Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Position Paper 5 on Rorate Caeli: The Vulgate

I have just published Position Paper 5: The Vulgate and the Ancient Latin Psalters on behalf of the Una Voce Federation (FIUV). Go over to Rorate Caeli to read it.

The history of the Latin Bible is a fascinating one. St Jerome didn't translate the Bible into Latin: he revised existing translations, in the case of some books of the Bible he left them entirely alone. He ended up producing three versions of the Psalter, but the more ancient Psalters were already too embedded in the liturgy to replace: the Roman Psalter, used in Rome, and the Gallican Psalter used elsewhere. When Roman chant texts were adopted in the Carolingian Empire the Roman Psalter went with them; only where it wouldn't disrupt the melody did the Gallican Psalter creep in, so we find Roman Psalter antiphons followed by Gallican Psalter verses, for example in some Introits and Graduals.

But all these Latin versions were based on the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, dating from the 2nd Century BC, which was regarded by all the Fathers of the Church, with the odd exception of St Jerome, as being inspired. So where the Septuagint varied from the Hebrew (or rather: from the Hebrew available to later scholars, since the Septuagint translators had much more ancient versions to use), this didn't worry anyone. The Latin scriptures thus formed a part of a tradition of translation which is found in the Greek Fathers (who obviously used the Septuagint), and the New Testament itself.

Modern Latin versions of the Psalms, the 'Pian Psalter' by Augustin Bea (1945) and the Neo Vulgate Psalter (1969) are based on the Hebrew, and have completely different readings in many places from the ancient Latin ones. Their versions rule out the interpretation of the Psalms which is embedded in the ancient chants, such as the Introit for Easter Sunday, 'Resurrexi!' 'I have arisen'. (The corresponding verse in the Neo Vulgate has the baffling ‘Si ad finem pervenerim, adhuc sum tecum:’ ‘If I were to have arrived at the end, still I am with you.’)

Does this mean that the old texts are rubbish and should be quietly swept away? It doesn't mean that if we take seriously the tradition of interpretation and the authority of the Septuagint. One of the most striking things I have found in coordinating these Position Papers is the way that the modern magisterium supports the ancient liturgy. The Second Vatican Council (Sacrosantam Concilium 91) called for a translation of the Psalms which respected the 'the entire tradition of the Latin Church'. This becomes a major theme of the 2001 Instruction Liturgiam authenticam 41:

The effort should be made to ensure that the translations be conformed to that understanding of biblical passages which has been handed down by liturgical use and by the tradition of the Fathers of the Church, especially as regards very important texts such as the Psalms and the readings used for the principal celebrations of the liturgical year; in these cases the greatest care is to be taken so that the translation express the traditional Christological, typological and spiritual sense, and manifest the unity and the inter-relatedness of the two Testaments. 

And what do we find in the 1994 Instruction Variationes legitimae 9? The Septuagint is an inspired translation. ‘…the translation of the Bible into Greek introduced the word of God into a world which had been closed to it and caused, under divine inspiration, an enrichment of the Scriptures.’ This being so, the ancient Latin Psalters, and the Vulgate, need no further vindication.

(Picture: St Jerome)

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