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  • The Varieties of Pity
  • David Konstan

If the quarrel over whether emotions are innate and universal or culturally constructed and subject to historical change has now been superseded, it is in large part thanks to meticulous investigations into how specific emotions are construed in different social contexts. Françoise Mirguet’s study of ἔλεος in two Hellenistic Jewish texts is a model of what can be achieved in this regard.

Human beings everywhere are capable of responding emotionally to the suffering of others—in this respect we may speak of a common or fundamental human sentiment, though it is not usually included in modern inventories of basic emotions—but such feelings are shaped by social life and beliefs and may assume quite varied forms. Sometimes such differences are reflected in distinctions of vocabulary. For example, in the semantic sphere that we may loosely define as sorrow for a past action, modern English distinguishes between regret, remorse, and repentance, whereas in classical Greek or Latin all these senses, as well as a simple change of mind, may be expressed by the single term μετάνοια or paenitentia. The difference in terminology is significant and reflects a particular conjunction of moral and religious ideas, but this is not to say that the Greeks and Romans were incapable of making the relevant discriminations: just what μετάνοια or paenitentia may connote depends on the wider context, and philological rigor is required to determine whether, for example, the words acquired radically new meanings over the course of time or under the pressure of Jewish and Christian conceptions (which may themselves have evolved historically).

The question has an important bearing on our understanding of Jesus’ mission in the NT, for in recent translations of the Bible, μετάνοια is sometimes rendered as “conversion” (that is, a change of heart) rather than as “repentance.” To take just a few examples, whereas the Spanish Nueva Versión Internacional renders Luke 3:3 as “Juan recorría toda la región del Jordán predicando el bautismo de arrepentimiento para el perdón de pecados,” and La Biblia de las Américas offers “él fue por toda la región contigua al Jordán, predicando un bautismo de arrepentimiento para el perdón de los pecados,” the La Palabra version reads, “Comenzó Juan a [End Page 869] recorrer las tierras ribereñas del Jordán proclamando un bautismo como signo de conversión para recibir el perdón de los pecados,” and the Traducción en Lenguaje Actual gives “Juan fue entonces a la región cercana al río Jordán. Allí le decía a la gente: ‘¡Bautícense y vuélvanse a Dios! Sólo así Dios los perdonará.’ ” The Italian Nuova Riveduta 2006 opts for “repentance”: “Ed egli andò per tutta la regione intorno al Giordano, predicando un battesimo di ravvedimento per il perdono dei peccati”; however, the Conferenza Episcopale Italiana version gives “Ed egli percorse tutta la regione del Giordano, predicando un battesimo di conversione per il perdono dei peccati.” Luther rendered the verses as “Und er kam in alle Gegend um den Jordan und predigte die Taufe der Buße zur Vergebung Sünden,” that is, “penance”, but the Gute Nachricht Bibel has “Da machte er sich auf, durchzog die ganze Gegend am Jordan und verkündete: ‘Kehrt um und lasst euch taufen, denn Gott will euch eure Schuld vergeben!’” In Lothar Coenen and Klaus Haacker’s Theologisches Begriffslexikon zum Neuen Testament (Wuppertal: Brockhaus, 1967), there is a joint entry under the lemma “Busse/Bekehrung,” as also in Xavier LéonDuFour’s Wörterbuch zur biblischen Botschaft (Freiburg: Herder, 1967) (“BusseBekehrung”), which only highlights the nature of the problem.

When it comes to our responses to the misfortunes of others, English today distinguishes between pity, sympathy, and empathy. There is also the related notion of mercy, which shades over into the ideas of clemency and pardon, or even forgiveness, terms that imply sensitivity to another person’s condition but place the emphasis more on leniency in response to an offense rather than to adversity per se. There is no ancient Greek or Latin word that quite corresponds to “mercy”: the term that is commonly rendered as such in translations...


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