A Volume on Valla

The Bible is central to the Christian faith.  As citizens of the 21st century, sometimes we forget that the Bible has a history.  It can be easy to think that the Bible as “the Word of God”, as imitating the unchanging timeless nature of God.  History, however, will teach us that the Bible went through many revisions before reaching our hands today.  It went through countless compilations, transmissions, edits and translations.  Revision and translation are an arduous task and should be done scrupulously.  Few have been overwhelmingly skilled for this endeavor like Lorenzo Valla.  His understanding of rhetoric and philology gave him the tools needed for handling and challenging the Vulgate Bible.  Valla’s importance in history has been overlooked. His annotations of the New Testament were not only crucial to forming the Reformers, but also set the stage for Biblical criticism to come.

To start, we need to look at the history of the Vulgate Bible to understand Valla’s criticisms of it and the need for his annotations.  The history of the Vulgate begins with Jerome.  Jerome is often credited as the author of the Vulgate.  The reality is that many different people from different times and places have contributed to the construction of the Vulgate.  Jerome undoubtedly began the process, but even his translation was not entirely his own.  He borrowed heavily from the Old Latin texts and incorporated them into his Bible.[1]  From the beginning, we do not have a “pure” document, but a compilation of different translators.  From here, we see the Vulgate go through multiple lines of transmission that tend to be isolated by region, most notably seen in Spain, Italy, Ireland and England.  Throughout these transmissions, early codifiers were not keen to textual traditions and variations and did not pay attention to the way they combined and conflated texts, as seen in Cassiodorus.[2]

Not only was there neglect of critical analysis of textual variations and traditions with early codifiers and editors, but many were not trained in Greek or Hebrew.  Isidore who was heavily involved in the formation of the Spanish Vulgate sparsely knew Greek or Hebrew[3] and Theodulf who continued after him probably did not know Hebrew and had slim knowledge of Greek.[4]  Even Alcuin from York who composed his Bible under Charlemagne and the Carolingian empire was entirely incompetent in Greek and Hebrew.[5]  Be that as it may, Alcuin’s Bible was largely incorporated into the Paris Bible.  The University of Paris was a hub for Christian knowledge and as such its Bible displayed heavy influence on the Vulgate approved by the Council of Trent in 1592.

By now we can see the many ways error could have slipped into the Vulgate over the years.  There was a mixing of translations from the beginning which never were adequately scrutinized, and thus continued through its maturity.  The different textual traditions and variations went hidden and unacknowledged.  Lastly, many of the scholars who were leading the editing and compiling projects of the Vulgate were not proficient in the original language of the texts and so could never go past the Latin versions themselves.  No wonder Valla notes in his Preface to his annotations that “this stream, which has never been cleansed, has taken on some filth and pollution.”[6]

Besides the lack of textual criticism and philology in the medieval period[7], there were also theological influences that lead to a corrupted Vulgate that spawned Valla’s criticism. The church Fathers were held in such high esteem that editors would make sure the translations they chose would be in line with the exegesis of the Fathers.  This sort of reasoning guided Alcuin in his labors in creating his Bible and displayed his ignorance of textual criticism.  He felt that collectively, the Fathers had a full sense of the Bible and so any translations he chose had to support their interpretations.[8]

The Paris Bible that features so much of Alcuin’s Bible is the culmination of this sort of thinking where scholars preferred the translations and interpretations the mirrored the Fathers.[9]  As such, with the influence of the university there, many theologians were studying Bibles that were loaded to produce exegesis that supported the early Church Fathers.  Talk about reading theology into scripture.  To add fuel to the fire, most of the theologians and philosophers of the medieval times did not even know the original languages of scripture.[10]  They could not read the biblical texts, or the church Fathers, first hand in their own languages, let alone engage in serious textual criticism or philology.

