In the account of the infancy narrative of our Lord as recounted in the Gospel of Luke, the verse when Gabriel comes to visit is subject to an unusual amount of creativity in translation. We all know different versions of the Bible translate words differently, but this one verse has more variety than usual. In Luke 1:28, we have the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce the conception of our Lord. Look at some translations of this passage:
- "And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." (NAB)
- "And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!"(RSV)"The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." (NIV)
- "And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee." (KJV)
- "And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women (NKJV)
- "The angel came to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!" (ISV)
- "And the angel being come in, said unto her: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women." (Douay-Rheims)
- "Gabriel appeared to her and said, "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!"(NLT)
- "The Angel entered her presence, and he said to her, “Peace to you, full of grace, our Lord is with you; you are blessed among women.” (Aramaic Bible in Plain English, 2010)
While we could dwell on many elements of this passage, such as whether the correct translation is "favored woman", "highly favored one", or "full of grace", I think the initial greeting of the angel is interesting to look at, too. Does Gabriel say "Hail," "Greetings", or "Peace to you?" I have found that Protestants, who typically use either the New King James or the New International Version, prefer the translation "Greetings" or "Rejoice," frowning on the "Hail" of the Douay, old King James and NAB as implying that Mary has some sort of authority or power. After all, "Hail!" is a salute given to a superior. If the angel said "Hail" to Mary, one could make the argument that she is, in some manner, superior to the angel Gabriel.
The literal word in Greek here is chairō. We immediately encounter a problem in that chairō does indeed mean a formal, military salute or hail, but it can also be translated as greeting. Let's look at some other contexts in the New Testament where chairō is used. I tried to use passages where the translation was pretty much agreed upon between the NAB, RSV, NKJV and NIV:
"And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him" (Matt 26:49). The passage where Judas betrays our Lord. Clearly, the greeting chairō here denotes authority - a disciple greeting his teacher, and in the case of Jesus, more than just a teacher. Thus, "Hail" makes sense as a translation.
And platting a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand. And bowing the knee before him, they mocked him, saying: "Hail, king of the Jews." (Matt. 27:29; Mark 15:18; John 19:3) I do not believe I have ever seen this verse translated in any other way than with the word "Hail." Indeed, "Greetings, king of the Jews" would make very little sense. This suggests that, even if this word chairō can be interpreted as "greetings" at times, it is never a casual greeting, but always a kind of greeting that implies an authority. The inference if this authority is what makes the use of the word by the soldiers so mocking. Had they not been mocking the claims about Jesus' authority, their use of the word chairō would not make any sense.
"And behold Jesus met them, saying: "All hail." But they came up and took hold of his feet, and adored him" (Matt. 28:9). This verse is often translated "All hail!" in older translations, even Protestant ones, but more often as "greetings" in modern editions, Catholic and Protestant alike. This seems to be due to an evolving understanding of apostolic authority - a gradual shift ecclesiology from viewing the apostles as successors of Christ to viewing them as Jesus' "friends", for whom the salute "greetings" would be more appropriate than "hail." I think this change in ecclesiology was reflected in translation.
"Claudius Lysias to the most excellent governor, Felix, greeting." (Acts 23:26) Here is a case where we definitely can see how chairō would imply authority. If the word chairō meant a simple "hello" or good day" or something neutral, it would not be used by a Roman to salute an imperial governor. We know that what Claudius Lysias actually said to Felix (presuming they are speaking Latin and Luke is translating into Greek), is the word ave, which has unanimously been translated as "Hail" from time immemorial.
What conclusions can we draw here? While I think that sometimes the rendering of chairō as "greetings" might be appropriate, it seems that the context of how the word is used always denotes a kind of superiority or authority in the one to whom it is said, as exemplified by the use of the Latin ave ("hail") in translation. The use of chairō by Claudius Lysias to Felix, a superior, as well as the mocking way in which the Roman soldiers use the phrase when they denigrate our Lord reveals that this word carried with it an implication of authority.
So what did the angel say to Mary exactly? When Gabriel said chairō, he was acknowledging that she had an authority, that she was, in a way, his superior - not in the order of nature (where mankind ranks below the angels), but in the order of grace, where mankind is exalted above the angels and even made to sit in judgment over them. This superiority in the order of grace is why the next words of Gabriel after saluting this singular woman are Kecharitomene, literally "you who have been perfected in grace," but which the Vulgate translated as gratia plena, "full of grace" in the Douay-Rheims. But that is another discussion. It suffices to say that Mary is hailed as having authority over the angel because she is exalted above the angels in the order of grace and is truly Queen of the Angels, who form a kind of "honor guard" around her. Thus says a hymn for Morning Prayer in the Armenian Liturgy for the Feast of the Assumption: "O Mother of God, you are born aloft in the triumphal cars of the Cherubim, with Seraphim for your escort and the arrayed army of heaven’s hosts is prostrate before you." From the Ethiopian Missal comes: "O Mary, heart of the whole world, you are greater than the many eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim, and heaven and earth are utterly full of the glory of your holiness."
Hail, full of grace!