Who Were the Goths and Why Is the Gothic Version of Interest to Textual Scholars and Bible Translators?

Gothic invasions in the 3rd century

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EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

As a brief overview of versions, we have the Syriac versions (an Aramaic dialect) from the second century onward, the Latin versions with the Old Latin from the latter part of the second century onward. Eusebius Hieronymus, otherwise known as Jerome gave us a revision of the Old Latin version in 383 C.E. By the third century, the first translation of the Greek NT was published in Coptic. The Gothic version was produced during the fourth century. The Armenian version of the Bible dates from the fifth century and was likely made from both the Greek and Syriac texts. The Georgian version was finished at the end of the sixth century, which exhibited Greek influence, but it had an Armenian and Syriac source. The Ethiopic version was produced about the fourth or fifth century. There are various old Arabic versions. Translations of parts of the Bible into Arabic were produced about the seventh century, but the earliest evidence is that of a version made in Spain in 724. The Slavonic version was produced in the ninth century by the two brothers, Cyril and Methodius. Keep in mind, most scholars would argue that the Syriac versions and the Latin versions are generally speaking the most important when it comes to textual studies.

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Bischof_Ulfilas_erklärt - Goth - Gothic

The Goths were a group of loosely allied Germanic tribes, most likely beginning in Scandinavia. In the first few centuries after Jesus Christ’s life and death, they migrated as far south as the Black Sea and the Danube River, to the very outposts of the Roman Empire. The Gothic Bible was the first literary work in any Germanic tongue. Ulfilas (c. 311–383 C.E.) was the missionary translator, who was also known as by his Gothic name Wulfila (“Little Wolf”). Dr. Bruce M. Metzger tells us,

The Goths, an Eastern Germanic people, first entered history in the third century of the Christian era, when they were settled north of the Black Sea. They soon split into two divisions, taking their names from the areas in which they settled. In the fourth century, the Visigoths or West Goths moved farther west under the pressure of the advancing Huns, while the Ostrogoths settled in Pannonia (roughly, modern Hungary), which they received as allies of the Eastern Roman Empire. Prompted by Constantinople, they entered Italy in 458, defeated and slew (493) the barbarian Italian king Odoacer, and set up the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, with Ravenna as their capital. During the sixth century, their kingdom was overthrown, thrown, and the Ostrogoths gradually lost their identity.

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During the fourth century, the Visigoths, who had preceded their Gothic kinsmen into Eastern Europe, peacefully infiltrated Moesia and Dacia (modern Bulgaria and Romania). Here they encountered countered Christianity, partly as a result of the missionary work of Ulfilas and his translation of the Bible into Gothic. Late in the same century, they began their rampaging migration across southern Europe, eventually conquering Italy and sacking Rome under Alaric in 410. Alaric died soon after, and under Ataulf, the Visigoths goths left Italy (412) and went into South Gaul and Spain. Their capital was established in Spain, and the Visigoths quietly assimilated lated the developing Spanish culture and language.

Born about 311, Ulfilas was the son of a Cappadocian captive and a Gothic father, who gave him a typically Gothic name, a diminutive formed from wulfs, meaning “little wolf.” He spent much of his life as a young man at Constantinople, where he was converted to Christianity. In about 341, he was consecrated bishop by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. Shortly afterward, he returned to the Visigoths and spent the rest of his life as an ardent missionary bishop and temporal leader.

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Ulfilas’s greatest accomplishment was twofold: the creation of an alphabet (composed primarily of Greek and Latin characters, but including elements of Gothic runes)’ and the translation of the Scriptures into his native tongue, (Visi)Gothic. It embraced the whole Bible except the books of Samuel and Kings, which he omitted as likely to inflame the military temper of the Gothic race with their records of war and conquests.

It is remarkable that, although nearly one-third of Europe was at that time under the rule of the Goths, next to nothing remains of the Gothic language, which today is extinct. Of the Old Testament, all that has survived are some words from Genesis 5:3-30 and Psalm 52:2-3 and portions of Nehemiah 5-7. As for the New Testament, we have a little less than half of the text of the Gospels and some portions of all the Pauline Epistles (only 2 Corinthians is complete). No portion of Acts, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the General Epistles, or the Apocalypse has survived. With the exception of the famous Codex Argenteus, which will be described in a moment, all the other Gothic texts are palimpsest. That is, after the Gothic language had become extinct, people needing parchment would erase or scrape off the writing (palimpsest means “scraped again”) and reuse the parchment for some other text-often with remnants of earlier, imperfectly erased writing still visible. (Bruce Metzger. Bible in Translation, The: Ancient and English Versions, 38-9)

