A Catholic Monthly Magazine

“Suffered Death” in the new Creed

Fr Merv Duffy sm

by Fr Merv Duffy sm

An acute observer pointed out to me a change in the version of the Nicene Creed being used in the mass in New Zealand. We had been saying that Jesus “suffered, died, and was buried” but now we say he “suffered death and was buried” which does not seem like the same thing at all. In English “suffered death” is a passive construction meaning “was killed”, it does not mean to suffer in the sense of “experience pain”, though death is rarely painless.

The problem gets even more confusing when we look at the Latin:

Latin Credo

Recently in use

In the New Roman Missal

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pòntio Pilàto; passus et sepùltus est, et resurrèxit tèrtia die, secundum Scriptùras, For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures

How Jesus died is clearly stated – he was crucified. The responsible authority is identified, perhaps to locate it in time; it was under Pontius Pilate. Then the Latin has two verbs: “passus et sepultus est” – he suffered and was buried. The Latin does not have “mortuus” (died) in-between.

This is where the translators of the Creed had a problem. To say in English that someone “suffered and was buried” implies they were buried alive. In English we use the phrase “dead and buried” to make it clear that someone had died before they were appropriately interred.

Formal equivalence fails when confronted with the Latin phrase “passus et sepultus est” – the words are entirely clear – “suffered and was buried” – but for the translation to not sound ridiculous to our ears the notion of death has to get in there clearly. The God does not suffer or die, hence, for Docetists, Jesus only appeared to suffer, die and rise. earlier translators took the plain sense of the passage in context and translated the two verbs by three – “suffered, died and was buried.”

When it was translated again a different approach was taken. They wanted exactness and they did not like the “solution” of inventing a word that was not in the source text. So they looked back to what the Latin was itself a translation of; the original Greek creed produced by the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople.

One of the heresies of the early Church was the Jesus was not really a human being. The philosophy behind this notion was that the material world is evil and God is so glorious, spiritual and transcendent, that he would not have sullied himself by taking on true humanity with all its innate fleshiness. They preferred to believe that the historical Jesus was a divine figure pretending to be human. With the power of God behind the appearance it would have been flawless and capable of fooling the most perceptive disciple. Jesus, according to the heresy of Docetism, “seemed” to be human but was always and only divine. One of the characteristics of the divinity is that

One of the heresies of the early Church was the Jesus was not really a human being.

The orthodox reaction to this heresy was to point out that it turned our salvation into a sham. The bishops of the Council of Nicea deliberately excluded this heresy by asserting that Jesus suffered – pathonta. They would have been influenced in their choice of the verb páschô by its use in the New Testament for the sufferings of Christ. My Greek Lexicon gives this definition.

Πάσχω – to be affected by a thing, whether good or bad, to suffer, endure evil,
Matt 16:21; 17:12, 15; 27:19; absol. To suffer death Luke 22:15; 24:26; et al.

St Luke uses it in the absolute sense “to suffer death”. The central and most influential text is the words of Jesus in Luke 22:15-16:

And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (pathein); for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

So, Jesus uses the word “suffer” with the implication of “suffer death”. Influenced by that text the translators of the Creed that appears in the New Roman Missal chose to translate “passus” as “suffered death”. They preferred this translation because it did not introduce a new verb, it merely unpacked the particular sense of that one word in this context. Jesus did suffer, he experienced the ultimate suffering, he suffered unto death, he experienced death. That is what they are trying to convey in the phrase “suffered death.”

It is a good illustration of the traps that lie in the path of translators. A perfectly sensible and apparently simple phrase in Latin simply cannot be translated word for word into English. “Suffered and was buried” carries an implication that is not present in the Latin or Greek. “Suffered death and was buried” is a better translation because it conveys the notion of death which was implicit in the source languages. However it does not carry the sense of “pain and suffering” which is there in the Latin and Greek. What it does communicate faithfully is the true humanity of Jesus – you have to really be human to suffer death.

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