Allegri and Original Sin

I’ll never forget the first time I heard a performance of the setting of Psalm 50 (51), the Miserere mei, Deus, composed in the seventeenth century by Gregorio Allegri, a member of the papal choir and sung thereafter in the Capella Sistina. I was listening in another chapel, a dark one, and the soaring top line was sung by one of those boy sopranos the English do so well, secreted high up in an organ loft. The breaking wave of ethereal sound that washed over the listeners with no possible visual distraction was powerful.

Recently I listened to this setting of the Miserere  again, and as I idly followed the Latin I realised for the first time that at one point (verse 7) the text followed by Allegri takes the form ‘in peccatis concepit me mater mea” (‘in sins did my mother conceive me.’) This struck me as odd, because the standard Latin version in the Vulgate reads ‘in peccato peperit me mater mea’, ‘in sin did my mother bear me.’ But it turns out that Allegri was following the Latin version of the Greek Septuagint, widely used for liturgical purposes in the West, which reads ‘sins’, rather than the Hebrew, generally followed in translations into English, which gives ‘sin’. Perhaps the distinction between singular and plural is insignificant, but it prompts a couple of reflections.

Firstly, what is the appropriate way to approach the text of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible?) Of course, the Greek version generally adhered to in the Christian East is a translation that came late in the day (although it is pre-Christian), but the age of the manuscripts which transmit it and its copious quotation in early Christian texts give its readings impressive antiquity, in the face of the ‘Hebraica veritas’ that Jerome and much subsequent Christian (especially Protestant) scholarship takes as being self-evidently superior. (There is also the question as to whether the form in which the Jewish scriptures were quoted by Christ and the Apostles has an implicit authority; it could be argued that in following this version, that constitutes the form in which they knew the Bible as it was then extant, the Orthodox church aligns itself with its founders.) A similar question arises at Psalm 95(96): 10. In the Hebrew the psalm speaks of God reigning, but in the Septuagint of his reigning ‘from the tree’, which Christian authors (including Justin Martyr and Augustine) interpreted as referring to the Crucifixion. In this guise it underpins some words in a famous Good Friday hymn by Venantius Fortunatus. Are we to take the wording in the Septuagint as a change later shamelessly made by Christians to make it seem to refer to the crucifixion, or does the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible reflect an excision Jewish scholars deliberately made to the text to remove such an apparent reference?

There is also the question of whether the difference between ‘sins’ and ‘sin’ has any broader significance. Perhaps it does.  The former reading, normative among Eastern Christians, suggests that  the psalmist thought of himself as having been conceived by a mother who committed various sins. This may seem pretty grim, but it is surely less so than thinking of her as having been guilty of sin in the singular. Such an understanding feeds easily into thinking of the act of sex as being inherently sinful, and ‘original’ sin as being contracted by the physical ‘origin’ each one of us has. Perhaps too there lurks in the background a sense of a mother being stuck in a world in which sin could be taken as standing at the very centre of human existence. Again, this would seem to edge towards a western rather than eastern understanding.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *