Stories from the Life of Christ

Stories from the Life of Christ:
A Latin Reader for Intermediate Students

Selected, with an Introduction, Notes
and Comprehensive Vocabulary
by Sean Gabb
Hampden Press, 2018
ISBN: 978-1983188732

Address to the Reader

The purpose of this book is to give a set of readings that are in genuine but fairly simple Latin, that are interesting in themselves, and that are accompanied by a Vocabulary in which nearly every word used in the text is fully explained. I hope it will be useful to intermediate students—that is, those who have made some progress in the language, but who still find the Roman Classics too difficult to read with any fluency. I think of A-Level students in England, or undergraduates anywhere in the English-speaking world who are beginning an accelerated course in Latin. I think also of students preparing for any other advanced examination at schools outside England, and of students in home education or those who are trying to learn Latin by themselves. I hope the book will be of general use.

One of the difficulties that students of Latin at any level face is a lack of reading material that is both original and accessible. Both qualities are important. For beginners, the second of these is probably more important. If you have learned—even perhaps memorised—the grammar and rules of syntax, you have not yet learned Latin. If you are able to read a sentence by looking for the main verb, and then any subject, and then their dependent parts, you have still not learned Latin. You have learned only how to decode. You have learned the language when you are able to read an entire passage, quickly and accurately, without being consciously aware of the rules you are applying. This is an ability that comes from several hundred hours of practice—practice with texts that are not of forbidding complexity.

There is, for beginners, no shortage of written material. I think, for example, of the excellent Latin Stories by Cullen, Dormandy and Taylor. The texts are both easy and interesting. They allow vocabulary to be learned and habits of understanding to be absorbed almost without conscious effort. They take a reader who has mastered the basics of grammar and syntax, and finish somewhat beyond the level required by the latest GCSE specification. Here, though, the guiding hand is largely withdrawn.

At A-Level, if the unseen texts are hardly beyond the level of Latin Stories, the prescribed texts are in entirely genuine Latin—and these can, at this stage, be of forbidding complexity. The classical writers did not set out to be accessible even to their own average contemporaries. Going to them straight from GCSE is rather like trying to clean windows from a ladder too short for their height. It can be done, with much standing on tiptoe, and much outstretching of arms. But Cicero’s Pro Milone is more often started than finished. So too Book VIII of The Aeneid, and the various other texts currently prescribed. Not surprisingly, many students at A-Level give up on direct engagement, preferring to memorise the texts together with their translations.

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I have prepared this book with these students largely in mind. Saint Jerome (347–420 AD) was a writer of genius, and this is evident to anyone able to appreciate the difficulties he faced in producing his translation of The Bible. He was writing for a wider audience than the authors of the Roman classics had in consideration. This audience was those as well-educated as he was, but also countless millions of the uneducated. The result is a clear and flowing narrative that mirrors as exactly as Latin allows the style of the original Greek. The sentences are generally short, the grammar simple. Above all, even in our present age, when The Bible is not studied so commonly as it was, I doubt if there are many readers who will come to these extracts without some knowledge of the material. And this knowledge will often save readers the trouble of looking up words.

Last Christmas, I set a group of GCSE students the beginning of Luke 2 as given by Jerome. They complained at first that I had set something far outside their understanding. After I had finished urging them to make an effort, they found themselves able to read the text almost without trouble. Not one had to ask the meaning of in praesepio. I think it was then that the idea of this book came into my thoughts.

The Latin Bible

Though His Mission was universal, Christ preached mainly to the Jews, and probably did so in Aramaic, which was then the common language of the Holy Land. Then Saint Paul began his own mission to the Gentiles, and the Gospels and Acts and Letters were published in Greek, and Christianity became a religion of the Greeks. During the next few centuries, a vast literature was heaped up in Greek—a literature easily greater than anything produced by the contemporary Pagans. The obvious point of departure for all this literature was the New Testament, plus the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which had been translated, we are told under Divine inspiration, into Greek by the Jews themselves in Alexandria when Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies. Therefore, Greek Christians had an absolutely authoritative text of the Bible.

