It is surprising how many ecclesiastical meanings this word has. In the liturgy of the Eucharist it refers to the fixed part of the liturgy, as distinguished from the parts (called ‘Propers’) that vary with the seasons of the Church calendar. Then there is the phrase ‘ordinary Sundays’ to designate the Sundays following Trinity Sunday. The description ‘ordinary’ seems to follow from the fact that most of the seasonal divisions of the ecclesiastical year fall in the first half, so that the Sundays of the second half run in regular order (from Latin ordo = rule, order, regularity) to its end. A third meaning refers to the jurisdiction attaching to a bishop or other cleric by virtue of his office, such as the bishop’s jurisdiction within his diocese. Sometimes a bishop is referred to as the ‘Ordinary’ of his diocese. A historical instance of this usage is the description of the chaplain of Newgate Prison, in London, as the ‘Ordinary’ of the prison. It was his particular duty to prepare condemned felons for death, and to preach the ‘condemned sermon’ to them on the Sunday before their execution. This usage ceased when Newgate was pulled down in the 19th century.
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 22 Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are ‘hypocrites’. When Jesus uses this word it is invariably of the Pharisees. The word had its origin on the Greek stage, where actors wore masks. In order to speak one had to do so from under the mask. The element hypo- means ‘under’, and the remaining part of the word derives from krinomai, meaning ‘to answer’.
Literally, therefore, a hypocrite was one who answers (or speaks) from under a mask, someone who is playing a part. It is easy to see how this meaning acquired a negative moral charge so as to apply to someone who assumed qualities that he did not have. He would be playing a part, only playing it in real life instead of on the stage. Whereas the real actor can take off his mask at the end of the performance, the hypocrite is stuck with it as a way of life.
The corresponding Latin word is persona, which can mean both the mask itself and the person wearing it. It is the word that gives us our word ‘person’. Its derivative, impersonate, carries the negative moral sense of ‘wrongfully representing oneself to be someone one is not’ which the word persona itself does not have.
In today’s Gospel reading from Matt 22 the servants sent out to call the guests to the wedding feast are mistreated and then killed. The verb used to refer to the mistreating is a form of hubrizo, meaning ‘to treat with abusive insolence’. The particulars of the mistreatment are not given, but could include physical violence.
In Athens, hubrizo included violent physical assault such as would, in today’s terms, constitute an indictable offence. The cognate noun to this verb is hubris. As well as covering all the kinds of acts included under hubrizo, this word also had a religious sense tantamount to ‘blasphemy’. In this sense, especially found in Greek tragedy, it features ‘an overweening arrogance towards or defiance of the gods’, provoking Nemesis, or divine retribution.
The word has come into English in much the same sense, except for a toning down of the idea of blasphemy. Not that such an idea is far away. There were those who, at the time of the sinking of the Titanic, attributed the disaster to Britain’s hubris as an industrial and military power; and the outbreak of the First World War was seen by some as retribution for the hubris of the nations.
Tyndale was not the first to attempt a translation of the Bible into English – William Wycliffe had attempted it in the 14th century. But Tyndale’s was the first to make a real impact. He was born in Gloucestershire in about 1494 and studied at both Oxford and Cambridge before being ordained priest. He was a skilled linguist, being fluent in seven languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew and German.
His first edition of the New Testament was begun in England but completed in Worms, Germany, and published in 1526. It had to be smuggled into England because the only authorised Bible was the Latin Vulgate. A second edition of the New Testament was published in 1534 in Antwerp and formed part of a Bible which included much of the Old Testament. This was published after Tyndale’s death. Tyndale had a gift for pithy expression, deriving from his upbringing in Gloucestershire, a county noted for its proverbial speech. Many of his phrases were taken over unchanged into the King James Version and then into the wider language: “Eat, drink and be merry”; “Fight the good fight”; “The wages of sin is death”; “The powers that be”.
He was the first to used the words “atonement” and “scapegoat”. But Tyndale was a heretic in the eyes of the Church and of his own king, Henry 8th. On 6th October 1536 he was publicly executed at Vilvorde, in Belgium. As an act of mercy, he was first strangled with a cord before his body was burnt at the stake. His ‘day’ is 6th October.
A Word in Season