1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > [Bible in Christian Church Before Invention of Printing] The Christian Versions

(Part 12)


2. The Christian Versions

Greek Versions

We have seen that the early church adopted the LXX., not so much in the character of a version, as in that of an authoritative original.Although several attempts were made in the 2nd century of our era to produce a better Greek rendering of the Old Testament, not one of these seems to have had its origin in the Catholic Church. Aquila was a Jew, whose closely verbal rendering was designed to serve the subtilties of Rabbinic exegesis. Symmachus and Theodotion were probably Ebionites. The former was an excellent master of Greek, who happily corrected many clumsy renderings of the LXX., but inclined too much to paraphrase, and to the obliteration of characteristic figure and bold expressions. Theodotion made less extensive changes, and aimed only at necessary corrections. His rendering of Daniel was so manifest an improvement that it entirely displaced the old version, and is still regularly printed as part of the LXX.

Origen's Hexapla

In the Christian Church the importance of these new versions, and the unsatisfactory condition of the LXX,—which, apart from its original defects, had been much corrupted in successive transcriptions—were first clearly set forth by Origen in his Hexaplar edition of the Old Testament. This great work takes its name from the six columns in which it was arranged, containing respectively the Hebrew in the proper character, the same in Greek letters, the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and a text of the LXX., partly corrected by comparison of MSS., partly emended by recourse to the Hebrew. The variations of several less important versions were also noted. The complete Hexapla was too huge a work to be transcribed and circulated as a whole. It lay in the library at Caesarea, and was only occasionally consulted by scholars; but the column containing Origen’s emended text of the LXX. was published in separate transcripts by Eusebius and Pamphilus, and attained so great a circulation that in the Palestinian churches, as we learn from Jerome, it quite displaced the older text. In composing his Hexaplar text, Origen was careful to distinguish his own improvements from the original LXX. By the use of asterisks and other marks. In later copies these marks were unfortunately often omitted. The Hexaplar text became mixed up with the true LXX., and the modern critic is sometimes tempted to forget how much the Eastern Church owed to this first attempt to go back to the Hebrew Old Testament, in his impatience at the obliteration by the adoption of Hexaplar corrections of important divergences of the LXX. from the Massoretic text. Our knowledge of the other columns of Origen’s great edition is fragmentary, and is derived partly from citations is ancient authors, partly from notes in MSS. of the Hexaplar LXX., or of the Syriac translation of it composed by Paul of Tela (616 A.D.) The best collection of these fragments is that edited by Field (Origenis Hexaplorum quae supersunt, Oxford, 1867-1875).

The first origin of translations of the Christian Scriptures into the vernacular of non-Hellenic churches is involved in much obscurity. Apart from the probable existence of early Aramaic gospels, there is no sure trace of a Christian literature in any other tongue than Greek till late in the 2nd century. Even in the churches of Gaul, Greek was the recognized language of Christian authorship. In Rome the literary use of Greek extended into the 3rd century; and in the earliest days of the Roman Church, Greek was the language of public worship. Even in remote districts the demand for a vernacular Bible can hardly have come from the educated and reading classes, but arose rather from the custom of reading lessons from Scripture in the congregation. The earliest Christian translations are the Peshito or "Simple" version in Syria, and the Old Latin in Africa, monuments of the early vigour of two great churches on the eastern and western outskirts of Hellenic culture.

Syriac Versions

It is scarcely probable that either of these versions is older than the middle of the 2nd century. The Syriac, which claims to be first considered, was already an old version, containing obsolete expressions, in the time of S. Ephraem, who died 373 A.D. Internal marks of antiquity are found in the relation of the Old Testament to a very early Jewish exegesis, and especially in the omission from the New Testament of 2 Peter, 2, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. On the other hand, there is no certain reference to this version by authors earlier than Ephraem ; and the data afforded by the history of the canon, and by a comparison of the earliest remains of Syriac literature—the hymns of Bardesanes, who died about 225—are not sufficient to supply the lack of direct information. Some critics still date the version from the beginning of the 2nd century, while others would bring it down into the 3rd. Even the close of the 3rd century has been named ; but this view rests on the unlikely of supposition that the omission of five New Testament books was due to later theological influences, and was not an original peculiarity of the version. The translation is, on the whole, excellent. The Old Testament is taken from the Hebrew, and, though sometimes dependent on Jewish, and in other parts strongly influenced by LXX., is decidedly superior to the Targums. The Peshito was the received version in all branches of the much divided Syrian churches. But it did not stand alone. The Hexaplar version of Paul of Tela, and the slavishly literal Philoxenian (508 A.D.—revised a century later by Thomas of Hharkel), were presumably designed in the service of Biblical criticism. More obscure is the origin and purpose of the fragmentary version of the gospels published by Cureton in 1858, and by him supposed to be older than the Peshito.

Latin Versions

In the history of the Old Latin version almost nothing is certain save that it originated in Africa, before the time of Tertullian, and that it assumed such Protean shapes in the hands of transcribers that it is to the day uncertain whether several distinct versions are not included in the general name of the Old Latin. Jerome, indeed, speaks only of great variations between copy and copy; but Augustine tells us that the "Itala" is to be preferred to the other Latin interpretations. Hence MSS. of the Old Latin are often called copies of the Itala ; but in truth no one knows what the Itala is, for it is mentioned only by Augustine, and by him only once.

