Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (January-March 1993): 35-49

   Copyright 1993 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission.







Bruce M. Metzger



It is commonly known, the Bible has been translated

into more languages than any other piece of literature. What is

not generally appreciated, however, is the great increase in the

number of different translations that have been produced rela-

tively recently, that is, during the 19th and 20th centuries. Before

this period the church was slow in providing renderings of the

Scriptures in other languages.

According to a recent calculation, there are 6,170 living lan-

guages in the world.1 However, by the year A.D. 600 the four

Gospels had been translated into only eight of these languages.

These were Latin and Gothic in the West, and Syriac, Coptic,

Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Sogdian in the East. One

might have expected that Augustine and other Christian leaders

in North Africa would have provided a translation of the Gospels

in Berber or Punic, or that Irenaeus and his successors would

have made a translation into the Celtic dialect used in Gaul. But

there is no evidence of the existence of such versions in antiquity,

despite the presence of Christian communities in these areas.


Bruce M. Metzger is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Emeri-

tus, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.


* This is article one in the four-part series, "Translating the Bible: An Ongoing

Task," delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas

Theological Seminary, February 4-7, 1992.


1 The most recent information is provided by Barbara F. Grimes, Ethnologues,

Languages of the World, 11th ed. (Dallas, TX: International Academic Bookstore,

1988), 741. Estimates of the number of languages differ because judgments differ as

to whether a particular form of speech should be called a separate language or even

a distinct dialect. In certain instances, local government decree has given language

status to a dialect. In other instances, what are really distinct languages have been

regarded as mere dialects, as is the case of many of the so-called dialects of Chi-

nese. Linguistically they are quite distinct languages, but because of their ortho-

graphic dependence on Mandarin Chinese, they have generally been considered


36 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1993


When printing with movable type was invented by Johannes

Gutenberg in 1456, only 33 languages had any part of the Bible.

Even when the Bible society movement began some two centuries

ago, parts of the Scriptures had been rendered into only 67 lan-

guages. During the 19th century, however, more than 400 lan-

guages received some part of the Scriptures, and within the first

half of the 20th century some part of the Bible was published in

more than 500 languages. This rapid increase in the preparation

of many versions of the Bible is due to the role played by the Bible

societies, by Wycliffe Bible Translators, and similar organiza-

tions. At the close of 1991, the entire Bible had been made avail-

able in 318 languages and dialects, and portions of the Bible in

1,946 languages and dialects. Because many of these languages

are used by great numbers of people, it is estimated that today four

out of five people in the world, or 80 percent, have at least one book

of the Bible in their mother tongue.2

The history of the translation of the Bible can be divided into

four major periods. The first period includes the efforts to trans-

late the Scriptures into the dominant languages of the ancient

world. The second important period of Bible translating was re-

lated to the Reformation, when renderings were no longer made

from the Latin Vulgate but from the original Hebrew and Greek

into the vernaculars of Europe. The third period may be called the

great "missionary endeavor," when pioneer translators under-

took the preparation of renderings into the hundreds of languages

in which there was often not even an alphabet before these men

and women undertook to reduce such languages to written form.

Such work is still going on, while a fourth period has already be-

gun. This is characterized primarily by translations being pro-

duced in the newly developing nations, not by missionaries but by,

trained nationals of these countries. Properly trained people can

always translate much more effectively into their own mother

tongue than into a foreign language.

This article traces the early history of the process of translat-

ing the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into other languages.






The first translation of the Scriptures into another language

is the Greek Septuagint, dating from the third and second cen-


2 The Book of a Thousand Tongues, 2d ed. (New York: United Bible Societies,

1972), viii.

Important Early Translations of the Bible 37


turies B.C. Not only is it the oldest, but it is also one of the most

valuable of the translations from antiquity. Whether one consid-

ers its fidelity to the original, its influence over the Jews for

whom it was prepared, its relationship to the New Testament

Greek, or its place in the Christian church, it stands preeminent

in the light it casts on the study of the Scriptures.

