Some years ago I made a summary of some studies made in Italy to find a better translation by Greek to Italian of St. John’s Gospel chapter 20, 1-9: its translations of 1974 and that of 2008, both approved by the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), the organization that brings together the Italian Bishops, has in final part an unclear meaning because it is wrong. I published the aforementioned summary on this site by the title “Vide e credette – Cosa vide Giovanni nella tomba di Cristo?”

I have recently realized the English translation of this St. John’s chapter, approved by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), is equally wrong. I therefore thought it was useful to illustrate in English the topics I presented in my above Italian summary to better understand the corresponding Greek text.

Here is the English text of St. John’s Gospel as approved by the USCCB:

1 On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb.  2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” 3 So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; 5 he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. 6 When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, 7 and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. 8 Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. 9 For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead”.

Reading the verses 6-9 so translated by Greek, it is not clear what St. John (the disciple Jesus loved) could have seen to believe Jesus was resurrected: the only strangeness that could have struck him was the subtraction of the naked body (not of the burial cloth and body togheter, which could make quicker and “cleaner” the subtraction)[1].

What did St. John actually see? In Italy, the first to address this problem, outside of the circle of scholars, was Antonio Persili, parish priest at Tivoli, a small town just a few kilometers from Rome[2]. He began reconsidering the original Greek text of the chapter in question to see if it was possible a meanigful translation. By time, other scholars begun the same research and found the definitive solution.

First aid came by the comparison between the Greek text and its Latin translation, which are reported below (Latin text is the Neo-Volgata chosen by Paul VI and promulgated by John Paul II in 1979):

“1 Τῇ δὲ μιᾷ τῶν σαββάτων Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ ἔρχεται πρωῒ σκοτίας ἔτι οὔσης εἰς τὸ μνημεῖον καὶ βλέπει τὸν λίθον ἠρμένον ἐκ τοῦ μνημείου. 2 τρέχει οὖν καὶ ἔρχεται πρὸς Σίμωνα Πέτρον καὶ πρὸς τὸν ἄλλον μαθητὴν ὃν ἐφίλει ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· ἦραν τὸν κύριον ἐκ τοῦ μνημείου καὶ οὐκ οἴδαμεν ποῦ ἔθηκαν αὐτόν. 3 Ἐξῆλθεν οὖν ὁ Πέτρος καὶ ὁ ἄλλος μαθητὴς καὶ ἤρχοντο εἰς τὸ μνημεῖον. 4 ἔτρεχον δὲ οἱ δύο ὁμοῦ· καὶ ὁ ἄλλος μαθητὴς προέδραμεν τάχιον τοῦ Πέτρου καὶ ἦλθεν πρῶτος εἰς τὸ μνημεῖον, 5 καὶ παρακύψας βλέπει κείμενα τὰ ὀθόνια, οὐ μέντοι εἰσῆλθεν. 6 ἔρχεται οὖν καὶ Σίμων Πέτρος ἀκολουθῶν αὐτῷ καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸ μνημεῖον, καὶ θεωρεῖ τὰ ὀθόνια κείμενα, 7 καὶ τὸ σουδάριον, ὃ ἦν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ, οὐ μετὰ τῶν ὀθονίων κείμενον ἀλλὰ χωρὶς ἐντετυλιγμένον εἰς ἕνα τόπον. 8 τότε οὖν εἰσῆλθεν καὶ ὁ ἄλλος μαθητὴς ὁ ἐλθὼν πρῶτος εἰς τὸ μνημεῖον καὶ εἶδεν καὶ ἐπίστευσεν· 9 οὐδέπω γὰρ ᾔδεισαν τὴν γραφὴν ὅτι δεῖ αὐτὸν ἐκ νεκρῶν ἀναστῆναι.

“1 Prima autem sabbatorum Maria Magdalene venit mane, cum adhuc tenebrae essent ad monumentum et videt lapidem sublatum a monumento. 2 Currit ergo et venit ad Simonem Petrum et ad alium discipulum, quem amabat Iesus et dicit eis: «Tulerunt Dominum de monumento et nescimus ubi posuerunt eum!». 3 Exiit ergo Petrus et ille alius discipulus et veniebant ad monumentum. 4 Currebant autem duo simul, et ille alius discipulus praecucurrit citius Petro et venit primus ad monumentum; 5 et cum se inclinasset, videt posita linteamina non tamen introivit: 6 Venit ergo et Simon Petrus sequens eum et introivit in monumentum; et videt linteamina posita 7 et sudarium, quod fuerat super caput eius, non cum linteaminibus positum, sed separatim involutum in unum locum. 8 Tunc ergo introivit et alter discipulus, qui venerat primus ad monumentum, et vidit et credidit. 9 Nondum enim sciebant Scripturam quia oportet eum a mortuis resurgere.

Greek and Latin texts have been underlined in the sentences that have been wrong translated (it possible the wrong translation in English has followed the Italian one chosen by CEI).

Translating in English the Greek words τὰ ὀθόνια κείμενα by “the burial cloths there” there are two mistakes: first, if it does not translate the Greek parteciple “κείμενα”, there is a lost meaning;  second, the adverb “there” is addede arbitrarily. The Greek verb κείμαι, of which κείμενα is the participle, indicates something that is lying, or, better, flattened; this interpretation is comforted by Neo-Volgata which translate “linteamina posita” (posita by the poneo verb, which means put down or flattened). John have seen the burial cloths “deflated” so he understood the corpse had crossed them, had gone out of them without disassembling them, as how it happens when a rubber air bed loses his air out of a hole. Nothing else than burial cloth “thrown on the ground”, as the 1974 Italian translation adopted by CEI, or merely “there” as the English translation approved by the USCCB.

There is now another problem to be resolved: the USCCB translate St. John saw “the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place”. This could confirm the hypothesis of the corpse’s theft. This time the Latin of Neo-Volgata does not seems of help because it seems to give the same interpretation: “et sudarium, quod fuerat super caput eius, not cum linteaminibus positum, sed separatim involutum in unum locum”.

The right translation was found by scholars who know the Aramaic language, which is behind the Greek text of St. John’s Gospel[3]: his native language was in fact Aramaic and he likely continued to think in this native language: by writing in Greek, simply transposed the terms from the Aramaic to Greek (as Italians often do, when they speak English, and are not understandable: they limit themselves, in fact, to a word-by-word translation from their language, saying sentences that for an American or English are meaningless).

We must remember that in Hebrew and Aramaic the numbers one, two, three, etc. are also valid for first, second, third, etc. Therefore, according to these Aramaic experts and knowing that ἕνα is the male accusative form of the Greek word for “one”, εἰς ἕνα τόπον, translated in Latin as “in unum locum”, must be traslated in English as “in the first place” , meaning “in the same place“ or „in the previous place”[4].

As prof. Don Renato De Zan, biblical scholar and expert in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, wrote in one of his books, the exact translation of St. John 20, 6-7 is as follows: “He saw the burial cloths flattened and the sudarium, that had been placed around his head, not flattened as the burial cloths, but folded on himself in the same place[5].

This extraordinary event could have been caused by the great amount of aloes and myrrh that could have melted the sudarium.

It seems interesting to transcribe what prof. De Zan adds after in his book (the translation in English translation by Italian is mine): “The burial cloths are not a mute witness: if they are looked with the eye of faith they can speak of resurrection; as the risen Christ will enter by the shut door in the room (St. John 20, 19-26) , in the same way he came out of burial cloths cover. The disciple, who feels beloved by God, sees and believes. These burial cloths had wrapped Jesus and now lie flattened as a cocoon, intact and void, except on the head side. And the sudarium was still holding slightly high the burial cloths. the Master’s body had passed the burial cloths without breaking or dismantling them. He saw and believed. Mary Magdalene and Peter, on the other hand, still had to do a listening way. They did not understood: the Word had yet to illuminate them”.

It is true that resurrection is a mystery: we do not know how it happened, because we are at different levels of existence: that earthly, the ours, and that glorious of Jesus. However mystery does not mean we have to do with something impossible to know, but rather with something to experience, to get in. We are already on this way because we have been baptized, dying with Christ (entering the water) and resurrecting with Him (leaving the water); we are already partially penetrated into the mystery, though to “see” Jesus we still need the signs that He wanted to leave us: the empty tomb, but also the Sacraments (above all the Eucharist) ; more and more we can see if we will allow to be guided by these signs and enlightened us by his Word.

That’s what Don Persili did, as well as other persevering researchers before and after him.

Salvatore Scuro

[1] “The burial cloths” indicate the Shroud and some other cloths made as bandages to assured the Shroud to the corpse: see the St. John Gospel, chapter 19,38-40, which talks about the preparation of  Christ’s corpse for burial. According to scholars of the Madrid School of Exegesis, Shroud and othonia in LXX Greek are synonymous and translate the Hebrew “great piece of linen”.

[2] His book (1987), “Sulle tracce di Cristo risorto – Con Pietro e Giovanni testimoni oculari (On the Traces of Risen Christ – With Peter and John Eyewitnesses), had a limited diffusion, but aroused a great interest when it was picked up by famous writer Vittorio Messori who in 2000 published a book , Dicono che è risorto – un’indagine su un sepolcro vuoto, nelle edizioni SEI (They say he has risen – an investigation into an empty tomb, in SEI editions); the Messori’s book resembled Don Persili’s thesis extensively and had a tremendous sales success, but it was not reflected in the new edition of the Bible programmed by Cei and published in 2008.

[3]In this regard, the studies of Jean Carmignac, expert of the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, are important to demonstrate the existence of the semitic substrate of the Gospels (see “La nascita dei Vangeli Sinottici, San Paolo 1986″).

[4]On the other hand we must consider that:

a) “μιᾷ” of verse 20, 1 is the Greek female word corrisponding to the English “one”  and it is translated without any problem as “thirst [day] of the week”;

b) alsoo the Latin word “unum” has both the meaning of “one” and “same”: so “in unum locum” of verse 20,9 can be translated correctly as “in the same place”.

[5]It is my translation of the sentence that prof. Renato De Zan wrote in his book, composed with prof. Roberto Lauria “La Parola per la Chiesa – Commento alle letture delle domeniche e delle feste – Anno B, pag. 91.

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