Are modern Bible translations always better? A Catholic linguist praises the Vulgate of St. Jerome

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Contrary to popular belief, the Vulgate was not the first time there was a Latin Bible – in the time of Jerome, in the 4th century, there was a version already widely used called “Vetus Latina” (” Old Latin”), which was itself a roughly 2nd-century CE translation of the Greek Septuagint. In addition, the Vetus Latina contained the translation from the original Greek of all the books of the New Testament. All of the New Testament books were originally written in Greek, but the Old Testament – with the exception of a handful of books – was first written in Hebrew.

Rico described the Vetus Latina as a “good translation, but not perfect”. In 382, ​​Saint Damasus I commissioned Jerome, who was working as his secretary at the time, to revise the Vetus Latina translation of the New Testament.

Jerome did so, taking several years to painstakingly revise and improve the Latin translation of the New Testament from the best available Greek manuscripts. Rico said that throughout the process, Jerome corrected certain passages and explained the deeper meanings of many Greek words that had been lost in previous translations.

For example, the Greek word “epiousios”, which was probably coined by the Gospel writers, appears in the Lord’s Prayer in Luke and Matthew and is often translated into English as “daily”. In the Gospel of Matthew, however, Jerome translated the word into Latin as “supersubstantialem” or “supersubstantial” – an allusion, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, to the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.

All of Jerome’s work resulted in a “brilliant improvement” over the Vetus Latina, Rico said.

What Jérôme did next was even more ambitious. He also undertook to translate the entire Old Testament, from its original Hebrew. Jerome was very knowledgeable in Hebrew, Rico noted, as he had lived in the Holy Land for 30 years at that time and remained in close contact with Jewish rabbis. Jerome also had access to Origen’s Hexapla, a kind of “Rosetta stone” for the Bible that displayed the biblical text in six versions side by side. (The Hebrew text, a transliteration in Greek letters of the Hebrew text, the Greek translation of the Septuagint and three other Greek translations which had been made in a Jewish environment.)

In an effort that ultimately took 15 years, Jerome managed to translate the entire Old Testament from the original Hebrew, which was no small feat considering that Hebrew was originally written without the use of short vowels.

When completed, the Vulgate not only replaced the Vetus Latina in becoming the predominant Bible translation used in the Middle Ages, but it was also declared the official Bible of the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The Vulgate has been revised a handful of times over the years, most notably in 1592 by Pope Clementine VIII (the “Clementine Vulgate”), and the most recent revision, the Nova Vulgata, promulgated by Saint John Paul II in 1979 .

In addition to its use today in the traditional Latin Mass, the Vulgate has remained the basis of the popular English translation of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims.

While again warning that no translation is ever perfect, Rico was quick to praise Jerome’s Vulgate for its accuracy and importance in Church history.

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“For the New Testament, I couldn’t find any errors… The whole thing is amazing,” he said.

For his part, Jérôme is now recognized as a Doctor of the Church. He spent his last days in study, prayer and asceticism at the monastery he founded in Bethlehem, where he died in 420.

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