Consider the Bible verse 1 Corinthians 1:25. There are varied English translations of this verse (see here). The two most common are:

  • For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

  • For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

In any case, most of them share one property, namely a comparison between God and [hu]man.

I then looked at the Vulgata, which reads:

quia quod stultum est Dei, sapientius est hominibus : et quod infirmum est Dei, fortius est hominibus.

The comparison is clear from sapientius and fortius, but I am confused with the quod ... est at the beginning of each comparison. It seems not to be a literal parallel to the English but rather idiomatic. To me, in my limited knowledge of Latin, the closest to the English would be

quia stultum Dei sapientius est hominibus : et infirmum Dei fortius est hominibus.

Is the Latin idiomatic? Can you please explain the literal translation of it?

3 Answers 3


Rather that being idiomatic, it's just a question of style. The Vulgate's translation is simply a little more verbose than the English or even the original Greek.

It can be translated from the Vulgate word for word into English as:

For what is the foolishness of God is wiser than human [wisdom], and what is the weakness of God is stronger than human [strength].

However, in English, it seems unnecessarily wordy to translate it that way. The original Greek on the other hand is worded in a simpler manner, using the substantives, τὸ μωρὸν and τὸ ἀσθενὲς instead of the subordinate clauses which appear in the Vulgate:

ὅτι τὸ μωρὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ σοφώτερον τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἐστίν, καὶ τὸ ἀσθενὲς τοῦ Θεοῦ ἰσχυρότερον τῶν ἀνθρώπων.

The Vulgate could have been translated in a similar manner. For example, Calvin translated the same verse as follows:

Nam stultitia Dei sapientior est hominibus, et infirmitas Dei robustior est hominibus.

  • 2
    I think Jerome (as usual) was trying to capture the Greek as literally as possible, at the expense of brevity. The contrast between the abstract noun (μωρία = stultitia) and the concrete (τὸ μωρὸν = stultum) isn't nothing, and even does some philosophical work in ancient philosophy (e.g. "justice" vs. "the just"). Unfortunately, Latin doesn't have an article, so the "quod...est" is needed to make it less ambiguous.
    – brianpck
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 12:52
  • @brianpck, Thanks. That's an interesting observation.. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 13:09
  • I see, thanks! The implicit words "ẁisdom" and "strength", are they obvious from the Latin?
    – luchonacho
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 15:37
  • @luchonacho. I suppose it's not as obvious as one might want. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 19:01

It is a matter of style. Reginaldus Foster in Ossa Latinitatis Sola mentions this on Page 43 and following.

Contact with Latin literature will convince anyone and everyone of how the Romans loved to deal with and to hear the relative pronoun.

Evidence of this is the tendency to place relative clauses out in front of sentences and phrases:

After reading aloud several paragraphs of Latin literature from all ages, the first thing that must strike the reader is the location of both the relative clause within the overall discourse. Namely, the Romans, because of the freedom of their sentence structure and style, loved to put the relative clause locally in front of the word it describes, which it anticipates. While this is nearly impossible to do in English, the Romans love it, and you can't count the number of sentences that begin with qui and quos and quarum as the first word.

He goes on to cite quite a few sentences; I will only mention two as examples:

  • Quem misisti perutilis est liber (The book which you sent me is very useful)
  • Quae venerunt nos salutaverunt (The women who came greeted us)

He goes on to remark,

This phenomenon has been a mystery for many people for a long time. You might as well just accept it as a neat part of the Latin language, because the Romans love to do this, as their genuine literature will confirm and prove.

I conjecture that the reason for the disconnect you see is that this is just good Roman style, but it is not good English style, so it should usually be avoided when translating into English.

  • 1
    In the second example would putting "come" in the pluperfect have improved it--wouldn't the arrival have been completed before the greeting was made?
    – tony
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 8:34
  • @tony Excellent question! The answer depends, I suppose, on whether the greeting was done when they came or afterwards. In the first question, the book's usefulness was certainly posterior to its being sent.
    – Figulus
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 23:05

I still stand by my answer above, but I will also give another one, because in matters of style, there are often many reasons to do a thing a certain way, and not just one reason.

Sir James Mountford's Bradley's Arnold Latin Prose Composition (BALPC) #174 points out that dependent clauses are often used in place of abstract nouns as a matter of Latin style. "Latin does not use so many abstract terms as English," he says, and goes on to give many examples. I shall only quote a few.

Quot essent hostes, quantas haberent opes, quando domo profecti essent, rogavit. (He asked the number of the enemy, the magnitude of their resources, the date of their departure from home.)

Quam repentinum sit hoc malum intellego, unde ortum sit nescio. (I perceive the suddenness of this danger, its source I know not.)

In #175, he goes on to say that due in part to a lack of appropriate substantives, Latin often uses relative phrases:

  • qui litteris dant operam (students)
  • qui rei publicae praesunt (the government)
  • qui me salvum volunt (my well-wishers)

He also says that this usage was often used to identify classes of objects, which might explain Jerome's use above. It's not just some particular stupid thing of God, but any possible stupid thing of God.

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