Friday, June 1, 2007

Are there errors in the Latin Vulgate?

The title of this essay comes from a question posed to me by my Protestant confrere rr1213. It is a very complex question actually and I have been trying to do some research on it. I have found to my surprise that the Wikipedia article on Vulgate is just plain kickin'! I suggest that anyone interested in this topic start there:

I just have few comments to make.

First of all, the Latin Vulgate was intended to be a vernacular translation for the people of the Roman Empire in their common tongue. It was commissioned by the Pope and composed by the greatest of the Patristic biblical scholars, St. Jerome. He used the best critical texts and methods of his day. There isn't a biblical scholar in any Christian group who would not give his eyeteeth to gain access to St. Jerome's original source manuscripts, including some of the apocryphal works that he mentioned in passing as "spurious." It may not be as good a translation as we would do today with newer critical methods, but in the Fourth Century this was state-of-the-art.

Secondly, Jerome was not trying for a critical text with apparatus but for a readable text for use in the liturgy. Nevertheless he reviewed many variant texts in different editions and languages and tried to give the best text he could. As a result, the Latin Vulgate gives us a window into what the Hebrew OT and Greek NT were like 300 years before the Jewish Masoretic Text was created and 500 years before the Byzantine liturgical text that was the basis for Erasmus' Textus Receptus. The Masoretic text has been the basis of most Hebrew Bibles since the 8th Century and was used by the Reformers. The Textus Receptus underlies all of the Reformation vernacular NTs including the KJV. As such, there are several variant readings in the Vulgate that are more CORRECT than those in the KJV. For example. Jerome's original does not have the Johannine Comma, the long doxology at the end of the Lord's Prayer, and is missing some of the "Orthodox Corruptions of Scripture" about which Dr. Bart Ehrman wrote his doctoral dissertation (later published by Oxford University Press). Some of these textual variants were incorporated into later editions of the Vulgate.

Thirdly, the Latin Vulgate was a scholarly attempt at reconstructing the Bible unlike the various codices we have from the early 4th Century. This is a great paradox. The Roman Emperor Constantine in the wake of the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD commissioned 50 codices of the Bible in Greek so that one could be enthroned in honor in each of the major cities of the Empire. The texts we know as the Bodmer Papyri, Codex Siniaticus, and Codex Vaticanus most likely are the remaining copies of these bibles. Unfortunately, these were NOT critical editions, but more like commemorative copies from the Franklin Mint or BOMC. While they give us the earliest most complete Bible texts in Greek, they may not have been as representative of the original autographs as what St. Jerome used 60 years later. These early Greek NT texts therefore IMHO must be considered just one early witness among many. The Peshitta texts in Aramaic may be better witnesses of the period before 300 AD. And the Septuagint Greek text appears in may cases closer to some of the Hebrew Biblical texts from the 1st Century Dead Sea Scrolls than the later 8th Century Masoretic text.

The Medieval Humanists (and their Protestant disciples) argued against some of St. Jerome's choices for his translation from Greek in Latin. They argued that dikaioo (to justify) and its cognates had a forensic character that the Latin word iustificare did not. The Latin word implied a tranformation from a state of unrighteousness to a state of righteousness. But better philological studies in the last 200 years have shown that the dikaioo family of Greek words did also have a transformative meaning even within the NT itself (e.g., Romans 5:19, 2Cor 5:21).

Some have also argued that the translation of the Greek metanoia as the Latin poenitentia was incorrect. This was the word Jesus used when he said "REPENT and believe the Gospel!" (Mark 1:15). Metanoia they claimed was more of an intellectual and emotional response while poenitentia implied the need to do works of penance. This may have been true in pagan Greek. The problem was that the Greek word metanoia was probably used to translate the Hebrew word teshuvah which means "turning". In the Jewish religion this encompassed such things as fasting, wearing sack cloth and ashes, and other works of mortification. St. Jerome's choice here took cognizance of the wider Jewish context of the NT.

So in the end, St. Jerome did the best job possible for his time. What makes a "good" Biblical translation changes from one time period to another and what works in one period may not work as well in another.



rr1213 said...

