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Week 2: Vulgata: Moses.

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Background Information: Jerome's Vulgate Translation of the Bible

Jerome's translation of the Bible into Latin -- the Vulgate -- was a fundamental moment in the history of the Latin language. This is because Jerome purposefully chose the Latin of the common people, the vulgus, as the style to be used in translating the Bible into Latin. If someone other than Jerome had created the Latin Bible used by the western Church, the whole history of medieval Latin might have unfolded very differently.

Jerome was born in the first half of the fourth century (the year of his birth is unknown, perhaps in the 340's?); his family were Christians and lived in the Roman province of Dalmatia (modern day Yugoslavia). As a young man, Jerome was sent to Rome to study literature and rhetoric. After spending some time as a monk in the eastern parts of the empire (and becoming well-acquainted with Greek, as well as Hebrew and Syriac), Jerome returned to Rome in 382, when Pope Damasus asked him to undertake a Latin translation of the Bible; Jerome completed a translation of the four gospels before Damasus' death in 384. At that point, however, Damasus' successor (Pope Siricius) exiled Jerome from Rome; Jerome returned to the east and settled in Bethlehem in 386 where he founded a monastery in which he lived for the rest of his life.

As he continued to work on his translations, Jerome became convinced of the need to translate the books of the Old Testament from the Hebrew originals, rather than relying solely on intermediary Greek translations (such as the Septuagint). Jerome became a famous spokesman for the Hebraica veritas, or "Hebrew authenticity." The style of Jerome's Old Testament translations closely follows the Hebrew, and he abandons the rhetorical devices of classical Latin in order to imitate the Hebrew and to produce a version of the text that would be fully comprehensible to the people (the Latin vulgus, hence the Biblia vulgata, or vulgate Bible). He writes in a style that is called paratactic, meaning that the phrases are simply strung together one after another, very often with the word "and" as the only connection.

Jerome's rejection of Ciceronian Latin (a style defined by the rhetoric of the famous Roman writer, Cicero) was a major turning point in his life. In one of his letters, Jerome tells the story of a dream vision which he had while as a young man in Antioch (a city in Phrygia, modern Turkey). Jerome dreamed that when he was called before the judgment of God, he declared that he was a Christian. God grew angry at this and said to Jerome: "You are not a Christian - but a Ciceronian!" From that point on, at least according to Jerome, he rejected the classical authors and turned all his attention to the Latin best suited to translating the scriptures.

Jerome died in 420 C.E. His Vulgate Latin Bible is still the official text of the Roman Catholic Church, over 1500 years later.

Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM