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.