Solemnity of Christ the King, 2023

Solemnity of Christ the King, 2023 November 26, 2023

Note on the Scripture

Reviewing my first post of this type, I decided it was probably kind of bonkers to offer four translations of the gospel text; no one is likely to use that many, nor to get very much out of the differences even if they do. I’ve therefore decided to reduce it to two: the RSV-CE (used by the Ordinariate) and my own. I dropped the NAB and the King James (though it is my sentimental favorite) on the grounds that, as the one is the standard Catholic translation and the other the most influential English translation, they’re the likeliest for readers to have at home, or already be otherwise familiar with.

Detail from the central panel of Hieronymus
Bosch’s triptych The Last Judgment, ca. 1486.

A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew

Here beginneth the twenty-fifth chapter at the thirty-first verse.

RSV-CE

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels1 with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.2

“Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from3 the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous4 will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee5 hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal6 fire prepared for the devil7 and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment,8 but the righteous into eternal life.”9

My translation

“And whenever the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the messengers1 with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory, and every nation will also be brought together before him, and he will distinguish between them just like a shepherd distinguishes sheep from goats, and he will stand the sheep on his right, but the goats on the southpaw side.2

“Then the king will tell those on his right: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my father, you will inherit the kingdom prepared for you from3 the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, a stranger and you brought me in among you, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in custody and you came to me.’ Then the just4 will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you5 hungry and tend to you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you as a stranger and bring you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in custody and come to you?’ And answering, the king will tell them: ‘Amen, I say to you: whatever you have done to one of these, the smallest of my brothers, you have done to me.’

“Then he will also tell those on the southpaw side: ‘Get away from me, into the eternal6 fire prepared for the accuser7 and his messengers. For I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat, thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink, a stranger and you did not bring me in among you, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in custody and you did not visit me.’ Then they too will answer, saying: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in custody, and not serve you?’ Then he will answer them, saying: ‘Amen, I say to you: whatever you have not done to one of these, the smallest of my brothers, you have not done to me.’

“And they will go away to eternal punishment,8 but the just to eternal life.”9

Textual Commentary

1angels/messengers: The Greek word ἄγγελος [angelos] literally means “messenger,” and would be used of an ordinary, human message-bearer just as much as of that order of spirits we normally call “angels.” Like a handful of other Greek terms (Christ is the most familiar), it was transliterated from Greek rather than translated into Latin, and thus, when the Latin was translated into English, the Greek-like form was preserved. In most cases, it is clear from the context whether the word refers to a literal messenger or to the spiritual being; however, there are a few places (like Acts 12.13-17) where the meaning is ambiguous.

2left/southpaw: “Southpaw” is my best effort at translating εὐώνυμος [euōnümos], a conventional euphemism for the word “left” in the sense of left-hand. (The Greek literally means well-named, along the same lines as the euphemism Εὐμενίδες [Eumenides], “Kindly Ones,” indicating the Furies.) English does not have, or no longer has, such a strong aversion to the left hand, and is correspondingly short on euphemistic synonyms, but, since the standard word for left (ἀριστερός [aristeros]) is not used here, some kind of synonym seemed appropriate.

3from: The word “from” is not in itself unusual! But it is interesting to note that the text does not specify whether this “preparation from the foundation” is to be taken in a temporal sense (“prepared since the beginning”) or a “constitutive” sense (“prepared out of the beginning,” i.e. “part of the original plan,” as it were). Either or both meanings may be here present.

4righteous/just: Neither word is especially common in spoken English today, but I have preferred “just” on two grounds: first, that δίκαιος [dikaios] refers particularly to δίκη [dikē], “justice,” rather than virtue in general (whereas the English righteousness, though it does somewhat tend toward the meaning “justice” through the influence of the term “rights,” can suggest a broader, vaguer idea of goodness); and second, that, while we don’t often speak of justice or describe people as just in ordinary speech, we still do so occasionally, whereas righteous and related words have been relegated exclusively to the religious register, which δίκαιος had not.

