Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vulgate Verse: stella matutina, morning star

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

In my previous post about a verse from the Vulgate, I commented on the use of the symbolism "alpha et omega" in order to describe God. For this post, I thought I would write about a symbol that is much more confusing and controversial within the Christian tradition: the morning star, Latin stella matutina.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus declares: ego sum radix et genus David stella splendida et matutina, "I am the root and tribe of David; (I am) the bright and morning star." (The Greek reads: ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ῥίζα καὶ τὸ γένος δαυίδ, ὁ ἀστὴρ ὁ λαμπρὸς ὁ πρωϊνός.) This imagery fits in perfectly with the symbolism of divinity as light, with the annunciation of Jesus's birth accompanied by a star, etc.

Yet if you look at a similar image in 2 Peter, you can see the problem that arises: donec dies inlucescat et lucifer oriatur in cordibus vestris, "until the day becomes light and the morning star (Latin, lucifer) rises in your hearts." (Greek: ἕως οὖ ἡμέρα διαυγάσῃ καὶ φωσφόρος ἀνατείλῃ ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν).

The problem is the Latin word lucifer, which is indeed where the name "Lucifer" comes from. In Latin, the word lucifer means "light-bringer" (luci-fer, a calque of the Greek φωσ-φόρος), and it refers to the morning star, or the planet Venus.

As you can see from the stella matutina in Revelation and the lucifer in 2 Peter, the early Latin-speaking Christians had no hesitation in labeling Jesus as the "morning star" and using the Latin term lucifer in a positive way. Yet the term lucifer also came to be closely associated with a passage in Isaiah which seems to hint at the story of a fallen angel, although Isaiah is actually writing, metaphorically, in reference to the king of Babylon: Quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer qui mane oriebaris corruisti in terram qui vulnerabas gentes, "how you have fallen from the sky (heaven), lucifer, who arose in the morning! how have you fallen to the earth, you who wounded the peoples!" (Here the Greek reads ἑωσφόρος, "dawn-bringer," compared to "light-bringer," φωσφόρος, in the passage from 2 Peter; the Hebrew word is helel, from a root meaning "to shine").

Over time, in the Christian tradition the word Lucifer became more and more strictly identified with Satan, so that it seems a bit of a shock to see the word used in 2 Peter to refer to Jesus. As the Catholic Encycopedia maintains, "The Fathers [of the Church] maintain that Lucifer is not the proper name of the devil, but denotes only the state from which he has fallen." Still, for all that there is a theological way to manage this linguistic state of affairs, I would be very surprised to find an English translation of 2 Peter that uses the word "Lucifer" for the Latin lucifer in that passage.

I was prompted to comment on this verse today because of the recent controversy among the Republican presidential candidates, with Mike Huckabee attempting to work people into a lather about Romney, as a Mormon, believing Jesus and Lucifer to both be the offspring of God. For a clear discussion on this specific topic from the Mormon point of view, here is a page at the Church of Latter Day Saints website. For all that Huckabee seems to have wanted to get a rise out Christians by invoking this Mormon tradition, the early Christian tradition also saw both Jesus as "Lucifer," the morning star, stella matutina, the light-bearer, lucifer.

Meanwhile, here is a picture from a CalTech "Ask An Astronomer" webpage answering the astronomy question, Why is Venus so bright in the night sky? You can see from the image what a strikingly bright light in the sky the "morning star" provides!



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