Problematic Incipit

Someone pointed out to me that there was some confusion about the Gospel Reading in the Roman Rite Lectionary for Mass for yesterday (Thursday of the Second Week of Easter).

Part of the advantage of the Lectionary (as opposed to from reading from the Bible itself), is that small introductions are given that contextualize the readings.  For many years the Gospel readings in the Roman Rite started with “in illo tempore” a generic “in that time” to introduce the reading. This introduction has the technical name of “incipit” (beginning).  Here is how number 124 of the 1981 Second edition of the General Introduction to the Lectionary explains their function and use:

The “Incipit”

In this Order of Readings the first element of the incipit is the customary introductory phrase: “At that time,” “In those days,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Beloved,” “Dearly Beloved,” “Dearest Brothers and Sisters,” or “Thus says the Lord,” “Thus says the Lord God.” These words are not given when the text itself provides sufficient indication of the time or the persons involved or where such phrases would not fit in with the very nature of the text. For the individual languages, such phrases may be changed or omitted by decree of the competent Authorities.

After the first words of the incipit the Order of Readings gives the proper beginning of the reading, with some words deleted or supplied for intelligibility, inasmuch as the text is separated from its context. When the text for a reading is made up of non-consecutive verses and this has required changes in wording, these are appropriately indicated.

Yesterday’s Gospel was John 3: 31-36.  The speaker is John the Baptist. Yet some editions of the Lectionary give the speaker as Jesus or do not list the speaker at all.  I checked the three English editions on my own bookshelf and I saw that the reading started in three different ways.

In my Jerusalem Bible Lectionary (the current Lectionary for Ireland), the reading correctly provides an incipit and starts:

John the Baptist said to his disciples:

“He who comes from above

is above all others.

In my New American Bible Lectionary (current US Lectionary) no context is given and the reading starts:

The one who comes from above is above all.

In the Revised Standard Version Second Catholic Edition Lectionary (the Ignatius Press edition that is used in the Antilles, the Ordinariates and most of English-speaking Africa), the reading provides a mistaken incipit and starts:

Jesus said to Nicodemus,
‘he who comes from above is above all:
he who is of the earth belongs to the earth.

I imagine that the mistake comes from the day before, where the Gospel reading is also from chapter 3 of John, but where Jesus indeed is speaking to Nicodemus. Indeed, when I checked a Latin I found the root of the confusion. The Latin also gives a mistaken incipit:

In illo tempore: Dixit lesus Nicodemo:

I have not checked the current edition typica as I don’t have the current one to hand. So it may well have been corrected in later printings. I took the Latin from a pdf version of the Latin Lectionary I found on the Corpus Christi Watershed website. Here it provides a complete scan of the Missale Romanum cum Lectionibus. Ex Decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II Instauratum. Auctoritate Pauli PP. VI Promulgatum. Rome: Libreria Editirice Vaticana, 1977.

The person who alerted me to this confusion told me that he checked many versions and that the Italian, German, Canadian, Ukrainian lectionaries were wrong and attributed the words to Jesus, and that the French, Polish and Portuguese, like the current US edition give no attribution. I have not been able to verify which particular editions of the Lectionary he consulted, but it is undoubtedly a problem.

It is not a surprise that a few typos creeped in to the thousands of pages of official liturgical texts in Latin.  However, it reinforces the necessity for those who prepare translations into the vernacular ought to keep an eye to what they are doing and to correct any obvious mistakes in an editio typica, as well as respectfully notifying the Congregation of Divine Worship of any typos they find.


  1. The 1981 Ordo Lectionum Missae provides no incipit at all for the Gospel reading on Thursday of Week 2 of Eastertide. It provides the beginning of the passage “Qui de sursum venit…” exactly as I’ve put it in quotation marks.

    The 1970 volume 1 of the typical edition of the Lectionary does have the incorrect incipit: “In illo tempore: Dixit Iesus Nicodémo:”
    Since then, no “official” lectionary has been provided for the Roman Rite in Latin (The Gospel book and singing of the Passion excepted). The 1975 volumes, apart from not being typical editions, naturally do not use the Nova Vulgata (1979 and 1986) which is the current Latin translation for use in the liturgy.
    The 1970 British-Irish RSV lectionary (in a single volume) adds “John the Baptist said to his disciples,”.
    The present Italian lectionary gets it correct, omitting entirely an incipit.
    It would be interesting to consult the 1969 OLM but I don’t have a copy to hand and it seems inaccessible online (the file offered by CCWatershed is for the 1981 edition).
    The older Polish (I don’t have the newly revised lectionaries) had the incorrect incipit.

  2. The 1970 volume 1 of the typical edition of the Lectionary does have the incorrect incipit: “In illo tempore: Dixit Iesus Nicodémo:”
    Since then, no “official” lectionary has been provided for the Roman Rite in Latin (The Gospel book and singing of the Passion excepted).

    Fergus, is the three-volume Lectionarium of 1981 (Vatican Polyglot Press) not an official lectionary, then? It’s what we worked with when producing the three-volume British Isles lectionary (also 1981), incorporating the changes since the 1969 OLM.

  3. Paul Inwood, if it doesn’t have “editio typica altera” on the front page, then I’d say “No”. If I’m mistaken, I’d like to know. Any chance you could get a reference to those volumes? I’d love to see them somehow, e.g. through a library catalogue reference.

    1. Alas, this was 40 years ago. Collins Liturgical Publications had its offices several floors above Hatchards Bookshop, Piccadilly, in London, but they closed many years ago as Collins Liturgical’s role was reincorporated into the main Collins religious publishing empire (Fontana Books, etc). The files, papers, and presumably the books in the office library were all crated up and placed in the basement. Even if they are still there, it would be pretty much impossible to access them.

      The closest thing I have found is at, but the edition we worked with did not have the posh leather binding. This one describes itself as Lectionarium Editio iuxta typicam alteram, which I understand to mean that it is not only a revised typical edition but one that incorporates the Nova Vulgata, as indeed the blurb indicates. As far as I can recall, what we used was simply called Editio Typica Altera, revised typical edition, and did not use the Nova Vulgata.

      I repeat what I said in another Pray Tell thread some years ago: we did not use the 1981 Ordo Lectionum Missae, since we already had the three-volume 1981 Lectionarium, which itself gave rise to the three-volume format of the British Isles 1981 edition.

      1. “iuxta typicam alteram” means according to the second typical (edition). Whether or not it used the new vulgate is another question…presumably such a book does as the new vulgate first came out in the 1970s.

        The 1981 British-Irish 3-volume lectionary contains not only the OLM indications and corresponding to choices in the 1970-1972 lectionarium (matching acclamations to gospels, for example) but also reading indications from other liturgical books, notably the Order of Penance (vol. 3, page 114 forward) and the Order of Dedication of an altar and a church (vol. 2, page 1406 forward).

        I’m now quite curious about a 1981 Lectionarium. Notitiae in 1981 makes mention only of the revised 1981 OLM. The 3-volume British-Irish lectionary simply says on page iv “This edition of the Lectionary is based on the Ordo Lectionum Missae Editio Typica Altera, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis 1981”, and the Roman confirmation of the British-Irish edition is dated 12 June 1981.

  4. To add to the information about the various vernacular lectionaries: the Indian ESV-CE lectionary is correct here, following OLM 1981 in not providing an incipit (“He who comes from above…”).

  5. Raymond E. Brown, SS, believed that a very strong case can be made for Jesus as the speaker. The Gospel According to John (1-12).

    1. Yes, the New Vulgate — which unlike its Latin predecessor employs the use of modern quotation marks — ends the quotation from John the Baptist at verse 30, immediately prior to the Gospel in question. Both the NAB and N/RSV do similarly, with the NAB explaining of 31-36 in a footnote, “It is uncertain whether these are words by the Baptist, Jesus, or the evangelist. They are reflections on the two preceding scenes.” The N/RSV have similar footnotes.

      So it would seem a decent bet that the removal of the Latin incipit by 1981 was a reflection of the New Vulgate’s adoption of the present consensus that, as the speaker of the words in question is not clear, a definitive attribution should not be made. The confusion here seems to be that vernacular liturgical publishers — no doubt for the laudable goal of clarity — have made an attribution where none exists in the present typical Latin text, though for what it’s worth, the attribution of the words to Jesus (as in the 1st Latin edition that predated the New Vulgate, and in the RSV Lectionary) seems no less defensible than an attribution to John. It’s a hard case, but of the three English examples cited in Father’s post, I’d argue the NAB lectionary approaches it best.

      (Incidentally, there are numerous other examples in both the Missal and the Office in which the Latin typical editions omit an incipit in cases in which no consensus exists about speaker attribution. This was also true in the 1962 missal and those that preceded it, though they were far fewer in number, perhaps in part because the reference texts did not normally employ quotation marks as modern translations do, and thus left it to interpreters, but more likely because such ambiguity of attribution is most prevalent in the OT (obviously a very small part of the Missal lections prior to 1969), particularly in the prophetic books that weave, often without clear demarcation, between narration, words attributed to God, dialogical words attributed to the prophet, and poetry.)

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