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Who’s Who in Christian History offers us some insights into Ulfilas’ life. “Born in Cappadocia (east Asia Minor), Ulfilas may have been captured by Gothic raiders as a youth. Yet his residence by early adulthood was Constantinople, the Roman Empire’s eastern capital. Here undoubtedly he received his education and began his life of service to the church. In 341 Eusebius of Nicomedia, bishop of Constantinople consecrated Ulfilas as bishop. Soon afterward the young bishop proceeded to Dacia (north of the Danube River), and for his remaining years, he served as the church’s principal missionary to the western Goths in this region. The many converts indicate that Ulfilas’s efforts to spread the gospel had extensive results. After several years, persecution forced Ulfilas out of Dacia, and his work thereafter originated from a residence in Moesia (south of the Danube), an area within the empire’s borders. Ulfilas’s removal to Moesia also saw the beginnings of the project for which he is best remembered. This was his translation of the Old and New Testaments into the Goths’ vernacular language. Toward this end, Ulfilas first had to reduce Gothic speech to writing, a task involving the invention of an alphabet based on Greek. Surviving remnants of this translation, as copied in the early Middle Ages, represent the earliest extant examples of Gothic literature. Ulfilas appears to have translated the whole New Testament and also the Old Testament except for the Books of Kings (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings). It is supposed that the missing Old Testament sections were omitted purposely because of Ulfilas’s fear that they would only encourage the aggressive Goths.”[1]

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Ulfilas Gothic Bible

Ulfilas finished his translation just two or three years before he died in 383 C.E. The Goths who migrated to Spain and Italy mostly used this translation. Many copies of Gothic Bibles were made. It is probable that several manuscripts were produced in the scriptoria of Ravenna and Verona. This is the area where the Goths had setup their kingdom. There are surviving fragments of codices from the 6th to 8th century of the Wulfila Bible, which contain about half the Gospels and portions of the apostle Paul’s letters.

  • goth (Codex Argenteus) part of the four gospels (Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark); 6th c.
  • goth (Codex Ambrosianus A-E) Pauline epistles; c. 6th-11th c.
  • goth (Codex Carolinus) Romans 11-15; 6th or 7th c.
  • goth (Codex Vaticanus Latinus 5750) John; 6th c.
  • goth (Codex Gissensis) Luke; 5th c.
  • Gothica Bononiensia (also known as the Codex Boniensis), a recently discovered (2009) palimpsest fragment with what appears to be a sermon, containing direct Bible quotes and allusions, both from previously attested parts of the Gothic Bible (the text is clearly taken from Ulfilas’ translation) and previously unattested ones (e.g. Psalms, Genesis).
  • Fragmenta Pannonica (also known as the Hács-Béndekpuszta fragments or the Tabella Hungarica), which consists of 1 mm thick lead plates with fragmented remnants of verses from the Gospels.
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Today, the Gothic Bible should be of interest to both the Bible scholar and the serious Bible student (i.e., all churchgoers). It gives us the history of one translator, Ulfilas, in the sea of many who gave their lives, which was filled with a tremendous desire and determination to have the Word of God translated into the common tongue of their days. It was by the work of Ulfilas that the Gothic people were able to have an understanding of the Christian faith. The Gothic Bible gave them a hope that all Christians share, namely, the life that is to come.–1 Peter 3:15.

