Monday, September 3, 2012

Not One Iota of Difference

Iota, the smallest thing in the Greek alphabet, with the reputation for being ... the smallest thing.

Even people who don't know a bit of Greek know the phrase "not one iota." Where did that phrase come from, and does its origin belong in a blog post about the Middle Ages? A week ago, I would have said "No." But now—if you've been reading faithfully—you have the background you need to understand better the impact of this phrase.

The complete phrase is "it makes not one iota of difference," and believe it or not, it is tied to the Arian heresy. One of the problems Arius had with what became conventional Christianity was the nature of Jesus vs. God the Father. Arius and his followers believed that Jesus had a separate existence and was subordinate to the Father. During the Council of Nicaea, Arius argued with others over the word homoousios (Greek 'homo'=same + 'ousios'=substance). This is the word that was translated into the Latin consubstantialem in the Nicene Creed, translated into English as "one in being." Arius argued for heteroousios ('hetero'=other).

The Trinity Shield; Arian or not?
After Nicaea and the defeat and outlawing of Arianism, a subset of Arius' followers modified their position and were willing to say that the Son and the Father were, not the same substance, but similar. The word they proposed to explain this was homoiousios ('homoi'=similar). These people are called the "Semi-Arians."* The addition of that single letter satisfied them; it did not, however, satisfy the strict Trinitarians, who refused to change. This gave rise to the phrase "it makes not one iota of difference."

Or did it? There really is no evidence for that origin, although it sounds good, and sufficiently obscure and scholarly that no one wants to argue with it.

Some try to tie this into Matthew, 5:18:
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. [English Standard Version]
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. [New Revised Standard Version]
The argument for this origin (I guess) is that an iota is the smallest imaginable amount of difference, or the smallest written bit of the law, and even that will/must not alter before the end comes.

There may be a simpler reason for the saying, however, that goes back to the Greek language itself. The letter iota could be the second part of a diphthong, and the first vowel could be long or short. If the first vowel were long, the iota lost strength and ceased to be pronounced, but in written Greek it was still added as a subscript below the preceding long vowel. So αι (alpha + iota) became ηι (eta + iota) became . The iota, in some circumstances, became the least important letter, reduced in size as well as in the way it affected pronunciation. To me, this is a potential (and potent) origin story for an "iota of difference" being completely insignificant.

*By the way, Semi-Arianism is alive and well in 21st century America, apparently.


  1. The most convincing explanation I've read yet

  2. Thanks for the blog! .... Hmmm, i find myself wondering about the source material for the English translations of Mathew 5:18... Is that phrase "not an iota" included in older versions of the Bible?

  3. While I appreciate the scholarly explanation and the obvious knowledge of Medieval Religious dithering, doesn't it really become as important as the Medieval quest to determine how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

    1. That was never actually an actual point of debate. It was introduced by Protestants as a way of mocking Scholastic philosophical rigor. There was some debate about whether multiple angels could act on the same bit of matter in the same way, but even then, the amount of debate over the nature of angelic beings is greatly exaggerated.

      And seeing the amount of radicalism in the 21st century, I think the medievals were right to emphasize the importance of precision of language. The West has become philosophically and linguistically sloppy, and I think it is taking its toll on our ethics and culture.

  4. Maybe it is used as iota is not really needed in greek writing only to use it as a Ipsilon or Ita these are the mainly used I's in the Greek alfabet. In capitals which we call Latin Greek (Greek words written with the modern day alphabet) Y is Ipsilon H is ita I is Iota (yiota) .... could it just be a expression as in its not really needed and can do without it?

    1. Definitely not, because those letters are not I's - Y = Upsilon (can also be Romanized as "U"), and H - Eta. "Ipsilon" and "Ita" are not Greek letters, and therefore could not have eclipsed Iota.