Modern Bible translations better? linguist praises St. Jerome’s Vulgate

Modern Bible translations better? linguist praises St. Jerome’s Vulgate

Saint Jerome Writing is a Caravaggio picture from 1605–06. Public domain. / null

St. Louis, Missouri, September 30, 2022, 1:00 am (CNA).

St. Jerome, whose feast day is celebrated on September 30 by the Catholic Church, is renowned for translating the entire Bible into Latin in the fourth century A.D., generating a widely read copy known as the Vulgate.

However, fewer people undoubtedly appreciate how revolutionary and durable Jerome’s work truly is. The Vulgate was the most popular translation of the Bible during the Middle Ages and is still considered by at least one major linguist to be among the best accessible.

Christophe Rico, a Catholic linguist living and working in Jerusalem, told CNA, “I don’t know any other translation, ancient or modern, that is as good as the Vulgate.”

Rico, a Frenchman, is an ancient Greek professor and dean at the Jerusalem-based Polis Institute, which teaches a variety of ancient languages. Rico, in collaboration with the Polis Institute, publishes publications to help students learn to speak and read Latin and Greek, in part to enable individuals who aspire to read the original Latin Vulgate.

Rico, an expert in Greek and Latin, asserts that despite the passage of more than 1,600 years since its completion, Jerome’s translation of the Bible — while not flawless, as no translation is — has proven to be astonishingly accurate and extremely beneficial for the Church.

“If you dispute the accuracy of a modern translation, consult the Vulgate, particularly for the New Testament,” he said, adding that the Vulgate’s Old Testament translation is also “great.”

His name is Christophe Rico. École Biblique
What was Jerome’s identity?

Saint Jerome was born as Eusebius Hieronymous Sophronius in what is now Croatia about the year 340. His father instructed him in rhetoric and classical literature in Rome.

Baptized in 360 by Pope Liberius, he traveled extensively before settling in Syria as a desert hermit. In the mid-360s, he was ordained a priest and moved to Bethlehem, where he lived a solitary and ascetic lifestyle. There, he learnt Hebrew primarily via study with Jewish rabbis. He finally became the personal secretary of Saint Damasus I.

Interestingly, linguistic brilliance and a commendable work ethic are not the only attributes for which Jerome is recognized today. He is also the patron saint of those with difficult personalities, since he is claimed to have possessed one himself, exhibiting a hard temperament and stinging criticisms of intellectual opponents.

The conception of the Vulgate

Contrary to common perception, the Vulgate was not the first Latin Bible; by the time of Jerome, in the fourth century, the “Vetus Latina” (“Old Latin”) translation of the Greek Septuagint was already in widespread use.

In addition, the Vetus Latina contained the Greek-to-Latin translations of all the New Testament books. All the books of the New Testament were initially written in Greek, while the majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.

Rico classified the Vetus Latina as a “decent, but not flawless” translation. St. Damasus I assigned Jerome, his secretary at the time, to revise the Vetus Latina translation of the New Testament in 382.

Jerome did so, spending a number of years meticulously revising and enhancing the Latin translation of the New Testament from the finest Greek manuscripts. Rico stated that throughout the process, Jerome rectified key passages and clarified the lost meanings of many Greek words in earlier translations.

In Luke and Matthew, for instance, the Greek phrase (epiousios), which was likely invented by the evangelists, appears in the Lord’s Prayer and is frequently rendered as (daily) in English. In the Gospel of Matthew, however, Jerome rendered the word as “supersubstantialem,” or “supersubstantial,” a reference, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, to the Eucharistic Body of Christ.

Rico stated that Jerome’s contributions resulted in a “great improvement” over the Vetus Latina.

Jerome’s subsequent actions were much more ambitious. In addition, he began translating the entire Old Testament from its original Hebrew. Rico stated that Jerome was fluent in Hebrew because he had lived in the Holy Land for thirty years and had close relationships with Jewish rabbis. Jerome also had access to the Hexapla of Origen, which presented the Bible text in six translations side by side. (The Hebrew text, a transliteration of the Hebrew text into Greek letters, the Greek Septuagint translation, and three other Greek translations produced in a Jewish environment.)

Jerome translated the entire Old Testament from the original Hebrew, which was no small task given that Hebrew was initially written without the use of short vowels, a process that took 15 years to complete.

Upon its completion, the Vulgate not only supplanted the Vetus Latina as the most popular Bible translation of the Middle Ages, but it was also designated by the Council of Trent as the official Bible of the Catholic Church (1545–1563).

The Vulgate has been amended several times over the years, most notably in 1592 by Pope Clementine VIII (the “Clementine Vulgate”) and most recently in 1979 by St. John Paul II, who issued the Nova Vulgata.

In addition to its continued use in the Traditional Latin Mass, the Vulgate has served as the basis for the Douay–Rheims Bible, a popular English translation.

Rico was quick to commend Jerome’s Vulgate for its accuracy and significance in the history of the Church, while reiterating that no translation is ever flawless.

“I have been unable to identify any errors in the New Testament… “Everything is unbelievable,” he stated.

Jerome, for his part, is currently recognized as a Church doctor. In the monastery he founded in Bethlehem, where he died in 420, he spent his final days studying, praying, and practicing asceticism.

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