A Century of Latin Bibles: c. 1550–1650


By Felipe Vogel

Some of us may have been disappointed to see only Lutherans among the hymn-writers which we recently sampled. But fear not, Reformed readers, because Latin culture flourished in early Reformed circles as well. They wrote plenty of poetry, but where they uniquely excelled was in their work on the biblical text, recasting it for scholarly, educational, artistic, and (in the vernacular) liturgical purposes. Here we will take a look at a few of these (literally!) Reformed Bibles, which we can still profitably read today.

The frontispiece of a 1631 edition of the Junius-Tremellius-Beza Bible

Latin Bibles: Castellio and Junius-Tremellius-Beza

Sebastian Castellio has been memorialized and vilified as an enemy of orthodoxy and the father of Enlightenment freethinking. But this is unjust. He may have bitterly disagreed with Calvin and Beza on many points, but Castellio began his career as a teacher in Geneva, and all his life he retained that intensity of focus on the Bible characteristic of the Reformed. The largest part of Castellio’s output was his educational writings, and by far the longest of these was a Latin translation of the Bible into highly classical Latin, first published in 1551.

This translation came under attack by the Genevans, but not at first because of any heterodox interpretations—that kind of attack came with a later edition which included a commentary on Romans 9 directed against Calvin’s view of election. But even the first edition of Castellio’s translation displeased the Genevans because they considered its classical Latin style inappropriate for sacred Scripture. In reply, Castellio quipped in one of his prefaces, “Someone might say, ‘But there is no piety in elegant language.’ Neither in stiff translationese (barbaries). … ‘But I love the majesty and antiquity of the Hebraisms.’ Then read the Hebrew original. ‘I don’t like rhetorical coloring (fucus).’ Neither do I like it, nor impure diction (sordes).

Over against Castellio’s Bible was the magisterial translation of Junius, Tremellius, and Beza, which first appeared separately between 1569 and 1579, then revised and published together in 1590. This translation sought to balance word-for-word correspondence with an acceptable Christian Latin style, not strictly classical. Furnished with copious footnotes in some editions, it was meant as an aid to scholars and pastors, not a textbook for students. But that didn’t limit its reach. To the contrary, every English speaker still feels something of the Junius-Tremellius-Beza Bible since it was the favorite Latin Bible of the King James translators, whose influence on modern English translations and on the English language itself is impossible to escape. This inherent familiarity makes it a pleasure to read, and a useful foil to Castellio’s very different approach of delighting the reader with the same message clothed in more classical language. Here are two passages in either translation.

Genesis 1:1–6

Junius-Tremellius-Beza: In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. Terra autem erat res informis et inanis, tenebrasque erant in superficie abyssi: et spiritus Dei incubabat superficie aquarum. Tum dixit Deus, esto lux: et fuit lux. Vididtque Deus lucem hanc esse bonam, et distinctionem fecit Deus inter hanc lucem et tenebras. Lucemque Deus vocavit diem, tenebras vero vocavit noctem: ac fuit vespera et fuit mane diei primi.

Castellio: Principio creavit Deus Caelum et terram. Cum autem esset terra iners atque rudis, tenebrisque offusum profundum, et divinus spiritus sese super aquas libraret, iussit Deus, ut exsisteret lux, et exstitit lux: quam cum videret Deus esse bonam, lucem secrevit a tenebris, et lucem diem, et tenebras noctem appellavit. Ita exstitit ex vespere et mane dies primus.

Genesis 1:27–29, 31

Junius-Tremellius-Beza: Itaque creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam, ad imaginem, inquam, Dei creavit eum: marem et feminam creavit eos. Deinde benedixit eis Deus, et dixit eis Deus, fetificate ac augescite et implete terram, eamque subicite: et dominamini in pisces maris, et in volucres caeli, et in omnes bestias reptantes super terram. … Tum inspexit Deus quidquid fecerat, ecce autem bonum erat valde: sic fuit vespera et fuit mane diei sexti.

Castellio: Itaque hominem Deus ad sui, id est, ad divinam imaginem creavit, scilicet marem et feminam, quibus deinde fecunditatem dedit, sic eos alloquens: fetificate, multiplicamini, replete terram, eamque subigite: et in pisces aquatiles, volucresque aereas, et omnes, quae in terris moventur, bestias imperium habete. … His effectis, animadvertit Deus omnia, quaecumque fecerat, esse admodum bona. Ita exstitit ex vespere et mane dies sextus.

