On biblical translations



Eramus by Hans Holbein

Erasmus, by Hans Holbein the Younger1523





Scholasticism was the system of theology and philosophy taught in medieval European universities, based on Aristotelian logic and the writings of the early Christian Fathers, and emphasizing tradition and dogma.


Humanism was a Renaissance cultural movement which turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought.


The fundamental feature of Renaissance Humanism is summed up in the concept of ad fontes, a Latin expression meaning to the sources. It epitomises the renewed study of Greek and Latin classics in Renaissance Humanism.


Similarly, the Protestant Reformation called for renewed attention to the Bible as the primary source of Christian faith.


The idea in both cases was that sound knowledge depends on the earliest and most fundamental sources, whether classical or biblical.


In particular, Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536), a Dutch classical scholar and theologian, was the foremost Renaissance scholar of northern Europe, and paved the way for the Reformation.


He made new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament. He collated many Greek texts, made a critical edition of the Latin Vulgate and then improved the Latin. His first edition of 1516 was the first Greek New Testament in published form. The second edition of 1519 was used by Martin Luther in making his German translation of the New Testament.






There can be some astonishing differences between the biblical texts belonging to the scholastic tradition and those belonging to the humanist movement.


For example, in the Authorized (King James) Version (1611), verse 15 of Ecclesiastes, 1, is:

That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.


But, in the Douay Rheims Bible (which belongs to the scholastic tradition), the same verse is:

The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite.


The Douay Rheims Bible is the foundation on which nearly all English Catholic versions are still based.


This translation of the Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate was made by Gregory Martin, an Oxford-trained scholar, working in the circle of English Catholic exiles on the Continent.


It appeared in France, the New Testament at Rheims (now spelt Reims) in 1582, and the Old Testament at Douay (Douai) in 1609.


The Douay Rheims translation of Ecclesiastes, 15:1, corresponds to the Latin text of the Biblia Sacra Vulgata (Vulgate):

Perversi difficile corriguntur et stultorum infinitus est numerus.


The Vulgate, completed in 405, is the Latin version of the Bible produced by St Jerome, partly by translating the original languages, and partly by revising the earlier Latin text based on the Greek versions. It was recognized as authoritative during the Council of Trent (1546) and became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.


An important fact must be remembered: from an early day, the text of the Vulgate began to suffer corruptions, mostly through the copyists, who introduced familiar readings of the Old Latin or inserted the marginal glosses of the manuscripts which they were transcribing.


But a distinctively Reformed Latin translation of the Old Testament, the Tremellius-Junius Bible, was published in 1579.


In this Latin Bible, the same verse is:

Perversum non posse corrigi, et defectum non posse in numerum venire.

(The verse in the Authorized (King James) Version corresponds to this new Latin translation.)


Franciscus Junius (François du Jon; 1545-1602) was a Reformed scholar and theologian. Immanuel Tremellius (Giovanni Emmanuele Tremellio; 1510-80) was an Italian Jewish convert to Christianity. He was known as a leading Hebraist and Bible translator.


Their translation was very influential on Reformed principles. The Tremellius-Junius Old Testament was often paired with Theodore Beza‘s 1556 translation of the New Testament.


Theodore Beza oversaw the work of the team that produced the Geneva Bible in 1557-60. In the Geneva Bible, the verse from Ecclesiastes is:

That which is crooked, can none make straight: and that which faileth, cannot be numbered.


And a footnote explains the verse:

Man is not able by all his diligence to cause things to go otherwise than they do: neither can he number the faults that are committed, much less remedy them.


In 1862, Robert Young produced an extremely literal translation of the Bible that attempts to preserve the tense and word usage as found in the original Greek and Hebrew writings.


In Young’s Literal Translation, the verse is:

A crooked thing one is not able to make straight, and a lacking thing is not able to be numbered.


The meaning of the verse is therefore very different indeed from “the perverse” and “the number of fools” of the scholastic tradition…



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‘Temptation’ in the Lord’s Prayer


The horns on Moses’ head

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