The Language of Instruction in the Corinthian Church

The role of Hebrew, Aramaic, or both as the language of religious instruction in the earliest Corinthian Church.

This is a discussion based on a text supplied by Epiphanius, who believed the Corinthian conflict was because of the arrogance of the Greek rhetorics, who specialized in the various nuances of the Greek languages, did not recognize the Hebrew tongue as a sacerdotal language.

Paul presents a serious literary difficulty when addressing the use of tongues in the first century Corinthian Church. He assumed the reader understood the context which is lost to us today. The problem generally was about a person or persons speaking in a language which was not in the common vernacular of the audience. He mandated that any person speaking in a foreign language must have it immediately communicated in the local tongue. If there was no one available to interpret or the speaker(s) were incapable of interpreting their speech themselves, then the speaker was not allowed to speak. For example if a Rabbinic lecturer from Yavneh, Israel, stood up and gave a powerful speech on redemption in Hebrew, but did not have the ability to later translate it into the local Greek dialect, then he must not speak. It was of no benefit to the audience except for the speaker himself.

Paul also legislated that only one person can speak at a time and that each one must have a turn. This type of legislation parallels very much with ancient Jewish customs on reading, speaking and interpreting as outlined earlier in this series.

Why didn’t Paul name the Hebrew language, or the Greek languages that Epiphanius outlined as sources of the conflict? Paul was confronted with ethnic, linguistic and political forces in his writing that persuaded him not to name the specific language or languages that were in dispute. The Church could have disintegrated into factions by him naming them.

If Paul was emphasizing this to be a problem of liturgical reading, his word choice selection would have been different. The noun reader or the verb read can’t be found anywhere in the key-text. Paul wouldn’t have used the verb to speak such as λαλῶν found in I Corinthians 14:1 ὁ γὰρ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ, the one who speaks in a language in reference to a reader. He would have used something similar to ἀναγιγνώσκων anaginôskôn instead. Therefore the Corinthian problem being that of liturgical reading of the text in Hebrew was not the problem — at least according to the Epiphanius’ text anyways.

This is a difficult obstacle to overcome, and because of this, the Hebrew reader/interpreter theory cannot be held as a viable solution. However the Epiphanius text should be understood differently. The Epiphanius text was asserting Hebrew as an instructional language; a Messianic Jewish sage would speak in the religious tongue of Hebrew concerning the Christian life and an interpretation would be supplied in the local vernacular. This practice was adopted from a Jewish custom contemporary at that time.

Talmud Babli Yoma 20b demonstrates this Jewish rite of teaching in Hebrew and a simultaneous translation in the local tongue. This passage reflects a teaching session given by R. Shila. His instruction was performed in Hebrew, which was demonstrated here as the language of Jewish religion and polity — a sacerdotal tongue. An interpreter was required for the common people to understand the speech. The text makes this out to be standard procedure during this time.

Rab(1)Abba Areka came to the place of R. Shila, when there happened to be no interpreter to stand next to R. Shila, so Rab took the stand next to him and interpreted, ‘keriath hageber’ as ‘the call fo the man’. R. Shila said to him” Would you, Sir, interpret it as: Cockrow! Rab replied: ‘A flute is musical to nobles, but give it to weavers, they will not accept it’.(2)Talmud Babli Yoma 20b. As found as a pdf at halakhah.com There are no page numbers. The pdf is attributed to Tarmo Jeskanen as the author. See also Yoma 20b in the original

The eleventh century Rashi chose to explain further the mechanics between the teacher and the interpreter:

The one who interprets stands beside a sage who gives the homily and the sage whispers the Hebrew language to him and he translates to the common language they hear in.(3)My translation Yoma 20b

Where Rashi got the idea of the Sage whispering to the translator is not known. This may be a much later tradition than Paul’s time.

This passage used two different words to define the concept of interpreter. The first one was אמורא Amora. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that this term had two functions. The first one represented all the Rabbinic teachers that flourished during a period of about three hundred years, from the time of the death of the patriarch R. Judah I. (219) to the completion of the Babylonian Talmud (about 500)(4)Amora as found in the Jewish Encylopedia. The second definition applies here. While the lecturer generally pronounced his sentences in the academic language, which was chiefly Hebrew, the Amora gave his explanations in Aramaic…”(5)Amora as found in the Jewish Encylopedia.. The article states that the term Amora as an interpreter or translator was a later usage to that of the word meturgeman and often was interchanged with it.

The second word used for interpreter is פרש peresh — to interpret, expound, clarify.

Understanding the word interpret in I Corinthians 14 is one of the keys to unlocking what Paul meant. The Syriac version of this passage is especially helpful which is ܦܫܩ pashek. J. Payne Smith’s Dictionary describes at as to explain, expound, to write commentaries, to translate. The dictionary demonstrated how the word ܦܫܩ was used in the Syrian Church: “he expounds the Six Days of Creation to the congregation,” which exemplifies the fact that Paul wasn’t meaning interpreter to be a literal word for word translation from one language to another but it could be dynamic, or amplified.(6)J. Payne Smith’s (Mrs. Margoliouth) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Pg 468 as found at Dukhrana’s website.

This passage from the Talmud also exhibits that it was Jewish tradition for the teacher to speak in Hebrew while an interpreter translated it into the common tongue of the audience. The Epiphanius text believed this practice was still being performed in the earliest Corinthian Church. Yet there is one difference between Paul’s exhortation and two hundred years or so later to the time of R. Shila — during Paul’s time a teacher instructing in Hebrew could provide his own translation. Rabbinic tradition during R. Shila’s time did not allow this. Someone else was obligated to do the translation.

If one takes face-value the information provided so far, Paul was referencing the the one who speaks in tongues as one teaching or lecturing in Hebrew. The interpreter was the speaker or another person familiar with both Hebrew and the target language, translating it on the fly. Paul mentioned in I Corinthians 14:13 that a person who speaks in a foreign unnamed tongue should himself interpret it. Later on in 14:28 he exhorts those who speak in a tongue should not speak at all if a third party interpreter is not available. In the context of what has been discussed so far, Paul was stating a rule about instruction and translation. If the teacher who taught in Hebrew had no knowledge of the local vernacular and there was no one available to translate who knew both Hebrew and the local language, the teacher was to remain silent.

The Epiphanius text stated that there was a conflict between three different Greek ethnic groups. This tension was likely over the translation or elucidation of the original speech done in Hebrew or Aramaic. Doric, Attic and Aeolic interpreters were simultaneously translating in their own mother tongue. This would be very confusing for those not familiar with Jewish customs, especially non-Jews. It would seem like mayhem and would be an obstacle to natural growth. It could also have been a dispute over what the standardized Greek language ought to be in the Corinthian Church. None of the Greek ethnic groups would cede their language to the authority of another Greek dialect.

This renders a difficult section of Paul’s writing to simplicity. This may not entirely be the case. The fourth century or later Latin based Ambrosiaster text on I Corinthians wrote that the Corinthian problem wasn’t about the Hebrew language but Aramaic — a language which surpassed Hebrew as the common language of the Jewish community by Paul’s time. The Ambrosiaster text outlined the conflict being Jewish members (specifically women) of the Corinthian congregation speaking Aramaic as a form of religious superiority above the non-Jewish Greeks in the Corinthian Church. This does not come as a surprise. As outlined in an earlier article, Liturgy, Race and Language in the Corinthian Church, there were tensions between Hebrew and Aramaic in the Jewish religious life. This could also had been reflected in the earliest Corinthian Church over the proper language of instruction. There could have been Hebrew and Aramaic factions competing for preeminence.

This idea of Hebrew and Aramaic competing as the language of instruction fits in better with Paul’s admonition on tongues because on a number of occasions he refers to tongues in the plural, not in the singular.

The Greek community has so far been left of the equation within the formative Corinthian Church. It may have not been Hebrew, as the Epiphanius text states, but which Greek language ought to be the language of instruction and translated into the local vernacular. Doric Greek for example, was the language connected to the historical Corinthian city — whether the people during the first century still spoke Doric locally as the daily tongue or Attic had overcome it is not known. Doric was also the language used for composing choral lyric poetry in the international Greek world.(7) See Choral Doric for more information. Doric could have possibly been wanted as the language of instruction and certain sects within the initial Corinthian community were pressing for this. Since other Greek members of the Church did not know Doric, a translator was required to interpret it into the local vernacular. The Greeks thought their language to be superior to anyone else and would have had a hard time submitting to a foreign language such as Hebrew or Aramaic as the definitive one for religious devotion.(8) See Liturgy, Race and Language in the Corinthian Church for more information.

There is not enough information to substantiate Doric but it does show a potential state for conflict. It could also have been Aeolic or Attic pushed as the premier language of instruction. More research is required in this area.

The probability of the Greeks pressing for a Greek language to be the one for instruction is not as strong as that of Hebrew, Aramaic, or both being the initial language of instruction in the Church with an accompanying interpretation into the local tongue. The Epiphanius text should be understood that the instruction was done in Hebrew and the conflict was in which Greek language should be the primary base tongue in the Corinthian Church.

This was the environment Paul was up against in writing his letter to the Corinthians. It was a church composed of Jewish-Hebrew, Jewish-Aramaic, Jewish-Greek, and non-Jewish Greek members. It was a time where all things of religious faith were allowed to be reexamined, especially in context of Jewish tradition; what rituals were to be included from previous liturgical traditions, what were to be removed, and what new traditions should be started. The Jewish tradition was the underlying base. The Church was both restorative to the ancient Jewish identity but forward looking at the same time. It was more inclusive of many different ethnic groups and practices. Paul seemed unconcerned about the language issue itself but wanted to maintain some type of order so that all these different language speaking groups could operate cohesively together.

One must be aware that there is a lack of complete information on the use of Hebrew in first century Israel and the diaspora. It has been asserted here that it is a religious language used by by the leaders and teachers on matters of Jewish religious and civil matters while most of the Israeli public spoke Aramaic while the diaspora Jews spoke whatever local language they lived in. This is a controversial point. The publication, The Language Environment of First Century Judaea edited by Randall Buth and Steven R. Notley, strongly argue that Hebrew was the common language of communication in first century Judaea.(9) Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels—Volume Two The Language Environment of First Century Judaea Randall Buth, Steven R. Notley ed..

If one reads the Pauline passage with the idea of Hebrew/Aramaic as the language of instruction and understands the Jewish structure of speaking and interpretation in Jewish tradition as outlined in this series, the text is clearly understood. It is not a mystical out-of-this-world experience but the re-imaging of Jewish structure in a newly formed Church.

This also answers the question of why the language problems of Corinth existed. If there was no Jewish antecedent forcing the use of a sacerdotal language, the Greek audience simply would have performed all the liturgical rites in their native tongue, and consequently there would have never been a mysterious tongues controversy.■

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.

References   [ + ]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *