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St. Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Mary "full of grace"
Question from Edward Pothier on 8/30/2001:

Fr. Echert,

In all of what I write below I most certainly am NOT denying the Roman Catholic doctine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which does not depend on the translation of the Lukan text as "full of grace". "Full of grace" type of translations are neither necessary nor sufficient for the Church's teaching on the Immaculate Conception (although they are certainly consistent with it).

There seems to be a little confusion about the phrase "full of grace" as used in the New Testament (including in your answer on 8/26 to "Biblical references to Mary" where the questioner's reference to St. Stephen also being "filled with grace" was taken by you to refer to a later part of the Stephen incident in Acts of the Apostles [Acts 7:55] when the questioner certainly was referring to Acts 6:8, see below.)

My summary of the "full of grace" passages follows. I am aware that you disagree with the first one.

(1) The familiar "full of grace" for Mary from Luke 1:28 is a questionable translation, although venerable through St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate. See below for more information on this question. (2) Jesus is described as "full of grace" in the Johannine prologue, (John 1:14) but this is not to be understood as a "title". (3) Stephen, one of the Seven [deacons], is also said to be "full of grace" in Acts 6:8 without any hint of sinlessness or divinity.

Now I will go into a little detail on each of these points.


In the Angelic Salutation to Mary as told in the Gospel of Luke there is a question of translation. The Revised NT of the NAB translates (with "him" being Gabriel and "her" being Mary): Luke 1:28 And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." Some older translations used "Hail, full of grace", known to Catholics from the familiar prayer.

The "Hail, favored one" is a translation of the New Testament Greek _Chaire kecharito:mene:_ (with the "o:" and "e:" being the transliteration of omega and eta sometimes used in computer writings). The _kecharito:mene:_ is indeed theologically significant in that it refers to Mary as being favored or graced by God, _charis_ being the Greek word for favor or grace. Grammatically it is a passive participle verbal form, and, as often in the Bible, implies God as the actual actor -- the one doing the "gracing" or "favoring".

The familiar-to-Catholics translation, i.e. "full of grace", is more an English translation of the Latin *interpretive* translation "gratia plena" from the Latin Vulgate rather than from Greek original language manuscripts. The "plena" can then be over-filled to absolute fullness. It is with this Latin translation and subsequent theological development of Marian understanding that the Immaculate Conception is proclaimed. It does seem to go beyond what Luke wrote in his Gospel.

Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, in his ANCHOR BIBLE commentary on the Gospel of Luke -- THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE I-IX (AB28, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), writes on this: "Beginning in patristic times, theological tradition understood _kecharito:mene:_ in a fuller sense, which does not contradict the Lucan pf. ptc., but which certainly goes beyond it. The translation of the ptc. in the Latin Vg. as _gratia plena_ heavily influenced the Western theological tradition about the fullness of Mary's grace and was mainly responsible for the understanding of the word in terms of _gratia gratum faciens_, or sanctifying grace."(page 346)


The magnificent prologue at the start of the Gospel according to John reaches a peak at verse 14 which reads: "John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, *full of grace* and truth."

The description, although not really a title, "full of grace" used here is _ple:re:s charitos_ in the Greek of the NT. This is quite different from the _kecharito:mene:_ of Luke 1:28. Nearly every English translation I know correctly translates this Johannine phrase as "full of grace".


Stephen, one of the Seven [deacons], chosen to assist in the distribution of goods to the Hellenist widows in the early Jerusalem Christian community is also described with the exact same _ple:re:s charitos_ phrase which the Johannine Prologue uses for Jesus. [See below for a mention of textual variants.]

The NAB translates: " Acts 6:8 Now Stephen, *filled with grace* and power, was working great wonders ...". English translations split on the translation here -- some use "filled with grace", others just "full of grace" the same as in John 1:14. Since the Greek is the same, this "full of grace" can certainly be justified (without hinting at an equality of Jesus and Stephen).

------- SUMMARY OF LATIN AND GREEK TEXTS SOMETIMES TRANSLATED AS "FULL OF GRACE" [with the "o:" and "e:" being the transliteration of omega and eta sometimes used in computer writings] Latin Vulg. Greek NT Luke 1:28 "gratia plena" _kecharito:mene:_ John 1:14 "plenum gratiae" _ple:re:s charitos_ Acts 6:8 "plenus gratia" _ple:re:s charitos_ As far as I know the Latin differences above are just grammatical and not significant.

[When I wrote above that the same Greek _ple:re:s charitos_ is used in Acts 6:8 for Stephen as in John 1:14 for Jesus, I am using the scholarly Greek NT text of the United Bible Societies (UBS4) and Nestle-Aland (NA27). The UBS text, which lists manuscript textual variants only on a limited number of variant places, shows nothing on Acts 6:8. The NA27 text shows the variants on many more places than UBS4. Although the NA27 gives the _ple:re:s charitos_ as the preferred reading, it does show in the variant apparatus that the so-called Majority text (mostly later Byzantine manuscripts) has Stephen being described here as _ple:re:s pisteo:s_, "full of faith", instead of "full of grace". Although many manuscripts have this reading here in Acts 6:8, it is probably by assimilation to the "full of faith" description of Stephen in Acts 6:5. The old King James Version, based on a Greek text similar to the Majority manuscripts, does translate Acts 6:8 having Stephen as "full of faith".]

Edward Pothier

Answer by Fr. John Echert on 8/30/2001:

Granting your grammatical analysis, the fact that the Holy Spirit continues to work in the Church to guide Her in the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures should lead us to accept the ancient tradition which translated the text of St. Luke as, “full of grace” rather than “highly favored” or some equivalent. The texts of Scripture should not be interpreted in isolation from the life of the Church, especially when a relevant dogma bears upon the subject. Such an approach assumes that there is only an original understanding and allows for no opportunity for a deepened understanding under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This approach was the failure of many of the Scribes of the time of Christ, who refused to understand the prophets and law beyond their own limited perception of meaning. As we know, many texts of the Old Testament have had subsequent applications and meaning, as is evident in the fact that they are quoted in connection with Christ. The Greek behind “full of grace” does not of itself prove the Immaculate Conception and neither would a similar Greek expression associated with another person, such as St. Stephen, demand that we say the same of him as to his conception. The Church teaches that Mary was conceived full of grace and while Stephen may have been full of grace at the time recounted in Acts, such was no doubt subsequent to his own baptism, wherein original sin was washed away and replaced by grace. ©

Thanks, Edward

Father Echert


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