What ist the Vetus Latina?
Vetus Latina or "Old Latin Bible" is the collective title for the large and very diverse collection of Latin biblical texts used by Christian communities from the second century. Following the expansion and triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Latin became increasingly used as a lingua franca in place of Greek, first in North Africa and then in Spain, England, Gaul and Germany. A diverse array of translations of the Bible appeared, frequently inaccurate and not controlled by any ecclesiastical authority. This flood of versions came to an end in the fourth century as one of them, later known as the Vulgate, gradually established itself in place of the others. By the Carolingian era, the variety of Old Latin texts had been completely superseded.
The Vulgate is a collection of biblical texts from several sources. Its foundation is the translation of Old Testament books made directly from the Hebrew, with reference to other Greek and Latin versions, by Jerome († 419). For the remaining parts of the Old Testament, as for the New Testament, the Vulgate is a revised form of an Old Latin translation: of these, only the Gospels were the work of Jerome. The Vulgate presents a characteristic text clearly distinguishable from the rest of the tradition, even though during its long history it too has been subject to various recensions and editions.
In contrast, the Vetus Latina consists of all biblical texts translated from the Greek which do not correspond to the Vulgate. Most Old Latin versions have only been transmitted as fragments. Alongside the few manuscripts which have been preserved, covering an uneven selection of biblical books, the citations and allusions in Latin Church Fathers (and Christian writings in Greek which were translated into Latin at an early date) are an essential source for investigating the tradition. The citations of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage († 258) provide a firm starting-point: the vocabulary and translation technique of the version used by Cyprian are clearly differentiated from later forms of text, attested in abundance from the fourth century onwards.
A foundational document for european cultural and religious history
The text of the Latin Bible constitutes one of the most important pieces of evidence for western civilisation. The numerous revisions which it constantly underwent over the course of the centuries reflect its development. Our entire intellectual and religious history is based on its readings. The Latin Bible is a prominent source of information not only for theologians, but also historians and linguists. It bears witness to numerous levels of language, ranging from colloquial expression to the highest refined style. For this reason, the importance of the Vetus Latina for the cultural and religious history of the West can hardly be overrated.
At the same time, we must not succumb to the mistaken impression that the Vetus Latina gives us access to the original Latin text of the Christian Bible. Rather, we are dealing with translations which have been transmitted piecemeal. In the case of the Old Testament, these are descended from the Septuagint, a free rendering of the Hebrew original into Greek. Nevertheless, the Old Latin Bible, in its ancient diversity, is a splendid record of the way in which the West made the Christian message its own. The frequently-invoked Christian roots of the West will be brought clearly before our eyes through the edition of the Vetus Latina.