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Scriptural Glosses

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Etymology and principal meanings

The modern English word gloss is derived directly from the Latin glossa, itself a transcript of the Greek glossa. In classical Greek glossa (Attic glotta) means the tongue or organ of speech and figuratively a tongue or language. In the course of time Greek grammarians, commenting on the works of Greek authors, used the word glossa to designate first a word of the text which needed some explanation, and next the explanation itself. And it is in this last sense that Christian writers have principally employed the word glossa, gloss, in connexion with Holy Writ. Among them, as among Greek grammarians, a gloss meant an explanation of a purely verbal difficulty of the text, to the exclusion of explanations required by doctrinal, ritual, historical, and other obscurities; and the words which were commonly the subject of their glosses may be reduced to the following five classes:

  1. foreign words;
  2. provincial dialectical terms;
  3. obsolete words;
  4. technical terms; or
  5. words actually employed in some unusual sense or in some peculiar grammatical form.

As these glosses consisted of a single explanatory word, they were easily written between the lines of the text or in the margin of manuscripts opposite the words of which they supplied the explanation. In the process of time the glosses naturally grew in number, and in consequence they were gathered in separate books where they appeared, first in the same order of succession as they would have had if written in the margin of the codices, and ultimately in a regular alphabetical order. These collections of glosses thus formed kinds of lexicons which gave the concrete meaning of the difficult words of the text and even historical, geographical, biographical, and other notices, which the collectors deemed necessary or useful to illustrate the text of the Sacred writings. A lexicon of the kind is usually called a glossary (from Lat. glossarium), but bears at times in English the simple name of a gloss. From a single explanatory word, interlined or placed in the margin, the word gloss has also been extended to denote an entire expository sentence, and in many instances even a sort of running commentary on an entire book of Sacred Scripture. Finally the term gloss designates a word or a remark, perhaps intended at first as an explanation of the text of Holy Writ, and inserted for some time either between the lines or in the margin of the Sacred Books, but now embodied in the text itself, into which it was inserted by owners or by transcribers of manuscripts, and in which it appears as if an integral part of the Word of God, whereas it is but a late interpolation.

Glosses as marginal notes

As is quite natural, the margin has always been the favourite place for recording explanatory words or remarks of various kinds concerning the text of the Bible. And in point of fact, marginal notes of varying nature and importance are found in nearly all manuscripts and printed editions of the Sacred Scriptures. With regard to the Hebrew text, these glosses or marginal notes are mostly extracts from the Masorah or collection of traditional remarks concerning Holy Writ. They usually bear on what was regarded as a questionable reading or spelling in the text, but yet was allowed to remain unmodified in the text itself through respect for its actual form. Thus, at times the margin bids the reader to transpose, interchange, restore, or remove a consonant, while at other times it directs him to omit or insert even an entire word. Some of these glosses are of considerable importance for the correct reading or understanding of the original Hebrew, while nearly all have effectually contributed to its uniform transmission since the eleventh century of our era. The marginal notes of Greek and Latin manuscripts and editions of the Scriptures are usually of a wider import. Annotations of all kinds, chiefly the results of exegetical and critical study, crowd the margins of these copies and printed texts far more than those of the manuscripts and editions of the original Hebrew. In regard to the Latin Vulgate, in particular, these glosses gradually exhibited to readers so large and so perplexing a number of various textual readings that to remedy the evil, Sixtus V, when publishing his official edition of the Vulgate in 1588, decreed that henceforth copies of it should not be supplied with such variations recorded in the margin. This was plainly a wise rule, and its faithful observance by Catholic editors of the Vulgate and by its translators, notably by the authors of the Douay Version, has secured the object intended by Sixtus V. Despite the explicit resolve of James I that the Protestant Version of Holy Writ to be published during his reign should not have any marginal notes, that version — the so-called Authorized Version appeared in 1611 with such notes, usually recording various readings. The glosses or marginal notes of the British Revised Version published 1881-85, are greatly in excess over those of the Version of 1611. They give various readings, alternate renderings, critical remarks, etc., and by their number and character have startled the Protestant public. The marginal notes of the American Standard Revised Version (1900-1901) are of the same general description as those found in the British Revised Version of Holy Writ.

