A detailed look into the Jewish rite of reading, speaking, interpreting. Practices that set the liturgical framework for the Corinthian and later churches.
This article specifically dwells on the role of the reader in the Jewish synagogue. Another article The Public Reader in the Church, explains how the early church transformed the rite into a Greek Christian one.
The Gift of Tongues Project devoted significant time and resources connecting the Hebrew public reader simultaneously being translated into the local vernacular as the correct interpretation of the tongues of Corinth.
The Jewish rite of reading parallels closely with the office of instruction. The two offices seem to overlap. This study reveals a rich history of the public reader from 500 BC; the transition from Jewish to a Greek custom.
The first public reader, Ezra the Scribe
The oldest Jewish text that attests to such a rite allegedly can be traced to Ezra the Scribe around 450 BC. It is found in the Biblical Book of Nehemiah chapter 8:
1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.
2So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.1 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand.2 And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed3 the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear4 and giving the meaning5 so that the people understood6 what was being read.7
A detailed look at the Hebrew text of Nehemiah
The text described Ezra the Scribe reading from a podium along with what appears to be a third party explaining what he read in terms the audience could understand. A number of key Hebrew words develop this inquiry even further;
- בין, bin, understanding, or teaching
- פרש peresh, give meaning, explain, or translate and
- שֶׂכֶל shekel, a synonym to בין comprehend, apply common sense.
The use of בין, bin, is troublesome. It is used in the Nehemiah text in two distinct ways — to understand, and to instruct. Modern Hebrew restricts its usage only to mean to understand, which makes it difficult for those knowing modern Hebrew to discern the nuances here. The contemporary language does not give any sense of instructing, translating, or explaining. This is not the case in this much earlier writing.
The text itself is not entirely clear. Does it mean that Ezra spoke in Hebrew and a translator translated in Aramaic? Or were the people uneducated about Jewish law and life and needed an intermediary to amplify the text so that they could understand it? As discussed in The role of Hebrew in the Jewish-Aramaic World the emphasis was on education, not language. However, many later sources of Jewish literature understood this text as emphasizing language.
We will follow the traditional perception of Ezra’s message establishing Hebrew as the language of law and life with the immediate translation into the common vernacular.
The word instructing found later on in the Book of Nehemiah states the lay audience Ezra spoke to did not know Hebrew; the majority knew Aramaic and the rest other foreign languages.8 Therefore the people who heard the reading of the Law were incapable of understanding Hebrew. The great eleventh-century Rabbi, Rashi, commented upon the idea of the Levites instructing מְבִינִים, mivinim, as a case of interpreting the Hebrew words into the common vernacular.9 Therefore בין, bin, must be understood as teaching or instructing within this context.
The complicated word פרש.
The Nehemiah text then shortly after uses פרש parash as a synonym to בין, bin. Parash usually means to make clear, explain or translate. It is important to look at the era that Nehemiah was written in to support the idea of translation.10 Internal evidence from the Book of Ezra 4:18 uses a similar verbal form which correlates with the word translation or interpret. Modern Hebrew understands the word as interpret as well.
פרש does not denote a word-for-word translation but can be amplified, a springboard for an extended lecture in the target language, and a platform for personal gain. This caused many later problems in the synagogue rite that needed to be rectified.
The eminent Hebraist and author of the Hebrew New Testament, Franz Delitzsch probably understood פרש in this manner too. He consistently translated the word interpret and variants in I Corinthians 14 as פרש peresh11 and I agree with this choice. Unless more detailed information arrives, the noun פרש peresh, and its variants, was more likely the one Paul had in mind.
This word also serves as the base for פרשה parashah or its plural, parashot or parashyiot notes a formal section (mainly a paragraph) of the Biblical Hebrew text.
Fortunately, we do not encounter this word as a grammatical construct in this context.
The ongoing tradition of the Reader/Translator
The following precepts were established from the time of Ezra:
A reader to read from the original Hebrew text from a specially built podium for this rite
the speaking of Hebrew and a third party, which is here defined as the Levites, translating or explaining the reading in the common vernacular of the audience
the people hearing the reading and translation are to respond with an amen.