The story of the origin of this version is given in a document

of uncertain date called the Letter of Aristeas.3 This letter pur-

ports to be a contemporary record by a certain Aristeas, an official

at the court of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.), who claims

to have personal knowledge as an eyewitness of the following

details. Ptolemy wished to include in the royal library at

Alexandria copies of all the books known to the world. On the

suggestion of his librarian, Demetrius of Phalerum, that the laws

of the Jews (presumably, the Pentateuch) deserved a place in the

library, the king ordered that a letter be written to Eleazar, the

Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, requesting that he send six el-

ders from each of the 12 tribes who were well versed in the Jewish

Law and able to translate it into Greek ( 9-11 and 28-34).

Arriving in Alexandria, the 72 translators were conducted to

a restful spot on the island of Pharos, where every provision was

made for their needs in well-appointed quarters. So they set to

work; as they completed their several tasks, they would reach an

agreement on each by comparing versions. Whatever was

agreed upon was suitably copied out under the direction of

Demetrius ( 302). By happy coincidence the task of translation

was completed in 72 days ( 307). The work was done in such a

way that the entire Jewish community of Alexandria accepted the

translation as an accurate rendering ( 310). A curse was in-

voked on any who would alter the rendering by any addition,

transposition, or deletion ( 311).

Most scholars who have analyzed the letter have concluded

that the author of this story cannot have been the man he repre-

sented himself to be, but was a Jew who wrote a fictitious account

in order to enhance the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures by

suggesting that a pagan king had recognized their significance

and therefore arranged for their translation into Greek. The real

reason for undertaking the work, it is now generally agreed,


3 This letter has survived in 23 manuscripts, which have been collated by Andr6

Pelletier, S.J., for the series "Sources chr6tien.nes" (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1962).

The most recent English translation is by R. J. H. Shutt in The Old Testament

Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, ed. J. H. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985),

7-34. For a full discussion of problems connected with the letter, see Moses Hadas,

Aristeas to Philocrates (Letter of Aristeas) (New York: Harper, 1951) and Sidney

Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press,


38 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1993


arose from the liturgical and educational needs of the large Jew-

ish community in Alexandria, many of whom had forgotten their

Hebrew or let it grow rusty and spoke only the common Greek of

the Mediterranean world. But they remained Jews and wanted to

understand the ancient Scriptures, on which their faith and life

depended. This, then, was the real reason for making the Greek

Septuagint, the first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

From internal considerations the date of the letter may be as-

signed to about 150-100 B.C. It was known to Josephus, who para-

phrased portions in his Antiquities of the Jews (12.12-118).

Philo's account of the origin of the Septuagint (On Moses, 2.25-44)

reproduces certain features of Aristeas, but there are also diver-

gences. For example Aristeas ( 302) represents the translators

as comparing their work as they wrote it and producing an

agreed-on version, whereas according to Philo each of the trans-

lators, working under divine inspiration, arrived at identical

phraseology as though dictated by an invisible prompter.

In the following centuries Christian authors further embel-

lished the narrative of Aristeas. The scope of the translators'

work embraced not just the Law but the entire Old Testament, ac-

cording to Justin Martyr, at the middle of the second Christian

century.4 Later that century Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, stated that

Ptolemy, fearing that the Jewish translators might conspire to

conceal the truth found in their sacred books, put each one in a

separate cubicle and commanded them each to write a transla-

tion. They did so, and when their translations were read before

the king, they were found to give the same words and the same

names from beginning to end "so that even the pagans who were

present recognized that the scriptures had been translated through

the inspiration of God."5

Underneath the accretions and behind the story as told by

Aristeas, modern scholars are generally in agreement on the fol-

lowing points.6 (1) The Pentateuch was translated first as a

whole, and it has a unity of style that distinguishes it from the

later translations of the Prophets and the Writings. (2) The ho-


4 In Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (68. 7) the mention of the "translation

of the 70 elders" relates not to a Pentateuchal passage but to Isaiah.


5 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.21.2 (apud Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History

5.8.11-15). For an account of still further elaborations in the third and fourth cen-

turies, see Sidney Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study, 44-47, and Hadas,

Aristeas to Philocrates, 73-80.


6 For these several points on which there is general agreement among scholars,

see W. F. Howard's succinct account in The Bible in Its Ancient and English Ver-

sions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 43-44.


Important Early Translations of the Bible 39


mogeneity of the translation makes it improbable that so large a

number as 70 were at work on the Pentateuch. A rabbinic version

of the story mentions five as the number of translators.7 (3) The

Hebrew scrolls were possibly imported from Palestine. (4) The

language of the version is similar to the Greek used in vernacu-

lar papyri found in Egypt and contains Egyptian words. This

suggests that the translators were Alexandrian and not Pales-

tinian Jews.

The Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Bible both in the or-

der of the biblical books and in the fact that it includes more

books. The threefold division into the Law, the Prophets, and the

Writings is abandoned, and the books are grouped in the se-

quence of law, history, wisdom literature, and prophets. Some of

the books not included in the Hebrew Scriptures are Greek trans-

lations of Hebrew originals (Tobit, 1 Maccabees, and Ecclesiasti-

cus, also known as the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach), and

others are of Greek composition (Wisdom of Solomon; 2, 3, and 4

Maccabees; and others). Apart from these additional books, the

Septuagint also differs from the Hebrew Bible in the supplemental

matter contained in certain books that are common to both. The

Greek form of the Book of Esther, which in Hebrew contains 163

verses, is increased by the insertion of six sections embracing an

additional 107 verses. The Book of Daniel receives three supple-

ments; in the English Apocrypha of the King James Version these

are called the History of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and the

Song of the Three Holy Children. On the other hand, in the Septu-

agint the Book of Job is about one-sixth shorter than the Hebrew

text, and the Book of Jeremiah lacks about one-eighth of the mate-

rial in the Hebrew text. In both of these cases it may well be that

the translators were working with a sharply different Hebrew text

from what later became the traditional Masoretic text. The trans-

lation of the Book of Daniel was so deficient that it was wholly re-

jected by the Christian church, and a translation made in the sec-

ond century A.D. by Theodotion was used from the fourth century

onward in its place.

The importance of the Septuagint as a translation is obvious.

Besides being the first translation ever made of the Hebrew Scrip-

tures, it was the medium through which the religious ideas of the

Hebrews were brought to the attention of the world. It was the Bible

of the early Christian church, and the New Testament writers

usually quoted the Septuagint. Its subsequent influence was im-

mense. In the third century Origen incorporated the Septuagint


7 Masechet Soferim, ed. Joel Miller (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1878), i. 8.

40 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1993


text into his Hexapla, an elaborate scholarly edition of the Old

Testament prepared with great care and industry. This huge

work presented in six narrow columns the Hebrew text, the He-

brew text transliterated into Greek characters, the Septuagint text,

and the text of three other Greek versions prepared in the second

century A.D. by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. Other

Christian recensions of the fourth century, attributed to Lucian

and Hesychius, were primarily stylistic in character.

Over the centuries the Septuagint has had a wide influence. It

became the basis for daughter versions of the Old Testament in

many languages, including Old Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Arme-

nian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Syr-

iac (in Paul of Tella's translation around 616 of Origen's

Hexaplaric text), Arabic, and Slavonic. Finally the importance

of the Septuagint can be judged from the circumstance that it re-

mains to this day the authoritative biblical text of the Old Testa-

ment for the Greek Orthodox Church.



The Targums are interpretive renderings of the books of the

Hebrew Scriptures (with the exception of Ezra, Nehemiah, and

Daniel) into Aramaic. Such versions were needed when Hebrew

ceased to be the normal medium of communication among the

Jews. In synagogue services the reading of the Scriptures was

followed by a translation into the Aramaic vernacular of the pop-

ulace. For a reading from the Pentateuch the Aramaic transla-

tion followed each verse of the Hebrew; for a reading from the

Prophets three verses were followed by the Aramaic translation.

