Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Many or all?


How do you preserve the message Jesus proclaimed two thousand years ago, when businesses and institutions struggle to get their members to know even just about the strategy and vision of the moment? I think this is quite a thorny challenge, as it can take you down at least two undesirable paths: On the one hand, you can become caught up in splitting hairs and lose sight of what Jesus wanted to communicate, while holding on to his specific words with zeal (the example of those who can recite Scripture but wouldn't think twice when walking past a homeless person comes to mind). On the other hand, there is the 'chillax, man!' kind of approach, which would argue that it doesn't matter what Jesus said exactly as we know that he just wanted us to be ‘nice’ to each other. While the latter is far less objectionable to me, it does run the risk of missing out on the richness of Jesus’ words, which we have been unpacking for two millennia (e.g., think of St. Francis’ re-discovery of poverty, St. Therese of Lisieux’s realization of the depth of everyday life, etc.).

It is in this context that the question of a single of Jesus’ word’s translations has been plaguing linguists and theologians during the last half century, leading to votes in various national Bishops’ conferences and now even to an intervention by the Pope himself. The word in question is the Latin ‘multis’ and the controversy revolves around whether it ought to be rendered as ‘many’ or ‘all.’

Coming to this question cold, you could be forgiven for saying: “Well, I googled it, and it clearly says ‘many.’ End of story.” As it happens, the Pope has arrived at the same conclusion, but what is noteworthy to me is how he did it (and, no, he didn’t just google it!) and how he then proceeded. To get the full story, see Benedict XVI’s letter to the German Bishops’ Conference, and if you’d just like my summary, read on. The text in question are Jesus’ words at the last supper, where he blesses and offers the wine to his disciples, saying:
hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti, qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum
which, up until very recently was translated as:
this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven
and, which is now translated as follows (after a very recent revision of the English translation, that was also influenced by Pope Benedict’s choice):
this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins
As you can see, this is a pretty important word, since it, at first sight, sets the scope for the effects of Jesus’ sacrifice. Did Jesus offer his life for all (as the Church has been, and still is, teaching: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” - Catechism of the Catholic Church, §655) or only for some? Suggesting the latter would be outrageous, would fly in the face of everything that Christianity can be most certain of and would be entirely incongruent with the rest of Jesus’ teaching. The potential doubt that this change of translation could introduce in the minds of church goers is precisely what made both the German and Italian bishops rebel and vote massively in favor of not changing the respective translations.

This brings us to Pope Benedict’s letter, where he first proceeds to sum up the history of the argument, then to underline the validity of concerns like the above and to re-affirm the universal scope of Jesus’ sacrifice and salvation. Only after having prepared the ground does he proceed first to deliver a master class on the distinction between translation and interpretation (while acknowledging the difficult balance between the two and agreeing that the ‘for all‘ was “a well-founded interpretation then as now”) and on how the two need to go hand in hand:
“The word must be presented as it is, with its own shape, however strange it may appear to us; the interpretation must be measured by the criterion of faithfulness to the word itself, while at the same time rendering it accessible to today’s listeners.”
Benedict does not leave things at this though and at stating that “the words ‘pro multis’ should be translated as they stand”. Instead he proceeds to outline how local bishops need to prepare their congregations for the change in wording and flips the situation from a source of disagreement to an opportunity to spread the Gospel. He does this by underlining the three reasons that Jesus may have had for using the word ‘many’ instead of ‘all’:
  1. “Firstly, for us who are invited to sit at his table [i.e., participate in the Eucharist], it means surprise, joy and thankfulness that he has called me, that I can be with him and come to know him.”
  2. “Secondly, this brings with it a certain responsibility. How the Lord in his own way reaches the others – “all” – ultimately remains his mystery. But without doubt it is a responsibility to be directly called to his table, so that I hear the words “for you” – he suffered for me. The many bear responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the lamp on the lamp-stand, a city on the hilltop, yeast for all.”
  3. “Finally, [i]n today’s society we often feel that we are not “many”, but rather few – a small remnant becoming smaller all the time. But no – we are “many”: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues,”, as we read in the Revelation of Saint John (7:9). We are many and we stand for all. So the words “many” and “all” go together and are intertwined with responsibility and promise.”
Having read Pope Benedict’s letter leaves me with admiration for his method, with gratitude for the nuances of the ‘many’/‘all’ difference that he laid bare and also with an appreciation of the subtlety of his approach. After all this is ‘just’ a letter to the German bishops - not one of the formal ‘weapons’ that he has in his arsenal, such as apostolic letters, apostolic exhortations, apostolic constitutions or ‘ex cathedra,’ infallible proclamations. What we get instead is a point made with such power of reason that it does not require legal support.