Tag Archives: Jewish

The role of Hebrew in the Jewish-Aramaic World

The influence of Aramaic and Hebrew on Jewish life around the first-century.

The goal of any information gleaned from this inquiry is to find a possible connection with Hebrew being a part of the first-century Corinthian liturgy. A subsequent purpose is to confirm or deny an assertion by the fourth-century Bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius, that the mystery tongues of Corinth had its roots in the Hebrew language.

We cannot assume any synagogue outside of Israel, let alone Corinth, used the Hebrew language as part of their religious service. So, it requires digging deeper into the relationship between Hebrew and Aramaic to find answers.

Introduction

This is a difficult investigation given that Aramaic was the standard language of the eastern shores of the Mediteranean all the way to the borders of Afghanistan, and maybe even further. Its influence was so great and its similarity to Hebrew quite close, that it is hard to find where Hebrew fit in.

The investigation unfolds how wide and expansive the Aramaic influence became. Secondly, one discovers about the Hebrew language from the most ancient times, its use and disuse throughout the centuries, and how it became a sacred language.

The Greek language and culture had a similar impact, but this is left for another article.

The topic is full of controversies between various scholars. Because of the large breadth of subject matter, this article tends to go on some interesting tangents. It is hoped the reader doesn’t mind, as this has been a fun research adventure.

The universal power of Aramaic, and later, Greek languages were important contributors to the Jewish faith. Both Aramaic and Greek were universal languages of law and commerce that dominated Jewish life and thought during different and often overlapping epochs. However, because of these influences, Hebrew was pushed aside as the mother tongue in Jewish life. On the other hand, it was still retained as a religious language. Small pockets in southern Israel may have used the language in everyday usage, but this was a minority.

Perhaps the assertion about Hebrew is too great. Scholars are all over the map about the use of Hebrew after 500 BC.

The important part of the Hebrew language narrative is this: the Hebrew language became a vital component in retaining a distinct Jewish identity under occupation and in foreign lands.

The use of Hebrew as the native tongue from 1200 to around 700 BC is considered an acceptable theory. The interchangeability of Hebrew and Aramaic throughout the 600 BC to around 400 AD is highly controversial that contains a variety, if not, opposite arguments. Once Alexander the Great arrived on the scene and conquered a great many regions, ethnic groups, and languages, this changed the linguistic story again. Greek overtook Aramaic as the universal language of commerce, law, and literature in the Middle East, but not entirely. The combination of these three make for a complex relationship.

The fall of Hebrew and the rise of Aramaic.

Hebrew and Aramaic are offshoots of Canaanite family of languages (which includes Phoenician). This fact is forwarded by the revered paleographer Joseph Naveh,(1)Joseph Naveh. Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to the West Semitic epigraphy and paleography. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1982. Pg. 54 the late influential philologist, linguist and member of the Israeli based Academy of the Hebrew Language, Edward Yechezkel Kutscher,(2)E.Y. Kutscher. A History of the Hebrew Language. Raphael Kutscher ed. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 1 and the current professor of the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, at the Bar-Ilan University, Prof. Gad Sarfatti.(3)He doesn’t write Proto-Canaanite as Naveh conveys, he simply calls it Canaanite. https://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/vayigash/sarfati.html

Both Aramaic and Hebrew drew from Phoenician for their respective writing scripts. In fact, from the tenth to ninth-centuries BC, Phoenician held an international status.(4)Joseph Naveh. Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to the West Semitic epigraphy and paleography. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1982. Pg. 54 Phoenician is severely under-represented in historic coverage, but is one of the leading contributors to the writing systems we use today. The Aramaic language remained more closely aligned with the Phoenician writing system until the 700s, where it began to alter its letters.(5)“Aramaic, Phoenician and Hebrew scripts in the 10th century are indistinguishable. 9th century Hebrew is making some changes. mid 8th century, Aramaic begins its own identity.” Joseph Naveh. Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to the West Semitic epigraphy and paleography. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1982. Pg. 89 The Hebrew writing system began this morphosis much earlier.

The patriarch of the Israeli people, Jacob, was firstly called a wandering Aramean in the Book of Deuteronomy.(6)Deuteronomy 26:5 This reference shows how close the Aramean and Hebrew cultures and languages are finely woven together.(7) “The fact that Jacob is called ארמי אבד ‘a fugitive Aramean’ (Deut. 26, 5) probably indicates not only a consciousness of a common ancestry, but also the consciousness of a common linguistic stock with the Arameans.” E.Y. Kutscher. A History of the Hebrew Language. Raphael Kutscher ed. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 73

In fact, the influence of Aramaic is seen weaved throughout the Hebrew language history. After the fall of the Persians to the Greeks, the Jewish scribes adapted the Aramaic script exclusive to their culture and language which is called the Jewish Script. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are representative of this Jewish script. The ancient Hebrew script did continue, albeit in a minority position. This writing system is best represented today in the Samaritan Pentateuch.

Hebrew was supplanted by Aramaic as early as 740 BC when the Assyrians conquered and controlled Northern Israel. As a result, many Israelites were exiled as slaves throughout the Assyrian empire and those that remained were forced under Assyrian rule.(8)I Chronicles 5:26, II Kings 15:29, II Kings 17:3-6, II Kings 18:11-12 This was the era where the idiom the lost ten tribes was established. These peoples were never allowed to return in any great quantity.

The Hebrew language likely died in northern Israel with all the Israelites who were deported.

The language story is different with the kingdom of Judah. The tribe remained independent until about 600 BC when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and deported a great number of its citizens.

The Hebrew language still remained intact with the kingdom of Judah. A Biblical account about a Babylonian military buildup around Jerusalem showed vibrancy of the Hebrew language here. The Jerusalem leaders requested the Babylonians to only speak in Aramaic when shouting their demands. When the Babylonians openly shouted in Hebrew, the common person understood. If they spoke in Aramaic, only the elite of Jerusalem could comprehend.(9)II Kings 18:26

The Babylonian Empire was overtaken by the Persians, and a new ruler controlled the lands. Aramaic remained the principle language. Around 537 BC, the Persian King, Cyrus, granted exiled remnants of the tribe of Judah to return to Jerusalem. One of the important figures in this re-establishment was Ezra the Scribe.

Not much is known about Ezra, except that he comes from a priestly line and that he was born in Babylon. (10)Nehemiah 8:13; II Kings 25: 18-21; and Ezra 7:ff He was a Levite, not from the tribe of Judah. His aims were to reconstitute the Hebrew faith throughout the Hebrew nation. The center for the Hebrew faith was Jerusalem, and any rebirth or restoration would have to be issued from here.

He came at a critical point of Hebrew history. The nation of Israel, along with the Temple and all its traditions, had collapsed. The people were dispersed and no longer masters of their own destinies. There was an identity crisis. How could a member of the tribe of Judah, or one of the ten tribes, retain their ancient identity? Ezra’s task was for the reconstruction of the ancient Hebrew faith.

The Babylonian influenced Israelites who lived in the more northern reaches of Israel for almost 283 years were totally acculturated. Aramaic customs and language were the norm. Their assimilation into the bigger culture was a great challenge to reverse.

The members of the tribe of Judah were under occupation for over 130 years—a little over three generations. If one uses current immigration stats as a measuring stick, the third generation usually loses the original language in favour of the larger one.(11)https://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2010/06/immigrants_america. Also my experience dealing with multi-generational Mennonites. Ezra himself discovered 50% of Jewish children did not know the language of Judah(12)Nehemiah 13:24 at all during this time. For those 50% that did know the language, Hebrew may have been a second language to them. He did not qualify whether this fluency was beginner or advanced.

Ezra was pragmatic and realized rebuilding the Israelite identity through education and reinstituting the language were two very different but important entities. The following narrative taken from the Book of Nehemiah demonstrates the new direction the Israelite identity was heading:

Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.

Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand. . .

They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.(13)Nehemiah 8:2-8. For the Hebrew go to mechon-mamre

Were the people listening in Aramaic or Hebrew?

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.

The word combinations emphasize instructing over translating in either the original or the modern Hebrew sense. The emphasis here was on education, not language.

A shift on understanding this Biblical text happens later on where it is understood more from a language perspective. This is particularly found in later Jewish Babylonian Aramaic writings. The traditional interpretation became this: Ezra read from the Law in the original Hebrew and a translator and/or translators stood by immediately explaining the reading in Aramaic.

The Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 21a and b have an interesting commentary on both the writing script and language employed by Ezra:

Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar ‘Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans. And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna’ah script.(14)http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_21.html

The Talmud reference infers Ezra transformed the rite from Aramaic only (often referred to as Assyrian) to a new combination that included both Hebrew as a sacred language and Aramaic as the native tongue. The Hebrew script was dropped for an Aramaic one but the underlying text remained in Hebrew while the old Hebrew script was reserved for the Cutheans – otherwise known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans history is a clouded one. They were allegedly a group of Assyrians, either forced or voluntary, that came to northern Israel after the expulsion of the Israelites and mixed in with the northern Hebrew residents that were allowed to remain. The Samaritans believed (and still do) that they adhere to the true religion of the Israelites before the fall to Babylon. Their main literary source is the Samaritan Pentateuch whose script is in old Hebrew. Traditional historic Judaism has always been at arms-length with this group and often openly hostile.(15)Samaritans at American Bible.

What is meant by the libuna’ah script? Rashi is alleged to have explained it as “Large characters as employed in amulets.”(16)Sanhedrin 21 at comeandhear.com. See footnote 50 An amulet is a physical object usually worn by a person that is considered to have magical properties of protection. They were written mostly in Aramaic and sometimes in Hebrew.(17)Ancient Jewish Magic: A History by Gideon Bohak, Pg. 150

Sanhedrin 21a and b show the progression of Hebrew as a religious language and the cross-over into Aramaic. It is not a complete assimilation but a dual relationship.

A graphic example showing the Aramaic influence on the Hebrew writing system.

The above image demonstrates the influence of Aramaic on the Hebrew writing system. The verse is a portion of Deuteronomy 31:24.

  1. The Israelites around King David’s time used paleo-Hebrew as its writing system. The sample here is from the Samaritan Pentetauch which has traditionally maintained the paleo-Hebrew script even until today.(18)University of Cambridge Library MS-ADD-01846

  2. This Dead Sea Scroll example comes from a fragment.(19)Dead Sea Scrolls Library B-475264 It is written in Aramaic script but has a distinct Judaic influence. Some call it the Jewish SScript, while others call it the Square Script. The image has been colourized by me from the black and white original for aesthetic purposes.

