I. LATIN VERSIONS.
1. A peculiar interest attaches to the early Latin versions. The "Old Latin" translation of the New Testament, in connection with which one of the Old Testament was executed from the Septuagint, is perhaps the earliest that exists in any language. The Old Syriac alone can rival it in antiquity, and if either may claim the precedence, it is probably the Latin. This version, and afterwards the revision of it by Jerome, was the grand medium through which the Holy Scriptures were known to the Western or Latin churches for more than twelve centuries. It has exercised no small influence on the popular modern versions of Christendom, and it is the great storehouse of theological terms for both Catholic and Protestant Christianity.
The English version of Wiclif (1324-1384) is a literal translation of the current text of the Latin Vulgate. The Psalter of the English Prayer Book is taken from Cranmer's Bible called the "Great English Bible:" and the version of the Psalms follows the Gallican Psalter, the second of the revisions made by Jerome from the Old Latin. See below, No.4.
2. How early the ante-Hieronymian Latin version (that current before the days of Hieronymus, that is, Jerome), was executed is unknown; but the writings of Tertullian furnish satisfactory proof that it was in popular use in North Africa (the place where it was made) in the last quarter of the second century. According to the testimony of the ancient church fathers, its text existed in a great variety of forms, and the same variety has come down to us in the old manuscripts that contain it. Some, indeed, have maintained that several independent versions existed. But the sum of the evidence from both the early fathers and the manuscripts goes to show that there was never more than one that could be called independent. The copies of this were subjected to multiplied emendations or revisions from the Greek original, till the text had fallen in the days of Augustine and Jerome into a state of great confusion.
The language of Augustine is very strong: "The translators of the Scriptures from the Hebrew tongue into the Greek can be numbered, but the Latin interpreters can by no means be numbered. For whenever, in the first ages of Christianity, any one had gained possession of a Greek manuscript, and imagined himself to possess some little skill in the two languages, he ventured to become an interpreter." De Doct. Christ.2.16. According to the received opinion the so-called Itala (Italian) was not an independent version, but one of these revisions, apparently made in Italy, and as some think, under ecclesiastical auspices. This, Augustine recommends as more faithful and perspicuous than the rest.
3. The canon of the Old Latin version seems to have wanted, in the New Testament, Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter. In the Old Testament it followed the Septuagint. It contained, therefore, the apocryphal books of that version, to which was also added the second of Esdras. Appendix to Pt.2, No.6. The text of this version is known to us from two sources, quotations and manuscripts. For our knowledge of the Old Testament we are dependent mainly on the quotations of the early Latin fathers, since only a few fragments remain in the shape of manuscripts. The same is true of some parts of the New Testament, particularly the Apocalypse. But of the gospels as well as other parts of the New Testament, we have some very ancient manuscripts which are of high value in textual criticism. The agreement of this version in many characteristic readings with the oldest known Greek manuscripts has already been noticed. Chap.3, No.3. Such agreement is the strongest possible testimony for the genuineness of the readings in question. Chap.26, No.2.
The Codex Vercellensis, belonging to the fourth century, and said to have been written by Eusebius, bishop of Vercellae (now Vercelli) in Northern Italy where the manuscript is preserved, is one of the oldest manuscripts of the sacred text in existence. The Codex Veronensis at Verona, the Graeco-Latin Codex Claromontanus in the Imperial Library at Paris, the Codex Vindobonensis at Vienna, the Codex Bobbiensis at Turin, and others that might be named, are also very ancient. Among the codices that contain what is called the Italic version, is the Brixianus of the sixth century.
4. About A.D.388, Jerome at the solicitation of Damasus, bishop of Rome, undertook the arduous task of revising the Old Latin version by a comparison with the original Greek text. In this work he proceeded very cautiously, being well aware of the prejudices which he must encounter on the part of multitudes who could not discriminate between the authority of the original Greek text and that of the Latin version made from it. He began with the four gospels. According to his own testimony, he selected ancient Greek manuscripts, but such as did not differ much from the Latin usage; and in the use of these he so restrained his pen that, when he had corrected those things only which seemed to change the sense, he suffered the rest to remain as they were. (Preface to the four gospels addressed to Damasus.) His work of revision was afterwards extended to the remaining books of the New Testament; a revision which Tregelles describes as "less complete and uniform than that of the gospels, and in which many parts seem to have received hardly any alterations from his hand." In Horne, vol.4, ch.23. About the same time he turned his attention to the Latin version of the Old Testament, which had been made, not from the original Hebrew, but from the Greek Septuagint. Of this he first revised the Psalter, but not very thoroughly; in his own words, "cursorily for the most part." This first revision is known by the name of the Roman Psalter. A later and more thorough revision, executed by Jerome at Bethlehem between A.D.384-391, is called the Gallican Psalter. There is good reason to believe that Jerome's revision extended to all the remaining books of the Old Testament, though we have positive evidence in respect to only a part of them -- Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Chronicles.
