Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Compendium of the Reforms of the Roman Breviary, 1568 - 1961: Part 8.1 - The Gallican Psalter of St. Jerome

No other book of the Latin Bible has so complicated a history as that of the Psalter. Like the rest of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Psalms were translated into Greek by the Jews of Alexandria in the 3rd or 2nd century B.C., the translation known (imprecisely) as the Septuagint. Frequently quoted by Our Lord Himself and the Apostles in the New Testament, it enjoyed immense prestige among Christians of all languages. However, after numerous revisions and corrections, and cross-contamination from other ancient translations, the original version has been lost in a dense forest of variant readings and recensions.

By the later part of the second century A.D., Christians in the western Roman Empire had begun to translate the Septuagint into Latin. These translations were made without reference to the Hebrew original; in the Roman Empire, Greek was the lingua franca of Christian and Jew alike, and Hebrew was hardly known outside the Holy Land. Like the Septuagint, the Old Latin translations (as they are now called) were repeatedly corrected and revised; around 400 A.D., Saint Jerome famously complained “tot sint exemplaria quot codices – there are as many versions (of the Bible) as there are copies.” (Preface to the Book of Joshua.) Hoping to recover for the Latin-speaking West the original text of the Sacred Scriptures, the great Biblical scholar originally thought to revise the Old Latin by meticulously comparing it with the Septuagint. However, on discovering that the latter had become just as much of a hopeless muddle, he abandoned the project, and decided instead to make a new translation of the whole Bible directly from the “Hebraica veritas”, as he habitually called it, “the Hebrew truth.” (Pictured right: Saint Jerome in His Study, by Jan van Eyck, 1435)

In the case of every other book of the Hebrew Bible, the Church quickly saw the merits of Saint Jerome’s new version, and adopted it in place of the older one. Indeed, no complete Bible of the Old Latin now exists; of some books, we have only fragments of the older version, of others, nothing at all. The great exception is the book of Psalms.

Jerome actually produced three different versions of the Psalter in his lifetime. A first revision according to the Septuagint, now lost, was rather cursory, and in any case, ruined by careless copyists. A second, more careful one was made as part of the general project of revision which the great scholar later abandoned; comparison with the Old Latin shows that Jerome was a fairly conservative reviser. He then translated the Psalter afresh directly from the Hebrew, a work which found little acceptance in the Church; already by the fourth century, too many people knew and prayed the Psalms by heart to accept a new translation, and so they continued to use the Old Latin Psalter.

The Psalter “according to the Septuagint” as revised by Saint Jerome was adopted for liturgical use in Gaul in the reign of Charlemagne, at the initiative of Alcuin, whence its common name “Gallican psalter.” After centuries of use in the Middle Ages, it was then carried into the Breviary of St. Pius V, and appears in all the subsequent revisions thereof. Although it displaced the older Latin translation for general use, many texts of the Breviary and Missal retain even to this day the version of the Psalms used in Rome before Jerome’s time. The Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites continued the use of the Old Latin psalms until their modern revisions, as did Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The first page of a Psalterium Triplex, with the three versions of the Latin Psalms in parallel columns, plus glosses and commentaries. Paris BNF Ms. Latin 8846, ca. 1190.

The Gallican Psalter is not simply a revision of a translation of a translation; more precisely, it is a revision of a hyper-literal translation (the Old Latin) of a rather broad translation, the Septuagint. As such, it is in many respects quite distant from the original Hebrew, which itself is full of textual difficulties. It is also the product of an age in which Christian authors were deliberately creating a new Latin idiom for the use of the Church, with a vocabulary and manner of expression very different from that of the great classical authors. There are many places where, for various reasons, it is very difficult to understand, and its Latinity very far from what a writer like Cicero would have considered proper.

The second part of this article will discuss the new translation of the Psalms promulgated by Pope Pius XII for use in the Breviary in 1945.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: