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Question

I sincerely thank you for the daily evangelization service you carry out. May God always keep you.

I have a question about the spreading of vernacular translations of sacred texts.

I am in England with school age children. The history of the Protestant Reformation is one of the most present topics in the scholastic path, with a lot of emphasis on the English translation of the Bible, given its linguistic importance, and on the fact that at the time it was forbidden by the Church. Here, for example, we often speak of the translation of Wycliffe, condemned as a heretic, but Luther himself promoted the translation of the Bible into German, against the authority of the Church.

Father, what was really forbidden to do at the time? I am reading the Dialogues of the Divine Providence by Saint Catherine of Siena and have been struck by the citations of the Scriptures, for example Saint Paul, which are in the vernacular and very precise. I read that the Dominicans themselves had vernacularized texts that they used for preaching. Is it true? Who authorized these texts and how could they be used?

Thanks for the time you will dedicate to me

Alessia


Answer

Dear Alessia,

1. Already the Jews in the Old Testament had translated the Bible from Hebrew into Greek.

This translation was made by 70 experts and still bears the name of the Septuagint (or LXX, that is 70 in Roman numerals).

The Christians of the first centuries made use of the Old Testament in both Hebrew and Greek.

Soon the entire Bible was translated into Latin. This Latin translation, which bears the name of “Volgata” is the official version of the Church.

2. We know that in the early centuries of the Church there were various versions of the Gospels and other books of Sacred Scripture in the Syriac language.

There were Coptic versions, Gothic-Latin bilingual versions, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic versions.

In the Western world, the Vulgate written in Latin was the only version recognized as official.

This was not an obstacle, because in the Middle Ages, even before the various modern languages ​​were formed, the important documents were written in Latin.

Furthermore, the vast majority of the people were illiterate. It would not have been able to read the Bible either in Greek or Latin or in the spoken language.

It should also be borne in mind that books were quite a rare thing. They were handwritten on parchment and were invaluable.

3. The people knew Sacred Scripture from preaching and artistic representations, which made up the Bible for the poor.

Very often the preachers, while speaking, reported the Latin verse and immediately afterwards translated it into the popular language so that it could be understood by all.

4. With the invention of printing, things changed. Soon there were various translations into Latin.

In the general introduction to Sacred Scripture made by the biblical scholars Perella and Vagaggini we read: “With the Renaissance, several new Latin translations of the original texts arose – on the initiative of Catholics and also, subsequently, Protestants – in the period from the beginning of printing until 1552 alone, and no fewer than 160 have been counted.

Regarding the various Latin translations, these two authors report an interesting observation: “Now it is easy to imagine what confusion must have arisen when, in those years of general, public and fervent religious discussions, each one quoted Scripture according to the version one preferred or came across first, and refused the authority of the others.

A very serious danger when, due to the very disparity of opinions between the new doctrines of the Reformation and the ancient Catholic faith, it was more necessary to have a ready authority, a charter, so to speak, on which all the faithful could agree. And it is easy to understand how the Council of Trent indicated the variety and diversity of versions as the first abuse of Scripture” (p. 154).

For this reason, the Council of Trent established and declared that “among all the Latin versions of Sacred Scripture then in circulation, the ancient and popular version (i.e. the Vulgate), approved in practice in the Church through its long use over many centuries, should be kept as authentic in public lectures, disputes, preaching and presentations, and that no one should be in the habit of rejecting it or presuming to do so, under any pretext”.

Here, then, is where the prohibition on translating the Bible was born: to avoid interminable discussions that could give rise to heresies and schisms.

5. The aforementioned biblical scholars Perella and Vagaggini feel compelled to note: “Luther’s accusation (later untiringly repeated) that the Church forbids the reading of the Bible to the faithful is therefore unfounded. Even the Protestant Ernesto von Dobschutz wrote in 1900: «We must confess that the Middle Ages had an astonishing knowledge of the Bible, a supremely remarkable knowledge, which in many respects could make our time blush» (cf. A. Vaccari, Bibbia, in EIT VI. 1930, 908-910, It. ed.)” (p.159).

6. I can’t tell you if the Dominicans had vulgarized texts for preaching. For themselves they certainly did not need it because in their preaching they translated at the moment from Latin into the language spoken by the people.

Instead we should remember the Latin versions of two great Dominicans, Sante Pagnini and Tommaso de Vio Gaetano.

Sante Pagnini was the one who divided the chapters into numbered verses, as we still do today to quote Sacred Scripture.

Tommaso de Vio Gaetano was master general of the Order and was sent by the Pope to confront Luther. He was a great theologian and a profound connoisseur of the Scriptures.

So here’s how things went.

I bless you, I remember you in prayer and I wish you well.

Father Angelo


Translated by Chiara P.