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The Vetus Latina is a collective name given to the Biblical texts in the Latin language that were translated before St Jerome's Vulgate bible became the standard Bible for Latin-speaking Western Christians. The phrase Vetus Latina is Latin for Old Latin, and the Vetus Latina is sometimes known as the Old Latin Bible.
There was no single "Vetus Latina" Bible; there are, instead, a collection of Biblical manuscript texts that bear witness to Latin translations of Biblical passages that preceded Jerome's. After comparing readings for Luke 24:4-5 in Vetus Latina manuscripts, Bruce M. Metzger counted "no fewer than 27 variant readings!" To these witnesses of previous translations, many scholars frequently add quotations of Biblical passages that appear in the works of the Latin Fathers, some of which share readings with certain groups of manuscripts. As such, many the Vetus Latina "versions" were generally not promulgated in their own right as translations of the Bible to be used in the whole Church; rather, many of the texts that form part of the Vetus Latina were prepared on an ad hoc basis for the local use of Christian communities, or to illuminate another Christian discourse or sermon. There are some Old Latin texts that seem to have aspired to greater stature or currency; several manuscripts of Old Latin Gospels exist, containing the four canonical Gospels; the several manuscripts that contain them differ substantially from one another. Other Biblical passages, however, are extant only in excerpts or fragments.
The language of the Old Latin translations is uneven in quality, as Augustine of Hippo lamented in De Doctrina Christiana (2, 16). Grammatical solecisms abound; some reproduce literally Greek or Hebrew idioms as they appear in the Septuagint. Likewise, the various Old Latin translations reflect the various versions of the Septuagint circulating, with the African manuscripts (such as the Codex Bobiensis) preserving readings of the Western text-type, while readings in the European manuscripts are closer to the Byzantine text-type. Many grammatical idiosyncrasies come from the use of Vulgar Latin grammatical forms in the text.
One example of a hard part in the Vetus Latina comes from a familiar quotation, frequently set to music, from Psalm 122:6, which in the Old Latin psalter goes:
- Rogate quae ad pacem sunt Ierusalem
With the publication of Jerome's Vulgate, which offered a single, stylistically consistent Latin text translated from the original tongues, the Vetus Latina gradually fell out of use. Jerome, in a letter, complains that his new version was initially disliked by Christians who were familiar with the phrasing of the old translations. However, as copies of the complete Bible were infrequently found, Old Latin translations of various books of the Bible were copied into manuscripts along side Vulgate translations, inevitably exchanging readings; Old Latin translations of single books can be found in manuscripts as late as the 13th century. However, with the authority of a canonized saint behind it, the Vulgate generally displaced the Vetus Latina and was acknowledged as the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent.
The Old Latin Psalms are a special case. Here, the Latin liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church continues the use of the Gallican psalter, which is a version of the Psalms from the Vetus Latina that was slightly revised by St Jerome before he began to prepare his Vulgate translation. These Psalms had already become widely used in the liturgy, and their phrasing was familiar to worshippers despite their occasional divergences from classical Latin usage. Jerome also translated the Psalms from the original Hebrew; Jerome's new Psalter is called the Iuxta Hebraea, but this new version failed to displace the Gallican psalter in liturgical use. These are the psalms that are chanted to Gregorian chant and used in classical music. In 1979, the Roman Catholic Church issued a Nova Vulgata version of the Psalms, and authorised them for liturgical use; by then, Latin liturgies were seldom used, and the Nova Vulgata has made little impact.