At first the oral Targum was a simple paraphrase in Ara-

maic, but eventually it became more elaborate and incorporated

explanatory details inserted here and there into the translation of

the Hebrew text. To make the rendering more authoritative as an

interpretation, it was finally reduced to writing. Two officially

sanctioned Targums, produced first in Palestine and later re-

vised in Babylonia, are the Targum of Onkelos8 on the Penta-

teuch and the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets, both of which

were in use in the third century of the Christian era.

During the same period the Targum tradition continued to

flourish in Palestine. In addition to fragments and citations that

have been collected, the Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch is

found, primarily, in three forms. The two that have been the most

studied are the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum and the Fragmentary


8 Though the name Onkelus corresponds to Aquila, there is no reason to ascribe

this Targum to the Aquila who made a literalistic Greek translation of the Hebrew

Scriptures in the second century.

Important Early Translations of the Bible 41


Targum, which contains renderings of only approximately 850

biblical verses, phrases, or words. In the mid-20th century a ne-

glected manuscript in the Vatican library, identified as Neofiti 1,

was discovered to be a nearly complete copy of the Palestinian

Targum to the Pentateuch. Though copied in the 16th century, its

text has the distinction of being the earliest form of the Pales-

tinian Targum. It is somewhat less paraphrastic than Pseudo-

Jonathan in that its explanatory additions are fewer in number

and more terse in expression. The wide divergences among

these Targums clearly indicate that, they are "unofficial," in that

their text was never fixed. There aree no reliable data as to who the

authors and compilers were, under what circumstances and for

what specific purposes they labored, and how literary transmis-

sion was achieved.

Though the several Targums display certain common fea-

tures, there are also many differences of rendering among them,

ranging from literalistic to paraphrastic, incorporating a variety

of kinds of explanatory comments. Sometimes an anthropomor-

phic expression in the Hebrew concerning God is softened or

eliminated in the Targum. In speaking of the relationship of God

to the world, reverence for the God of Israel led the Targumist to

employ surrogates for the Deity, such as "Word" (Memra),

"Glory" (Yeqara, 'Iqar), or "Presence" (Shekinah, Aramaic

Shekinta). Thus in Genesis 1:16-17 Targum Neofiti reads, "The

Word of the Lord created the two large luminaries . . . and the

Glory of the Lord set them in the firmament," and in Genesis 2:2-

3 it reads, "On the seventh day the Word of the Lord completed the

work which he had created . . . and the Glory of the Lord blessed

the seventh day."

As was mentioned earlier, besides providing an Aramaic

rendering of the Scripture text, the Targumist also sometimes

provided interpretive expansions. Typical of such interpolations

are the following:

"And whatever Adam called in the language of the sanctuary

a living creature, that was its name" (Palestinian Targum, Gen.


"Behold, I have granted them a hundred and twenty years in

case they might repent, but they failed to do so" (Palestinian Tar-

gum, Gen. 6:3).

"And he [Moses] reached the mount over which the glory of the

Shekinah of the Lord was revealed Horeb" (Targum Neofiti,

Exod. 3:1).

"Let Reuben live in this world and not die in the second

death, in which death the wicked die in the world to come"

(Palestinian Targum, Deut. 33:6).

42 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1993


Despite their self-professed purpose to be a translation and/or

explanatory paraphrase of Scripture, here and there the Targums

also present instances of what is termed converse translation,9 in

which the Aramaic text contradicts what is said in the Hebrew.

This modification is accomplished through a variety of devices,

including the addition or deletion of the negative particle, or the

replacement of the original biblical verb with another of opposite

meaning. Neofiti on Exodus 33:3 reads, "I will not remove my

presence from among you," whereas the Hebrew text reads, "I

will not go up among you." Cain's cry in the Hebrew text,

"Behold, you have driven me this day from the land, and from

your face I shall be hidden" (Gen. 4:14), is changed to read,

"Behold, you have driven me this day from upon the land, but it is

not possible to be hidden from you" (Targums Onkelos and Ne-

ofiti). In both these instances the Targumist was unwilling to ac-

cept the implication that God's presence and power could be cir-

cumscribed or limited. In the Targum on Genesis 4:23 Lamech

boasted, "I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man on

account of which my progeny would be destroyed." Here the Tar-

gumist changed a bloodthirsty song of triumph into an affirma-

tion of divine justice.