Gregory of Tours is said to have introduced Jerome's second revision of the Psalter into the public service in France; whence its name Gallican. The Roman Psalter was retained in Italy till the time of Pius V., who introduced the Gallican generally. But three churches, one of them that of the Vatican, continued to use the Roman Psalter. Westcott in Smith's Bible Dict.; Art. Vulgate.
5. Jerome was soon convinced of the necessity of undertaking a new translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. To this arduous task he addressed himself with great earnestness, availing himself of the help of Jewish scholars to complete his knowledge of the Hebrew. The whole work occupied his time, with periods of intermission, from A.D.385 to A.D.405. See in Horne, vol.2, p.89. He did not venture, however, to make a new version from the Hebrew of the book of Psalms, the constant use of which in the church service was a barrier to the substitution of a new translation. He accordingly retained his second revision from the Septuagint, which is called the Gallican Psalter. Of the Apocryphal books he translated only two, Judith and Tobit. The remaining Apocryphal writings were retained in their old form. The Latin bible thus in part revised and in part translated by Jerome (most of the Apocryphal writings being left unrevised) is called the Vulgate, that is common or current version, although this term belonged, before the days of Jerome, to the Old Latin itself. Its diversified character is thus briefly indicated by Westcott. -- "(1.) Unrevised Old Latin: Wisdom, Eccl., 1, 2 Macc., Baruch. (2.) Old Latin revised, from the LXX.: Psalter. (3.) Jerome's free translation from the original text: Judith, Tobit. (4.) Jerome's translation from the original: Old Testament except Psalter. (5.) Old Latin revised from Greek MSS.: Gospels. (6.) Old Latin cursorily revised: the remainder of New Testament." In Smith's Bible Dict.; Art. Vulgate.
It is not necessary to follow the history of the text of the Vulgate since Jerome's day. Suffice it to say that the simultaneous use of the Old Latin and Vulgate led to a corruption of both texts, which has not yet been thoroughly removed. The present standard text is that called the Clementine, from Pope Clement VIII., under whose auspices the Vulgate was edited in 1592. This is better than the preceding Sixtine edition, A.D.1590, but not by any means the pure text of Jerome, as it might be recovered, proximately at least, by a careful collation of ancient manuscripts and quotations.
The oldest and best manuscript of the Latin Vulgate Old and New Testaments, is the Codex Amiatinus in the Laurentian Library at Florence. It belongs to the sixth century, and exhibits the text of Jerome in a very pure form, carrying us back to about 120 years from Jerome's death. The Codex Fuldensis is said to belong to the same century. There are other good manuscripts more or less complete of the eighth and ninth centuries.
Many other Latin versions have appeared in modern times, sometimes in connection with the original text, and sometimes separately, which it is not necessary to notice in detail.
II. SYRIAC VERSIONS.
6. The ancient Syriac version called the Peshito belongs, in the judgment of biblical scholars, to the second century. It comprises the Old Testament as well as the New. The version of the Old Testament was made from the original Hebrew, and thus has the honor of being the oldest translation of the Hebrew Scriptures for Christian use, the Old Latin version having been made from the Septuagint. The version of the New Testament was made in connection with that of the Old, so that both together constitute one work.
Syrian tradition makes extravagant claims in respect to the antiquity of the Peshito, telling us that it was executed by men sent to Palestine by the apostle Thaddeus (whom tradition connects with the founding of the church at Edessa), and by Abgarus, King of Edessa, a contemporary of the Saviour. The Old Testament was sometimes referred to a still earlier age -- that of Solomon and Hiram, or that of the captivity of the ten tribes. Without giving credence to such traditions, we may well believe that it belongs to the earliest period of the Syrian churches, and cannot be placed later than the last part of the second century. Of the term Peshito, that is, simple, there are different explanations. The most usual is that it denotes a simple and literal version, free from glosses and allegorical interpretations. Tregelles suggests that it was called simple in contrast with the translation made by Paul of Tela from the Hexaplar text of Origen (see below, No.8), which was replete with asterisks and obeli to mark Origen's revisions, and had also marginal references. It is agreed that the Old Testament was translated from the original Hebrew and Chaldee, though the translators seem to have had before them the Greek version of the Seventy, and to have consulted it in the progress of their work
7. The Peshito is a free, and at the same time, a faithful version of Scripture, holding the first place among the ancient versions for its general excellence, while it ranks with the Old Latin in antiquity. Its authority in both textual criticism and interpretation is deservedly high. As it regards textual criticism, however, its value is diminished by the fact that its text has not come down to us in a pure state. It has suffered in the same way as the text of the Old Latin, though not to the same extent.
