In The Vernacular

In the earliest moments of the Church – the true Church established by Christ, not some man-invented imitation – the language used likely was Aramaic or, perhaps, Hebrew. The beginning of the Church is recounted in the second chapter of Acts. The true Church was birthed on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon those disciples gathered together in one place in Jerusalem. It was not long before the Good News was proclaimed in other languages, as the Spirit-filled new Christians preached. Their message was heard and understood by a multitude whose native language was not Aramaic or Hebrew. Three thousand of these were grafted into the true Church that very day.

Before too long, missionaries were taking the Gospel to the far corners of the earth. What language did they use? Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire. Koine (common) Greek was the language of trade in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East regions. The native tongue of the Hebrew peoples living in and around Israel was Aramaic. Jews of the Diaspora likely spoke a number of languages, principally Akkadian, the language of Babylonian.

How does one preach the Gospel to a people who speak a different language? Basically, it boils down to but two choices: 1) the target audience must learn the preacher's language; or 2) the preacher must become competent in the language understood by those he is attempting to reach. What follows is but one example of the linguistic challenges faced by early missionaries.

Around the end of the 6th century, Pope Gregory I sent a team of missionaries to convert the English to Christianity. Among these was a priest named Paulinus. In 619, Paulinus was sent from Kent to the court of King Edwin in Northumbria. For Paulinus, the vernacular was Latin, but for Edwin it was the Northumbrian dialect. Try to imagine the problems they had discussing subtle nuances of religious thought.

How did evangelists set about the business of putting over the faith and its associated standards of conduct to potential converts? For a start, what language did they use? For Paulinus, the vernacular of every day in his native Italy was Latin; for Edwin it was a Northumbrian dialect of Old English, a Germanic language having its closest counterpart in the Frisian coastlands of north Germany. When Edwin's mysterious nocturnal visitor spoke to him of 'salvation', what Old English word or phrase might he have used? How did missionaries render key Christian concepts in the vernacular – 'sin', 'regeneration', and so forth? Most important of all, what word did they choose to render “God', and what cluster of associations might it have had for their converts? -- Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, Henry Holt and Company (1998), p. 7

Multiply those difficulties by all the permutations of language spoken by early Christian missionaries and the peoples to whom they went. Were all the missionaries and bishops sent out from Rome to communities outside the Empire linguists, able to discuss issues of faith with those they were sent to teach? Could be, of course, but there is little evidence one way or the other.

Certainly one of those sent out from the seat of the Christian church in the middle of the 4th century was a linguist. Ulfila, a Goth, was fluent in Greek, Latin and Goth. During his lifetime, he created a written language for the Gothic people and compiled a dictionary. He then translated the Bible into the Gothic language – leaving out the books of Kings, which he considered inappropriate for the warlike Goths. At the time, there already existed translations in 'Old Latin' and Syriac, but his was the first occasion of the Bible being translated into a barbarian tongue.

In 2002, the United Bible Societies reported that the Bible has been translated into 2,287 different languages – all of which apparently are, or were, the vernacular in at least one part of the world. There is a most interesting and informative article on the versions of the Bible on the Catholic Encyclopedia pages of the New Advent web site. I recommend it to all who would expand their knowledge of the basic source book of Christianity.

When I was Catholic, and for a long time after, I thought the Vulgate Bible in use by the Catholic Church was the Bible translated by Jerome in the late 4th-early 5th centuries. I also thought the Jerome's Vulgate was the first Latin Bible. I was wrong on both counts.

The origin of the oldest Latin version or versions is involved in much uncertainty. Some contend that there was but one primitive version, others show with strong arguments that there were several. It is generally admitted that long before the end of the second century, Latin translations, though rude and defective, of Tobias, I and II Machabees, and Baruch were in use and that towards the close of the same period, there existed at least one version of the whole Bible, based on the Septuagint and on Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. This was the Vetus Itala, or Old Latin. -- J. Maas, Versions of the Bible, "The Catholic Encyclopedia", Volume XV, Copyright © 2007 by Kevin Knight

As it developed, the Old Latin translation went through changes and was not the same throughout the Catholic world. By the end of the 4th century, things had gotten so out of hand that Pope Damasus set Jerome to go through it and fix what was broken. In the process, Jerome determined that what the Western Church really needed was a whole new translation. He set about providing it.

Jerome's new translation was not immediately accepted in the Catholic Church. By the 9th century, however, it was in use throughout the RCC and in the 13th it was firmly established. Jerome's Bible was not originally known as the Vulgate. That title, indicating common use, belonged to the Old Latin Bible until the 7th century. It was not until the 13th century that the title Vulgate was firmly fixed to Jerome's Bible.

Like it's Old Latin predecessor, Jerome's translation was not cast in concrete. No sooner had he finished work than folks began modifying it.

From an early day the text of the Vulgate began to suffer corruptions, mostly through the copyists who introduced familiar readings of the Old Latin or inserted the marginal glosses of the manuscripts which they were transcribing. In the eighth century Alcuin undertook and completed (A.D. 801) a revision with the aid of the best manuscripts then current. Op. cit.

Apparently, it was not too long before there were many improved versions of the Vulgate circulating. Gutenberg's press did not help the situation and soon even more new editions were being published.