  3. This sample is from the Aleppo Codex (10th century AD, copied in Tiberius, Israel).(20)www.aleppocodex.org Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this was one of the oldest Biblical Hebrew texts available. This style and period is called the Masoretic text. It is an advancement of the earlier Aramaic influenced Jewish Script. This has become the standard Hebrew religious script in use today.

Public Reading in Hebrew. Interpreting in the local language.

The references found in Talmud Megillah 9a to 24b, probably written around the fourth-century, have scattered references to the rite of reading the Scripture in the original language of Hebrew and simultaneously being translated into Aramaic. The amount of readers, and the number of interpreters varied according to the sacredness of the text. The Megillah references demonstrate the tensions between the use of Hebrew and its adaptation to the Aramaic Jewish community. In addition, the resolutions are uneven in application but do show some general evolution.

More information on the Jewish custom of reading in Hebrew with an interpreter(s) can be found at The Jewish Reader in the Ancient Liturgy

Instructing in Hebrew. Interpreting in the local language.

An ancient Jewish custom was created about religious instruction outside of Israel. The instructor teaches in Hebrew while a third party simultaneously translates it Aramaic. This custom was expanded to mean instruction in Hebrew while a third party simultaneously translated it in Greek, Latin, or whatever the local language.

For more information see The Language of Instruction in the Corinthian Church

How invasive was the Aramaic language in the Middle East?

One can see a shift from Biblical Hebrew to Aramaic in many, but not all, pieces of literature after 600 BC. Part of the Book of Daniel was written in Aramaic. The non-canonical books; Tobit, Jubilees, Enoch, the Greek Esther, and the second book of Maccabees were written in Aramaic(21) Bernard Spolsky. Jewish Multilingualism in the First Century. As found in Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. Joshua A. Fishman, ed. Leiden: E. J. Brill. 1985. Pg. 40

Josephus wrote his War of the Jews originally in what is understood to be Aramaic and later translated it into Greek.(22)Wars of the Jews Intro However, Aramaic may be a leap in thought. He stated that his book, the Wars of the Jews, was originally written in his native language (τῇ πατρίῳ and sent to the upper Barbarians. He did not define his native tongue, which could have been Aramaic, or a cross between Aramaic and Hebrew (Galilean). However, Aramaic is strengthened by the statement about upper Barbarians. The upper Barbarians were likely the eastern reaches of the Middle-East who spoke Aramaic.

There are numerous transliterated Semitisms found in the Greek New Testament that are labelled Aramaic. On first glance, this appears correct. On the other hand, some researchers, especially David Bivin and Joshua Tilton, have found this type of conclusion too simplistic. David Bivin has spent most of his adult life studying the intersection of languages in first-century Judea, and he, along with Joshua Tilton manage a website, jerusalemperspective.com, that is focused on better understanding Jesus’ life and teachings. They have constructed a page devoted to the Transliterations of Hebrew, Aramaic and Hebrew/Aramaic Words in the Synoptic Gospels whereby they caution against any quick conclusions. They find that it is hard to distinguish between Aramaic and Hebrew transliterations found in the Greek. Firstly, because Hebrew and Aramaic are close relatives linguistically. Secondly, because there were Greek transliteration traditions borrowed from earlier texts that don’t reflect the current language. Therefore, one should not use transliterations as a tool for discovering what language was spoken during the first-century.

Aramaic is blamed in a Latin church document called the Ambrosiaster text on the problem in the early church of Corinth — Hebrew women speaking Aramaic in the Corinthian assembly unannounced.(23)See verse 19 in the Ambrosiastor link for more information This too could be the solution to the Corinthian tongues controversy, but Epiphanius’ account of it being the problem of instructing in Hebrew and a dispute between different Greek ethnic groups appears a more viable one.

It is inconceivable to believe that the Jewish faith existed without the Hebrew language. The first century Jewish writer, Josephus, related that Hebrew literacy was up again in the first century, “and it is ordered to bring the children up (in) the letters concerning the Laws and to place upon (them) the works of the ancestors.”(24)Translation is mine. “to bring the children up (in) the letters” clearly refers to literacy. The popular William Whiston English translation has “It also commands us to bring those children up in learning, and to exercise them in the laws, and make them acquainted with the acts of their predecessors,” it misses the emphasis on literacy here. This may have been restricted to reading by rote. It does not infer written or spoken fluency.

The picture being developed through all this is one of Aramaic being the dominant language of home and civil affairs, and Hebrew, having pockets of localized usage, and emphasized for religious instruction.

Any savvy reader knowledgeable of Aramaic will realize that the references to Aramaic are general terms. Aramaic, like any international language, had many dialects and localisms which should be noted. For those interested in finding out exactly what the important ones relative to this narrative are, go to Israel’s Dead Sea Scroll website. For a later history of the Aramaic language go to peshitta.org’s website for information. Another good historical reference that includes the state of the Aramaic language today is the article Where Do Languages Go to Die?

The rise of Jewish literature

Jewish-Aramaic literature began to slowly grow in prominence after the destruction of the Temple by Vespasian and Titus in 70 AD. The center of Judaism moved from Jerusalem to a central Israel city called Yavneh. This was directly influenced by the Romans. Yavneh was one of many cities whom the Romans moved those who had surrendered.(25)Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1980. Pg. 97 This city was of particular interest because this is the place where Johanan Ben Zakkai was placed and began his leadership to rebuild the Jewish identity. His influence was felt both in the Jewish Middle-East and abroad.

Jewish-Greek literature did not follow the same pattern. Publication and distribution of Jewish-Greek literature was hardly existent. Neither is there any indication of a formal Jewish-Greek structure of religious life or leadership hierarchy. This never developed. It is also remarkable that there are so few pieces of Jewish-Greek poetry or literature about the loss of the Temple from the first or second-century.

Why is there so little? It is hard to find substantiated information on this subject from open access sites or books. Perhaps most Jews that lived in the diaspora were slaves from the various revolts against Rome and were not granted privileges or luxuries such as the art of writing – a process usually reserved for the wealthy. Or, as a conquered entity, the diasporan Jews were treated as a third-class residents such as Irish-Catholics in the 1800s under Protestant rule, the Incas under Spanish supervision, natives in North America by colonialists, or the African slaves in U.S. by plantation owners. Life and conditions were so harsh with these groups that no leadership, social, or literary culture was allowed to thrive. These thoughts are just speculations. There has been no documentation found so far that conclusively explains this lack of Jewish-Greek documentation around the first-century.

Did Hebrew completely die as a mother-tongue?

This is a highly-disputed question among academics concerned in these matters. The following shows just how divided scholars are.

Bernard Spolsky, Professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who is well-regarded for his expertise in applied linguistics, looked into the matter of the use of Hebrew in post-deportation Israel and concluded that Hebrew was utilized more in southern than northern Israel.

It does seem however that Hebrew was better maintained, or at least less influenced by Aramaic and other languages in Judea than in Galilee, an area where a great number of other peoples had been settled during the Babylonian exile.”(26)Bernard Spolsky. Jewish Multilingualism in the First Century. As found in Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. Joshua A. Fishman, ed. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1985. Pg. 37

Spolsky argues that one should not rule out the use of Hebrew entirely. The Dead Sea Scrolls show Hebrew progressing as a language. He rightly points out the Mishnah was written in a Hebrew form. It could easily have been written in Aramaic if the loss of Hebrew was so dramatic, but it was not. He also does not believe that Hebrew was relegated entirely to the language of academies and rabbis.(27)Bernard Spolsky. Jewish Multilingualism in the First Century. As found in Readings in the Sociology of Jewish Languages. Joshua A. Fishman, ed. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1985. Pg. 36

The learned professor from the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Edward Yechezkel Kutscher, if he was still alive today, would have argued a slight emendation to Spolsky’s reference to the Mishhah being in Hebrew form. He believed that Mishnaic Hebrew was an evolving form of literature. Mishnaic Hebrew died out somewhere in the second-century AD, and was used only as a literary medium after that period.(28)E.Y. Kutscher. A History of the Hebrew Language. Raphael Kutscher ed. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 148 In fact, the first movement that first composited the Mishnah in written form around 200 AD, did not fully understand the Hebrew words.(29)E.Y. Kutscher. A History of the Hebrew Language. Raphael Kutscher ed. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 116

Catherine Hezser, in her book, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, believed that prior to 165 BC, Hebrew was restricted only to the priestly class. After 165 BC (The Maccabean period where Israel became an independent state), Hebrew expanded to a greater mass of people.(30)Catherine Hezser. Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck. 2001. Pg. 34 As for education, Greek was preferred because of the economic and business advantages.(31)IBID. Hezser. Pg. 69 Only a passive knowledge of Hebrew was required by elementary school Aramaic students.(32)IBID Hezser. Pg. 72

The book, Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda edited by William Horbury contests that the cultural elite only knew Aramaic, and the peasantry conversed in Hebrew.(33)Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda William Horbury ed. T & T Clark, 2000. Pg. 17

The late Gedaliah Alon, a very well studied professor at the Hebrew University, contended that Hebrew and Aramaic were well documented and coexisted throughout the Greek diaspora. However, he simply teased the reader and stated that he would not dwell on this in any detail.(34)Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Volume II. Edited and translated by Gershon Levi. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 338

Julio Trebolle Barrera, a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic studies at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, also finds that Hebrew continued.

The linguistic map of Palestine around the turn of the era and at the moment when Christianity was born is marked by great differences in language. In Jerusalem and Judaea, Hebrew was spoken for preference, with Aramaic as a second language. Hebrew underwent a period of renaissance starting from the nationalistic revolt by the Maccabess (mid-2nd cent. BCE). At the same time there was also a true renaissance of Hebrew literature (Ben Sira, Tobit, Jubiless, Testament of Naphtali, writing of the Qumran Community, etc.). The coining of money with Hebrew inscription is further proof of the revival of Hebrew and of its official importance. Jesus of Nazareth definitely spoke Aramaic, but it cannot be excluded that he also used Hebrew and even Greek. In the Mediterranean coastal area and in the Galilee region they preferred to speak Aramaic somewhat more than Greek. In this area Hebrew was only a literary language.(35)Julio C. Trebolle Berrara. The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An introduction to the History of the Bible. New York: E. J. Brill. 1998. Pg. 74

According to Irenaeous, Eusebius, and Jerome, the Book of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.(36)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_Gospel_hypothesis This is a discounted theory today, but it shows that the ancient writers appealed to source Hebrew literature for credibility of the faith.

See Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind for more info on Hebrew considered as a divine language of religion.

A reference from the Sefer Haggada demonstrates how far Aramaic was encroaching on the Hebrew language and there was resistance to it. “And the Lord spoke from Sinai. This is the Hebrew language.”(37)Sefer Haggada (in Hebrew) Tel-Abib: Dvir co. ltd. Book III, 3b. My translation There was a concerted effort to resist the inclusion of foreign languages in their liturgy and prayers. “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.”(38) The Soncino Talmud. Trans. by Epstein I. London: Soncino Press. 1935. Pg. 162

However, not everything was to be done in Hebrew. This was especially noted with the language of prayer. Whatever language the prayer was originally produced in, was allowed to remain in that language. For example, Talmud Babli Megillah established that whatever prayers were originally written in Aramaic, were to remain in Aramaic throughout the diaspora.(39) Talmud Babli Megillah 9a

By the ninth-century AD, Hebrew definitely had been dead for many centuries. The writing system continued to lack vowels. Greek, along with Latin, with their vowels and punctuation, became much easier vehicles for the expansion of literacy. The only way to know how to pronounce a Hebrew or Aramaic word properly was passed on through generations by oral traditions which was easily influenced by localisms. The pressures to adapt the Jewish script had yet another motivation – the transmission of Jewish thought in life was becoming increasingly wrapped in the knowledge of three dead languages – Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, and Aramaic. This skill was very technical and fewer people had this ability as each generation passed. The loss of pronunciation naturally led to ambiguity of interpretation.

A Jewish group of scholars and Karaite scribes in Tiberius and Jerusalem, called the Masoretes, laboured to retain the ancient pronunciation and speech that existed in the ancient Hebrew text. The tradition set-forth by Ben Asher standardized these additions, called niqqud, in the tenth century. The creation of the niqqud system inserted vowels and alternative vocalizations of consonants in the text. This system became common in the eleventh-century and afterwards as part of the Hebrew text. These were placed above and below the consonants.

For more information see A History of Chapters and Verses in the Hebrew Bible

What does this all mean?

In general terms, with a few exceptions, we can conclude the following. Hebrew was spoken as a native language in and around Jerusalem during the first-century, but it did not extend much further. Aramaic was the language for the majority of Jews who lived east of the Mediteranean to the borders of modern day Afghanistan. Jewish leadership after the destruction of the Temple moved to Aramaic as the central language of communication but Hebrew still held the role of a sacred language in religious worship and instruction.

The Aramaic language was so influential in Jewish life, it is conceivable that those Jews who immigrated to Greek-dominated lands brought Aramaic with them: Greek for commerce and civil affairs, Aramaic for family life, and Hebrew for religious needs.

The findings show it is plausible that the role of Hebrew as a sacred language was potentially the cause of Paul’s address about tongues in I Corinthians.

———

References   [ + ]

A Jewish-Greek Perspective on the Tongues of Corinth

An introduction to a series about the tongues of Corinth from Jewish and Greek sources along with tracing the perceptions of this rite through the centuries.

There are many solutions attempting to explain the problematic passages penned by Paul and this has been documented throughout the Gift of Tongues Project. A work whose fourfold goal is to locate source literature on the subject, digitize the original texts, translate into English with critical notes, and trace the perception of tongues in the church from inception until modern times.

These goals are close to completion and after compiling all the information regarding the tongues of Corinth, the evidence points to a different solution than the popular ones existing today—an explanation from Jewish sources. An approach to the mystery tongues of Corinth from a Jewish perspective has been lacking and appears to provide the two best solutions.

Researching Jewish traditions about speakers and interpreters has uncovered two very important customs that are so close to Paul’s narrative that it would be hard to call them accidental parallels. The first solution relates to the reading out loud of Scripture in Hebrew with an immediate translation in the local vernacular. The second one is the custom of instructing in Hebrew and providing a translation into the local language.

There is also a third alternative: the use of Aramaic as the principal language of conflict in Corinth. This could be a solution if more information comes forward. For the time being it will be relegated a distant third option and only small snippets of this subject will be addressed. The majority of this series will be devoted to the first two concepts.

These first two options have existed all along but few have paid attention to them in the Christian community. This Jewish-centric approach has been minimized for two reasons: antisemitism and ignorance of Jewish literature in both Catholic and Protestant communities, and the hyper-emphasis on the Greek and Latin cultures to exclusivity by rationalist scholars in the 1800s.

The option of instructing in Hebrew with a translation into the local language best fits the Corinthian narrative. However, the rite of public reading in Hebrew with an immediate translation into the local language does have some strengths that cannot be discounted. The solution could even be a mixture of the two, or even the third Aramaic theory, but this synthesis will not be investigated in any detail.

Both these Hebrew theories may seem far-fetched to most readers. The above statements are introductory teasers. The articles in the series will not only explain but substantiate such claims. As one reads through all the articles, you will understand why the GOT Project proposes these two customs as the best solutions for understanding the tongues of Corinth.

In both instances, the reader will be shown how the church adapted these Jewish customs in the Greek, and later, Latin context.

The discussion does not stop with a Jewish explanation. The context is about Jewish liturgy in a Greek-dominated city. The research will also note the tensions created by the Greek culture, life, and language that surrounded them. This influence also has a great contribution to the Corinthian tongues saga.

The use of Hebrew in the ancient Jewish liturgy outside of Israel is the most important aspect of this claim. If the Hebrew connection could not be supported, then this solution would be invalid. However, there are substantial evidences that prove such a theory, but since this is new to most readers, I will write at great lengths, and provide important details.

The first letter to the Corinthians is old – written in the first century. The letter was addressed to the earliest gathering in Corinth that was a combined assembly of Messianic Jews and Greek converts. As with any new fledgling organization, they were struggling with what Jewish customs were to continue and which ones were to be left behind. What Greek modes of practice were to be included, and which ones to be excluded.

This is an updated series from what was posted almost a decade ago.

The four dominant themes about Corinthian tongues over the last five-hundred years.

  • A historical Catholic view. Early Catholic writers and leaders, except two and a half writers, Epiphanius, the Ambrosiaster text, and a tad owing to John Chrysostom, do not literally address Paul’s statements on tongues. This is largely due in part to earlier church writers emphasizing allegorical and/or promoting personal obedience rather than a critical interpretation of the Bible.

    For example, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, often cited I Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love”, to encourage his followers. He never did explain the context that propelled Paul to write such an exhortation.

    Origen wrote a commentary on I Corinthians and offered a few tidbits. However, they are not definitive enough. He spent most of his energy in I Corinthians to reinforce his idea of the role of knowledge in the Christian life.

    For more about Origen on I Corinthians see: Origen on the Doctrine of Tongues

    The I Corinthians reference for tongues is sparsely referred by early church writers. It is not a subject that was important to them.

  • The Cessationist view of Corinthians. This interpretation believed that any miracle, including that of speaking in tongues, died with the early church and could never be repeated. Therefore, any research on the Corinthian tongues problem is only for historical purposes. The tongues of Corinth have no impact on the modern Christian life.

    For more information on the Cessationist framework on speaking in tongues, see the series starting with: Cessationism, Miracles, and Tongues Part 1

  • The higher-Criticism explanation. Higher-Criticism is the dominant modern theory of explaining the tongues of Corinth and Pentecost. This doctrine believes that the christian rite of tongues has its origins with the Greek prophetesses at Delphi. These women performed inside a temple that had fissures underneath issuing volcanic fumes. The inhalation of the fumes would put the prophetess in an ecstatic state and would prophesy in what was believed to be unintelligible utterances. Ecstasy, glossolalia, and ecstatic utterance are keywords for this interpretational system. The higher-criticists supposed the earliest Christians synthesized this ancient Greek rite as part of making Christianity a universal religion. Church writings and ecclesiastical history are willfully excluded from this premise.

    For more information on higher-criticism and tongues see the series starting with: Introduction to the History of Glossolalia for more information.

  • Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Third-Wavers. Most of the leaders in these movements rely on other tongues found in I Corinthians and one instance in the Book of Acts to substantiate their tongues doctrine. Some call it a private prayer language, while others name it glossolalic prayers. In fact, other as in other tongues does not exist in the original Greek of I Corinthians. The adjective other was added to I Corinthians by European protestant translators as a polemic against the Catholic Church. The protestant translators never intended this idiom as a strange or mystical experience.

    The reader should not be thrown off by the use of the noun tongues in Paul’s I Corinthians English text either. English Bible tradition set the translation as tongues which is old and dated. The noun languages should be used instead.

    For more information on the development of other tongues in the English Bible see: The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible

None of the above theories provide a complete or adequate framework to explain Paul’s reference to speaking and interpreting in I Corinthians.

The series of articles

The context of such an approach along with the wealth of information has necessitated breaking this into a eight-part series:

  1. The role of Hebrew in the Jewish-Aramaic World. The rise of Aramaic and the loss of Hebrew in the everyday Jewish life. How they compensated for this using interpreters/speakers in the their liturgy and education.

  2. Greek, Hellenic Judaism, and the Problem Tongues of Corinth The rise of Greek as the primary language of most Jews and how they adapted the ancient faith to accommodate this.

  3. Hebrew as the First Language of Mankind. A look into the perception of Hebrew as a sacred language shared by both Hebrews and Christians. Both communities have a basic theology that it was the language of God, Adam and Eve.

  4. The Public Reader, the Synagogue and Corinth. It follows the development of the public reader in the Jewish faith and how it may align with the tongues of Corinth.

  5. The Public Reader in the Church. How the Jewish public reader assimilated into a Christian rite, the evolution of this office over the centuries and its potential link to the tongues of Corinth.

  6. The Language of Instruction in the Corinthian Church. The instruction in Hebrew and the translation into the local language is the best explanation found to describe Paul’s narration on speaking in tongues. This article sets to unfold the reasons behind Paul’s reference to tongues.

  7. Is Epiphanius right about Corinthian Tongues? (Upcoming article in development.) A comparison of Jewish literature against Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (late 300s AD), explanation about the tongues of Corinth.

  8. Lightfoot on the Problem Tongues of Corinth. Excerpts about Corinth from the seventeenth-century English Churchman and rabbinic scholar, John Lightfoot. A difficult and complex read, but well worth the effort

Structure, approach, and complexity

The ecclesiastical literature, along with a number of pieces demonstrated in Rabbinical writings within this series, are mostly fourth-century or later works. This is the only material a researcher can work from. No matter which way one approaches this problem, the person is forced to look at later texts to rebuild an earlier scenario.

