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Defilement or corruption?

13 September 2010

There is a hymn that we sing quite frequently:

More honourable than the Cherubim
And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim
Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word
True Theotokos we magnify you.

Recently our choir has begun to sing “without corruption you gave birth to God the Word”, which seems decidedly odd.

The change was not explained at all, and apparently the parish priest was not consulted about it, but I gather that similar changes have taken place in a number of parishes.

My wife was rather disturbed by it, and wrote

I need to know why we have suddenly changed the words to the Magnificat which we have been singing for the past 25+ years and inserted “corruptiion” instead of “defilement” – when it is simply wrong English?I thought I might be wrong in my concerns so I first went to the dictionary. There is simply no way that “corruption” can be used in any terms relating to Virginity.

But I was still worried whether there was a different meaning so I wrote to Bridget to check what the Greek acutally said. I took a couple of weeks before I brought it up with her on the phone but she said that although the word could be translated either way the correct English translation was “defilement”.

I also discussed it with the rest of the family, as I could see that “corruption” might be used if we were singing about her Dormition but not when we are singing about her Virginity, and the thing that Simon said (which was not something from the dictionaries) which only reinforced my feeling, was that Corruption is something which comes from within but defilement comes from without.

Last week I spoke to Father, after the Liturgy, as I thought that if we were making changes in what we do and sing in the Liturgy it would have been agreed with him as our priest first. But he said that he did not know where it had sprung up from and was also concerned, but that as English was not his first language he was not sure about it

As far as I can see, in that context “defilement” makes sense, but “corruption” does not.

I had a look at the Greek text, but I’m not a fundi in Greek, so I can’t really be sure, but it seemed to me that the only way in which “corruption” could make sense in that context would be if it were translated “you gave birth to God the incorrupt Word” — in other words, the “without corruption” applies to the Word. In English that does make sense, because a corrupt text is one to which unauthorised alterations have been made — words have been changed or altered.

But in the phrase “without corruption you gave birth to God the Word” the term “without corruption” applies to the “giving birth” rather than to the “Word”, and in that context it makes no sense at all, while “defilement” does make sense.

But it seems that quite a lot of people in our parish now believe that the text of the hymn has been corrupted, and find it quite disturbing.

It reminds me of meeting Graham Leonard, the late Anglican bishop of Truro (who later became Bishop of London, and then joined the Roman Catholic Church). He told us that in an ecumenical meeting with the Copts they were very concerned because of a proposal to print their liturgical texts. They feared that errors would creep in if they did so. Bishop Leonard said that in Western thought the printed text was seen as sacrosanct, and as reassuringly reliable, whereas the Copts regarded oral tradition as more reliable, and printed texts as liable to corruption.

And they were quite right to fear it. When the Copts began holding English services in South Africa about 20 years ago I saw their printed edition of the Liturgy of St Basil, and a more corrupt text I have not seen. It was written in very bad English, full of grammatical and spelling errors.

We have had some liturgical texts translated into local languages like North Sotho and Zulu, and we have printed parallel editions with English in one comumn and the other language in the other. Even the most careful proof-reading did not pick up some errors that stick out like a sore thumb when you try to sing them.

But in our parish, it appears, the oral tradition is quite strong, and people have been singing their theology for 25 years, and when you sing your theology, you notice changes to it more than if the changes just take place in academic theological texts that are only read by other academic theologians. So “corruption” sticks out like a sore thumb. Has our theology been wrong for the last 25 years?

One of the problems is, of course, that there are anything from a dozen to a hundred translations of Orthodox liturgical texts into English, some good, most bad, and some atrocious. We use the translations that originated with St Tikhon’s Monastery in the USA, and most native English speakers I know seem to like those best. I certainly do. There may be some weaknesses, but most of the other translations are far worse.

I’d be interested in hearing from people familiar with the Greek and Slavonic versions of the hymn, to know how they understand it. If the text we have been using for the last 25 years is corrupt, then we do indeed need to correct it, but as it is, a lot of people in our parish have the feeling that the text of the hymn has been defiled by the unexplained and inexplicable change.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 September 2010 9:52 am

    The corrupt English text the Copts produced, does not
    prove that oral tradition is better. Print and computers
    share a flaw, and frankly so does oral tradition.
    Garbage In, Garbage Out.

