The Vulgate (405) is the Bible as it was put into Latin by Saint Jerome. It was the main Bible people read in the West till the 1500s. It was the only book that Gutenberg ever printed. Even today the Catholic Church still uses it.
It is written in easy Latin: although Jerome wrote to his friends in the old-fashioned Latin of Cicero, for the Vulgate he used the Latin of the streets, which was already beginning to turn into Portuguese and French and so on. His starting point was the Old Latin Bible.
Some English Bibles are based on the Vulgate: Wycliffe, Douai-Rheims, Confraternity and Knox. But not the King James or Authorized Version: it goes back to the Greek and Hebrew that the Bible was written in.
Some English words that come from the Vulgate: creation, salvation, justification, rapture, testament, regeneration, apostle, angel and the phrase “far be it”.
The Vulgate’s New Testament is far better than anything in English:
- It is much easier to turn the Greek of the New Testament into Latin than into English.
- It is more faithful to the wording of the New Testament.
- Jerome had much older copies of the New Testament than we do. He even had the book of Matthew in Hebrew. We have it only in Greek, which came later.
- The koine Greek that the New Testament was written in was still a living language in Jerome’s day. He would know the shades of meanings of words much better than we possibly can.
For the Old Testament, Jerome started out by basing it on the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that Christians had always used up until then. But then he gave that up and based it on the Masorah instead, the Hebrew Bible that Jews used.
It is because of this decision by Jerome that Catholics and Protestants now use the Masorah for the Old Testament while Orthodox Christians still use the Septuagint.
The part of the Old Testament that Christians know best is the book of Psalms. Since Christians knew the wording of the Septuagint psalms so well, Jerome translated them twice: once from the Septuagint and once from the Masorah. That is why you see the book of Psalms twice in some Vulgates.
The Catholic Church says the Vulgate has no errors that would affect religious teachings. That is a natural thing for it to say: it has been using the Vulgate for over a thousand years. Until the 1960s Latin was the language all the priests and bishops knew. It was even the language used in part of the church services.
There are two sorts of Vulgates that you can get these days:
- The Stuttgart: an attempt by scholars to get as close to what Jerome wrote as possible. It is based on the oldest copies of the Vulgate that we can find.
- The Nova Vulgata: the Vulgate used by the Catholic Church. Not all of it is Jerome’s: some of it is new.
– Abagond, 2008.