18 Mar 2011

Ancestry of the King James Version #7: The Latin Versions

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Exegesis, King James Version, Ministry

Codex Amiatinus possibly the earliest surviving manuscript with the entire Latin Vulgate Bible except for Baruch. It dates to the 8th century from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria (in modern England).

Quotable Quotes

NO translation can preserve the qualities of its original unchanged.” (C. S. Lewis, The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version, p. 3)

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the influence exerted by the Latin versions of the Bible, and particularly by Jerome’s Latin Vulgate” (Bruce M. Metzger, 1993).

Previous entries in my Ancestry of the King James Version are linked here: Ancestry #1; Ancestry #2; Ancestry #3; Ancestry #4; Ancestry #5; Ancestry #6. Enjoy the adventurous journey that the word of God has taken to get to us in English.

Beginnings of the Latin Bible

It would be folly to dissent with the opinion of Metzger just quoted. Should we look from a purely secular angle the influence of Latin on the Romance languages is indisputable. When we move into the religious culture (which all European culture was religious for 1500 years) its impact is nearly beyond estimation. The doctrinal, worship and devotional language of both Roman Catholics and Protestants have deep roots in the Vulgate. Even we moderns use Jerome’s language without even realizing it.  Words we take for granted and attach theological mountains come to us because of Jerome and his Vulgate:


And the list goes on. These terms all come into our language via the Vulgate. And for good or ill (and sometimes it is the latter) these terms Latin terms and have shaded how Westerners understand their Christianity.

But the origins of the Latin Bible are as shrouded in the mist of history as the Septuagint (LXX, see Ancestry #6: The Septuagint) perhaps even more so. We do not even know where or when the first Latin translations were made. The language of the Roman church was Greek until the middle of the third century so it is nearly certain they did not originate in Rome. (Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written in Greek, not Latin though the Latin was the vernacular of the Romans).

Rather from the evidence at hand, scholars believe that first Latin translations were made in Africa. In Carthage, Tertullian and Cyprian (all African Church Fathers) quote large sections of Scripture from what is called the Old Latin.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that Tertullian is taping into existing translations in his African context which exhibits numerous and significant variation in Scripture quotations. The Church Fathers just named are intimately familiar with the Bible all lived prior to Jerome and his Vulgate. The “Old Latin” (as it is called) has no uniform text. It is surmised that these translations had there beginnings in communities where Greek Scripture was read first, then orally translated into the Latin vernacular on the model of the Jewish targums. It is clear from the many Old Latin manuscripts remaining that it was a “translation of a translation.” That is the Old Latin was rendered from Greek (in the Old Testament) into Latin.

These Old Latin texts are similar to what is often referred to as the “Western” family of Greek manuscripts (scholars call them a “family” because these manuscripts exhibit certain “DNA” traits). It is through the Old Latin that the books of the Apocrypha were first came into Latin speaking Christianity. The Old Latin being based upon the Septuagint simply included these works without a question being raised.

From the beginning then there was never a Latin Bible that did not include what is called today “the Apocrypha.” Latin speaking disciples believed that Tobit was as much Scripture as most 19th century English speaking disciples thought Mark 16.9-20 was Scripture. It was simply never questioned and we need to understand this fact (and it is simply a fact for the 2nd/3rd and the 19th centuries).

The Gospels are arranged differently in the Old Latin than what most of us are familiar with. The order is:


(In Manuscripts a, b, d, e, etc). Within the Old Latin we find some very interesting readings as well. One of my favorites is at Matthew 3.16, at the baptism of Jesus. When Jesus is immersed “a tremendous light flashed forth from the water, so that all who were present feared.”

Another unique DNA trait of the the Old Latin manuscript Bibles is they frequently provide names for the nameless individuals that dot the landscape in the Gospels [1]. The Old Latin expands the narrative of the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark at 16.4 adding,

But suddenly at the third hour of the day there was darkness over the whole circle of the earth, and angels descended from the heavens, and as he [i.e. Jesus] was rising in the glory of the living God, at the same time they ascended with him; and immediately it was light.” [2]

By the end of the 4th century (i.e. 300s) there was confusing diversity among the manuscripts. Augustine, who himself displays the same diversity from the Old Latin, lamented that every person with a little knowledge believed himself qualified to translate: “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 and thought he had a little aptitude in both languages attempted to make a translation.” Here Augustine makes reference to the tradition of the 72 translators of the Septuagint that is witnessed in such places as the Letter to Aristeas, Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. The results were not simply a diversity of readings and translations but a plethora of bad translations.

Enter Jerome

Jerome by Leonardo da Vinci in 1480

Jerome, whose dates are from about 340ish to 420 A.D., was without a doubt one of the two greatest scholars of the ancient church, the other being Origen. Jerome was a traveler, intimately acquainted with Christians in both the Western and Eastern church. Jerome could be controversial as well.  He ended up a monk in the land of his Lord (the land of Israel) where he carried on probably his most enduring work, the translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate [3].

