Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind

The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, by Solomon Hart. Italy. 1850.
The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, by Solomon Hart. Italy. 1850.

The history of Hebrew as the first language is a fascinating story that travels through Patristic, Rabbinic, and the Greek worlds. It is an open debate that has raged on for over 1,500 years.

The perception of the Hebrew language in Western literature, especially by the ecclesiastical writers is an interesting theological exploration that seldom is talked or written about. Since it is the language of the Old Testament Bible, it obviously has some kind of reverent status among Judaism and Christianity. How this sacred language is viewed and applied varies. One of them being that Hebrew was the first language of mankind, another promoting Hebrew as the language which God personally used, and there is an allusion to the use of Hebrew with the pentecostal tongues outburst. It then begs the question, was Hebrew the first language of mankind?

Well, the answer is obvious that Hebrew wasn’t the first language of mankind. Historical linguists could easily prove such an assertion. In fact, Hebrew isn’t even one of the oldest languages. However, perception and reality are not parallel terms in the world of religion. This is an investigation into the perception of Hebrew as the first language.

The primacy of Hebrew was established in the Church at an early stage. A Syriac manuscript attributed to Clement (fourth Bishop of Rome 88-99 AD) categorically stated that Hebrew was the first language of mankind, “until then, only one language, Hebrew is dear to God.”(1)W. Frankenberg. De Syrischen Clementinem mit Griechischem Paralleltext. Verlag: J.C. Heinrichs. 1937. Pg. 39

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, originally believed it to be not only the original language of mankind but also the language of the prophets and of divine authority:

. . . and Heber is singled out for mention before all the sons of Shem, though he is in the fifth generation from him, and the language that the authority of patriarchs and prophets has safeguarded, not only in their discourses but also in the sacred books, is called Hebrew. Surely when the question arises in connection with the division of languages, in what domain that early common language could have survived–and beyond any shadow of doubt the punishment involved in change of language was not imposed in any domain where this language survived–what other answer comes to mind save that it persisted in the family of the man from whose name its own was derived? Thus we find no slight indication of the righteousness of this tribe, in that, when other peoples were stricken by the change of languages, it alone was exempt from any such penalty.(2)Augustine. City of God. Trans. by Sanford, E. and Green, W. Vol. 5. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1995. Pg. 64

However, the thirteenth-century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, believed that Augustine had later retracted this view.(3)S. Thomae Opera. Robert Busa, S.I. ed. Fromman-Holzboog. 1980. Vol. 6. Reportationes. 092 RPL cp3. Pg. 469 Even if the theology was wrong, it still represented the perception of Hebrew by a noticeable percentage in the fourth-century church.

There was a push-back to the theory of Hebrew being the first language of mankind. The foremost opponent was the fourth-century church father, Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory was a very articulate thinker who brought in a broad range of subjects into his works. He specifically addressed the nature of human language in his work, Contra Eunomium, where he described that the Hebrew language was not an ancient one, and absurd that anyone thought that the personal language of God was Hebrew.(4)see Gregory of Nyssa: Answer to Eunomius’s Second Book

Gregory of Nyssa’s treaty did not entirely dispel the belief that Hebrew was the original language. At least two-sixth century leaders supported Hebrew as the first language of mankind. The sixth century Joannes Malalas wrote that Adam spoke in Hebrew.(5)Joannes Malala, Chronologica. MPG: Vol. 97. Col. 75 Procopius of Gaza believed that Heber at the tower of Babel was the only one to preserve the first language of Hebrew because he resisted participating in the building of the tower.(6)MPG Vol. 87 Pt. 1. Col. 316 (vers. 14) The theory does not stop at the sixth-century.

The eighth-century historian and theologian, Bede, believed the initial language was Hebrew until the flood.(7)0627-0735 Beda Venerabilis Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Migne Patrologia Latina. Voluma 092: Col 0937-0996A (www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu). Pg. 1

The tenth-century Oecumenius, Bishop of Trikka, believed when Christ spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, it was in the Hebrew language.(8)Oecumenii Triccae Episcopi. Comment. In Acta Apostolorum. [175]. MPG. Vol. 118. Col. 289.

The eleventh-century philosopher-theologian, Michael Psellos, referred to an ideology that placed Hebrew as the first common language. He also postulated that Pentecost could have been the speakers vocalizing in Hebrew while the audience heard it in their own language. He does not necessarily endorse either of these views. He was expressing a number of possibilities to interpret the Pentecost text found in the Book of Acts.(9) Michaelis Pselli Theologica. Vol. 1. Paul Gautier ed. BSB B.G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft. 1989. Pg. 294. Another eleventh-century writer, George Kedrenos, borrowing from the same tradition that Malalas subscribed to, suggested that the only language Adam knew was Hebrew.(10) Georgii Cedreni. Historiam Compendium. MPG Vol. 121. Col. 49

Hebrew as the first language is not a dominant theme in Rabbinic writings. There is one distinct incidence of this being the divine language in the later work called the Sefer Haggada, “And the Lord spoke from Sinai. This is the Hebrew language”,(11) Sefer Haggada (in Hebrew) Tel-Abib: Dvir co. Ltd. Book III, 3b. My translation. but this contradicts the standard Talmudic teaching that God spoke in all the languages at Mount Sinai.

Jewish thought claimed that they had a direct connection into the Angelic realm because of their knowledge of Hebrew:

What is the difference between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of the Gentiles? …He communicated with the Gentile prophets only in half speech but with the prophets of Israel He communicated in full speech, in language of love, in language of holiness, in the language wherewith the ministering Angels praise Him.(12)Gen. R. LII, 5 as quoted in A. Cohen. Everyman’s Talmud. London: Dent and Song. 1978. Pg. 122

The sanctity of Hebrew was used as a polemic against the encroachment of Greek and Aramaic into the Jewish community. One of the volleys against them was the fact that the Angels only understood prayers in Hebrew:

For R. Johanan declared: if anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic [ie. a foreign tongue] the ministering Angels do not pay attention to him because they do not understand that language.(13)Sotah 33a. Talmud Babli “Nashim III”. The Soncino Talmud. Trans. by Epstein I. London: Soncino Press. 1935. Pg. 162. An online version can be found at http://come-and-hear.com/sotah/sotah_33.html

There was a constant tension with the Rabbis on whether learning a language other than Hebrew should be encouraged even though Greek was an economic and social advantage. “Asked R. Joshua: should men teach his son Greek? he said to them ‘He shall teach us in an hour that there is no day and night”.(14)Sefer Haggada. III, 3b

Of course, the ancient Greeks and their adherents could not comprehend any language other than their own being the divine or first language. They especially couldn’t think of Hebrew as the viable alternative.

The Greeks believed their language and culture to be superior to anything else. For example, the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian, rejected what was then known to be the sect of the Galileans (Christianity) because it was not of Greek origin, nor wrought from the Greek language, and worse yet, it came from something obscure and unimportant as Hebrew. This can be gleaned from the argument by Cyril, who was Pope of Alexandria in the fifth-century, with his refutation against the treaty written by the late Emperor;

For you esteem very lightly the distinguished men with the one subsequent Hebrew language that went a different way from the Greek, and I reckon that your Ausonian which was made for everyone, that you arranged it a certain number? Furthermore, has it not been truly said to us that if we wish to understand the straight and narrow, the Greek language is not about to be held as the author of religious devotion… And so we are taught that the greatest place of moral virtue is through the sacred writings of the divinely inspired Scriptures. Nevertheless, we use such things for the preparation of sound teachings with Greek thoughts since we are not familiar with the Hebrew language.(15)S. Cyrilli Alexandrini, Contra Julianum, Lib. VII [234]. MPG: Vol. 76. Pg. 858. Translation is mine.

The Greeks also thought their language being the heavenly one and this had a universal influence. One of the greatest Roman leaders and Orators, the Latin-speaking Cicero, so highly valued the writings of the Greek Philosopher Plato that the god Jupiter “were it his nature to use human speech, would thus discourse.”(16)Plutarch. The Parallel Lives. The Loeb Classical Library. Trans. by Bernadotte Perrin. 1919. Pg. 141
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Cicero*.html.

It is a mystery as to why Hebrew was so elevated by a number of prominent Christian leaders throughout the centuries in one aspect but neglected in most western ecclesiastical theological discourses. Internal Church discussions have historically been built on the Greek or Latin language.

As mentioned earlier, one cannot deduce what the first language of mankind was. Joseph Naveh, in his book, Early History of the Alphabet may be getting closer to the first language. He proposes that Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Latin and a host of other languages can be traced to a Proto-Canaanite language.(17) Joseph Naveh. Early History of the Alphabet. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1982. Pg. 10 Hebrew itself is in the middle of the Proto-Canaanite pack of later developed languages. He is restricting his knowledge to Semitic languages only, and this does not go back far enough. Sumerian is by far an older language, but that too may have been one of many languages that existed around 2700 BC. It is one of the few to have survived in written form from that period that is available to us today. There are not enough physical forms of written ancient languages that date far back to make any credible claims of a first language.

