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Early translations of the Bible in general

13 November, 2009

This is an account of early translations of the Bible. Patrick Duffy draws on Henry Wansbrough OSB’s book, The Story of the Bible: How it came to us (Darton, Longman and Todd 2006).

The generalisation is that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Greek.

But one Old Testament book, Wisdom, and some additions to Daniel (Ch 3 – The Song of the Children in the Fiery Furnace, Ch 13 – Susanna and the elders and Ch 14 – Bel and the Dragon) were composed in Greek and though not accepted as part of the Jewish scriptures (or of Protestants bibles), they do form part of the Catholic canon of scripture.  They are sometimes numbered among called “deuterocanonical” (= somewhat 2nd class) or “apocryphal” (two senses 1. = hidden or rarely seen.  2. = not fully authentic).  For more on the Apocryphal Books, see http://members.aol.com/twarren13/apoc.html

The whole bible
In the mid fourth century the bible was translated into Gothic – an East Germanic language that has since disappeared from the areas of Scythia, Dacia and Pannonia.  This was done by Ulfilas (318-388), an Arian missionary to those areas ordained bishop by Eusebius in Constantinople.  Saint Mesrob (360-440) translated into Armenian.  And around the same time there were translations into Syriac, Coptic, Geez (Ethiopic) and Georgian. Vetus Latina (Old Latin) is a collective name given to the biblical texts in Latin that were translated before St Jerome’s Vulgate became the standard bible for Latin-speaking Western Christians.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15367a.htm

The Vulgate (380-404)
In the year 382 Jerome (340-420), on the orders of Pope Damasus began translating the Old Testament from the Greek version (the Septuagint) into Latin for what became known as the Vulgate (Latin versio vulgata = “the common i.e. popular, version).  At that time, the authority of the Septuagint was so strong that he thought of it as “the original” which he began to translate, but he also was careful to check it against other (Hebrew and Aramaic) sources. 
But by 390 after contact with Jewish scholars he took the revolutionary step of going back to the original Hebrew (what he now came to call “hebraica veritas” (= “the Hebrew truth”) in order to prevent the Jews reproaching Christians with the accusation of the falsity of its scriptures.  By doing this he certainly seems to accord, at least in his own mind, a special authority to Hebrew as the original language of composition.

Origen (185-254) had provided a six column parallel reading of different versions (two in Hebrew and four in Greek) which Jerome used.  Origen also wisely left room in his concept of inspiration for divine guidance in the transmission of the text.  Jerome tried to be more faithful to the original Hebrew text, but he wasn’t always as successful as his ideal might have wished.

While allowing that some translators do better than others, it is not unreasonable to maintain allowance for some divine guidance for translators even today.
Most modern Catholic translations of the Old Testament use the original Hebrew manuscripts and refer to the Septuagint to decide between different possible translations where the Hebrew text is unclear, corrupt or ambiguous.

The Orthodox Church
On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox Church prefers the Septuagint as the basis for translating the Old Testament into other languages, and the Greek Orthodox Church (which has no need for translation) continues to use the Septuagint as its official text in its liturgy today. 

Slavonic languages (884)
One of the most important early translations of the Middle Ages was that done into the Slavonic language by Saint Methodius, reputedly in six months (March to October 884).  He and his brother Cyril went as missionaries to Greater Moravia and after controversy with some intruding German bishops went to Rome where Pope Adrian II (867-872) warmly received them, authenticated their mission and encouraged their project of a Slavic liturgy in Moravia.  It was to develop this project that they had trained assistants and translated the bible.  This had an enormous effect on the development of East European languages, bibles and liturgies.

For more on this story, see

For information on translations into other languages, see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15367a.htm

The all-in-one Latin bible: a pandect
Cassiodorus (490-585) was Roman soldier and statesman who on his retirement became a monk and established a monastery and library at Vivarium near Naples (490-583).  Among the accumulated treasures of the library he established were an all-in-one Latin bible, called a pandect (Gk pan = everything, and dechomai = receive, take hold of).  Cassiodorus mentions having three copies.  One of these was in nine volumes, but the other two were the whole Old and New Testaments in one volume.

However, the earliest extant pandect bible is the Codex Amiatinus.  It was produced in the early 8th century at the double monastery at Wearmouth and Jarrow near Tyneside in England.  The Abbot Ceolfrid was bringing it to Rome to present it to the Pope when he died en route in Florence (715), where it is now at the Bibliotheca Laurentiana there.  It needs two men to carry it (40 kilos) and would have required the skins of more than 500 calves to produces its pages!