Who would have thought that a relatively unknown eleventh century Greek Christian statesman/philosopher/theologian by the name of Michael Psellos would provide such important clues behind the mysterious christian doctrine of tongues?
It was never a mystery to Psellos. It’s just that western history has largely forgotten about this brilliant thinker. If he was popular, the present issues and debates surrounding this mysterious doctrine would not be so fashionable.
Or it just may be that Psellos was forgotten because of the complexity of thoughts that he expressed. His approach to faith, scripture and intellect took western society five hundred or so more years to catch-up. It is surprising that his complex weave of Greek philosophy and Christian faith in a very conservative Christian environment didn’t get him into more serious trouble than he encountered.
But then, he did get himself in trouble. He thought highly of opinions and liked to show-off his intellectual genius. After reading his text, it is not clear whether he was trying to solve the riddle of Nazianzus’ miracle of hearing or speech, or it was an opportunity to show his intellectual mastery. Regardless of his motives, he leaves us with the richest wealth of historic literature on speaking in tongues.
Who exactly was Michael Psellos? Any biography in English on him is very limited. The Catholic New Advent website has a general outline of him. He was a:
“Byzantine statesman, scholar, and author, born apparently at Constantinople, 1018; died probably 1078. . . his many-sided literary work and the elegance of his style give him a chief place among contemporary scholars.”
The New Advent article proceeds to explain that he lived both in and around Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) and was politically involved with various leaders. He worked his way up to being the Secretary of State. He was a Christian who had a love-hate relationship with the Church. One of the lower moments in that relationship was his stance on choosing Plato over Aristotle. The Church tolerated the non-Christian writings of Aristotle, but frowned on Plato. He studied theology but loved philosophy, and this was a continued source of contention.
There is also a Wikipedia biography. This one is the most popular and is copied throughout the web in various forms, though this work has been flagged by Wikipedia for need of revisions.
Michael Psellos is a between-man. He lived in the eleventh-century and still was connected to the ancient traditions of the church, but also at the beginning shift of intellectual and scholarly thought that modern readers come to rely on. He bridged both worlds. This is why his work is so important.
He wrote in Greek and appealed to the Eastern Greek world. It could be that his choice of writing in Greek during the time when Latin literature had far more prominence diminished his universal appeal.
Psellos reinforces one of the main arguments of the Gift of Tongues Project that coverage of ecclesiastical literature has been woefully neglected on the subject. This is partially due to the fact that most libraries do not have ancient Christian texts in the original languages, and so few ancient Church texts have been translated into English. It makes the Church fathers appear silent on the subject to western readers. This has led to a variety of erroneous conclusions. Psellos and many other ancient Church writers demonstrate this neglect is seriously wrong, and a fresh look at the Christian doctrine of tongues without modern prejudices is required.
What did Psellos write that was so important? Two things. He first clears up the Nazianzus paradox of whether the miracle of tongues was in the speaking or hearing. Secondly, he particularly clarifies the similarities and differences between the ancient Greek prophetesses going into a frenzy and spontaneously speaking in foreign languages they did not know beforehand, and with the disciples of Christ who also spontaneously spoke in foreign languages.
It is an important work that changes the nature of the discussion. Many thanks to Alex Poulos who did some fine research and unearthed such a gem. He translated one paragraph of the text along with some comments. It is found over at his blog, Michael Psellos on Pentecost Part 1.
It is exciting to uncover such a rich treasure on this subject and share it with all interested readers on the subject. Not only will a number of articles be generated directly but a few older articles, especially the ones covering the history of glossolalia from the eighteenth century onwards, will be updated because of these findings. ￭
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
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.
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.