    The written corrupt text, was corrupt because the
    translation was corrupt at the oral level due to
    poor understanding of English, before it was put
    into writing. The writing was indeed a permanent,
    trustworthy and not corruptible record of someone’s
    inability to do a translation.

    Meanwhile, if you accept that only what your
    parents or locals or priest or whatever says is
    correct, and they happen to have made an error,
    you will continue that error even though this is

    Ever hear of the telephone message game? Several
    people in a row, whisper something into the first
    one’s ear, and he or she must repeat it inaudibly
    to the nearby others in the next one’s ear. By
    the time it gets to the end of the row of ten
    people, it is likely unrecognizeable.

    The Apostles didn’t rely on oral tradition of
    generations. They wrote down everything also, and
    left that record, in Greek when most people spoke
    Greek, as a stopgap against memory failure and
    deliberate modification.

    As for defilement from without, Jesus said that
    only what is within coming out defiles. I figured
    that either corruption or defilement referred to
    either the breaking of her hymen during childbirth,
    or to all the blood and mess during birth.

    some think that no blood flow or mess occurred,
    frankly I think that that is debatable. Even if
    Christ came out with the amniotic sac intact
    born with an entire caul, and the whole afterbirth
    and placenta coming with the birth, almost as if
    she’d laid an egg, there would still have been
    some mess on breaking the sac to get out.

    More likely, this refers to Christ being without
    any corruption like original sin (ancestral still
    points to an inherited condition that produces
    an acting out of its nature in sinful mental
    and verbal and physical actions of some degree,
    if it isn’t inherited why call it ancestral?)
    or it could refer to the virgin conception of

    • 13 September 2010 12:54 pm


      Yes, I played “broken telephone” in Psycho I, and we also also did an experiment in which an event was staged and people reported on what had happened, to show the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

      But I think it is slightly different when the message that is transmitted is important to the transmitters, and also if it is repeated many times and they’ve heard it every week for 20 years or more. The same thing happens with written texts. The Book of Enoch was “lost” for many years because it had ceased to be important to those who had transmitted it, and eventually was found only in an Ethiopic version.

    • Wei Hsien permalink
      18 September 2010 5:27 pm

      To continue this aside, I think there is ample evidence to support Steve’s statement about the transmission process from the work of Birger Gerhardsson and, more recently, Kenneth Bailey. Using the rabbinic literature, the former showed that the transmission of oral tradition in Judaism was a formal, highly-controlled process which involved rigorous and precise memorization. Bailey draws from his work with contemporary peoples in the Middle East to illustrate the regulatory role of the community in ensuring that oral traditions are faithfully passed on.

  2. 13 September 2010 10:14 am

    If you’ve noticed a change then someone must have changed it. You don’t make clear who has actually made the change but I would ask them why.

  3. ZWH permalink
    13 September 2010 1:00 pm

    I too wonder if there is any need to change defilement to corruption. Possibly I am still to immature in my spiritual development to realise whether it makes a difference… There must be an answer and I too would like to learn and obtain clarification

    This forum is possibly a way of discussing what is Liturgically appropriate. However I concur with Chris H Comments. “If you have noticed a change, then someone must have changed it” It is easy to find out and ask why – Please don’t feed on your worry and “wait a couple of weeks to ask Bridget” I am sure this is a matter that can be easily resolved within the parish and doesn’t need to be aired out on a public forum such as this. Before fingers are pointed (especially at the Parish priest) do research. “Ask and you will receive” There may be a simple explaination, but I am confident that if “defilement” is liturgically more correct I am convinced that it will be the end of “corruption”

    • 13 September 2010 6:39 pm

      The point of asking here is not to find out who made the change in a parish — as you say, that could poossibly be found eventually. But the main question is why. What theological reason, if any, is there fore the change?

  4. 13 September 2010 3:25 pm

    Corruption is indeed the correct translation of adiaphthora.

    Part of the problem is knowing what exactly is being referred to. Many folks assume that the “without _________” part refers to sinlessness. But it is actually a comparative term, comparing the Virgin’s birth-giving with the birth-giving of other women. So what is it about hers that’s different?

    Saying that other women’s birth-giving is “defiled” is quite wrong. The marriage bed and what results from it is explicitly “undefiled” (amiantos in Heb. 13:4). Another translation (popular in my own Archdiocese) is without stain. Again, that is wrong. Birth-giving for most women is not “stained.” (This translation actually arises from an Arabic issue: The term for “corruption” in Arabic is a “naughty” word these days, so the word for “stain” came to be substituted and then later translated that way into English.)

    Adiaphthora (“corruption”) has nothing at all to do with immorality, defilement, stain, etc. It refers instead to physical and spiritual corruption, the tendency of the fallen world to break apart and be subject to what in science is called “entropy.” The Virgin’s birth-giving had none of this. As affirmed in many of our patristic and liturgical texts, it was painless, and she “remained a virgin” (in every way, including physically) afterward.

    At the heart of this is really what we understand salvation to be—is it mainly to do with guilt, or does it have a much broader sense of restoration and healing? In Orthodoxy, it is the latter, and so it only makes sense that the birth-giving of the Theotokos should be truly perfect, not only in a moral sense, but even in terms of the basic bodily reality of giving birth.

    • 13 September 2010 6:41 pm

      A correction to my post: Adiaphthora is “without corruption” (not “corruption)”.

    • 13 September 2010 6:42 pm

      Thanks very much for that! What is the Arabic word that is used (transliterated)?

      Any comments on the Slavonic text?

  5. 13 September 2010 6:52 pm

    Just as a further comment: “Defilement” could easily be read in a heretical way, specifically in terms of Latin theology. The suggestion here is that, if most birth-giving is “defiled,” then there must be something about the sexual act itself which is defiling. This idea is, of course, a major strain in Latin theology (leading to such dogmas as the Immaculate Conception and practices such as mandated clerical celibacy).

    “Defilement” seems to be more characteristic of English translations from Slavonic. I don’t know the Slavonic term or whether it has any meaning other than adiaphthora, but such a translation may well at least be reminiscent of the long struggle that Russian theology has had with the incursion of Latin modes of theology.

    As you may know, I went to seminary at St. Tikhon’s. I recall one public meeting while I was there in which a student (who is now a Ph.D. candidate in Classics and an able translator from Byzantine Greek) asked why (with the understandable exception of places where the Slavonic’s total content was notably different from the Greek) Slavonic was being used for all liturgical translations rather than Greek. The main translator was standing there at the time, and the question was left unanswered. Many of us knew at least some of the answer (aside from some rather bald anti-Hellenic sentiment): the translator didn’t even know Greek.

    (In answer to your other question, I don’t know the relevant Arabic words offhand, either.)

    • 14 September 2010 5:16 am

      Thank you, Father Andrew, for your comments.

      I agree with the theology behind them, but I’m still not sure if that theology is conveyed any better by “corrupttion” than by “defilement”.

      “Corruption” has just as much association with sinfulness as “defilement”, since the primary meaning is of an official who takes bribes. If it means that Mary did not have to be bribed to bear Jesus, that is quite true, but by analogy with what you said about “defilement”, it would imply that all other women somehow had to be bribed to give birth.

      We had a cat that became pregnant, and then went into labour, but no kittens appeared. Eventually we took her to the vet, who gave her a Caesarian, and said that the kittens had all died, and were going rotten inside her.

      And that is the image that comes to my mind when we sing “without corruption” — it is of a rotting corpse, and implies that all other women give birth to rotting corpses.

      I don’t think of “defilement” in terms of a stain. I know of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and that “macula” means stain. Though that has to do with the conception, rather than the birth, and of the Theotokos rather than of Christ, it still raises questions for the Orthodox, who don’t accept the maculate conception of the rest of us.

      The way I have understood “defilement” in the hymn is that we are born into a world that lies in the power of the evil one (I John 1:19), and those we are all citizens by birth of the Kingdom of Satan, which is why we are exorcised before being baptised. We are “defiled” by being born into a sinful world — much as you explained about entropy etc.

