Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Pope who Rewrote the Bible

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The Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, the work of St Jerome in the fourth century, was the standard Bible of the Catholic Church in the past. However, in time, copyist errors and false readings had crept into the text. But by the time of the Reformation, the Protestants had their own versions of the Bible, so it was important for Catholics to have a reliable text of the Latin Bible. At the Council of Trent the Catholic Church affirmed the Vulgate as its official Latin Bible although there was no authoritative edition at that time.

Pope Sixtus sought to fix that.

Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590), born Felice Peretti di Montalto, ruled as pope from 24 April 1585 to his death in 1590 and was considered quite the scholar in his time.

Sixtus had appointed scholars to fix the Vulgate, but when present to him in 1588, Sixtus declared that he could do a better job himself. Being an insomniac he set to work on this task almost around the clock.

"In the main, Sixtus kept to the Louvain text which he was familiar with. It was not particularly scholarly. Where it was obscure, he did not mind adding phrases and sentences to clarify. Often he translated according to whim. Another of his idiosyncracies was to alter the references. A system of chapter and verse had been worked out in 1555 by Robert Stephanus. It was not perfect but it was convenient and was universally used. Sixtus discarded it in favour of his own scheme. All previous Bibles became instantly obsolete; all books in the schools, with their armouries of texts, bad to be reprinted. Apart from changing the titles of the Psalms which were considered by many to be inspired, he omitted, probably through carelessness, entire verses." ~Peter De Rosa


In the preface he says: “Nostra Nos ipsi manu correximus.” (We have corrected them with our own hands.) The work appeared in 1590 in three volumes. The Pope forbade the collection of further critical materials. He decreed that all readings varying from his edition should be rejected as incorrect and that his edition of the Vulgate should never be altered in the slightest degree under pain of the anger of Almighty God and His blessed Apostles Peter and Paul; and that if any man presumed to transgress that mandate, he was to be placed under the ban of the major excommunication and not to be absolved except by the Pope himself. 

In the same year and soon afterwards Sixtus died. His work was found to be full of errors. In some places. after the book had been printed hand-stamped printed corrections were made. while in other places corrections were made with a pen and even by means of pasted slips, while the copies as issued did not all present the same corrections. In the end about 6000 errors were acknowledged. of which about 100 were important.

Clement VIII. became Pope in 1592. One of his first acts was to recall all the copies of the Sixtine edition. His revision was issued toward the end of 1592. It did not only correct the errors of Sixtus, but had many and important different readings. It returned to the text of the Roman commissioners submitted to Sixtus, not heeding his personal revision.

The preface written by Cardinal Bellarmine attributed the errors of the Sixtine Vulgate to the printer and disclaimed perfection for the Clementine edition, stating that it was a purer text than any hitherto known.

The Clementine edition of the Vulgate is declared to be the one authorized text of the Sacred Scriptures from which no single variation is permitted on any account.

This is the authorized Roman Bible of to-day. Under date of November 9. 1592. in the first year of the pontificate, Clement VIII. issued his brief under the Fisherman’s seal, binding the same on all, and declaring that those who should alter. print or sell or publish any variant edition should lie under the penalty of the greater excommunication and should not be absolved (except in the act of death) by any other than the Pope himself.” ~Henry Barker 1905

It is an embarrassing situation for Catholic Church history. It was a time when the church had a pope who corrected a version of the Bible only to have him insert thousands of errors, and at the same time condemn anyone that questioned or altered that Bible with excommunication. To this day this chapter in the Church's past is used by opponents of the Catholic Church as an argument against papal infallibility. The copies that were retrieved numbered about 10, and I can only think of one that still exists, making it perhaps the rarest book there is.

Conversely, the Clementine successor to the Sixtine Vulgate is also said to have myriads of errors and Catholic apologists consider this whole story as overblown. [A Vindication of the Catholic Church in a Series of Letters  addressed to the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Vermont by Francis P Kenrick 1855]

Thankfully the Catholic Church today has moved away from the Latin Vulgate and relied on the Hebrew and Greek and has produced great translations of the Bible...some of my favorites in fact, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible.

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