by Annette Weissenrieder
What happens here is not simply a great scholarly enterprise with subscribers on all continents and in dozens of countries. It is the most fascinating excavation that can be imagined. The information that comes to light reflects the time of its origin more clearly and truly than anything that could otherwise be excavated. What a time it was! These were the centuries in which the West took root,” writes Peter Härlin in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Härlin describes an ecumenical project belonging to the Vetus Latina Institute, founded in the abbey of Beuron in 1945. Scholars from Germany, the Vatican City and Great Britain are working together to collect and create a critical edition of all remnants of Old Latin translations, including manuscripts and citations in Church Fathers. Currently, scholars are working on the gospels, Acts and the Pauline Letters.
During recent years, growing interest has been shown in New Testament textual criticism. While the relevance of Greek or Coptic manuscripts is increasingly appreciated in New Testament exegesis, pre-Vulgate Latin manuscripts (called the Vetus Latina, or “Old Latin”) continue to lie in the shadows. Together with the new project director, Thomas Bauer of the University of Erfurt, Germany, the Vetus Latina project envisions an edition with annotations of the Old Latin texts of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. As a professor of New Testament studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary, I am proud to involve Presbyterians in this important research.
What is the Vetus Latina?
The Vetus Latina, also called the Vetus Itala, comprises a diverse collection of Latin biblical texts used by Christian churches from the second century on. As Christianity spread in the Roman Empire and Latin replaced Greek as the common language of the church, an array of Latin Bible translations emerged, usually uncontrolled by any church authority and frequently inaccurate. Latin translations were first found in North Africa and then in Spain, England, Gaul, Italy and Germany. In Rome, churches changed from Greek to Latin in the course of the third century.
Whereas the Old Latin Bible encompasses all unauthorized versions of the Bible translated into Latin, the Vulgate presents a standardization of different forms of the Old Latin promulgated under Pope Damasus and the theologian Jerome. The Vulgate is the end result of several revisions, recensions and editions while the Old Latin Bible preserves several versions and is older than the Vulgate and many Greek manuscripts.
These Old Latin manuscripts reflect the early struggle for a proper understanding of the biblical texts. Augustine, Jerome’s contemporary, commented in De Doctrina Christiana II: “Translators from Hebrew into Greek can be numbered, but Latin translators by no means. For whenever, in the earliest years of the faith, a Greek manuscript came into the hands of anyone who happened to have a little skill in both languages, he made bold to translate it forthwith.” Augustine’s advice to readers is to give a preference to the Itala, “which is more faithful in its renderings and more intelligible in its sense.”
It started in North Africa …
Alongside the known 49 manuscripts, the first known reference to the Old Latin translation is found in a brief remark made by Tertullian mentioning the “collected letters of Paul in Latin.” The most important citations come from Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. Cyprian tried to make a translation to the Greek text that did not make significant changes. Like all Old Latin traditions, Cyprian’s text was not standardized and was therefore subject to numerous modifications. Especially important are editions of Cyprian produced in Carthage and Rome. The vocabulary and translation techniques used by Cyprian differ from later text versions and can usually be identified. It is thus possible to distinguish two groups of the Old Latin Bible: an African text, more closely related to Cyprian, and a European text (“African” is used in the Roman sense, referring to central North Africa.) The two oldest Itala manuscripts, Codex Bobiensis and Codex Palatinus, are clearly basic to the African tradition.
Our Father — holy father?
Scholars have hitherto not taken this Old Latin tradition sufficiently into account in the reconstruction of the text of the New Testament. The African tradition turns out to be indispensable for the reconstruction of the infancy and passion narratives, as well as the Lord’s Prayer and the account of the Eucharist in Luke.
The Lord’s Prayer appears in two versions in Matthew and in Luke. The form usually used is Matthew’s. Luke’s version differs in many respects, some of which are not even mentioned in the standard edition of the Greek New Testament. Luke’s version, for instance, begins with a simple “Father!” followed by “hallowed be thy name.” The opening “Father,” the standard edition tells us, occurs also in two variants: “our father who art in heaven” and “our father who is in heaven,” the latter in one Old Latin manuscript and in Cyprian. Since these variants are in the standard edition, they have been part of the scholarly discussion. Some important Old Latin manuscripts, however, have a reading not previously mentioned and discussed. Instead of the well known “our father” or “Father,” these manuscripts give “holy father” (pater sancte). Sanctus is derived from Latin “sac-,” which signifies that something is removed from human influence. It is reserved for God, or in ancient pagan religion for any deity. Why should the Lord’s Prayer include such a word?
Four independent Old Latin manuscripts from different origin all show “holy father.” Why was the appellation “father” or “our father” changed into “holy father”? A first possible answer can be found in John 17:11b, where we find: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Here Jesus prays to God on behalf of his disciples. (It is not, however, a prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray.)
Another possible answer can be found in prayers to the Roman emperors. One of these is in the Argonautica from Valerius Flaccus, who offers a prayer to the emperor Vespasian. Fulfilling a prophecy of Jupiter, Vespasian secured power over the borders of the Roman Empire. By the address pater sancte, Valerius uses a phrase reserved for the gods and transfers it to a living person, the emperor. And he uses it at the time of the military successes of Titus, Vespasian’s son, who contributed to his father’s success by destroying Jerusalem in 70 CE. Valerius’s use of sanctus suggests that power can only be achieved through military superiority. Several ancient sources mention that Vespasian took the purple curtains from the Jerusalem temple along with the Menorah and the Torah to Rome and displayed them in the triumphal procession in Rome in June 71 CE. This procession is depicted on the Triumphal Arch of Titus, which shows clearly these important Jewish ritual objects, which were then placed in the Roman Peace Temple. Would it be right to think that these Old Latin manuscripts, in changing the address to God into pater sancte, allude to the prayers to the Caesars?
At the least, pater sancte — “holy father” instead of “our father” or “father” — suggests a foreignness in light of its use in prayers to the Caesars. The use of the phrase is all the more surprising as the Old Latin of Matthew does not employ it. Whether this reading can lead to a new understanding of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke in the light of the Old Latin manuscripts is uncertain at this early stage of our work. However, it is already clear that these ancient Latin manuscripts can yield important insights into the early interpretation of the New Testament.
ANNETTE WEISSENRIEDER is associate professor of New Testament at San Francisco Theological Seminary and currently working at the Max Weber Centre of Advanced Studies in Erfurt, Germany.