Read more in online scans of Castellio’s translation and the Junius-Tremellius-Beza translation. (The latter is not a perfect scan, so you may need to consult an alternate edition now and then.)

Latin Psalms: Arthur Johnston

Bruce Gordon observes that “zeal for a new Latin translation of the Bible … was almost exclusively a Reformed obsession during the sixteenth century.” The relish for poetic Latin versions of the Psalms, on the other hand, knew no confessional bounds. Protestants of all stripes as well as Catholics composed verse paraphrases of the Psalms at least through the 18th century. Theodore Beza was the most prominent reformer to compose Psalm paraphrases, and those of George Buchanan were considered the pinnacle of the genre. But the Psalm paraphrases of Arthur Johnston, published in 1637, are worth sampling here because of their relative simplicity. Below is his paraphrase of Psalm 23 along with my translation and a tune of my own invention. (But in their day, too, Latin Psalm paraphrases were now and then set to music for schools and for royal courts.)

1 Blandus ut upilio, me pascit Conditor orbis:
Ne mihi quid desit, providus ille cavet.
2 Dat satur ut recubem pratorum in gramine molli:
Ducit et ad rivos lene sonantis aquae.
3 Cor recreat, rectique viam mihi monstrat et aequi,
Illius ut laudes laetus in astra feram.
4 Non ego degeneri quaterer formidine, lethi
Ante oculos quamvis vallis opaca foret:
Tu, Deus, es praesto, baculo vestigia firmans
Ne titubem; vires restituisque meas.
5 Hoste palam tu das plenis accumbere mensis,
Et mihi regales porrigis ipse dapes.
Tu caput irroras suco felicis olivae,
Sufficis et larga pocula plena manu.
6 Me tua defendet bonitas, dum lumine vescar;
Per salebras gressus diriget illa meos.
Inque tuis adytis, rerum Pater alme, morabor,
Hic, ubi perpetuo gaudia laetus agam.

Translation:
1 As a kind shepherd, the Creator of the world puts me to pasture.
He takes care that I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down content in the soft grass of meadows,
And he leads me to streams of softly gurgling water.
3 He gives rest to my heart, and he shows me the way of uprightness and integrity,
So that happily I lift up his praise to the stars.
4 I will not be shaken by ignoble fear,
Even if the dark valley of death is before my eyes.
You, God, are at hand, strengthening my steps with your staff
So that I do not stumble; you restore my strength.
5 In front of my enemy you allow me to sit at full tables,
And you give me kingly feasts.
You moisten my head with the oil of the blessed olive,
And by your generous hand you provide me with full cups.
6 Your goodness will defend me while I feed on light;
It will guide my steps through rough places.
In your inner sanctums, kind father of all things, I will abide,
Here, where happily I will express my joy forever.

Conclusion: Using Latin Scriptures Today

The enduring usefulness of these artfully translated Latin Scriptures is highlighted by Castellio in his defense of his Bible translation. He describes his reaction some years earlier to the standard humanistic curriculum used in a school:

The authors in the students’ hands wrote good Latin, but they were for the most part obscene and encouraged bad behavior. So I wished that there were some Bible translation written in better Latin, and also more accurate and more clear, so that students could learn both faithfulness (pietas) and good Latin style simultaneously, thus saving them time and enticing them to read the Bible. For I admit that at times I myself have read Scriptures less attentively because of the rough and opaque language of the translation. I know this has happened to others also. Granted, this isn’t a good reason not to read Scripture, but even so it might be useful to remove the obstacle, so that by whatever means possible people can be allured to truth.

Although exposing young children to obscene but educationally top-notch literature is not a dilemma we face in our day, presenting the Bible in a more beautiful way is a perennial task which these scholars and poets fought mightily to fulfill.

More practically for those of us who study Latin, read the Bible in Latin! Start with the Junius-Tremellius-Beza translation reminiscent of our modern English versions. As you grow in your reading ability, be sure not to miss the charm of Castellio’s translation. If you feel like braving Latin poetry, try Arthur Johnston’s Psalm paraphrases. Happy reading!


Felipe Vogel and his wife Hannah are teachers in Lexington, Kentucky. Felipe earned his M.A. at the University of Kentucky, where he lived every day in Latin at the Institute for Latin Studies.