Jerome did not enter into the Bible translation business on his own. In AD 383 Pope Damasus (the term “pope” here does not have the same connotation it will a thousand years later in the European medieval period), who was concerned over the status of the Old Latin version. Damasus urged Jerome to produce a uniform and reliable form of the Latin Scriptures. It was not intended that he make a totally fresh translation but correct the existing one(s), that is the diversity of the Old Latin texts. Jerome’s reply to Damasus is worth quoting at length because it reveals his hesitation. It also shows that people react to translation in much the same way across time.

You [Damasus] 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 another, 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 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.” (my emphasis).

Translation is dangerous business! People who didn’t know a drop of Hebrew or Greek were just as dogmatic in the third century as today.

Yet Jerome, thankfully for history, embraced the opprobrium! This task would consume a good portion of the rest of his life. Jerome took about a year to work through the Gospels. On the Gospels his method was to look at a “good Old Latin” text, compare that text with Greek manuscripts that he had available to correct the worst of the mistakes. Jerome it appears was a more thorough critic in the Gospels than the rest of the NT though.

After the Gospels, Jerome turned to a book of immense importance in Christian worship in those days, the Psalms (it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Book of Psalms in early Christianity. There are more Christian manuscripts of the Psalms in the first three centuries than almost all the books of the New Testament.  Let that fact sink in). In fact Jerome would eventually produce three different versions of the Psalter: one is the called Roman (384 AD) and another the Gallican (387-90 AD). There names indicate where they were introduced (Rome and Gaul). The Roman Psalter is still used in the liturgy at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Jerome was not satisfied, however, by looking at the Greek Septuagint to evaluate the Latin text of the “Old Testament.” He resolved to master the language of Moses, David, and the Prophets – Hebrew. Jerome did this by taking the extraordinary step of sitting at the feet of Palestinian Jewish rabbis. He learned Hebrew from Jewish rabbis! His work covered a period of approximately 14 years from 390 to 404 AD.

Jerome’s mastery of the Hebrew Bible is demonstrated when he can respond to correspondence about a certain Hebrew word and – from memory – say how often the word occurs, where it occurs and how it changes meanings – this LONG BEFORE there was a such a thing as a concordance or computers!

It was Jerome’s introduction to the Hebraica veritas that revealed to him that Jews of his day did not accept certain books that the church did from the Old Testament. Jerome introduced the distinction between “canonical” and “apocryphal” that the Reformers would later embrace. It is important to note that by “apocryphal” that Jerome did not embrace the negative notions that modern Evangelicals do regarding that term. Jerome to the day he died would comment upon and cite works he classified as “apocryphal” as “scripture.” Jerome did have a negative term he used for false writings, pseudepigrapha (a term that is used for a group of writings that are not part of what Protestants call the Old Testament Apocrypha. We should not confuse these). The quickness of Jerome’s scholarly mind can be seen in that he translated both Judith and Tobit from Aramaic into Latin in less than two days.

Jerome did not live to see the magnitude of his achievement. His translation of the Hebrew Psalter was never embraced by the churches who were used to the traditional cadences in the Old Latin. He incurred the wrath of even the great theologian, Augustine and set off a riot in Oea (in modern Tripoli) because of his fresh translation of Jonah. Augustine plead with Jerome to be less zealous because when the saints heard the text read and learned that Jonah sat under an ivy (hedera) rather than a gourd (cucurbita) they nearly lynched the canter!!

However time has revealed the excellence and value of Jerome’s scholarship. His Vulgate, except for the Psalms, eventually replaced the Old Latin. It became, without any official decree, THE Authorized Version of western Christianity for over a thousand years. The King James Version is only 400 years old! The Vulgate became the basis for the first vernacular scriptures in the emerging European tongues. Thus Wycliffe’s English Bible (1380s), German Bible (1466), Italian (1471), Czech (1488) and French (1530) were all translations from the Vulgate.


The King’s Men paid tribute to the work of Jerome, and appealed to his legacy, to justify their own work in “The Translators to the Reader.” (See my article The King’s Men: A Talk with the KJV Translators).

This moued S. Hierome [Jerome] a most learned father, and the best linguist without controuersie, of his age, or any that went before him, to vndertake the translating of the Old Testament, out of the very fountaines themselues; which hee performed with that euidence of great learning, judgment, industrie and faithfulness, that he hath for euer bound the Church vnto him, in a debt of speciall remembrance and thankefulnesse.”


[1] See on this interesting phenomena “Names for the Nameless in the New Testament” in Bruce M. Metzger’s New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic (Brill, 1980): 33-38.

[2] A great source on the Old Latin and other ancient versions of the New Testament see the definitive work by Bruce M. Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission and Limitations (Oxford University Press, 1977).

[3] The best and most up to date work on Jerome is J. N. D. Kelly’s Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies (Hendrickson, 1998)

One Response to “Ancestry of the King James Version #7: The Latin Versions”

  1. Randall Says:

    This is interesting stuff. Please keep it up.

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