It was different in the Western Provinces of the Empire, where the main language was Latin. At first, most Christians in the West appear to have been Greeks settled there. Then it seems to have been expected that Latin converts would learn Greek. However, by about the middle of the second century, the Faith had put down roots in the West, and the need arose for authoritative Latin versions of its core documents. Sadly, these did not for a long time exist. Instead, Latin Christians were served by partial and often defective translations from the Greek New Testament and translations from the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

This was more than inconvenient. There were two kinds of Paganism. There were the philosophic sects of the higher classes—people, like Marcus Aurelius, who were at least as fluent in Greek as in Latin. There were the popular cults, and these had no visible philosophic content. These two were joined only by common participation in rituals that meant what any individual wanted them to mean. Christianity was both a popular and a philosophical religion. Salvation depended not merely on rightful behaviour, but also on a correct understanding of the meaning and implications of Scripture. This degree of certainty could not be provided by the loose set of translations known as the Vetus Latina. It was, to borrow a phrase from the Authorised Version, a muddy stream.

By the fourth century, though we have no statistics to give in support, there is no doubt that Christianity had become the religion of a large minority within the cities of the Empire. Its further progress was quickened, if at a cost, by its establishment as the preferred faith of the Empire by Constantine in 313 AD. Because they drew their status from their location in the Empire’s capital and from the unique faith that Christ had placed in Saint Peter, the Bishops of Rome regarded themselves as first among the Patriarchs, and as the unquestionable heads of at least the Western Church. This was not a position easily supported if Rome were to remain a cultural satellite of the Greek world. The need had become pressing for an authoritative Latin version of The Bible.

This authoritative version needed to possess three qualities.

First, it had to be an exact translation that communicated the directly-revealed Word of God in the main official language of the Empire. For the Old Testament, this meant a translation directly from Hebrew and Aramaic. For the New Testament, it meant a translation that did not require or encourage educated readers to keep running to the original Greek to know what had really been said.

Second, it had to be a translation that the ordinary people could understand. As said, Christianity was a universal religion. Not all believers were equally capable of appreciating its complexities. But all had to be equally capable of understanding its core texts when they were read in church. Now, the spoken Latin of the Late Empire was substantially different from the written classical language. It was simpler in its grammar, and its vocabulary was changing. There was no need for all these changes to be reflected in a Latin Bible. At the same time, the language of that Bible had to be broadly accessible to the uneducated.

Third, it had to be a translation that would not be thrown aside by the higher classes as illiterate trash. It did not need to be something that Cicero might have admired. But it did need to show some continuity with the classical language.

One reason this translation needed to wait until the beginning of the fifth century was that the Western Church had no one of sufficient genius and learning and endurance to undertake it, or even to supervise its undertaking. At last, it found its man in Jerome, a monk from what is now Slovenia. He was a master of Classical Latin prose and fluent in both Greek and the relevant Semitic languages. He was also able and willing to write at a level that ordinary people could understand. With a commission from Pope Damasus and funding from Paula, a wealthy aristocrat, he withdrew from Rome to Bethlehem. There, working by himself over about twenty years, he produced the greatest work of translation known to the Ancient World.

It was not Jerome’s wish to produce an absolutely new translation. Some parts of the Vetus Latina he regarded as sufficiently accurate to be left alone. For the New Testament, he lightly revised Acts, the Letters, and Revelation. The existing text of the Gospels he wholly revised by comparing it with the best Greek versions he could find. Taken together, what he achieved served all the purposes given above. For a thousand years, his translation was, for Western Christians, the unquestioned Word of God. With minor changes after the Council of Trent, his Vulgate remained the authorised version for the Roman Catholic Church until it was replaced in 1979.

The Language

One of my books

I have said that Jerome did not translate into the language of the Roman classics, but instead into a version of Latin that was acceptable to all classes in his own age. Before proceeding to a brief discussion of the differences between Jerome’s Latin and that of the classics, there are two points to be made.

The first is that the grammar and syntax explained in Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer are a snapshot of a language in transition. The language of our Indo-European ancestors was complex in every respect. In every age for which we have written evidence, all the languages derived from that original have been shedding complexities. By about the birth of Christ, Latin had lost a separate aorist. It had lost an active past participle. It had effectively lost the locative case, and the vocative was confined to singular masculine nouns of the second declension. The dative and ablative cases were losing their separate forms. The future tense was so broken that it would be reconstructed in the development of Italian, French and its other daughter languages. By 400 AD, the spoken language was very different from that taught in the schools. Its official use and its cultural prestige meant that the classical language was more or less understood beyond the educated classes. But it was perhaps more separated from the spoken language than our own everyday speech is from the English of the Authorised Version.

The second point is that the classical language was not only a snapshot, but an artificial version of the Latin spoken in the centuries about the birth of Christ. It was developed to provide the Romans with a literature able to stand comparison with that of the Greeks. The Romans did provide themselves with such a literature, but only by insisting on grammatical distinctions and rules of syntax alien to the speech of the uneducated.

