Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Vulgate Verse: What is truth?

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

Earlier this month I posted about some famous words spoken by Pilate, Ecce homo. Today I'd like to mention another famous phrase from the meeting of Jesus and Pilate, "What is truth?" Here is their dialogue as reported in John 18:
Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then?
Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.
Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?
In Latin, the words of Pilate are Quid est veritas?

These words take on a special quality in Latin, because they are actually an anagram. If you re-arrange the letters you obtain the following sentence: Est vir qui adest, "It is the man who is here."

Now, I don't know about you, but I find anagrams to have a magical, compelling power. With his novel The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown exploited the mysterious power of anagrams to great effect.

How much more powerful here, where the original question contains its own answer! It works in Latin, of course. In English, "What is truth?" doesn't yield the same answer. The wonderful WordSmith Anagram Server yields 392 phrases in English, most of them nonsense. Of the ones that are not nonsense, they are still not answers to the question that Pilate has asked, "What is truth?" "Hat with ruts" is not much of an answer, nor is "Art with huts" or "Art with tush."

So, for the magic of the anagram, which is more than just the rearrangement of letters, but the rearranging of letters into what appears to be a secret message, the prize this time goes to Latin. Quid est veritas? Est vir qui adest.

If you are interested in more wonderful examples of anagrams, check out the wikipedia article. Meanwhile, here is a picture of Jesus before Pilate, by Duccio di Buoninsegna:



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