The Vulgate Translation of Holy Scripture, by Father Cuthbert Lattey, S.J.

In order to appreciate aright the great work of Saint Jerome, it is needful to understand something of the “Old Latin” versions, by which are meant those existing before he wrote the Vulgate. We know less of them in what concerns the Old Testament than in regard to the New; and the textual problem is largely different in the two cases, since Saint Jerome merely revised existing versions of the New Testament, whereas he composed the Vulgate Old Testament (or most of it) directly from the Hebrew. There seem to be three main types of Old Latin New Testament text. The most primitive is doubtless the African, for the Roman Church was Greek-speaking at the first; it has been edited from Saint Cyprian and the most important manuscripts by the late Freiherr von Soden. The “European” family is more largely represented, and with more variety; it was current in Western Europe, especially in North Italy, and may represent a revision of the African text, with a view to smoother Latinity. This second text would again, upon revision, give rise to the Italian family, though, as a matter of fact, the very existence of this last family has been denied, the readings peculiar to it being attributed to the Vulgate itself, with Old Latin admixture. In the large Wordsworth-White edition of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate, a manuscript of this family, the Codex Brixianus, is reproduced as being, so far as can be judged, the best representative of the text upon which Saint Jerome worked.

The Old Latin versions of the Old Testament were made from the Greek Septuagint, and therefore the differences be tween them and the Vulgate are greater in the Old Testament than in the New. The chief question to be asked is, whether the same families of text are to be found in both cases; and the right answer appears to be the affirmative. This was to be expected, since substantially the same influences would be at work; and such evidence as there is seems to point that way. For example, as Mr. McIntosh shows in A Study of Augustine’s Versions of Genesis, Saint Augustine appears to have used in his earlier writings a freer translation than in his later works, and it may well be that we have here the African and the Italian types of text.

We pass to the author and the origin of the Vulgate. Eusebius Hieronymus, now best known as Saint Jerome, was born not far from the modern Trieste in 340 A. D., or a little later, of Christian parents. He was educated at Rome, retired later to the desert of Chalcis, where he devoted five years to study and asceticism, learning Hebrew from a converted Jew, and then he spent some years at Antioch before returning to Rome about 382 A. D. Thus master of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, he was equipped for Biblical work as none before him, and none for centuries afterwards. At the instance of Pope Damasus, who greatly trusted him, he revised the existing Old Latin New Testament from the Greek, thus producing the Vulgate New Testament. He seems to have revised the Gospels with more care than the rest. He also made a simple revision of the Old Latin Psalter from the Septuagint, now known as the “Roman” Psalter, and still in liturgical use in Saint Peter’s and at Milan.

In 385 A. D., a year after Pope Damasus’ death, Saint Jerome left Rome and soon settled at Bethlehem. There he revised the Roman Psalter, largely on the basis of Origen’s Hexapla; the result is the “Gallican” Psalter, still printed in our Vulgates. It is called “Gallican” because of the popularity to which it attained in Gaul; and the faithful clung to it too tenaciously to suffer it to be ousted by his later Psalter, translated direct from the Hebrew. After that, he revised, as he tells us, the Old Latin translation (made from the Septuagint) of the rest of the Old Testament, and finally he made a new Latin translation direct from the Hebrew, the Old Testament Vulgate. How he treated the books not extant in Hebrew, as far as this translation is concerned, is not always clear; but there is reason to hope that the Benedictine Commission will restore to it the Psalter properly belonging thereto. Saint Jerome died in 420 A. D.

Saint Jerome’s Vulgate had every advantage over the Old Latin versions, at all events in the Old Testament; it was simple, popular, vigorous, and represented the originals far more accurately. Within a couple of centuries it had gained an absolute and practically universal supremacy; but its predecessors were so far from being driven from the field, that they were a persistent source of corruption to the Vulgate itself. To explain matters by our previous article, it may be remarked that in the New Testament the original Vulgate shows a good, though somewhat mixed, text; the general tendency of later changes has been to remove it further from the Egyptian type and assimilate it to the textus receptus. Charlemagne commissioned Alcuin to prepare an amended edition, which was ready by the end of 801 A. D. It was based upon the Northumbrian text, which itself was built upon the best Italian manuscripts, brought to England by Saint Benedict Biscop and others in the seventh century. It was, therefore, an excellent edition; but the very demand for it occasioned hasty and careless copying, and the process of corruption was only temporarily stayed.

