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Book Review: Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying

Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer is an eye-opening book about the amorality and monstrosities of German soldiers in the Second World War and how this mindset developed.

Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer

Sönke Neitzel, a German historian and “currently Professor of Military History at the University of Potsdam”(1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%B6nke_Neitzel and Harold Welzer, a German social psychologist, combine to build a definitive and unassuming portrait based on taped conversations of Germans detained in Allied war prisons. These were secretly done and transcribed by British and American intelligence agents during the Second World War. These dialogues helped the Allied forces better understand the technological and strategic initiatives within the German military during the War. However, the social and moral dynamics found in these discussions had little strategic value and were left unused for over five decades.

Neitzel accidentally found out about these records while working as a visiting lecturer in Glasgow in 2001. Further investigation uncovered a large library of over 100,000 pages. Neitzel contacted Harold Welzer who was electrified about the findings: “. . .men were talking live, in real time, about the war and their attitudes towards it. It was a discovery that would give unique, new insight into the mentality of the Wehrmacht and perhaps of the military in general.”(2)Pg. Ix Indeed, the documents revealed a rich wealth of information to build a historical and psychological portrait. The findings offered lessons not only on the German war machine, but war in general.

Their analysis dispelled the myth that German soldiers were merely following orders or that the violence was committed by a few rogue groups or leaders. The dialogues portrayed the everyday soldier, airman, or seaman, along with the upper echelons of military brass were compliant in the atrocities. Even the civilian administration was guilty. The mass executions were a lure for a good show, a “semipublic spectacle with a high amusement value.” The circumstances extended even to police officers who wanted to kill someone for the thrill of the experience.(3)Pg. 137

The book does not delve into the hearts and minds of soldiers and leaders who worked inside the concentration camps, only those captured in battle.

The authors sought to discover what influenced German soldiers to shift into an amoral and monstrous mindset. They concluded the most important factors were unlimited power, unbridled youth, shame, group dynamics, and the military frame of reference. The analysis ruled out any socio-economic status, religious identity, education level, or ethnicity as a contributing factor. Nor was ideology a force. Most soldiers were apolitical.(4)Pg. 319 The infamous SS or its armed wing, Waffen units, were neither entirely responsible. Soldiers in the general armed forces, the Wehrmacht, had also perpetrated severe violations. The actions were consistent of any participant in the German enterprise.

Wartime soldiers are by and large youngish men who have been separated from their real or would-be partners and freed from many social constraints. When stationed in occupied areas, they are given the sort of an individual power they would never enjoy in civilian society.” (5)Pg. 165

Soldiers were most concerned with their own individual survival, their next home leave, the loot they could pilfer, and the fun they could have, and not the suffering of others, especially those considered racially inferior. Soldiers’ own fate was always at the center of their perception. Only in rare cases did the fate of enemy troops or occupied peoples seem worthy of note. Everything that threatened one’s own survival, spoiled the fun, or created problems could become the target of unlimited violence.(6)Pg. 77

The book is a much harsher reality than the one portrayed in the movie, Schindler’s List, but less intense than the narrative provided by Philippe Aziz, in his book, Doctors of Death, — which focused on the German medical leadership and experimentation on Jewish subjects. The atrocities being widespread and not restricted to loose canons or hierarchical force was also substantiated by Edwin Black in his book, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation where he shows that low-level clerks and commoners who did the data entry for identifying Jewish identity in Nazi-occupied territories were also direct contributors to the holocaust.

The prison conversations bring to light the general war problem of autotelic violence“violence committed for its own sake without any larger purpose.”(7)Pg. 49 This is a natural outcome when the modern rules of law are suspended in times of war. The authors shared a conversation of a Luftwaffe observer named Lieutenant Pohl, who said it only took him three days to get used to the violence. After the fourth day, he enjoyed shooting down soldiers — it was breakfast amusement. On one occasion he wanted to drop bombs on a crowded Polish town because he was so full of rage and he didn’t give a damn. “It would have been great fun if it had come off.”(8)Pg. 46

Another conversation shows how autotelic violence had become routine:

“We sank a children’s transport. . . which gave us great pleasure.”(9)Pg. 69

Neitzel and Welzer make a formative statement that the rape, tortures, mass killings, forced plunder, genocides, and other war-related fatalities were nothing new in the historical annals of war. The difference was the increased dimension and expression of such phenomena exercised by the Germans. The introduction of new technology and weaponry – the switch from horses, cannons and bayonets to planes, tanks, semi-automatic rifles, and weapons of mass destruction, allowed for death and destruction beyond any historical framework. This greatly expanded the ability to destroy without any limit.(10)Pg. 321 The coverage of later wars and revolts by the revered journalist, Robert Fisk, clearly points out that these evils are not a proprietary problem of Germany, but an expression of humanity’s dark side wherever a social system collapses and there are no limits on violence.(11)See the The Great War for Civilisation for more info Another distinction within the German establishment was the elimination of certain groups that had “nothing to do with the war itself.”(12)Pg. 76

The authors build a framework to answer why out of 17 million members of the Wehrmacht, there were only 100 attempts at rescuing Jews.(13)Pg. 100 They believe the solution can be found in their frame of reference. The frame of reference was built around military values in a wartime situation. It became extreme because German society was passive, tolerant of repression, restricted their opinions to the private realm, and did not question the military value systems.(14)Pgs. 34–35 More importantly was the individual soldier’s relationship with his immediate comrades. Going against the group existential existence, even if the purposes are inhuman, is tantamount to the individual’s emotional or physical death.(15)Pg. 336

Naturally, the horrendous acts of violence against Jews are included in many conversations. These come as no surprise, but the callousness and the uncaring does. Soldiers got extra rations, pay incentives and other perks for execution duty.(16)Pg. 126Ff But a switch began to happen as the war began to shift into Allied control. More emphasis was placed on hiding the killings, including exhuming bodies and destroying any evidence. There was a certain fear that if the Germans lost the war, Jews would look for revenge.

The prisoners conversations about sexual assaults, rapes and violence against women was shocking. The soldiers’ dialogues carried the sense of pleasure and power without any remorse. While some women did receive better treatment, it was far from altruistic — the soldiers traded protection for a sexual favours. The women were eventually shot and killed in order to hide the abuses and avoid public shame of sex with a Jewish woman. There was also rampant prostitution. The authors described that the sexual predation was widespread throughout the military and led to a major spread of gonorrhoea and syphilis that overwhelmed the medical facilities. Antibiotics treatment had not been introduced yet, and contracting a VD severely weakened the military’s available manpower. The military responded by setting up and sponsoring brothels in order to counter this.

But without doubt, sex was part of soldiers’ everyday existence – with a whole series of consequences for the women involved.(17)Pg. 169

A statistic for the amount of rapes, violence, and murders against women done by German soldiers has never been given. However, the conversations by the soldiers indicate the rate must have been significantly high.

The overall discussions were so dark, contorted and distasteful, that my mind has difficulty imagining them. But they compelled me to ask, what kind of persons are we dealing with here? How could men with such strong values of hard work, respect, and honour, turn dark so quickly and heartlessly? How could they go home and speak to their wives, mothers or sisters about what they did? Once the war was over, was there a place for them to live? Or did their conscience already die and they moved about as empty shells?

The authors answered the first two questions. The latter questions about the post-war lives of these soldiers are left unanswered. How could these people find peace? Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch woman dispatched to a concentration camp by the Nazis for concealing Jews in her family home, and author of Hiding Place gave one clue. While giving a speech in Germany shortly after the War, a former prison guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp approached her, though not familiar with each other, asked her for forgiveness against the cruelty he enacted on the people at Ravensbruck. She felt both were liberated through the act of forgiveness: letting go of her bitterness that could cripple one’s body and soul, and him, from the prison of his guilty conscience.(18)https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of-hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1 Was this type of remorse and wanting catharsis widespread with post-war soldiers, or was Ten Boom’s encounter an exception? Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, would have been a more powerful book if the authors followed up interviewing a few of these prisoners that did such atrocities to find whether they remained defiant or later became remorseful.

The popular term today in military mental health circles for soldiers in this circumstance is called moral injury — the “reaction stemming from perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs.”(19)Psynopsis: Canada’s Psychology Magazine Most literature on moral injury tend to treat the person as a victim and a mental health problem. I think the authors of Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying would dispute the claim of the perpetrator as a victim. Although many situations can be a perceived sense of guilt and not real, the victims of a person committing a moral injury are either dead, disabled or emotional invalids, while the perpetrator goes on living. This is a cop-out that avoids addressing the moral failure and prevents the perpetrator to admit wrongfulness and receive full catharsis.

The stories shared in the book evoke such anger for real justice. If there is no remorse given by the perpetrators, or any attempt to say sorry to those who have been wronged, the only solace is that these people will have to answer before God at the day of reckoning for the blood of the innocents.

What can be learned from this book for today? This is not a book about ideology but the everyday person in the German military. The idea that, I don’t give a rat’s ass about anything except what affects me, was consistent within all the discussions and a key undertone among many others. A condition that allows hatred to ignite and go unchecked. A mindset that allows the person to complete instructions even against one’s moral convictions, and removes the person from any social responsibility. This circumstance opens a pandora’s box of monstrous proportions when no rules exist. Apathy is a much harder vice to correct than hatred and is the essence of inhumanity. This is not a simply a problem of World War II Germany – examples can be found in almost any major modern conflict in the world. Every society has to guard against this sin.

Would I recommend this book? This is one of the most difficult readings I have ever done. It is well written, researched and documented, but the subject matter is grisly. This book is not recommended for the casual reader, or for anyone personally haunted by the bitterness of war, but a source work for the historian, social psychologist, teacher, or journalist. Neither should one attempt to read in one, two or three sittings. The very nature forces one to read only bits at a time and put it away for a while.

References   [ + ]

Tertullian on the Doctrine of Tongues

Tertullian woodcut

When it comes to glossolalia and Tertullian, it is the making of a mountain out of a molehill.

It is unfortunate that the second century church leader, Tertullian, has been given a prominent seat on the subject, while authors such as, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, The Ambrosiaster text, Epiphanius, Michael Psellos, and many more ecclesiastical writers who wrote specifically on the christian doctrine of tongues, have been largely ignored.

A critical analysis of Tertullian’s supposed reference to the christian doctrine of tongues supports such a claim.

There is one facet of this study that is indisputable — Tertullian believed the gift of tongues and interpretation, along with many other gifts, such as healing, were still operative during his time. However, he failed to specify if this was simply speaking a foreign language by those trained in such languages, a supernaturally inspired speaking in another language, or something else. He simply stated that it existed and added nothing more.

The oft-cited Tertullian text on the doctrine of tongues is found in Against Marcion Book V. 8:7-12, and it is not a strong connection. But for the sake of readers wanting to find out for themselves, a translation, and explanation have been provided. The actual translation and Latin text can be found by reading Tertullian on Tongues: A New English Translation. All the comments below are based on this text and translation.

Tertullian was a poster boy for the nineteenth century and later higher criticists who made the case that tongues was nothing more than religious frenzy, a glossolalic outburst that had antecedents in pagan Greek religions. The development of this modern doctrine is treated in greater detail in Introduction to the History of Glossolia. These are a series of articles which traces the inception of the doctrine of glossolalia in the 1800s, its overtaking the traditional Christian position, and its evolution. If one is to use a more comprehensive methodology and trace the christian doctrine of tongues using historical Christian literature from inception to the twelfth century, Tertullian’s contribution appears minimal.

The initial approach to including Tertullian in the Gift of Tongues Project was to post both the Latin text alongside an already published English translation by Peter Holmes. His translation was published in 1885 as part of the well-known series, Ante-Nicene Fathers, which today is easily available on the internet.(1)http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-35.htm#P7138_2070665 However, it was found wanting from technical and readability perspectives. Ernest Evans updated the translation in 1972, and great improvements were made, but the portion relating to the supposed tongues speech still remained obscure.(2) Tertullilan. Adversus Marcionem. Edited and Translated by Ernest Evans. Glasgow: The Oxford University Press, 1972. Pg. 561 The goal of my translation was to make this portion of Tertullian clearer for the modern reader.

Tertullian on Tongues: A New English Translation is partially based on Holmes text, along with some help from Ernest Evan’s translation.

There are a number of differences.

First of all, Tertullian comes across in the Latin text as more combative against Marcion, even mocking. An attempt was made to make that more apparent.

Secondly, the translation of the Latin keyword lingua was changed from tongue to language. This makes it closer to the intent of Tertullian. This is an editorial decision made early on in the Gift of Tongues Project and is consistent with almost all of the translations found on this site. For more information please read, The Difference Between Language and Tongues.

Thirdly, the feature of Tertullian’s work is not about tongues but the role of women in the church and and how Tertullian felt that there was too much female authority in the Marcionite sect. He stated that women have the right to prophesy, but not to instruct; a practice which was happening in the Marcionite movement, and thus considered heretical. The address to languages in the church is happenstance.

Tertullian was positing that women could not be moral, political, or theological leaders in the church at large. He had a compromise and that was the office of prophecy. This was considered a high status in the Church and women could have a significant impact through this agency. Tertullian appears to be a misogynist in modern terms, but his concept of women being able to prophesy may have been revolutionary for his day. More research on this aspect needs to be done.

There are two key phrases that set-up the scenario and are difficult to translate:

Aeque prescribens silentium mulieribus in ecclesia, ne quid discendi, duntaxat gratia loquantur


ut semel dixerim nosse non debuit nisi in destructionem

Holmes has the first translated as: “when enjoining on women silence in the church, that they speak not for the mere sake of learning.”

His English translation really makes no sense. Why would women not be allowed to speak because they may learn something? This seems contradictory. Ernest Evans comes closer with his translation “when he enjoins upon women silence in the church, that they are not to speak, at all events with the idea of learning.”

It still lacks clarity, so my translation went to a more literal state, “this apostle recommends silence of the women in the Church, nor that women should speak anything specifically for the reason that a male is going to learn.” In other words women are not to instruct in the church. Perhaps this means women are allowed to instruct other women, but never to preach, educate, or lead a male or mixed gender audience.

The second phrase, “ut semel dixerim nosse non debuit nisi in destructionem,” is not as hard once the first difficulty above is understood. Holmes has, “let me say once for all, he ought to have made no other acquaintance with, than to destroy it.” This is a nebulous translation. Who or what is the person having an acquaintance with and what is to be destroyed? It is not clear. Evans somewhat clarifies it, “he had no right to take note of except for its destruction.” It is closer, but the antecedent is still wanting. My translation contains the following that hopefully clarifies Tertullian’s intent, “let me say once for all, that he ought not to know [what the woman is teaching] except for its repudiation.” The words in the square brackets do not exist in the Latin but put here so that the English reader understands Tertullian’s argument.

Tertullian was mocking Marcion and previous English translations have downplayed this aspect. One of the important keywords that suggest the mocking is a proper understanding of amentia. Holmes has it as rapture, indicating the mind is in some joyful, exuberant state. Evans translated it as, “which means abeyance of mind,” suggesting that the mind in that moment is unoccupied and controlled by other influences. It seems unclear what he exactly means here. However, amentia has negative connotations. The text, id est amentia clearly comes across as condescending. The Lewis and Short Latin dictionary describes amentia as a negative mental state: “the being out of one’s senses, beside one’s self, madness, insanity.”(3) http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Damentia. and William Whitacker has it as, “madness; extreme folly, infatuation, stupidity; frenzy, violent excitement.”(4) From my digital application Latin Words for OS X based on William Whitacker’s Latin Dictionary. When I first read these dictionary entries, my mind immediately jumped to the Greek equivalents; the adjective used by Origen, μανικός, manikos, or the verbal form found in Michael Psellos’ work, μαίνομαι both which refer to people disposed to madness, frenzied, symptoms of madness, enthusiastic, or inspired. Both Origen and Psellos use the word distinct from the Christian experience and reserved it to exclusively describe the historical practices of the ancient Greek prophets and their peculiar acts of prophesying. Tertullian’s work is heavily structured on a Greek philosophical framework, and this was likely his intention too at the use of amentia. The second century writer, by use of this word, is making the case that Marcion’s practice does not have a Christian lineage, but the synthesis of ancient Greek religion, especially that of their prophets. It was folly, and one of the evidences among many that Marcion indeed was a heretic. It has little or no relation to the christian doctrine of tongues.

The most suitable translation for id est amentia is, “that is in madness.”

The understanding of amentia is dependent on the use of the subjunctive in this passage. Holmes has elected to understand it as a jussive, which forces the translator to subsequently understand amentia as an inspired state. Whereas, since Tertullian is mocking Marcion, it should be understood as a potential subjunctive.

Another set of critical words for those looking at the connection between Tertullian and the christian doctrine of tongues is si qua linguae interpretatio accessit. My translation reads, as if an interpretation of languages had occurred. Holmes translated it as, whenever an interpretation of tongues has occurred to him. Tertullian was not attacking Marcion directly in this passage, but specific mystical practices performed by the female gender within his movement which was outside church tradition. Holmes ascribes it to Marcion directly, which cannot be established from the Latin text.

Holmes understood si qua to mean whenever which doesn’t fit here for a number of reasons. Si is about a condition that may or may not happen. The use of Whenever leads the reader to believe a durative process that happens throughout time, which doesn’t rightly fit into a conditional paradigm.

The use of qua here reinforces the idea of a conditional concept. Brad Inwood, author of Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters has offered a clue as to how to understand this word in his analysis of Seneca in the first century. He suggests that Seneca used qua adverbally, referring back to Greek philosophy, and should be understood as tamquam(5) Brad Inwood. Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters: Translated with Introduction and Commentary Oxford University Press. 2007. 85.33-5 which, according to Whitacker’s Words means, “as, just as, just as if; as it were, so to speak; as much as; so as.” It has already been noted before that Tertullian heavily utilizes a Greek framework to structure his writing, and this would be consistent for his usage.

The use of accessit in the text is another clue to this conditional clause. It is in the perfect indicative, which was a surprise, not in the subjunctive, which was to be expected. It is a simple conditional, which indicates a factual condition. Tertullian was drawing a caricature of the prophet(s) going into a state of madness, akin to those of the Greek prophets, and feigning the ability to understand different languages.

Another clue on his definition, and it is not a complete one, is his mention of Isaiah 28:11, that the Creator would speak in languages foreign to the Jews of Israel, and that the gift of tongues was a prophetic fulfillment of this. This statement restricts Tertullian’s view on the gift of tongues to that of foreign languages. However, he doesn’t elaborate whether it is a natural, supernatural or mystical ability to speak in foreign languages, and so it doesn’t give a complete picture.

Tertullian, wrote elsewhere about mystical events, especially in Treatise of the Soul, Book 9, where he described a woman endowed with mystical powers. He was not negative in any way towards this woman but simply was reporting these talents. He does not include in any description an ability to speak in tongues. Therefore, this passage has been left out of the Gift of Tongues Project.

A challenge in translating this text is the lack of manuscripts. The digital copies found on the internet do not list what manuscripts they are composed of, and some of the Latin words used, such as duntaxat, seem to be later additions. However, the Tertullian manuscripts, as compared to Gregory Nazianzus and other leading church fathers, are hard to find, and those that do exist, are found in expensive books. These books are not readily available in my regional university libraries. There have been moments in critical spots where seeing actual manuscripts would have been helpful, but did not do because of these limitations.

This study clearly demonstrates that the information supplied by Tertullian on the christian doctrine of tongues is not very valuable, nor is it a smoking gun. It is a slight reference, but nothing substantial enough to advance anyone’s cause. ■

References   [ + ]

Lightfoot on the Problem Tongues of Corinth

John Lightfoot

A digitalization and short analysis of John Lightfoot’s Commentary on the tongues of Corinth.

John Lightfoot was a seventeenth century English Churchman and rabbinic scholar whose exegetical system was significantly advanced for that time period.

A small but brief window had opened in England during the Reformation for Hebrew studies, but the roadblocks to full public acceptance was great. England had long banished Jews from living in England(1)See John Lightfoot: the English Hebraist for more information during Lightfoot’s era, and if later novels like Ivanhoe by Walter Scott, and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens indicate, negative English perceptions concerning the Jews was strong. Lightfoot was a time anomaly. He shouldn’t have succeeded in this field of studies, but he did, and his work, though with some defects, has withstood the test of time.

Unfortunately after the death of Cromwell in 1658 and a number of Governmental interdicts within the Church realm, Hebrew studies once again lost its footprint in the English speaking world. This prevented Lightfoot’s works from gaining ubiquitous traction. Lightfoot’s focus on a complex multilingual comparative narrative rather than a theological emphasis, along with his lack or just average use of critical analysis, may also have contributed to a limited audience.

Lightfoot’s major critical omission is that of dating. The Jewish sources he cited are approximately 400 or more years later than the Corinthian saga. The Jewish sources on the subject may have been more fluid during the first century AD. The initial arguments that spawned the later Rabbinic opinion may have been different. Lightfoot never looked into this. Neither does Lightfoot seriously delve into ecclesiastical literature using his comparative method. This too weakens his position.

Even with these weaknesses, the comparative work itself between Judaism and the problem tongues of Corinth is outstanding, and must be considered in developing a historical context for understanding this Pauline text.

You can decide if this is an accurate statement. Below is Lightfoot’s coverage of I Corinthian’s 14. The work was originally written in Latin, but has been translated into English. The translation provided here is from Horæ Hebraicæ et Talmudicæ(2)See Horæ et Talmudicæ: Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations Upon the Gospels, the Acts, Some Chapters of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and the First Epistle to the Corinthians. New Edition by Robert Gandell. Volume IV. Oxford: At the University Press. 1859. Pg. 257ff by Robert Gandell. The footnotes do not always follow his copy. They include some additional thoughts and background by me on the text.

On problem points the English was compared against the original Latin version, Joannis Lightfoot: Opera Omnia. Tomus. II.(3)See Joannis Lightfoot: Opera Omnia. Tomus. II. Rotterdami. Regneri Leers. 1686. Pg. 917ff . These are noted in the footnotes.



[Pg. 257] VER. 2: Ὁ γὰρ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ· He that speaketh in a tongue. Speaking in a tongue ? In what tongue ? You will find this to be no idle question when you have well weighed these things :

  • I. There is none with reason will deny that this whole church of Corinth understood one and the same Corinthian or Greek language : as also, that the apostle here speaks of the ministers of the church, and not of strangers. But now it seems a thing not to be believed, that any minister of that church would Arabic, Egyptian, Armenian, or any other unknown language publicly in the church ; from whence not the least benefit could accrue to the church, or to the minister himself. For although these ministers had their faults, and those no light ones neither, yet we would not willingly accuse them of mere foolishness as speaking in an unknown language for no reason ; nor of ostentation as speaking only for vainglory. And although we deny not that it was necessary that those wonderful gifts of the Holy Ghost should be manifested before all the people, for the honour of him that gave them ; yet we hardly believe that they were to be shown vainly and for no benefit.

  • II. The apostle saith, ver. 4, ὁ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ, ἐαυτὸν οίκοδομεῖ, he that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself : which how [pg. 258] could he do from those tongues, when he could have uttered those very things in his mother-tongue, and have reaped the same fruit of edification?

  • III. The apostle tolerates an unknown tongue if an interpreter were present. But I scarce believe he would tolerate that one should prate in Scythian, Parthian, or Arabic, &c., when he could utter the same things in the Corinthian language, and without the trouble of the church and an interpreter.

We are of opinion, therefore, nor without reason that unknown language which they used, or abused rather, in the church, was the Hebrew ; which now of a long time past was not the common and mother tongue, but was gone into disuse ; but now by the gift of the Holy Ghost it was restored to the ministers of the church,(4)”at jam donante Spiritu Sancto reddita est Ministris Ecclesiæ” — but now by the Holy Spirit equipping, it [Hebrew} has been restored to the Ministers of the Church and that necessarily and for the profit of the church. We inquire not in how many unknown languages they could speak, but how many they spake in the church and we believe that they spake Hebrew only.

How necessary that language was to ministers there is none that doubts. And hence it is that the apostle permits to speak in this (as we suppose) unknown language, if an interpreter were present, because it wanted not its usefulness. The usefulness appeared thence as well to the speaker, while he now skilled [calluit] and more deeply understood the original language ;(5)”Utilitas inde emersit tum loquenti, dum linguam jam calleret, & profundiùs intelligeret originalem ;” The usefulness emerged from that moment for the person who speaks, and during that time he developed practical knowledge and profoundly understood the original language. as also to the hearers while those things were rendered truly, which that mystical and sacred language contained in it.

The foundations of churches were now laying, and the foundations of religion in those churches and it was not the least part of the ministerial task at that time, to prove the doctrine of the gospel, and the person, and the actions, and the sufferings of Christ out of the Old Testament. Now the original text was unknown to the common people ; the version of the Seventy interpreters(6) The Greek Septuagint was faulty in infinite places ; the Targum(7)The Aramaic translations of the Bible upon the prophets was inconstant and Judaized ; the Targum upon the law was as yet none at all : so that it was impossible to discover the mind of God in the holy text without the immediate gift of the Spirit imparting perfect and [pg. 259] full skill both of the language and of the sense ‘ that so the foundations of faith might be laid from the Scriptures, and the true sense of the Scriptures might be propagated without either error or the comments of men.

The apostle saith, “Let him pray that he may interpret,” ver. 13. And ‘interpretation’ is numbered among the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. Now let it be supposed that he spake Latin, Arabic, Persian : either he understood what he spake, or he did not ; if he did not, then how far was he from edifying himself! And yet the apostle saith, he that speak in a tongue edifies himself. If he understood what he spake, how easy was it for him to render it in the Corinthian language ! There are many now learned by the study who are able to translate those tongues into the Corinthian or the Greek, without that extraordinary gift of interpretation immediately poured out by the Holy Ghost. But let it be supposed, which we do suppose, that he spake in the Hebrew tongue, that he either read or quoted the holy text in the original language ; and that he either preached or prayed in the phrases of the prophets ; it sufficed not to the interpretation to render the bare words into bare words, but to understand the sense and marrow of the prophet’s language, and plainly and fully to unfold their mysteries in apt and lively and choice words, according to the mind of God : which the evangelists and apostles by a divine skill do in their writings.

Hear the judgment of the Jews concerning a just interpretation of the holy text. They are treating of the manner of espousing a woman. Among other things these passages occur ; תר” על מנת שאני קריינא “The Rabbins deliver. If he saith, ‘Be thou my espouser if I read : if he read three verses in the synagogue, behold she is espoused. R. Judah saith, ‘Not until he read and interpret.’ יתרגם מדעתיה May he interpret according to his own sense? But the tradition is this : R. Judah saith, המתרגם פסוק כצורתי He that interprets according to his own form behold he is a liar. If he add any thing to it, behold he is a reproacher and blasphemer. What therefore is the Targum ? [Or what intepretation is to be used ?] Our Targum.”(8) Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 49a קידושין מטא

The Gloss there writes thus : “He that interprets a verse [pg. 260] according to his own form, that is, according to the literal sound : for example, לֹא-תַעֲנֶה עַל רִיב Exod. xxiii. 2 ; he that interprets that thus, לא תסהיד על דינה Thou shalt not testify against a judgement, is a liar : for he commands that judgement be brought forth into light. But let him so interpret it, Thou shalt not restrain thyself from teaching any that inquire of thee in judgement. So Onkelos renders it.”

If he add any thing to it : — If he say, ‘Because liberty is given to add somewhat, I will add wheresoever it lists me; he sets God at nought and changeth his words. For wheresoever Onkelos added, he added not of his own sense. For the Targum was given in mount Sinai, and when they forgot it, he came and restored it. And Rab. Chananeel explains these words, ‘He that interprets a verse according to his own form,’ by this example וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל Exod. xxiv. 10. He that shall render it thus, וחזר ית אלהא דישראל and they saw the God of Israel, is a liar ; for no man hath seen God and shall live: and he will add to it who should render it, וחזר ית מלאכא דאלהא and they saw the angle of God. For he attributes the glory of God to an angel. But let him interpret it thus, וחזר ית יקרא דאלהא and they saw the glory of God of Israel. So Onkelos again.”

So great a work do they reckon it to interpret the sacred text. And these things which have bee said perhaps will afford some light about the gift of interpretation.

But although the use of the Hebrew tongue among these ministers was so profitable and necessary, yet there was some abuse with the apostle chastiseth ; namely, that they used it not to edification and without an interpreter. And further, while I behold the thing more closely, I suspect them to Judaize in this matter, which we have before observed them to have done in other things ; and that they retained the use of the Hebrew language in the church, although unknown to the common people, and followed the custom of the synagogue. Where,

Notes on Translating Ambrosiaster’s Corinthians 12-14

The Ambrosiaster Manuscript: Notes on the English Translation of I Corinthians Chapters 12-14

The purpose of this translation was to bring background and definition to the gift of tongues sequences in the Ambrosiaster writer(s) commentary on Corinthians.

Because most people are unfamiliar with the Ambrosiaster writings and this is the only known online translation of the I Corinthians work in English, it was imperative to first introduce some notes and then move into commentary of his text.

1. The Goal of this Translation

The Ambrosiaster text has a number of key passages that ties in with Epiphanius’ description of the problems at Corinth. The references to the historic use of the gift of tongues by Ambrosiaster manuscript are brief but very important. It is critical that the translation and interpretation of the text must be understood within the context of Ambrosiaster manuscript as a whole. A familiarity with the author(s) style and intentions, acknowledgement of the historical background to the text and acceptable translation standards are also requirements in order for the conclusion to stand under critical inquiry.

2. The Ambrosiaster Manuscript from a Literary Perspective

The key to understanding the Ambrosiaster manuscript from 12:28 up to 14:30 was the polemic against personal ambition. One cannot achieve honour or merit before God by one’s status, achievements or human success.

The work also stressed equality between the classes. It taught that all are in possession of the gifts of God and it had nothing to do with ones social status. For example I Corinthians 14:30:

“That if it [any thing] would be a revelation to someone else who is sitting, the first is to be silent.” That is, [it is] preferable he is to allow for the one below [his status] in order that if he is able, he should speak. Not that it is to be done reluctantly, because the gift can be given also to that person. While he appears to be inferior because he has not been allowed for more useful things. For just as the whole cannot be parceled out in one, although better, it cannot be for some, however much inferior that nothing is being imparted [to them], for no one is devoid [of some type of gift] in the grace of God.

The work was written from a pastoral perspective to encourage and inspire the members of the Church. It is not intellectually deep nor a masterpiece of literary genius when compared to Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Thomas Aquinas or the like. On many occasions, it simply re-phrases Paul’s writing in contemporary terms of that time with little historical, social or theological reflection.

3. Problems with Authorship and Dating

Although the Ambrosiaster manuscript has its origins in the fourth century, the Latin style suggests that this is a later manuscript. There are some good clues that suggest this document is at least 8th century. First of all the work is also not built around a neo-platonic framework which was totally typical and expected in fourth century writings. Another clue relates to later Latin writers and translators of Greek texts. The grammatical style and word selection is very similar to that of Thomas Aquinas and not of the Venerable Bede or Augustine.

Gerald L. Bray in his Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians By Ambrosiaster, touches greatly on this subject and concluded;

“Ambrosiaster’s commentary can be broken down into two, or possibly three, principal recensions. Untangling these can be a delicate task, because in later centuries there was a good deal of cross-pollination, as monastic copyists incorporated elements from different recensions into their own text. It is possible that Ambrosiaster left his work in a semipolished state, which was then touched up for publication by literary executors who smoothed out some of its rough edges and filled in material that was either missing from the manuscript(s) they had or that was felt to be needed in order to make sense of what Ambrosiaster wrote. But it is also possible that Ambrosiaster produced the different versions himself, perhaps with a variety of audiences in mind. The style of the shortest recension is lapidary to the point of obscurity, and in some ways is more like a series of lecture notes than a finished commentary. It is often difficult or impossible to know what Ambrosiaster meant, and the second and third recensions were trying to explain the obscurities of the shortest text. Sometimes they are genuinely helpful and illuminate the commentary, but there are places when later hands digressed from Ambrosiaster’s thought pattern and added material that is either irrelevant or contradictory.”(1)Commentaries on Romans as found on Google here.

From my perspective this work is an evolutionary one with its beginnings in 360 or so AD with many redactions, especially the 11th or 12th century, and the addition of Biblical verses put this version around the 14th.

For example, the writing in I Corinthians 14 makes an abrupt change. It starts with simplistic, get-to-the-point writing that is not so difficult to translate. When one reaches verse 30, it makes a strong shift. The translation difficulty increases substantially. It becomes wordy and shifts more into an Aquinas type of thought. I actually changed my approach to translating his commentary on Corinthians after 14:30 as a document akin to a Thomas Aquinas writing. There were too many parallels in style in form.

The text after 14:30 also appears to be fragmented. The train of thought seems to be interrupted and does not flow very well. This is not so much a problem of my English translation but a direct result of what appears to be editorial snippets pieced together by Latin redactors as some sort of mnemonic trigger.

Gerald Bray’s work and translation on Ambrosiaster is considered a definitive work and ought to be consulted in any research work on the subject.

Also Bray’s comment on the Ambrosiaster text being a heavily redacted one is an important note. The Ambrosiaster manuscript is not alone in this tradition. The Chronicon Paschale is a good example of this type of tradition where an original piece has been added to over the centuries. The 7th century or so Chronicon is based on Jerome’s writings, which are heavily influenced by Eusebius, and Eusebius owes much work to Africanus.

In my mind, this does not cause any problems of accuracy or legitimacy of the original manuscript. This is an evolutionary document that traces a line of thought throughout the centuries on the Christian faith as outlined in the Book of Corinthians. What we have today is a bona-fide manuscript at the endpoint in its own evolution.

It does however invite questions of authorship. No one knows who the original author was, nor the names of editors who expanded the text throughout the centuries. It may be best to simply reference this as the Ambrosiaster manuscript and not cite any author.

This work is not cited by the popular ancient Latin writers such as Augustine, Bede, Aquinas, etc., and at least within my readings so far, any Greek Patristic writer. If this manuscript was available to these ancient leaders, or it did circulate, the quality of this writing may have been dismissed by the above as a B-grade publication.

4. Bible Versions

It is obvious Ambrosiaster is working from different Bible than what has evolved into the Vulgate. Some have called it the Old Latin or the Itala version. Traditionally, when I come across a Biblical citation in a Latin commentary, I merely input the Douay-Rheims English translation instead of attempting to translate the Latin into English myself. However, because of the multitude of minor differences between this text and the Vulgate, it forced me to translate the Biblical texts entirely on almost every occasion.

Variant Latin Biblical texts are not uncommon to come across with Latin Patristic writers. There is no equivalent in Christian history that reflects the broad spectrum of differences that are contained in Latin Bible versions.

The goal of this translation is not to compare the citation of Biblical texts to any Greek or non-Latin sources. It is merely to translate what is written here and noting any difference from the Vulgate.

5. Some Translation Notes

The translation provided herein has only gone through two stages of the translation process. The first one is the direct translation from the Latin with some attention to English grammar and meaning. The second pass was to improve on the English meaning and grammar.

More time and energy could be spent on improving the flow in the English, and there are some passages that are problematic and may require a re-translation. Since the central focus of this work is to discover the background and meaning to the christian doctrine of tongues, efforts to complete this translation to a final level will not be considered, except for the passages relating to the gift.

It is still in a good stage for researchers to get a first look into the Ambrosiaster manuscript and decide whether to look into this text any further.

The use of the subjunctive is highly utilized. If anyone needs some experience in translating the Latin subjunctive, this is the writing to practice with. Some thoughts on the subjunctive in more detail can be found at the following article Latin and the Subjunctive.

This is the first time I have encountered the use of nominal sentences in Latin (a sentence lacking the verb esse ‘to be’ but the writer assumes the reader understands that it is inferentially there.)

The use of the pronoun “se” concerns me when translating Latin. This fear can be traced to my knowledge of French where se used in a pronominal sense alters the meaning of the verb. I don’t know if this rule applies to Latin, but if it does, I have missed it.

If there are colloquialisms in the text, I have probably missed them.

Translating the Gerundive. The gerundive appears quite frequently in this text and required some thoughtful attention. The conclusion to this journey can be found on a previous essay The Mysterious Latin Gerundive.

One must note the approach to some Latin keywords:

The translation of the Latin charitas. In our Reformation thinking, this is supposed to be translated into English as love. However, Ambrosiaster wrote well before the Reformation and did not think on these same lines. Love may arguably may be right but charity is a word that better reflects his intentions. Even if one disagrees with the contemporary Catholic teaching of the word, this is what they thought at that time. One cannot change that.

The reader must note that the English translation for lingua throughout the document is translated as language, which is a synonym for tongue. If one was to insert the word tongue every time the word language appears, it changes the nuance and it becomes a more mystical, undefined reality. However, this is not what the author(s) intended, so the translation remains as language. See the blog article: The Difference Between Language and Tongues for more details.

6. The Result of this Research as it relates to the Dogma of Tongues

The text was written in the imperfect tense when relating to the doctrine of tongues. The writer(s) approached it historically with no reference to any modern practice; it solely wanted to convey what Paul and the Corinthian congregation were thinking or doing. Unlike the coverage on prophecy, which does go into some detail, the gift of tongues never goes beyond Paul’s description.

The Ambrosiaster manuscript contains an important text on the role of tongues, the law and the influence of Hebrew in the early Church.

The Ambrosiaster commentary on I Corinthians 14:19:

(Vers. 19) “But in the Church,” it is said, “I wish to speak five words according to the law that I may also build up others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” He [Paul] says it to be more useful speaking in small words in the making of a speech in order that everyone should understand than to have a lengthy speech in obscurity. [Col. 270] These were from the Hebrew who at length in the Syrian language and for the most part by Hebrew women who were indulging in homilies or presentations for approval. For they were boasting calling themselves Jews according to the right of Abraham, that the same apostle held this to no account teaching, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Indeed these ones who are mimicking, they prefer to speak in their unknown language to the people in the Church which belongs to them.”

There a number of elements to address but the first one that captures the readers attention is the alternate Biblical text, “I wish to speak five words according to the law…” Normally this should read, “however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind…” (NASB). The NASB version more closely aligns with the Greek manuscripts than does the Ambrosiaster text.

Why the insertion of law instead of mind? One must be cognizant of the fact that the difference in Greek between law and mind is one letter νὸμον “law” and νόος “mind”. It would be easy to mix these two up by a copyist. However, this is not the only place where law is used. Epiphanius in his Against Haeresies text also acknowledged the use of this verse in a translation. More details on this can be found in the article, Epiphanius on the Problem Tongues of Corinth.

One assumption some may make by reading this text was that the Ambrosiaster writer(s) was of Jewish descent or influence, having understood a Judaic background to the Corinthian saga. As one reads through the text, one will discover that this is not the case. The author(s) had a narrow view of Judaism. For example, the commentary on I Corinthians 14:21 reads:

Thus one is able also to understand that because many of the Jews were spiteful and therefore it was not worthy to speak to them the Gospel in a revelation, that they spoke to them in parables, and therefore that it is not being shown to them who are the ones who understand because they were wicked neither also would they reform themselves. While the ones who have merit were benefitting themselves to hear the words of God by means of the the exposition.

As outlined in the commentary on I Corinthians 12:28, it did recognize the influence of Jewish custom on the early Church:

“Third teachers.” That he says the teachers who, since the epistles and the readings out loud [and traditions]*4* must be preserved in the Church, were giving the young men initial instruction in the custom of the synagogue because the tradition of these people, it was prepared to be brought over to us.