It does not appear that any translation is completely accurate. There is an interesting discussion in Diarmaid MacCulloch's Reformation of some of the translation errors in the Vulgate found by Erasmus when he was doing his own translation.

I've heard that the Catholic Church considers the Vulgate to be the authorative rendition of Scripture. Is this true? If so, why would the Church pick a Latin translation over the Hebrew and Greek texts?

Art Sippo said...

If you have any particular "errors" you want to discuss, please list them. There was nothing that effected matters of doctrine.

The Latin Vulgate is considered the OFFICIAL Bible of the Catholic Church. It was originally a translation made from Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew texts. The Vulgate was not intended to supplant the original language texts but to be a VERNACULAR translation for the LATIN speaking people of the ROMAN EMPIRE. The Catholic Apostolic and ROMAN Church uses a LATIN Bible because Latin is the official language of the Church.

St. Jerome had made his original translation using the best texts available in the 4th Century. The Church considered it to be reliable and authoritative. It remains a valuable witness to the early state of the Biblical text in the Patristic period. It remains so to this day.

Since the Deformation, the Latin Vulgate has been edited several times to have it conform to the best original language texts that modern textual criticism can provide.


rr1213 said...

If I remember right, MacCulloch wrote that Erasmus found a number of mistranslations, one being the translation of the phrase in the Latin as "do penance" and another being one whereby Moses was said to have come down from the mountain with horns. I'll have to pick the book up at the library to check again what was noted.

Art Sippo said...

I looked up my own copy of MacCulloch's book (A very good and balanced study BTW. Highly recommended.)

I have already dealt with Metanoia and dikaioo. The comment about the Horns of Moses is trivial. In fact MacCulloch says "such things were not going to threaten the Christian understanding of faith."
(pg. 79).

The only other issue of note he brought up was the translation of kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 with which St. Gabriel greeted the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was translated by St. Jerome as "full of grace". A more literal translation of the Greek is "most highly favored one". It is the perfect passive participle of charitoo. In Biblical Koine Greek, this construct refers to a past completed action which cannot be repeated. The distinction between This and "full of grace" is notional at best. IMHO opinion St. Jerome's definition is more dynamic than literal but I think he captures the true meaning of this phrase in context.

He really mentions nothing else critical other than the fact that the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 is not clearly referring to a virgin as the Septuagint's Greek word parthenos does but to a young woman and that was a problem for both Protestants and Catholics!

rr1213 said...

I'm glad you grabbed your copy because I forgot to check one out of the library. I get the feeling at times from readings posts by some traditional Catholics that they believe that the Vulgate is essentially without error...because the Church proclaimed it to be without error. I just don't buy that and, apparently, neither do you although you may believe that it is without any significant doctrinal error.

I did enjoy MacCulloch's book. One point that he was very determined to make was that the Medieval Catholic World in which most Western Christians lived prior to the Reformation was a world in which the Catholic Church, for the most part, met and satisfied the spiritual needs of its members. He also made the point that, while the Reformers had some legitimate issues, the Reformers' spin of an entirely failed, entirely corrupt Catholic Church prior to the Reformation is not factual.

Art Sippo said...

I think that MacCulloch's book typifies the state of Reformation Studies today. Except for the most dyspeptic anti-Catholic bigots, Protestant scholarship is beginning to realize that the classic Protestant critique of the Popes as 'anti-Christ" and the Catholic Church as the "Whore of Babylon" were self-serving partisan exaggerations. This now allows us Catholics to admit to the problems that did exist which needed reform.

As for "errors" in the Vulgate, there are many MORE corruptions in the KJV due to its use of the Textus Receptus(TR). Many KJV-Only advocates and supporters of the Byzantine Text family prefer these sources because of the "orthodox corruption" that sneaked into them. Dr. Bart Ehrman documents this in his book "The Orthodox Corruptions of Scripture". Apparently, Greek copyists inserted small phrases here and there over the centuries to bolster the Biblical witness against various heresies, usually those involving Christology. It is hard to call these "errors" but they are corruptions of the texts.

The Vulgate was not perfect. But it was good enough for its day. Today, St. Jerome's Vulgate has been revised to meet the standards of the best scholarship of modern times in the same way that the RSV and NRSV have replaced the KJV.

praxaluh said...

"Jerome's original does not have the Johannine Comma"

Actually we do not know. The most important witness, Codex Fuldensis (546 AD), is mixed. The Johannine Comma is specifically discussed in the Prologue to the Canonical Epistles yet omits it in the text, leading to a big discussion in itself :-) .

Steven Avery

James Bond said...

Are you talking about the vulgate based on the Septuagint, the one based on the original hebrew, or the subsequent revisions (the sistine and the clementine)?

I don't care for catholic apologists or protestant bigots (both are losers IMHO) - I am interested in truth.

Did not Jerome come under criticism by Augustine and others for using the original (hebrew) source instead of the sepatuagint?

And if the vulgate was meant for the people, why was the church so adamantly opposed to it's transalation into the vernacular almost a thousand years later?

I agree with you that there ARE protestants who would love to have a copy of Jerome's original vulgates (no need to get self-righteous there), just as there are christian scholars of many denominations who would give their right arm to have a complete copy of Origen's hexapla (regardless of Origen's own personal doctrinal peculiarities). Because, any good biblical scholar will use more than one source to study the bible (the vulgate, KJV, 1525/34 Tyndale, 1569/1602 Reina-Valera, LXX, MT, dead sea scrolls, etc.).

KJV-only christians and vulgate-only christians are bigots in their own right. No translation is perfect, just as no human is infallible. However, that doesn't necessarily mean the work as a whole is unreliable.

Also, just FYI, I wouldn't rely on "Wikipedia" as your primary source of information (any old yahoo can go on there and post information). Wikipedia should only be used as a last resort, after other more reliable sources cannot be found.

Arthur C. Sippo MD, MPH said...

I appreciate your comments.

The Latin Vulgate OT of St. Jerome was based primarily on the Hebrew texts though he was guided in his translation by some LXX usages (e.g., Isaiah 7:14).

There were defeinitely 2 schools of thought in hte Early Churhc on which texts were to be preferred for the OT. The majority seemed to favor the LXX because it was clearly the text preferred by the NT authors. Those Church Fathers who had learned Hebrew preferred the Hebrew OT. Jerome indeed got some flack for his preference of the Hebrew OT, but he had the support of the Popes and from that time forward in the Latin West, Jeromes's Latin Vulgate was the official Bible of the Church.

And if the vulgate was meant for the people, why was the church so adamantly opposed to it's transalation into the vernacular almost a thousand years later?

The Vulgate WAS the vernacular Bible. You need to appreciate the historical issue involved. Latin was the official language in Europe for business, religion, higher education, the law, diplomacy, and in many of hte royal courts. Anything worth doing was done in the Latin language. Scholarly works were all done in Latin so that student in Europe could read them.

To recommend that the Bible be translated into the vernacualr languages would be like someone today wanting to have the Bible translated into Ebonics or Pig-Latin.

This seems strange to us but that is becasue we lie on the other side of the social divide when vernaular language have become respectable. The period of the 16th Century was on the very cusp of the change when it would not have been so clear.

Besides, most ofhte vrnacualr bibles were written by heretics with anti-Catholic notes and many of the translations actually selected words that tried to misrepresent the Bible's meaning. For example, Luther added "alone" to Romans 3:28 where it did nto exist in any Greek text. Tyndale chose the word 'elder' to translater prebuteros pretending that the Scriptures were referring to a lay minister instead of an ordained one.

One should note that the English language Douay-Rhiems Catholic Bible was completed BEFORE the King James Version and has been proven to have been a source for the KJV translators.

Please remember that the reading of the Latin Vulgate in Latin was never restricted.

I agree that no translation is perfect and that it is best to consult multiple sources -- including the orignal Greek texts -- to fully understand the Bible.

