The Vulgate is a fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible, produced primarily by St. Jerome. Working from ancient Greek manuscripts, the original Hebrew, Aramaic texts, and existing Latin translations, Jerome aimed to create a translation that the church could confidently say preserved the original Scriptures.
Jerome completed his work in 405 AD, but continued to revise the Latin Vulgate for years. For centuries, the Latin-speaking church relied on this translation, especially for scholarly studies of Scripture. More than 1,000 years after it was finished, the Vulgate became the official Latin Bible of the Catholic church, which it remained until 1979.
Most people are aware of the King James Version’s lasting impact on the English language, Western literature, art, and culture. But the Latin Vulgate was the most popular Bible translation for more than a millennia before the KJV even existed, including during the Renaissance.
Numerous English words we see in modern Bibles were practically lifted right out of the Vulgate, including “creation,” “salvation,” “justification,” and “testament.” The word “Lucifer,” a common name for the devil among English speakers, owes its existence to this translation.
So what do we know about this text? Why and how was it translated? And what is its significance for Christians today?
Why is it called the Vulgate?
The name “Vulgate” comes from the latin, versio vulgata, meaning “the version commonly used.” Jerome actually used the term to refer to the Latin translations that came before his, because those were the translations everyone used at the time.
The name comes from the root word, vulgus, meaning “common people.” This is the same root word vulgar comes from, which at the time essentially just meant “used by the people.” While Latin was the main language used in the Western Roman empire, there was a difference between the way it was used in scholarly circles and the way it was spoken by the average citizen. Scholars typically wrote in “Classical Latin” while people spoke in “Vulgar Latin.”
Part of Jerome’s task was to produce a Latin Bible that reflected the way common people used the language, so that more people could understand Scripture.
It wasn’t until the thirteenth century—long after Jerome’s work was in common usage—that a Franciscan friar named Roger Bacon referred to this translation as the Latin Vulgate.
Vetus Latina, meaning “Old Latin Bible” is how we refer to the collection of Latin manuscripts that were written before what we now call the Latin Vulgate. This can be confusing though, because Latin before classical Latin is also called Old Latin, Archaic Latin, or Early Latin, and the Vetus Latina weren’t actually written in Old Latin.
Why was the Latin Vulgate written?
While Greek was the dominant language in the Eastern Roman Empire, Latin was the common language of the West. As Christianity spread through Greek-speaking cities and made its way across the empire, the growing Christian church needed Latin translations of its sacred writings.
Before the Vulgate, there were plenty of other Latin translations of the Bible. But while they were all primarily based on the Septuagint and Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, they varied widely, and some of them were poorly translated. They often directly translated Greek idioms into Latin, and some even retained the Greek word order, making them almost indecipherable in Latin.
In 382, Pope Damasus I asked Jerome to revise the existing Latin translations of the Gospels using the original Greek manuscripts. The goal was to produce a standard, authoritative translation. After completing the project, Jerome took it upon himself to revise the Latin translations of the Old Testament as well, and began working from the Septuagint.
Translating the Hebrew Bible
A few years later, Jerome began a new translation project: translating the Old Testament into Latin from the original Hebrew. No one had done this before, because Christians considered the Septuagint to be authoritative. The Jewish community, however, criticized the Septuagint as a poor translation.
While at one time the Septuagint had been incredibly important to the Jewish community—it was the only way for Greek-speaking Jews to read and understand the Old Testament—by the fourth century they had noticed too many discrepancies between the Septuagint and the original Hebrew.
Not to mention, Christians were using the Septuagint to show how Jesus fulfilled messianic prophecies.
So Jerome translated the entire Hebrew Bible into Latin. While it was based on the original Hebrew, which Jewish tradition considered authoritative, the Christian church was torn. Using the original Hebrew occasionally created issues, because many of the New Testament authors directly quoted the Septuagint. This is likely part of the reason why the church continued to favor translations from the Septuagint, even after Jerome’s work.
Saint Augustine lived at the same time as Jerome, and while he preferred to use Jerome’s translation of the Septuagint in public, he learned to appreciate Jerome’s Hebrew translation.