      • 14 September 2010 12:52 pm

        I’m not sure what you mean by “primary meaning.” The first usage of corruption in English (ca. 1340) referred to decay, not to bribery, and both corrupt and incorrupt have ample usage in Orthodox English translations to refer to decay, whether physical or spiritual. There is also a long history in English of corrupt referring to disease, as well. Is not the tendency to decay and disease precisely what we are trying to convey?

        Indeed, if we were to accept defilement as the standard, we’d find ourselves speaking of the “undefiled relics” of saints, which doesn’t convey their lack of decay but rather sounds as though they haven’t been desecrated!

        In any event, we are not born “defiled.” We are born corrupt, i.e., decaying. A rotting corpse is only the most extreme form of physical corruption.

  6. 14 September 2010 2:03 am

    I was interested in my response to your post when I read it fleetingly in my reader this morning. While I’m nowhere near qualified to comment on the translation issues, my reaction was the opposite of yours in that I am used to “corruption” (not that I’m that used to the liturgical texts in English, but that one has stuck in my head, melody and everything). And “defilement” seemed so, well, not quite right – it was somehow an impoverishment. I knew that I would have to think a lot more to articulate that, but reading Fr Andrew’s comments now I see that he explains what I was grasping at.

    I am reminded of a text from Saint Ignatius of Antioch where he writes:

    “Mary’s virginity was hidden from the prince of this world; so was her child-bearing, and so was the death of the Lord. All these three trumpet-tongued secrets were brought to pass in the deep silence of God. How then were they made known to the world? Up in the heavens a star gleamed out, more brilliant than all the rest; no words could describe its lustre, and the strangeness of it left people bewildered. The other stars and the sun and moon gathered round it in chorus, but this star outshone them all. Great was the ensuing perplexity; where could this newcomer have come from, so unlike its fellows? Everywhere magic crumbled away before it; the spells of sorcery were all broken, and superstition received its death-blow. The age-old empire of evil was overthrown, for God was now appearing in human form to bring in a new order, even life without end.” (Epistle to the Ephesians, 19)

    That’s not just a lack of defilement or stain, but something much more powerful! Or so it seems to me…

  7. 14 September 2010 7:24 am

    The more-or-less standard translation in American ROCOR parishes says, “who without corruption gavest birth to God the word,” and I’ve always understood “corruption” in that context to mean physical damage, marring, breaking — bluntly, loss of bodily virginity. I’ve heard a version that says “without defilement” instead, but it made me wonder: what’s defiling about giving birth normally? Defilement to me sounds like desecrating something holy — like vandalizing a grave, or dishonoring the Eucharist. Defilement is moral taint or uncleanness where purity was expected; I recall seeing it in the Axion Estin and wondering what kind of misogynistic or sexually repressed ideas the translator had.

    Caveat: I’m an American, so we may be separated by a common language :-\

    • Val hayes permalink
      14 September 2010 1:01 pm

      Hello Silouan,
      You have touched on what was my original problem – the fact is that in English – “Corruption”does not in any place in any dictionary I have looked at have any of those meanings you have listed. The only way in which it could be mangled into shape to fit is where it refers t0 “alteration” – but in all the dictionaries it is very specific that this refers to Text. It does not refer to chastity or virginity at all. Whereas “defilement” refers to the loss of virginity and/or chastity. Maybe it is something in America which is different from English.
      The translation we have been using for the past 26 years is that produced by St Tikhon’s, is the best English version we have encountered, and unless things have altered over the past about 5 years is the standard version used in the OCA. The following are just one of each of the references I checked but all of them were basically the same.


      kuh-ruhp-shuh n] –noun
      1. the act of corrupting or state of being corrupt.
      2. moral perversion; depravity.
      3. perversion of integrity.
      4. corrupt or dishonest proceedings.
      5. bribery.
      6. debasement or alteration, as of language or a text.
      7. a debased form of a word.
      8. putrefactive decay; rottenness.
      9. any corrupting influence or agency.



      Show IPA
      –verb (used with object),-filed, -fil·ing.
      1. to make foul, dirty, or unclean; pollute; taint; debase.
      2. to violate the chastity of.
      3. to make impure for ceremonial use; desecrate.
      4. to sully, as a person’s reputation.

      1 dih-fahyl]

  8. 14 September 2010 2:17 pm

    Someone else sent me this:

    To add to your discussion and answer one of your questions, the
    Slavonic word is bezistlenija, which can be broken down into a few
    parts. Bez = without. lenije = a process of change in being. Ist =
    pure or true. So, basically, it would mean something without changing
    being pure, without having changed purity. And purity can be defined
    many ways. She wasn’t changed in who she was, and remained pure.

  9. 14 September 2010 4:19 pm

    As another data point: The standard translation used by the Greek Archdiocese of America (which, just for scale, accounts for more than 50% of all Orthodox in the U.S.) translates adiaphthora as “without corruption.” It’s also what’s in the Antiochian Liturgikon, though “without stain” is in the older translations.

    • 19 September 2010 4:28 am

      I’ve seen the translations used by the Greek Archdiocese of America, which are used in some parishes here, and I’m not sure that they are a good recommendation. In many places the English seems to be poor, and their version of the Symbol of Faith, with “for us and our salvation” is definitely not “without corruption”!

  10. 14 September 2010 4:44 pm

    As yet another data point: I’m fairly sure that “without defilement” in English has its origins in the translation of Isabel Hapgood, who translated Slavonic liturgical materials into English in the early 20th century.

    Her work was certainly groundbreaking in many ways, but it has a lot of problems, many of them owing to her not being an Orthodox Christian (she was a rather snooty Episcopalian who thought that touring show choirs were more important for Orthodox Americans than mission parishes). Her work also has a strong tendency to use Western theological and liturgical terminology for numerous things they don’t quite match up to in Orthodoxy.

    • Val hayes permalink
      20 September 2010 3:15 pm

      Just a thought – for all her sins she may have been snooty – but she probably actually knew what the English words meant! I used to be the largest importer of Orthodox books in South Africa. Nothing was produced here in South African and most of the books came in from America. I did howver bring is a number of books from Greece, the only problem was that though the content was wonderful the English was awful. We draw the regular Sunday Matins services from the Greek Church in America and the translations there are only marginally better. It may be a large church but it does not mean that their English is good.

  11. Lucian permalink
    15 September 2010 12:31 am

    In Romanian it says ‘without corruption’. And since birth-giving does not defile, I fail to see your point. You may say that Christ’s conception was ‘without defilement’ (because she knew no man), but in the case of His birth, it makes more sense to say ‘without corruption’ than ‘without defilement’. — At least that’s the way I see it.

  12. Val hayes permalink
    15 September 2010 7:24 am

    I find it interesting that something which I brought up because it worried me has set all sorts of Theological discussions which seem to me to have be talking about dancing on pinheads. I am not a theologian, I am an accountant, a mother and for the past 36 years have been the wife of an Anglican priest who then became an Orthodox Deacon. I have been surrounded most of my life by theological discussion. My problem comes from what I am now being asked to sing.

    Since we first attended the Orthodox Church in 1985 we have used the translation of St Tikhon which is (was?) used by the OCA

    As an ordinary Orthodox Christian when I sing:

    More honourable than the Cherubim
    And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim
    Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word
    True Theotokos we magnify you.

    I am singing to the Theotokos, the Ever Virgin –

    More honourable than the Cherubim
    And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim
    Without losing your virginity you gave birth to God the Word
    True Theotokos we magnify you.

    I am saying in effect that in giving birth to God the Word she did not lose her virginity. That is how I understand it and that is what I am saying to Her. I am not talking to her about the status of Her Son’s birth or any other of the obscure points – however interesting.

    Now what I am being asked to say to her is:

    More honourable than the Cherubim
    And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim
    Without rotting and putrifaction and depravity you gave birth to God the Word
    True Theotokos we magnify you.

    and I simply cannot feel comfortable doing that.

