Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.07

H. A. G. Houghton, The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xix, 366.  ISBN 9780198744733.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Andrew Dunning, The British Library (

Author’s Addenda

The Vulgate Bible is perhaps the most widely read work of Latin literature. Even today, its phrases can be found in popular culture, in pets named ‘Magnificat’ and businesses named ‘Quo vadis’. Yet understanding of the origins and nature of this book tends to be low. It is not uncommon to see the Vulgate treated as if it were a homogeneous text, with the assumption that everyone in the past read it as it is now found in the standard critical edition. Scholars have refined this common understanding of the text’s origins, but their findings have only barely emerged from a circle of specialists. At the same time, the new online availability of biblical manuscripts every month is prompting questions among non-specialists about how to interpret these artefacts. The appearance of this book could hardly be more timely.

A history of the Vulgate and its thousands of surviving manuscripts would be an impossible task, and the study under review has been achieved by focusing on the New Testament, and specifically on the manuscripts used in editions of this text. The book does precisely what its title promises. It is divided into three parts: ‘History’ discusses the genesis and development of the Latin translation of the New Testament, both the Old Latin versions and the Vulgate; ‘Texts’ gives an orientation in the complexities of the various editions of the Latin New Testament and the relevance of this text to textual criticism of the Greek New Testament, with a guide to some of the more unusual variants; ‘Manuscripts’ supplies a guide to the codicological features in manuscripts of the Latin New Testament and a summary catalogue of those used in critical editions. The entry point for most scholars into this subject is the editions of the text, and will in many cases be their only point of reference. It is logical that this handbook contextualizes what one finds in the editions, their sources, and the scholarship surrounding them.

Part I is a history of the Latin New Testament told through patristic literature and surviving manuscripts. The preface characterizes few details of this history as new, but until now the story up has been scattered across an array of obscure journal articles and monographs, some of them difficult to obtain. This is not only an updated account of the text’s development, but a guide to the scholarship, helpfully and unobtrusively integrating references as footnotes rather than leaving them for a ‘further reading’ section at the end of each chapter. The average medievalist probably has a vague idea of the Old Latin translations from reading Augustine’s Confessions, and perhaps once tried to use the edition of this text published by the Vetus Latina Institute in Beuron, quickly to be frightened away by its sheer complexity. They will likely be surprised to learn that textual critics now believe that there is a single Latin translation behind the Old Latin tradition (p. 12). Most are aware that the notion of the Vulgate as entirely the work of Jerome has been overturned, but not of the theories that have replaced it. The history told here clarifies such questions and directs us to where we can learn more. Textual and material history are fully integrated. The narrative effectively ends in the tenth century, devoting only six pages to the eleventh through sixteenth centuries, viewing as beyond its scope coverage of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, and the various editions of the Vulgate from this period that continue to exert influence on our modern interpretation of it. It is not easy to sustain a readable study of differences between texts and manuscripts, but the author achieves this with aplomb.

The book’s orientation of the reader in not only the manuscripts but also the scholarship is an enormous service: most scholars will probably find something they were unaware of that will answer a lingering question in their minds. The most confusing aspect of scholarship on the Vetus Latina and Vulgate for outsiders is the bizarre array of sigla and abbreviations that sometimes conflict with one another. The book orients the reader among these, rationalizing them and using them wherever possible. This is laudable, but also confusing. Manuscripts are usually referred to not by their shelfmark, as found in literature outside the world of biblical scholarship, but by their unmemorable sigla. This is especially unfortunate given the illogic and inconsistency with which editors assigned them, as the author himself notes (pp. ix–x, 117–18); but their identity can be discovered from the back of the book. This is not the case for the abbreviations from the Vetus Latina Repertorium, used for patristic works, which for example abbreviates Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana as ‘AU do’. Full titles are only given at the first mention of the work, and no key to them is included, nor can they be accessed online without a subscription. While the author heroically strives to familiarize others with the conventions of his field, these abbreviations put a barrier between the reader and primary sources.

Part II explains the texts one faces as a reader of the Latin New Testament, and is both accessible and salutary. The edition of the Vulgate most widely used by today’s scholars is that of Weber et al. ([1969] 2007). This is an abbreviation of other larger critical editions: for the New Testament, Wordsworth et al. (1889–1954); for the Old Testament, the work of the monks of the Pontifical Abbey of St Jerome-in-the-City (1926–1995); and for the Old Latin, the Vetus Latina editions of Beuron. It would have been useful, building on the first part of the book, to tell more of the human story behind the creation of these editions. Though they are often treated as separate enterprises, they are highly interconnected. For instance, in pointing out the similarity between the Oxford and Stuttgart editions (p. 128), it is worth noting that Hedley F.D. Sparks was both responsible for completing the Oxford edition and on the editorial board for that of Stuttgart. New readers of critical editions will especially appreciate the introduction to the various editions available and their features, explaining for example each of the registers found in the Vetus Latina editions. It is all too easy to skim over the typographical details editors use: this introduction shows just how useful they can be, especially alongside the review of the Latin text’s relevance in textual criticism of the Greek New Testament.

Part III is devoted to the manuscripts used in editions of the Latin New Testament. It opens with an introduction to these artefacts for readers who know nothing about codicology or palaeography. A note preceding the text (p. 1) suggests that some readers might want to read this first, but it may not be the friendliest start to the book. Much of what is discussed in Part I is assumed, and many of the details explained can only be understood with illustrations, most of which are found elsewhere in the book, and only the consecutive numbering of the images appears, without their page number. True beginners might first read a more liberally illustrated work such as that of de Hamel (2001).

The final chapter is a catalogue of New Testament manuscripts in Latin. The Stuttgart edition produces no information about the relationships between its manuscripts: one is presented with nothing more than a list of sigla with the corresponding shelfmarks, and few readers attempt to make anything of this. This catalogue allows one to immediately see the basic historical context of these manuscripts. It is expressly organized as a guide to the editions, with the manuscripts organized by the siglum used in the edition (in a rationalized form): though it leads to some overlaps, it also a highly useful reference tool that leaves readers with no excuse for ignorance.

Helpful as this manuscripts catalogue is, the publisher falls short of their usual standard in this area. They do almost nothing to enhance the layout of this section, presenting the text in a almost entirely unstructured fashion, as if it were prose. One cannot assume that a manuscript lacks a certain feature based on silence: the Codex Beneventanus (British Library, Add. MS 5463) receives mention of its decorated canon tables (p. 268), but the next page omits a similar feature in the Codex Hubertianus (Add. MS 24142). Shelfmarks are not consistently presented, including or excluding ‘MS’ at random and not always adhering to libraries’ admittedly bizarre customs for presenting their shelfmarks, which can be a problem if readers attempt to use these for reference elsewhere—one will not find MS Royal I.B.7 in the British Library’s catalogue unless one searches for Royal MS 1 B VII. Modern manuscript scholarship furnishes measurements in millimetres to avoid the complication that decimals and fractions can introduce, but fractions of centimetres appear here (and without the correct dimension sign, ‘×’ rather than ‘x’). It is simpler and more accurate to say that the enormous Moutier-Grandval Bible (British Library, Add. MS 10546) is around 510 × 375 mm than to hedge between 51 × 37½ cm (p. 263) and 50 × 38 cm (p. 82). The perils of mixing units are plain in the case of Royal MS 1 B XII, which is recorded as 35 × 20 cm (p. 278) but measures 305 mm tall.

The book admirably seeks to integrate the treasury of online manuscripts. Here, a few technical problems are worth pointing out as examples of what is both common in our scholarship and avoidable. We need to pay more careful attention to the form of web addresses: several in this book do not work as printed. Many academic resources supply permanent identifiers (often labelled abstrusely as a ‘DOI’, ‘URN’, or ‘Handle’), and these should be used wherever possible. For instance, the broken address for Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc. Bibl. 1 (p. 262) could have been prevented using the URN ( Links can be simplified in most cases by removing the ‘www.’ prefix (though a few misconfigured servers disallow this), yielding rather than Any instance of ‘index.html’ or ‘index.htm’ at the end of a link should be removed. After a quarter-century of dealing with the Internet, publishers should have learnt to prevent nonsense such as the misprinted address for the Rushworth Gospels (p. 276), a victim of an incautious find-and-replace operation that would have been caught with even a simple automated check of the links. Libraries hosting manuscripts also need to do far more to make sure that readers directly receive permanent, brief, human-comprehensible links.

In spite of these minor blemishes, it must be emphasized that the book itself is a delight to use. The binding happily stays open, unlike many more costly academic books that nearly defeat the purpose of print media. It includes three highly useful indexes, and the text has been carefully proofread.

This is the most useful kind of scholarship: readable, informative, and engaging. It summarizes a vast swathe of literature and makes it accessible to others, overturning widely held misconceptions, and showing how we can get far more information out of the Latin New Testament and its manuscripts. This book is required reading for anyone studying the New Testament, patristic and medieval literature, or biblical manuscripts. It is deserving of a home in any humanities library.1


1.   References:

de Hamel, Christopher. 2001. The Book: A History of the Bible. London: Phaidon.
Pontifical Abbey of St Jerome-in-the-City, ed. 1926–1995. Biblia Sacra iuxta latinam vulgatam versionem. 18 vols. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Weber, Robert, Bonifatius Fischer, Jean Gribomont, Hedley F.D. Sparks, Walter Thiele, and Roger Gryson, eds. (1969) 2007. Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgatam versionem. 5th ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.
Wordsworth, John, Henry Julian White, Alexander Ramsbotham, Hedley F.D. Sparks, Claude Jenkins, and Arthur White Adams, eds. 1889–1954. Nouum Testamentum Domini nostri Iesu Christi Latine, secundum editionem sancti Hieronymi. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010