In passing through the territory of the descendants of Esau,

the Israelites were instructed in Deuteronomy 2:6, "You shall buy

water from them, so that you may drink." Since this verse is fol-

lowed by the observation that "these forty years the Lord your God

has been with you; you have lacked nothing," the buying of food

and water appeared to be inappropriate to the Targumist. So he

contradicted the biblical text and the Targum reads, "You need

not buy food from them for money, since manna from heaven de-

scends for you; neither need you buy water from them, since the

well of water ascends with you, up to the mountain tops and down

into the valleys" (Targum Neofiti).

All translations of the Bible are necessarily interpretive to

some extent, but the Targums differ in that they are interpretive

as a matter of policy, and often to an extent that far exceeds the

bounds of translation or even paraphrase. It is perhaps against

such license that Rabbi Judah (2nd century A.D.) declared with

paradoxical vehemence, "He who translates a biblical verse lit-

erally is a liar, but he who elaborates on it is a blasphemer."10


9 See Michael Klein, "Converse Translation: A Targumic Technique," Biblica 57

(1976), 515-37, and Etan Levine, The Aramaic Version of the Bible (Berlin: de

Gruyter, 1988), 33-36 and 151-66.


10 Tosephta, Megillah 4:41, ed. M. S. Zuckermandel (Jerusalem: Bamberger &

Wahrmann, 1937), 228.

Important Early Translations of the Bible 43





Of the several ancient translations of both Old and New

Testaments, the Syriac versions and the Latin versions are gen-

erally considered the most important, both for their own sake and

for their having become the basis of many daughter transla-

tions.11 It has been disputed whether the Scriptures were first

translated into Syriac or into Latin.


At Antioch of Syria, the third largest city of the Roman Em-

pire, the followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts

11:26). Though most of the mixed population of Antioch were ac-

quainted with Greek, when the new faith spread elsewhere in

Syria during the second half of the second century, the need was

felt for a rendering of the Scriptures into the mother tongue of the

populace. So Syrian Christians, whose language was akin to He-

brew and Aramaic, though using a different script, soon began to

put the New Testament, or most of it, into their own language.

Early evidence is not very plentiful and the material is limited,

but more has survived than perhaps one might have expected.

The first part of the New Testament to be translated, as would

be expected, was the four Gospels. Two ancient manuscripts,

copied in the fourth or fifth century and preserving forms of this

rendering, have been identified, the Curetonian and the Sinaitic

Syriac manuscripts. These are valuable witnesses to the Old Syr-

iac version. There was also current at the close of the second cen-

tury a harmony of the Gospels, the work of a Christian scholar

named Tatian, who wove into one narrative the material of all

four Gospels. Whether his work was first published in Greek at

Rome about A.D. 170, or in Syriac in his native land, has not been

determined with finality. In any case for the next several cen-

turies Christian congregations throughout the Middle East made

use of this harmony, known by its Greek name, the Diatessaron

(Greek for "through the Four"). Unfortunately the witnesses to

the Diatessaron that are extant today are, with the exception of one

imperfect leaf of Greek text, secondary and tertiary witnesses.

The form of the Syriac Bible that came to prevail in Eastern

churches is called the Peshitta, meaning "simple" or "common."

It is not known whether the term refers to the simple, nonarchaic

language the version uses, or to its unifying of different existing


11 For information concerning other ancient translations, reference may be made

to the present writer's volume, The Ancient Versions of the New Testament: Their

Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).



translations. The Old Testament translation, it appears, was

made directly from the Hebrew, probably in the second or third

century. At a later date it was revised by comparison with the

Greek Septuagint, and the additional books present in Septuagint

manuscripts were translated into Syriac.

The process of producing the New Testament in Syriac from

the Old Syriac version probably began before the end of the fourth

century and seems to have been completed by Rabbula, bishop of

Edessa (411-435). Since the Syrian church did not (and does not)

accept as canonical the four lesser Catholic Epistles (2 Peter, 2

and 3 John, and Jude) and the Book of Revelation, the Peshitta

New Testament contains only 22 books.

Subsequently two other Syriac versions of the New Testament

were made. At the beginning of the sixth century Philoxenus, the

Jacobite bishop of Hierapolis in eastern Syria, commissioned

Polycarp, a chorepiscopus, to revise the Peshitta version on the ba-

sis of Greek manuscripts. Now, seemingly for the first time in

Syriac, to the 22 books included in the Peshitta New Testament the

other five books were added. This work was completed in 507-

508. Since the Philoxenian version had been sponsored by Jaco-

bite ecclesiastics, it was used only by the Monophysite branch of

Syriac-speaking Christendom.

In 616 the Philoxenian version of the New Testament was

drastically revised throughout by Thomas of Harkel. The chief

characteristic of the Harclean version is its slavish adaptation to

the Greek, to such an extent that here and there even clarity is

sacrificed. Occasionally, instead of a native Syriac word the

Harclean uses a Greek loan-word, transliterated into Syriac.

About the same time (616-617) Paul, the Jacobite bishop of

Tella in Mesopotamia, made a translation of the Greek text of the

Septuagint as contained in Origen's Hexapla. It was produced

with great care and accuracy, and is an important witness to the

Old Testament.

Finally, to round out this account of Syriac versions, refer-

ence should be made to yet another Syriac version, the Christian-

Palestinian-Aramaic version. This was used by Melchite

Christians in Palestine and Egypt during the sixth, seventh, and

following centuries.

From the foregoing sketch of half a dozen ancient Syriac

translations, one recognizes the vitality and scholarship of Syr-

ian church leaders in antiquity. The significance of these Syriac

versions can be appreciated from the circumstance that they be-

came the basis, at least in part, of translations in other lan-

guages. The early Armenian rendering of the Gospels, made in

the fifth century, shows influence from the Old Syriac text, while

Important Early Translations of the Bible 45


the Old Testament, as would be expected, generally follows the

Hexaplaric recension of the Septuagint. The Georgian Bible,

completed, it seems, by the end of the sixth century, had an Arme-

nian-Syriac foundation. The Peshitta Syriac version was also

the basis of the Sogdian, Persian, and Arabic versions.

The Peshitta version remains today the authoritative Bible

text of the Syrian Churches (Syrian Orthodox, Jacobite, Church of

the East).



It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the in-

fluence exerted by the Latin versions of the Bible, and particu-

larly by Jerome's Latin Vulgate. Whether one considers the

Vulgate from a purely secular point of view, with its pervasive in-

fluence on the development of Latin into Romance languages,12

or whether one has in view only the specifically religious influ-

ence, the extent of its penetration into all areas of Western culture

is almost beyond calculation. The theology and the devotional

language typical of the Roman Catholic Church were either cre-

ated or transmitted by the Vulgate. Both Protestants and Roman

Catholics are heirs of terminology that Jerome either coined anew

or baptized with fresh significance-words such as salvation, re-

generation, justification, sanctification, propitiation, reconcilia-

tion, inspiration, Scripture, sacrament, and many others.

The historian of the Latin versions of the Bible is confronted

with difficult and disputed problems, not least of which are the

questions when, where, and by whom the earliest Latin rendering

was made. Because the language used by the church at Rome was

Greek until the mid-third century, the Old Latin versions would

not have originated there, but within those early Christian com-

munities that used Latin. Probably by the end of the second cen-

tury A.D. Old Latin versions of the Scriptures were in circulation

in north Africa. In Carthage, Tertullian (ca. 150-ca. 220) and

Cyprian (ca. 200-258) quoted long sections of both Testaments in

Latin. Since one finds numerous and far-reaching differences

between quotations of the same passages, it is obvious that there

was not one uniform rendering; some books were apparently

translated a number of times, and no single translator worked on

all 27 books. The Old Testament was not translated from the He-

12 One example of the influence of the Vulgate on the development of vernacular

languages among the Romance peoples is the suppression of everyday derivatives

from the common Latin word verbum, meaning "word." The forms do indeed occur

in the religious, technical sense, meaning "the Word," but in the popular speech of

the people they are replaced by derivatives from the late Latin word parabola; for

example, French, parole; Spanish, palabra; Portugese, palavra; Italian, paroles.

46 BIBLEOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1993


brew, but was based, it appears, on a pre-Hexaplaric form of the

Greek Septuagint. In this way Western churches became famil-

iar with the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament.

The New Testament books in Old Latin manuscripts rest on

a fluid Greek text commonly known today as the 'Western'text.

The roots of the Old Latin versions are doubtless to be found in the

practice of the double reading of Holy Scripture during divine

services, first in the Greek text and then in the vernacular

tongue. In the written form, the translation would at times have

been interlinear; later on, manuscripts were prepared with two

columns of text, sometimes arranged in cola and commata for

ease of phrasing during the public reading of the lessons. All in

all, it appears that the process of preparing Latin renderings of the

Scriptures was gradual and to some extent haphazard, condi-

tioned by local needs.

The pre-Jerome translations in general lack polish and are

painfully literal. The Gospels stand in the sequence of Matthew,

John, Luke, and Mark (mss. a, b, d, e, ff2, q, r). Here and there

one finds noteworthy additions to the text. For example in

Matthew 3:16, the Old Latin manuscript a adds that when Jesus

was baptized "a tremendous light flashed forth from the water,13

so that all who were present feared." The Old Latin manuscripts

give various names to the two robbers who were crucified with Je-

sus,14 and Mark's account of Jesus' resurrection is expanded in

Old Latin manuscript k at 16:4 with the following: "But suddenly

at the third hour of thee day there was darkness over the whole cir-

cle of the earth, and angels descended from the heavens, and as

he [the Lord] was rising in the glory of the living God, at the same

time they ascended with him; and immediately it was light."

By the close of the fourth century there was such a confusing

diversity among Old Latin manuscripts of the New Testament

that Augustine lamented, "Those who translated the Scriptures

from Hebrew into Greek can be counted, but the Latin translators

are out of all number. For in the early days of the faith, everyone

who chanced upon a Greek codex [of the New Testament] and

thought he had a little aptitude in both languages attempted to

make a translation. it.15

As a consequence there grew up a welter of diverse Latin


13 Perhaps this is meant to suggest that when "the heavens were opened" God's re-

plendent light was reflected from the water of the Jordan.


14 For these diverse names see the chapter, "Names for the Nameless in the New

Testament," in the present writer's volume, New Testament Studies: Philological,

Versional, and Patristic (Leiden: Brill, 1980), 33-38.


15 De doctrines Christiana, 2.16.

Important Early Translations of the Bible 47


translations. Among them three types or families of texts gradu-

ally developed; Cyprian represents the African text, Irenaeus (ca.

130-ca. 200) of southern Gaul represents the European, and Au-

gustine the Italian. Characteristic of each family are certain

renderings; for example as a translation of the Greek word fw?j

the African family prefers lumen, the European lux; for doca<zein

the African prefers clarificare, the European glorificare.

In these circumstances the stage was set for the most decisive

series of events in the whole history of the Latin Bible. In the year

383 Pope Damasus urged Jerome (ca. 340-420), the most learned

Christian scholar of his day, to produce a uniform and depend-

able text of the Latin Scriptures; he was not to make a totally new

version, but to revise the texts that were in circulation, using for

this purpose the Hebrew and Greek originals. Jerome's first in-

clination was to say "No, thank you" to the Pope's invitation. He wrote:

You urge me to revise the Old Latin version, and, as it were, to

sit in judgment on copies of the Scriptures that are now scattered

throughout the world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one an-

other, you would have me decide which of them agrees 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 con-

tent 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 pro-

fane person for having the audacity to add anything to the an-

cient books, or to make any changes or corrections in them?16


Two factors, however, prompted Jerome to incur such an

amount of opprobrium. The first factor, as he proceeded to tell in a

dedicatory epistle to Damasus setting forth the occasion and scope

of the undertaking, was the command laid upon him by the

supreme pontiff. The second was the shocking diversity among

the Old Latin manuscripts, there being, as he wrote, "almost as

many forms of texts as there are manuscripts."

