Arguing Biblical Tradition

How the Common Latin Version Came About

In 382, Pope Damasus asked his secretary, Jerome, to take the four Gospels, then found in Old Latin with loose translations from the original Greek, and put those four Gospels into a coordinated and more elegant Latin version. Many different hands had translated the earlier version without any central control and the result had been numerous translation errors and a vocabulary of local colloquialisms. The opposition, particularly in Italy, was enormous for the Old Latin version was considered sacred writing and to change it was considered sacrilegious.

However, the pope wanted to adhere to the basic intent of the ancient Greek writers, and if this meant to change the Old Latin version where the original purpose was clearly at variance, then so be it. When the upset population insisted that tradition required continued use of the Old Latin version, Jerome responded that he was not flouting tradition, but restoring tradition.

To that end, Jerome did not write the Gospels in the order of Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark as the Old Latin version did, but restored the order of the earlier Greek version; that is from Matthew to Mark, Luke, and then John. The pope’s motive for the rewrite was to have the readings in the liturgy be as uniform as possible whether in Gaul, Egypt, Rome, or Cappadocia. Too many local variations had popped up and heresies were not easily defeated.

When the New Testament was completed and long after Damasus had died, Jerome began translating the books of the Old Testament into Latin. These books had been written in Greek about six hundred years earlier, and some scriptural books in Hebrew and Aramaic had been written as much as a thousand years earlier. Jerome knew four languages and studied the original documents, especially the Greek and Hebrew documents. He also consulted with Jewish and Greek specialists regarding the Old Testament scriptural books. Once completed, his clarity of exposition and elegance of diction soon overcame any objection to his Bible.

The resulting Bible called the “Vulgate” or “Version Commonly Used” Bible was adopted by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century as the official Latin Bible of the Catholic Church. Numerous versions have been published since to take into account the latest in linguistic and biblical studies.

To learn more about the life of Jerome and his works, read my novel The Scholar’s Challenge.  Go to to acquire it or to read more about it.