The history of Hebrew as the first language is a fascinating story that travels through Patristic, Rabbinic, and the Greek worlds. The sacredness of this language has cycled through over 2,000 years of Jewish and Christian literature.
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 forwards Hebrew as the first language of mankind, another promotes Hebrew as the language which God personally used, and there is an allusion by some to the use of Hebrew with the first Pentecostal tongues outburst recorded in the Book of Acts. 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
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
However, the thirteenth-century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, believed that Augustine had later retracted this view.3 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
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 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 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
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
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 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
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 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 to 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
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
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
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 an argument by the fifth-century Pope of Alexandria, Cyril. He wrote a lengthy refutation against Julian’s diatribe. Here is an important quote relating to Hebrew being a sacred language;
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
The Greeks understood that their language was supreme and this attitude carried over into the Roman world. 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
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 is a mystery. 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 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
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 the project 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
There is a variety of responses to this question and the conclusion 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.
- W. Frankenberg. De Syrischen Clementinem mit Griechischem Paralleltext. Verlag: J.C. Heinrichs. 1937. Pg. 39
- Augustine. City of God. Trans. by Sanford, E. and Green, W. Vol. 5. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1995. Pg. 64
- S. Thomae Opera. Robert Busa, S.I. ed. Fromman-Holzboog. 1980. Vol. 6. Reportationes. 092 RPL cp3. Pg. 469
- see Gregory of Nyssa: Answer to Eunomius’s Second Book
- Joannes Malala, Chronologica. MPG: Vol. 97. Col. 75
- MPG Vol. 87 Pt. 1. Col. 316 (vers. 14)
- 0627-0735 Beda Venerabilis Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Migne Patrologia Latina. Voluma 092: Col 0937-0996A (www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu). Pg. 1
- Oecumenii Triccae Episcopi. Comment. In Acta Apostolorum. . MPG. Vol. 118. Col. 289.
- Michaelis Pselli Theologica. Vol. 1. Paul Gautier ed. BSB B.G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft. 1989. Pg. 294.
- Georgii Cedreni. Historiam Compendium. MPG Vol. 121. Col. 49
- Sefer Haggada (in Hebrew) Tel-Abib: Dvir co. Ltd. Book III, 3b. My translation.
- Gen. R. LII, 5 as quoted in A. Cohen. Everyman’s Talmud. London: Dent and Song. 1978. Pg. 122
- 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
- Sefer Haggada. III, 3b
- The original Greek: S. Cyrilli Alexandrini, Contra Julianum, Lib. VII . MPG: Vol. 76. Col. 858. English translation is mine.
- 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.
- Joseph Naveh. Early History of the Alphabet. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1982. Pg. 10
- Book I, chapter 6. http://www.danteonline.it/english/opere.asp?idope=3&idlang=UK