Text of The Lord’s Prayer in the Wulfila Bible

atta unsar þu in himinam,
weihnai namo þein.
qimai þiudinassus þeins.
wairþai wilja þeins,
swe in himina jah ana airþai.
hlaif unsarana þana sinteinan gif uns himma daga.
jah aflet uns þatei skulans sijaima,
swaswe jah weis afletam þaim skulam unsaraim.
jah ni briggais uns in fraistubnjai,
ak lausei uns af þamma ubilin;
unte þeina ist þiudangardi jah mahts jah wulþus in aiwins.
amen.
𐌰𐍄𐍄𐌰 𐌿𐌽𐍃𐌰𐍂 𐌸𐌿 𐌹𐌽 𐌷𐌹𐌼𐌹𐌽𐌰𐌼,
𐍅𐌴𐌹𐌷𐌽𐌰𐌹 𐌽𐌰𐌼𐍉 𐌸𐌴𐌹𐌽.
𐌵𐌹𐌼𐌰𐌹 𐌸𐌹𐌿𐌳𐌹𐌽𐌰𐍃𐍃𐌿𐍃 𐌸𐌴𐌹𐌽𐍃.
𐍅𐌰𐌹𐍂𐌸𐌰𐌹 𐍅𐌹𐌻𐌾𐌰 𐌸𐌴𐌹𐌽𐍃,
𐍃𐍅𐌴 𐌹𐌽 𐌷𐌹𐌼𐌹𐌽𐌰 𐌾𐌰𐌷 𐌰𐌽𐌰 𐌰𐌹𐍂𐌸𐌰𐌹.
𐌷𐌻𐌰𐌹𐍆 𐌿𐌽𐍃𐌰𐍂𐌰𐌽𐌰 𐌸𐌰𐌽𐌰 𐍃𐌹𐌽𐍄𐌴𐌹𐌽𐌰𐌽 𐌲𐌹𐍆 𐌿𐌽𐍃 𐌷𐌹𐌼𐌼𐌰 𐌳𐌰𐌲𐌰.
𐌾𐌰𐌷 𐌰𐍆𐌻𐌴𐍄 𐌿𐌽𐍃 𐌸𐌰𐍄𐌴𐌹 𐍃𐌺𐌿𐌻𐌰𐌽𐍃 𐍃𐌹𐌾𐌰𐌹𐌼𐌰,
𐍃𐍅𐌰𐍃𐍅𐌴 𐌾𐌰𐌷 𐍅𐌴𐌹𐍃 𐌰𐍆𐌻𐌴𐍄𐌰𐌼 𐌸𐌰𐌹𐌼 𐍃𐌺𐌿𐌻𐌰𐌼 𐌿𐌽𐍃𐌰𐍂𐌰𐌹𐌼.
𐌾𐌰𐌷 𐌽𐌹 𐌱𐍂𐌹𐌲𐌲𐌰𐌹𐍃 𐌿𐌽𐍃 𐌹𐌽 𐍆𐍂𐌰𐌹𐍃𐍄𐌿𐌱𐌽𐌾𐌰𐌹,
𐌰𐌺 𐌻𐌰𐌿𐍃𐌴𐌹 𐌿𐌽𐍃 𐌰𐍆 𐌸𐌰𐌼𐌼𐌰 𐌿𐌱𐌹𐌻𐌹𐌽;
𐌿𐌽𐍄𐌴 𐌸𐌴𐌹𐌽𐌰 𐌹𐍃𐍄 𐌸𐌹𐌿𐌳𐌰𐌽𐌲𐌰𐍂𐌳𐌹 𐌾𐌰𐌷 𐌼𐌰𐌷𐍄𐍃 𐌾𐌰𐌷 𐍅𐌿𐌻𐌸𐌿𐍃 𐌹𐌽 𐌰𐌹𐍅𐌹𐌽𐍃.
𐌰𐌼𐌴𐌽.

[1] K.J. Bryer, “Ulfilas,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 686.

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10 thoughts on “Who Were the Goths and Why Is the Gothic Version of Interest to Textual Scholars and Bible Translators?

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  1. I have been studying the dictionary definitions of Old Testament Hebrew words and New Testament Greek words for over 40 years, and have found many inaccuracies in all the English translations of the Bible, including the KJV, and I feel accountable to God to share these things He has revealed to me, and to local preachers to help them increase their understanding of the Bible. Also, I belong to several on-line Bible study groups who have made similar discoveries, and they rejoice when thy read my studies. Since “love rejoices in truth” (1Cor 13:6) I hope you will rejoice when you read these. Although some of my discoveries may differ from modern theology, they are not “private interpretations,” but are corrections to previous interpretations made by people who started different denominations hundreds of years ago, and who weren’t as thorough at studying the Bible. Before deciding to agree or disagree with me, “Consider what I say, and the Lord give thee understanding” (2Tim 2:7). Eighteen New Testament words I recommend you study are: save, and, name, for, remission, word, church, gospel, faith, grace, birth, blood, remission, confess, predestined, love, rest, and sabbath. Understanding these words will blow trinity and protestant theology out of the water. Many of these English words were translated from several Greek words that have different meanings, and it is not always easy to understand the Scriptures they are in. I will discuss their meanings in future letters. I recommend saving all these letters for future reference.

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