In writing a brief exegetical article on Hebrews 10, I encountered a little-discussed mistranslation in the Vulgate text that not only illustrates the importance of studying the primary texts of Scripture (over against a secondary translation) but one which also speaks to the issue of the development of the dogmatic structure of Roman Catholicism over time.
The reading is found in Hebrews 10:12, but to get the context from the New American Standard Bible we provide verses 10-14:
Hebrews 10:10-14 10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, 13 waiting from that time onward UNTIL HIS ENEMIES BE MADE A FOOTSTOOL FOR HIS FEET. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
The writer is contrasting the repetitive nature of the old sacrifices with the singular, one-time, finished offering of Jesus Christ at Calvary. In verse 11 he speaks of the priest standing and ministering and offering, all present tense actions, all meant to emphasize the on-going and never finished nature of their work. This is contrasted with the one-time, singular offering for sins made by Christ in verse 12. The author uses an aorist participle to express this singular action of atonement in contrast with the present-tense offering of the old priests, seemingly still going on at that time (i.e., at the time of the writing of the epistle prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70). The present-tense can (and in this situation, does) emphasize on-going action, just as the aorist can (and in this situation, does) refer to a punctiliar, point-action in the past. This is the means the author uses to make the sharp contrast.
It is just here that I encountered the brief mention of the reading of the Latin Vulgate at Hebrews 10:12 and how it completely misses the contrast that is so plainly presented in the original text. Philip Hughes notes,
This is the clear significance of the aorist participle prosene,gkaj: it was after he had offered a single sacrifice that he sat down. Accordingly, the present participle offerens in the Vulgate version is seriously misleading. As F.F. Bruce remarks, R.A. Knox€s translation of the Vg, ‘he sits for ever at the right hand of God, offering for our sins a sacrifice that is never repeated,’ is a contradiction in terms. This demonstrates the danger of a translation of a translation.[i]
I checked the Biblia Sacre Iuxta Vulgatam Verionem as published by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft in Stuttgart, which has a small amount of textual data included in the footnotes, but no variant was listed. Then, later, in discussing the issue with some friends, I mentioned the Douay-Rheims translation should be consulted. Its rendering truly illustrates the danger of using a translation of a translation of a translation:
Hebrews 10:12 But this man, offering one sacrifice for sins, for ever sitteth on the right hand of God,
What a horrific misrepresentation of the original intention of the author! And to think this was the ‘official’ version of the Council of Trent! Not only is the present tense ‘offering’ completely in error, but to even attempt to make sense out of the sentence the phrase ‘for ever,’ which is plainly in the context associated with the offering, is transposed so as to become associated with His being seated on the right hand of God! The entire point of the author, that of contrasting the repeated sacrifices of the old priesthood to the singular, forever offering of Christ, is turned upside down, so that Christ ends up offering (present tense) a sacrifice for sins, just like the old priests! A truly amazing example of one translational error leading to another.
Now, there truly is no difficulty in interpreting or even translating this passage. The Vulgate reading is clearly in error. But consider for a moment a situation that prevailed quite literally for centuries when Roman Catholicism reigned supreme in Europe. Before men like Erasmus or John Colet or Johannes Reuchlin uttered the cry ‘ad fontes!’ (‘to the source!’) and sparked the renaissance of biblical studies in the original languages, the priest or theologian was, in the main, limited to the Vulgate. It was during these centuries that Eucharistic theology underwent a massive change in light of the promulgation of the concept of transubstantiation, resulting in a physically-oriented emphasis upon the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice. The person limited to the Latin as his only biblical source would surely not have the testimony of Hebrews 10:12 to enlighten their studies of this subject. Surely, the Vulgate still testifies strongly to the singularity of the sacrifice of Christ in other passages, but this clear testimony is not to be found. What impact did this have? I do not know. But it surely testifies to the danger of enshrining a translation as the final authority without reference to the original languages, something Rome attempted to do at the Council of Trent and in the aborted efforts of Pope Sixtus V.
This example reminds us of the nature of Rome’s dogmatic structure today. So much of her modern dogmas developed on the untrustworthy foundation of forged documents, visions, dreams, and errors such as this example from the Vulgate. Modern Roman Catholic scholars and historians recognize that such things as the Donation of Constantine or the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals were in fact frauds. No one defends them as genuine today. Yet, without those documents the modern Roman Papacy would not have come into existence. The foundations are gone, but the edifice stands. Likewise, one looks back at the central role played by such things as Gregory the Great’s incredulous acceptance of second-hand ‘visions,’ combined with the most outrageously inane allegorical interpretations, soaked in Pelagian error, without which the dogma of purgatory would not have gained the form it has today. Then consider the outrageous stories circulated in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries concerning ‘eucharistic miracles,’ including stories of bees building altars to consecrated hosts placed within their hives, replete with ‘bee singing,’ all of which was vital to the development of the concept of transubstantiation. Join this with the supremacy of a translation of a translation as the standard, and you are again left with the conclusion that what Rome presents to us today is very much like the facades found at Universal Studios in California: from a certain angle they look like real buildings. But there is no reality to them. But worse, Rome’s dogmas not only have no reality, they have no foundation. They are left hanging in the air, the bases upon which they were formed have been washed away by the tides of truth, yet, the edifice stands, empty, yet, for those who want them to be, still looking enough like the real things to satisfy.
Some folks ask me why Rome’s pomp and circumstance has no attraction for me. It surely has for others. The liturgy is key to the conversion of many of those who were raised within non-liturgical traditions. But it has no attraction for me for two reasons. First, as noted above, I see Rome as a historical phantom, her vaunted 2000 year history the stuff of legend, not reality. Newman’s oft-repeated phrase about going ‘deep in history’ is to me simply laughable. The mental gymnastics his great mind had to go through to cobble together the development hypothesis so as to find a way around the facts of history is testimony to how far the mind can go to create a reason to believe something that is in fact untrue. History is no friend to Rome’s pretensions, and the above examples are only multiplied the more I engage the study of history itself.
But secondly, and more positively, I have tasted of divine truth, and there is nothing in Rome’s ostentatious claims that can begin to compare with the satisfaction that comes from the Spirit-blessed, obedient, heart-felt, mind and heart-capturing study of the text of Holy Writ. The joy that comes from worship wherein one desires to hear the Word of God so as to be obedient thereto, and the incredible satisfaction of the in-depth study of Scripture, is simply unknown within Rome, for she cannot allow that kind of freedom to exist (it is detrimental to her sacramentalism). But when one understands the basis upon which one stands before God forgiven, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, saved by grace alone through faith alone, and when one understands the incredible richness of God’s gift of His Word, the light it sheds upon the path, the heights of revelation it places within our hands, such a person will not find the tedious writings of Popes and prelates satisfying. No, Rome carries no attraction for me, for when the light of God’s Word shines upon her, she is seen as the human-centered, man-satisfying religion she is.
[i] Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 401.