There is no practical reason for me to own a copy of the Bible in Latin. When I discovered mine in a box in the basement this weekend, I was actually hunting for my copy of the novel Look Homeward, Angel. Biblia Sacra Vulgata was a purchase I had made almost two decades ago out of curiosity and what I will call a sort of devotional playfulness. What would the psalms have sounded like to Francis of Assisi in the 12th century? How would religious communities have heard the gospel stories read at Mass in the 18th century?
The book I purchased has remained packed and largely unmissed over the past five years. If I took it out of its moving box and carried it up the backstairs this weekend, I was falling victim once again to a pleasure in the feel and heft of the volume and its tight compactness.
Ready for a little sleuthing?
This page of Latin text from the beginning of the book shows three indentations. Can you find the beginnings of three paragraphs? The first paragraph begins “Verba Vulgatae…” The second paragraph begins “Habes ergo…” The third begins “Ordinem librorum…”
My interest is in the second paragraph. This is not a page of ancient Latin, by the way. You are looking at the first page of the Praefatio composed by Dom Robert Weber OSB as chief editor. First published in 1969 by the German Bible Society in Stuttgart, the volume also contains Dom Robert’s preface translated into German, French, and English.
Why would I be interested in the preface in Latin if it is available in three other languages? Precisely because it had not needed to be written in Latin at all. But Dom Robert Weber was addressing a community of scholars who would probably all know some Latin if they were going to use the biblical texts he had edited.
And now the line that stopped me. The start of that second paragraph: “Habes ergo…” Here is the simplest of Latin verbs in the present tense, second person singular. “Therefore you have…” Dom Robert is addressing some ONE person at this point. But who? For the answer, look at the phrase that follows, set off by commas: “benevole lector.” Kind reader.
Something prompted me to look at each of the three translations that followed. Not one begins that same paragraph in just that way. Not one addresses a “kind reader.” The English version reads: “The present edition contains all the Biblical books that are found in the Roman edition.” The German and French translations follow suit.
Only in the Latin version, when Dom Robert is clear he has the attention of some rank of fellow Latinist, does he invoke a relationship between himself and his reader. It is a relationship that will otherwise go unnoticed and unacknowledged.
Until this weekend I did not know Dom Robert Weber OSB. I certainly did not know that I owned a volume that he had edited. The pleasure of handling the book now feels like a gift. I like to think I am that booklover, that kind reader about whom Dom Robert thought.