In making his translation of The Bible, Jerome, as said, had to pay attention to the prejudices of the educated, but also to the common speech of his own day. To see the nature of his compromise, let us take the beginning of the Parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10), putting Jerome’s translation beside something that pays more attention to the conventions of the classical language:


Et ecce quidam legisperitus surrexit tentans illum, et dicens: “Magister, quid faciendo vitam aeternam possidebo?”

At ille dixit ad eum: “In lege quid scriptum est? Quomodo legis?”

Ille respondens dixit: “Diliges Dominum Deum tuum ex toto corde tuo, et ex tota anima tua, et ex omnibus virtutibus tuis, et ex omni mente tua: et proximum tuum sicut teipsum.”

Dixitque illi: “Recte respondisti; hoc fac, et vives.”

Ille autem volens iustificare seipsum, dixit ad Iesum: “Et quis est meus proximus?”


Et ecce quidam legis interpres surrexit et tentavit eum dicendo: “Magister, quid faciendo vitam aeternam possidebo?”

At ille ei dixit: “In lege quid scriptum est? Quomodo legis?”

Ille respondit: “Diliges Dominum Deum tuum toto corde tuo, et tota anima tua, et ominibus viribus tuis: et omni mente tua: et vicinum tuum sicut te ipsum.”

Dixitque illi: “Recte respondisti: hoc fac, et vives.”

Ille autem cum vellet se excusare, dixit Iesui: “Et quis est vicinus meus?”

Much of this is identical, and many of the differences are a matter of individual style. Perhaps the same is true with the choice of words—proximus¸ for example, rather than vicinus. There are, however, more fundamental differences. We can see that Jerome prefers present participles to gerunds: dicens, rather than dicendo. He will also use present participles if he can avoid subjunctive constructions: volens iustificare seipsum, rather than cum vellet se excusare. There is a greater use of prepositions where they were considered unnecessary in the classical language: ex toto…; ex omnibus…; ex omni mente…. There is a withering of the dative case, verbs such as dico now taking an accusative: dixit ad Iesum, rather than dixit Iesui. This last being said, see Matthew 27:13, where the dative is still used: Tunc dicit illi Pilatus.

Or let us take the account of the Census given in Luke 2:1-7:


Factum est autem in diebus illis exiit edictum a Caesare Augusto ut describeretur universus orbis. Haec descriptio prima facta est praeside Syriae Cyrino.  Et ibant omnes ut profiterentur, singuli in suam civitatem.

Ascendit autem et Ioseph a Galilaea de civitate Nazareth in Iudaeam civitatem David, quae vocatur Bethleem, eo quod esset de domo et familia David, ut profiteretur cum Maria desponsata sibi, uxore praegnate.

Factum est autem cum essent ibi, impleti sunt dies ut pareret, et peperit filium suum primogenitum et pannis eum involvit et reclinavit eum in praesepio, quia non erat eis locus in diversorio.


Factum est autem diebus illis, ut prodierit edictum a Caesare Augusto ut describeretur totus terrarum orbis. Haec descriptio prima facta est praesidente Syriae Quirinio. Et ibant omnes ut describerentur, in suam quisque civitatem.

Ascendit autem Iosephus a Galilaea, ex civitate Nazareta, in Judaeam, in civitatem Davidis, quae vocatur Bethlehema, propterea quod erat ex domo et familia Davidis, ut describeretur cum Maria desponsa sibi, uxore praegnante.

Factum est autem cum essent illic, ut explerentur dies ipsius ad pariendum, et peperit filium suum primogenitum, et pannis eum involvit, reclinavitque eum in praesepio, eo quia non erat eis locus in diversorio.

Again, much of the wording is identical, and some differences are a matter of style. But we see again that prepositions are used more often. It really does seem that the educated expected and were given case endings, but the uneducated had an increasingly shaky understanding of them, and were now used to seeing relationships otherwise expressed. We also see that preposition often carry non-classical meanings. Take de civitate Nazareth, or quod esset de domo et familia David, where de is used much as in French to indicate departure from or possession. See also the avoidance of the gerundive ad pariendum. See also that Hebrew names like Ioseph and David and Nazareth are generally undeclined.