In the thirteenth century Bibles were copied in great numbers, and the correctoria appear, more or less fruitless attempts to improve the text, of which the best was the Correctorium Vaticanum, and one of the worst the Parisiense, the object of Roger Bacon’s attacks. Unfortunately, it was the latter that was used by Stephanus in the Bible he published at Paris in 1528 A. D., and in that of 1538-1540. “All the Vatican editions of Bibles are based in some measure upon the first edition published by Hentenius at Louvain in 1547 A. D.; and this latter on that of Stephanus in 1540.” So we are told by that great pioneer of Vulgate textual criticism, Father Vercellone, the Barnabite, in the Prolegomena to his Variae Lectiones, a work which he dedicated to Pope Pius IX. The Bible of 1540 has been called the first genuine attempt at a critical edition. Stephanus’ smaller edition in 1555 is notable from the fact that the modern verse divisions first appear in it; the chapters, it may be remarked, go back to that second Bede of Catholic England, Cardinal Langton.

The Council of Trent in its fourth session (1546 A. D.) finally determined the canon of Sacred Scripture. The teaching of the Church is the only possible means of judging what is canonical Scripture and what is not; all attempts of the Protestants to find another criterion have been a ludicrous failure. As in the case of some other dogmas, so here we have a legitimate development of doctrine: there is a period of some obscurity, followed eventually by clear definition. The Catholic position, indeed, may be said to have been clear long before it was defined; but it would have been far clearer but for Saint Jerome. Even now his words remain in the Thirty-nine Articles, a welcome support to Protestants in their contention that the books of Machabees, Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus and Baruch, with parts of Esther and of Daniel, are to be read “for example of life and instruction of manners,” but not “to establish any doctrine.”

There can be no doubt that it was not any Catholic tradition, but an ill-judged deference to his Jewish teachers that misled him. He proclaims as much himself, in prologues still retained (curiously enough) at the head of our Vulgates; yet elsewhere, as in his comments upon the first six chapters of Isaiah, cited by Comely, the force of Catholic tradition is too strong for him, and he refers to deutero-canonical books without in any way distinguishing them from the protocanonical. Nor are they, of course, to be distinguished. Since the time of Trent, at all events, these prefixes have for us a purely historic interest, as marking off those books about which there has been little or no dispute from those whose claim to canonicity has upon occasion, and most of all by Saint Jerome, been called in doubt.

The Council of Trent also commanded that “hereafter Sacred Scripture, but especially this ancient and vulgate edition, be printed as accurately as possible.” Notice that “vulgate” here practically means “current,” and, strictly speaking, should be so translated; it did not become the specific title for Saint Jerome’s version, and so deserve a capital letter, till later. Practically nothing appears to have been done to carry out this decree of Trent, issued in 1546 A. D., until the pontificate of Sixtus V (1585-1590 A. D.), who took the matter in hand in his usual masterful way. Even he did not venture upon an official edition of the original texts, such as the Council appears to have contemplated;8 that is a glory which we may perhaps venture to hope is reserved for our own century, to put the crown upon the efforts of private individuals. But some years before his elevation to the pontificate he had already persuaded Gregory XIII to undertake an edition of the Septuagint, which was entrusted to the competent scholarship of Cardinal Caraffa. Pope Sixtus himself published it towards the end of 1586, and at once intrusted Cardinal Caraffa with the further task of editing the Vulgate.

The Sixtine Septuagint is a fine work, well got up and sound in text, based closely, as it is, on the Vatican Codex (B). Cardinal Caraffa was for following the same plan of action in regard to the Vulgate; here, too, he had good manuscripts to work from, and a small but capable commission to help him. It is hardly too much to say that if he had been given a free hand, there might have been little need of the Benedictine revision today. But Pope Sixtus himself, as he tells us in the Bull AEternus Ille, took an active and even decisive part in the work. “He in part approved the corrections made by the commission, and in part, in spite of Cardinal Caraffa’s protests, he rejected them. For the new text differed not a little from the Louvain edition, which the Pope held in great esteem, and the commission had chiefly followed the guidance of the Codex Amiatinus, which Sixtus did not value so highly.”

This Louvain Bible has already been mentioned. It is tolerably clear that Pope Sixtus did not realize the extent to which the current Vulgate text of his own time differed from the text such as it had left Saint Jerome’s own hand: in the AEternus Ille he writes that he has chosen the readings “so as absolutely to retain the old reading, received in the Church for many centuries,” and nevertheless a little lower down he declares that it has been his object to restore the Vulgate “to its original purity, such as it first proceeded from the translator’s own hand and pen.” These two objects, to keep the traditional text and to restore Saint Jerome’s original text, could not in reality be completely reconciled with each other, a fact that will be obvious when we have the Benedictine edition of Saint Jerome’s text – at no very remote date, it may be hoped – as a standard of comparison. The original text had deteriorated a good deal, though for the most part in quite unimportant details; the chief cause of this has already been mentioned, the slipping of pre-Vulgate readings back into the text. The Bull AEternus Ille, it may be remarked, is printed in full in Father Cornely’s Introductio Generalis, volume 1, pages 465-474; we shall return to it presently.

The story of the Sixtine Vulgate is a difficult and somewhat obscure subject; the best account of it is to be found in Dr. Amann’s Die Vulgata Sixtina von, 1590, published in 1912, a work based directly upon the original documents, some of which indeed are published therein for the first time. It is the chief, though by no means the only, authority here laid under contribution, and the reader may be referred to it for further investigations. The outline of the story is this: the Sixtine Vulgate was viewed with displeasure and even alarm on Sixtus’ death, even before the election of a new Pope, the sale was suspended: soon all copies were withdrawn: it was hastily revised and issued with the preface that we now read, composed by Cardinal Bellarmine: and eventually the name of Clement VIII was also prefixed to it. The crucial question arises: what was wrong with this Sixtine Vulgate? To this, and to some secondary problems, a brief solution is here attempted, with a sufficient indication of the grounds upon which it is based.

Cardinal Bellarmine tells us in his autobiography that in 1591 there were not wanting persons of weight who advised Gregory XIV. publicly to prohibit the Sixtine Vulgate, “in which many wrong changes had been made.” But Bellarmine, to save Sixtus’ honor, proposed that the edition should be quickly withdrawn, revised and reissued, still under Sixtus’ name “with a preface in which it should be explained that in Sixtus’ first edition, by reason of the haste, some errors had crept in, either of the printers or of others.” We also have another suggestion for this preface, probably from the hand of Father Rocca the Augustinian: according to this, Pope Sixtus had the Bible printed “as it were, privately, that he might examine what learned men all over the Christian world thought about the matter. Meanwhile as he began to take account of the mistakes arisen from the press, and all the changes, and the various opinions of men, in order that afterwards he might deliberate more at leisure upon the whole matter, and publish the Vulgate edition aright (prout debebat); forestalled by death, he could not accomplish what he had begun.” Bellarmine proposed to write, as above, “or of others.” As Father Pope, O.P., remarks in his Catholic Student’s Aids, it is hard not to see in these words an allusion to Sixtus himself; and Father Rocca’s suggestion also implies that Sixtus saw he had made a mistake. But in Bellarmine’s preface, as it actually appeared, and as we have it today, the relevant passage runs: “Remarking that not a few things had crept into the sacred Bibles by fault of the press (praeli vitio), which seemed to need renewed attention, he determined and decided that the whole work was to be put upon the anvil once more.”

Now it is an agreed point among experts, and beyond reasonable question, that on its material side the Sixtine Vulgate is well printed, and it has been insinuated that bad printing was an untrue pretext, put forward to cover the rejection of it on other grounds. Nevertheless “fault of the press” (praeli vitio) is a wide term, not necessarily to be restricted to “misprints” in the strictest and narrowest sense. Bellarmine complained that there were places “which without any support or reason, and against the testimony of all the manuscripts, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, had been removed, added to, or changed.” Perhaps he may have had Numbers 11:11-14 in his mind’s eye, where nearly three verses are entirely omitted in the Sixtine text, or Judges 18:3, where eight words are omitted, in both cases without the slightest warrant. Such blunders could only be due to haste, the reason assigned in Bellarmine’s suggested preface and implied in the one published; and when we consider Sixtus’ restless energy, in this as in other matters, and the important share he had in the actual printing of the work; we shall probably come to the conclusion that this “fault of the press” does not exclude Sixtus’ own work, but implicitly includes it, without pointing to him too directly.