5thee/you: Though not an especially important discrepancy here, it is worthwhile to take note of for general purposes. English is at something of a disadvantage in rendering the Greek here. Many languages exhibit what is called the T-V distinction, a differentiation in how pronouns are used intended to show courtesy; a common strategy across many languages is to use the plural when addressing a single person (along the same lines as the “royal ‘we'”). The reason most dialects of English originally lost the second-person singular pronoun thou was the increasing use of the courteous plural—which is also why you always takes the verb are, even when the “you” in question is singular. Because ritual language tends to be conservative even of obsolete forms, this meant that thou took on religious connotations for most English speakers; and this puts us in the ridiculous position of having a courteous singular instead of a courteous plural, and also no other type of distinct second-person singular. The upshot in this text is that there is no way to represent the difference between the sheep and the goats saying “[second-person singular pronoun]” to the king, and him saying “you [plural]” to them, except by introducing a suggestion of reverence via the word thou—a suggestion which is not only not present in the original text, but couldn’t have been, since Greek at the time did not have the T-V distinctionl!*

*EDIT: I should have re-edited this paragraph for clarity before publishing. If there’s any confusion, Greek did have different pronouns for singular and plural “you” at this time; what it didn’t have was specialized courteous word forms (which just means that if you wanted to show courtesy, you did it by using titles or circumlocutions, by tone, posture, and gesture, and so forth).

6eternal: The Greek word αἰώνιος [aiōnios] is a serious pain in the neck to translate. Every choice to render it is a little bit wrong, as touched upon in my Thanksgiving post: an αἰών [aiōn] is an “age,” but in some contexts it can also mean “lifetime, generation,” or “life [as a thing or ‘possession’],” or “world [in either the temporal or spatial senses, or both].” The old-fashioned translation world without end (accenting the temporal meaning of “world”) was honestly a pretty good one, and so, of course, is now so obsolete as to be nearly incomprehensible. Unto ages of ages would be tolerably correct, but we never talk like that (and I aim in my translations for colloquial-ness when a text is informal, which on the whole the New Testament is); I toyed with everlasting, but decided that it was a little bit too free (there is no corresponding verbal element like “lasting” in αἰώνιος), and also with perennial, about which I decided, perhaps mistakenly, that “perennial life” in the last verse sounded too unnatural.

7devil/accuser: The word διάβολος [diabolos] could be rendered “slanderer,” but, since διάβολος seems to be counterposed elsewhere to παράκλητος [paraklētos] (meaning “one called to help; advocate, [defendant’s] counsel” and from which we get the title Paraclete), accuser seemed like a slightly more appropriate translation. (Also, the rhythm of “the accuser and his messengers” seemed nearly as good as the incredibly satisfying phrase “the devil and his angels,” which was certainly a plus.)

A painting of a devil holding a lectionary for a saint,
thought to be St. Augustine. (Note the second, false
face on the devil’s rump, referred to in witchcraft trials
as its “fundament.”)

8punishment: This translates the word κόλασις [kolasis], meaning “correction, punishment, chastisement,” but originating in a verb meaning “to curb, check.” Obviously this raises the old controversy over universalism. Personally I don’t think the text tells us much one way or the other, and wished to preserve such ambiguity as the text conveys; since the term punishment (unlike, e.g., words such as revenge) does normally imply some good purpose, but not necessarily the reform of the one punished, it seemed like the best rendering of κόλασις here.

9life: As many readers know, Greek has two words for “life”: βίος [bios] and ζωή [zōē]. The difference between the two has often been exaggerated, and the significance of ζωή given an artificially mystical meaning that it did not necessarily possess in Greek. The fact that we get the words biology and zoology from them suggests something closer to their real relation; but this relation really was one of different connotations, and ζωή really did suggest something “higher” (in however vague a sense) than βίος.

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