Their circulation with other Latin versions led to increasing uncertainties as to a standard text and caused the Fathers of the Council of Trent to declare that the Vulgate alone was to be held as "authentic in public readings, discourses, and disputes, and that nobody might dare or presume to reject it on any pretence" (Sess. IV, decr. de editione et usu sacrorum librorum). By this declaration the Council, without depreciating the Hebrew or the Septuagint or any other version then in circulation and without forbidding the original texts, approved the Vulgate and enjoined its public and official use as a text free from error in doctrine and morals. -- Ibid.; Denzinger 785

And thus the three dozen or so voting members of the Council of Trent established the Vulgate as the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. The Decree Concerning the Edition, and the Use, of the Sacred Books, issued by the 4th Session of the Council of Trent, did not provide an authenticated version of the Vulgate, leaving that task in the hands of the Holy See. This proved to be a torturous process, as first one then another variant was produced.

Contributing towards the desired end, John Henten, O.P., published at Louvain, 1547, as amended text with variants, which was favourably received. The same was republished at Antwerp, 1583, with a larger number of variants, by the Louvain theologians under the direction of Lucas of Bruges. In 1590 a Roman edition was prepared by a commission of scholars. After revising it, Sixtus V ordered it to be taken as the standard text. After his death a further revision was carried out under the direction of Franciscus Toletus, S.J., and finally the work was printed in 1598, with its title unchanged: "Biblia Sacra Vulgatæ editionis, Sixti V Pontificis Maximi jussu recognita et edita". This was under the pontificate of Clement VIII, and his name has appeared in the title since 1641. This revision is now the officially recognized version of the Latin Rite and contains the only authorized text of the Vulgate. -- J. Maas, Op. cit.

Interesting, don't you think, that Protestant Reformation was midwife at the birth of the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church? Like its cousin, the King James Bible of 1611, Toletus' final product was not free from error. Also in common with the KJV, there is an ongoing process to discover and correct errors in the Vulgate.

That it has numerous defects has never been denied, yet it ranks high in the evidence it affords of the competent scholarship that produced it. To bring it into closer touch with the latter developments of textual criticism is the purpose that induced Pius X to entrust to the Benedictines the work of further revision. The importance of this enterprise consists in this that it will reproduce, as correctly as possible, the original translation of St. Jerome, and will thereby furnish biblicists with a reliable clue to an ancient Hebrew text, differing in many details from the Septuagint, or the Massoretic Text -- Ibid.

According to the good old boys at the 4th session of the Council of Trent, the Latin Vulgate was THE Bible to be used by the Catholic Church in the conduct of her religious affairs. In that there was no mention of any prohibition of the possession and private use of Bibles in the vernacular, one can but assume that they were still permitted at the time the decree was promulgated. And here is where we get another insight into the curious and often devious nature of Roman Catholic officialdom.

The 22nd session of the Council of Trent produced a fascinating document known as The Doctrine on the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This document justifies the use of theatrics and stage dressing during Catholic worship (Denzinger 943). What I find quite interesting is found in Chapter 8 of this document. This chapter bears the heading: (The Mass not to be Celebrated in the Vernacular, and its Mysteries to be Explained to the People) (Denzinger 946).

This is a thinly disguised effort to increase the Catholic faithful's dependence on the elitist RCC priesthood. No longer were Bibles in the vernacular to be used for Catholic worship, teaching, or discoursing. If at one time, vernacular Bibles were in use in the churches of non-Latin-speaking peoples, no longer would this be the case. Whereas before, the Mass may have been celebrated in the local language, thereby permitting the laity to understand and follow the proceedings, that no longer would be so. Now, the proceedings of the Mass would be conducted in Latin, and the Latin Bible would be the Bible used in the worship. Sure, priests would be required to explain a few things now and then, but this is a poor substitute for real-time understanding and subject to the whims and prejudices of the priest doing the explaining.

This was an infallible declaration of a General Council, promulgated by a reigning pope (Pius IV) and enforced by anathema (Denzinger 956). In the religious institution that boasts the motto Semper Idem (Always the Same), one would imagine that would be it. Right? Not so. Another General Council produced another defining document, promulgated by a reigning pope (Paul VI) that changes a lot of that.

36. (1) The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites. (2) But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in readings, directives and in some prayers and chants. Regulations governing this will be given separately in subsequent chapters. -- Paul VI, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4 December, 1963, reproduced by Austin Austin Flannery, Gen. Ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Costello Publishing Company (1981), p. 13; has /Nihil Obstat & Imprimitur

The above changes may be seen in the New Order of Mass (Novus Ordo Missae) promulgated by the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum (3 April 1969).

The foregoing information is sufficient to demonstrate that the Always the Same Roman Catholic Church in actuality would be better known as the Always Changing Roman Catholic Church. The examples serve to show how dogma and practice of this venerable entity are not fixed but are instead subject to the whims of her rulers as they react to the changing mood of the times.

How different the Scriptures. God's revelation is the same today as it was when first the inspired writers were moved to take up their writing instruments. As far as God's written Word is concerned, what was sin in ages past remains sinful today. In the Roman Catholic way of doing things, what condemned a man to eternity in the fires of Hell yesterday is not even a daily sin today and what used to be enforced by anathema is now in opposition to the way things are being done today.

Hard to hit a moving target. Harder still to stay abreast of a moving dogma.


Home | History Stuff | Catholic Stuff | PTG Forum
(C) 1991-2010 Ron Loeffler