Among the manuscripts brought from the Nitrian monasteries, and deposited in the British Museum, is one of great antiquity, containing large portions of the four gospels in Syriac. Dr. Cureton published in 1858 the text of this manuscript as "Remains of a very ancient Syriac recension of the four gospels in Syriac, hitherto unknown in Europe," with an English translation and preface. Its appearance was hailed with lively interest and has excited warm discussions. The manuscript itself is assigned to the fifth century, but it presents a text which, in the judgment of competent scholars, is older than the current text of the Peshito. Whether it is an older form of the Peshito version, or another and earlier version of the gospels, is a question that has been differently answered. It is maintained, on the one hand, that the Peshito is a revision of the Curetonian text, "replete with readings unknown in the second century" (Tregelles in Smith's Bible Dict.); on the other, that it is "an older version than the Peshito; which the author or authors of the latter consulted throughout." Davidson in Alexander's Kitto. Its great value for critical purposes must be acknowledged by all.
In many characteristic readings it agrees with the oldest manuscripts and quotations. It has also some erroneous readings known to be of great antiquity. In a word, the high antiquity of its text cannot be reasonably questioned. Drs. Cureton and Tregelles think that the gospel of Matthew may be a translation from the apostle's Hebrew copy. But this is denied by Davidson and others.
8. The Philoxenian Syriac version was executed A.D.508, under the auspices of Philoxenus, or Xenaias, bishop of Hierapolis or Mabug in Syria. Philoxenus belonged to the sect of the Monophysites, and it is generally thought that the version was made in the interest of that sect. The translator's name was Polycarp, one of Philoxenus' rural bishops. With the exception, perhaps, of certain books (see below), the text of this version has not come down to us in its original form. We have only a revision of it made A.D.616 by Thomas of Harkel in a monastery of Alexandria, whence this version is also called the Harclean Syriac. The characteristic of this version is its extremely literal character. It is the translator's aim to represent every Greek word, even the article, by a corresponding Syriac word, even where the idiom of the language must thereby be violated. Hence its style is of necessity barbarous. But this very character of literalness gives to the Philoxenian version high authority in respect to textual criticism. So far as it has come down to us in its primitive form, it is, in truth, equal to the Greek text of its own time.
About the time that Thomas of Harkel revised the Philoxenian version of the New Testament, Paul of Tela, another Monophysite, executed what is called the Hexaplar Syriac version of the Old Testament, because it was made from the text of Origen's Hexaplar. Chap.16, No.12. It coincides with the Philoxenian version of the New Testament in respect to its character as well as the time of its appearance, being made on the principle of following the Greek text word for word as exactly as possible. Thus the Hexaplar version of the Old, and the Philoxenian version of the New, constitute together a whole of like character throughout.
After the example of Origen, Paul introduced into his version asterisks and obeli; the asterisk (*) to indicate insertions made in the text on the authority of manuscripts and other versions; the obelus (/), to mark passages of doubtful character. Thus it supplies, as far as a version can, the Hexaplar of Origen, of which only a few fragments remain.
The Philoxenian version of the New Testament, as revised by Thomas of Harkel, contains also the same asterisks and obeli. Critical marks and marginal readings also appear in most of the manuscripts. This critical apparatus is generally thought to have proceeded from Thomas himself, in imitation of the Hexaplar Syriac of the Old Testament; but whether to indicate comparison with the Peshito, or with the Greek manuscripts employed by Thomas is not certain.
There is a version of the Catholic epistles wanting in the Peshito -- 2 Pet., 2, 3 John, Jude -- existing in two forms, one of which is thought to be the unrevised Philoxenian text. There is a codex at Rome containing the four gospels which has also been supposed to contain the same unrevised text.
The Jerusalem Syriac Lectionary, containing simply lessons from the four gospels, is a peculiar version known to us from a single manuscript in the Vatican Library which belongs to the eleventh century. The version itself is referred by some to the sixth century, by others to a later date. Its dialect is barbarous, being a mixture of Chaldee and Syriac, but its readings are said often to coincide with the oldest and best authorities.