Jerome was a rapid and thorough worker. Within a year he

finished his version of the Gospels. There is still some doubt as to

whether he worked alone or with helpers. In a letter to the Pope he

explained his procedure. He used, he said, a good Old Latin text,

compared it with some Greek manuscripts in order to correct

gross errors, perhaps wisely not making too many changes in the

existing translation. His work on the rest of the New Testament

was not quite so thorough; several scholars, in fact, have supposed

that it was done by someone else.


16 Epistula ad Damasum.

48 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1993


Among the Old Testament books, Jerome turned his attention

first to the Psalter. He made two versions of the Old Latin version

of the Psalms by comparing it with the Greek Septuagint. These

are known as the Roman (384) and Gallican (387-390) Psalters,

because they were introduced into Rome and Gaul respectively.17

Jerome's final revision of the Psalter was made from the Hebrew,

but it never attained general use or popularity. About the time

Jerome produced his Gallican Psalter, he also revised the Latin

text of some of the other books of the Old Testament with reference

to the Septuagint text as provided in Origen's Hexapla. This

work, however, did not satisfy Jerome's scholarly standards, and

he resolved to undertake a more thorough revision on the basis of

the Hebrew original. This great work occupied him from about

the year 390 to 404, and separate books or groups of books were pub-

lished as they were completed. Whether he managed to complete

the entire Old Testament is not clear; at any rate, what is known

as the Vulgate translation is far from being a uniform piece of

work throughout.

Of course the Old Latin rendering, made from the Septuagint,

contained the additional books that had been over the years incor-

porated in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Jerome's high

regard, however, for the Hebraica veritas led him to set the books

that found a place in the Hebrew canon on a higher level than

those that did not. In this way he anticipated the Reformers' dis-

tinction between "canonical" and "apocryphal." Jerome's work

on the latter books was by no means as thorough as on the others.

Tobit he translated in one day, Judith in one night, both of which

Jerome dictated to a scribe in Latin. Other deuterocanonical

books remain "untranslated," that is, without revision of the Old

Latin text.

The apprehension Jerome expressed to Pope Damasus that he

would be castigated for tampering with Holy Writ was not un-

founded. His revision of the Latin Bible provoked both criticism

and anger, sometimes with extraordinary vehemence. Augus-

tine, who was himself not too happy with Jerome's preference for

the Hebrew original of the Old Testament rather than the Greek

Septuagint (which Augustine regarded as an inspired version),

reports (Epist. 71) an account of tumult that erupted in a North

African congregation at Oea (modern Tripoli) during the read-

ing of a Scripture lesson from the Book of Jonah in Jerome's un-


17 Jerome's Roman Psalter is still in use in services at St. Peter's Basilica in

Rome; the Gallican Psalter is the version of the Psalms included in modern

printed editions of the Latin Vulgate Bible-this in spite of the superior accuracy

of Jerome's subsequent revision of the Psalter on the basis of the Hebrew text.

Important Early Translations of the Bible 49


familiar rendering. When they heard that Jonah took shelter

from the sun under some ivy (hedera), with one accord they

shouted, "Gourd, gourd" (cucurbita), until the reader reinstated

the old word lest there be a general exodus of the congregation!

Because of its general excellence, however, eventually

Jerome's Vulgate text replaced the variety of Old Latin transla-

tions and for nearly a thousand years was used as the recognized

text of Scripture throughout western Europe. It also became the ba-

sis of pre-Reformation vernacular Scriptures, such as Wycliffe's

English translation in the 14th century, as well as the first

printed Bibles in German (1466), Italian (1471), Catalan (1478),

Czech (1488), and French (1530).



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

3909 Swiss Ave.

Dallas, TX 75204

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