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The Oldest Latin Versions of the Bible

Gregory DiPippo

If you were fortunate enough to attend a Mass yesterday at which the Introit was sung in Gregorian chant, you heard the following words which have given the 4th Sunday of Lent is traditional nickname, Laetare Sunday.

“Laetáre, Jerúsalem, et conventum fácite, omnes qui dilígitis eam: gaudéte cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultétis, et satiémini ab ubéribus consolatiónis vestrae. Ps. 121 Laetátus sum in his, quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Dómini íbimus. Gloria Patri. Laetáre…

Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all you who love her: rejoice with joy, you who have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. Ps. 121 I rejoiced at the things that were said to me, We will go up to the house of the Lord. Glory be… Rejoice, O Jerusalem…”

In the Roman Missal, this text is cited as Isaiah 66, 10-11, but if you look for these verses in your copy of the Vulgate, you will find that they read as follows:

“Lætamini cum Jerusalem et exsultate in ea, omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum ea gaudio, universi qui lugetis super eam: ut sugatis et repleamini ab ubere consolationis ejus.

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad in her, all you that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all you that mourn over her, that you may suck, and be filled with the breasts of her consolation.” (Challoner Douay-Rheims translation)

The term Vulgate, from the Latin “vulgata”, which means, broadly speaking, “commonly known” (hence the English word “divulge”), has been used for centuries as the name of the Church’s official Latin Bible. It is often referred to for simplicity’s sake as the work of the great scholar and translator St Jerome, a case where a little imprecision saves a great deal of explanation. Most of the Old Testament is indeed his work, but some of the books (e.g., Wisdom, Sirach and the two books of Maccabees) were done by other translators whose names are unknown to us. In the New Testament, at the request of Pope St Damasus (366-84) he did only the Gospels, and not a fresh translation, but a revision of an earlier translation, made by carefully comparing it with the Greek original. The rest of the New Testament (Acts, Epistles and Apocalypse) is all the work of other translators, likewise anonymous.

Long before Jerome’s time, however, Latin-speaking Christians had produced many different translations of the various books of the Bible. For the Old Testament, these were made not from the Hebrew original (where applicable), but from the pre-Christian Greek translation known as the Septuagint. (With the New Testament, of course, Greek is its original language.) These varied in quality, and were apparently revised by many different hands over time, such that by the end of the 4th century, Jerome himself could say, “tot sint exemplaria quot codices – there are as many versions (of the Bible) as there are copies.” (Preface to the Book of Joshua.) Collectively, these translations are referred to as the Old Latin version, or more commonly, by the technical term “Vetus Latina.”

Hoping to recover for the Latin-speaking West the original text of the Sacred Scriptures, the great Biblical scholar originally thought to revise the Old Latin by meticulously comparing it with the Septuagint. However, on discovering that the text of the latter had become just as much of a hopeless muddle, he abandoned the project, and decided instead to make a new translation of the Old Testament directly from the “Hebraica veritas”, as he habitually called it, “the Hebrew truth.”

The Church saw the merits of Saint Jerome’s new version, and adopted it in place of the older one. Indeed, no complete Bible of the Old Latin now exists; of some books, we have only fragments of the older version, of others, nothing at all. But of course, the sacred liturgy was being celebrated all along, and therefore, many liturgical texts were created while the Vetus Latina versions were still in common use. And thus we find many such texts, including the Introit “Laetare”, still following these older versions to this day, over a millennium after they were generally replaced by Jerome’s Vulgate. There are innumerable examples of these in both the Roman Missal and Breviary, and in this regard, we can well say that the liturgical texts of the Roman Rite still stand in perfect continuity with the very earliest days of Latin-speaking Christianity.

(The Introit Laetare in a manuscript of the mid-11th century, from the library of the monastery of San Gallen in Switzerland. Cod. Sang 338, p. 143: CC BY-NC 4.0.)

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