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Vulgate Gospels

This is one of the earliest surviving examples of St Jerome's Vulgate - the Bible in the 'everyday Latin' translation that was the standard version used by Christians for over a thousand years.

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Vulgate Gospels

Vulgate Gospels, Northern Italy, sixth century. Gospel of St Mark 1
BL Harley MS 1775, f. 144
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is 'Vulgate'?

Judaism and Islam invest only one language each with sacred authority: Hebrew and Arabic respectively. For Muslims the Qur'an contains the actual word of God in Arabic, so a translation can only ever be considered an interpretation. In Christianity, however, the sacred texts have spiritual authority regardless of the language into which they are translated, and the Bible was translated into various everyday languages from an early period.

St Jerome's Latin Vulgate (from the Latin vulgata, meaning 'common' or 'popular') was commissioned by Pope Damasus in 382. Based on translations then in use, it employs the everyday written Latin style of the fourth century, in contrast to the more formal, elegant Latin of Cicero. Jerome's Vulgate became the standard version of the Bible in the West for over a thousand years.

Although this particular manuscript retains elements of the previous 'Old Latin' translation, it forms one of the earliest surviving copies of St Jerome's Vulgate. It shows the continuing efforts of the Church to replace the many earlier Latin versions of the Bible with one authorised version.

What is a gospel?

A gospel recounts the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, which form the foundations of the Christian faith. He lived in Israel during the Roman occupation of the country. His mission to reform what he saw as corruption in the Jewish faith caused conflict with the religious hierarchy and led to his execution by the Roman authorities. After his death and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ - meaning 'the anointed one' - developed his teachings into a new faith, independent of Judaism but keeping much of its scriptures.

Several gospels had been written by disciples of Jesus during the centuries following his death, but only four were authorised by the Council of Nicaea in 325 for inclusion in the Christian Bible. These four were attributed to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, known as the four Evangelists.

What else does this Bible contain?

In addition to the Four Gospels, this manuscript contains probably the earliest complete set of the Canons compiled by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, in the first half of the fourth century. Canon tables listed parallel passages within the Gospels, helping readers to compare and contrast the four accounts.

The letters and Roman numerals in the left margin refer the reader to the tables, and to parallel passages in the other Gospels.


St Jerome at work, as pictured in the Book of Hours from South Netherlands, late 15th century (British Library Images Online)

When was the Vulgate replaced in England?

When William Tyndale was ordained as a priest in England in 1521, the only authorised printed version of the Bible was still the Vulgate. However, only an educated few could read it, and Tyndale - who was influenced by Erasmus's ideas of personal faith - wanted a printed Bible in a language everyone could understand. Because of church opposition he had to do his work abroad, and though he succeeded in producing the first printed English Bible, he was eventually caught by Henry VIII's agents and put to death. However, by 1611 there was a Bible in English, with full royal backing, and authorised for church use: the King James version, in which much of Tyndale's magnificent English survives.