Tag Archives: Talmud

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.


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.


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The Jews In Their Land During the Talmudic Age


Book Review: The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age by Gadaliah Alon.

A magnificent piece of scholarly work that touches on life in Israel from 70 to 640 A.D.

His retelling of the story of Middle-East mankind during this period draws from classical Greek, Roman, Patristic, and Rabbinic sources that is simply astounding. He combines religion, culture, language, economic systems, leadership structures both in the Jewish community and in context of Roman occupation, historical analysis, and social perspectives into an intelligent and cohesive narrative. He especially excels covering the change in religious, social and leadership structures after the destruction of the Temple, and the traditions that underlies the development and establishment of the Mishnah and Talmud.

The work is ascribed to Gedaliah Alon, who is an enigma. There are no photos in any popular biography of him, and those bios are normally only a paragraph long. He never wrote a book, but yet there is one. In Israel, where he was a teacher at the Hebrew University, there is a street in Jerusalem named after him, but this is a quiet reminder. He was the first recipient of the Israel Prize, the highest honor given by the State of Israel for excellence, but this only extends to the modern Israeli conscience, not to the English speaking world. His name was never echoed in the halls of the Hebrew University while I was there, nor were there any statues or busts found. He was married to a Mina Alon, and had at least one child, Nahi Alon, who is a clinical psychologist, but the information is sparse.

It was chance that I picked up the book at the Hebrew University’s Akademon book store back in the 1980s. The cover looked interesting and thought it would be worth the risk. It was packed in my to be looked at later file, which took a couple of years to turn the cover. Ever since that first page was turned, it changed my approach to historical critique. This unknown man has had a deep influence on my own approach to the narratives that surround the Christian narrative.

This book is a must-read for anyone trying to develop an idea of how the Middle East world operated during this period, especially for Jews living in the land of Israel.

Alon suddenly died of a heart attack at 49 years of age back in 1950. Admirers of Alon who were deeply impressed by his teachings, collated the many monographs that he previously published, and combined them with his lecture notes to make a posthumous book dedicated to him. Shmuel Safrai, one of his students and later a professor at the Hebrew University, was instrumental in the process. The book was originally written in modern Hebrew, but later translated by Gershon Levi into English, and so the The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age was born.

His story begins in Russian controlled Kobryn, Belarus, where he excelled in his Talmudic studies, and then went to the Unversity of Berlin for a year, which likely broadened his mind to other disciplines outside of Judaism. He then immigrated to Israel and completed his studies at the Hebrew University, and remained there as a teacher for the rest of his life. The foreward in his book claims that he refined the system of interpretation set out by Adolf Büchler(1)Pg. IX an “Austro – Hungarian rabbi, historian and theologian” who wrote distinguished works on the Jews during the Second Temple period. (2)http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3787-buchler-adolf

He was a historical chronographer, not a theologian by any means, though he does greatly draw from these resources to add to his narrative, they are rarely central to any of his themes. This is what sets him apart, and likely makes him so indistinguished. He appeals neither to the practicing Jew, nor to the ardent Christian, or to those uninterested in religion. This makes his audience quite small, but to those who are looking for coverage of this period from a comprehensive historical literature perspective, this is a veritable gold mine.

The eminent teacher has not escaped criticism. Doron Mendels, a present full-time professor at the Hebrew University, claims that Alon reflected the age that he lived in. Mendels claims that Alon’s background of Orthodox to enlightened Jew, and then European nationalist reflected a writing that wished to redefine Judaism both in historic and modern terms – a “fragmetized type of memory”,(3)Doron Mendels. Memory in Jewish, Pagan and Christian Societies of the Graeco-Roman World, New York: T & T Clark International. 2004. Pg. 131 and another recent book, Judaism and Crisis: Crisis as a Catalyst in Jewish Cultural History, states that Alon wrote with Zionistic sympathies.(4)Armin Lange, K. F. Diethard Romheld, Matthias Weigold. Judaism and Crisis: Crisis as a Catalyst in Jewish Cultural History. Schriften des Institutum Judaicum Delitzschianum. Vol. 9. Vandehoek & Ruprecht. 2011. Pg. 189

The greatest drawback to Alon is price. The work was originally published in Jerusalem by Magnes Press, which the picture above is from. It was two volumes and has long been out-of-print by them. Harvard University Press has reprinted a paperback version, combining both original volumes into one for under $65.00 US. It may be in your local library, but it is one of those books that you want to keep near your desk. It is a handy resource.

References   [ + ]

The Public Reader, the Synagogue, and Corinth

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)וְכֹל מֵבִין 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)וְהַמְּבִינִים And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed(3)מְבִינִים the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear(4)מְפֹרָשׁ and giving the meaning(5)וְשׂוֹם שֶׂכֶל so that the people understood(6)וַיָּבִינוּ what was being read.(7)Nehemiah 8 NIV as taken from the biblegateway.com website. The highlights in red are not part of the original but put in here by me.

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)Nehemiah 13:24 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)http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16515/jewish/Chapter-8.htm#showrashi=true 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)Ezra 4:18 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 peresh(11)The New Testament text as found at Dukhrana 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 9a. The Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Megillah 2a – 32a. Reformatted by Reuven Brauner, Raanana 5771. Pg. 31

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)Talmud Babli Megillah 17a. The Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Megillah 2a – 32a. Reformatted by Reuven Brauner, Raanana 5771. Pg. 64ff

The Rabbinic discussion proceeds further on this passage, which is not quoted here, struggling with the idea of Hebrew having such a high standing and how the Jewish faith could extend into the non-Jewish vernacular. They concluded that Hebrew was to be used in reading or recitation but the holy language extended no further. The common vernacular could be used in the common prayers, and thus other liturgical rites.

Megillah 21b

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)Talmud Babli Megillah 17a. The Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Megillah 2a – 32a. Reformatted by Reuven Brauner, Raanana 5771. Pg. 64ff

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.

Megillah 23b

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)Talmud Babli Megillah 23b. The Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Megillah 2a – 32a. Reformatted by Reuven Brauner, Raanana 5771. Pg. 89

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

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)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. 38


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)Mishne Torah. Book of Love. Order of Prayers. Halachah 5. This English translation is done by Eliyahu Touger and available at Chabad website. For the Aramaic text, go to the Hebrew Wikisource website

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 ἀναπληρῶνanaplêrôn, 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 anaplêrôn(18)ἀναπληρῶν as keimenos(19)the full text has it as ὅ γε μὴν ἐν τάξει τῇ τοῦ λαϊκοῦ κείμενος See also Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: Conclusion — 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)Maimonides. Mishne Torah. Book of Love. Order of Prayers. Halachah 10. This English translation is done by Eliyahu Touger and available at Chabad website. For the Aramaic text, go to the Hebrew Wikisource website

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)Rambam: Talmud Torah 4:3

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)Meturgemanas found in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia

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

References   [ + ]

Liturgy, Race and Language in the Corinthian Church

Understanding the tongues of Corinth from linguistic, ethnic and liturgical perspectives along with an inquiry into whether Hebrew was part of their liturgy.

The Gift of Tongues Project has uncovered two ancient Christian writers who correlated the problem tongues of Corinth as ethnic or linguistic conflicts. The Ambrosiaster text emphasized the want of the Jewish adherents to speak in Aramaic during the liturgy, which few understood in Corinth, and the Epiphanius text believed the problem of Corinth was a dispute between three distinct Greek speaking groups; Attic, Aeolic, and Doric along with the use of Hebrew in the Church liturgy.

The Epiphanius text is the most direct on the subject. Although the reference to the use of Hebrew is found here, the text itself failed to directly connect the primary use of Hebrew with the Greek conflict. Nevertheless, it is inferred by its close grammatical relationship. This connection can be understood in two ways:

  • It was the traditional reading of the Hebrew text and the delivery of it into the local vernacular. In the context of the Epiphanius text, the Corinthians couldn’t agree what was to be the standardized Greek language for translation/explanation/preaching in the Church liturgy.

  • Or, it could be that Epiphanius did not want to correlate the Hebrew liturgical reading of Scripture at all, but that this language was the language of instruction and religious devotion. Those masters who were instructing/lecturing on the principles of the Christian faith did so in Hebrew, while an interpreter was required to translate it into the local vernacular. The conflict was in which Greek vernacular was most suited for the Corinthian congregation.

The Corinthian tongues conflict explained by Epiphanius is unique and no thorough investigation has been done to qualify or discard this claim.

There is a definite need for finding a positive solution to the mystery tongues of Corinth since a thorough investigation completed in the Gift of Tongues Project has ruled out the Corinthian tongues as a mystical experience resulting in those speaking ecstatic utterances. As previously written and documented, tongues as an ecstatic utterance was a theory first introduced in the 1800s.(1)See The History of Glossolalia

This series of articles are devoted to finding whether this historical context was correct through investigating Jewish literature, archaeology, and ecclesiastical writings.

