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The Vetus Latina, or the Pre-Jerome Latin Text

For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ, II Corinthians 2:17.

There are two Latin Vulgates just as there are two streams of competing Greek Texts, and two streams of competing English Texts (the King James Bible against all comers). The differences were so obvious that by the reign of Charlemagne (c800AD), the two strains of text were causing confusion. Not only did the two strains have variant readings, one strain reading along with the much later King James Bible, and the other strain reading much like the new versions of the bible popular today; they were written in two different styles of Latin.

Jerome, for whom the Jerome Text is named, translated what texts he had using the more modern of the two Latin styles starting in the late 4th century and finishing in the early 5th century. In that his text bears witness to textual readings from such an early time period, they should not be automatically ignored. However, when they are examined they prove to ignore many readings that were quoted by early church fathers centuries earlier, and it is often in clear disagreement with the Vetus Latina which is written in the older style and which can be traced back to Apostolic times.

What Jerome's Text proves to be is the earliest vulgar translation of the Greek Texts favored by the Roman Catholic Church after it had consolidated its political power in the old Roman Empire. It was a a text favored by the Unitarian cults popular at that time in Alexandria, Egypt. It was to be the text that dulled the spiritual inquisitiveness of the Dark Ages. It is a text almost universally rejected by the underground churches often referred to as Anabaptist. It was a text uniquely qualified to harness the intellects of fallen man to the group thought of the mystery of iniquity. It dovetails nicely with the modern versions being published today.

What often confuses modern students of the bible is that complete copies of the bible were almost nonexistent during the Dark Ages and when they did exist, they were priceless works found in king's palaces or wealthy monasteries. What copies of scripture did exist throughout Europe were usually small snippets which were just as often reverenced as relics as they were reverenced for reading. Deanesly points out that sometimes monasteries or convents had fairly complete manuscripts of the Vetus Latina rather than Jerome's Text because of their ignorance of the issues, not knowing that their copy was proscribed by the church.

What Tyndale and his later associates such as John Purvey had to work with were the many partial manuscripts and the few complete manuscripts that graced England at that time. By the decree of Charlemagne, the better manuscripts of his empire were ordered to be sent to England and Western France (then belonging to England) for the use of Alcuin of York. Charlemagne had commissioned him to solve the problem of which text was authentic.

Alcuin's choice was pro-Jerome which led to the beautifully decorated Alcuin Latin Bible that can be seen in the British Museum. It is to all of the small portions of the Vetus Latina that we can turn our attention. For centuries, they lay dormant as relics in castles scattered throughout English domains. It is inconceivable that any one nation possessed so many witnesses to the Old Latin Text. A study of the Vetus Latina Texts that are catalogued by the Beuron Ancient Latin Institute of Switzerland shows that many of the older manuscripts had links to England. That can be traced to the Celtic Church where the monks used the older Latin, Charlemagne's decree, or both.

Of the oldest 15 manuscripts listed, 8 of them have ties to England. For example, two that are in Russia were spirited out of France by the Russian Ambassador during the French Revolution. Alcuin did some of his work in Western France when it was under English rule. One manuscript is in Sweden and was at one time looted from England by the Vikings and held for ransom. One is in Dublin and was Irish made. The preponderance of Old Latin manuscripts tied to England corroborates the edict of Charlemagne and bears witness to the many texts that would have been at the Wycliffe translators' disposal. Those that I referenced as catalogued by Beuron were only major manuscripts. I have never studied the prevalence of partial manuscripts by searching Beuron files. By the evidence of testimonies left, the word of God was far more prevalent in small portions of scripture that often encompassed less than one book.

For 1500 years, Latin was the major language in which God spoke to his people. I do not believe that there is anything that God wanted man to know that could not have been found by a reader reading the Latin Bible, if that person were so fortunate as to have an entire bible. (That alone is the definition of a perfect bible.) Latin was the universal language of all educated persons. A man could travel throughout Europe communicating in Latin and always find people with whom to converse. It served the purpose that English serves today. To think that Wycliffe would have had a complete Latin Manuscript in front of him at his daily disposal such as we might expect from a translator today is unreasonable. To ascribe discernment to him to use correct readings in the manuscripts that he picked through is closer to the mark.

The other great misunderstanding about Wycliffe is that people assume that he was responsible for all Wycliffe Bibles. He was not. He started a movement which kept going for 150 years. There are Wycliffe Bibles of much greater accuracy that were translated by men far more enabled in the languages of the bible than Wycliffe ever was. The Tyndale Bible is just another of the long string of bibles that until Tyndale chose to publicize his involvement, were ascribed to Wycliffe, but in reality were the work of men keeping their heads low for a century and a half. Had he kept his name secret and never sought the mass printing of his bible, it would have been catalogued as a later edition Wycliffe Bible.

We will probably never know who all of the variant translators were who labored for the century and a half between Wycliffe and Tyndale, but Sven Fristedt has unearthed many of their names through linguistic forensics. He compared the translating styles of learned men who translated histories from Latin to Middle English and then sifted through the various Wycliffe Bibles in their many dialects and styles until he found the match. He also traced the careers of refugees from the collapse of Muslim Spain as they introduced sophisticated Greek and Hebrew translations into their renditions of the Wycliffe Bible in the middle and late 15th century.

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