The Wikipedia article in particular that I recommeded was very well done and had numerous references supporting its contentions. I recommended it because I found it to be well done and it saved me the trouble of repeating the same things in this blog. Not every Wikipedia article is of the same quality, but it is one helpful reference among others.


Nicholas Nelson said...

In actuality, I have noticed this passage fails to address several points about the inaccuracy of the Vulgate bible. The fact is, he didnt have the best translations of the bible at the time, and wasnt the best equipped to translate the bible accurately. While St Jerome was a holy man and meant well by his works, his work was marred by some particulars mostly attributed to the speed at which he worked due to competition and trying to finish before Damasus' death, which resulted in errors and mistranslations. Also, there were certain linguistic barriers between Latin and Greek, and often times latin biblical scholars like St augustine struggled with Greek and couldnt read the greek fathers well, leading to theological ideas based off of misconceptions from inaccurate syntax in latin. A good example are the places in Luke and Matthew where the basis for the Lord's prayer comes from. In Matthew, it says in Greek "τον αρτον ημων τον επιουσιον δος ημιν σημερον" which modern Koine Greek translations would render as "Give us this day our bread sufficient". In Luke it says "τoν aρτον ημoν τoν eπιούσιον δίδου ημiν τo καθ’ Iμέραν·" which is "Give us our bread sufficient for the day". Now the word in question here is epiousios. If you were to read the Latin vulgate, you would see that Jerome rendered epiousios in Matthew as "supersubstantialum" or "divine great substance" but he rendered it as "daily" in Luke. It means neither of these things, but means "sufficient". This displays that St Jerome didnt know what epiousios meant and simply lacked a proper understanding of the context in Greek. Another good example is that in Greek exists 6 words for love, all expressing different types, and one broad term for love in Latin. These logistical and linguistic concepts didnt exist in the latin syntax, and forced the corruption of scripture when translation was attempted. It is the multifacited nature of the Greek language that posed as a barrier to the genuine idea and context of the original Greek text. It can be seen how slight mistranslations in the wrong places can lead to misconceptions and misplaced syntax in key excerpts of scripture. However, this biggest problem was that it was done by ONE MAN. This poses a huge problem for the fallicy and room for error in Jeromes work, not only because there was no one to ensure he was on the same page, or "white-out" for that matter, but especially because when he approached the text with a theological mindset based of off earlier and indeed corrupted latin translations. In 382, Damasus commissioned Jerome to produce the Vulgate by revising and newly translating in Latin the various translations then in use, using Greek texts as a base. Initially, Jerome produced a revision of the New Testament. Then, he followed with the text of the Old Testament based upon the Greek Septuagint. He began with the Psalter in 384, of which the first version was called the Roman Psalter. This version was soon corrupted by text from the Old Latin translations, and Jerome began another version in 387 that became known as the Gallican Psalter. About 390, after completing the translation of much, if not all, of the Old Testament based upon the Septuagint, he began a version based upon existing Hebrew texts. By 405 he had translated much of the Old Testament based upon the Hebrew. This version, however, was not accepted by many, including Augustine, who felt the Septuagint was slighted and was as equally inspired as the Hebrew text. This was also pointless, because (although he didnt know) the existing Hebrew scriptures at the time were actually translations from the Greek septuagint back into Hebrew, because the original Torah and Hebrew scriptures were destroyed in the Roman conquest of Judaea, so the scribes used existing Greek translations by hellenized Jews to translate the Torah to Hebrew.

Nicholas Nelson said...

Manuscripts of Jerome's Latin Scriptures slowly replaced the Old Latin versions in popularity, although not without corruption of the text, nor with consistent versions in all places. Over the ensuing centuries, attempts were made to stay corruption of the manuscript texts, but with limited success. These attempts to limit corruption came periodically: in the sixth century; again in the eighth, by Alcuin, the abbot of St. Martin's at Tours; and in the succeeding centuries. With the advent of the printing press the situation did not improve, as the printed Vulgate Bibles seemed to perpetuate inferior texts. The fact is, St Jerome, due to a multitude of circumstances, lacked the ideal conditions to present an accurate translation from the old Greek texts.