In The City of God, Augustine remarks, “in our own day the priest Jerome, a great scholar and master of all three tongues, has made a translation into Latin, not from Greek but directly from the original Hebrew.”
Additionally, Jerome translated several other important writings, including Tobit and Judith, which were originally in Aramaic. For these, he had a Jewish scholar tell him what the Aramaic meant in Hebrew, and then he translated it into Latin.
Who helped Jerome finish the New Testament?
Jerome didn’t revise the Latin translations of the entire New Testament, but the earliest copies of the Vulgate included all the epistles and Revelation. Most scholars believe these were added by a contemporary of Jerome. Some of them appear to be revised, but others are straight from the Vetus Latina.
No one knows for sure who this was.
What books are included in the Vulgate?
The Vulgate includes all the books you’ll find in Protestant Bibles, plus a few writings that were important to the church. Jerome called these apocryphal, indicating that he did not believe they were part of the Christian canon, but the church of his day disagreed, and called these deuterocanonical, meaning they were part of the “second canon.”
In his later writings, Jerome quotes a couple of these apocryphal/deuterocanonical books, which some scholars see as evidence that he changed his mind.
Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions still consider these books deuterocanonical, while Protestants consider them apocryphal (which is why you won’t find them in Protestant translations of the Bible, such as the NIV).
Here are all the books included in the Vulgate, with apocryphal/deuterocanonical books in bold:
- 1 Samuel
- 2 Samuel
- 1 Kings
- 2 Kings
- 1 Chronicles
- 2 Chronicles
- Tobias (or Tobit)
- Letter of Jeremiah
- Song of the Three Children
- Story of Susanna
- Bel and the Dragon
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter
- 1 John
- 2 John
- 3 John
- Prayer of Manasseh
- 3 Esdras
- 4 Esdras
As you can see, there are a dozen books in the Vulgate that aren’t included in Protestant Bibles, and some of the Old Testament book divisions are also different than what you find in modern translations.
1 Samuel is listed as 1 Kings, 2 Samuel is listed as 2 Kings, 1 Kings is listed as 3 Kings, and 2 Kings is listed as 4 Kings. Confused? Jerome also combined Ezra and Nehemiah into a single book, like the Hebrew Bible does. And three apocryphal writings are also grouped with Daniel, although Jerome marked these to separate them.
And again, Jerome didn’t translate or revise all of these texts. He excluded the Letter of Jeremiah and Baruch because he deemed them non-canonical, but they were added to later editions of the Vulgate.
Jerome wrote numerous letters to other scholars, explaining his observations and translation choices for each book. The letters that survived were later gathered into 16 prologues. (This is how we know which books Jerome considered apocryphal.) Since they were written to individuals, these “prologues” include personal remarks.
Throughout these letters, Jerome defended using the original Hebrew instead of the Septuagint. Surprisingly, he argued that the Hebrew text actually points to Christ more than the Septuagint.
A seventeenth prologue asserts that Paul wrote the Book of Hebrews. Since Jerome disagreed with this position, scholars don’t believe he wrote this prologue. (They have other reasons, too, but that’s the big one.) Whoever wrote this prologue may be the same person who revised the epistles and added them to the Vulgate.
The Vulgate’s influence
For many Christians in the Western world, the Vulgate was the only Bible they ever saw. For over a thousand years, it’s passages made their way into art, literature, speeches, and plays portraying biblical stories. In a culture that was saturated with Christianity, the most popular Bible translation couldn’t help but become ubiquitous. The Vulgate was everywhere.
The Latin Vulgate was so dominant that it remained in usage centuries after Latin died out and gave way to English. Jerome’s translation had essentially become the Bible. In the sixteenth century, William Tyndale challenged the idea that the Bible couldn’t be translated into English, pointing to the origins of the Vulgate itself:
“Saint Jerome also translated the Bible into his mother tongue: why may not we also? They will say it cannot be translated into our tongue, it is so rude. It is not so rude as they are false liars. For the Greek tongue agreeth more with the English than with the Latin. And the properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand more times with the English than with the Latin.”
