Daily Archives: August 16, 2010

“In Persona Christi” in 2 Corinthians 2:10

Marcu Grodi often talks about the “Verses I never Saw” in Scripture when he was a protestant. I could make my own list, and if I did, I would have to include a passage that Fr John Fleming referred to in a homily on the weekend.

Fr John was preaching at a solem mass for the celebration of the silver anniversary of ordination of a good friend of mine, and his topic was naturally the priesthood (although, of course, being the the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, this also was included in the homily). He used a number of biblical passages to illustrate the doctrine of the priesthood. I can’t just for now remember all of them, but one of them was 2 Corinthians 2:10.

In the RSV, this passage reads:

“10 Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”

Naturally, therefore, without consulting the Greek text, this verse would not necessarily leap out at one as being about the priesthood. But Fr John pointed out that that Greek text says that St Paul forgave sins “en prosopo Christou”.

“Prosopon” in Greek literally means “face”. In the Trinitarian debates of the 4th Century, the Greeks used it to translate Tertullian’s use of the latin term “persona” for what we now commonly refer to as “the Persons” of the Holy Trinity. Working the other way, when Jerome translated made his new Latin translation of the bible, he used “persona” to translate “prosopon” in 2 Corinthians 2:10, thus making the text read:

“10 cui autem aliquid donatis et ego nam et ego quod donavi si quid donavi propter vos in persona Christi 11 ut non circumveniamur a Satana non enim ignoramus cogitationes eius”

. In English translations, both the Douay-Rheims and the King James Bible follow suit in translating “en prosopo Christou” as “in the person of Christ.”

As you can see, this certainly lends strong support to the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood (cf. CCC p1548 quoting 24 Pius XII, Mediator Dei: “Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi).)

However, let us just pause for a moment and ask: did Paul mean what we mean today when we say “in persona Christi”? You might well ask “Who can tell?”, but we have more to go on than that. One interesting fact to note is that our modern use of the word “person” derives directly from the use of that latin word during the Trinitarian controversies of the 4th Century previously alluded to. Before those discussions, “persona” literally meant “a mask”; it was a word that came out of the dramatic arts, where actors used masks of the “faces” of the characters they were depicting.

This means that in the original pre-4th Century use, the latin “persona” meant roughly the same as the Greek “prosopon”, namely “face”. I don’t know of any English translation of 2 Cor 2:10 that speaks of Paul forgiving sins “in the face of Christ”, but this is literally what is meant by the passage. In Hebrew, the very common phrase “lipne adonai” literally meant to be “in the face of the Lord”, that is, in his presence (as in Psalm 95:6 – where Jerome translates “ante faciem Domini”). It seemeth to this humble commentator that Paul is using the exact same Hebraism translated into Greek: “in the face of Christ” meaning “before his face” or “in his presence” – hence the RSV translation and that of most modern English bibles, Catholic and Protestant. (Nb. the one thing mitigating against this argument is that the Greek Septuagint usually translates “lipne adonai” as “enantion kuriou”/”over against or opposite the Lord” rather than the literal “en prosopo kyriou”). Interesting that Martin Luther (himself an OT and Hebrew scholar) translated the passage as “es vergeben um euretwillen vor Christi Angesicht“, which is literally “before the face of Christ”.

What is the upshot of all this? It is interesting that Jerome does not use the noun “persona” anywhere else in his translation of the New Testament (and only incidentally in three places in the Old Testment). I believe that by translating “prosopon” as “persona” he was very deliberately using the new meaning that the word “prosopon” had aquired in the previous century – but which it did not have prior to this nor in the time of St Paul. (Unfortunately I don’t have available to me any text of the Vetus Latina used prior to the Vulgate. It would be enlightening to see how 2 Cor 2:10 was translated there.)

Does that mean that Fr Fleming was wrong in his exegesis of this passage in relation to the priesthood? No, not at all – for the doctrine is still very much there even if we translate the phrase “in the presence of Christ”. For to claim to forgive sins “in the face of Christ” certainly carries the objective meaning that Paul believed himself to be forgiving sins with the full authority of Christ and acting in Christ’s stead. It is the equivalent of Jesus’ own promise to St Peter that “whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, ie. if you forgive someone’s sins on earth, they will be loosed in the presence of God as well. What we see in Jerome’s translation, and in the later western understanding of this text in general (and it is worth noting that in his homilies on 2 Corinthians, the Eastern Church father, St John Chrysostom does not give the phrase “en prosopo Christou” the weight of “in persona Christi”), is a legitimate plumbing of the depths of Paul’s statement within the life of the Church and under the guidance of the Holy Spirt, even though it is not directly apparent on the surface reading of the text.

No wonder I had missed it in the past!

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