“We ourselves,” Sixtus writes in the AEternus Ille, “have corrected with our own hand any mistakes that had crept in through the press; and passages that seemed confused, or very likely to be confused, we have distinguished by an interval in the writing, and by larger letters, and by punctuation.” It is clear, therefore, that Sixtus was taking a leading part in the press-work itself, and must be held largely responsible for any mistakes therein. It was not for any following of ancient manuscripts, as against the Louvain text, that Bellarmine finds fault with the Sixtine Vulgate; nevertheless, the commission which he proposed was to “revise the Sixtine Bible quickly, and bring it back to the ordinary Bible, especially that of Louvain.” There was no question now of doing the work of the commission once more; the text was merely to be made reasonably safe. And as a matter of fact the Clementine Vulgate is acknowledged to be a better text than the Sixtine, rapid though the revision was.

It has also been questioned whether, as asserted in the Clementine preface, quoted above, Sixtus really meant to withdraw his Bible at all; and the matter is complicated by the doubt as to whether the Bull enforcing it, the famous AEternus Ille, was ever fully promulgated, so as to have legal force. These two points may now be briefly discussed, and the latter first. There are three main arguments in favor of the promulgation having taken place, and three against it. In favor of it is the fact that the original Bull has the official endorsement on the back, to the effect that it has been duly published in Rome, with the customary formalities: secondly, copies of the Bull were actually printed: thirdly, in the briefs issued to the Catholic princes, Sixtus speaks of having already issued a “perpetual constitution” on the subject, binding already, one would naturally suppose, as it is to bind for all future time. On the other hand, the Bull was never entered in the official register. Further, Father A. Tanner, S.J., in the second volume of his Theologia Scholastica, gives weighty evidence against the promulgation. In 1609-1610, when he was professor of theology at Ingolstadt, difficulties arising from the Sixtine Bible were much under discussion, and he was assured by the General of the Society’s Assistant for Germany that the Bull had never been promulgated, and two proofs were offered, the one, that the promulgation was not entered in the register, the other, Cardinal Bellarmine’s declaration that he had heard as much on his return from France from several cardinals, who asserted that they knew absolutely for certain that no promulgation had taken place. Later on the Father Assistant wrote again, putting forward yet a third proof: a certain Father Azor in a public disputation at Rome, when some were basing an objection to Papal Infallibility upon the Sixtine Bible, made the reply that the Bull concerning it, the AEternus Ille, had never been promulgated, and that it had been endorsed as promulgated only by anticipation, at Sixtus’ behest, in order to save time.

It is interesting to find the Society of Jesus definitely and officially defending Papal Infallibility at that early date; we may also observe in passing that no very serious difficulty can be made against it from the AEternus Ille. Pope Sixtus, it is true, uses some rather strong language as to his selecting the readings in virtue of his Petrine privilege; yet in at least two places he shows himself aware that the selection may not be the best.

But an even stronger argument against the promulgation of the Bull is to be drawn from Sixtus’ own attitude. He steadily refused to recognize the Bull as possessing – as yet – binding force. The Venetian Government was protesting energetically against the regulation in the AEternus Ille which restricted the printing of the Sixtine Vulgate for ten years to the Vatican press; it complained that the Venetian printers would suffer, alleging moreover (apparently without ground) that the inquisitor at Venice had already begun to enforce the Bull. Sixtus replied that the inquisitor had been too forward, and had acted without proper authorization; nothing ought to have been done, and nothing should be done, without further instructions. Dr. Amann therefore thinks that the Bull was formally published, but was never intended by Sixtus to come into actual force as binding, and in that sense was never promulgated, since Sixtus’ mind on the point was well known. Nevertheless the non-entry into the register points to the omission of some, at least, of the usual formalities of publication.

