Monday, December 15, 2003

Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus

If you attended the traditional Roman Rite Mass yesterday you heard that bit of St. Paul's epistle to the Philippians chanted. After 50 some years of hearing that little sentence it occurred to me that it's something of a puzzle: "Let your modesty be known to all men." Que? If you're going about telling everyone about your modesty, it would seem you aren't all that modest to begin with. Sort of a corollary to the "Humblest man here and proud of it" conundrum.

So does "modestia" = "modesty"? My hand missal, quoting from the Douay, seemed to think so. The old Confraternity says "moderation". That makes a little more sense. The egregious NAB says "Let everyone know how unselfish you are." O.K., maybe. But it makes it sound like the Epistle to the Kindergarteners. The RSV-CE says "Let all men know your forbearance." Nice. But now we have the Epistle to the Mortgage Lenders. The KJV agrees with the Confraternity: "moderation". The Jerusalem Bible - a scripture translation which I had liked up until this very moment - said "Let your tolerance be evident to everyone." So we have a central core of meaning lurking in all these translations somewhere but not much agreement on connotations.

In the interests of science I have retrieved The Oxford Latin Dictionary from the top shelf - a somewhat dangerous operation; Volkswagen makes automobiles smaller than the O.L.D. Oxford give three definitions. The first is "restraint, mildness, temperateness." The second is "Respect for order, discipline." The third is "(a) Respect for decency or propriety, modesty; (spec. as befitting women). (b) Self-effacement, modesty."

If the O.L.D. is correct the Douay, the KJV, and the Confraternity get full marks. The RSV-CE gets a C because I am in a kindly mood, the JB a D-, and the NAB gets indicted under the truth-in-advertising statutes for falsely claiming to be an English translation.

Or maybe not.

After all, the original is in Greek not Latin. Perhaps St. Jerome got it wrong all those years ago. The Greek says "to epieixes" (sorry I can't do the Greek alphabet on Blogger.) I don't have a Greek dictionary and my one (1) semester of koine Greek is 30+ years old and probably couldn't have handled "to epieixes" unassisted anyway. My grades may be very unfair. Maybe - God help us - the NAB got it spot on after all.

So I still don't know whether I should be bragging about my modesty.