The Vulgate does not receive its official sanction of authority until 1592 in the Council of Trent.  This authority was given in relation to Latin translations alone, and not over the original texts for the council was aware of the primacy of the original language over a translation.[11]  The logic for Vulgate authority was that the church had been using the Vulgate for centuries for matters of faith, doctrine, morals, ethics and Christian living, surely God would not allow the church to be built on a book of errors.[12]  The witness of historical usage was the linchpin that gave the Vulgate authority over other Latin versions.  However, the frequency of conflation and ignorance of textual traditions may challenge this deep conviction that it was Jerome’s Vulgate alone that the church had been using so intimately over the past millennium.

Given the history of the Vulgate, it gives urgency for the rise of a scholar like Valla.  The lack of textual criticism and philology paired with such reverence for the Fathers lead to translations and interpretations of the Vulgate that Valla could no longer stand.  No wonder he was so scornful of scholasticism.  Their inability to understand the original languages lead them to constructing sophisticated doctrines from the rumble of corrupted texts.[13]  The state of the Vulgate itself is not the only thing that influenced Valla’s creation of his annotations, his historical context also plays its role.

Before getting to Valla’s work and influence, we should explore the environment that Valla was working in during the first half of the 15th century.  There was the Schism in the Catholic church that produced for a time multiple Popes.  The papacy and clerical world had reached the depth of its moral depravity by the end of the 15th century[14] and the monastic life had also experienced deterioration in morals and discipline.[15]  As such, the papacy was declining as a political, spiritual, and moral force in the lives of the people.

Simultaneously, many different reform movements were sprouting up.  Wyclif who was influential on the reformers had died in 1384 shortly before Valla’s birth.  About thirty years later, in the early life of Valla, Wyclif had been condemned on 260 accounts by the Council of Constance in 1415.[16]  In that same year, Hus, who was heavily influenced by Wyclif but undoubtedly had his own innovations for reform had been burned alive.[17]  There were other reform movements during the span of Valla’s life lead by John Pupper of Goch, John of Wesel, and John Wessel.  We also witnessed the rise of the Conciliar Movement which pronounced councils to be authoritative over the Pope in 1439.[18]  The failing of the institution of the church on so many fronts, compounded with the multiple challenges to the church planted some seeds for Valla’s air of rebellion.

Most influential on Valla though would be the humanist movement.  A movement that was scornful of scholasticism, contemptuous of monasticism, critical of human authority, and enamored with getting back to the original texts, Valla was a prototypical example of the movement.[19]  Petrarch (1304-1374) was an early humanist who amassed a large following and really accelerated the spread of humanism.  Although humanists were critical of Christianity and medieval thinking, many of them were devout Christians who held offices in the church[20], as Valla desired.  Also, because of the work the middle ages did to show the world is orderly and that humans and the universe are intelligible, we can see how humanism was birthed in part by the medieval period.

Now on to the person Lorenzo Valla. Valla was a philologist through and through and used his knowledge of language as the starting point for his criticisms. He wanted to draw people’s attention to the way language worked and was used to convey truth, and ultimately place truth as a property of language and not something metaphysical.[21]  This emphasis on the centrality of language in relation to knowledge almost prophesies the analytic philosopher’s presupposition that analysis of language is at the heart of philosophy[22] and brings to mind thinkers like Wittgenstein.

When Valla ridiculed Scholasticism and Aristotelian philosophy, his fiery remarks first came from pointing out the ignorance of these philosophers and theologians of texts they used.  These thinkers did not see that the texts they were using were corrupted and faulty Latin texts which lead them to confused thinking and fundamentally erroneous conclusions.[23]  The devastation of this sort of critique was that Valla did not even need to attack the arguments and doctrines themselves, but just point out that the literature they are built on are contaminated and impure.  Thus, their arguments and doctrines cannot be trusted as truth.

As noted earlier, Valla was a good humanist and was encapsulated by the need to study the original texts in their original language.  Besides just studying the original language, the humanists were aware of historical context and worked to construct the historical setting of the original writings.  In doing so, this would allow a deeper understanding of the text and give more insight to the author’s intent.[24]  In criticizing the Scholastic schoolmen in their narrow focus on Latin texts, Valla strikes two criticisms at once.  First, as explained above, many of the translated texts had errors and did not faithfully represent the original pieces and thus misrepresented the ideas of the original text.  This led to building sophisticated systems of thinking on misconceptions and incorrect translations.  The next criticism is that even with correct translations, without historical context, you will still misconstrue a document.  So, not only were people studying inadequate translations, but by not studying the original language, you could not have a good grasp on the context of the document.  This prevented access to the author’s intent of a document which inevitably would lead to confusion of a document.

One last portion of Valla’s thinking we need to look at is his inherent skepticism of human authority.  He demanded that all claims to authority that were strictly human were to be scrutinized by the standards of reason.[25]  This is why Valla did not hesitate to attack authorities of his day and even the Vulgate itself[26], because the Vulgate had been contaminated by human authority.  When we don’t question human authority, we end up bound intellectually and linguistically.  This was treacherous because of the connection Valla had between truth and language.  Indeed, he felt humans should be distinct from animals on the basis of language and not reason because for humans the world has the meaning it has because of the speech we have that gives it meaning.[27]  Speech was fundamentally linked to truth and to what it means to be a human.  As such to protect truth, we need to be highly critical of the humans that are speaking. As we move into Valla’s annotations on the New Testament, we need to see how the above discussion on Valla sheds light on his work.

Valla produced two versions of his annotations with the first surfacing around 1443 and the second one being completed between 1453 and 1457.[28]  His motivation for the redactions was multifaceted.  Undoubtedly, there were concerns to show the efficacy of humanism and how it could be used in conjunction with faith.[29]  As a humanist, Valla was motivated to compare the Latin translation of the Vulgate to the original Greek text and show that many passages had been handled improperly.[30]  Part of the mission was to show the deficiencies in the Vulgate Bible when compared to the original Greek texts.  In doing so there was hope that many would see, with the Bible as an example[31], the need to read texts in the original language to get a deeper sense of the text.  In showing the errors in the Vulgate, it could be expected that many of the translation and interpretive issues found in the Vulgate Bible would be seen in other Latin renderings of ancient texts.

Unsurprisingly, many were skeptical with this sort of study of the Vulgate.  The Vulgate had been given divine sanction and Valla’s work seemed to challenge Jerome and the alleged divine inspiration given to him in his translation.[32]  Valla never intended to question God’s word in scripture, but only the human aspects that seeped into the Vulgate.  For even a sacred temple that housed the Divine Entity, still consisted of the failings of human hands and in like manner the Vulgate consisted of human failings.[33]  As discussed earlier, Valla was highly critical of human authority and wanted to expose it and scrutinize it whenever possible.  When looking at the history of the Vulgate, we see many places where human authority is smuggled into the rendering of the Vulgate Bible and Valla wanted to pull these out and bring them before his standards of reason and textual criticism.

Most notable, and closely linked to humanism, is the presence of philology in the annotations.  Valla relentlessly critiques the theologians and philosophers of their ignorance of philology and contends that philosophy submits to philology.[34]  In his annotations, he uses philology to display the primacy of philology.  With his sophisticated understanding of philology, Valla is able to use philology to critique the Vulgate Bible as a translation of the Greek.  In doing so, he shows the primacy in power and order of reasoning of philology over philosophy.  In order to even do philosophy correctly, we need to first have an understanding of language, and this is the domain of philology.  He does this by showing all the areas that the Vulgate Bible has error in its translation, thus implying that any exegesis and doctrine that is based off this corrupted translation will also be misleading.  We need to have a correct understanding of the words of scripture first before we can start saying what they mean and what we should believe based on this.

When it comes to his treatment of the Vulgate Bible, there are various ways Valla uses philology in his interpretations.  Indeed, there are the more mundane tasks of showing and correcting scribal mistakes of inattentive copying.  There were also more interesting opportunities to show where scribes intentionally changed the copy from the original text.  These corrections were important and meaningful and were prime examples for Valla to show off his skill with Latin.[35]  There was a meatier need for Valla to use philology in his critique of the Vulgate Bible though.  This was to show the translation sin of the overly literalism of the Vulgate.

