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Q: #392. What is the Latin Vulgate?

     A: The Latin Vulgate is a Latin translation of the Bible that began in the late 4th century, and was completed in the early 5th century. It was primarily written by a man named Eusebius Hieronymus (better known as Jerome). Jerome was perhaps the greatest Biblical scholar of his day, and maybe even one of the greatest in history. Apparently, his preoccupation with studying the Bible came about after a dream, which told him that he was not following Christ as he should. After years of study, he eventually became connected to the Pope of his day named Damasus (some say Jerome was his secretary, others say they were friends).

     In the time that Jerome lived, the Bible had been written in Hebrew (the Old Testament), and Greek (the New Testament). In addition, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek by 70 Jewish scholars, which was called the Septuagint (more on this here). However, the Bible had not been “accurately” translated into Latin. Numerous Latin translations were floating around at that time, but they were incomplete, very inaccurate, and filled with errors. Therefore, the Damasus commissioned Jerome with the task of creating a single accurate and scholarly translation of the Bible into Latin.

     Jerome started his work in 382 A.D., beginning with the Gospels. He finished the Gospels two years later, in the same year that Pope Damasus died. After this, he set out to translate the rest of the Bible. There is some historical controversy as to what sources he used to make his translation of the Bible, however, it appears that he used primarily the Hebrew Tanakh to translate the Old Testament (and perhaps the Septuagint in places), and for the New Testament, he used Greek manuscripts, as well as some of the previous Latin translations. (Some scholars doubt that he translated the New Testament beyond the Gospels.) His translation of the Bible was completed in approximately 405 A.D. (after 23 years). It should also be noted that he was told to translate a number of the apocryphal books (i.e. Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees), even though he did not personally believe they belonged in the Bible. (Over a thousand years later, the Reformers came to the same conclusion.)

     The Latin Vulgate was called the “editio vulgata,” meaning “common edition,” because it was written in informal (sometimes called “vulgar”) Latin, as opposed to a more formal and classical type of Latin. Jerome’s translation became the prominent Bible version of its time, and remained prominent for approximately 1000 years (until around the time of the Reformation). At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Vulgate was made the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. It is believed by most that John Wycliffe used the Vulgate as his primary, or perhaps only source, when making the first English translation of the Bible in the late 14th century. Martin Luther may also have used it when making a German translation of the Bible (completed in 1534).

     When the King James Bible was written (1604 – 1611), the Vulgate was clearly one of the sources its authors used. Its influence can be seen in a number of places in the KJV Bible. For example, the word “gentile” is not actually an original Hebrew or Greek word, but instead it comes from the Latin word “gentillis.” The name “Lucifer” used in (Isa 14:12) is a Latin word meaning “the morning star or the planet Venus.” The word “unicorns” used in (Isa 34:7) is “unicornis” in Latin. The Latin word for “swan” in Latin is “cycnum,” and the KJV uses “swan” in (Lev 11:18)(Deut 14:16), even though the Greek word “tanshemeth” is translated as “white owl” in nearly every modern version today.

** Note: What we call the “rapture” comes from the Latin word “rapiemur,” which was used in (1 Th 4:17) of the Vulgate (translated as “caught up” in the KJV).

     If you are interested, you can find the Latin Vulgate online at several websites.

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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