The Hebrew Reader and Interpreter in the Talmud
The next substantial mention of the liturgy of Hebrew being read and a third party standing beside the reader and simultaneously translating it into the common vernacular can be found in the fourth-century and later Babylonian Talmud.
Talmud Megillah 9a to 24b have scattered references to this and allude to the history of the reading of the Bible in the Jewish liturgy. They demonstrate the tensions between the use of Hebrew and its adaptation to Jewish communities of different linguistic natures. The resolutions are uneven in application but do show some general evolution.
Talmud Babli Megillah 9a
This passage declares that the Books of Scripture may be written in any language, but then later stipulates that it can only be translated into Greek and no other language. The text further states that King Ptolemy, a non-Jewish Greek ruler, legislated a Greek translation in the third century BC, which means the Jewish sages had no choice but to sanctify it and therefore the writing goes on to mythologize this. It also legislated that whatever language the liturgical prayers were originally written in, must stay in their original language.12
Talmud Babli Megillah 17a
The quotation from below is from the Mishnah, which is an older text inside the Talmud Babli and can be traced often to the second-century. The author(s) here cover the subject of reading in Hebrew — its primary usage in the liturgy and should be practiced even if a person doesn’t understand it. The problem appears a difficult one for the Jewish sages as they contradict themselves here. They conclude that hearing or reading in Hebrew, even if it is not understood, is a religious obligation that morally must be observed.
MISHNAH. If one reads the Megillah backwards, he has not performed his obligations. If he reads it by heart, if he reads it in a translation [Targum] in any language, he has not performed his obligation. It may, however, be read to those who do not understand Hebrew in a language other than Hebrew. If one who does not understand Hebrew hears it read in Hebrew, he has performed his obligation. If one reads it with breaks or while half-asleep, he has performed his obligation.13
The Rabbinic discussion proceeds further on this passage, which is not quoted here, struggling with the idea of Hebrew having such a high standing and how the Jewish faith could extend into the non-Jewish vernacular. They concluded that Hebrew was to be used in reading or recitation but the holy language extended no further. The common vernacular could be used in the common prayers, and thus other liturgical rites.
This section covers the rules of translating the Scriptures into the common vernacular. It concluded that the Torah must only have one reader and one translator for ensuring that the importance of the text is understood. The prophets are considered less important and are given one reader, and two simultaneous translators. The reading of the Talmud had little or no restrictions on the amount of readers or simultaneous translators. The amount of readers and translators, depending on the importance of the text, increased for entertainment purposes. The art of reading or translating together in harmony was like hearing a choir.
A Tanna stated: This is not the case with [the public reading of] the Torah. Our Rabbis taught: As regards the Torah, on reads and one translates, and in no case must one read and two translate [together]. As regards the Prophets, one reads and two translate, but in no case may two read and two translate. As regards Hallel and the Megillah, even ten may read [and ten may translate]. What is the reason? Since the people like it, they pay attention and hear.14
This may have been a later addition to the religious liturgy. Paul established that each one must speak or translate in turn (I Cor. 14:27). He did not want a cacophony of voices at the same time.
It explains that the reader is not to read less than three verses on any occasion, but while reading, should stop at each verse so that the translator can keep in rhythm.15
The reader is not to skip verses in the Torah, but can skip in the prophets.
There is more to the Megillah about reading and translating, such as age and physical requirements but it does not relate to the Corinthian context, so it is not listed here.