III. EGYPTIAN AND ETHIOPIC VERSIONS.
9. Formerly but one version was known to exist in the language of the ancient Egyptians. This, which was made in the dialect of lower Egypt, was naturally called Coptic. When it was discovered that another version existed in the dialect of upper Egypt, the Arabic term Sahidic was applied to it. But since the word Coptic is generic, applying to both dialects alike, it has been proposed to call the former version Copto-Memphitic or simply Memphitic, from Memphis, the ancient capital of lower Egypt; and the latter Copto-Thebaic or Thebaic, from Thebes, the celebrated capital of ancient upper Egypt. When these versions were executed cannot be determined with certainty. But they existed in the fourth century, and probably in the latter part of the third century. Their high antiquity gives to them great value in textual criticism. The latter of them, however, exists only in a fragmentary form. Some fragments of a third version, differing from both the Memphitic and the Thebaic, have been discovered. To this, the epithet Bashmuric has been applied, from the Arabian name Bashmur, a district of lower Egypt in the Delta to the East. But Egyptian scholars doubt whether the term is well applied, as the version is said to have stronger affinity to the Thebaic than to the Memphitic version.
The Memphitic and Thebaic versions are said to have contained the whole Bible, that of the Old Testament being made from the Septuagint. The whole Memphitic New Testament has been several times published, but never in such a manner as to meet the wants of Biblical criticism. Of the Thebaic version only some fragments have been published.
10. An Ethiopic version of the whole Bible exists in the ancient dialect of Axum. That of the Old Testament was made from the Septuagint; that of the New is a close version of the original Greek. The age to which it belongs is not known. Many of the readings of its text are said to show an affinity with the older class of Greek manuscripts, while others are of a later character. This leads to the suspicion that the version has undergone revision by the aid of later Greek manuscripts. An edition of the whole Bible is in process of publication in Germany.
IV. THE GOTHIC AND OTHER VERSIONS.
11. The first information which European scholars had of the existence of a Gothic version of the New Testament was in the sixteenth century, when one Morillon copied from a Gothic manuscript in the library of the Monastery of Werden in Westphalia the Lord's Prayer and some other parts, which were afterwards published. When the Swedes, in 1648, took Prague, among the spoils sent to Stockholm was the celebrated Codex Argenteus, Silver manuscript, containing a copy of the Gothic gospels written on purple vellum in silver letters, except the beginnings of the sections which are in gold. When entire the manuscript is said to have contained 320 leaves, but when found it had but 188 in quarto size. In its present state it wants parts of all the gospels. The letters are deeply furrowed, and beautifully regular. It is thought that this manuscript was executed for the use of some Gothic king. After various changes of place, it was finally deposited in the library of the University of Upsal in Sweden, where it is now preserved enclosed in a silver case. The Gothic version, of which the Codex Argenteus is a transcript, was made in the fourth century by Ulphilas, second bishop of the Goths in Moesia (the so-called Moeso-Goths). The manuscript itself belongs, it is thought, to the sixth century.
12. In 1762 a palimpsest was discovered by Knittel at Wolfenbuettel, a city of the duchy of Brunswick in Germany, containing, as the earlier writing, part of the epistle to the Romans in Gothic and Latin, the versions standing side by side. In 1817 the late Cardinal Mai discovered in the Ambrosian Library at Milan five palimpsests, from which, in connection with the Wolfenbuettel palimpsest, the Gothic text of the greater part of the Pauline epistles (that to the Hebrews not included) has been recovered, as also some fragments of the gospels, and of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. All that has been recovered of the Gothic version was edited in 1835-6 by Gabelentz and Loebe with a Latin translation, notes, and a Gothic dictionary and grammar. There are several later editions partly of the Codex Argenteus, and partly of all the Gothic remains of the Scriptures. Thus this interesting version, which represents the text of the New Testament in the fourth century as it was known to Ulphilas, is made available for the purposes of Biblical criticism.
13. There is an ancient Armenian version unaccompanied as yet by any Latin translation; and thus available for critical purposes only through the help of those who know the language. By means of such help Dr. Tregelles used it for his critical edition of the New Testament, and he speaks of its value "as a critical witness as to the general reading of certain Greek copies existing in the former half of the fifth century." In Smith's Bible Dict., Art. Armenian Version.
Other ancient versions, as the Arabic and Slavonic, we pass by; as their comparatively late date makes them of little importance for critical studies. The history of modern versions, among which is our own authorized version, presents a wide and interesting field of inquiry, but it does not come within the scope of the present work.