The superlative New Testament Gateway blog points us to a great new site that represents the future of academic tools in the humanities. It’s The University of Birmingham’s Vetus Latina Iohannes Electronic Edition. A word of explanation on what the Old Latin is and why it’s important and why this project matters…
As you may recall, back in the patristic period there was general griping about the crappy state of the translations of the New Testament into Latin from the original Koine Greek. A classic example comes from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine II.11.16:
The great remedy for ignorance of proper signs is knowledge of languages. And men who speak the Latin tongue, of whom are those I have undertaken to instruct, need two other languages for the knowledge of Scripture, Hebrew and Greek, that they may have recourse to the original texts if the endless diversity of the Latin translators throw them into doubt. . . .But the knowledge of these languages is necessary, not for the sake of a few words like these which it is very easy to mark and to ask about, but, as has been said, on account of the diversities among translators. For the translations of the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek can be counted, but the Latin translators are out of all number. For in the early days of the faith every man who happened to get his hands upon a Greek manuscript, and who thought he had any knowledge, were it ever so little, of the two languages, ventured upon the work of translation.
Later in Book II he recommends one version in particular, the Italian (Itala) (CD II.15.22) though—to the dismay of biblical scholars since then—fails to give any identifying features of this particular translation…
In any case, this was the condition that led Jerome to undertake his work of translating, editing, and updating that resulted in the Vulgate as he describes here in his prefatory letter to Pope Damasus:
You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all; and how can I dare to change the language of the world in its hoary old age, and carry it back to the early days of its infancy? Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language, and call me a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein? Now there are two consoling reflections which enable me to bear the odium—in the first place, the command is given by you who are the supreme bishop; and secondly, even on the showing of those who revile us, readings at variance with the early copies cannot be right. For if we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies. If, on the other hand, we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek and correct the mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake? I am not discussing the Old Testament, which was turned into Greek by the Seventy elders, and has reached us by a descent of three steps. I do not ask what Aquila and Symmachus think, or why Theodotion takes a middle course between the ancients and the moderns. I am willing to let that be the true translation which had apostolic approval. I am now speaking of the New Testament. This was undoubtedly composed in Greek, with the exception of the work of Matthew the Apostle, who was the first to commit to writing the Gospel of Christ, and who published his work in Judæa in Hebrew characters. We must confess that as we have it in our language it is marked by discrepancies, and now that the stream is distributed into different channels we must go back to the fountainhead. I pass over those manuscripts which are associated with the names of Lucian and Hesychius, and the authority of which is perversely maintained by a handful of disputatious persons. It is obvious that these writers could not amend anything in the Old Testament after the labours of the Seventy; and it was useless to correct the New, for versions of Scripture which already exist in the languages of many nations show that their additions are false. I therefore promise in this short Preface the four Gospels only, which are to be taken in the following order, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, as they have been revised by a comparison of the Greek manuscripts. Only early ones have been used. But to avoid any great divergences from the Latin which we are accustomed to read, I have used my pen with some restraint, and while I have corrected only such passages as seemed to convey a different meaning, I have allowed the rest to remain as they are.
So–the Vulgate became the standard Latin translation of the Western Church…eventually. In the Early Medieval period, though, both the Vulgate and “those others” still circulated. Modern scholars dub “those others” the Old Latin text (or OL) to distinguish them from the Vulgate (Vg). For people who do stuff with Early Medieval England knowing the specific textual variants between the Vg and the OL can be quite helpful because by and large the Irish retained the OL while the Rome-based mission to the Anglo-Saxons brought the Vg. As a result, Irish influence on a particular writing or manuscript can be determined by identifying OL features of Scriptural citations. So, what this electronic edition does is to present all of the major witnesses of the Old Latin so that those who do that kind of thing can sift through the various layers of evidence.
(Another reason why the OL is important is because it is through the OL tradition that some of the differences between the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Septuagint appear in the writings of the Scholastics. I remember once being amazed that Thomas Aquinas referred to a Septuagint text not found in the Hebraica Veritas and wondered how he got his hands on it. Later, I discovered that the OL was one of the major ways that these differences were passed through to the High Medieval period.)
While this sounds rather boring to virtually all sentient life on the planet, there are a few of us who get quite excited about it…
One of the reasons I’m lifting it up is because it represents the way that academic tools need to be going in the next few decades. Knowledge is power–but it must be organized for that power to be harnessed. We need a lot more initiatives like this that maximize the power of relational database and the information-sharing capabilities of the internet.