by Sharon Tan
Page from a Gutenberg bible
Did you know that some of the key terms in the English Bible have come to us from Greek, through Latin, to English? Some of these words are so closely associated with our faith that we probably cannot imagine using any other word. For example, the English words apostle, baptism and prophet derive from the Latin apostolus, baptismus and propheta, which in turn derive from the Greek apostolos, vaptismos and profitis. How did this happen?
The Old Testament scriptures had been translated into Greek even before the birth of Christ, and the New Testament books were written in Greek. With the rise of the Roman empire, Latin became the dominant language across Europe and the Mediterranean, so believers who were not able to understand Greek needed the scriptures translated into Latin. However, some Greek words which had religious meanings or were in common use were simply borrowed in the Latin translation.
In 382 AD, Pope Damascus commissioned a scholar, Jerome, to produce a good version of the gospels from existing Latin translations which were of varying qualities. Jerome went on to translate the Psalms (based on the Greek Septuagint) and the rest of the Old Testament (from the Hebrew texts) into Latin. It is not known who translated the rest of the New Testament into Latin. Together, these formed the “common version” of the Latin Bible, known as the Vulgate, which was completed about 405 AD.
For the next thousand years, the Vulgate was the most commonly used Bible and the most influential text in Western Europe. Before the advent of the printing press, and when few were literate, the one book which most people heard read aloud regularly was the Bible, and the phraseology and wording of the Vulgate permeated all areas of culture such as worship, art and drama. One of the first books printed on Gutenberg’s movable type press (c. 1450) was an edition of the Latin Vulgate.
Some early vernacular translations of the Bible, such as Wycliffe’s English translation (1382), used the Vulgate as the base text, in some cases borrowing key terms from Latin. Other translations, even if they were based on texts in the original languages, were still influenced by the language and style of the Vulgate. Although few of us will ever try to read the Vulgate, whether in Latin or in translation, Jerome’s legacy is still one of the major influences on Christian vocabulary and practice today.