resemblance to Tridentine Catholicism. And arguments for a particular Bible translation based on date of publication and length of use were actually used against Protestants long before they were used by Protestants. If centuries of common use is the test of a Bible translation, it will be a while until the KJV catches up to the Vulgate. In the meantime, when it comes to the version debate, translation antiquity and long use may not be the best arguments to employ.

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