This was qualified to reduce the Jewish influence and demonstrate the Church had taken it over. The commentary on Corinthians 14:31 further opines:

(Vers. 31) “For you are all to prophecy by each one at a time, that all are to learn, and all are to be encouraged.” This tradition is of the Synagogue which he wishes us to continually follow because he is certainly writing to Christians but to those who have been reared Gentiles, not from the Jews. That the ones that remain are possibly debating, seniors with rank according to the throne, attending on the tribune’s seats, the most extraordinary on the pavement above the mats. If anyone would be [in] a revelation, the one that must be gifted is to receive in advance a designated place, neither one ought to be looked down upon, because they are the members of the body.”

It is clear from the above texts that the writer(s) were not Jewish and were scape-goating the ethnic Jews with whatever problems existed in the Church.

The Bible quotation by the Ambrosiaster writer(s) was not intended by them to be an exegesis of Jewish custom or practice but were simply citing a verse from their Bible, which in this case happened to be the Old Itala Latin version. The Ambrosiaster author(s) simply had not made any emendation or elucidation to the text.

The author(s) also had a much broader definition of what the law comprised. The author(s) believed Isaiah 28:11 (See his commentary on I Corinthians 14:21) to be part of the law. In some ancient Christian circles, the whole Bible canon was considered a legal text, which the Ambrosiaster manuscripts promoted as well.

For example, the commentary of I Corinthians 12:1 supplies an almost fundamentalist view of Bible interpretation:

So also the ones worshiping God, they are to exist with the form of the law of the Lord, these ones march as if it is to be pleasing with the Lord. In fact the form of every piece of the law ought to appear in the occupation and the behaviour of the worshiper.”

The Ambrosiaster text suggested that the problem of the Corinthians tongues was that of women speaking in Aramaic in a predominately Greek based church.

The conclusion of Hebrew women speaking in Aramaic is only referenced historically. It does not use this as an example for how the office of the gift of tongues was to be used in the Church.

The author(s) believed that since an outside party, ie: the Jews, had introduced this problem, it was not reflective with their perception of the true Church, its community and what it really practiced.

This is the only historical reference made to the gift of tongues. The practical interpretation the author(s) promoted for their own interpretation and application was different. For example, the commentary found at I Cor. 14:27 demonstrated a total lack of recognition regarding the historical aspect and delves into understanding the text from a literal-simplistic perspective:

(Vers. 27) If any speaks in a language, by two, or at the most three and specifically that one shall interpret,” This is, two or three and no more are to be speaking in languages but one at a time, not each at the same time. Lest they were to appear to be insane. “at the most three.” Lest the ones speaking in languages and their translations were to occupy the day and prophets do not have the time explaining the Scriptures which they are illuminators of the whole Church.

As one can immediately see, there is not much added by the Ambrosiaster writer(s) to the Pauline text on tongues. There is no practical application or demonstration of how the Pauline text on tongues influenced or was applied in their contemporary Church worship.

The author(s) do not see the need to explain why so many people were permitted to speak at once or any antecedents that led to this type of practice.

The manuscript does delve into Paul’s address about tongues. Here are some highlights, though there are more:

Chapter 12:28 “”Kinds of languages”. That the gift of God is to know many languages. “Interpretation of words.” When this is granted to some by the grace of God that he has the expertise of languages which require translations.”

Chapter 13:9-10 “In fact who can do it that can grasp all the human languages, is that of God?”

Chapter 14:10-11 “Certainly he does not teach it being desirous that in turns they be seen with each other by a foreign language of a barbarian.”

It is clear that the Ambrosiaster writer(s) believed the tongues of Corinth to be actual foreign languages. There was nothing mystical in their minds.

Chapter 14 (Vers. 22) Therefore languages they are as a sign.” This is, the words of God have been concealed by a veil of unknown languages, nor do they appear by deceit, and when the unknown languages are being heard, it is to be a sign, because it was made on account of faithlessness, lest the ones hearing are to understand. “By all means it is not for those who believe, but for the non-believers.” [Col. 271] This is what he said, because they go on in languages to the unbeliever for the purpose of hiding the meanings.

The writer(s) here in 14:22 fail to distinguish who is a believer and unbeliever. Why would someone speak in a foreign tongue to a pagan Roman or a Barbarian? What would this benefit the Christian cause? They failed to answer this critical question.

Chapter 14 (Vers. 26) “What is it then brothers? When you come together each one of you has a song.” That is they are speaking praise to God through song.” He has a teaching.” This is, he has a narration of the meaning by spiritual wisdom. “He has a revelation.” That is, prophecy regarding the hidden things by the agency of the holy Spirit is a basis for discussion which reaches to the mind of every person. “He has a language.” That those who were able to speak in a language, they were not to be discouraged, he permitted them to speak in languages. Still yet interpretation was to follow. He therefore says, “He has an interpretation.” That if an interpreter was to be present, a spot was to be given belonging to those preparing to speak in languages.”

The idea that the gift of tongues in Corinth was the speaking of a foreign language was not new to the Ambrosiaster writer(s). This was typical of ecclesiastical tradition.

7. The Ambrosiaster Manuscript on the role of Prophecy

The Ambrosiaster writer(s), along with Thomas Aquinas, spends far more time with the function and definition of prophecy than defining the literary problems of tongues in I Corinthians 14.

The office of the prophet is kept completely separate and distinct from the gift of tongues.

8. Disclaimers

The nuances of anti-semitism and the role of women in this composition do not reflect my own personal opinions. Nor is this translation meant to be a vehicle to promote such knowledge. It is submitted to the reader that this attitude should not be accepted or promoted. The reader should always be aware that the ancient Christian writers were susceptible to the influences of their time, whether good or bad, just like anyone else and it should be read with a watchful eye.

This has not been reviewed or approved by an experienced or reputable authority. Use the translation at your own risk. Also, this translation can change without notice.

9. The Actual Translations and Latin Original

References   [ + ]