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15.4.20 The Snake in the Garden

snake in the garden

If I ask you to think of the Latin Bible you might think of something dry, dusty, and removed; in school we learn that during the Reformation the Bible was translated into vernacular languages all over Europe in order to make it more accessible to ordinary people, and, five hundred years later, in this part of the world at least, the Bible, let alone the Bible in Latin, is even more removed from most people’s concerns. But the interesting thing is that the Latin Bible is itself a vernacular translation, written to take texts in Hebrew and Greek and make them available to the Latin-speakers of Europe and north Africa. We know that versions of different parts were circulating in Latin from the 2nd century CE as the so-called Vetus Latina, or Old Latin Bible; these are the texts which Jerome revised and re-translated between 375 and 405 to give shape to what is known as the Vulgate Bible, which became the standard version of the Latin Bible for many centuries.

What these texts offer us is a window onto a more colloquial and down-to-earth kind of Latin, one of those important moments when we can observe, however imperfectly, Latin on its journey to Romance. In the Old Latin Gospels, for instance, manducare has ousted edere and comedere as the preferred word for ‘to eat’, and likewise comparare prevails over emere (‘to buy’) and civitas over urbs (‘city’). Mangiare(It.), comprar (Sp.), and cidade (Pt.) all stem from here. At the same time, sapere has not yet replaced scire as the verb ‘to know’, a porta still means a city gate and not a door, and a house is still a domus and not yet a casa. And you’ll still find purpose clauses and deponent verbs and other things at home in ‘classical’ Latin, showing that there is no easy division between types or registers of the language. But when Philip Burton writes that ‘It has long been recognized that the language of the Old Latin Gospels is not literary Latin’, there is a paradox. The Bible both is and is not ‘literature’. Or, put another way, this text is reinventing what Latin literature means, in ways which simply do not conform to the standard model, which is still based, as it always has been, on the prose of Cicero and the poetry of Virgil. The Bible began life in Latin as a radical book, not just in terms of content but in terms of form, re-writing the rules for what counted as ‘literature’.

A few weeks ago we were doing two bits of Latin in class. The first was a short snippet of a letter from Vindolanda, in which a soldier asks his commander for more beer for his men (Lat: cervesia, a word I hadn’t known). The second was the bit in Genesis when the snake appears to Eve in the garden and tricks her into eating the apple. I had been very sure as to which text the students would prefer (the former), and just managed to stop myself launching into a little tirade before they began: this story (I was about to say, referring to the latter) is, of course, deeply misogynistic and pernicious, original sin etc. etc. Anyway, I held back, and to my surprise, when I asked the students which they preferred, the majority voted for the snake in the garden. And when I asked them why, the answer that came back was, ‘because it’s fantastical’. Of course, I thought, silently kicking myself: a talking snake. Before anything else, this is a story about a talking snake. And I had been about to ruin it for them with my righteous intro.

The Bible has been complicit in much evil and terror over the centuries, so it’s not that my critique was or is irrelevant. This is a book that has been weaponised in the worst possible ways. Rather it’s that I was faced again with the strange and sometimes startling ability of stories to be made new in the mind of every new person who reads them. And this is a point that I think applies to Latin literature as a whole. No matter how many times someone says: ‘oh, the story means this’, someone else can come along and say ‘actually, no, I read it like this.’ The Dublin poet Peter Sirr has a nice phrase in his poem ‘Nonetheless’, where he talks about ‘living in the endless promise of language’. It’s a phrase I always come back to when teaching, because it most neatly describes, for me, what it means to be a language teacher, and to read and re-read these old stories.

Note: This post is indebted to, and quotes from, Philip Burton’s The Old Latin Gospels: A Study of their Texts and Language (Oxford University Press, 2000); I also quote from Peter Sirr’s ‘Nonetheless’, from his collection of the same name (Gallery Press, 2004). His latest collection, published in 2019, is The Gravity Wave.