I have recently had occasion to write a summary of my book, so I thought I'd duplicate some of that summary to finish the series. This post will deal with ch. 4: "The Language of Hebrew Scripture and Patristic Biblical Theory."
The fourth chapter of my monograph turns to late antique notions regarding the Hebrew language itself. Since Christians considered the Hebrew language an important element in definitions of the biblical canon (as argued in ch. 3), could such a concept signal a more widespread glorification of the language? This question gains relevance in light of the contemporary rabbinic views regarding Hebrew. The first half of the chapter explores the development of Jewish ideas about the sanctity of the Hebrew language before searching for potential parallels in early Christian literature.
The Rabbis of late antiquity regularly referred to Hebrew as the ‘holy language’, thus distinguishing it from all other languages. Nevertheless, for most purposes few Jews spoke Hebrew during this period (pp. 106–10). Within Roman Palestine, Greek and Aramaic dominate most of the surviving evidence (inscriptions, coins, literature), though Hebrew has certainly not disappeared completely, as attested particularly by the Dead Sea Scrolls and, later, the early rabbinic literature (e.g., the Mishnah). In the Jewish Diaspora, Hebrew appears hardly at all in the extant evidence. The decline of Hebrew can generally be traced back to the early post-exilic period, though it intensified with the advancement of Hellenism in the fourth and third centuries BCE.
At precisely the same time, evidence emerges that some Jews infused the Hebrew language with deep cultural and religious significance (pp. 111–23). This evidence ranges from the coins issued by the Hasmonean priest-kings that feature Hebrew prominently, literature written in Hebrew (including the Dead Sea Scrolls and even parts of the Bible itself), the use of the term ‘holy language’ in reference to Hebrew already in a Dead Sea Scroll, the Hebrew coins issued during the First Jewish Revolt and later during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and the rabbinic pronouncements regarding the sanctity of the Hebrew language (pp. 111–18). In an age when, according to scholarly consensus, Hebrew could no longer claim to be the vernacular of any Jewish community, this use of Hebrew in various ways indicates its symbolic value. Certain rabbinic injunctions regarding the use of the Hebrew language in prayer, and the use of this language for writing the Tetragrammaton even in Greek biblical manuscripts, show that some Jewish groups considered Hebrew to be truly the ‘holy language’ (pp. 118–21). It was, in fact, the language through which God created the world and the first language spoken by humans (p. 118).
Christians share some of these ideas about Hebrew but do not reflect the full rabbinic notion of Hebrew as a holy language (pp. 123–41). Their comments create some interpretive difficulties because they at times seem to confuse the Hebrew and Aramaic languages (pp. 123–31). Even Jerome of Stridon and Epiphanius of Salamis, both of whom are reputed to have learned Hebrew, occasionally classify as Hebrew certain Aramaic expressions. In one passage Epiphanius distinguishes ‘the Syriac dialect’ (i.e., Aramaic) from ‘the deep language’ of the Hebrews. Epiphanius seems to be thinking that Hebrew is a more ancient (‘deep’) form of the language of which Aramaic is the modern form. Jerome considers Hebrew ‘the mother of all languages’ (including Latin), necessarily implying that Aramaic descended from Hebrew. The close linguistic connection between the two languages, along with the shared alphabet, probably contributed to such notions.
The Church Fathers transmit two primary ideas regarding the importance of the Hebrew language: it was the primordial language and it was the language of ancient Israel (pp. 131–37). Christians do not seem to have understood Hebrew to be especially holy in the sense current among the Rabbis (pp. 131–33). That is, the Church Fathers freely used translations of scripture and made no efforts to promote the use of Hebrew. But for the most part they did consider Hebrew to be the language spoken by the first humans. Augustine, for instance, asserts that only the descendants of Heber (Gen. 10:21) preserved the primordial Hebrew language (pp. 133–34). Some patristic authors, though, think either that there is no such thing as a ‘primordial language’ (Gregory of Nyssa) or that it was not Hebrew but rather Aramaic (Theodoret of Cyrus; pp. 134–35).
Early Christian authors also associated ancient Israel uniquely with the Hebrew language (pp. 135–37). While patristic authors recognized that contemporary Jews used a variety of languages, they assumed that ancient Israelites only knew Hebrew, and that they were the only nation that knew Hebrew. Their scriptures were, therefore, composed in Hebrew. As Augustine says: “It is called the Hebrew language, which the authority of the Patriarchs and Prophets preserved, not only in their speech but also in their sacred writings.” Hebrew is the biblical language because it was the language of ancient Israel. In this sense, Aramaic does not qualify as a ‘biblical’ language, even though the Bible does contain Aramaic passages and some Christians considered Aramaic a sub-branch of Hebrew (pp. 138–41). While they do not regard Hebrew to be ‘holy’ in the manner intended by the Rabbis, the association of Hebrew with ancient Israel meant that the Fathers knew that their scripture was originally Hebrew.