One of Valla’s main concerns with Jerome’s Vulgate that had been transmitted down to his life was that it too often translated word-for-word.[36]  Valla operates from the premise that proper translation is done from the perspective of sense-for-sense, over word-for-word translation.  Jerome contends that he himself is a supporter for sense-for-sense translation but leaves himself a caveat that Scripture was unique to itself and that “even the order of the words represents a mystery.”[37] Valla’s claim that the Vulgate bible was too much translated word-for-word shows that Valla did not have this same conviction.  Valla argued that there are Greek locutions that are not easily translatable word-for-word and thus the Vulgate contains built in obscurity for its overuse of this word-for-word translation.[38]  These obscurities make the scripture opaquer and more difficult to understand than need be, and Valla is taking the task of clearing up these occasions.

Valla’s work in his annotations is undeniably complex and can be seen as a culmination of his intellectual repertoire.  We see the way his thinking influenced his approach to the annotations and content of the revisions themselves.  We would do well to comment on the type of corrections he made.  On one hand, we have criticisms that were purely grammatical and critical of the quality of translation from the Greek to the Latin Vulgate.  His emphasis on fine points of grammar often irritated Erasmus.[39]  On the other hand, we do see evidence and influence of Valla’s own ecclesiological and theological views bearing weight on his interpretations.[40]  In Valla’s redactions of Romans 12, we get a glimpse of Valla at each end of the spectrum.  In 12:1, Valla amounts criticism that the Vulgate doesn’t contain consistent translation of the Greek.[41]  He is mainly focused on making a technical point about the translation.  In 12:3, though, we see Valla disagree with the Vulgate translation because of the way it could be misleading and not affirm “Pauline Philosophy”.[42]  In this note, we see how Valla’s own personal beliefs and intellectual positions influenced his interpretations.

Given the vast and perplexing history of the Vulgate, the vibrant environment Valla was accustomed to, and his own brilliance, what legacy do we find in his annotations?  We see the emergence of biblical philology and textual criticism, and ammo for the reformers of the Reformation.  His insights and concerns are shared by contemporary philosophers of language and his work was known among the reformers.  Unfortunately, Valla hasn’t been duly recognized in the history of intellectuals and has been undervalued and underappreciated.  Once reformers had succeeded in their attempts to break from the Catholic church, their need for Valla’s work subsided and his memory began to fade as the sixteenth century came to a close.[43]  Like many before me, like Camporeale, I have concluded we need to show more interest in this historical figure and bring to light the way he impacted the world around him and beyond him.

Valla’s impact on his contemporaries was felt directly, but also indirectly, primarily through Erasmus.  Valla’s work had tremendous influence on his contemporaries as he was known amongst the reformers.[44]  His techniques and annotations were weapons used by the reformers in their theological warfare.  He provided a new avenue for analyzing scripture and brought about a deeper sense for textual criticism.  With Valla’s work, the reformers had an array of angles to attack the church from.  Besides fighting in the logical plain and arguing that the Catholic church was espousing erroneous exegesis of scripture, the reformers could contend, as Valla did towards the Scholastics, that the text they used was corrupted and so their doctrines will be misleading.

Through Valla’s annotations, the reformers like Calvin and Luther, saw the importance of reading the text in the original language.  I think this emphasis of reading the original languages is intimately linked to the conviction of Sola Scriptura.  As Valla pointed out, the New Testament is very much a product of humans.  Because of the need for translation, the Vulgate is even more a product of humanity.  In a very real way then, the Vulgate is less “Scripture” than the original texts because it contains more human influence.  By studying the original texts, you would have a purer form of scripture and a deeper reliance on scripture alone.  So, with Valla’s insight into textual criticism and philology, the reformers were able to strip away some of the “humanness” of the Vulgate and really get to the scriptures alone and follow them more faithfully.  Valla’s work exposed unreliability of the Vulgate in its present state and thus the instability of theology that was drawn from it.  The reformers were attracted to this discovery and used Valla’s translation from the Greek in their mission to bring down and remove the papacy.[45]

