Angels We Have Heard on High
DESCRIPTION: "Angels we have heard on high Sweetly singing o'er the plains...." The shepherds are asked why they rejoice. They say to come to Bethlehem to find out
EARLIEST DATE: 1862 (according to Morgan); French version reported to have been published 1855 in _Nouveau recueil de cantiques_
KEYWORDS: Christmas religious nonballad
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Fireside, p. 234, "Angels We Have Hear on High" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 378, "Angels We Have Heard On High" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Robert J. Morgan, _Then Sings My Soul, Book 2: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories_, Nelson, 2004, pp. 92-93, "Angels We Have Heard on High" (1 text, 1 tune)
NOTES [1158 words]: Morgan says that this is derived from a French carol from the 1700s, "Les Anges dans nos Campagnes," with an English translation published 1862. There was apparently another translation, "Harken All! What Holy Singing!"
Morgan also declares that "Hymns are usually authored by human beings us, but in this case... [the] refrain was literally composed by angels in heaven: Gloria, in excelsis deo. That's the Latin wording for the angelic anthem, 'Glory to God in the highest!' It comes from Luke 2:14 in the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible."
This, unfortunately, is wrong in several regards. It is not, of course, the text of what the angels sang, even if you believe in the literal truth of Luke 2; the shepherds would not have understood Latin. Presumably the angels sang in Aramaic, or if not, then Hebrew or Greek.
The refrain is indeed from Luke 2:14, but the text cited is not from the Vulgate, and the Vulgate is not the only Latin version of the New Testament. The Vulgate is (or was until the late twentieth century) the official Catholic version of the Bible, but it was not the earliest translation into Latin.
"Before the time of S[aint] Jerome [who translated the Vulgate], and dating from an unknown but certainly very early period, there existed Latin translations of almost all parts of the Old and New Testaments. The Latinity is strange and uncouth, often presenting unusual forms of words and expressions.... The origins of these translations is veiled in obscurity" (Hammond, p. 56).
About a hundred manuscripts of these Old Latin texts are known, all different; Metzger, pp. 296-302, catalogs 43 of these for the Gospels alone (although many of these are primarily editions of the Vulgate with a few Old Latin readings, or are mere fragments). The relationship of the copies is entirely uncertain, but the are often grouped into three very loose families, the African, the European, and the Itala, which is often considered a polished-up form of the European (Hammond, p. 58).
"By the end of the fourth century there was so much variation in the existing texts, that a formal revision seemed necessary, and S[aint] Jerome was requested by Pope Damasus to undertake the task" (Hammond, p. 59). Jerome spent decades on the task, although most of his time was devoted to the Old Testament; he did a cursory job on the Gospels, an even more quick-and-dirty revision of the rest of the New Testament, then started on the Hebrew Bible. Damasus commissioned him in 383 (Metzger, p. 333), and he finished his work on the Gospels in the next year.
Jerome's work, now known as the Vulgate although it would simply have been known as Jerome's Revision at the time, was not a new translation of the Greek; rather, he was asked to revise the Old Latin on the basis of the Greek, retaining the traditional Latin as far as the Greek text allowed (this was quite similar to what the editors of the English Revised Version would do, a millennium and a half later, when they updated the King James Bible).
The details of what Jerome did are vigorously debated by New Testament textual critics (see Metzger, pp. 352-359). Most of the students of his revision, unfortunately, used absolutely abominable methodology, but fortunately their results need not detain us. What we can say is that there are thousands of manuscripts of the Vulgate gospels, and many printed editions. Three of the latter are of significance: The Clementine Vulgate of 1592, which became the official Bible of the Catholic Church for about 400 years (Metzger, p. 349), and the critical editions of Wordsworth/White and the Stuttgart team, both of which attempted to reconstruct Jerome's original edition.
None of these three editions gives the text of Luke 2:14 as "gloria in excelsis deo." All three -- including, note, the Clementine, which was the official Bible of French Catholics -- read "gloria in altissimis deo." There is universal agreement that this is the Jerome's original reading, although there are manuscripts which have "excelsis" rather that "altissimis."
The two readings are effectively identical in meaning. FreundEtAl, p. 99, gives the meaning of "altissimis" as a superlative of a word meaning something like "high, sublime, sounding from on high"; it is a rare, rather poetic word. "Excelsis," according to FreundEtAl, p. 675, is the superlative of a word meaning "elevated, so "most elevated, highest, loftiest." Thus the meaning is not altered.
But why the change? Why do some Vulgate manuscripts read "excelsis"? The two words are synonyms, but "excelsis" is the more common word and also gives the feeling of "excellence." Probably a few scribes preferred the more familiar word; probably, also, some of them mixed up their Old Latin and Vulgate texts (this happened a lot).
Jerome, I suspect, derived the word "altissimis" from one of his Latin sources; of the most important Old Latin manuscripts, the noteworthy codices Veronensis (fourth or fifth century) and Corbiensis II (fifth century) have "altissimis" -- but the other most important manuscript, codex Vercellensis (fourth century) has "excelsis." So do a number of manuscripts of the Itala (Brixianus, sixth century; Monacensis, sixth century; Aureus, seventh century).
And, as mentioned, a number of Vulgate manuscripts also read "excelsis." The two best Vulgate manuscripts, Amiatinus and Fuldensis, have "altissimis," as does the great Spanish codex Cavensis and the Lindisfarne Gospels, but among others the famous Book of Armagh, the codex Oxoniensis, the Epternach Gospels, the Lichfield Gospels, and the Hereford Codex read "excelsis." It is interesting that many of these manuscripts are of British Isles origin (although the reading "altissimis" was certainly known in northern England, since both Amiatinus and Lindisfarne were written in Northumbria).
According to Hopkins-James, p. 170, the reading "excelsis" was known to Irenaeus (late second century) and to Augustine (late fourth and early fifth century), and was also found in "liturgical" use. Thus it is not likely that the phrasing in the carol derives directly from the Bible (whether Vulgate or not); rather, it derives from the Catholic liturgy, which in turn probably had it from the Old Latin. It is a perfectly good translation of the Greek, which may or may not have been an accurate translation of the Aramaic, which may or may not have been accurately remembered over the eighty-plus years between the birth of Jesus and the composition of Luke's gospel. But since the original was in Aramaic, it is a corruption of a translation of a translation -- which, in my book, is hardly "what the angels sang."
Having said all that, McKim, pp. 33-34, says that the earliest traceable version of the French tex is from Nouvea recuel de cantiques, from 1855, although the words are probably earlier. The translation into English is by James Chadwick (1813-1882). The origin of the tune is also unknown. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.0
- FreundEtAl, A New Latin Dictionary, "Founded on the Translation of Freund's Latin-German Lexicon Edited by E. A. Andrews... Revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short," Harper & Brothers, 1886
- Hammond: C. E. Hammond, Outlines of Textual Criticiam Applied to the New Testament, sixth edition, 1902
- Hopkins-James: Lemuel J. Hopkins-James, The Celtic Gospels: Their Story and Their Text, Oxford, 1934 (I use the 2001 Oxford reissue)
- McKim: LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993
- Metzger: Bruce M. Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations, Oxford, 1977
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