Vetus Latina

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The Vetus Latina, or Old Latin, refers to translations of the Bible into Latin that predate the Vulgate.

Christianity originated toward the east of the Roman Empire's sphere of influence, the predominant language of which was Greek. While the Jewish Tanakh (much of which later became the Old Testament) was written in Hebrew (along with some small portions in Aramaic), a Greek translation (the Septuagint) had come into common use among Greek-speaking populations, and the books of the New Testament were written in Greek from the get-go.

However, Christianity spread rapidly among Jewish communities throughout the Hellenistic world, and by the time of Paul (c. 5 – c. 67 CE) it had spread to the then heartland of the Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula with its predominantly Latin-speaking population. While the intelligentsia there knew Greek, the common people did not, so the need arose to translate the Bible into Latin.

The Vetus Latina is the version used in most of the works of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Interestingly enough, he listed the poor quality of this translation as one the reasons behind of his initial rejection of Christianity. In later life, he would settle for the unhappy medium of quoting very short passages and basically completing them himself. This happens often in The Confessions.[1]

As the canon of the Bible was not settled in those early years, translation likely took place piecemeal, on an as-needed basis, and by many different translators in parallel. As a result, no two manuscripts of the Vetus Latina are alike and the term does not refer to a single translation, but to a collection of many related translations.

In 382 CE Pope Damasus I commissioned St. Jerome to make a standard Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) to replace the Vetus Latina. The biggest difference between Jerome's approach and the Vetus Latina was in the Old Testament; while the Vetus Latina translated from the Septuagint, known to have numerous translation errors, Jerome preferred to translate directly from the original Hebrew. The Vulgate also benefited from a uniform approach, being more the work of a single translator (except for certain of the deuterocanonical books, for which Jerome simply revised the Vetus Latina translations).

The Vulgate largely displaced the Vetus Latina. However, the influence of the older texts lingered for a long time afterwards, since many scribes, when copying Vulgate manuscripts, unconsciously slipped into the Vetus Latina wording with which they were familiar. Thus there survive many Vetus Latina-Vulgate hybrid manuscripts. Passages of the Vetus Latina survived in Latin hymns, in the Latin liturgy, and in quotes in the writings of the Latin Church Fathers.

Jerome had particular difficulty in having his translation of the Psalms accepted, due partly to the fact that the Psalms were at that time the most recited part of the Bible, being one of the major forms of prayer. As a result, people felt particular discomfort at having wording changed from what they were used to, even if that resulted in a better translation of the original. (A similar sentiment exists today among adherents of the King James Only movement, despite that translation having partially used sources that are known to be dodgy.)

Jerome actually translated the Psalms twice — firstly in an attempt to revise the Old Latin to make it closer to the Hebrew; secondly to produce a fresh translation from the Hebrew originals — but neither version gained wide acceptance initially, so the Vetus Latina text remained the Latin Psalter in common use for centuries to come.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Confessions (Augustine).