Vilvoorde, Flanders, 1536

The acrid smoke is mingling with the chilled air of a Flemish October. Flames are licking up towards the lolling head of the executed man. Mercifully, he is already dead: strangled, rather than being subjected to the terrors of heat and flame. A friend in a high place must have secured him that relief. Yet, there was no reprieve for this scholar, for this master of words. He was the worst of criminals. He had dared to undermine the authority of the Church. He had considered that allowing people to form their own relationship with their God by allowing them to understand their holy book was acceptable. He had sown the seeds of social subversion, and he had threatened the immortal souls of all the inhabitants of that society. This man was a heretic. His crime was to have translated the Bible from Latin into the vernacular. This man was William Tyndale.

In 1536, being able to understand the Bible in your native tongue was thought unacceptable.

Rome, 382

Christianity is the dominant force across the Roman Empire, but it is an empire that has been polarised in other respects. In the East, Greek is the predominant language. Here people have no difficulty understanding the New Testament: it had been written in Greek. There was also a reliable translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek in the form of the Septuagint. In the Latin-speaking West, things are different. There is no definitive translation of the Bible, and the texts that are available are beginning to diverge. In Pope Damasus' opinion, something must be done. To understand the Bible in the vernacular is pivotal to the growth and consolidation of the Church, but people must be reading identical versions of the text. Hence Damasus commissions a uniform translation of the Bible into common Latin, or vulgar Latin, which becomes the Vulgate Bible.

The scholar charged with completing this readily-understood Latin version of the Bible is Jerome, Damasus' secretary. He begins with the Gospels: they take him two years to complete. From here, he progresses to the Book of Psalms, and some other Old Testament books. However, in roughly 390, Jerome concludes that attempting to render text into Latin from a Greek translation of a Hebrew original is unacceptable. Rather than persevere using a Greek text, he decides to travel to the province of Palaestina to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew with the help of Jewish scholars and where necessary the support of the Greek translations by Aquila and Symmachus.

In approximately 405, Jerome completes this gargantuan task. Not only has he translated the Gospels from Greek to Latin, reworked old Latin translations of the other books of the New Testament, and studied Hebrew with Jewish scholars to enable him to include acceptable translations of the Old Testament, but he has also completed translations of the books of Judith and Tobit from Aramaic, which he considers to be apocryphal. Jerome and Augustine had disputed their inclusion, you see. Augustine won. It is possible that the translations of Acts, Epistles, and Revelation can be attributed to Rufinus the Syrian, one of Jerome's pupils, but that we'll never know.

Damasus had died in 383, but he had secured a Latin Bible that was readily accessible to any Latin speaker at the time. Although Jerome was a scholar, his translation had been deliberately lacking in style. It oscillated between free and literal, and never changed more than was absolutely necessary. Thus, in Mark, the term summus sacerdos is used; princeps sacerdotum is used throughout Matthew and Luke, whilst pontifex is used as the translation of 'high priest' in John. If this project had been about people understanding what the book said, then it had achieved its aim.

Trento, Italy, 1546

After Luther had published his 95 Theses, Germany had virtually imploded under the strain of religious warfare, Tyndale had published Bibles in English, and Henry VIII had broken away from Rome, the Roman Catholic Church realises that it needs to set its house in order and recompose itself. It does this at the Council of Trent. Amongst other things, the Church reaffirms Jerome's Vulgate translation as the official version of the Bible to be used throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, after years of copying the manuscripts by hand, inconsistencies and mistakes have begun to appear, prompting the Church to commission a full revision and republication. This revision, known as the Sistine Vulgate (after Pope Sixtus) is implemented so hastily that it itself contains frequent errors. It is recalled, re-revised, and re-released in 1592 under Pope Clement VIII, bringing the Clementine Vulgate. This version of the Bible will remain the standard text of the Roman Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council, in 1962.

Rome, 1962

There is a sense of purposefulness throughout Rome. Pope John XXIII has decreed that he wants: 'to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in,' so he convenes Vatican II. One of the many issues under discussion is making scripture more accessible to everyone. Much like Damasus wanting the western flock to be able to study the Bible in their native tongue, John XXIIII wants all Catholics to be able to read the Bible in the language that comes naturally to them. Although the Vulgate translation was to remain the official Latin version of the Bible — and was to be reissued again in 1979 as the Nova Vulgata — it hadn't served its purpose of being the text that everyone could understand for roughly 1500 years. It was time to change. I think Damasus would have been proud.

Deo gratias:

  • Oxford Classical Dictionary