1000 Years on a Turn of Phrase — Matt 3:2

I’ve been posting a bit recently on translation issues, while reading ever more catholic theology.

Here’s an interesting connection between the two.

Hobein's portait of Erasmus

Holbein's famous portrait of Erasmus

The Catholic church has an official doctrine called ‘purgatory’. In simplistic terms the logic goes like this: God demands true repentance for our sins. True repentance takes acts of penance. Penance takes time. There may not be enough time in our earthly life to properly repent of our earthly sins. So after death we enter a state of penance for a while, until we are ready to enter heaven. This state is purgatory. It isn’t pleasant (but no penance is), but it is in no way hell, and it only has one exit: to heaven.

This doctrine is unique to the Catholic church (and some closely related independent catholic splinters). It was rejected by protestants in the reformation, and was never adopted by the orthodox church.

Onto this basic doctrine was built a whole series of late medieval practices, including the usual suspects of Catholic pillory: masses for the dead, and indulgences. An indulgence is a grant from the infinite ‘bank’ of grace belonging to Jesus and the saints, which diminishes the burden of penance and therefore reduces your time in purgatory. A mass for the dead is a private service, usually performed by one or two clergy, that intercedes for a soul in purgatory, to ask for blessings and grace (and therefore a shorter incarceration).

The bible doesn’t say anything about purgatory. We know that, but the Catholics who created the intricate theology around it didn’t.

When Jerome (at the turn of the 5th century — see my church history in one page) translated the gospels, he rendered the greek word μετανοειτε (metanoete) as ‘do penance’ (‘poenitentiam agite’ in latin) in John the Baptist’s command from Matt 3:2. Jerome’s Vulgate was the main biblical text for the next 1000 years of Catholic practice and theology. It isn’t a good translation. About as literal as I can get, μετανοειτε means ‘change your mind’. We could translate this as ‘re-think’, which is exactly how we’d put it now: ‘re-pent’ (from the Latin ‘penso’, to think – where we get our word pensive).

The most significant criticism of Jerome’s translation came from Erasmus, a Catholic theologian and writer, who had the somewhat unfortunate honour of involuntarily providing much of the intellectual ammunition for the reformation. Erasmus very much worked in the bounds of Catholic theology, while being quite forthright (for the time) about where his research led him. He found a compromise, by reanimating an earlier train of theological thought. He acknowledged that there were truths that were not to be found in the bible, but that were revealed through the Sacred Church.

Erasmus’s approach has become a staple of modern catholic theology, which often combines ‘scripture and tradition’ as a source of true knowledge about God. Of course, in the reformation, which broke out in the last period of Erasmus’s life, tradition was seen as corrupt and rejected in favour of some variety of ‘sola scriptura’ (only scripture).

The irony is that there are plenty of doctrines that are believed by protestants which aren’t found in the bible. Most notably all those tricky theological compromises hammered out in the church councils from 325 to 451, including the trinity and the nature of Christ.

For another example where a bad translation completely changes the meaning of a text, see Jim McGrath’s blog post today.


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2 responses to “1000 Years on a Turn of Phrase — Matt 3:2

  1. Prometheus

    “Erasmus argued that Jerome in translating the Vulgate had poorly chosen the phrase paenitentiam agite “do penance” rather than another phrase meaning “change your mind / attitude of life / allegiance.” Luther seems to have picked up on this. (cf. Thomas Cramner’s Doctrine of Repentance by Ashley Null, 2007: pp.87-89) While paenitentiam agere may have been technical ecclesiastical language for “to do penance,” the literature of the republican, classical, and early medieval periods suggest that in every day speech it actually meant “to change one’s mind” “to repent” “to be regretful of” (for the particular phrase, see Petronius. Satyrica 132.12; Valerius Maximus. Facta et Dicta Memorabilia 3.4.2; Cornelius Tacitus. Dialogus de Oratoribus 15.2; Pomponius Porphyrio. Commentum in Horati Carmina 1.34.pr; Iustinianus. Digesta Iustiniani Some have asked why Jerome did not use the imperative of the verb paeniteö. While there is no imperative used in Latin literature (since it is an impersonal verb), the jussive of the third person may be used – certainly in the time of Jerome. Perhaps he was being slavish to the Greek’s mood (imperative). Alternatively, it could be that, while the phrase paenitentiam agite easily means “repent,” Jerome chose to use these forms because they also had sacramental implications, thereby vindicating the church’s teaching. There is no way to be sure, though.”

    From Latin Alive! Book 3 by Karen Moore and Gaylan DuBoise, edited by Edward Kotynski

    Paenitentia was a multi-faceted word which, like μετανοέω in Greek, meant more than an internal change.

    That said, even if Jerome was right in his translation, the church’s development of the sacrament of penance seems to have been justified post-hoc by a phrase that had come to signify the sacrament of repentance.

    To clarify: Jerome may have picked the correct translation which by Luther and Erasmus’ day had decidedly sacramental implications. The meaning “do penance” was not initially the meaning of the text, but came to be seen that way. Thus, the sacrament of penance would have developed apart from the text and then only after paenitentia had acquired the meaning “penance” did the text get read that way and get used to justify the sacrament.

  2. Ian

    That’s a really good point, thanks. I hadn’t come across that idea before. I’m not nearly knowledgeable in any of this to know if they’re right, but it makes sense. Thanks.

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