Glosses as textual additions

As stated above, the word gloss designates not only marginal notes, but also words or remarks inserted for various reasons in the very text of the Scriptures. The existence of such textual additions in Holy Writ is universally admitted by Biblical scholars with regard to the Hebrew text, although there is at times considerable disagreement among them as to the actual expressions that should be treated as glosses in the Sacred Writings. Besides the eighteen corrections of the Scribes which ancient Rabbis regard as made in the sacred text of the Old Testament before their time, and which were probably due to the fact that marginal explanations had of old heen embodied in the text itself, recent scholars have treated as textual additions many words and expressions scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible. Thus the defenders of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch naturally maintain that the more or less extensive notices found in the Mosaic writings and relative to matters geographical, historical, etc., decidedly later than Moses' time, should be regarded as post-Mosaic textual additions. Others, struck with the lack of smoothness of style noticeable in several passages of the original Hebrew, or with the apparent inconsistencies in its parallel statements, have appealed to textual additions as offering a natural and adequate explanation of the facts observed. Some have even admitted the view that Midrashim, or kinds of Jewish commentaries, were at an early date utilized in the framing or in the transcription of our present Hebrew text, and thus would account for what they consider as actual and extensive additions to its primitive form. And it can hardly be doubted that by means of the literary feature known as "parallelism" in Hebrew poetry, many textual additions can be detected in the Hebrew text of the poetical books, notably in that of Job. All scholars distinctly maintain, however, and indeed justly, that all such glosses, whether actually proved, or simply conjectured, do not interfere materially with the substantial integrity of the Hebrew text. The presence of similar textual additions in the text of the Septuagint, or oldest Greek translation of the Old Testament, is an established fact which was well known to the Roman editors of that version under Sixtus V. One has only to compare attentively the words of that ancient version with those of the original Hebrew to remain convinced that the Septuagint translators have time and again deliberately deviated from the text which they rendered into Greek, and thus made a number of more or less important additions thereunto. These translators frequently manifest a desire to supply what the original had omitted or to clear up what appeared ambiguous. Frequently, too, they adopt paraphrastic renderings to avoid the most marked anthropomorphisms of the text before them: while at times the seem to be guided in their additions by Jewish Halacha and Haggadab. Glosses as textual additions exist also in manuscripts of the New Testament, owing to a variety of causes, the principal among which may be given as follows: copyists have embodied marginal notes in the text itself; at times they have supplemented the words of an Evangelist by means of the parallel passages in the other Gospels; sometimes they have completed the quotations from the Old Testament in the New. Finally, textual additions appear in the manuscripts and printed editions of the Latin Vulgate. Its author, St. Jerome, has freely enough inserted in his rendering of the original Hebrew historical, geographical, doctrinal remarks which he thought more or less necessary for the understanding of Scriptural passages by ordinary readers. He complains at times that during his own life copyists, instead of faithfully transcribing his translation, embodied in the text notes found in the margin. And after his death manuscripts of the Vulgate, especially those of the Spanish type, were supposedly enriched with all kinds of additional readings, which, together with other textual variations embodied in early printed copies of the Vulgate, led ultimately to the official editions of St. Jerome's work by Popes Sixtus V and Clement VIII. But however numerous and important all such glosses may actually be, they have never materially impaired the substantial integrity either of the Greek New Testament or of the Latin Vulgate.

Glosses as scriptural lexicons

With regard to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, most rabbinical commentaries are little more than collections of glosses, or "glossaries", as they are usually called, inasmuch as their chief object is to supply explanations of Hebrew words. A part of the Masorah may also be considered as a kind of glossary to the Hebrew Bible; and the same thing may be said in reference to the collections of Oriental and Western readings given in the sixth volume of the London Polyglot. As regards the Greek Bible texts, there are no separate collections of glosses; yet these texts are taken into account, together with the rest of the Greek literature, in a certain number of glossaries which afford explanations of difficult words in the Greek language. The following are the principal glossaries of that description:

  1. the lexicon of Hesychius, a Greek grammarian of the fourth century of our era;
  2. the "Lexeon synagoge" (collection of glosses) of the celebrated patriarch Photius (died 891);
  3. the lexicon of Suidas, apparently an author of the tenth century;
  4. the "Etymologium Magnum" by an unknown writer of the twelfth or the thirteenth century;
  5. the "Synagoge lexeon" of the Byzantine monk Zonaras;
  6. the "Dictionarium" of the Benedictine Varius Phavorinus, published early in the sixteenth century.

Most of the glosses illustrating the language of Scripture which are found in the works of Hesychius, Suidas, Phavorinus, and in the "Etymologium Magnum", were collected and published by J.C. Ernesti (Leipzig, 1785-86). The best separate gloss on the Latin Vulgate, as a collection of explanations chiefly of its words, is that of St. Isidore of Seville, which he completed in 632, and which bears the title of "Originum sive Etymologiarum libri XX". It is found in Migne, P.L., LXXXII.

Glosses as commentaries

As Scriptural commentaries there are two celebrated glosses on the Vulgate. The former is the "Glossa Ordinaria", thus called from its common use during the Middle Ages. Its author, the German Walafrid Strabo (died 849), had some knowledge of Greek and made extracts chiefly from the Latin Fathers and from the writings of his master, Rabanus Maurus, for the purpose of illustrating the various senses — principally the literal sense — of all the books of Holy Writ. This gloss is quoted as a high authority by St. Thomas Aquinas, and it was known as "the tongue of Scripture". Until the seventeenth century it remained the favourite commentary on the Bible; and it was only gradually superseded by more independent works of exegesis. The "Glossa Ordinaria" is found in vols. CXIII and CXIV of Migne, P.L. The second gloss, the "Glossa Interlinearis", derived its name from the fact that it was written over the words in the text of the Vulgate. It was the work of Anselm of Laon (died 1117), who had some acquaintance with Hebrew and Greek. After the twelfth century copies of the Vulgate were usually supplied with both these glosses, the "Glossa Ordinaria" being inserted in the margin, at the top and at the sides, and the "Glossa Interlinearis" being placed between the lines of the Vulgate text; while later, from the fourteenth century onward, the "Postilla" of Nicholas of Lyra and the "Additions" of Paulus Brugensis were added at the foot of each page. Some early printed editions of the Vulgate exhibit all this exegetical apparatus; and the latest and best among them is the one by Leander a S. Martino, O.S.B. (six vols. fol., Antwerp, 1634).


FABRICIUS, Bibliotheca Græca (Hamburg, 1705-28); J. A. ERNESTI, De vero usu et indole glossariorum græcorum (Leipzig. 1742); J. C. ERNESTI, Hesychii Alexandrini glossæ sacræ (Leipzig, 1786); ALBERTI, Glossarium sacrum in sacros Novi Fæderis libros (Leyden. 1735); MARTIN, De l'origine du Pentateuque (Paris, 1887), I; CORNELY, Introductio in utriusque Test. libros sacros (Paris, 1885), I; ABBOTT, Essays chiefly on the Original Texts of the Old and New Testaments (London, 1891); SWEETE, Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (Cambridge, 1900).

About this page

APA citation. Gigot, F. (1909). Scriptural Glosses. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Gigot, Francis. "Scriptural Glosses." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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