The claim of Christianity to be the one true religion has carried with it from the beginning the obligation to make its Holy Scriptures, containing the Divine message of salvation and life eternal, known to all mankind. Accordingly, wherever the first Christian evangelists carried the gospel beyond the limits of the Greek-speaking world, one of the first requirements of their work was to give the newly evangelized peoples the record of God's revelation of Himself in their mother tongue. It was through the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament that the great truths of revelation first became known to the Greek and Roman world. It is generally agreed that, as Christianity spread, the Syriac and the Latin versions were the first to be produced; and translations of the Gospels, and of other books of the Old and New Testament in Greek, were in all probability to be found in these languages before the close of the 2nd century.
Of the earliest translators of the Bible into Latin no record has survived. Notwithstanding the careful investigations of scholars in recent years, there are still many questions relating to the origin of the Latin Bible to which only tentative and provisional answers can be given. It is therefore more convenient to begin a study of its history with Jerome toward the close of the 4th century and the commission entrusted to him by Pope Damasus to produce a standard Latin version, the execution of which gave to Christendom the Vulgate. The need for such a version was clamant. There existed by this time a multiplicity of translations differing from one another, and there was none possessed of commanding authority to which appeal might be made in case of necessity. It was the consideration of the chaotic condition of the existing translations, with their divergences and variations, which moved Damasus to commission Jerome to his task and Jerome to undertake it. We learn particulars from the letter of Jerome in 383 transmitting to his patron the first installment of his revision, the Gospels. "Thou compellest me," he writes, "to make a new work out of an old so that after so many copies of the Scriptures have been dispersed throughout the whole world I am as it were to occupy the post of arbiter, and seeing they differ from one another am to determine which of them are in agreement with the original Greek." Anticipating attacks from critics, he says, further: "If they maintain that confidence is to be reposed in the Latin exemplars, let them answer which, for there are almost as many copies of translations as manuscripts. But if the truth is to be sought from the majority, why not rather go back to the Greek original, and correct the blunders which have been made by incompetent translators, made worse rather than better by the presumption of unskillful correctors, and added to or altered by careless scribes?" Accordingly, he hands to the Pontiff the four Gospels to begin with after a careful comparison of old Greek manuscripts.
From Jerome's contemporary, Augustine, we obtain a similar picture. "Translators from Hebrew into Greek," he says (De Doctrina Christiana, ii.11), "can be numbered, but Latin translators by no means. For whenever, in the first ages of the faith, a Greek manuscript came into the hands of anyone who had also a little skill in both languages, he made bold to translate it forthwith." In the same context he mentions "an innumerable variety of Latin translators," "a crowd of translators." His advice to readers is to give a preference to the Itala, "which is more faithful in its renderings and more intelligible in its sense." What the Itala is, has been greatly discussed. Formerly it was taken to be a summary designation of all the versions before Jerome's time. But Professor Burkitt (Texts and Studies, IV) strongly urges the view that by this term Augustine designates Jerome's Vulgate, which he might quite well have known and preferred to any of the earlier translations. However this may be, whereas before Jerome there were those numerous translations, of which he and Augustine complain, after Jerome there is the one preeminent and commanding work, produced by him, which in course of time drove all others out of the field, the great Vulgate edition, as it came to be called, of the complete Latin Bible.
We are here concerned with the subject of the Latin Bible before the time of Jerome. The manuscripts which have survived from the earlier period are known by the general designation of Old Latin. When we ask where these first translations came into existence, we discover a somewhat surprising fact. It was not at Rome, as we might have expected, that they were first required. The language of Christian Rome was mainly Greek, down to the 3rd century. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans in Greek. When Clement of Rome in the last decade of the 1st century wrote an epistle in the name of the Roman church to the Corinthians, he wrote in Greek. Justin Martyr, and the heretic Marcion, alike wrote from Rome in Greek. Out of 15 bishops who presided over the Roman See down to the close of the 2nd century, only four have Latin names. Even the pagan emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in Greek. If there were Christians in Rome at that period whose only language was Latin, they were not sufficiently numerous to be provided with Christian literature; at least none has survived.