Even though Sixtus had thus delivered himself, the Venetian ambassador still pressed for the withdrawal of the Bull, and was fairly hopeful of the result, when the news came of Sixtus’ death, on August 27, 1590. As far as his evidence goes, it shows that Sixtus was shaken in his determination to carry Bull and Bible through; but we must remember that it was with the Bull, not with the Bible, that the ambassador was primarily concerned. He was working in the interest of the Venetian printers, and had no interest in the correctness of the Sixtine text. On the other hand, doubts as to the soundness of the text would help to make Sixtus more pliant; if he felt the need of revising his Vulgate, he would not be prepared, at all events as yet, to enforce the Bull. That he did feel this need, we know both from Cardinal Bellarmine and Father Rocca, the two best possible authorities on the point, since both were largely concerned in the matter. The fact that the Clementine preface was actually printed also shows that the statements of fact contained therein were regarded by the Pope and the cardinals concerned as correct.

And indeed, Sixtus was not likely to remain unaware of the objections to his Vulgate. Both the Congregation of the Index and his own revising commission took strong and open exception to it, the latter naturally enough, since he had set their results at naught; matters came to such a pitch that he even threatened Cardinal Caraffa with the Inquisition. And the Spanish ambassador in the background was working steadily both against Bible and Bull on political grounds. Thus a careful consideration of the evidence and of the circumstances will lead to the acceptance of the statements of the Clementine preface, disputed as they often have been; nor would it be fair to treat as anything but an ascertained historical fact the high character of Cardinal Bellarmine himself, a great pillar of the Church in those days of storm, whom we may yet see upon our altars.

For the last chapter in the history of the Vulgate, the reader will best be referred to His Eminence Cardinal Gasquet’s own account in the Catholic Encyclopedia. There is a certain fittingness in Saint Jerome’s great work being entrusted to the venerable order of Saint Benedict for revision and restoration, even as his other great work, the part he played in introducing asceticism into Europe, found direction and order in the rule of Saint Benedict himself. And in the words of Pope Pius X’s letter intrusting Cardinal (then Abbot) Gasquet with the work of revision (December, 1907), we may find words, plain, yet without exaggeration, wherein to couch our verdict on the previous revision: “You have a work proposed to you which is laborious and difficult, whereat there have worked with skill men renowned for their learning, and some from the number of the Popes themselves, with a not altogether happy endeavor.”

In conclusion, we may turn to a question of a rather more dogmatic character, that of the authority of the Latin Vulgate. The present writer has already had occasion to treat what Cardinal Franzelin regarded as, from this point of view, the most difficult passage (1 Corinthians 15:51: Franzelin, De Traditione et Scriptura, ed. 3, p. 531) in the first appendix to his edition of 1 Corinthians in the Westminster Version of the Sacred Scriptures, to which accordingly the reader may be referred for a handling of the problem as it presents itself in the concrete; here we must concern ourselves rather with the general principle which must govern such a handling.

The Council of Trent in its fourth session, after enumerating the books in the canon of Scripture, laid an anathema upon any who “should not receive as sacred and canonical the (above) books entire, with all their parts, as they have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church, and are contained in the ancient Latin vulgate edition.” It has already been remarked that “vulgate” at this date probably means little more as yet than “current.” In this Tridentine canon, then, we have the Vulgate put forward as the concrete embodiment of what is to be regarded as canonical Scripture, as an easy test of what had been “wont to be read in the Catholic Church.” The Vatican Council, indeed, dealing with the same matter in its third session, contented itself with a reference to the Tridentine enumeration and to the Vulgate, without speaking of constant usage in the Church.

The Council of Trent next declares that this same Vulgate edition, “which has been sanctioned by the long usage of so many centuries in the Church herself, is to be treated as authentic in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, and that no one is to dare or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.” That the Vulgate is thus constituted the “authentic” text in the sense that it is made the official text is clear from the decree itself, and may be considered an agreed point, but some ulterior issues need to be discussed. What precise edition or text of the Vulgate was thus made authentic? To this question Pére Durand, S.J., appears to supply the right answer in the Etudes for April, 1898, in words here translated: “The edition of the Vulgate absolutely authentic in the sense of the Council would be one in which only the variant readings and all the variant readings were retained, which have in their favor the irrefragable witness of tradition. This ideal edition the Popes immediately after the Council undertook to realize.” In passages, therefore, where the traditional text is divided between two variant readings and therefore doubtful, the full authority of Trent cannot be claimed for either of these readings; on the other hand, the Clementine text is, of course, official today, and it appears best and safest to apply to it what is hereafter to be said of the Tridentine sanction itself.

