The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek, but for nearly 1,500 years it was read primarily in Latin. The story of the Latin Bible provides some interesting historical background that is particularly relevant for our conversation about modern English translations.
We don’t really know when the first Latin translation was made. Christians in Rome continued to read Greek well into the 3rd century.(1) But it is clear that several Latin translations where made and used within 100 years of the completion of the New Testament.(2) This again highlights the early church’s desire for people to be able to read God’s word in their native tongue as well as their belief that translations could accurately and meaningfully communicate God’s Word.
However, before long there were many Latin translations and often these translations appeared to be quite different from one another.(3) Many of these translations obviously lacked the skill of an experienced translator, and the differences between the many translations began to create some problems.(4) To address these problems, in 383 AD, Pope Damasus turned to the renowned scholar Jerome to produce a definitive Latin translation.(5)
It is interesting to note that Jerome, at first, turned down this request from the Pope. Metzger records Jerome’s response,
You urge me to revise the Old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures that are now scattered throughout the world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the original. The labor is one of love, but at the same time it is both perilous and presumptuous—for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all …. Is there anyone learned or unlearned, who, when he takes the volume in his hands and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, will not break out immediately into violent language and call me a forger and profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections in them? (6)
Jerome appears to understand how much controversy a translation of the Bible can create. His predictions turned out to be true. When one congregation heard that in Jerome’s translation “Jonah took shelter from the sun under some ivy, with one accord they shouted, “Gourd, gourd”, until the reader reinstated the old word lest there be a general exodus of the congregation!(7) To be sure, modern translators still face the same kinds of responses that Jerome feared roughly 1600 years ago.
Nevertheless, Jerome eventually agreed to take on the project. His Latin translation became known as the “Vulgate,” because it was written in vulgar or common tongue.(8) This, of course, does not mean that Jerome’s Vulgate was base, sloppy, or elementary. On the contrary, the Vulgate is widely considered to be both beautifully and expertly translated. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that it is a product intended for Jerome’s contemporary public audience. Jerome himself famously said, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”(9) The Vulgate, then, was Jerome’s attempt to give the public access to Christ.
As we continue to work toward an understanding of modern English translations, it is worth noting at Jerome’s response to critics of what was then considered a modern Latin translation. To those unwilling to consider any updates or revisions to the “Old Latin” versions, Jerome responded calling them “two-legged asses” or “yelping dogs”—person[s] who think that ignorance is identical to holiness.”(10) For his own part, he worked hard to insure that phrase did not indict him as well. Jerome. Unlike many other translators, he committed himself to years of study in order to become proficient in Greek and Hebrew.
The obvious quality of Jerome’s work won out over time. Bruce Metzger points out the lasting significance of this translation stating, “For nearly a thousand years, the Vulgate was used as the recognized text of Scripture throughout western Europe. It also became the basis of pre-Reformation vernacular Scriptures, such as Wycliffe’s English translation in the fourteenth century, as well as the first printed Bibles in German (1466), Italian (1471), Catalán (1478), Czech (1488), and French (1530).”(11)
Though the Vulgate was meant to be a Bible in the language of the public, time brought a sadly ironic twist Jerome’s work. The Vulgate began to be produced most often as highly ornate and very expensive books available only for the most wealthy.
[T]he clergy and the church used the Bible not as daily guidance to spiritual maturity but as an object to be worshiped and venerated. One needs only to view these magnificently decorated manuscripts to understand the mentality, the superstition, and they highly mystical makeup of the medieval Christ. Shepherd sums it up: “To translate the Latin Bible would have been to transform the whole frame of knowledge human and divine.”(12)
By 1401, as John Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible gains popularity, the Church’s hatred for a vernacular Bible will become so intense that they will sign “De heretico comburendo,” promising death by burning to any heretic who tries to translate the Bible into a modern tongue for the common man.(13) The sad destiny of the Vulgate was that it not only ceased to be a translations accessible to the public, it’s venerated status denied average people the opportunity for their own “vulgata editio.”
The history of the Latin Bible can teach us several things as we consider modern English Bibles. First, it reminds us, as the Septuagint did before it, that Christians have historically believed in the importance of a Bible that people can access in their own language. As Jerome himself said, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.
The history of the Latin Bible also teaches us that not every translation is equally good. Some translators are better equipped for their task than others. Christians are not expected to believe that every, or for that matter any, translation of the original Hebrew or Greek texts are inspired in the same way the original was. On the contrary, just as some Latin translations were better than others, we can assume that some English translations will be better than others.
A third lesson that the history of the Latin Bible teaches us is that we, Christians, can be dangerously prone to resist change. Jerome faced great opposition in his task to get produce a translation for the common man. And as language changed, and Latin was no longer a language spoken by common people, Christians again protested any translation that might again put the Scriptures back in the hands of the public. Perhaps some modern English translations will be demonstrably inferior to older translations such as the KJV, however we must be cautious not to become so afraid of change that we prohibit the public from accessing God’s word in a format that they can understand.