Douay-Rheims Bible Preface | Recovering Survivors

Douay-Rheims Bible Preface

Preface to the Baronius Press Edition

It may be asked why it has been thought profitable to make available a new edition of that version of the Bible commonly known as the Douay-Rheims, when so many other, and more recent, translations of sacred Scripture exist. It may therefore be useful to consider why this translation, first in its original version and then in the revision carried out by Bishop Challoner, has scarcely been out of print since the New Testament was first published in the sixteenth century.

The Douay-Rheims Bible is a translation into English of the Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which was prepared from the original languages by St. Jerome at the end of the fourth century. This extraordinary work of devotion and scholarship took its author over twenty years, during which time he lived in a cave in Bethlehem close to the birth-place of Christ. The treasures which flowed from this work for the whole Church may perhaps best be gathered from the words of the Council of Trent, and of the Popes whose Encyclical Letters on sacred Scripture follow this Preface. It is enough to say that the Vulgate has been the biblical text which the Church has for sixteen centuries constantly employed in her teaching, her preaching and her worship.

The value of the Vulgate edition, based as it is upon the textual work of St. Jerome using manuscripts no longer available, became even more evident when Protestants first raised objections to the teaching of the Church founded upon an appeal to particular variant readings of Scriptural texts, and a rejection of some of those readings which had been in accepted use within the Church. At a time of great confusion, both in faith and in critical knowledge, the Vulgate could be shown to possess a unique reliability, and it was for this reason that the Council of Trent conferred upon it a recognition higher than any ever granted to another text.

It was the Vulgate, therefore, that certain scholars of the English College at Douay chose as the basis of the translation which they wished to provide to nourish the faith of the persecuted Catholics of England. These men, of whom the chief was Fr. Gregory Martin, were Masters of the University of Oxford, who preferred exile in continental Europe to compromising their profession of the Catholic religion, and there became tutors at the new College to many young priests who were to return to martyrdom in England. It was their great desire to put into the hands of these priests a Bible which they could use in their mission, and which would expose to the people of England the distortions of the Protestant versions in circulation.

It was some time before the translation which the Douay men produced could be published, and then only in parts. The New Testament was published first in 1582, during the College’s period of residence at Rheims, followed by the Old Testament some twenty-seven years later. It was of a very literal nature, intended to reproduce the character of the Latin as closely as possible, which was “so exact and precise according to the Greeke, both the phrase and the vvord, that delicate Heretikes therfore reprehend it of rudenes”. This was not found a wholly successful approach, and in the middle of the eighteenth century, Bishop Richard Challoner attempted to increase the popularity of the translation by a substantial revision in the direction of a more natural English style.

Bishop Challoner was one of the Vicars Apostolic who governed the English Church in the absence of an ordinary Hierarchy, and ruled the London District during perhaps its bleakest period. The fervour of the Elizabethan missions had long departed, and the “Second Spring” was still a hundred years in the future, yet Challoner presided with heroic fidelity over a dwindling and isolated flock. His revision of the Douay-Rheims, which has been in use all over the English-speaking world ever since, is one of the great monuments to his hope for the future of the Church in a missionary land whence all human hope had gone.

While Fr. Martin and his collaborators were at work in Douay, Fr. Cesare Baronius was proceeding with his Ecclesiastical Annals at the small church dedicated to St. Jerome in Rome, near Douay’s sister foundation, the Venerable English College. It was the custom of newly-ordained missionaries from the College to ask the blessing of another of the priests there, St. Philip Neri, before they set out to return home. The community at S. Girolamo della Carità was the genesis of the Congregation of the Oratory, erected seven years before the publication of the Douay New Testament. Fr. Baronius, later Cardinal, who succeeded St. Philip as its Provost, had been given by St. Philip the task of writing a complete history of the Church, which would expose the falsehoods of the Protestant Magdeburg Chronicles, just as the Douay-Rheims Bible was intended to correct the biased renderings of many Protestant biblical translations.

At a time when dangers to the Catholic faith in English-speaking countries arise principally from internal confusion, “as specially for deciding the doubtes of these daies” concerning revelation and the inspiration of Scripture, it has been thought well to return again to the Church’s authoritative teaching on these subjects, and to a version of the Bible which has served these lands unimpeachably for so long.

It is for all these reasons, then, that the first volume that we offer under the patronage of the Ven. Cesare Baronius, is this new edition of the Douay-Rheims, which we hope will be “in such sort as a worke of so great charge and importance requireth”, and which may not be entirely unworthy of the holy men of many centuries through whom its sacred contents have been delivered to us.

Baronius Press Limited
30th September, 2003
Feast of St. Jerome