Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A small matter of good will


Come inside my mind and see the kind of minutiae with which I concern myself.

I love looking at words and their meanings, and I get impatient with people who don’t watch their use or who dismiss language analysis as “semantic games”. Unable to meld minds, and not being telepathic, we’re forced to use words; so it’s crucial for us to say what we mean and mean what we say, to make sure we understand and are understood. Otherwise, all attempts at spreading ideas are hopeless — communication is defeated.

Here’s the springboard: “Vatican Diary/Not All Bishops Are of Good Will”, in yesterday’s Espresso Online, by Sandro Magister. (I love that name, by the way: Sandro = Alessandro = Alexander, as in “the Great”; Magister = Latin master or teacher.) Most of the column concerns itself with the reluctance of the Italian bishops to use per molti (“for many”) to translate the Latin pro multis in the words of the Consecration — does this sound familiar to you, too?

But near the end, Magister reports that the bishops voted to use Gloria a Dio nell’alto dei cieli e pace in terra agli uomini che egli ama (“Glory to God in the heights of heaven and peace on earth to the men whom he loves”) to translate Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. He also notes that the new English text will say “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.

Okay, what gives here?


The Gloria is a very old prayer which uses the angels’ call from Luke 2:14 as its start point. I look at one Greek text I have in a database and I find: Doxa en hypsistois Theō kai epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokia. If we did a simple one-to-one swap-out, we’d get “Glory in [the] highest to God, and on earth peace, in men good pleasure [delight, kindly intent].”

The Vulgate differs only slightly from the Latin Missal text, using altissimis instead of excelsis; since the meanings are equivalent, we need not pause over where the change came from. No, the construct which gives us pause is in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. The simple Greek translation we’ve done suggests that God takes delight in humans; thus Thayer’s Lexicon: “either among men pleasure produced by salvation, or God’s pleasure in men”. But hominibus is in the ablative plural, bonae voluntatis in the genitive plural: peace on men of good will.

And so the English translations show this disparity:

  • Douay-Rheims: Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will. 
  • King James: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 
  • American Standard Version: Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. 
  • Young’s Literal Translation: Glory in the highest to God, and upon earth peace, among men — good will. 
  • Revised Standard Version: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased! 
  • New American Bible: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests! 
  • New International Version: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests. 
  • Darby Bible: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good pleasure in men. 
  • English Standard Version: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! 
  • World English Bible: Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men. 
  • Jerusalem Bible: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favours.

I think you get the picture. Again, where’s the hang-up?

The problem is eudokia, which is in the nominative case (belonging to the subject). Many Protestant versions use Greek texts stemming from the so-called Textus Receptus (TR), a problematic Greek text first compiled by Desiderius Erasmus in 1516, which was the basis for the Authorized (King James) Version. Although TR has had its supporters, the fight has been largely along religious lines, especially with those who insist on a “King James only” approach to the Bible.

If we look at editions built on the spine of the Codex Vaticanus (CV, the earliest extant Greek manuscript), such as the Westcott-Hort version, we find the word is eudokias, which is in the genitive (possessive) case — “of good will”. Since it follows anthrōpois, the presumption is that eudokias modifies it rather than eirēnē.

If this is the case, then why do modern Catholic translations such as the New American Bible and the Jerusalem Bible prefer a reading that has God finding favor with men? 

First, CV is not the only old manuscript out there; if other readings from other textual lineages support eudokia, then it would make sense to presume that the scribes of the CV made the error and that the correctors never caught it. Second, the Catholic edition of RSV is in its roots an Anglican version descended from KJV, while NAB was intended from its inception to be accessible to Protestants and so included many Protestant scholars in its editorial process. Third, in Divino afflante spiritu Ven. Pius XII released Catholic translators of any obligation to prefer readings that uphold the Vulgate.

Does this redeem poor old Erasmus? Not really; remember the old saw, “A broken clock is right twice a day”?

So why didn’t ICEL keep “peace to His people on earth” as we’ve been saying for so long? Because, strictly speaking, the Gloria of the Missal isn’t a Bible quotation but rather the prayer of the Church as the Body of Christ. As such, the original Greek text of Luke 2:14 is irrelevant. I just wish someone let the Italian bishops know that.

You think I need to get out of the house more often? Could be.