Nedarim 37b is difficult to understand, even with explanations from ancient commentators. This reference is included because it is quoted by Bernard Spolsky, Professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He cited Nedarim 37b as evidencein his article, Jewish Multilingualism in the First Century to support the roles of Hebrew as a religious language and Aramaic as the mother tongue. His assertion about Nedarim 37b is in context to the Ezra passage found in Nehemiah 8:
In its explanation of this passage (T.B. Nedarim 37b), the Talmud interprets this last verse to refer to the institution of the practice of the Targum, the reciting of an Aramaic translation after the public reading of each Biblical Hebrew verse. (T.B. Nedarim 37b). It is possible that it refers to a translation into any language; it might also refer to an interpretation given in more colloquial language. Even if the practice did not in fact start this early, it is certain that within a few centuries the Aramaic translation and interpretation that accompanied the public reading of the Written Law was firmly established, making clear that in the course of time most of the inhabitants of Palestine, including presumably many who spoke Hebrew, used Aramaic as a lingua franca.16
The concept takes us to the twelfth century Rabbi, scholar, and physician, Maimonides (also known as Rambam). He is considered one of the most influential and revered Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages. If one reads his works, it is easy to see why he has been given such a high status. He synthesized the idea of the reader/interpreter into a cohesive form. His coverage of this topic can be found in Mishneh Torah: Book of Love: Order or Prayers (Hilkot Tefilah chapter 12). He copiously wrote in detail on the subject, though most if it does not directly connect with the Church of Corinth. There are two themes that do have a connection:
The Amen construct
Each one of the readers opens the Torah scroll and looks at the place from which he is to read. Afterwards, he declares, Barchu et Ado-nai hamevorach, and all the people answer: Baruch Ado-nai hamevorach le’olam va’ed. He then recites the blessing:
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You, God, the Giver of the Torah.
All the people respond: “Amen.” Afterwards, he reads until he completes the reading, rolls the scroll [closed] and recites the blessing:17
Both Paul and Maimonides agree that the amen is part of the Jewish liturgy but disagree on how it is to be used. Paul emphasized that an intermediary between the speaker and the congregation, the ἀναπληρῶν—anaplêrôn, was to say the amen on behalf of the congregation. The term anaplêrôn is unique to Paul’s writing.
See The mysterious Anaplêrôn of I Corinthians 14:16 for more information.
The fifth-century Alexandrian Church called the person who occupied the position of anaplêrôn18 as keimenos19 — one who takes homiletic exegesis or highly articulate language and explains it in such a way that the average person could understand. The anaplêrôn would say amen as a way of ending whatever explanation was required. If the anaplêrôn did not understand what was being said, he could not then convert it into common vernacular and therefore would be unable to say the amen. Maimonides, on the other hand, believed the amen was to be done by the congregation itself at the ending of a reading. This may be a later evolution of this rite since Paul’s time.
On speaking and interpreting
Maimonides believed that the synagogue liturgy of reading from Hebrew with a third-party translator interpreting the reading into the local vernacular was an established fact since the time of Ezra.
From the time of Ezra, it was customary that a translator would translate to the people the [passages] read by the reader from the Torah, so that they would understand the subject matter.20
The office of the interpreter in Jewish liturgy
The Aramaic word for interpreter in the Talmud Megillah and commentaries associated with it is is מתרגם meturgem in the singular and מתרגמין meturgemin in the plural. The plural is used more often. English language has resolved this office to be called the meturgamen. The early history of this word is not known except that it was extensively used from the third century onwards in Aramaic circles. The torah.org website covers the twofold usage of the interpreter in a clear way:
There were two types of Merturgemans (translators/interpreters). The first is the kind who stood by the Torah reader in the synagogue and translated into Aramaic as the reader read, verse by verse. It is mentioned dozens of times in the Talmud; once the Jews were exiled to Babylon, their vernacular was Aramaic – only the scholars and elders spoke or understood Hebrew. Thus to make Torah reading understandable, it was translated. In the same way, the Meturgeman would also sit by the Rabbi in the synagogue or the study hall. When the Rabbi would share words of Torah with the congregation or with his students, he would speak quietly in Hebrew and the trans. would repeat his words in Aramaic.21
The Jewish Encylopedia further adds:
The weekly lesson from the Pentateuch and the Prophets was read by a member of the congregation, and the meturgeman had to translate into the vernacular the Pentateuchal lesson verse by verse; from the Prophets he translated three verses at a time. While the reader of the Hebrew text was forbidden to recite by heart, the meturgeman was not permitted to read his translation from a book, or to look at the Hebrew text when translating, in order that the people should not think that the translation was contained in the text. The meturgeman was also forbidden to raise his voice higher than that of the reader of the text. He did not limit himself to a mere literal translation, but dilated upon the Biblical contents, bringing in haggadic elements, illustrations from history, and references to topics of the day. This naturally required much time, to gain which the weekly lesson had to be short, so that the Pentateuch was finished only in a cycle of three or three and one-half years; while the portion from the Prophets was frequently abbreviated.
