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Even in a Dead Language, the Bible Is Alive

Even in a Dead Language, the Bible Is Alive

Even in a Dead Language, the Bible Is Alive

OVER the past few centuries, at least half of the world’s languages have disappeared. A language dies when it no longer has native speakers. In that sense, Latin is usually defined as “a dead language,” even though it is widely studied and remains the official tongue of Vatican City.

Latin is also the language of some of the first and foremost Bible translations. Could such renderings into an obsolete tongue be “alive” today, affecting Bible readers now? The fascinating history of such translations helps to answer that question.

The Oldest Latin Translations

Latin was the first language of Rome. When the apostle Paul wrote to the Christian community in that city, though, he wrote in Greek. * That did not present a problem, as it was common for people there to speak both languages. Because many of Rome’s inhabitants came from the Greek Orient, it was said that the city was becoming Greek. The linguistic situation of the Roman Empire differed from region to region, but as the empire grew, so did the importance of Latin. As a result, the Holy Scriptures were translated from Greek into Latin. This process seems to have begun in the second century C.E. in North Africa.

The various texts that were produced are known as the Vetus Latina, or the Old Latin version. No ancient manuscript containing a complete Latin translation of the Scriptures has come down to us. The parts that have survived as well as the parts quoted by ancient writers seem to indicate that the Vetus Latina was not a single, united piece of work. Rather, it was apparently produced by several translators who worked separately at different times and places. So instead of being a single text, it is more precisely a collection of translations from the Greek.

Independent initiatives to translate parts of the Scriptures into Latin created some confusion. At the end of the fourth century C.E., Augustine believed that “every man who happened to get his hands on a Greek manuscript and who thought that he had any knowledge​—be it ever so little—​of the two languages ventured upon the work of translation” into Latin. Augustine and others thought that there were too many translations in circulation and doubted their accuracy.

Jerome’s Version

The man who attempted to end this translation confusion was Jerome, who at times served as secretary to Damasus, the bishop of Rome, in 382 C.E. The bishop invited Jerome to revise the Latin text of the Gospels, and Jerome completed that task in just a few years. Then he began a revision of the Latin translation of other Bible books.

Jerome’s translation, which later came to be called the Vulgate, was a composite text. Jerome based his version of the Psalms on the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures completed in the second century B.C.E. He revised the Gospels, and he also translated a good part of the Hebrew Scriptures from the original Hebrew. The rest of the Scriptures were probably revised by others. Sections of the Vetus Latina were also eventually merged back into Jerome’s Vulgate.

Jerome’s work initially received a cool response. Even Augustine criticized it. Yet, it slowly established itself as the standard for single-volume Bibles. In the eighth and ninth centuries, such scholars as Alcuin and Theodulf set about correcting linguistic and textual errors that had crept into Jerome’s version because of repeated copying. Others divided the text into chapters, making it easier to consult the Scriptures. When printing with movable type was invented, Jerome’s version was the first Bible to go to press.

It was at the Council of Trent in 1546 that the Catholic Church for the first time called Jerome’s version the Vulgate. The council declared this Bible “authentic,” making it a reference text for Catholicism. At the same time, the council also called for a revision. The work was to be overseen by special committees, but Pope Sixtus V, impatient to see it completed and evidently a little overconfident regarding his own abilities, decided to finish the job himself. Printing of his revised edition had just begun when the pope died in 1590. The cardinals immediately repudiated what they considered to be a work full of errors, and they recalled it.

A new version published in 1592 under Pope Clement VIII eventually became known as the Sixtine Clementine edition. It remained the Catholic Church’s official version for quite some time. The Sixtine Clementine Vulgate also became the basis for Catholic translations into the vernacular, such as Antonio Martini’s translation into Italian, completed in 1781.

A Modern Bible in Latin

Textual criticism in the 20th century made it clear that the Vulgate, like other versions, needed revision. To that end, in 1965 the Catholic Church established a Commission for the New Vulgate and gave the commission the responsibility to revise the Latin translation on the basis of updated knowledge. The new text was to be used for Catholic services in Latin.

The first section of the new translation appeared in 1969, and in 1979, Pope John Paul II approved the Nova Vulgata. The first edition contained the divine name, Iahveh, in a number of verses, including Exodus 3:15 and 6:3. Then, as one member of the committee put it, the second official edition, published in 1986, “repented . . . Dominus [‘Lord’] was put back, in place of Iahveh.”

Just as the Vulgate was criticized centuries before, the Nova Vulgata was criticized, even by Catholic scholars. While it was initially presented as a translation with a strong ecumenical flavor, many viewed it as an obstacle to religious dialogue, particularly because it was proposed as a binding model for current language versions. In Germany, the Nova Vulgata was at the center of a controversy between Protestants and Catholics in connection with the revision of an interdenominational translation. Protestants accused Catholics of insisting that this new translation conform to the Nova Vulgata.

Even though Latin is no longer commonly spoken, the Bible in Latin has had both a direct and an indirect influence on millions of readers. It has shaped religious terminology in many languages. Regardless of the language in which it is produced, however, God’s Word continues to exert power, changing the lives of millions of people who obediently strive to act in harmony with its precious teachings.​—Hebrews 4:12.


^ par. 5 For more information on why the Christian Scriptures were written in Greek, see the article “Did You Know?” on page 13.

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Pope John Paul II approved the Nova Vulgata. The first edition contained the divine name, Iahveh

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The Vetus Latina, translated from Greek, contained many renderings that were to make history. One of these was the translation of the Greek word di·a·theʹke, “covenant,” as testamentum, or “testament.” (2 Corinthians 3:14) As a result of that rendering, many people still refer to the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures as the Old Testament and the New Testament respectively.

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In 2001, after four years of work, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published its Liturgiam authenticam (Authentic Liturgy) instruction. It has been harshly criticized by many Catholic scholars.

According to this instruction, since the Nova Vulgata is the church’s official edition, it should be used as a model for all other translations, even if it alters what is indicated in the ancient originals. Only by conforming to such direction can a Bible be accepted by the Catholic hierarchy. This instruction says that in Catholic versions, “the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH)” should be rendered into “any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning” to Dominus, or “Lord,” as does the second edition of the Nova Vulgata​—even though the first edition used “Iahveh.” *


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Alcuin’s version of the Latin Bible, 800 C.E.

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From Paléographìe latine, by F. Steffens (

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Sixtine Clementine Vulgate, 1592

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Exodus 3:15, Nova Vulgata, 1979

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© 2008 Libreria Editrice Vaticana