Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.01

Philip Burton, The Old Latin Gospels: a study of their texts and language.   Oxford & New York:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Pp. 232.  ISBN 0-19-826988-9.  

Reviewed by Roger Wright, Department of Hispanic Studies, University of Liverpool (
Word count: 1238 words

Dr Burton's book, published in the series of Oxford Early Christian Studies, is excellent and important, being compact, concise, well-argued, well-presented, meticulous in detail, relevant to the stated topic, and, in its essential respects, convincing.

In the first part, "The Textual History of the Old Latin Gospels", Burton analyses the approximately thirty manuscripts, several of them fragmentary, that are collectively referred to as the Old Latin Gospels (that is, those that pre-date Jerome's Vulgate); comparative analysis suggests that a single version underlies each of these except for John, where two different translators are postulated. As regards the other three, "there are too many instances which without resorting to special pleading can only be explained as the result of a common heritage" (61); the translator of Mark shows stylistic differences from the translators of the other two. Other books of the Bible are not considered here; neither are the quotations found in patristic writings, which would often complicate the analysis to no obvious purpose.

In the second part, "Aspects of the Translation", Burton considers the translation techniques used. Burton has a good knowledge of modern theories of translation, but he is admirably sceptical of their practical value and shows why he is unconvinced of their relevance to his analysis. Nonetheless, he is able to exploit a number of their insights, as well as recent studies into other kinds of translation from Greek into Latin, in order to argue that some of the translators were more literal than others: that is, more liable to produce translationese, as "they often distort natural Latin idiom out of respect for the original" (111). Even so, the translators were almost certainly well educated native Latin-speakers. This is a conclusion that he arrives at convincingly; Burton has in general a higher opinion of the merits of these translators than most of his predecessors have had, not least because he sees the fact that "they are prepared to show flexibility in their renderings" (94) as an asset rather than a handicap. For technical Christian terminology, the translators are happy to calque from Greek where feasible, but also to use semantic extensions of existing Latin vocabulary; there are about 200 loan-words from Greek attested there altogether, some of which were previously Semitic loans in Greek itself, but most of these had probably already been borrowed before the translations, so their use in the Gospels would have been unlikely to baffle the readers.

The third part, entitled "The Old Latin Gospels as Linguistic Documents", argues forcefully against the idea that these Gospels should be seen as examples of "Vulgar Latin". There are two main reasons for this: firstly, we can tell from the texts that the translators were more cultivated than they tend to be given credit for; and, secondly, the idea that a separate linguistic entity existed which could be called "Vulgar Latin" is probably misguided anyway. Traditionally, the existence of a supposed "Vulgar Latin" has been supported by the discoveries of Romance philology; and Burton too refers on a number of occasions to those words and usages that are attested, as well as to those that are not attested, in the subsequent Romance languages. But he also realizes that it would be wrong to imply that those words that are not attested in Romance texts from several centuries later must already have been "conservative" features at the time of these translations, or, conversely, to imply that genuinely Classical words could not be used in "vulgar" circumstances; after all, a large number of undeniably Classical words survive into Romance. Some of the words in question can be described as "Late" Latin on strictly chronological grounds, but on the whole it is preferable to refer to all the phenomena attested in these texts as simply "Latin" without subcategorizing further.

The linguistic features examined here include details of vocabulary, morphology and syntax, but not of orthography, for several sensible reasons. The lexical section has an interesting and valuable subsection on semantic changes that are not in progress (165-68); this is just one of the areas in which Burton's knowledge of the subsequent development of Romance is used to good effect. In both the lexical and the grammatical chapters, Burton can show that the translators were generally able to avoid certain non-classical (or "sub-literary") usages, even when we can tell that these were already current in speech; but this is an unremarkable skill on the whole because the previous word or construction, which the new one seems to us in hindsight to have neatly replaced, was still widely available at the time as a variant. There is a general truth here well worth keeping hold of, that the introduction of new linguistic features does not necessarily, nor even usually, entail the loss of their previous functional equivalents, and both can continue to be generally available for centuries within a single variable whole (rather than deserving to be categorized separately as Classical and Vulgar, or any other such categorizations that have been proposed for the Late Latin period, including the Christian Sondersprache); thus Burton's final conclusion is this:

Moreover, the translators from time to time show a native speaker's command of Latin in choosing between several possible Latin constructions for a particular Greek idiom and selecting the one most appropriate to the context (e.g. the use of the future participles plus esse, the ablative of the gerund, or the subjunctive in quod clauses) (191).

At the end there is an appendix in which Burton examines details of "Jerome's Translation Technique", arguing that Jerome's Vulgate translations from Greek are often more literal and less readable than the older versions he was correcting, even if he claimed otherwise.

It is strange that this enterprise has not been carried out before. It seems obvious that this kind of research needs to be conducted by a specialist linguist, but it appears indeed to be the case that it has not. Burton shows a convincing ability to understand and work accurately with data in various kinds of Latin, Greek, and the Romance languages. The analysis of details, particularly of the choice of vocabulary, found in all the various manuscripts of the Vetus Latina texts, supports the conclusions drawn concerning their interrelatedness and the probable derivation of the Synoptic gospels from a single initial translation source each. The argument made for two separate translations of the Gospel of St John is less watertight, if only because the linguistic details here examined are relatively few, but I am happy to believe it even so. Burton's analysis of Greek is no less perceptive than of Latin, and this book will help Greek New Testament scholarship as well.

The best part of the book, in my view, is the third, and in particular the discussion of whether the gospels can be said to attest "Vulgar" Latin. Through detailed analysis he shows that they cannot, offering great support to those of us who would prefer to abandon the term and just talk of "Latin" as a linguistic whole. Burton's mildly sceptical reworking of the idea that "Christian Latin" had some kind of distinctive unity within this whole is persuasive, and so is his re-evaluation of the techniques of St Jerome. The bibliography is useful in itself for specialists in Greek and Romance as well as Latin, and the whole is a genuine contribution to rigorous scholarship, which would seem old-fashioned in nature but for his up-to-date knowledge of theory and recent research.

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