Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Patristic Views on the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Language(s)

A while back I started a series summarizing the main points of my book. I ended up only making it halfway through the book. I wrote an introductory post and then a second post on the second and third chapters dealing with the Old Testament canon in early Christianity.

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.


John Meade said...

Ed, I see your productivity on the blog is picking up again. Spring break?

Anyways, I wondered if for your research you explored the anonymous marginal notes in some of the catena mss? For example, an almost formualic note in the Job catena is ου κειται εν τω εβραικω. I'm interested in the origins of these notes for the book of Job (my area of research is the hexaplaric fragments of Job) and beyond. The meaning of the note is quite clear in context. It appears generally in places where there is text in the LXX but is not in the Hebrew (i.e. obelized lines). There are other types as well.

It is not a comment on the Hebrew language per se, but it reveals that some early Christians were aware of the state of the Hebrew text of their day and later Christian scribes copied these notes faithfully, making later generations aware of the same phenomenon for the book of Job.

Any thoughts?

Ed Gallagher said...


I hope all is well with you. My lack of productivity has something to do with just my general ups-and-downs of blogging, and also with spending the last two weeks in the Philippines. Good trip; got back on Saturday.

I have not explored those marginal notes, so I'm not sure how they're used in the manuscript. That is, is there any indication about what the author of the note intended the reader to do with the information provided? I.e., this is not in the Hebrew, so don't use it in debate with Jews? Or, this is not in the Hebrew, so it's not really the word of God? I imagine there is not enough information to tell.

My initial thought--this is going to sound obvious--is that the notes seem to attest Christian interest and concern with the Hebrew Bible, and not just the LXX. This has been one of my own concerns, in my book and elsewhere, to highlight patristic interest in the Hebrew Bible, at least on a theoretical level. That is, Christians in the 2nd-5th centuries usually did not think that the LXX's status as "our Bible" meant that it had no connection to the Hebrew Bible, or that the Hebrew Bible was unimportant, or that it was okay for the Greek to say something different from the Hebrew because God gave us the Greek. This is closer to Augustine's position, but he still has a concern for the Hebrew text. He just doesn't believe that the Greek needs to match the Hebrew. I want to argue that in this position Augustine is innovative, not representative. Other patristic authors (with Origen as a partial exception) absolutely did believe that the Greek ought to match the Hebrew, or an explanation needs to be given for why it doesn't, such as textual corruption in one or the other.

This has to do with things I'll discuss in a post tomorrow, on patristic views of the relationship between the Greek and Hebrew texts.

John Meade said...

Thanks, Ed. Glad to hear that the trip to the Philippines was good.

The notes, in the Job catena at least, cannot answer the questions you raise in your second paragraph. There is simply no further explanation for them. About the most we could say about them would be what you outline in your third paragraph. I will reserve further comment for your next post. Thanks again for the interaction.