St. Jerome and the Text of Scripture

September 30, 430 saw the death of the Latin Church Father St. Jerome and hence September 30th is his feast day. Jerome spent the last half of his life rendering the Scriptures into the contemporary Latin of his day.  Since Latin was at that time, the common or "vulgar" tongue, his translation was called the "Latin Vulgate."

Latin texts of the Scriptures were known from the infancy of the Church.  But by Jerome's time, many variations had crept into the various available Latin versions of the New Testament.  Pope Damasus I committed to Jerome the task of organizing and revising the Latin versions and consolidating them so as to create an authenticated text that corresponded with the best attested Greek manuscripts available.

It would be useful at this point to consider a common misconception about the accuracy of the biblical text.  One sometimes hears people say, "The Bible was copied and recopied so much that no one could know what it really said."  Let's engage in a thought experiment for a minute — and anytime anyone says this, you might ask him to do the same.

What if you had a roomful of 20 people and you gave them all a copy of some text like the Gettysburg Address and asked them to copy it by hand?  Would they all copy it correctly?  Probably not.  Might everyone of them make errors?  That is very likely.  But would any two of them make the same errors?  Highly unlikely.  Now once you had collected all the copies together, would you be able to reproduce the original text from them?  Of course, you would.  All you would have to do is look for the majority readings wherever there was a discrepancy.  The more texts you have to work with, the easier the job (we call this work "textual criticism") would be.  So the number of copies of parts of Sacred Scripture does not in anyway tell against its accuracy, rather it gives scholars amazing testimony to the inspired Word of God especially compared to other ancient writings.

The following are some examples of the number of manuscripts of ancient writers that have survived. The plays of Aeschylus are preserved in perhaps 50 manuscripts, of which none is complete. Sophocles is represented by about 100 manuscripts, of which only 7 have any appreciable independent value. The Greek Anthology has survived in one solitary copy. The same is the case with a considerable part of Tacitus' Annals. Of the poems of Catullus there are only 3 independent manuscripts. Some of the classical authors, such as Euripides, Cicero, Ovid, and especially Virgil, are better served with the numbers rising into the hundreds.

The numbers of manuscripts of other writers are: for Caesar's Gallic War 10, Aristotle 49, Plato 7, Herodotus 8, Aristophanes 10. Apart from a few papyrus scraps only 8 manuscripts of Thucydides, considered by many to be one of the most accurate of ancient historians, have survived. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy only 35 survive, represented in about 20 manuscripts. Homer's Iliad is the best represented of all ancient writings, apart from the New Testament, with something like 700 manuscripts. However, there are many more significant variations in the Iliad manuscripts than there are in those of the New Testament.

When we come to the New Testament, however, we find a very different picture. Altogether we possess about 5,300 partial or complete Greek manuscripts. Early on, the New Testament books were translated into other languages, which seldom happened with other Greek and Latin writers. This means that in addition to Greek, we have something like 8,000 manuscripts in Latin, and an additional 8,000 or so manuscripts in other languages such as Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, Coptic, Gothic, Slavic, Sahidic and Georgian. As these translations began to be made before the close of the second century, they provide an excellent source for assessing the text of the New Testament writings from a very early date — Dick Tripp (Anglican Clergyman) Exploring Christianity  — The Bible.  

 Because Jerome was able to work from Greek texts that were already considered ancient in his own day — and that have since been lost — his Latin translation remains of inestimable value to biblical scholars.  He also translated the Old Testament from the Greek Septuagint into Latin, as well as making another translation of the Old Testament directly from Hebrew and Aramaic.

September 30, 1452, exactly 1022 years after St. Jerome's death, the first printed book was published by Johann Guttenberg in Germany.  And what text of the Bible did Guttenberg publish?  Why the Latin text of Jerome, of course.

The Guttenberg Bible fixed, or stabilized, the text of Scripture much better than hand written copying could do, but even back in the 16th century, it was recognized that critical attention to Jerome's text was sorely needed.  During the intervening millennium, Jerome's text had been copied and recopied by hand to the point where someone needed to do for it what Jerome himself had done for the Latin texts of his day.  But it would not be until the 20th century that an attempt could be made to reconstitute Jerome's translation according to a critical assessment of the surviving manuscripts.

Once again it was a pope, this time Pius X, who made it his determination to prepare for a critical revision of the Latin Bible.  In May 1907, he assemble the abbots of the various Benedictine congregations in Rome and ordered the beginning of the long and arduous task of determining as accurately as possible the text of St. Jerome's Latin translation, made in the fourth century.

This included decades of patient research through two world wars, locating, examining and photographing all the ancient manuscripts and portions of manuscripts held in libraries, museums and monasteries all over Europe.  The work was finally published, beginning with the Latin Psalter in 1969, with other sections released throughout the 1970s, and the entire "Nova Vulgata" or "New Vulgate" in 1979.