Tyndale clearly had some feelings about Latin. And while he felt English was superior, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate remained “the scholarly Bible” even after several English translations were available from the original languages.
The Vulgate and the Reformation
During the Reformation, the Bible was making its way into the hands of the common people again. While the Vulgate had been carefully copied for millennia, the invention of the printing press made it possible to quickly produce vast copies of English Bibles, so that the scholarly elite weren’t the only ones who could access the Bible anymore.
But the Vulgate remained the translation of choice for theological debates and scholarly writings. Even John Calvin, one of the most famous Reformers, published Latin sermons that used the Vulgate. Another reformer, Theodore Boze, referenced the Vulgate in his Greek New Testament.
Early English translations like the KJV took cues from Jerome to utilize the beauty of their own language to help capture the meaning of Scripture.
Even as the Protestants divorced from the Catholic church, Jerome’s monumental work remained an important fixture of Protestant scholarship.
The Council of Trent
In 1546, in the midst of the Reformation (when Protestants split from the Catholic church), the Council of Trent met to address the biggest issues facing the Catholic church. With the recent invention of the printing press, various translations of the Bible exploded onto the scene. The Catholic church used the Vulgate to officially lock in the Catholic canon, stating that each book in the canon was “entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition.”
Since the Vulgate was the translation the church had been using for centuries, and it included various apocryphal/deuterocanonical texts, those texts were naturally read in church. And because they were read in church for centuries, they were accepted into the canon.
During the council, church leaders also affirmed the Vulgate as the official Latin Bible:
“Moreover, this sacred and holy Synod—considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic—ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.”
It remained the official Latin Bible of the church until 1979, when the Nova Vulgata (a new Latin translation from the original manuscripts) took the honor.
It’s worth noting here that the council did not say that the Vulgate was the official Bible or the official translation of the Bible. The Catholic church sprawled across numerous countries, many of which did not speak Latin. Still, the church’s reverence for this beloved Latin translation did create a big barrier to translating the Bible into filthy common languages like English.
(William Tyndale was strangled to death and burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English, even though the Bible was available in translations of every other major European language.)
Wait, what was that bit about Lucifer?
At the beginning of all this I mentioned that the name Lucifer owes its existence to the Latin Vulgate. But it might surprise you to hear that Lucifer isn’t actually a name in the Vulgate. It’s a title. And it appears four times—including once as a title for Jesus in Revelation 22:16.
The name we all use for the devil comes from a mistake—and it wasn’t Jerome’s.
For all his talk about about original translation, Tyndale himself sometimes turned to the Vulgate when he wasn’t sure how to translate something. This is why we all know Satan as Lucifer, even though the name doesn’t appear in the original Hebrew Bible.
The name comes from a single verse in the Old Testament (Isaiah 14:12), where Jerome translated the Hebrew phrase Helel ben Shahar (meaning “shining one, son of the morning”) into the Latin word, lucifer, meaning “morning star.” The Septuagint uses the Greek name for the morning star, heōsphoros, which literally means “bringer of dawn.” Since Jerome was familiar with both the original Hebrew and the Septuagint, and this is the only place where helel appears in the entire Hebrew Bible (making it very hard to translate), it’s not surprising that Jerome used the word here.
While the Latin word lucifer appears four more times in the Bible, Isaiah 14:12 is the only passage where the KJV turns Lucifer into a proper name.
And that’s how Lucifer got his name. Disappointing, huh?
Now, most modern translations simply say “morning star” in Isaiah 14:12, so Lucifer doesn’t actually appear anywhere in your Bible.
The Latin Vulgate’s lasting legacy
The words of the Vulgate permeated every aspect of Western culture for over 1,000 years. It was the standard scholarly Bible throughout the seventeenth century.
Even though the world moved beyond Latin, the Vulgate survived and continued to influence the church. And just as so many of the world’s languages have their roots in Latin, so much of our religious vocabulary today traces back to the beautiful phrases of the Vulgate.