    I do not care about the origins of who did what, even in the origins of who may have translated it. I asked what the Greek meant and was told that it could be translated equally easily b0th ways. Words always need to be translated in the context of the other text. If the Slavonic when added to the Greek says that it means – without / change / pure – then I continue to be happy with using the words “without defilement” and, as this whole thing is making me very unhappy, I have decided that whatever anyone else sings I will continue to use the best English I can with which to honour Her. I can continue to sing what I have always sung and try as hard as I can to ignore the choir.

    the unworthy child of God

  13. Wei Hsien permalink
    18 September 2010 5:54 pm

    Perhaps what we’re faced with here is the semantic polyvalence of adiaphthora. Though words are the form of tradition, they are nevertheless imperfect constructions subject to the limitations of any human language. As such, our understanding of adiaphthora, however it is translated, can be allowed to stretch beyond its strict lexical definition(s) so as to accommodate various meanings that are in harmony with the broader Orthodox tradition. Tradition, after all, is in the people and not, strictly speaking, the text.

    Rather than speak of a single, true meaning of any scriptural text, the rabbinic and patristic traditions tended to accept several interpretations, each of which “fit” the text to varying degrees. Might we have to do the same here?

    But of course, we should also investigate the use of adiaphthora in the Septuagint, New Testament and patristic literature. I’m just very far away from the needed resources for that task at the moment!

  14. 20 September 2010 6:42 am

    I don’t know if this is the last word on the topic, but it seems to me that the discussion so far has been inconclusive.

    Our daughter Bridget, who is studying theology in Greece, says that the Greek word can mean either without corruption or without defilement, and the most appropriate English word depends on the context. Lampe’s Patristic dictionary gives for adiaphthoros “incorrupt” (referring to Christ’s body) and “pure, undefiled” (referring to the Church.

    It also seems to be used in both senses in the New Testament, where both “incorrupt” and “undefiled” are used to translate it. It is translated as meaning “without defilement” in Revelation 14.4 and as “without corruption” in I Peter 1:4, for example.

    Several people have mentioned that their parishes changed from one to the other, but said nothing about the reason for the change.

    And last Sunday our parish choir seemed to hedge its bets, switching from one to the other.

    And it still seems to me that if, in the hymn, it refers to Christ’s body, then “incorrupt” is the better translation, but if it refers to the giving birth, then “without defilement” is better. But if it refers to Christ’s body, then it would be better to translate it as “you gave birth to God the incorrupt Word” rather than “without corruption you gave birth to God the word”.

    • 20 September 2010 5:46 pm

      So why is it appropriate to refer to most women’s birth-giving as “defiled”? (That goes directly against the words of Scripture, for one thing.)

      • 20 September 2010 7:08 pm

        Well, one might then ask why it is appropriate to refer to most women’s birth-giving as “corrupt”, which is far, far worse!

        But that is not the point.

        The point is that unmarried women who give birth are defiled, but the term “without defilement” indicates that the Theotokos was unchanged, before, during and after giving birth.

    • Wei Hsien permalink
      20 September 2010 6:21 pm

      Fr. Andrew, what words of Scripture do you have in mind?

      I think it is possible to propose an understanding of “defilement” during birth which is consistent with Scripture and thus orthodox. If we understand “defilement” as the ritual uncleanness associated with giving birth (Leviticus 12), then it can be said that labor “defiles”—but only in that qualified sense. As such, “without defilement” applied to the Theotokos could mean that she did not give birth in the usual manner of women, particularly with respect to the issue of blood and the physical integrity of her body (i.e. the preservation of her virginity). This interpretation has already been suggested above.

      Also, perhaps you all might be willing to considerthis explanation. It seems quite reasonable in light of the 6 uses of diaphthora in the NT, all of which occur in Acts and are used with reference to the physical decay of the body.

      • 20 September 2010 6:32 pm

        Heb. 13:4 is what I have in mind.

        Anyway, if all six uses of diaphthora in the NT refer to physical decay of the body, it seems to me that corruption is exactly the right translation. Defilement explicitly means that some evil has been done to something, i.e., sacrilege, desecration, violence, etc. (e.g., to defile an altar).

        Women are not “defiled” by being impregnated or by giving birth. Their corruption—the tendency for things to break apart—is, however, quite clearly shown.

        In any case, corruption is the standard for the highest quality English translations of liturgical material (e.g., Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Boston, the Liturgikon of Bp. Basil Essey). Many parishes are moving toward using that word precisely because it is correct and defilement is not. Women’s flesh is not defiled by giving birth. It is, however, corrupted.

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