The History of the Septuagint and the Vulgate

| Time: 3 Minutes

You may have clicked on this article because the unfamiliar words “Septuagint” and “Vulgate” caught your eye. Hopefully, this article will make these words a bit more familiar to you.

Briefly, the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The Vulgate is the Latin translation of the whole Bible. We’d like to dive a bit into the history behind these important works.

The History of The Septuagint

Centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a large number of Jewish communities lived outside of Palestine. In fact, at the time of Jesus’ birth, Jews remained scattered across the Roman Empire, inhabiting lands like Persia and Egypt. Nevertheless, these refugee Jewish communities never loosened ties with their historic religion from their Scriptures.

Following Alexander the Great’s (356-323 BC) victorious expeditions across the Mediterranean, these Jewish communities readily adopted Greek culture and immersed themselves in the Greek language.

This caused a problem: These Diaspora Jews suffered from language amnesia. They forgot the Hebrew language of their homeland, which sparked problems for them both in reading and understanding their Scriptures (the Old Testament).

In an effort to remedy this situation, they decided to translate their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

So around the third century BC, Jewish scholars gathered in a major Egyptian city (Alexandria) to translate their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

As the ancient legend records, seventy Jewish scholars met and worked independently from each other on their own translations. When they all finished translating the Old Testament, they praised God for his inspiration. As the story goes, every single one of them had the exact same translation!

Though the details of the story may have been exaggerated, we do know that a committed group of Jewish men translated a highly accurate rendition of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

This translation became known as the Septuagint, which comes from the Latin word for seventy.

Religious historian Justo L. González noted the significance of the Septuagint. He says, “It is the version of Scripture quoted by most New Testament authors, and it profoundly influenced the formation of early Christian vocabulary.”

The History of the Vulgate

In AD 382, Pope Damasus I commissioned a priest and theologian named Jerome to render a better Latin translation of the Bible. The current Latin translation of the Bible (the Vetus Latina, or “Old Latin”) had a bad reputation for not being very accurate. As religious historian Fran van Liere remarked, it was known for, “paying too much attention to the literary qualities of its Latin.”

In other words, it was too much of a word-for-word translation. It was difficult for readers to understand the meaning of the text. Therefore, Jerome set out around AD 390 to render a Latin translation of the Bible that was both reliable and accurate.

Jerome chose to make a new translation of the Old Testament while working from a document called the proto-Masoretic text (Van Liere 87). The proto-Masoretic text was a Hebrew text. This meant that Jerome returned to the original language as the source and foundation for his Old Testament translations.

However, when he translated the New Testament, Jerome only revised the Latin New Testament. That is, when translating the four Gospels, he did not consult the Greek manuscripts, but rather “cleaned-up” the Latin from the Vetus Latina. He also never translated the rest of the New Testament (Van Liere 87). Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible became known in the sixteenth century as the “Vulgate” or “the common one.”

Though Jerome completed his translation in AD 405, it only became widely used in the eighth or ninth century in Western Christendom (Van Liere 82). Gradually, people stopped copying the Vetus Latina.

The Importance of the Septuagint and Vulgate

In this brief history of the Greek and Latin Bible, we see a common thread. That is, both translations had an indispensable purpose. The Septuagint made Scripture accessible to displaced Jews, and the Vulgate gave Latin readers a more accurate version of Scripture.

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