When Augustine quoted the Holy Scripture, which version of the Bible did he use? Although that sounds like a perfectly acceptable question to pose, the reality is that Christians of Augustine’s era never saw what is called a single book that would today be described as “the Bible.”
Augustine would have had a stack of manuscripts that contained separate books of the Bible. He may not always have had access to every book of the Bible simultaneously, nor even to every section within every book. Augustine knew only a little Greek, and did not spontaneously refer to the Greek Bible. He mostly used what is termed the Vetus Latina, the “Old Latin” version of Biblical texts. This is the name used to denote old Latin translations from the Greek text, which were used in the Western world before - very slowly - what would be called the Vulgate translation by St Jerome took precedence. Only very gradually did Augustine start to make greater use of Jerome's translations from the Hebrew found in the Vulgate. The 'Old Latin' translations were of varying quality, depending on the Books of the Bible concerned, and presented many erroneous readings which the user was not always able to detect. In fact, Augustine in his Retractions admitted that several times he had made incorrect interpretations on the basis of reading imperfect or even false translations (Retr. 2,12,39).
In his Letter 71, he remarked in frustration on 'the endless diversity of the Latin translators'. 'The text is so different in the various manuscripts that it is almost intolerable; the Latin version is so suspect that one is afraid of finding another interpretation in the Greek, so that one hesitates to quote from it or use it as the basis of any proof' (Letter 71,6). Understandably, this problem was particularly serious in theological disputes. How is this to be remedied? In On Christian Doctrine, he wrote, 'We must either acquire a knowledge of the language from which the Scriptures have been translated into Latin, or we must use the translations of those who keep close to the original, not because these are adequate, but because they enable us to discern the accuracy or errors ofother translators who have chosen to follow the thought rather than the words' (De Doct. Chr.2,13,19).
Augustine generally opted for the latter solution; he had a number of Latin translations and compared them. All his life he quoted sometimes one translation, and sometimes another. When preaching on journeys away from Hippo, he used whatever translation was favoured he was visiting. When he had two very different translations, it was not uncommon for him to comment on both, without favouring one or the other. Yet Augustine did have preferences: of the Latin version he says, 'Itala is preferable to all the others, as it keeps more closely to the words at the same time clearly rendering the thought' (Doct. Chr. 2,15,22).What Augustine refers to as 'Itala' are probably the African Vetus Latina containing revisions made in Northern Italy, and sometimes very different from the texts used in the poor, faraway churches of Africa, where people could not afford to change the old books.
Indeed, Augustine was somewhat indifferent to the translation so long as the fundamental meaning of the text was not in jeopardy. Here it should be added that a knowledge of several different Latin translations may well have permanently clouded his memory, especially as he did not really start to read the Bible until he was over thirty years of age. He admitted in a sermon that, although he knew by heart passages from such Classic literature as Virgil's Aeneid, having memorised them as a schoolchild, this did not apply to the Bible (Sermo Dolbeau 23,19) Furthermore, Augustine never revised the Latin Bible himself, contrary to what was sometimes thought. He was not by nature a linguist as Jerome was. For him, what counted was not the actual words themselves; the words were merely signs referring to the veritas (truth). Scripture was thus a means, and not an end.
Unlike Jerome, Augustine was not first and foremost an exegete. He was primarily a pastor. For him, the Bible was a treasure to be shared, which he always did generously. Scarcely has he understood a text than he burned with the desire to share his discovery with those around him. Even before becoming a priest, at Cassiciacum even before his baptism, and at his lay community at Thagaste, then in his monastery at Hippo, he explained passages of the Scriptures to these small communities in which he lived. As the bishop at Hippo, during the week after Easter Sunday he was present every day in a room adjoining the basilica to answer any questions the newly-baptized might have. Augustine devoted a great deal of time and energy to what would now be called 'spreading the word'.
(From a Friends of Augustine bulletin.) AN1302