In praise of the Vulgate Psalter

For centuries the Catholic Church has used the Latin Vulgate psalter translated from the Greek Septuagint for liturgical and other purposes.  The Septuagint translation was made in turn from the third century before Christ.

A number of other Latin translations of the psalms have been made, and even employed in the liturgy for brief periods, none however have stood the test of time.

The neo-Vulgate

In 1979, however, Blessed Pope John Paul II promulgated a new base text of the Latin Bible, the neo-Vulgate, as the official text from which translations should be made. 

While the neo-Vulgate can undoubtedly provide useful insights into the meaning of texts, it presents some challenges for anyone attempting to study the psalms (or other biblical texts) in the light of the tradition.

In essence, the Neo-Vulgate largely reflects the Hebrew Masoretic Text tradition of manuscripts which differs significantly from the Septuagint/Vulgate tradition in many important respects.  In most cases the changes it makes move the text closer to the Hebrew 'Masoretic Text', accepting the view that had been building since the Reformation that the Septuagint translators often misunderstood the Hebrew and made frequent errors.

Unfortunately, since that time the scholastic consensus has largely moved on due to study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with a new found respect for the integrity of the Septuagint/Vulgate, displacing the views that prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century and beyond.

Moreover, the commentaries of the Fathers, Theologians and Saints, however, generally start from the Septuagint/Vulgate renderings of the text.  As a result, an entire line of reasoning in their exegesis can be rendered meaningless by virtue of the translation changes made by the neo-Vulgate.  Similarly, the liturgical settings of the psalms used in the Mass propers and elsewhere (in the 'Extraordinary Form' of the Mass) use either the Vulgate or the older Versio Romana, and their use reflects the meanings of the Vulgate.

The integrity of the Vulgate

It is also worth remembering that the integrity of the Vulgate has repeatedly been affirmed by the Church.  The Council of Trent stated that:

“Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod,--considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,--ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever… But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.” (Fourth Session)

Vatican I reaffirmed this, stating that:

“The complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts, as they are listed in the decree of the said Council and as they are found in the old Latin Vulgate edition, are to be received as sacred and canonical.”

Practicalities - differing numbering systems

On a practical note, it is worth noting that, in line with the Neo-Vulgate, most modern Catholic Bibles have adopted the psalm divisions of the Hebrew or 'Masoretic Text' of the psalter, which were also adopted by Protestants at the time of the Reformation, but which differ from the Vulgate for most psalms.

This change that has created enormous confusion for Catholics - indeed even the Vatican's own 'Bibliaclerus' Bible website cross-indexes psalms to commentaries on them sometimes to the new numbering sometimes to the old!

Since most of the commentaries used here reference the Vulgate numbering, the traditional Vulgate numbering has generally been adopted for the purposes of this blog.

A key to the numbering differences
  • Psalms 1-8, and 148-150 are numbered the same in all versions;
  • Psalms 10-112 in the Vulgate = Psalms 11 - 113 in Neo-Vulgate, and Psalms 116-145 in the Vulgate = Psalms 117-146 in Neo-Vulgate (ie add one number to Vulgate to get Neo-Vulgate number);
  • Psalm 9 in the Vulgate is split into two in the Neo-Vulgate, so becomes Psalms 9 &10;
  • Psalm 113 Vulgate = Psalms 114 & Ps 115 in Neo-Vulgate;
  • Psalm 114 & Ps 115 Vulgate = Psalm 116 in Neo-Vulgate;
  • Psalm 146 & Ps 147 Vulgate - Psalm 147 Neo-Vulgate.