Jerome's Preface to the Vulgate translation of the Four Gospels.

[The following brief introduction and translation are from the CCEL (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) web site]

This version was made at Rome between the years 382 and 385. The only Preface remaining is that to the translation of the Gospels, but Jerome speaks of, and quotes from, his version of the other parts also. The work was undertaken at the request and under the sanction of Pope Damasus, who had consulted Jerome in a.d. 383 on certain points of Scriptural criticism, and apparently in the same year urged him to revise the current Latin version by help of the Greek original. It is to be observed that Jerome's aim was "to revise the old Latin, and not to make a new version. When Augustin expressed to him his gratitude for `his translation of the Gospels,' he tacitly corrected him by substituting for this phrase `the correction of the New Testament.' Yet, although he proposed to himself this limited object, the various forms of corruption which had been introduced were, as he describes, so numerous that the difference of the old and revised (Hieronymian) text is throughout clear and striking."


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To Pope Damasus[1], ca. 383 CE:

... You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all; and how can I dare to change the language of the world in its hoary old age, and carry it back to the early days of its infancy? Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language, and call me a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein? Now there are two consoling reflections which enable me to bear the odium– in the first place, the command is given by you who are the supreme bishop; and secondly, even on the showing of those who revile us, readings at variance with the early copies cannot be right. For if we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies. If, on the other hand, we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek and correct the mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake? I am not discussing the Old Testament, which was turned into Greek by the Seventy elders, and has reached us by a descent of three steps.[2] I do not ask what Aquila[3] and Symmachus[4] think, or why Theodotion[5] takes a middle course between the ancients and the moderns. I am willing to let that be the true translation which had apostolic approval.[6] I am now speaking of the New Testament. This was undoubtedly composed in Greek, with the exception of the work of Matthew the Apostle, who was the first to commit to writing the Gospel of Christ, and who published his work in Judaea in Hebrew characters. We must confess that as we have it in our language it is marked by discrepancies, and now that the stream is distributed into different channels we must go back to the fountainhead. I pass over those manuscripts which are associated with the names of Lucian and Hesychius, and the authority of which is perversely maintained by a handful of disputatious persons.[7] It is obvious that these writers could not amend anything in the Old Testament after the labours of the Seventy; and it was useless to correct the New, for versions of Scripture which already exist in the languages of many nations show that their additions are false. I therefore promise in this short Preface the four Gospels only, which are to be taken in the following order, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, as they have been revised by a comparison of the Greek manuscripts. Only early ones have been used. But to avoid any great divergences from the Latin which we are accustomed to read, I have used my pen with some restraint, and while I have corrected only such passages as seemed to convey a different meaning, I have allowed the rest to remain as they are.

 

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NOTES

[1] Made pope 366, died 384. Jerome had been his secretary at the Council held at Rome in 382, and continued is literary services till the pope's death, in 385.
[2] Jerome refers to the Septuagint which was translated from Hebrew into Greek, and from Greek into Latin.
[3] Aquila belonged to the second century, but whether to the first half, or to the early part of the second half, cannot be determined. He was a Jewish proselyte, of Sinope in Pontus, and is supposed to have translated the books of the Old Testament into Greek in order to assist the Hellenistic Jews in their controversies with Christians. Jerome's estimate of him varied from time to time. In his commentary on Hos. ii., Is. xlix., and Letter XXVIII., etc., he treats him as worthy of credit. On the other hand, in the letter to Pammachius. De Opt. Gen. Interp. (LVII. 11), he describes him as contentiosus; but in Letter XXXVI. 12, he denies that he is such. In the preface to Job he speaks of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion as "Judaising heretics, who by their deceitful translation have concealed many mysteries of salvation."
[4] Symmachus was the author of the third Greek version. He is said to have been a Samaritan by birth. The date of his version cannot be accurately fixed; but, apparently, it appeared after Theodotion's. "He does not adhere to the text so closely as to render it verbatim into Greek; but chooses to express the same in perspicuous and intelligible language."
[5] Theodotion, the author of the second Greek version, was a native of Ephesus. His version is thought to have been made before 160. "The mode of translation adopted by him holds an intermediate place between the scrupulous literality of Aquila and the free interpretation of Symmachus," and his work was more highly valued by Christians than that of either Aquila or Symmachus. Daniel was read in his version in the churches (Pref. to Joshua).
[6] Jerome actually did undertake to work on an "Old Testament" translation some years later.
[7] Lucian in Syria and Hesychius in Egypt attempted their recensions about the middle of the third century, the time when Origen also began to labour in the same direction. Lucian's recension, also called the Constantinopolitan, and to which the Slavonian and Gothic versions belong, spread over Asia Minor and Thrace. See the Preface to the Chronicles. It was decreed by a council held under Pope Gelasius in 494, that "the Gospels which Lucian and Hesychius falsified are apocryphal."