St. Jerome, patron of scholars and librarians, must have surely been pleased.

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  • Guest

    Thank you for this informative article.  My husband's name is Jerome (Jerry), so St. Jerome holds a particularly special place in my heart.  It always upsets me when people (including Christians) claim that the Bible was written by humans, so we don't need to follow every single teaching (they're usually referring to the more difficult teachings, such as divorce, homosexuality, etc).  Yes, the authors are human, but they were inspired by God, and God would never let his word be corrupted, just as he would never let his Church be led astray.

  • Guest

    Thank you, Mary, for giving St. Jerome his due.  I wonder: Is there a list somewhere of the ancient manuscipts showing where they are located and if they are available for public viewing?  What a teaching tool that could make,


    And speaking of teaching tools, your article reminded me of the well intended but sometimes misguided "Bible Answer Man," Hank Hanegraaff (HH).  Albeit he is not always friendly to the Catholic Church and Catholics, (He's a strident, died in the wool protestant.) however he did catch my attention one day when he presented his teaching tool entitled 

     M-A-P-S to Guide You through Biblical Reliability

    This can be found on his website at the following link

    Please note that visiting this website and any protestant website puts one at risk of falling into the trap mentioned in 2 Tim (…The time will come when people…will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.. 2 Tim. 4:1-5)


    With that said, HH's acronym stands for Manuscripts, Archaeology, Prophecy, Statistics

    HH skillfully submits to biblical skeptics and the rest of the world that all 4 of them offer proof that the Bible is reliable.  (I think HH must be a poet at heart.) 


    In teaching my children and in discussions with others, I point out that HH vision is clear, but limited, as he is only able to see the tip of the iceberg — for not only are these proof of the reasonableness of our faith and trust in the Bible, but also the dogmas of the Catholic Church which of course are based on the Sacred Scriptures as well as Sacred Tradition, the two sources of Divine Revelation.  Furthermore, additional proof exists in the well documented lives and deaths of the Martyrs; the Mircacles, and the lives of the Saints including many martyrs. 


    Admittedly much of this takes the "eyes of Faith," and that my additions make HH's acronym a little less tidy, but I sbmit it does make the list a more complete. Have I omitted anything?


    Mary, I'd be interested in your view (and the view of others) on HH's teaching tool (M.A.P.S.), the additions I suggested, and encourage everyone to pray for the conversion, and in some cases the reversion of our protestant brothers and sisters.  Many protestants do great work in the name of the Lord — but imagine how much more they could do in communion with "the one holy catholic and apostolic Church!" Then they would jooyfully and hopefully call upon the Divine Dream Team of angels, martyrs, saints — as we Catholics do, or at least should!  I pray that I shall live so long to see the day.


    Incidentally, it was a book on the life of King David by protestant preacher Charles R. Swindoll entitled David, A Man of Passion & Destiny that I read while flat on my back during recovering from a near lifestyle- altering injury, and given to me by one of my protestant sisters, that was instrumental in my reversion back to the Faith.  May God bless her for that and may she one day return to the Faith.


    God bless you and yours, TJO (2 Cor 5:14)


  • Guest

    I listened to Hank, found him informative. Then one day there was a call from a mom whose son committed suicide, he told her to let him go, God will sort it out. I shouted at the radio: you numbskull, can't you hear that the mother wants to pray wants to offer something for the sake of her son. It's her misfortune that she wasn't born Catholic, she could have offered Masses until her heart was soothed. Another time he said that Holy Mary is dead. Protestant ministers and theologans can lead us around a lot and we can learn a lot but eventually they'll take us down a dead end road.

  • Guest

    I am real familiar with the Bible Answer Man men. First by listeing for several years to the show; second by being personal friends with, and an apologetics student of, Rob Bowman who used to be on the Bible Answer Man show.  I went regularly to apologetics classes he offered in the Atlanta area from right after I left the JWs to sometime after I became Catholic.

    I agree with TJO that these Protestant apologist often come up with catchy ways to remember things. I even borrowed one of Rob's in this article:

    I agree that our separated brethren often do great work for the Lord but Goral is correct too that there is a great deal lacking. H.H. is really anti-Catholic and I mean by that that he is (or was — it has been about 10 years since I have heard him) reluctant, if not downright against, calling Catholics Christians.

    Scott Hahn has even said that Protestants have "saved the souls" or a number of fallen away Catholics, like TJO and my husband also.  My husband was a away from the faith for a number of years and came back to Christ through the ministry of some Methodists.

    But we do need to remember that all those conversions through Protestant preaching and all the graces they recieve from studying the Scriptures come about because the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is being offered every day and the Catholic Church is praying for them.