Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Pro multis": Can it mean "for all"?

[Originally posted at and ]

"Pro multis"

Can it mean "for all"?

by Philip Goddard

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) translation of "pro multis" in the words of Consecration as "for all" (which has been approved for use throughout the English-speaking world) has probably attracted more controversy than anything else in its English version of the Latin text of the Mass. There is an excellent discussion of the point by Monsignor Gamber, in an addendum to his book "The Reform of the Roman Liturgy", in which he concludes that the ICEL translation is completely unjustifiable. However, this discussion is for the most part confined to the theological considerations, and the linguistic aspect is mentioned only in passing. ICEL itself has published (in the Third Progress Report on the Revision of the Roman Missal) a defence of its translation from the linguistic point of view, and I am not sure that the reasons that were given in that document have ever been rebutted in print. I am not a theologian, and my intention in this brief article is to consider only the linguistic arguments advanced by ICEL and to explain why I think the Commission is wrong.

ICEL claims that the Aramaic and Hebrew words for "many" (saggi'in and rabbim respectively), which it assumes to be the original words underlying the Greek text of the New Testament, have an inclusive sense and can therefore legitimately be rendered in English as "all". This may well be right in principle; I am not familiar with either language and am not therefore in a position to comment. The fact is, however, that in both the gospels where these words occur, those of St. Matthew and St. Mark, they are translated into Greek as p o l l o i (polloi), which means "many", not as p a n t e V (pantes), which means "all". In other words, faced with a possible ambiguity in the Aramaic, both St. Matthew and St. Mark picked the Greek word for "many" and not that for "all". I think it is reasonable to suppose that the evangelists, writing in the second half of the first century, within a few decades of the Last Supper, are likely to have had a better conception of exactly what Our Lord had said and meant to say than the members of ICEL in the second half of the twentieth.

Nobody noticed?

The argument, however, is even stronger than at first appears since the evangelists almost certainly did not translate the words of Consecration directly themselves but used the translations with which they were familiar from the Eucharistic Liturgy in which they regularly participated. These translations go back beyond the evangelists, to the time when the first Gentiles were converted and the existing Aramaic liturgy was translated into Greek for their benefit, which must have happened at most within twenty years of the Resurrection, certainly within the lifetime of the majority of the Apostles. Is it conceivable that Christ's words were mistranslated at that time, that nobody noticed and that the Church had to wait nineteen centuries for ICEL to put the matter right?

But, says ICEL, the Greek word p o l l o i sometimes means "all". It does not say that it always, or even usually, means "all", which would have been quite unsustainable, since there are numerous instances in the New Testament (to say nothing of the rest of Greek literature) where it cannot possibly mean this. However, so long as it sometimes means all, ICEL believes that it is justified in translating it as "all" in this particular context. We must therefore consider whether ICEL's arguments that it can sometimes mean "all" are sound or not. I believe that they are not, for the following reasons.

Firstly, ICEL quotes two passages from the letters of St. Paul (Romans 5:19, and Timothy 2:5-6) where it says p o l l o i is used in the sense of "all". In the former passage, however, p o l l o i , in contrast to the Gospel passages, has the definite article before it (' o i p o l l o i ), and this completely alters the meaning in Greek from "many people" to "people in general". Romans 5:19 does not therefore support ICEL's argument. The word used in Timothy 2:5-6 is p a n t e V , which undoubtedly means all, and ICEL says that this is a parallel passage to Mark 10:45, in which the corresponding word is p o l l o i . It concludes that p o l l o i in Mark 10:45 must mean "all". What ICEL has evidently failed to notice however is that its argument is circular; it could just as easily be reversed and used to prove that p a n t e V in Timothy 2:5-6 means "many". So of the only two passages in the New Testament which ICEL can quote in support of its translation, one turns out to be irrelevant and the other circular.

ICEL text is a mistranslation.

Secondly, when the Latin Canon was first composed towards the end of the fourth century as part of the shift in the Church's liturgical language from Greek to Latin, the Latin words chosen as corresponding to the Greek were "pro multis", not "pro omnibus". The fourth century liturgists clearly did not understand the words in the Greek Canon as meaning "for all". "Pro multis" remains in the Latin Canon to this day, and even the most extreme among the twentieth century liturgical reformers have never suggested either that "pro multis" can possibly mean "for all" or that the text of the Canon should be altered to "pro omnibus". On these grounds alone therefore the ICEL text is a mistranslation of the Latin.

Thirdly, in Liddell and Scott's standard Greek Lexicon, the article on p o l l o i extends to over two columns of small print and lists many nuances of meaning with extensive quotations from Greek literature to support the corresponding English meanings given. Nowhere, however, in Greek literature do either Liddell and Scott or the many later editors of their Lexicon record any passage where the word bears the meaning "all".

Different and incompatible translations.

Fourthly, the distinguished scholars responsible for the principal modern English translations of the Bible (RSV, Knox, New English, Good News, New International and New Jerusalem) are unanimous in translating the passages in question as "for many" and not as "for all". This, incidentally, has the unfortunate result that on a day when the relevant passage is read at Mass as part of the Gospel (Palm Sunday for instance), we have two different and incompatible translations of the same passage in the same liturgy.

It can only be a matter of speculation why ICEL decided to go for the controversial translation "for all" rather than the safe translation "for many". Its members must have known that it would provoke attitudes ranging from polite disagreement to total outrage. It has been suggested that they may have been influenced by the belief that everyone will be saved, and thereby led to attribute to Christ the words which they would have preferred Him to have said rather than those which He did say. I do not think that this belief has ever been formally condemned as heretical, but it is incompatible with Christ's teaching as recorded in the New Testament, in particular with His account of the Last Judgement in Matt. 25: 41-46. Unhappily, thanks to ICEL, it is now enshrined in the very heart of the English vernacular Mass.

[Taken from the Latin Mass Society's February 2000 Newsletter.]

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