Before everyone freaks out, what do I actually mean? The word “vulgar” has come to mean crude and/or obscene. But that is not quite the original meaning that has morphed into this modern sense. The earlier, original, meaning of the word was used to describe something “common.” And so what was “common” was not what was “refined,” and the “common” became base and trashy, and so on. But let’s hold on to the original meaning.
I’m thinking of this because Monday’s Memorial is that of St Jerome, the great Biblical scholar and translator of the Bible—into Latin. And his translation is known as the “Vulgate”—same root as “vulgar.” This is because Latin was (at the time) the “common” language of the Roman Empire. The idea was to allow the “common” folks to be able to read God’s Word.
This is why updated translations are always needed for the Church. It is true (Hebrews 13:8) that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever; sadly, our language is not that permanent. So if we want clarity in order to foster comprehensibility, we need translations of the Scriptures (and, I will add, of the liturgy) that are clear and easily understood. For us in America, this means solid and precise and accessible English.
Some folks want to return to Latin because they believe this was the original (and therefore only proper) language for worship (and, perhaps) Scripture. But this is a mistake. Jerome spent years mastering Hebrew so he could turn the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) into the Latin that people could comprehend. I remember a dear friend, a Greek Orthodox priest, who was asked by an Evangelical preacher which English translation he used in worship. The answer was, “We use the original Greek!” We Roman Catholics are far from being able to say this.
But that’s OK. The goal is not to slug through a translation that is 1) foreign to us and 2) at best being done as a school-boy exercise; we need to be able to feed off the Word, and we must trust those with better skills and knowledge than we to offer us clear and accurate translations. God’s Word cannot be fully “living and effective” (Hebrews 4:12) if we only face it as a homework assignment.
That’s why St Jerome is so important. As a person he was (to put it politely) cantankerous; as a scholar he was filled with integrity. Did he make mistakes? Yes, he did; but only when seen in retrospect when better manuscripts than he had available surfaced. And it’s why the work he pioneered must be continued; after all, God wills ALL people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:3-4), but that can only happen when people understand God’s Word. The final witness to this is the Ethiopian eunuch when encountered by the deacon Philip. He was reading Isaiah 53 (the “Suffering Servant” passage), and when Philip asked him if he understood what was written, his humble answer was, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” (Acts 8:30-31). God wills ALL to be saved; we ALL must then understand the Word; clear translations guide us in coming close to the One who cares and loves.