The Fathers of the Council of Trent did not make the Vulgate authentic because they thought it a perfect translation, but because they thought it safe. On this subject we have reliable documents, chief among them the letter of the presiding legates to Cardinal Farnese. The decree declaring the Vulgate authentic met with considerable opposition at Rome; it was objected that there were many mistakes in the Vulgate which could not be ascribed to copyists or printers, and there was even talk of delaying the printing of the decree until it had been revised. The presidents, however, wrote to Cardinal Farnese that the difficulties raised had already been maturely considered by the Council, but that all had agreed that the Vulgate was the safest version, because during so long a time it had never been charged with heresy, even though in some places it seemed to differ from the Hebrew text.

That the Vulgate was safe in matters of faith and morals, was beyond question the view taken by the Council, and indeed might be argued theologically from the very position and authority assigned it, for otherwise this general council would be leading the Church into dogmatic or moral error. It might also be shown from an examination of the version it self; finally, it is an agreed point among theologians. That it is substantially faithful as a translation might also be proved in much the same way, but there is some little question as to the precise limits of that faithfulness. The eminent theologian, Cardinal Franzelin, put forward a hypothesis which seems to go beyond the mind of the Council on the point, and occasions some difficulty. In his otherwise admirable treatise, De Divinis Scripturis (These 19), he propounds the view that where a dogma is expressed in a passage of the Vulgate, it must be found expressed in the same passage in the originals, though it need not be expressed in the same way, and though the converse need not be true. He argues that the Council declares the books of Holy Scripture with all their parts canonical and therefore inspired as they are in the Vulgate; since they are inspired only as originally written, it would follow that they must be in the Vulgate as originally written.

This argument, however, proves too much; it would prove absolute and complete correspondence in the translation, which nobody would admit, contrary as it is to evident facts. And further, the Vulgate can be used to show what is canonical Scripture without reproducing it all with perfect accuracy. Franzelin’s other argument is that in enforcing the acceptance of “all the parts,” the Council has in view the proof of dogma from Scripture; this proof must be valid, and therefore all dogmatic parts must faithfully represent the originals. He relies upon the fact that the Council goes on to say that all are now to understand “what testimonies and support it will chiefly use in confirming dogmas and renewing morals in the Church.” Nevertheless it should be noted that these last words refer to the traditions of the Church no less than to the canonical books, and it is enough that a proof from the Vulgate should always be in accord with tradition, without the words of Trent demonstrating that in all cases the original text of Scripture must bear out the dogmatic sense of the Latin translation. As a matter of fact, it seems clear from the acts of the Council that it was not thinking of the dogmatic parts of Scripture at all as such, but of parts which Protestants and others denied to be canonical Scripture, partly books and partly passages.

The whole matter may be examined by the student in Theiner’s Acta Concilii Tridentini, in the debates preparatory to the fourth session. The more general view appears to be hostile to Cardinal Franzelin’s conclusions, and it is based, not merely upon the insufficiency of his arguments, but on an appeal to actual facts, to particular passages of Scripture. Some of the more relevant are adduced by the late Dr. Gigot in his General Introduction, and others are discussed by Pere Durand, S.J., in the Etudes for April 1898.

Thus the correspondence of the Vulgate to the originals must not be exaggerated; nevertheless, when we consider the conditions under which Saint Jerome worked, far as he was from possessing all our modern paraphernalia of dictionaries and grammars and concordances and textual apparatus and the rest – then we cannot fail to applaud his achievement as truly magnificent, magnificent in faithfulness no less than in force and clearness. These fine qualities we can recognize even in the current text; much more shall we recognize them in the revised edition to be issued by the sons of Saint Benedict.

– text is from the article “The Vulgate Translation of Holy Scripture”, by Father Cuthbert Lattey, S.J., published in Catholic World, February 1922