A detailed look into the Jewish rite of reading, speaking, interpreting. Practices that set the liturgical framework for the Corinthian and later churches.
This article specifically dwells on the role of the reader in the Jewish synagogue. Another article The Public Reader in the Church, explains how the early church transformed the rite into a Greek Christian one. Another article in this series The Language of Instruction in the Corinthian Church, aligns with Paul’s explanation of tongues.
The goal initially was to capture the concept of the synagogue process of the reader and see if it fits in with Paul’s address of tongues in his first letter to the Corinthians. However, it was close, but didn’t quite match.
The Jewish rite of reading parallels closely with the office of instruction. The two offices seem to overlap. This study reveals a rich history of the public reader from 500 BC; the transition from Jewish to a Greek custom.
Building a framework
In order to structure a Jewish background to the Corinthian saga, historical context has to built. This has to be done from Jewish sources, with some help from the Bible, the Apostle Paul, and a number of ecclesiastical texts.
The coverage is broken into two parts. The first looks at the texts themselves and attempts to rebuild a historical background. The second is to pick-up clues from the reader/interpreter rite in the synagogue.
The rebuilding is very difficult. Although there is much information on how the Aramaic speaking Jewish community adapted the Hebrew Scriptures to their lives, there is little information about how the Jewish Greeks observed theirs. It is too much to assume that whatever dogma was established in the Babylonian or Palestinian Talmuds would be exactly followed in their contemporary Jewish Greek world. However, with the exception of Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, there are no Jewish Greek literary traditions that relates to the Jewish Greek synagogue practices of the first century.
Neither is it clear how the Greek Septuagint fit within the earliest Corinthian Church. It is irrefutable that the Septuagint was the source Bible for early Christian life, but the Corinthian Church, composed originally with a majority of Messianic Jews, may have initially started with different liturgical and linguistic values. These traditional Jewish liturgical and religious influences may have shifted significantly within a decade.
This lack of first century Jewish Greek literature, especially from a Jewish Pharasaic religious perspective such as Paul wrote from, or anything that relates to their synagogue liturgical practices in the first century, forces the researcher to a limited array of evidence that is only found in the Bible, Babylonian Talmud, a small number of Patristic writers, and later Jewish thinkers who based their thought on the Talmud.
This is a serious problem and one that will likely never be completely overcome. Therefore the researcher is forced to utilize the best pieces available today.
The first public reader, Ezra the Scribe
The oldest Jewish text that attests to such a rite allegedly can be traced to Ezra the Scribe around 450 BC. It is found in the Biblical Book of Nehemiah chapter 8:
1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.
2So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
A detailed look at the Hebrew text of Nehemiah
The text described Ezra the Scribe reading from a podium along with what appears to be a third party explaining what he read in terms the audience could understand. A number of key Hebrew words develop this inquiry even further;
- בין, bin, understanding, or teaching
- פרש peresh, give meaning, explain, or translate and
- שֶׂכֶל shekel, a synonym to בין comprehend, apply common sense.
The use of בין, bin, is troublesome. It is used in the Nehemiah text in two distinct ways — to understand, and to instruct. Modern Hebrew restricts its usage only to mean to understand, which makes it difficult for those knowing modern Hebrew to discern the nuances here. The contemporary language does not give any sense of instructing, translating, or explaining. This is not the case in this much earlier writing.
There is a clue about this word meaning instructing found later on in the Book of Nehemiah which states the lay audience Ezra spoke to did not know Hebrew; the majority knew Aramaic and the rest other foreign languages. Therefore the people who heard the reading from the Law were incapable of understanding the Hebrew reading. The great eleventh century Rabbi, Rashi, commented upon the idea of the Levites instructing מְבִינִים, mivinim, as a case of interpreting the Hebrew words into the common vernacular. Therefore בין, bin, must be understood as teaching or instructing within this context.
Was Hebrew really a dead language in Ezra’s time?
This is a controversial point. What did the people hear when listening to Ezra? The book, Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda edited by William Horbury, asserts that the cultural elite only knew Aramaic, and the peasantry conversed in Hebrew. This is a completely opposite conclusion to the evidence found above. The Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda does not seem to fit all the evidence found.
The more plausible theory is the one noted earlier that Ezra read the Hebrew text out loud and immediately translated into Aramaic. The Talmud Babli indicates academic, religious and political communities understood and could speak Hebrew during his time, but the layperson could not. This fits in better with the paradigm offered in the Talmud.
The importance of פרש
The Nehemiah text then shortly after uses פרש parash as a synonym to בין, bin. Parash usually means to make clear, explain or translate. It is important to look at the era that Nehemiah was written in to support the idea of translation.. Internal evidence from the Book of Ezra 4:18 uses a similar verbal form which correlates with the word translation or interpret. Modern Hebrew understands the word as interpret as well.
פרש parash becomes a key word for later discussions. The word does not denote a word-for-word translation, but can be amplified, a springboard for an extended lecture in the target language, and a platform for personal gain. This caused many later problems in the synagogue rite that needed to be rectified.
The ongoing tradition of the Reader/Translator
Ezra to Paul
According to later Jewish texts, this tradition established by Ezra has carried on ever since then. It is not clear how it evolved or adapted over the centuries. Only small snippets in time can be found that reference this. The following precepts were established from the time of Ezra.
A reader to read from the original Hebrew text from a specially built podium for this rite
the speaking of Hebrew and a third party, which is here defined as the Levites, translating or explaining the reading in the common vernacular of the audience,
the people hearing the reading and translation are to respond with an amen.
There is no historical information regarding the role of Hebrew and the translator in the Jewish liturgy for almost five hundred years after the time of Ezra. The next document that refers to it, albeit controversially, is around 60 AD by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 14)
Paul addresses the rites of speaking in a foreign language, the audience hearing a foreign language, interpreting, interpreting in turns, saying the amen, and a need for clarifying or explaining a speech. These fully parallel with that of the Jewish liturgy. There are too many key terms that rule out any relationship with the Jewish liturgy as purely accidental.
However, one must keep in mind that Paul did not suggest the reader/interpreter paradigm in his famous tongues passage of I Corinthians 14. The reader/interpreter part of the liturgy may have existed in the earliest Corinthian Church which Paul attended, but this does not appear to be the central thrust of his concern. He was addressing instructing/interpreting which also had a role in Jewish traditional religious piety.
Hebrew Reader and Interpreter in the Talmud
The next substantial mention of the liturgy of Hebrew being read and a third party standing beside the reader and simultaneously translating it into the common vernacular can be found in the fourth century or later Babylonian Talmud.
Talmud Megillah 9a to 24b have scattered references to this and allude to the history of the reading of the Bible in the Jewish liturgy. They demonstrate the tensions between the use of Hebrew and its adaptation to Jewish communities of different linguistic natures. The resolutions are uneven in application but do show some general evolution.
Talmud Babli Megillah 9a. It declares that the Books of Scripture may be written in any language, but then later stipulates that it can only translated into Greek, and no other language. The text further states that King Ptolemy, a non-Jewish Greek ruler, legislated a Greek translation in the third century BC, which means the Jewish sages had no choice but to sanctify it and therefore the writing goes on to mythologize this. It also legislated that whatever language the liturgical prayers were originally written in, must stay in their original language.
Talmud Babli Megillah 17a:
The quotation from below is from the Mishnah, which is an older text inside the Talmud Babli and can be traced often to the second century. The author(s) here cover the subject of reading in Hebrew — its primary usage in the liturgy and should be practiced even if a person doesn’t understand it. The problem appears a difficult one for the Jewish sages as they contradict themselves here. They conclude that hearing or reading in Hebrew, even if it is not understood, is a religious obligation that morally must be observed.
MISHNAH. If one reads the Megillah backwards, he has not performed his obligations. If he reads it by heart, if he reads it in a translation [Targum] in any language, he has not performed his obligation. It may, however, be read to those who do not understand Hebrew in a language other than Hebrew. If one who does not understand Hebrew hears it read in Hebrew, he has performed his obligation. If one reads it with breaks or while half-asleep, he has performed his obligation.
The Rabbinic discussion proceeds further on this passage, which is not quoted here, struggling with the idea of Hebrew having such a high standing and how the Jewish faith could extend into the non-Jewish vernacular. They concluded that Hebrew was to be used in reading or recitation but the holy language extended no further. The common vernacular could be used in the common prayers, and thus other liturgical rites.
Megillah 21b covers the rules of translating the Scriptures into the common vernacular. It concluded that the Torah must only have one reader and one translator for ensuring that the importance of the text is understood. The prophets are considered less important and are given one reader, and two simultaneous translators. The reading of the Talmud had little or no restrictions on the amount of readers or simultaneous translators. The amount of readers and translators, depending on the importance of the text, increased for entertainment purposes. The art of reading or translating together in harmony was like hearing a choir.
A Tanna stated: This is not the case with [the public reading of] the Torah. Our Rabbis taught: As regards the Torah, on reads and one translates, and in no case must one read and two translate [together]. As regards the Prophets, one reads and two translate, but in no case may two read and two translate. As regards Hallel and the Megillah, even ten may read [and ten may translate]. What is the reason? Since the people like it, they pay attention and hear.
This may have been a later addition to the religious liturgy, as Paul in I Corinthians 14:27, established that each one must speak or translate in turn. He did not want a cacophony of voices at the same time.
Megillah 23b explains that the reader is not to read less than three verses on any occasion, but while reading, should stop at each verse so that the translator can keep in rhythm.
The reader is not to skip verses in the Torah, but can skip in the prophets.
There is more to the Megillah about reading and translating, such as age, gender and physical requirements, but it does not relate to the Corinthian context, so it is not listed here.
Maimonides on reading and interpreting
The twelfth century Rabbi, scholar, and physician, Maimonides (also known as Rambam) synthesized the idea of the reader/interpreter into a cohesive form. His coverage of this topic can be found in Mishneh Torah: Book of Love: Order or Prayers (Hilkot Tefilah chapter 12). He copiously wrote in detail on the subject though most if it does not directly connect with the Church of Corinth. There are two themes that do have a connection:
The Amen construct found in I Corinthians:
Each one of the readers opens the Torah scroll and looks at the place from which he is to read. Afterwards, he declares, Barchu et Ado-nai hamevorach, and all the people answer: Baruch Ado-nai hamevorach le’olam va’ed. He then recites the blessing:
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You, God, the Giver of the Torah.
All the people respond: “Amen.” Afterwards, he reads until he completes the reading, rolls the scroll [closed] and recites the blessing:
Both Paul and Maimonides agree that the amen is part of the Jewish liturgy but disagree on how it is to be used. Paul emphasized that an intermediary between the speaker and the congregation, the anaplêrôn, was to say the amen on behalf of the congregation. The term anaplêrôn is unique to Paul’s writing. The fifth century Alexandrian Church called the person who occupied the position of anaplêrôn as keimenos — one who takes homiletic exegesis or highly articulate language and explains it in such a way that the average person could understand. The anaplêrôn would say amen as a way of ending whatever explanation was required. If the anaplêrôn did not understand what was being said, he could not then convert it into common vernacular and therefore would be unable to say the amen. Maimonides, on the other hand, believed the amen was to be done by the congregation itself at the ending of a reading. This may be a later evolution of this rite since Paul’s time.
Maimonides believed that the synagogue liturgy of reading from Hebrew with a translator interpreting the reading into the local vernacular was an established fact since the time of Ezra.
From the time of Ezra, it was customary that a translator would translate to the people the [passages] read by the reader from the Torah, so that they would understand the subject matter.
The office of the interpreter in Jewish liturgy
The Aramaic word for interpreter in the Talmud Megillah and commentaries associated with it is is מתרגם meturgem in the singular and מתרגמין meturgemin in the plural. The plural is used more often. Aramaic tradition and the English language has resolved this office to be called the meturgamen. The early history of this word is not known except that it was extensively used from the third century onwards in Aramaic circles. The torah.org website covers the twofold usage of the interpreter in a clear way:
There were two types of Merturgemans (translators/interpreters). The first is the kind who stood by the Torah reader in the synagogue and translated into Aramaic as the reader read, verse by verse. It is mentioned dozens of times in the Talmud; once the Jews were exiled to Babylon, their vernacular was Aramaic – only the scholars and elders spoke or understood Hebrew. Thus to make Torah reading understandable, it was translated. In the same way, the Meturgeman would also sit by the Rabbi in the synagogue or the study hall. When the Rabbi would share words of Torah with the congregation or with his students, he would speak quietly in Hebrew and the trans. would repeat his words in Aramaic.
The Jewish Encylopedia further adds:
The weekly lesson from the Pentateuch and the Prophets was read by a member of the congregation, and the meturgeman had to translate into the vernacular the Pentateuchal lesson verse by verse; from the Prophets he translated three verses at a time. While the reader of the Hebrew text was forbidden to recite by heart, the meturgeman was not permitted to read his translation from a book, or to look at the Hebrew text when translating, in order that the people should not think that the translation was contained in the text. The meturgeman was also forbidden to raise his voice higher than that of the reader of the text. He did not limit himself to a mere literal translation, but dilated upon the Biblical contents, bringing in haggadic elements, illustrations from history, and references to topics of the day. This naturally required much time, to gain which the weekly lesson had to be short, so that the Pentateuch was finished only in a cycle of three or three and one-half years; while the portion from the Prophets was frequently abbreviated.
The free handling of the text, which frequently changed the translation into a sermon or homily, gave the meturgeman ample opportunity to introduce his subjective views into the lesson; and with the multiplication of sects this became distasteful to the Rabbis. The increase in the opposition to the meturgeman led to the fixation of the Targumim and to the demand that the meturgeman keep strictly to mere translation. But a mere translation satisfied neither the public, who had known the text from early school-days, nor the meturgeman, who was deprived of an opportunity to parade his knowledge and to display his oratorical gifts. As a consequence the “darshan,” or preacher, was introduced; and the literal translation fell gradually into disuse.
It does not demonstrate what sources were used to show the disuse of the meturgeman and switch to the darshan.
The same article in the Jewish Encyclopedia believed the original term for interpreter was מבין, maven. This word declined and gave way to the use of meturgeman. This may be true but it lacks sufficient documentation.
A better alternative is the standard Hebrew word for interpreter, פרש peresh. The eminent Hebraist and author of the Hebrew New Testament, Franz Delitzsch, consistently translated the word interpret and variants in I Corinthians 14 as פרש peresh. and I agree with this choice. Unless more detailed information arrives, the noun פרש peresh, and its variants, was more likely the one Paul had in mind.
This brings the reader to the third part, did the concept of the Jewish reader adapt into the rites of the earliest Church? This question is attempted to be answered and more in the following article: The Public Reader in the Church