Michael Graves, author of The Public Reading of Scripture in Early Judaism offers cautions to such an approach:

Yet, the use of Jewish liturgical practices to reconstruct early Christian worship is not without difficulties. One of the major problems is the fact that many Christian historians, to some extent following older Jewish scholarship, have operated with the assumption that Jewish liturgy was essentially fixed and uniform in the first-century AD. This assumption, however, cannot be reconciled with the available evidence. Recent scholarship on the history of Jewish worship has painted a more complex picture of Jewish liturgical development, thus forcing scholars of Christian liturgy to rethink the potential relationships between early Jewish and Christian forms of worship. Out of this new research has arisen greater awareness of the diversity and flexibility in the earlier stages of development, and also a more skeptical stance toward the use of later documents to reconstruct the customs of earlier times. Of course, total skepticism toward rabbinic reports is unwarranted, and one cannot dismiss older historical and philological studies as having nothing to offer. But when the sources present a picture of diversity, or when no evidence exists for a given practice at a certain time and place, one must avoid simply harmonizing one tradition with another or an earlier time period with a later one.(1)Graves, Michael. The Public Reading of Scripture in Early Judaism. JETS 50/3 (September 2007) 467–87

Mr. Graves is right. Unfortunately, there is no alternative than to draw from later pieces of literature and reconstruct from there.

Whatever conclusion any researcher portrays on this topic is a calculated and thought-out opinion. No conclusion, including my own, can be considered final because of the lack of primary data.

The intercultural city of ancient Corinth

The city of Corinth is geographically located in a critical position. It is situated on a narrow finger of land called an isthmus which connects the southern tip of Greece with its mainland. In historic times, Corinth was caught between two rival cities; Sparta in the South, and Athens, slightly to the north-east. The Corinthian residents greatly suffered by choosing the wrong sides during many conflicts. Corinth was sacked and left desolate in 146 BC by the Roman consul Lucius Mummius(2)http://corinth.sas.upenn.edu/corinth.html in 146 B.C and left that way until 44 BC where it was purposely repopulated by the Romans.

Military servicemen, freedman, and those of the lower classes from abroad who were looking for better economic opportunities, flocked to the new city. The Jewish immigrants came to Corinth, possibly freedmen, slaves of the Romans occupants, merchants and artisans from Alexandria, some perhaps forced out of Israel by economic, political, or military instability, also made this their home. If Corinth follows the pattern of Rome, the Jewish population was very poor.[ref[http://www.livius.org/articles/concept/diaspora/jewish-rome/?[/ref] The city prospered quickly. Corinth became one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire.(3)Scott J. Hafemann. “2nd Corinthians” as found in The NIV Application Commentary

The power of the Greek language

The Greek language in the first-century was an international language of commerce and communication throughout the Roman and Parthian empires (from the border of Afghanistan to the western reaches of the Mediteranean basin). It was very similar to how English is used today throughout the world. However, just as in the application of the English language, it was applied unevenly, and there were tensions within ethnic groups about its transformative influence on their languages and cultures.

There were more Jews that lived in the Greek-controlled lands than there were that lived in Israel major or Syria. Greek was the principal language of most Jews, though Hebrew and Aramaic remained part of the Jewish religious identity.

A proper understanding of Paul’s Hebrew identity

In order to explain Paul’s reference to tongues from a Jewish background, it is necessary to briefly dwell on the character of Paul himself.

Paul was a Pharisee, a self-proclaimed Hebrew of Hebrews from the tribe of Benjamin.(4)Philippians 3:5 He was educated under one of the leading Jewish teachers of the first-century, Gamaliel I.(5)Acts 22:3 Paul had no ambition to overthrow or abandon Jewish culture. Rather, he wanted to strengthen and expand the central tenets of the Jewish faith: salvation and holiness. His initial strategy was to preach in the synagogues of any town, village or city that he visited. It later expanded to the non-Jewish community.(6)Romans 1:16, Acts 18:ff

Paul was born in Tarsus, a south-central city in what is now in the territory of Turkey. A calculated guess is that he would have spoken Greek as his mother tongue. One must keep in mind that he lived close to the Aramaic dominated land of Syria. The location of Tarsus would have exposed Paul to the Aramaic culture and language at an early age. Paul was later trained in Jerusalem. He would have received religious instruction in Hebrew, spoke Aramaic because of the large amount of Jewish pilgrims from Syria and out East that came to Jerusalem for religious or commercial reasons, and taught Greek for civil matters. His teacher, Gamaliel I, would have encouraged Greek so that his disciples could intervene and communicate with the Government.(7)Sotah 49a Based on a text attributed to Simeon ben Gamaliel. Simeon ben Gamaliel was likely reflecting on a tradition of learning Greek established by his father, Gamaliel I.

It is described in Acts chapters 21 and 22 Paul discussing a matter with a Roman commander in Greek, and then speaking to the public in in the language of the Hebrews–probably meaning the Hebrew language since this incident happened in Jerusalem (If this incident occurred in the Galilee or other northern reaches of Israel, it would have been Aramaic or Greek). Paul may have known Latin, but this has not been validated by any principal source.

Mastery of three, maybe even four languages, is why Paul proudly boasted in his first letter to the Corinthians “I speak in tongues more than you all”(8)I Corinthians 14:8 NASB

Paul’s religious identity incensed both the traditional Jewish inhabitants of Israel major and the Hellenized Jews. He started a major debate with the Hellenistas (Greek Jews which is commonly described as Hellenized Jews), in Jerusalem early on his career which led to a serious death threat. Paul was secretly led out of Jerusalem and sent back to Tarsus in fear of his safety.(9)Acts 11:29

Hellenized Jews feared Paul’s message would undermine the traditional Jewish identity. Paul went to great lengths, such as perform a Nazarite vow, to show his allegiance to the customary Jewish faith.(10)Acts 21

Paul saw the tension between Jewish and Greek identities as a major obstacle to his vision of an expansionist form of Judaism. On two occasions he wrote a reference to this.

The first one, in his letter to the Romans(11)1:16 stating there is no distinction between a Jew or a Greek–Ἕλλην Hellen. Paul was referring to a person of Greek origin who was not Jewish in this instance, not a Hellenized-Jew.

He then reiterated this theme again in Galatians. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus(12)Galatians 3:8 KJV

There was a tension that a true Jew cannot be Greek or vice versa that will be described in detail in this series. This problem may also have crossed into the Aramaic language and culture–the identity of a true Jew was the ability to speak Aramaic, but information about this is missing.

Even with this brief explanation shown above, his writing style, life and practice were steeped in Jewish influences. The founding of any community with his personal involvement would reflect this.

The reader must keep these things in mind as the series progresses in its explanation of the tongues of Corinth.

The composition of the original Corinthian assembly

The initial Corinthian assembly was a mixture of Jews and Greeks. There is not a single reference to Christianity because Christianity did not exist yet. This Corinthian assembly was under the Jewish umbrella. It would take well over a century before the Jewish Messianic movement would become entirely distinct from its origins and be solely called Christianity. Jerusalem, and later, Yavneh (the city where the Jewish leadership were forced to move to after the destruction of Jerusalem), would no longer be the centre of its existence.

In fact, it was in Yavneh, sometime between 80 and 110 AD, where the critical decision was made that you could not be Jewish and believe in Jesus. This was where the complete severance between the two groups occurred.

The structure of Corinth was clearly Jewish, but the attendance was of mixed ethnicity.

  • The initial Corinthian Church had two names attached to it—Titius Justus and Crispus. Crispus was a previous leader of a synagogue and from Jewish ancestry; Titius Justus was described as a worshiper of God, suggesting that he was not Jewish and his name infers a Roman lineage.(13)Acts 18:6ff

  • The mentioning of a converted synagogue leader, who must have exercised some internal authority in the development of the Corinthian Church, would have had a serious influence on the liturgy.

  • Paul’s address on the tongues of Corinth are reminiscent of Jewish tradition. Speaking, interpretation, the office of an interpreter, and the Amen are all found in Jewish liturgical traditions.

Pamela Eisenbaum, in her well written and researched book, Paul was not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle strongly asserted that both Paul, and the earliest church were Jewish entities:

But in the first century the letters could not possibly have functioned as a marker distinctive of Christian identity. First, there is the obvious reason that there was not such religious category “Christian.” As far as can be determined by historians, archaeologists, and biblical scholars, there were no distinctively Christian institutions, buildings, or symbols in the first century, and few scholars believe that Christians did not materially distinguish themselves until the late third or early fourth century.(14)Pamela Eisenbaum. Paul was not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle. New York: HarperCollins Publisher. 2009. Pg. 7

. . . Modern readers of Paul tend to assume that Pharisees and other Jews would have considered Paul an apostate, a Jewish heretic who was no longer part of the Jewish community because of his belief in Jesus, and thus not really Jewish. In the context of the first century, however, Paul’s belief in Jesus did not make him less Jewish. Belief in a messianic savior figure is a very Jewish idea, as can be demonstrated by a historical analogy.(15)Pamela Eisenbaum. Paul was not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle. New York: HarperCollins Publisher. 2009. Pg. 8

Final thoughts before you read the rest of the articles

Discovering and applying the Jewish modes of worship and liturgy are the best solutions for explaining the tongues of Corinth. You can find the logic and substantiation behind this in the articles mentioned above.

———-

Photo of reading from the Torah courtesy of Roylindman (Template:Roy Lindman) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

References   [ + ]

The Public Reader in the Church

The role of the public reader in the earliest diasporan Church, how the language changed over time, and the new problems it created.

The practice of public reading (lector) is found occasionally in the New Testament writings,(1)Luke 4:16, Acts 13:15, I Timothy 4:13 while the Catholic Encyclopedia states that it continued after this period: During the first centuries all the lessons in the liturgy, including the Epistle and Gospel, were read by the lector.”(2)As found at New Advent’s website under Lector

The importance of the Public Reader

Literacy throughout the ancient Mediterranean world was small; it is estimated that only 10-15% of the population was literate.(3)Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven: Yale University. 1995. Pg. 4 This means that public reading was a necessity.

The Public Reader in Earlier Christian literature

Justin Martyr

The first reference outside of Biblical literature was in the second century AD where Justin Martyr makes a scant reference to the continued existence of the public reader in his writing, Apology:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen;(4)Translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. . The Greek can be found at MPG. Vol. 6. S. Justini. Apologia I Pro Christianis. Chapter 67. Col. 429

The text relates to a public reading being done and it very much parallels that of the Jewish rite where one reads and a leader instructs on the contents. Yet this was performed here without the use of a special liturgical language unfamiliar to the laypeople as was practiced in the earliest Corinthian Church.

The Apostolic Constitutions

The Apostolic Constitutions — a writing dated to the fourth or fifth century, but some parts could be much earlier, perhaps late second or third, attests that the Apostle Matthew instituted the office of public reader in the Church based upon the practice first established in the synagogue by Ezra:

Concerning readers, I Matthew, also known as Levi, previously a tax collector; the person who lays the hand on him that is elected a reader, and prays to God, let him say, “O God, the everlasting, the mighty in mercy and compassions, the one who has made manifest the structure of the world by the effects being actively carried out and by preserving the number of your elect. Who also now look down upon your servant, the person who is commended to read Your Holy Scriptures to your people, and give him the Holy Spirit, the prophetic Spirit. The one who instructed Ezra your servant for the purpose of being able to read Your laws to Your people, and now [the reader] beseeches on our behalf, make wise your servant and grant him the activity be accomplished without blame the work entrusted to to him, that he be shown worthy of a greater degree through Christ with whom the glory is Yours, and the reverence, and the Holy Spirit for the ages to come, AMEN.” (5)Translated from: Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum. Franciscus Xaverius Funk. Volume 1. Paderbonae. 1906; VIII: XXII. Pg.526 See also, Apostolic Constitutions Book VIII:22. MPG Vol. 1. Col. 1117ff. Translation is mine. An alternative English translation by James Donaldson can be found at the New Advent website.

The Apostolic Constitutions outlined the duties and structures within the offices of the Church. The text names an apostle and designates a certain duty or function as its benefactor. For example Bartholomew instructs about deaconesses, while Thomas informs about sub-deacons. These, along with Matthew being the founder of the Christian custom of public reading, should not be taken literally. It is simply a well structured literary device. However, the meaning here is not lost. It clearly demonstrated that the rite of reading in the Church was inherited from its Jewish parent and was still being practiced in some type of modified form.

The Office of the Reader

Harry Gamble, author of Books and Readers in the Early Church believed that the Reader was assigned as an office of the minor orders of the clergy.(6)Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven:Yale University. 1995. Pg. 218 This was considered the entry level position into a clerical life.

This is corroborated by Cyprian of Carthage. He demonstrated in the middle third century that it had become a position that had at least entry status into the priesthood. The following quotation is from when Cyprian proclaimed the ordination of a certain person name Celerinus, on which he lavished praise:

To the Clergy and People, About the Ordination of Celerinus as Reader. . .

There is nothing in which a confessor can do more good to the brethren than that, while the reading of the Gospel is heard from his lips, every one who hears should imitate the faith of the reader. He should have been associated with Aurelius in reading; with whom, moreover, he was associated in the alliance of divine honour; with whom, in all the insignia of virtue and praise, he had been united. Equal both, and each like to the other, in proportion as they were sublime in glory, in that proportion they were humble in modesty. As they were lifted up by divine condescension, so they were lowly in their own peacefulness and tranquillity, and equally affording examples to every one of virtues and character, and fitted both for conflict and for peace; praiseworthy in the former for strength, in the latter for modesty.(7) Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .The Latin can be found in: MLT0004-Cyprianus. Epistolae. 34:4. Cooperatorum Veritatis Societas. Excerpta ex Documenta Catholica Omnia.Pg. 29

It can be understood from here that the public reader had an prominent role that affected the mood and spiritual faith of the whole community and the person selected was under critical scrutiny.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that the office of the public reader, known in Catholic circles as the Lector, had diminished after the first few centuries and transformed into a rite performed by a deacon.(8)As found at New Advent’s website under Lector Nevertheless, the public reader in the church liturgy still existed.

It is at this point the reader is asked to make a logical jump here through time — partially due to lack of easy-to-find source materials and the effort required to find the more difficult ones. Generalities will have to suffice until more material is uncovered and examined. Hebrew quickly vanished within the first generation of the Corinthian Church as the non-Jewish Greek adherents began to greatly outnumber the Jewish ones. A second century anonymous text covering II Corinthians claims that the Greek adherents had formally overtaken the Jewish ones by this time.(9)MPG Vol. 1. Clement. Epistola II Ad Corinthios. Chapter 2. Col. 333 A number of other factors could have been involved in the change. The first one being the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. It sent shock waves to the Jewish communities throughout the empire and “Jews in the Hellenistic Middle East found themselves in a truly precarious position.”(10)Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Volume II. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 371ff They may have had to shed, or de-emphasize Jewish practices, including the public use of the holy tongue, in order to avoid punitive sanctions. The late first century was also the time Rabban Gamaliel at Yavneh “took a fateful step, one that was to have far-reaching historical consequences. They declared in unequivocal terms that the Jewish Christians could no longer be considered part of the Jewish Community nor of the Jewish people.”(11)Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Volume I. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 307 This alienation could have accelerated the loss of Jewish identity in the fledgling messianic communities as well.

This may have fast-tracked the public reading in Greek, and perhaps Latin in some instances. Later on, Latin overcame Greek in the Western portion of the Church while Greek remained in the Eastern. Latin became the sole authority in the religious life which extended to civic and social affairs as well. It is not known exactly when Latin became the dominant language of religion in the West but it clearly occurred.

Thomas Aquinas on the Public Reader

This general foray above takes this study back to certitude in the thirteenth century where Thomas Aquinas described the public reader and the use of Latin in the Church. He linked the gift of tongues with the public reader and noted that the transition was an understood evolution in the Church:

“In the mouth of two or three, etc..” (Deuteronomy 17:6) but it must be noted that this habit for the most part is being served in the Church for we have the [public] readings and the epistles and also the gospels in the place of tongues, and for that reason it follows in Mass two are being delivered, because only two are being said whose antecedent is to the gift of tongues, specifically the epistle and the gospel. Accordingly in Matins many are done, in fact you say three readings in one. For in the former times they used to read a nocturn the next three night watches separately. Now however they are being spoken at the same time but on the other hand the procedure is not only to be preserved in regard to the number of those who are speaking but as well in regards to the way [it is done]. And this is what he says, “and through sharing,” that is in order that those who are speaking are to follow in turns with one another, a fact that one is to speak after another, or “through sharing,” that is interrupted, specifically that one is to speak on part of a vision or of instruction and is to explain it, and afterwards another and explains the very thing being shared and so follows one after another. Preachers have become accustomed to preserve that way when they are to preach to men of an unknown tongue by means of an interpretation. And for that reason it says, “Let one interpret.” as he result he says, “if there will not be available, etc.,” he shows when it is not to be practiced with tongues, saying that the one who is about to speak is through sharing and the one ought to interpret but, “if there will not be available,” anyone [who is an], “interpreter,” that is who understands, [then] those who have the gift of tongues, “are to keep silent in the Church,” that is he is not to speak because he himself understands and this silence is to be manifested in prayer or in meditation.

In other portions of his works he strongly positioned Latin as the language of religious polity:

But why do they [the priests] not give the blessing in the common [tongue], that they may be understood by the people and adhere themselves more to them? It has been said that this had been done in the early church, but afterwards, the faithful ones were taught and knew what they heard in the common office, the benedictions take place in Latin.(12)Thomas Aquinas, Lectures. My translation from Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc3

And again elsewhere:

A contrary argument. It is the same to speak in tongues and to speak clearly enunciating [the Latin words] to such a degree for the uneducated. Since then everyone is to speak clearly enunciating in the Church, that all is being said in Latin. It appears that it is madness in the same way. One ought to say to this: Madness existed in the early Church on that account because they were unacquainted in the custom of the Church, consequently they were ignorant of what they should do here unless it was to be explained to them. But certainly in the present all have been educated. Although from this point everything is being spoken in Latin, they still know what is taking place in the Church.(13)Thomas Aquinas, Lectures. My translation from Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc3

Thomas Aquinas’ opinion and the role of the Church reader represents an era in Church polity that would come to to forefront three centuries later. The Reformation was in part a protest against Latin being the sole language of religious instruction throughout a diverse ethnic and linguistic community — which gave rise to the revolutionary and later misunderstood words unknown tongues. More on this can be found at The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible.■

References   [ + ]

The Journey out of Christian Zionism

Why I am no longer pro-Israel, nor pro-Arab, but pro-human.

Hopefully the Evangelical Church will soon take this position too. It would be a factor in bringing resolution to the Arab–Israeli conflict.

My own change of mind began with a scholarship to attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1984. The stay in Israel was after three years of Bible College training. It was exciting to live and study in the actual place where most of the Biblical writings took place.

Like many other Bible believing Christians, my mind stopped at 33 AD; full of antiquated stereotypes and assumptions about modern Israel. Before the trip began, I didn’t know what Israel geographically looked like, nor was personally familiar with anyone of Jewish heritage, and absolutely ignorant of contemporary Middle East affairs. I was ideologically a Christian Zionist — a person who supported the State of Israel because of the numerous historical and apocalyptic references to this nation found in the Bible. The Arab community hardly figured into this initial picture.

My departure from Christian Zionism and the movement to a more balanced perspective began after a conversation with a man who called himself Brother David. He was living on the Mount of Olives as part of a controversial group that was waiting, praying and encouraging the end of the world to come. They called themselves the House of Prayer. While waiting for a Jerusalem Christian Assembly Church(1) Now known as King of Kings Community Jerusalem service to begin, I asked Brother David “Did you hear about the Arab riot?” This was in regards to a violent riot in Bethlehem that had ended with military intervention the day before. He replied with a sudden look of happiness and emphatically stated, “soon they won’t be with us anymore”. His words alluded to an assumption many evangelical circles hold that any opposition to the modern State of Israel are enemies to God. These enemies are pre-ordained to be destroyed.

I was of the same opinion at the time, but when he verbalized these beliefs, It shocked and deeply troubled me by what those words really meant. In Canada, these thoughts were a combination of my active imagination, a heavy dose of apocalyptic literature, and over-simplification. Israel is thousands of miles away. The black and white belief of a righteous Israel with unrighteous enemies poised to destroy the chosen people never seemed to hurt anyone, but now it was apparent these ideas did serious harm. To imagine saying to an Arab that his opposition to Israeli policies is a foretold doom and thus already write him off, or to not care when their homes were demolished by an Israeli edict of some form, or to see a Palestinian child sleep alone under a desolate tree, or catch a glimpse of an Arab family living in poverty and not care because “soon they are going to be gone anyways” was not right. On the contrary, my beliefs were fostering injustice, hatred and prejudice.

Looking out the window of the transit bus on my daily excursions and seeing both Israelis and Arabs going about the regular busyness of their days, my apocalyptic anticipations became quieter. Perhaps the end is coming and the formation of the State of Israel and the opposition against them are definite signs, but the fulfillment of prophecy is God’s job, not mine or anyone else’s. To do it ourselves invites many to freely perform criminal acts, to engage in hate and ignorant of real consequences. There are misplaced priorities where the cost of human life and the related quality of life, especially one of an Arab or Palestinian, is almost viewed as a necessary sacrifice, or ignored, in light of this fervor.

Having been surrounded by an Arab populace, my preconceptions were challenged. These were real people. It forced me to change, and I wondered about myself and evangelicals as a whole. How have we gotten this so wrong?

This was a hard topic to work through and likely one of the biggest lessons I learned while hitchhiking and busing in Israel; discovering that one of the greatest sins is the person or society being convinced they are doing and propagating a good, such as those trying to manufacture events to encourage fulfillment of perceived end-time prophecies, but instead are bearers of ignorance, hatred, and injustice.

References   [ + ]

The Alliance between Israel and Evangelicals

The financial, political, social and religious connections between the nation of Israel and Evangelical groups abroad.

The growing relationship between Israel and Evangelicals is largely due to domestic problems inside Israel and the greater Jewish community. The Jewish liberal monetary support has been declining, partly in protest to the encroaching rhetoric of Jewish fundamentalism into mainstream Israeli politics, such as the transfer of power to a Likud based party, the redefinition of the Jewish identity by a stricter set of rules,(1)http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week122/cover.html “Israeli Alliance with American Evangelicals” January 30th, 1998 Episode no. 122. An interview with Benjamin Natanyahu by Paul Miller, Religion and Ethics and the religious fervour of Westbank community settlements.

The Evangelical alliance also gives the Israeli Government political insurance if there is potential fallout of goodwill within many of its western democratic government allies.

The initial passion for the restoration of Israel can be found in the Evangelical movement over 100 years ago and was so pervasive that Dr. Stephen Sizer, an Anglican Minister and one of the foremost authorities on Christian Zionism, believes that this was a key force in allowing the reformation of the physical entity of Israel in 1948.(2) Stephen Sizer. Christian Zionism: Fueling the Arab-Israeli Conflict. CD pre-release version. Chapter 5: pg. 305. No Date Given but is the rough manuscript to the final print version, “Christian Zionism: Road Map to Armaggedon?”

This zeal has heavily influenced political decision making. For example, in the 1980s the then President Ronald Reagan along with the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator Jesse Helms, were openly known to hold evangelical end-time aspirations in dealings with Israel. George Bush Jr. is also noted to hold this faith position, more so than his father.(3) American Jews and Israel: A 54-Year Retrospective University of Judaism, http://www.uj.edu/content/ContentUnit.asp?CID=1200&u=3025&t=0

Josh Pollack noted in the Jewish World Review that a significant chunk of donations to the United Jewish Appeal are from Christians(4) http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0298/evewar.html “The dance of symbols” by Josh Pollack, Jan. 21. 1998 . Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, director of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Chicago-based organization, consisting mainly of Evangelical Christians donors, have contributed over $5 million dollars to the United Jewish appeal in 1997 and in 2006 the yearly donations skyrocketed to $39 million dollars.(5) http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/08/17/jews.christians/index.html The Jerusalem Post wrote that he claimed his organization to be the largest single donor to the United Jewish Appeal.(6) Evangelical Christians Supply Major Source of UJA Donations. The Jerusalem Post Thursday, November 13, 1997 By Aryeh Dean Cohen. Rabbi Yechiel’s statement may be hyperbole but it demonstrates how important Christian financial contributions are becoming in Israeli fund-raising activities.

There are other examples as well which demonstrate how widespread financial support from Christian communities have become:

  • The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reported that television evangelists raised over $20 million dollars to help Jewish immigration to Israel in 1997.(7) U.S. Christians paid for summer airlift of Ethiopian Jews. By Catherine Cohen , Ha’aretz. Friday, December 31, 1999. No link to this file

  • Ann Lolordo of the Baltimore Sun found that financial help for Jewish settlements could be found in the Christian Zionist community, and ironically not found from western Jewish ones. She detailed a number of Christian Churches and organizations funding endeavors such as the $5,000 dollars raised by Judy Campbell and the New Life Church in Colorado, or Ted Beckett, a Colorado developer, who started the Adopt-a-settlement program and contributed over $50,000 dollars over a two-year period. The Fellowship Church of Castleberry, Florida, donated over $100,000 dollars for a dormitory and conference center at a West-Bank settlement called Kiryat-Arba.(8) Israeli settlers find staunch friends in Christians, By Ann LoLordo, Baltimore Sun. July 27, 1997.

  • Vicki Hearst, daughter of the late wealthy businessman, Randolph Hearst, has given an undisclosed significant amount of money for facilities on the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.(9) IBID. Israeli Settlers. LoLordo.

  • Pastor John Hagee’s Cornerstone Christian Church in Texas donated over $1.5 million dollars to the United Jewish Communities for “Israel-related causes”.(10) http://www.ujc.org/page.html?ArticleID=36411 United Jewish Communities “News: As Evangelical Christians Cheer, Preacher Gives Money to Back Israel” by Barbara Richmond. And in 2006 it is alleged he raised over $7 million for Jewish groups.(11) http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/newscontent.php3?artid=14013 Growing Acceptance seen of fiery Pastor by James D. Besser, Thursday, Aug. 23rd, 2007 He also founded on February 7, 2006, Christians United For Israel an Evangelical equivalent of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to lobby the American congress to support Israel.(12) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hagee In that same year, Hagee was the recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year Award by B’nai B’rith.(13) http://www.jewsonfirst.org/07b/yoffie.html Leader of Reform Judaism discourages cooperation with Christians United for Israel. May 29th, 2007.

  • The amount of money from many of these groups may seem insignificant, but there are Churches and organizations all over the world doing the same thing, cumulatively adding to Israel’s economy.

  • There are so many pro-Israel Christian groups that if one does a Google search, it will bring up over 250 organizations. It is difficult to assess the yearly economic contributions to Israel, but four of the larger well known ones, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, and Chosen People Ministries, collectively receive donations over $33 million US every year.(14) This was based on studying financial reports given on the internet for the year 2000.

This Christian zeal enters directly into modern-day Israeli politics. I was at the International Christian Embassy Feast of Tabernacles celebration held in Jerusalem in 1986, where the then Prime Minister Yitzhaq Shamir was given a standing ovation by a thousand or more Christians as a sign of prophetic allegiance. The annual rite that occurred in 2007 consisted of an estimated 7,000 Christian pilgrims from 90 nations.(15) http://www.icej.org/article/feast_pilgrims_ready_for_jerusalem_march

Benyamin Netanyahu, a former Israeli UN representative and current Prime Minister, has frequently spoken in Churches.(16) http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article4951.htm “The Interregnum: Christian Zionism In The Clinton Years” by Donald Wagner.  He is a cherished idol in the Evangelical community, as reflected by this blogger on Netanyahu when he announced participation in a previous Likud leadership race, “I believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is the chosen man of God to help lead Israel through this very difficult time.”(17) http://www.onenewsnow.com/2007/07/bibi_netanyahu_the_great_commu.php A posting by Steve Wenge, July 11th, 2007

The Knesset has formed the Christian Allies Caucus because of the decades of warm political, economic and social relationships between the Evangelical Christian Community and Israel.(18) http://cac.org.il/. http://www.israelnn.com/news.php3?id=69672 Christian Allies in Day of Prayer for Jerusalem. See also http://www.knesset.gov.il/lobby/eng/LobbyPage_eng.asp?lobby=41

The European Coalition for Israel: the brainchild of a number of major Christian Zionist groups was founded to promote the welfare of Israel before the European Parliament.(19) http://www.europeancoalitionforisrael.org/ “A Christian initiative Promoting European-Israeli Cooperation.”

The Israeli political ethos has warmed to these Christian communities since the times of Menachem Begin, who oversaw the transition of a liberal based Israeli government to that of a Likud based one — a party influenced by orthodox Judaism — the Christian equivalent of a fundamentalist group.

The Biblical imagery and geographical rhetoric that the Likud party espouses is easily understood by the Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, which makes the attraction between the Likud and these Christians a natural one.

The Israeli Government feels comfortable with this arrangement because money donated comes with what appears few strings attached. An Op-Ed by Abraham H. Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League detailed this in Time Magazine, “The support comes voluntarily, and we welcome it, as long as it comes without a quid pro quo.”(20) http://www.jewsonfirst.org/howjewsseefp.html How Jews See it: Foreign Policy and Christian Zionists: Time Magazine, January 16th, 2007

The Christian organizations that offer material support believe the country and its politicians are mandated by God, and their assistance is to accelerate modern Israel’s self-determined course to Armaggedon. They feel direct intervention on how and where the money should be used would be counter-productive to the unfolding of the events leading to the end of the world.

Much of the closeness between Evangelicals and the Israeli Government can be traced to the late American Evangelist, Jerry Falwell, and his close relationship with Israeli leader Menachem Begin. It has been asserted the relationship was so close, that Falwell was loaned a Lear jet by the Israeli government. A deeper look reveals this to be false, according to the Israeli-American writer, Zev Chafets.(21) Zev Chafets. A Match Made in Heaven. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 2007. pg. 66

Falwell once stated that the Israeli government can be confident that he could mobilize over 70 million Christians in support of Israel.(22) Donald Wagner. Evangelicals and Israel: Theological roots of a political alliance. Christian Century. Nov. 4. 1998 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_1998_Nov_4/ai_53227143/pg_4

Little is said or written about what the average Israeli perceives the Christian Zionist in a one-to-one conversation. Zev Chafets appreciates such enthusiasm to support the Israeli cause. He turns a blind eye to their religious fervour and is simply in favour of anybody who defends Israel from being taken off the map.(23) http://www.jewsonfirst.org/howjewsseefp.html On Fresh Air: Chafets shrugs off Christian Right Agenda, Israeli attack on Iran. Terry Gross interviews Chafets on Fresh Air, January 18th, 2007.

Chafets explores the modern Israeli relationship with Christian Zionism in his book, A Matchmade in Heaven. He described this association through an experience touring with a Christian Zionist couple in Israel. While they were in a store, he was talking with an Israeli clerk about his touring friends. In English, they are appreciated, but in a short Hebrew dialogue between Chafets and the clerk, they find them weird(24) IBID Chafets. Pg. 41. . When he worked in the Israeli government, he found “…that Christian Zionists were politically useful, even if their hypersincerity was a bit off-putting.”(25) IBID Chafets. Pg. 10.