The free handling of the text, which frequently changed the translation into a sermon or homily, gave the meturgeman ample opportunity to introduce his subjective views into the lesson; and with the multiplication of sects this became distasteful to the Rabbis. The increase in the opposition to the meturgeman led to the fixation of the Targumim and to the demand that the meturgeman keep strictly to mere translation. But a mere translation satisfied neither the public, who had known the text from early school-days, nor the meturgeman, who was deprived of an opportunity to parade his knowledge and to display his oratorical gifts. As a consequence the “darshan,” or preacher, was introduced; and the literal translation fell gradually into disuse.22
The problem of the meturgamen taking too much liberty in their expositions may have reflected a problem that Paul was earlier dealing with.
The Jewish Encyclopedia does not demonstrate what sources were used to show the disuse of the meturgeman and switch to the darshan.
The same article in the Jewish Encyclopedia believed the original term for interpreter was מבין, maven. This word declined and gave way to the use of meturgeman. This may be true but it lacks sufficient documentation as well.
Another word used for translator/interpreter was אמורא Amora—well, not exactly. Amora refers to the Jewish scholars from 200 to 500 AD. They are expounders of the laws, edicts, and ethics created by the earlier Jewish authorities. They also represented the academies of Jewish learning throughout the Aramaic speaking world. One of the traditions of the Amora was to speak in Hebrew while another Amora would spontaneously translate it into Aramaic.
The Amora would not have been used during Paul’s time because the office did not exist yet.
Was Paul’s reference to speaking in tongues the public reading of Scripture in Hebrew?
The reader/interpreter part of the liturgy may have existed in the earliest Corinthian Church which Paul attended, but this does not appear to be the central thrust of his concern.
Rather, the Corinthian references to tongues matches the Jewish rite of instruction. Aramaic Judaism, along with evidence from a commentary by Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, and further examinations of the interplay between Greek and Hebrew languages in the Jewish world, best supports this theory.
If Paul was emphasizing this to be a problem of liturgical reading, his word choice selection would have been different. The noun reader or the verb read can’t be found anywhere in the key-text. Paul wouldn’t have used the verb to speak such as found in I Corinthians 14:1 ὁ γὰρ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ, the one who speaks in a language in reference to a reader. He would have used something similar to ἀναγιγνώσκων anaginôskôn instead. Therefore the Corinthian problem being that of liturgical reading of the text in Hebrew was not the problem — at least according to the Epiphanius’ text.
What does this all mean?
The use of Hebrew in certain Jewish customs was required, even if the audience didn’t understand it. It was also to be used in the diaspora. The examples given above are in the Aramaic diaspora, but the principles would have applied to Greek Judaism as well.
The case is made that there is a correlation between Paul’s reference to speaking in tongues and Jewish liturgy. The idea of speakers and interpreters and the Amen construct while publicly reading in Hebrew are very close to Paul’s narrative. The Jewish sources show a smoking gun, but do not supply definitive evidence. The research so far proves we are heading in the right direction. The narrative of the public speaker is an interesting one and at least one highly influential church father believed this was the gift of tongues spoken by Paul.
One of the most important points to remember is that the ancient Jewish texts clearly outline the establishment of Hebrew as the primary language of public reading in any assembly outside of Israel major. This would have been an important factor with the initial assembly of Corinth. The lack of Hebrew would have been a serious source of conflict between Paul and the Hellenistic Jews who strongly argued that he had compromised Judaism too much in his theological views.
The details about how the public reader transformed and evolved in the church, along with detailed information about why Thomas Aquinas believed it was the gift of tongues is found in the next article: The Public Reader in the Church