It is from North Africa that the earliest Latin literature of the church has come down to us. The church of North Africa early received a baptism of blood, and could point to an illustrious roll of martyrs. It had also a distinguished list of Latin authors, whose Latin might sometimes be rude and mixed with foreign idioms, but had a power and a fire derived from the truths which it set forth. One of the most eminent of these Africans was Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who won the martyr's crown in 257. His genuine works consist of a number of short treatises, or tracts, and numerous letters, all teeming with Scripture quotations. It is certain that he employed a version then and there in use, and it is agreed that "his quotations are carefully made and thus afford trustworthy standards of African Old Latin in a very early though still not the earliest stage" (Hort, Introduction to the New Testament in Greek, 78).
Critical investigation has made it clear that the version used by Cyprian survives in a fragmentary copy of Mark and Matthew, now at Turin in North Italy, called Codex Bobbiensis (k), and in the fragments of the Apocalypse and Acts contained in a palimpsest at Paris called Codex Floriacensis (h). It has been found that another MS, Codex Palatinus (e) at Vienna, has a text closely akin to that exhibited in Cyprian, although there are traces of mixture in it. The text of these manuscripts, together with the quotations of the so-called Speculum Augustini (m), is known among scholars as African Old Latin. Another manuscript with an interesting history, Codex Colbertinus (c) contains also a valuable African element, but in many parts of the Gospels it sides also with what is called the European Old Latin more than with k or e. Codex Bobbiensis (k) has been edited with a learned introduction in the late Bishop John Wordsworth's Old Latin Biblical Texts, the relation of k to Cyprian as well as to other Old Latin texts being the subject of an elaborate investigation by Professor Sanday. That Cyprian, who was not acquainted with Greek, had a written version before him which is here identified is certain, and thus the illustrious bishop and martyr gives us a fixed point in the history of the Latin Bible a century and a half earlier than Jerome.
We proceed half a century nearer to the fountainhead of the African Bible when we take up the testimony of Tertullian who flourished toward the close of the 2nd century. He differed from Cyprian in being a competent Greek scholar. He was thus able to translate for himself as he made his quotations from the Septuagint or the Greek New Testament, and is thus for us by no means so safe a witness to the character or existence of a standard version. Professor Zahn (GK, I, 60) maintains with considerable plausibility that before 210-240 AD there was no Latin Bible, and that Tertullian with his knowledge of Greek just translated as he went along. In this contention, Zahn is not supported by many scholars, and the view generally is that while Tertullian's knowledge of Greek is a disturbing element, his writings, with the copious quotations from both Old Testament and New Testament, do testify to the existence of a version which had already been for some time in circulation and use. Who the African Wycliffe or Tyndale was who produced that version has not been recorded, and it may in fact have been the work of several hands, the result, as Bishop Westcott puts it, of the spontaneous efforts of African Christians (Canon of the NT7, 263).
Although the evidence has, up to the present time, been regarded as favoring the African origin of the first Latin translation of the Bible, recent investigation into what is called the Western text of the New Testament has yielded results pointing elsewhere. It is clear from a comparison that the Western type of text has close affinity with the Syriac witnesses originating in the eastern provinces of the empire. The close textual relation disclosed between the Latin and the Syriac versions has led some authorities to believe that, after all, the earliest Latin version may have been made in the East, and possibly at Antioch. But this is one of the problems awaiting the discovery of fresh material and fuller investigation for its solution.
We have already noticed the African group, so designated from its connection with the great African Fathers, Tertullian and especially Cyprian, and comprising k, e, and to some extent h and m. The antiquity of the text here represented is attested by these African Fathers.
When we come down to the 4th century we find in Western Europe, and especially in North Italy, a second type of text, which is designated European, the precise relation of which to the African has not been clearly ascertained. Is this an independent text which has arisen on the soil of Italy, or is it a text derived by alteration and revision of the African as it traveled northward and westward? This group consists of the Codex Vercellensis (a) and Codex Veronensis (b) of the 4th or 5th century at Vercelli and Verona respectively, and there may be included also the Codex Vindobonensis (i) of the 7th century at Vienna. These give the Gospels, and a gives for John the text as it was read by the 4th-century Father, Lucifer of Cagliari in Sardinia. The Latin of the Greek-Latin manuscript D (Codex Bezae) is known as d, and the Latin of the translator of Irenaeus, are classed with this group.
Still later, Professor Hort says from the middle of the 4th century, a third type, called Italic from its more restricted range, is found. It is represented by Codex Brixianus (f) of the 6th century, now at Brescia, and Codex Monacensis (q) of the 7th century, at Munich. This text is probably a modified form of the European, produced by revision which has brought it more into accord with the Greek, and has given it a smoother Latin aspect. The group has received this name because the text found in many of Augustine's writings is the same, and as he expressed a preference for the Itala, the group was designated accordingly. Recent investigation tends to show that we must be careful how we use Augustine as an Old Latin authority, and that the Itala may be, not a pre-Vulgate text, but rather Jerome's Vulgate. This, however, is still uncertain; the fact remains that as far as the Gospels are concerned, f and q represent the type of text most used by Jerome.
That all these groups, comprising in all 38 codices, go back to one original is not impossible. Still there may have been at first local versions, and then an official version formed out of them. When Jerome's revision took hold of the church, the Old Latin representatives for the most part dropped out of notice. Some of them, however, held their ground and continued to be copied down to the 12th and even the 13th century. Codex c is an example of this; it is a manuscript of the 12th century, but as Professor Burkitt has pointed out (Texts and Studies, IV, "Old Latin," 11) "it came from Languedoc, the country of the Albigenses. Only among heretics isolated from the rest of Western Christianity could an Old Latin text have been written at so late a period." An instance of an Old Latin text copied in the 13th century is the Gigas Holmiensis, quoted as Gig, now at Stockholm, and so called from its great size. It contains the Acts and the Apocalypse of the Old Latin and the rest of the New Testament according to the Vulgate. It has to be borne in mind that in the early centuries complete Bibles were unknown. Each group of books, Gospels, Acts and Catholic Epistles, Pauline Epistles, and Revelation for the New Testament, and Pentateuch, Historical Books, Psalms and Prophets for the Old Testament, has to be regarded separately. It is interesting, also, to note that when Jerome revised, or even retranslated from the Septuagint, Tobit and Judith of the Apocrypha, the greater number of these books, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and Baruch were left unrevised, and were simply added to the Vulgate from the Old Latin version.
These Old Latin translations going back in their earliest forms to nearly the middle of the 2nd century are very early witnesses to the Greek text from which they were made. They are the more valuable inasmuch as they are manifestly very literal translations. Our great uncial manuscripts reach no farther back than the 4th century, whereas in the Old Latin we have evidence--indirect indeed and requiring to be cautiously used--reaching back to the 2nd century. The text of these Greek uncial manuscripts is neither dated nor localized, whereas the evidence of these Latin versions, coming from a particular province of the church, and being used by Fathers whose period is definitely known, enables us to judge of the type of Greek text then and there in use. In this connection, too, it is noteworthy that while the variations of which Jerome and Augustine complained were largely due to the blunders, or natural mistakes, of copyists, they did sometimes represent various readings in the Greek originals.
Wordsworth and White, Old Latin Biblical Texts, 4 volumes; F.C. Burkitt, "The Old Latin and the Itala," Texts and Studies, IV; "Old Latin VSS" by H.A.A. Kennedy in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes); "Bibelübersetzungen, Lateinische" by Fritzsche-Nestle in PRE3; Introductions to Textual Criticism of the New Testament by Scrivener, Gregory, Nestle, and Lake.
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