Antiquum Testamentum

The observant reader will note that I have not updated this blog in roughly a year and a half. He or she may also note that the next item on my reading list is Euclid's Elements. While I did start Euclid, I did not get very far before I started to worry that my Latin skills were getting too rusty. To remedy the situation, I decided to start reading the Vulgate, i.e. the standard Latin translation of the Bible. The Bible is big and Latin is hard. Thus the delay. The hypothetical observant reader will notice that the Bible is not included in the list of Great Books volumes. However, it is meant to be read along with the set. It was simply not included in the set for two reasons. First, when the set was originally published, most buyers would already own acopy of the Bible. Second, the Great Books are all in translation (unless originally in English) and people get very particular about their Bible translations. I have so far only completed the Old Testament but it seemed worth treating the two Testaments separately. The New Testament is much shorter and my Latin is much improved since I began this project. Therefore, the next blog post should not take as long.

On the recommendation of a seminarian friend, who assured me that this is what all the cool priests use, I picked up this very fancy edition of the Vulgate: Douay-Rheims & Clementina Vulgata (English and Latin Edition) from Baronius Press. It is a beautiful gilt and leather-bound 8.5" by 11" volume. It includes both the Latin Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims English translation in an easy-to-read two column format. The same publisher also has nice editions of just the Douay-Rheims English translation and, though it may now be out of print, they at least once had a paperback Vulgate. That said, people are very particular about their Bible translations and most readers won't know Latin, even if they had the motivation to read this amount of it.

Having been raised by a fringe Protestant father, this was not my first encounter with the Old Testament. It is, however, my first time actually reading it straight through as an adult. Looking at it now as a historian of minor accomplishment has really changed my perspective. When I was younger, both Testaments were quite mysterious. We were a King James Version household so the language alone was strange. More than a few lines of the Bible have no clear meaning no matter how you translate them. Others are deliberately made vague in most modern translation. I also completely lacked any historical context for the events described within. I also lacked any real alternative mythologies or religions to compare it to. In short, I read it with completely new eyes this time around.

For pure literary pleasure, the Old Testament tends to get worse the further in one reads. Genesis was the most aesthetically pleasing to me and the Five Books of Moses overshadow most of the rest of the Old Testament. The historical books are especially a drag in the style department but they sometimes make up for it with narrative content. Song of Songs was a real eye-opener. In most modern translations it is presented as some awkward poem about Jesus' love for the Church. If Song of Songs 1:1 doesn'tinvolve something about "your tits are better than wine", you have some prude's censored translation. The original is quite erotic.

I really can not stress how much of a drag I found the historical books. It was an endless cycle of faithful Jews conquering other Semitic tribes until the Jews fell into decadence and faithlessness and were then in turn conquered by their neighbors. Rationally, I realize that the Middle East has historically been the meat grinder of civilizations and a history of any people from that region must necessarily involve cycles of conquest and defeat. But in the context of the Old Testament, defeat is always interpreted as a sign of God's displeasure. Theoretically, the Jews only needed to do a few simple things in order to avoid defeat. And this is a lesson that they failed to learn. By the time we reach the apocryphal 4 Esdras, God seems ready to give up on the Jews as his chosen people in favor of simply backing any and all who would follow his laws.

The apocryphal books were the most interesting because they were entirely new to me. Many books that Protestants consider apocryphal are considered canon by the Catholic Church. And Saint Jerome, creator of the Vulgate, also included a few apocryphal extras, like 4 Esdras, just because he was aparticular fan of those books. Some books are simply extended in the Catholic versions. For example, the Catholic Daniel versions typically end with Daniel creating a bomb and then using it to blow up a Babylonian dragon god. We definitely did not memorize anything that awesome in Awana. 1 Machabees provides some nice historical glue between the rest of the Old Testament and mainstream Classical Antiquity and, in turn, the New Testament. It also suggests that the Jews basically invited the Romans in because they did not like the oppressive rule of one of the successor states to Alexander the Great's empire. 4 Esdras' opening of God's favor up to any all, combined with the abandonment of his particular favoritism toward the Jews, suggests that maybe Christ and his disciples were picking up on an existing theological trend rather than taking their religion in an entirely new direction.

It was over one thousand pages of Latin and it took me a year to read. It is also one of the major works of both Western and Middle-Eastern civilizations. I have forgotten and glossed over a great deal. That is true of basically anything I talk about on this blog but I think the religious aspect of it makes me feel especially guilty this time. I have reduced the entire world view of several groups spanning thousands of years to a few short, and often pithy, paragraphs. It is not ideal. But the perfect is the enemy of the good, or so they say, and I was long overdue for a post.