Tag Archives: Vulgate

Review: A Vulgate Old Testament Reader.

When learning ancient languages, I have gone back and forth between inductive and deductive approaches.  So first-year Greek was painful, because there was so much grammar drilling, but my four months of very inductive, surah-by-surah Arabic lessons left me with little ability to read an unfamiliar text.  When I was teaching myself Latin this summer with Wheelock’s Latin, I stopped halfway through the text to spend some time with Scott Goins’ useful reader in Vulgate Latin.

1-59333-215-7Goins bills this as a reader for intermediate Latin students in Vulgate Latin.  Because the Vulgate’s Latin is so simple, very little background is needed to start reading it, even if some nuances might by missed by the beginner.  Goins selects several of the most well-known Old Testament passages and includes them: hits such as the creation in Genesis, the Ten Commandments in Exodus, David’s fight with Goliath, ten different psalms, and the entire story of Jonah.  (You can view the table of contents on Google Books.)  I really liked the variety of the selections included, although he was a little light on Pentateuch readings.

Each selection has running vocabulary at the bottom of the page, but after three uses of any word he includes an asterisk next to subsequent uses to let the reader know they should memorize that word.  The last two readings had no glosses at all, forcing the student to rely on memory and the glossary in the back of the book.

Goins’ introduction includes a brief history of Jerome and the Vulgate, a guide to Latin pronunciation both classical and medieval, and a brief list of basic vocabulary to memorize. He also has a short bibliography of useful books for the student of Vulgar Latin.  Though adequate for intermediate students, his introduction and bibliography are based on survey texts and omit many of the more recent scholarship on Jerome (e.g. Tkacz’ article or Michael Graves’ scholarship).  A better place to go would be Stefan Rebenich’s recent introduction to Jerome, which includes excerpts from the several different types of writing he did.

The Vulgate is a tricky text for Latin students, because often they already know what it will say.  While that could be seen as a defect allowing students to be lazy, it enabled me to connect with the Latin more, because I was personally and spiritually interested in what I was reading.  Knowing the Latin of the Vulgate is also important to understand medieval theologians, who constantly quote and allude to the Vulgate.  More importantly, it was a nice break from Wheelock’s relentless grammar lessons because it let me get comfortable with reading long Latin passages.

Overall, this was a very useful book, especially alongside Smith’s volume which I recently reviewed.  I can only hope that Goins decides to produce an accompanying volume for the  Vulgate New Testament!

Handout: Timeline of the Vulgate.

One thing I like to do when studying a new subject is make diagrams and charts.  I made my own verb charts when I was learning Hebrew, because that way I knew I was making sense of it myself.

I just stumbled across a timeline of Vulgate translation that I made when I was working through the Old Testament Vulgate Reader.  Here it is: Vulgate Translation TImeline.  I mostly based it off of Catherine Brown Tkacz’s article, “Labor Tam Utilis: The Creation of the Vulgate.”  If there I anything I’ve noticed about studies on the Vulgate, it is that there seems to be an absolute paucity of them.

Caravaggio, "St. Jerome Writing."

Caravaggio, “St. Jerome Writing.”

Feel free to use it for whatever you want.  I appreciate any comments or corrections.  In the next few days I will make a section of this site for these handouts.

Jerome on the “firmamentum” in Genesis 1:6.

When translating the start of the Vulgate I came across this verse:

Dixit quoque Deus: Fiat firmamentum in medio aquarum: et dividat aquas ab aquis.

The Latin here is very simple and can be rendered: “And God also said: Let there be a firmament in the middle of the waters: and may it divide waters from waters.”

The word firmamentum, famously rendered in the KJV as “firmament,” is translated from the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ (rāqîaʿ).  In English it is rendered as “vault” (NIV) or “dome” (NRSV, NAB) in contemporary translations.  What is going on here?


From G. L. Robinson’s Leaders of Israel (New York: Association Press, 1913), p. 2.

When ancient Israel wrote of the “dome” separating the lower waters from the upper waters, it seems they took it quite seriously.  And there is some sense to it, especially for a culture that hasn’t flown airplanes above the clouds.  Why else would the sky be blue like the waters below?  Why else would water come from the sky?

In classical Latin, “firmamentum” referred to a support or prop (often architectural) or the main point of an argument.  So it seems to me that Jerome expanded the meaning of the word.  Since Greco-Roman cosmology did not involve a dome, he had to adapt a Latin word to fit this Hebrew concept.

Jerome, a contemporary of Augustine, was one of the last Latin-writing Church Fathers to get a classical education.  He spent much of his career as an ascetic teacher and biblical scholar emphasizing how he left pagan culture behind.  He advised patrons to only have their children read Christian thinkers, even as the literary forms and linguistic styles he wrote in were undeniably of pagan Rome.  So (it seems to me) he is uniquely positioned on the cusp of medieval Latin.  He wrote as a scholar of the pagan classics, but in translating the bulk of the Vulgate he created the turns of phrase that would infuse the Western medieval church’s liturgy and theology.  This use of firmamentum might just be one example of such a turn of phrase.

What do you think?  To what extent did Jerome shape the course of medieval Latin in his creative translation effort?

EDIT: For the curious, Scribalishness has a great post explaining the dome and Genesis 1’s cosmology.