Perhaps the most obvious difference, though, is that the rules of indirect speech have been simplified. Rather than using the accusative and infinitive construction, or a subjunctive clause introduced by ut, Jerome has a preference for quod or quia as subordinating conjunctions. These are the ancestors of que in French, and the counterpart of that in English. He does not abandon the classical constructions, but they are of lesser importance. For example, he gives, in John 18:37: Tu dicis quia rex sum ego, rather than Tu me dicis regem esse. Again, in Matthew 2:22, he gives Audiens autem quia Archelaus regnaret in Iudaea, rather than Cum audisset Archelaum in Iudaea regnare. In this second example, Jerome’s subordinate verb is an imperfect subjective, and the clause would follow classical usage if quia were to be replaced by ut. Sometimes a subordinating conjunction is followed by a verb in the subjunctive, sometimes by a verb in the indicative. If there is a system to this, I have not looked hard enough to find it.

Details here

Some of these differences are due to changes in the spoken language. Others seem to have existed for a very long time in the spoken language, but were now set down in writing.[1] Others allow Jerome to follow the grammatical contours of the Greek original. However, rather than explore these differences in detail, I will say that too much is often made of his departures from classical usage. The differences are not that great. If you are an intermediate student of Latin, the value of Jerome’s translation is that you can read it at length. It is not very removed from classical usage. It will tune your mind to the structures and the modes of expression of the classical language. To go back to my analogy of the window cleaner, its purpose is to add another half-dozen rungs to the ladder.

A further advantage of this translation is that it is not in a variety of Latin that terminates in itself. A belief dating from the Renaissance, and still largely current if unspoken, is that the best Latin was written between about 60 BC and the end of the following century; and that anything written after then has value only so far as it conforms to classical rules and classical standards. This is a foolish belief. Latin continued to be written long after the death of Juvenal, and long after the fall of the Western Empire. In Europe, it was the common language of the educated until the eighteenth century, and it must therefore contain much work of genius. It does contain much work of genius. Some of this was written according to the classical usage. Much of it was not. On this second kind of Latin, Jerome had the most decisive influence. For every one person who, before the revival of learning, read Cicero, perhaps a hundred read Jerome. The literatures of the Middle Ages and beyond are soaked in quotations from and allusions to his translation of The Bible. Indeed, while they worked from the original tongues, the translators of the Authorised Version were most familiar with Jerome; and many of the words he had used or created in Latin to express the Greek and other languages of the original were carried into English. He is the gateway not merely to the Roman classics, but also to much written in Latin and even in English since his time.

The Readings

My principle of selection has been to provide a set of readings that are both varied in tone and content and that are likely to be enjoyed. I focus mainly on the narrative or exhortatory passages in Matthew and Luke. If, in all of the Gospels excluding Mark, I give much space to the Trial before Pilate, this is because it is an event of compelling interest. I have punctuated the texts, and put all speech into quotation marks. I have avoided all division into verses. This is an innovation of the sixteenth century. It does much for purposes of reference, but can be a barrier to continuous reading. Instead, while I indicate chapters and verses at the foot of each, I have laid the texts out as reading extracts, breaking the paragraphs as if in a modern novel.

Because these are Biblical texts, I have resisted any temptation to change what I am using. Here and there, I supply a few words in square brackets. This is because the extract by itself may not make it wholly clear what is happening or who is speaking. But I have changed none of the wording, even when, as in the case of have for ave (Luke 1:28), the text looks “wrong.” I have supplied a few dozen notes on no consistent principle. I have given a reasonably full Dramatis Personae that I hope will be both useful and interesting. I have compiled what I think is a comprehensive Vocabulary. Beyond that, I have left Jerome to tell the story as he translated it.

Sean Gabb
Centre for Ancient Studies
July 2018



[1] Regarding the quia construction, I will add that, while deprecated by generations of Latin masters, the use of quia and quod as subordinating conjunctions is as old as Latin literature. See these examples:

Equidem scio iam filius quod amet meus / Istanc meretricem (Plautus, Asinaria 52‒53)

[E]t cum patronus ex eo quaereret cur suos familiarissimos … reici passus esset, respondit quod eos in iudicando nimium sui iuris sententiae cognosset (Cicero, in Verrem II 1, 18)

[D]um haec geruntur legati Carteienses renuntiaverunt quod Pompeium in potestatem haberent. (Hirtius, Bellum Hispaniense 36, 1)

Ego illi iam tres cardeles occidi, et dixi quia mustella comedit (Petronius 46, 4)Its greater use from the second century AD shows not a collapse into barbarism, but a changing preference between established options.

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