A version which at best was a rude and oven-literal rendering of the Greek Bible, in an unpolished provincial dialect, and which had not even that fixed form which is so necessary in a Bible for ecclesiastical use, could not continue to serve the needs of the great Latin Church ; and towards the close of the 4th century a work of revision was undertaken at the instance of Damasus, bishop of Rome, by Jerome, the most learned of the Western doctors. Jerome began by correcting the New Testament, making only such changes as seemed absolutely imperative. In the Old Testament he first revised the Psalter after the LXX., producing the version known as the Roman Psalter from its adoption in the Roman liturgy. A second revision, based on the Hexaplar text, forms the Gallican Psalter, long used in Gaul and other churches beyond the Alps. Then Jerome proceeded to revise other books on the basis of the Hexaplar Greek; but, finding this half-measure unsatisfactory, he finally rendered the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew. The work was completed 405 A.D., and though often dependent on Aquila, and especially on Symmachus, it bears high witness to the scholarship of the author, and is perhaps the best of the ancient versions. In spite of its merits the new version was much attacked, and made way in public estimation by very slow degrees. It was not till the 9th century that the Old Latin was entirely superseded in the Roman Church, and the circulation of the old and new versions side by side was long a fertile source of corruptions in the text of both. At length the complete supremacy of Jerome’s Latin was marked by the transference to it of the name of the Vulgate Version, which in older times was given to the LXX.

Other Eastern Versions

The Egyptian versions (Memphitic in the dialect of lower Egypt, Thebaic or Sahidic for upper Egypt) supplied the needs of the only great Christian population of the early church which was not able to use the Greek, the Latin, or the Syriac. The most recent inquirers are disposed to believe that Egypt received the Bible in the vernacular almost as soon as Syria. The version was taken from the Greek, which was also the source of various later translations—the Ethiopic, the Armenian (5th century), the Georgian (6th century), the Slavonic (9th century)—fruits of the gradual diffusion of Christianity in the remotest regions of the ancient world. The Gothic version of Ulfilas—the earliest written monument of the Teutonic languages—is of the 4th century, and was also from the Greek. Only fragments of this translation remain to us, mainly in the famous silver-lettered MS. of the 5th or 6th century (Codex Argenteus) in the library of Upsal.

Thus far the history of the versions records the triumphs of Christianity. The Arabic versions, on the contrary, owe their origin to the spread of Islam, when the language of the conquering Saracens displaced the ancient dialects of Syria and Egypt. This change did not diminish the authority of the old ecclesiastical versions, or displace them from their position in the service of the church. The edification of the unlearned was secured by reading the lessons in the vulgar tongue, as well as in Syriac or Coptic ; and, accordingly, the numerous Christian Arabic versions are mainly taken not from the original tongues, but from the versions whose use they were designed to supplement. In like manner the rise of the New Persian language and literature produced a Persian version of the Syriac New Testament. Of parts of the Old Testament there are Arabic and Persian translations directly from the Hebrew, but these are the work of Jewish scholars. The Arabic versions of the Pentateuch and Isaiah, by R. Saadias Gaon, in the 10th century, are among the most important monuments of ancient Jewish learning.

Later Western Versions

In the West as in the East the disintegration of the Roman empire was associated with the rise of new national dialects, and Latin ceased to be understood by the laity. But the Roman Church was too intent on the preservation of her homogeneous organization, her visible unity of worship, to allow the vulgar tongues to supplant the old liturgical language, or even to introduce a bilingual service. The use of the Bible in a form intelligible to the illiterate was shifted from the sphere of public worship to that of private edification and instruction ; and for the latter purpose the necessities of a barbarous age seemed to demand explanatory paraphrases, Bible narratives in metre, and the like, rather literal renderings of the whole Scriptures. Thus, in the Anglo-Saxon Church, Caedmon’s poetical version of the Bible history dates from 664 A.D., while the earliest prose translations of parts of the Latin Bible (gospels, psalms, &c.) do not seem to be older than the 8th century. In Germany, in like manner, metrical versions of the gospel are among the earliest attempts to convey the Bible to the people. Ottfrid’s harmony of the gospels in High German, and the poem called Héliand (Saviour), in Old Saxon, date from the 9th century ; and the prose translation of the so-called Gospel Harmony of Tatian—from the Latin of Victor of Capua—belongs to the same age. A complete and literal translation of the Vulgate existed in Germany perhaps as early as the beginning of the 14th century. Among nations whose speech was descended from the vulgar Latin, the work of translation naturally began later. The earliest remains of Romance versions are thought to be as old the 11th century ; but the work of translation assumed important dimensions mainly in connection with the spirit of revolt against the Church of Rome which rose in the 12th and centuries. The study of the Bible in the vulgar tongue was a characteristic of the Cathari and Waldenses, and the whole weight of the church’s authority was turned against the use of the Scriptures by the laity. The prohibition of the Bible in the vulgar tongue, put forth at the Council of Toulouse in 1229, was repeated by other councils in various parts of the church, but failed to quell the rising interest in the Scriptures. In England and in Bohemia the Bible was translated by the reforming parties of Wyclif and Huss ; and the early presses of the 15th century sent forth Bibles, not only in but in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch.

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