The Vetus Latina is a collective name given to the Biblical texts in the Latin language that were translated before St Jerome's Vulgate bible became the standard Bible for Latin-speaking Western Christians. The phrase Vetus Latina is Latin for Old Latin, and the Vetus Latina is sometimes known as the Old Latin Bible.
There was no single "Vetus Latina" Bible; there are, instead, a collection of Biblical manuscript texts that bear witness to Latin translations of Biblical passages that preceded Jerome's. To these witnesses of previous translations, many scholars frequently add translations of Biblical passages that appear in the works of the Latin Fathers. As such, many the Vetus Latina "versions" were generally not promulgated in their own right as translations of the Bible to be used in the whole Church; rather, many of the texts that form parts of the Vetus Latina were prepared on an ad hoc basis for the local use of Christian communities, or to illuminate another Christian discourse or sermon. There are some Old Latin texts that seem to have aspired to greater stature or currency; several manuscripts of Old Latin Gospels exist, containing the four canonical Gospels; the several manuscripts that contain them differ substantially from one another. Other Biblical passages, however, are extant only in excerpts or fragments.
The language of the Old Latin translations is uneven in quality. Grammatical solecisms abound; some reproduce literally Greek or Hebrew idioms as they appear in the Septuagint. That Greek translation, rather than the Hebrew originals, is the source for all of the Old Latin translations of the Old Testament. Other grammatical idiosyncrasies come from the use of Vulgar Latin grammatical forms in the text.
One example of a hard part in the Vetus Latina comes from a familiar quotation, frequently set to music, from Psalm 122:6, which in the Old Latin psalter goes:
- Rogate quae ad pacem sunt Ierusalem
The Vetus Latina generally fell out of use when Jerome's Vulgate offered a single, stylistically consistent Latin text translated from the original tongues. Jerome, in a letter, complains that his new version was initially disliked by Christians who were familiar with the phrasing of the old translations; these complaints fell silent over time, and the Vulgate generally displaced the Vetus Latina and eventually became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Old Latin Psalms are a special case. Here, the Latin liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church continues the use of the Gallican psalter, which is a version of the Psalms from the Vetus Latina that was slightly revised by St Jerome before he began to prepare his Vulgate translation. These Psalms had already become widely used in the liturgy, and their phrasing was familiar to worshippers despite their occasional divergences from classical Latin usage. Jerome also translated the Psalms from the original Hebrew; Jerome's new Psalter is called the Iuxta Hebraea, but this new version failed to displace the Gallican psalter in liturgical use. These are the psalms that are chanted to Gregorian chant and used in classical music. In 1979, the Roman Catholic Church issued a Nova Vulgata version of the Psalms, and authorised them for liturgical use; by then, Latin liturgies were seldom used, and the Nova Vulgata has made little impact.