This hasn’t stopped inquiries into the subject. Cécile Young covers the topic of the first language in depth within his book: Etienne Fourmont (1683-1745) Oriental and Chinese Languages in Eighteenth-Century France.

The debate on the first language of mankind had actually started as early as the fourth century among the fathers of the Church. St Jerome, St Chrysostom, and St Augustine claimed that Hebrew was the most ancient language while St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Ephrem the Syrian contradicted this claim (the latter claimed Syriac as the first language). Up to the seventeenth-century, the debate was still open, and the Church still maintained Hebrew as the divine language. Brian Walton, editor of the famous Polyglot Bible published in 1657, declared: “The first language, Hebrew, most certainly comes from God himself; on that there should be universal agreement.” In 1669, John Webb (1611-1672), and English architect and antiquarian, claimed Chinese as the first language in his A Historical Essay Endeavouring (sic) a Probability that the Language of the Empire of China is the Primitive Language (London, 1669). In his controversial work Histoire critique du Vieux Testament, censured in 1678, Richard Simon had dismissed the idea of a divine language taught by Adam to God; he still supported the hypothesis that Hebrew could be the first language, although he was ready to express some doubts about it.

The fourteenth-century Italian poet and philosopher, Dante Alighieri, best known for his work The Divine Comedy also deeply contemplated on this subject in De vulgari Eloquentia:

“So the Hebrew language was that which the lips of the first speaker moulded.”(18)Book I, chapter 6. http://www.danteonline.it/english/opere.asp?idope=3&idlang=UK

From this basis Dante built his premise on the development of languages from one singular language to the many that were expressed in his day. He intended to write four volumes on the subject but abandoned it after one and a half. The reasons why he stopped is unknown.

Dante leads to one of the most popular publications printed in the 16th century, The Golden Legend (Latin: Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum). This book was written by Jacobus de Voragine and was a collection of biographies about the lives of the Saints. The author tends to elevate these Saints into mythical proportions and lands this work into the realm of folklore. However, the work reflects the theological opinions and emotions of that time. Mr. Voragine taught that Adam named all the animals in the Hebrew language because there was no other language except this one.(19)http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume1.asp

There is a variety of responses to this question and it depends on one’s religious affiliation and background. I once asked an older Mennonite woman what language God spoke in, and she quickly replied, “German” because every time she reads the Book of Genesis, where God spoke in the garden, He said, “Adam wo bist du?”

This is another demonstration that the answer to this intriguing doctrine may never end.

charlesasullivan

charlesasullivan

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.
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2 thoughts on “Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind

  1. For R. Johanan declared: if anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic [ie. a foreign tongue] the ministering Angels do not pay attention to him because they do not understand that language. Re “Nashim 3”

    First there is no Nashim 3 in the Talmud. Nashim is a Seder which contains 7 tractates. One of those tractates is Sotah and this is where the quote is found, but is is out of context.

    Sotah 33A one may pray in any language he wishes. But may the prayer be recited in any language? Behold Rab Judah has said: A man should never pray for his needs in Aramaic. For R. Johanan declared: If anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic, the Ministering Angels do not pay attention to him, because they do not understand that language! There is no contradiction, one referring to [the prayer] of an individual and the other to that of a Congregation. And do not the Ministering Angels understand Aramaic? Behold it has been taught: Johanan, the High Priest, heard a Bath Kol(Heavenly voice) issue from within the Holy of Holies announcing, The young men who went to wage war against Antioch7 have been victorious. It also happened with Simeon the Righteous that he heard a Bath Kol issue from within the Holy of Holies announcing, Annulled is the decree which the enemy intended to introduce into the Temple. Then was Caius Caligula slain and his decrees annulled. They noted down the time [when the Bath Kol spoke] and it tallied. Now it was in Aramaic that it spoke!  If you wish I can say that it is different with a Bath Kol since it occurs for the purpose of being generally understood; or if you wish I can say that it was Gabriel who spoke; for a Master has declared: Gabriel came and taught [Joseph] the seventy languages.

    All languages are Holy, but Hebrew is Holy of Holies.

    1. The quote was taken from the English version of the Talmud known as the Soncino Talmud. Why it is cited as Nashim III, I can no longer recall as this was from research done in the 1980s. Sotah 33a is the proper way to cite it. A link to Sotah 33a has been added to the footnote. Thanks for the complete citation.

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