amen amen, fiat fiat: theological, liturgical, bureaucratic

Mary nursing Jesus, fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla

The Hebrew word amen, which has the same Hebrew root as the word believe, was in the ancient world translated and transliterated into Greek and Latin.  The Greek translation and transliteration of amen occurred before the Greek New Testament.  The Latin translation and transliteration of amen occurred after the Greek New Testament.  Nonetheless, about five centuries after the New Testament, Christians writing in both Greek and Latin had developed liturgical phrases with amen both translated and transliterated.  The translated-transliterated amen pair probably was a means for multilingual liturgical accessibility.  It could have reflected theological interpretation of the New Testament, but contextual usage wasn’t high theological.  In any case, transliterated-translated amen became in Latin phrases like “amen, amen, fiat, fiat”  bureaucratic boilerplate.

Within Hebrew scripture, amen can be understood as a concluding emphatic “so be it.”   When Hebrew scripture began being translated into Greek in the early-to-mid third century BGC, amen was translated into Greek with Greek words meaning “so be it.”  Later translations of Hebrew scripture into Greek, but before the Greek New Testament, transliterated amen.  Transliterating amen plausibly became the favored Greek form as Greek-speaking Jews became more educated in Hebrew scripture.  The Greek New Testament uniformly uses amen transliterated into Greek.  The Vulgate uniformly use amen transliterated into Latin.[1]

Christian theological understanding supported recovery of the translated form of amen.  In Luke 1:38, Mary says to the Angel Gabriel, “Let it be done with me according to your word.”  Mary’s affirmation is a world-changing statement from a Christian perspective.  It opened the path for the incarnation of Christ in Mary’s womb.  In the Greek New Testament, Mary’s phrase “let it be done” was essentially the early Jewish translation of amen from Hebrew into Greek.  Mary’s “let in be done” in Latin was fiat, which became the Latin translation of amen.   This can be understood as more than just an obscure technical matter.  A papal encyclical in 2003 observed, “there is a profound analogy between the Fiat which Mary said in reply to the angel, and the Amen which every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord.”[2]

Early use of a translated-transliterated amen pair apparently was liturgical, but not profoundly reverential.  Christian inscriptions from about fifth-century Athens include Greek translated-transliterated amen pairs in contexts of broad Christian cultural elaboration.  The two surviving pairs have opposite order of the translated and transliterated words.  If the pairing of amen forms early on had been perceived to have profound theological significance, the order probably would have been fixed.  Moreover, the Hebrew transliteration probably would have been first in a significantly fixed order.

Latin use of translated-transliterated amen was free and superficial.  The great synod held in Africa (Carthage) in 418 apparently used the phrase “amen, amen, fiat, fiat” in the context of condemning shameful activity.[3]  A ninth-century book uses the same phrase in a book curse, as does a tenth-century excommunication.[4]  An “amen, fiat, fiat, fiat” occurs in an eleventh-century prayer book describing a prayer for the adoration of the cross.[5]  A transliterated-translated triple amen (amen, amen, amen, fiat, fiat, fiat) occurs in an eleventh-century prayer to control a fever.[6]  The thirteenth-century Old French Romance of the Rose used “amen, amen, fiat, fiat” in a humorous context involving barons affirming a ridiculous sermon.[7]  By the sixteenth century, Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel mocked the phrase with the exclamation:

amen, amen, fiat, fiatur, ad differentiam papae  {amen, amen, do this, does that, to be different from papal bulls} [8]

What probably originated as a means for making Christian liturgy more widely accessible had become bureaucratic boilerplate.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a young woman from a small town.  She wasn’t a bureaucrat.  Her fiat doesn’t belong in bureaucratic boilerplate.

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[1] Here’s a table of representations of amen in translations of Hebrew scripture.  The Hebrew Book of Numbers is part of the Pentateuch, and thus was probably among the first Hebrew scripture translated into Greek.  Amen in Numbers 5:22 was translated into Greek.  Nehemiah, in contrast, was probably relatively late in being translated into Greek.  Amen in Nehemiah 5:13 and 8:6 is transliterated into Greek.  St. Augustine used a transliterated Latin amen in his Sermon 58.

[2] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia De Eucharistia (2003), section 55.  Here’s a Christian theological reflection on amen.

[3]  A twelfth-century manuscript of canons attributed to Polycarp includes Polyc. 3.11.5, “Ex conc. Africano. Peruenit ad nos fama sinistra — Amen, amen. Fiat, fiat.”  Motta (1983) p. 243.

[4] Book curse in a Sacramentary in St. Benoil-sur-Loire, attributed to the ninth century.  See The British Magazine, Aug. 1, 1836, “The Dark Ages,” p. 127.  A book curse used in a thirteenth-century Middle-English manuscript of Ancrene Wisse (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 402) uses the form “Amen, fiat (thrice). Amen.”   For an excommunication example, see William Robertson. 1769.  The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles, v. 1, p. 330 (excommunication text from 988 GC).  An excommunication text in the 12th-century Textus Roffensis uses the phrase, “amen, fiat, fiat, amen.” See John Johnson (1847), The Theological Works, p. 250, note.

[5] Boynton (2007) p. 930, text of Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Rossi 205, Fols. 93r-96r (11th century Psalter from Subiaco).

[6] Franceschini (1952) p. 183.

[7] Dahlberg (1995) p. 338 (l. 20694).  The Romance of the Rose was the center of a largely unnoticed querelle about the literary treatment of men.   The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester for A.D. 1112 records a council of bishops, including the Pope, together exclaiming, “Amen, Amen! Fiat, Fiat!”   H.G. Bohn (1854), The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, p. 224.

[8] Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Bk. 3, Ch. 14.

[image] Mary, the mother of Jesus, nursing Jesus.  The man, interpreted as Isaiah or Balaam, seems to be gesturing to a celestial sign of Jesus’s birth.  Fresco in the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome.  Probably early third century.  Thanks to Wikipedia.


Boynton, Susan. 2007. “Prayer as Liturgical Performance in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Monastic Psalters.” Speculum. 82 (04): 896-931.

Dahlberg, Charles, trans. 1995.  Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. 3rd ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Franceschini, E. 1952.  “Miscellanea.” Aevum.  26 (2): 180-183.

Motta, Giuseppe. 1983. “Nuove identificazioni nella collezione canonica detta ‘Polycarpus.'” Aevum. 57 (2): 232-244.

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