Valla’s work also would provide important guidelines for the reformist task of translating the Bible into the vernacular languages.  In showing the reformers the ways the Vulgate was corrupted, he gave reformers some sense on how to translate the original texts into any language.  These new translations into the vernaculars would be better equipped to avoid the errors of the Latin Vulgate if following Valla’s example of translation in his annotations.  It would aide in keeping the scriptures as pure as possible for the lay people.  If the lay people could read properly translated scripture, this would increase the likely hood that they would interpret scripture in a way that would be in line with the reformation thinkers.

Valla influenced the reformers in general but had deep influence on Erasmus in particular.  It was Valla’s annotations that may have brought the most inspiration to Erasmus.[46]  Erasmus was not a clone of Valla and had his own unique and important insights, but he was undoubtedly a student of Valla and knew his work intimately and followed it closely in many ways.  Erasmus’ annotations were broader in scope and addressed more issues of translation, exegesis, textual criticism[47], and even textual criticism of the Greek text themselves.[48] Valla’s influence on Erasmus made its way to the reformers.  Luther took much from Erasmus and many of these points were areas that Erasmus had been deeply impressed upon by Valla’s work.

Valla’s innovations were not bound to the 15th century but have be transmitted generation to generation to the present day.  We see in Valla through his annotations the beginning and emergence of a new standard of textual and biblical criticism that was grounded on philology.[49]  Much of biblical criticism and exegesis today is focused on very fine points of translation and grammar.  Grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and writing style have all become key points of emphasis when scrutinizing the New Testament letters in trying to uncover a letters authorship.  This sort of criticism has been employed in determining what letters were or were not written by Paul, or in arguing for a single author or multiple authors when looking at the collection attributed to John.  Now, Valla doesn’t dive into these concerns in his annotations but the way he focuses on how important it is to understand the words that are being used and the grammar and syntax of the language has grown into these techniques we use today.

As noted frequently through this paper, Valla was obsessed with getting back to the original language of the texts.  This was intimately linked to the validity of exegesis and emphasized the close connection between language and exegesis.[50]  To be a serious exegete today, one needs to be able to do it from the original text, because of the importance of capturing the words and their value in the original language.  Valla also played a role in textual criticism of and attention to textual traditions within the Greek texts themselves.  Now, to be sure, this is something that Erasmus really championed, but not without the influence of Valla and the example of Valla’s textual criticism of Latin texts.[51]

We have looked at the ways that Valla laid the foundation for those analytic philosophers and how his work can be eerily similar to the ideas of Wittgenstein.  In the same way he foreshadowed scrutinizing language in philosophy, I also think he foreshadows many concepts of the historical critical method to biblical studies.  I see this as mainly coming from his humanist bent.  As a humanist, Valla wanted to get to the “author’s original intent”.  He did this through reading the author in their mother tongue and getting an understanding of their historical context and let that influence the way he interpreted the text.  The holy grail of the author’s intent is what drives the historical critical method and is seen prominently in Valla.[52]  His implementation of these insights in his exegesis in his annotations and his frequent call for scholars to employ these techniques did not fall on deaf ears and had been pick up by his successors and brought into our world today.[53]

Valla was a brilliant scholar who was driven by truth in all the work he did.  He fearlessly attacked the unconscious obedience to Scholastic theology and Aristotelian philosophy.  He wanted to bring attention to the importance of language when studying a text and how studying in the original language of scripture will aid in a correct understanding of scripture.  This translates into faithful and meaningful exegesis that produces strong and forceful doctrines that bring God’s words to life.  His work helped shape the minds of reformers and give them tools to chisel down the papacy.  His work also extended past his time and bears witness to modern philology, philosophy, and textual criticism.  His Annotations of the New Testament was the stage for Valla to employ all his philological and rhetorical skills and show how these will enrich the Christian faith.  Unfortunately, though, just like how Valla did not acknowledge much of the history and tradition of textual criticism before him, Valla himself seems to fade into the shadows of intellectual history.[54] Kenneth Latourette dedicates all of about a half a paragraph to this figure in his vast work on the history of Christianity.  I contend that Valla’s contributions earn him consideration that could fill a book as Camporeale has done, for Valla has indeed shaped the modern western intellectual climate.

[1] Lampe, Geoffrey William Hugo. The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. 108.

[2] The Cambridge History of the Bible. 119.

[3] Ibid. 124.

[4] Ibid. 126.

[5] Ibid. 134.

[6] Celenza, Christopher S. “Lorenzo Valla’s Radical Philology: The “Preface” to the Annotations to the New Testament in Context.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42, no. 2 (2012): 365-94. Accessed November 20, 2018. 382.

[7] The Cambridge History of the Bible. 197.

[8] Ibid. 372.

[9] Ibid. 146.

[10] Ibid. 217.

[11] Sutcliffe, Edmund F. “THE COUNCIL OF TRENT ON THE “AUTHENTIA” OF THE VULGATE.” The Journal of Theological Studies 49, no. 193/194 (1948): 35-42.http://www.jstor.org.fuller.idm.oclc.org/stable/23952997. 40.

[12] Council of Trent. 38.

[13] Valla’s Radical Philology. 376.

[14] The Cambridge History of the Bible. 636.

[15] Ibid. 640.

[16] Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2000. 666.

[17] History of Christianity. 669.

[18] Ibid. 635.

[19] Ibid. 659.

[20] Ibid. 605

[21] Copenhaver, Brian P. 2005. “Valla our Contemporary: Philosophy and Philology.” Journal of the History of Ideas 66 (4): 507-525. https://fuller.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/docview/203368970?accountid=11008. 511.

[22] Valla our Contemporary. 519.

[23] Grimm, Harold J. “Lorenzo Valla’s Christianity.” Church History 18, no. 2 (1949): 75-88. http://www.jstor.org.fuller.idm.oclc.org/stable/3161356. 84.

[24] Valla’s Christianity. 80.

[25] Ibid. 81.

[26] Ibid. 88.

[27] Valla our Contemporary. 513.

[28] Bentley, Jerry H. “Biblical Philology and Christian Humanism: Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus as Scholars of the Gospels.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 8, no. 2 (1977): 9-28. doi:10.2307/2539436. 10.

[29] Valla’s Christianity. 87.

[30] Biblical Philology and Christian Humanism. 12.

[31] Valla’s Radical Philology. 376.

[32] Ibid. 365.

[33] Ibid. 369.

[34] Biblical Philology and Christian Humanism. 28.

[35] Valla’s Christianity. 80.

[36] Valla’s Radical Philology. 376.

[37] Ibid. 367.

[38] Ibid. 376.

[39] Biblical Philology and Christian Humanism. 14.

[40] Celenza, Christopher S. “Renaissance Humanism and the New Testament: Lorenzo Valla’s Annotations to the Vulgate.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 24, no. 1 (January 1, 1994): 33-52. Accessed November 25, 2018. 38.

[41] Valla’s Annotations to the Vulgate. 43

[42] Ibid. 45.

[43] Melissa, Meriam Bullard. 2005. “The Renaissance Project of Knowing: Lorenzo Valla and Salvatore Camporeale’s Contributions to the Querelle between Rhetoric and Philosophy.” Journal of the History of Ideas 66 (4): 477-481. https://fuller.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/docview/203365805?accountid=11008. 478.

[44] The Renaissance Project of Knowing. 477.

[45] Ibid. 480.

[46] The Cambridge History of the Bible. 494.

[47] Biblical Philology and Christian Humanism. 13.

[48] Ibid. 17.

[49] Valla’s Annotations to the Vulgate. 50.

[50] Biblical Philology and Christian Humanism. 23

[51] Ibid. 15.

[52] Valla’s Radical Philology. 367.

[53] Ibid. 366.

[54] Valla’s Radical Philology. 372.

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