Posted by: mattcolvin | November 21, 2013

Review of Biblia Sacra Vulgata

Why doesnt the Bible Design Blog review more Greek and Hebrew Bibles for us original language nerds? I don’t know. But it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, so I’ll take a stab at reviewing the UBS Bibles from my shelf. All of them are several years old now, but perhaps that will make the review more informative.

First up is not actually Greek or Hebrew, but Latin: the Biblia Sacra Vulgata:

Outside, this is a beautiful book, bound in green leatherette (fake leather), with gold letters on both spine and front cover:




Green leather? Sure, from the Hulk’s own herd. The leatherette appears to be the same material used on all the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft Bibles: Nestle-Aland, the Rahlfs LXX, etc. It is very pretty and pleasant to the touch, but also regrettably thin and easily worn away with use. This is especially a problem at the corners and edges of the spine, where most of these editions will eventually succumb to rubbing and shelf-wear, so that the leatherette material begins to peel away, revealing the boards underneath. (My Vulgate is still in good condition because it gets relatively less use than the Greek volumes.)

There is a saffron-colored bookmark. It is a braided ribbon with a tendency to fray at the ends:


This is a thick enough book that an extra ribbon or two would not have been amiss.

My copy is still fairly tight after 10 years of fairly careful and gentle use, but with over 1,980 pages, it needs a stronger binding: so many pages shifting back and forth en masse tend to loosen the hinges on these books (LXX and Biblia Sacra Utriusque Testamenti no less than the Vulgate).


This is actually an edition of Jerome’s Vulgate, not the modern Nova Vulgata of 1979 that has been altered to conform to today’s editions of the New Testament. The Biblia Sacra Vulgata declares on its title page that it is the “Biblia Sacra Iuxta Vulgatam Versionem”. It includes Jerome’s prologues, which are presented immediately before each book (or series of books) to which they apply. Here is the famous “Helmeted Introduction” (prologus galeatus) to 1 and 2 Samuel in which Jerome explains his judgments about canonicity:



Both the Gallican Psalter (translated from the Greek of the Hexapla) and the Psalter translated from the Hebrew are presented on facing pages. The edition follows the Clementine Vulgate’s division of the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra/Nehemiah, which will make things easier for those who are used to the separation of these books in other Bibles.

Cross-references in the margins direct the reader to parallel passages. The apparatus criticus makes no pretentions to completeness, but does consistently cite the major manuscripts and note differences from the Clementine text. Accordingly, it rarely takes up more than half an inch at the bottom of the page. There are page numbers, but they are set in the gutter. I suppose this was a deliberate decision, since it is done also in all the other Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft Bibles too. It makes sense: better to have the book, chapter, and verse reference in the thumbing corner rather than a page number.

Design and Typography
The fonts are uniformly excellent: a clear, legible, well-spaced serif typeface throughout, with Roman capitals in a larger size for the initial letters of each book. The pages are very thin, and there is a moderate amount of ghosting, but not so much as to be distracting.

This edition, in keeping with the manuscripts, does not have punctuation. This lack of full stops can make it difficult to read aloud, but the way continuous phrases tend to constitute continuous lines mitigates this problem – and then, how often does anyone read the Vulgate aloud anymore? Our family does so once a year (the Lucan account of the birth of Christ is a Christmas Day tradition in our house). The text of prologues and prefaces is in a single column (see Jerome’s prologue to Samuel & Kings above), but the Scripture itself is in two columns per page and printed in paragraph-per-verse formatting (per cola et commata, as the preface explains, in keeping with the Roman and Oxford editions and the ancient manuscripts).

There is a nearly 1/4 inch gutter in between the columns, which seems sufficient. The careful use of smaller type for the marginal notes referring to parallel passages, for the Eusebian Canons in the NT, and for the critical apparatus keeps all these things from distracting the reader. The margins are quite adequate, and even in the gutter between pages, there is 3/8 of an inch, then another half inch for the loci citati vel allegati, and only then does the edge of the text block begin: the actual text is thus almost an entire inch (7/8) away from “the valley of shadow”. Combine this superior layout with a book that opens flat, and you have an ideal format for the sort of use an academic is likely to make of it: it will complacently submit to hours of poring over the same page or two, lying flat the entire time, and preserving no ill effects in its binding. It will not, for instance, “fall open” to the same place or fail to shut all the way again, like a cheap paperback.

Such sustained reading on a flat surface is, of course, how this Bible ought to be used. But in our lazy age, there will be a temptation to lie in bed holding the book with one hand. Don’t try that with the Vulgate: for one, it’s too heavy, and for another, its spine and hinges are not sturdy enough to take such treatment for long. This is not a book to cram into your crowded backpack. (I wince just to think of such a sin!)





Biblia Sacra Vulgata comes equipped with the usual folded leaflet listing the major manuscripts with sigla and approximate dates. I confess that I never use these leaflets, and have lost not a few of them. They are only of use if you are doing serious textual study, and frankly, I have a hard time imagining a scholar hunched over his Vulgate, squinting at the apparatus, saying, “What is that manuscript?” and then quickly looking it up on his folded leaflet. The way I use the Vulgate – reading with my high school Latin students or consulting Jerome’s rendering of this or that Greek or Hebrew phrase as a check or corroboration of English versions – there is seldom a need to look at the apparatus, let alone at the index codicum et editionum.


There is something about a well made book that enchants us: think of E. Nesbit’s The Book of Beasts or J.K. Rowling’s Monster Book of Monsters. In our digital age, we tend to forget that the physical form of a book contributes to the experience of reading or studying it. The Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft has not forgotten. They have made a Vulgate with virtues precisely suited to the uses for which it is intended, with weaknesses that will be exposed only when the book is abused. This is German attention to detail, and it makes the book a joy to use — as it should be.

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  1. […] This, the second in my series of reviews of original language Bibles, takes a look at the Zondervan Reader’s Hebrew Bible. (The first post was about the Biblia Sacra Vulgata.) […]

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