This relationship is a gamble that the religious observant Jew or modern liberal Israeli has made with much trepidation. Ira Rifkin wrote in Jewish Week that he is concerned about the long-term consequences of using the Christian Zionists for the Israeli national agenda. A variety of issues could rise that deeply split the Christian from the Jewish communities and cause a new wave of anti-Semitism.(26) http://www.thejewishweek.com/top/editletcontent.php3?artid=2389 The Jewish Week: Beware of Christian Zionists by Ira Rifkin. Nov. 22, 2002. Gershom Gorenberg echoed this same sentiment in an on-line New Republic article, stating that Reverend Jerry Falwell believed the anti-Christ was alive today and was male and Jewish. This type of religious vernacular indicated to Mr. Gorenberg that Christian fanaticism could quickly turn against the Jews.(27) Tribulations: Jerusalem’s Y2K problem by Gershom Gorenberg. The New Republic: a journal of politics and the arts. JUNE 14, 1999 ISSUE

John Hagee and his organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), has especially brought the relationship of Christian Zionism with mainstream American Judaism to a head. Hagee’s invitation to have a forum at a convention held by the powerful lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and CUFI’s ‘Nights to Honor Israel’, at local Churches has especially increased discussion.(28) http://www.jewsonfirst.org/07b/yoffie.html Rabbi Moline, an ultra-conservative Rabbi who fiercely crusades against intermarriage and the religious right, is a known sponsor of Hagee’s fundraisers even though he doesn’t like his theology or politics, “…we live in a time when friends of Israel are few and far between. We have to recognize that we are receiving support from the Evangelical community that we are not receiving from our traditional friends.”(29) http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/newscontent.php3?artid=14013 Growing Acceptance seen of fiery Pastor by James D. Besser, Thursday, Aug. 23rd, 2007

The problem has been addressed by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. They called on Jews to shun the annual International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem’s 2007 Feast of Tabernacles celebration held in Jerusalem. The Rabbinate cannot comprehend the modern Evangelical end-fervor and could only logically conclude that this was a plot to convert Jews to Christianity.(30) http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/World/2007/09/23/4520803-ap.html, Evangelicals disturbed by Israel rabbis’ call for Jews to shun holiday event. By Amy Teibel, The Associated Press, September 23rd, 2007.

What would happen if the Evangelical community discovered that they have been used by the Israeli Government and Jewish allies for their own political means? This scenario would likely never happen as the Pentecostal/Evangelical mindset on end-times is so deeply set, that it could not reach this state of consciousness.

Could the Evangelical support switch into a deep form of anti-Semitism? Contrary to the fears of many Rabbis and Jewish religious pundits, this is not going to happen. If anything, the new problem is that of Philo-Semitism, and the expectations that come with it.

What could be the potential turning point? A worst-case scenario is the election of a majority Labor government, who in turn would legislate and destroy illegal settlements, outlaw expansionism, and begin to introduce more liberal laws into Israel such as universal abortion on demand, recognition of same-sex marriages, and a significantly re-drawn two-state solution with Palestinians. The Christian Zionist organizations then would react two-fold: first, Christian Zionist money and political leverage would substantially shift from the Israeli Government to the territories and radical religious Jewish groups. Secondly, the Christian Zionist movement would become politically silent on military offences or defences for or against Israel, believing it to be a punishment on a government that has lost its God given mandate and in need of spiritual correction.■

For more information:

This article was originally published on the ScribD website in 2007. It is republished here with some changes.

References   [ + ]

Death, Religion and the Modern Man

A look at death from contemporary, religious, philosophical, and personal perspectives.

Death is the one question that modern science still has yet to answer in the most preliminary way. Religion answers questions about death, but this is largely ignored. Philosophy touches on the subject, but this falls short.

In modern western society, our thoughts on the subject are so thoroughly deficient, that we are not only unprepared, we emotionally flee.

It also produces many outcomes in the modern mind which are mainly on the subconscious level.

The fear of death highly influences our emotions and decision-making. Ernest Becker, contributor to the publication, Death: Current Perspectives, would prefer to use the word terror instead. Terror demonstrates how tightly gripped the subject of death is in all our decision making, and is not restricted by ethnic or socio-economic boundaries.(1) Edwin S. Schneidman, Ph.D., ed. Death: Current Perspectives, 3rd ed. NP: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1984. pg. 18

The fear of death is followed by the avoidance of death. David Gordon, author of Overcoming the Fear of Death, believes that avoidance permeates our lives.

“Our lives are poisoned by a fear of death, and much of our culture represents a response, however inadequate, to this fear. Most of us are afraid to contemplate our own ending, and when anything reminds us that we too shall die, we flee and turn our thoughts to happier matters.”(2) David Cole Gordon, Overcoming the Fear of Death. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1970. pg. 13

This dreadfulness is directly responsible for many mental illnesses. Noted Psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg remarks:

“No one is free of the fear of death… the anxiety, neuroses, the various phobic states, even a considerably number of depressive suicidal states and many schizophrenias amply demonstrate that ever present fear of death.”(3) IBID pg. 18

It has built some of the greatest monuments, produced incredible works of art, powerful works of literature, and marvels of engineering. The late controversial philosopher, writer, and political activist Arthur Koestler observed: “If the word death were absent from our vocabulary, our great works of literature would have remained unwritten, pyramids and cathedrals would not exist”.(4) http://www.trinity.edu/~mkearl/death-3.html

Our anxiety is so great that even the words death,, or died is avoided. A study of any newspaper on any given day demonstrates this. For example, my local newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press’s November 25th, 2007, Obituary section lists seventeen notices with only four that included the words ‘died’, or ‘death’. The dominant words were ‘passing’, or ‘passing away’. This weakened version of death takes away the significance of the event.

One of our greatest apprehensions about death is being buried alive. Edgar Allan Poe, the revered horror writer of the middle 1800s, was consumed by the this. In his popular short story, The Premature Burial, he worked on this fear and that the idea “should be forced to slumber”, otherwise “they will devour us”.(5) The Premature Burial: 1850, http://eserver.org/books/poe/premature_burial.html Although his works are fictional, they may be representative of his life and his unfortunate early demise.

This theme was also in his Cask of Amontillado, where one of the central characters was tricked and sealed in an ancient cave, forced to resign to the reality of death while still conscious — a powerful and scary metaphor that has been a classic horror story over the centuries.

Countless western philosophers have attempted to address the meaning and purpose of death, such as Martin Heidegger, who concluded in the mid-1900s, “It is only in full… awareness of our own mortality that life can take on any purposive meaning.”(6) Paul Whittle, ed. Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers. London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd. 2004. pg. 151 This becomes more clearly defined in the teachings of Albert Camus, who had a major influence on the hippie generation. Camus taught that life is absurd and meaningless; any attempt to understand it is futile. He urged readers to revolt against the meaninglessness of death. His idea of revolt is to be aware of the crushing fate that awaits us, “but without the resignation that accompanies it”.(7) IBID. Whittle. Pg. 155 It is a pessimistic outlook on life that basically teaches that life is unfair and sad, but we must make the best of what we have, even if one has to pretend.

Another popular contemporary writer during Camus’s time, Aldous Huxley promoted that one should, “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma.”(8) http://www.huxley.net/ah/huxley_aldous.html Which he followed, writing to his attendants for LSD at the last moments of his life.(9) http://www.huxley.net/ah/huxley_aldous.html Death was an important part of his psyche, culminating in his final piece of literature entitled, Death and Shakespeare.

Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, who named his band from the inspiration of Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, was influenced by Huxley and also author William Blake, who wrote that the “road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”(10) http://www.answers.com/topic/jim-morrison Morrison mysteriously died at the age of 27 due to heart failure — arguably his pursuit of happiness led to an over-indulgence in stimulants that cost him his life.

This representation of the 1960s promotes the idea that since death is inevitable, simply ignore this reality and live life to the utmost pleasure with few restrictions as possible because this is your one shot at life. This insatiable pursuit of happiness by Morrison and many contemporaries has been existent for at least 2,800 years. One of the first records of this wave of thought can found in writings as early as 800 BC. It was written in the Biblical book called Isaiah, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,”(11) Isaiah 22:13 which stressed the senselessness of life and any attempt to understand it was meaningless.

Ernest Hemingway, considered the heir apparent of Mark Twain as a literary American giant, based one of his foremost books, “The Sun also Rises”, from a reading of the 2,800 year old or so Book of Ecclesiastes. This book is found in the Bible. The unknown writer of Ecclesiastes parodied that all life lacked any meaning. Some book reviewers clearly correlate the analogy of Ecclesiastes with Hemingway’s philosophy on life:(12)http://www.allreaders.com/Topics/Info_11355.asp: a book review of the “Sun also Rises” by Michael JR Jose

“What evolves, then, over the course of Hemingway’s forty-year career as a writer is a comprehensive code for living which acknowledges death as the end point in life.  The characters to whom Hemingway is most sympathetic are those who exhibit grace under the pressure of an acute awareness of death. These characters usually live life in the present and live it to its fullest extent, enjoying the sensual pleasures that life has to offer; characters who are eating, drinking, and being merry with the knowledge that tomorrow they may die.”(13)http://www.people.vcu.edu/~bmangum/hemstories.htm

Hemingway celebrated life in the same way, and when he was unable to enjoy life any longer due to physical limitations in his early sixties, committed suicide.

Specialists in the realm of death and dying believe that the anxiety of death is only one of several features concerning death. Death Attitudes Among Mid-Life Women as found in the Journal of Death and Dying, has it broken into seven categories, death as:

  • a concern
  • anticipation
  • depression
  • loss
  • a physical reality
  • denial
  • and dimension of time.(14)OMEGA–Journal of Death and Dying

It correctly suggests that death is a complex subject. However, with the exception of the seventh category, they all relate to a form of anxiety and loss. It doesn’t go into the meaning or purpose of death itself.

Gregory Campbell III, has researched extensively on the subject and has observed some common trends:

“When analyzing the “over 50 death fear,” the students thought it was related to the fact they are so close to death the fear increases. The truth of the matter is the group of 30 to 50 year olds are the ones with the greatest fear of death. They have contributed their share of toil on the planet and now it is time for their reward (retirement, relaxation, etc.). To suddenly be confronted with death is a real tragedy. That is the responsible agent for the heightened fear. Also, as so aptly brought out in class, the individuals at this age oftentimes try for that one last fling in order to try to beat out the suddenly-realized approach of the end of their life. Men around the age of 40 may resort to affairs (to prove their vitality), major changes in lifestyle, daredevil acts, and other abrupt changes in behavior.”(15)http://www.deep-six.com/deathweb/page207.htm

“…wherever or however death comes, Americans try to handle it with cool, efficient dispatch. Death in America is no longer a metaphysical mystery or a summons from the divine. Rather, it is an engineering problem for death’s managers—the physicians, morticians and statisticians in charge of supervising nature’s planned obsolescence. To the nation that devised the disposable diaper, the dead are only a bit more troublesome than other forms of human waste.”(16)IBID http://www.deep-six.com/deathweb/page207.htm

“…People are now relying less upon religion and must now rely upon themselves for death explanations. If one takes the Heaven and Hell concept away people will concentrate on this life rather than the afterlife. The focus will become the avoidance of death which leads to the problem Americans have with it.”(17)IBID http://www.deep-six.com/deathweb/page207.htm

These thoughts by Campbell reflect the important role of religion on the discussion of death. Most contemporary minds are unfamiliar with the fact that the traditional dominant western religions were formed and have evolved to resolve the tension of death and the afterlife. The next section deals with this aspect.

The Jewish writers, especially the Talmudic one provide the most detailed answers. Death is the strongest thing made by God and cannot be overcome.

“Ten strong things have been created in the world; a mountain is strong but iron can break it; iron is strong but fire can melt it; fire is strong but water can extinguish it; water is strong but clouds can bear it; clouds are strong but the wind can scatter them; wind is strong but the body can carry it (as breath); the body is strong but terror can break it; terror is strong but wine can drive it out; wine is strong but sleep can counteract it; death, however, is stronger than them all.”(18)A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, New York: Shocken Books, 1975. (Reprint of the 1949 edition). Pg. 73. The quotation is taken from Baba Batra 10a

The Jewish Sages speculated on death and gave important details on life and the hereafter. Questions such as, “is death the opposite of life?”, “how shall the body be re-formed?” “Will the body be clothed or naked when it first rises?” “What old corpus material is required to allow for resurrection?” “Will the corporal defects in this world be transferred to the next world?” “Who will be resurrected?” These were discussed in-depth.

In reference to the existence of the afterlife, the ancient Jews believed that death was not considered the opposite or end of life. Ephraim E. Urbach, a reputable scholar on Jewish thought, claims that the Jewish sages thought death to be the narcotinization of the power of life.(19)Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Trans. By Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Book I, pg. 216. See also Isaiah 14:9, 26:19, 53:5, 57:17, and Psalm 88:10 In other words death attempts to subjugate life to the lowest levels of existence but it does not have the ability to destroy it. A created life is a permanent entity.

The Talmud generally considered death to be an extreme enfeeblement of life, robbing life from most of its power. This is why the dead are sometimes called in Hebrew repha’im, that is, the weak.(20) IBID, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Pg. 216

Repha’im is a Hebrew word used primarily for those who have a disease or ill and in need of healing, and sometimes utilized, especially in the 8th century BC, to describe death.

Going back to the first century and into the time of Christ’s time on earth, one finds that the word death is oddly replaced by the word sleep.

Christ described the state of a dead girl as “sleeping”(21)Matthew 9:24—which evoked laughter from the audience that surrounded Him. Whether the use of sleep as a reference to death was not used often, or the general public was not familiar with it, or the people understood the term but believed its application to be for the imagination, such as Mary, the brother of Lazarus, who asserted that she knew that her brother would be raised on the last day—a time and place outside her lifetime and senses. Mary did not have any comprehension that Christ could and would raise Lazarus immediately.

The Apostle Paul also used the word ‘sleep’ instead of dead. He tried to posture this against those who believe death to be the terminal end of existence, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.”(22) I Thessalonians 4:13

It is difficult to know why both Paul and Christ used the word sleep on numerous occasions instead of dead. This term confused even Christ’s followers when He discussed with them to go see Lazarus because he had “fallen asleep”. Christ had to further clarify His terminology and use the word “dead” in order for His disciples to understand.(23) See the Gospel of John, Chapter 11 for more info As previously stated, this phrase was newly coined to separate the thought of death as a terminal end than continued life in a weakened form. Perhaps the use of sleep was a Pharisaic distinctive that both Christ and Paul continued, or Paul had acquired directly from Christ’s teachings.

The Latin translators carefully captured this in their rendering of the controversial passage in Matthew 27:52 “and many of the bodies of the saints, who had fallen asleep”(24) Biblia Sacra: Vulgata Editionis. London: Samuel Bagster and Sons. ND. Pg. 23 referring to the death of others—sleep here is from dormio, which has the semantic range to not only mean sleep but also to be dormant, or inactive.

Any attempt to correlate sleep with death from a Talmudic perspective is difficult. The Talmud is quiet about the correlation of sleep and death in any significant way, only suggesting that sleep is a 1/60th experience of death.(25)IBID, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, Pg. 222

Jewish thought refrained from defining death using the Greek dualistic model, that man is mortal concerning his body and immortal in reference to the mind.(26)IBID, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, Pg. 222 Rather they preferred to believe that the soul, known in Hebrew as nepesh, is everything that a person is made of—the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It is the complete product. Man has to await the resurrection on the last day to be restored to completeness.

One of the most difficult questions each one has to ask is, what happens when the body ceases to function? The best systematic literature at least from the Scripture can be found from Paul the Apostle, who outlined two stages of death and the hereafter. First, after one dies, there is a stasis: an incorporal static state awaiting the end of the world.

The second state is the resurrection from an inactive condition into a corporal being.

The time waiting between an incorporeal, unconscious state from death to resurrection, whether one day or a thousand years, may just feel momentary, as the dead are not governed by time.

This waiting state is a point of controversy within some theological circles, many theologians believe that when you die, there is no waiting time and you automatically begin the next life.

The Jewish writers, including those of the Bible, emphasize the resurrection of the dead over immortality of the soul. When we die, we temporarily remain in an inactive condition. We do not live in semi-form such as a ghost, or wander the earth as liberated spirit or go to another dimension.

The Jewish sages also discussed what dead bodily material should be available so that they will rise in the day of resurrection and believed it to be part of the spinal column named Luz.(27)IBID, Everyman’s Talmud, Pg. 363 It is unclear what part this exactly was but they thought it to be indestructible.

It is clear from the Sages that material from the original body is required for the resurrection.

One can speculate, similarly to the ancient Jewish sages, on how God will physically perform the resurrection. One could argue that the resurrection of the dead is the stimulation of a personal cell to reproduce and restore to its previous physical state. God, the ultimate scientist, only needs one cell to transform a person being from an inactive, weak state into a complete one again. Perhaps all our information about our physical selves and our thoughts are stored within the memory of each cell.

In the Bible, in an old writing called the Book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel had a dream about this very concept.(28) Ezekiel 37 He saw himself in the midst of a valley of human bones. God asked him in the dream if these bones can live and then the bones proceeded to reconnect, and build layer upon layer back into human form. He saw an army of people that came back to life. The description here sounds like cloning or something above this technology.

But this seems to be an oversimplification of a very difficult and vexing question from a scientific perspective.

Part of the problem of death, and the lack of definition thereof, reflects our finiteness. If we could define it, then we have some sort of mastery over it. But the lack demonstrates that we have no control, nor any comprehension of this power. Even as an overt Christian with hope of the resurrection, the lack of definition and control over our final destination is scary. It is hard to imagine how those with no concept with the hereafter deal with this.

As King David wrote over 2,900 years ago “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me”(29) Psalm 23:4 This passage exudes some confidence but fear as well. The “valley of the shadow of death” is not a nice place. It demonstrates that pain, suffering and insecurity are not removed from the religious vernacular when referenced to dying, but a confidence that this is only temporary and we will pass through to a better place. Even Christ, moments before being led away and the events unfolded for His crucifixion, was in angst, and wanted to refuse such an outcome.(30) Matthew 26:39

Another factor about death is its timing and nature. None of us know when and how we are going to die. Insurance companies have given proven statistics that detail the odds of when the typical person should live and die but it is too general to be a guideline on every individual’s specific demise. Some will die very early in life, while others very long and some in-between. Death is entirely not consistent, predictable or fair in its arrival.

Death is often described as a special function carried out by an angel. It is called the Angel of Death. Many movies have been created that demonstrate a connection with the Angel of Death such as “Final Destination”—a movie which suggests some people’s responses could passively evade it. The actual words “Angel of Death” only appears similarly once in the Bible,(31) I Chronicles 21:15 καὶ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ Θεὸς ἄγγελον εἰς ῾Ιερουσαλὴμ τοῦ ἐξολοθρεῦσαι αὐτήν (Septuagint) the other few times, it is a loose translation of the Greek word for destroyer, or slayer with no reference to angel.(32) I Cor 10:10, Hebrews 11:28 is ὀλοθρεύων The concept of the angel of death was probably evoked from a mystical-medieval-Christian legend.

Resurrection and oblivion has been in dispute for millenniums and societies have vacillated between these concepts throughout history. Israel during the time of Christ was deeply divided on the subject. On at least one occasion Jesus went out of his way intellectually to address it, “but regarding the fact that the dead rise again,” and then went on to say, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…”(33) Mark 12:26-27 These quotes offer two observations. First of all that the community Jesus spoke to were not convinced about the hereafter, and secondly, death is a transitory state.

The Apostle Paul used the controversial concept of eternal life to his political advantage while appearing before a hostile judicial court, “I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’(34)Acts 23:6 He knew that the Jewish assembly judging him was deeply divided on the subject and distracted them from his case. He succeeded and avoided prosecution. He also discussed the matter with the Roman Governor Festus, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?”(35)Acts 26:8 The Governor replied about this statement, combined with a number of other comments Paul had made, that he had gone mad.

Obviously the whole Christian religious movement is based on Jesus rising and having mastery over all elements of death.(36)Romans 6:9 The Apostle Paul not only passionately tried to reinforce the point that Christ rose from the dead but to assert this, he had to convince a contemporary and skeptical mindset that a hereafter even exists, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless.”(37) I Corinthians 15:16-17

The reality is we all have to die. It is not a nice experience for anyone, whether religious or not. But what we do here on earth determines one’s future state. It is the biggest question we all have to answer and it cannot be avoided. Those who do not, risk missing out on something much better. ■

References   [ + ]