The problem of insufficient first-hand data on the Corinthian assembly liturgy.

The ecclesiastical literature cited above, along with a number of pieces demonstrated in Rabbinical writings later on in this series, are mostly all fourth century or later works. Unfortunately, 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 looked into this problem and agrees:

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.(2)Graves, Michael. The Public REading of Scripture in Early Judaism. JETS 50/3 (September 2007) 467–87

Mr. Graves statement has to be seriously considered. Harmonizing is a good start, but not a good end point. The following analysis agrees with Graves statement that there was diversity and flexibility in the earlier stages of diasporan Jewish liturgy. The Corinth Paul lived in was complex. A whole host of Jewish, Roman, Greek, and Latin influences are found mixed together in a curious blend that cannot easily be untangled. This shouldn’t stop the researcher from trying. This lack of early source material makes it difficult, but not impossible.

There are a number of assumptions that can be made about the Church of Corinth and Paul’s reference to tongues in I Corinthians 14:

  • Paul was an orthodox Jew whose pedigree was confirmed by his learning under one of the leading Jewish teachers of the first century, Gamaliel.(3)Acts 22:3 Paul had no ambition to overthrow or abandon Jewish culture. He wanted to complete it. 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.(4)Romans 1:16, Acts 18:ff Therefore his writing style, life and practice was steeped in Jewish influences. The founding of any Church associated with him would reflect this.

  • The initial Corinthian Church had two names attached to it — Titius Justus and Crispus. Crispus was a leader of a synagogue; Titius Justus was described as a worshiper of God, suggesting that he was not Jewish and his name infers a Roman lineage.(5)Acts 18:6ff These two accounts demonstrated that the Corinthian Church was of mixed ethnic origin.

  • 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.(6)This will be documented in part 2 of this series

  • The Hebrew language is a central part of the Jewish religious identity. The Jewish sages had numerous discussions on the role of Hebrew in religious life and affixed when, where, and why Hebrew or an alternative language was to be used. Although the final discussions are the only available corpus today, this must have been an issue in the first century.

Was Hebrew used in the Synagogue liturgy outside of Israel, especially in lands dominated by the Greek language and culture?

The role of Hebrew in the ancient Greek communities of the Jewish diaspora is a disputed subject. Gedaliah Alon, a Jewish historian, noted the interweaving of Hebrew and Greek in the Synagogue before and after the destruction of Jerusalem.(7)Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Ed. and Trans. by Gershon Levi. Vol. 2. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 338 Some, like Harry Gamble, have argued a complete abandonment of Hebrew “In the Greek-speaking synagogues of the Diaspora, however, the scriptures were apparently always read in Greek, and no translation was required.”(8)Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven:Yale University. 1995. Pg. 210 Gamble goes on to conclude within the earliest Christian Church, “no explicit evidence attests the liturgical reading of either the Torah or the prophets in Christian assemblies in the first century, …In addition, when it arrives on the field of historical vision Christianity is already fully wedded to the Septuagint.”(9)Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven:Yale University. 1995. Pg. 211 Obviously he was unaware of Epiphanius’ account of Hebrew being read as part of the liturgy in the earliest Corinthian Church or felt that Epiphanius’ text was too removed from the primitive Church to be of value. Gamble’s assumption about exclusive Greek reading in the churches is questionable. Alon believed that at least in one synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, whose principal language was Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic were used for “literary purposes, for worship and even other needs.”(10)Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Ed. and Trans. by Gershon Levi. Vol. 2. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 338 This small reference demonstrates that Hebrew still existed as a religious vernacular in some or all of the diaspora which would have had an effect on the structure of the earliest Christian Churches.

The tension between Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic as the lingua franca in Jewish life.

Aramaic was granted a high standing and was the native tongue of most Rabbinic sages. The Aramaic version of the Bible, known as Targum Onkelos has been a prime source of Jewish exegesis for almost two millennia. Yet the public reading was still retained in Hebrew according to Stephen Wylen, who further added:

It became a custom among Jews to read the weekly lectionary portion of the Torah three time through, once in Hebrew and twice in Aramaic. This custom was retained even into the Middle Ages when Jews no longer spoke Aramaic.(11) Stephen Wylan. The Seveny Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures. New Jersey: Paulist Press. 2005. Pg. 37

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.(12) Talmud Babli Megillahh 9a

This was a disputed point and considerably argued. Aramaic was internally contested in reference to Jewish identity. God’s speaking to Moses at Mount Sinai was used as a polemic against Aramaic. “And the Lord spoke from Sinai. This is the Hebrew language.”(13)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.”(14) The Soncino Talmud. Trans. by Epstein I. London: Soncino Press. 1935. Pg. 162

There was a movement against Aramaic and Greek in the land of Israel and an assertion that only Hebrew should be used. As reflected in this passage found in the Talmud Babli, Sotah 49b:

and that nobody should teach his son Greek. …At that time they declared,-`Cursed be a man who rears pigs and cursed be a man who teaches his son Greek wisdom!` Concerning that year we learnt that it happened that the `omer had to be supplied from the gardens of Zarifim and the two loaves from the valley of En-Soker. But it is not so! For Rabbi said: Why use the Syrian language in the land of Israel? Either use the holy tongue or Greek! And R. Joseph said: Why use the Syrian language in Babylon? Either use the holy tongue or Persian! The Greek language and Greek wisdom are distinct. But is Greek philosophy forbidden? Behold Rab Judah declared that Samuel said in the name of Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel , What means that which is written: Mine eye affecteth my soul, because of all the daughters of my city? There were a thousand pupils in my father`s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom, and of these there remained only I here and the son of my father`s brother in Assia! It was different with the household of Rabban Gamaliel because they had close associations with the Government; for it has been taught: To trim the hair in front is of the ways of the Amorites; but they permitted Abtilus b. Reuben to trim his hair in front because he had close associations with the Government. Similarly they permitted the household of Rabban Gamaliel to study Greek wisdom because they had close associations with the Government.(15) Talmud Babli Sotah 49b as found at the Instone Brewer website.

The duration, strength, or popularity of this opinion which existed in the land of Israel is not known. These examples are two to four centuries removed from the time of St. Paul, and may have even been stronger during the Corinthian conflict.

The Greek influence and encroachment on traditional Jewish life and practice.

On the other hand there was a problem of Greek perception towards the Jews. The Greeks believed their language and culture to be superior to anything else. For example the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian, rejected what was then known to be the sect of the Galileans (Christianity) because it was not of Greek origin, nor wrought from the Greek language, and worse yet, it came from something obscure and unimportant as Hebrew. This can be gleaned from Cyril’s refutation against Julian;

For you esteem very lightly the distinguished men with the one subsequent Hebrew language that went a different way from the Greek , and I reckon that your Italian which was made for everyone, that you arranged it a certain number? Furthermore has it not been truly said to us that if we wish to understand the straight and narrow, the Greek language is not about to be held as the author of religious devotion… And so we are taught that the greatest place of moral virtue is through the sacred writings of the divinely inspired Scriptures. Nevertheless, we use such things for the preparation of sound teachings with Greek thoughts since we are not familiar with the Hebrew language.(16)S. Cyrilli Alexandrini, Contra Julianum, Lib. VII [234]. MPG: Vol. 76. Pg. 858. Translation is mine.

The Greeks extended the idea of their language being the heavenly one and this had a universal influence, even in the Latin world. One of the greatest Roman leaders and Orators, Cicero, so highly valued the writings of the Greek Philosopher Plato that the god Jupiter “were it his nature to use human speech, would thus discourse.”(17)Plutarch. The Parallel Lives. The Loeb Classical Library. Trans. by Bernadotte Perrin. 1919. Pg. 141

The Greek Septuagint was introduced to the Graeco-Roman world over three hundred years before the advent of Paul and his address to the Corinthian Church. The Septuagint was the standard in many Jewish circles, especially the diaspora. Paul himself made substantial usage of the Septuagint; when 93 Biblical quotes from Paul are examined 51 are in absolute or virtual agreement with the LXX, while only 4 agree with the Hebrew text.(18)http://www.religiousforums.com/forum/abrahamic-religions-dir/118238-paul-septuagint.html The text of Talmud Babli Megillah supports the Greek version to have near or equivalent status to that of the Hebrew one.(19)Talmud Babli 9a. Philo believed that the Greek text was necessary for the Jewish faith to become a universal standard:

But this is not the case with our laws which Moses has given to us; for they lead after them and influence all nations, barbarians, and Greeks, the inhabitants of continents and islands, the eastern nations and the western, Europe and Asia; in short, the whole habitable world from one extremity to the other.(20)Philo. On the Life of Moses: II IV:20 . . .Some persons, thinking it a scandalous thing that these laws should only be known among one half portion of the human race, namely, among the barbarians, and that the Greek nation should be wholly and entirely ignorant of them, turned their attention to their translation.(21)Philo. On the Life of Moses: II V:27

The role of the Septuagint became so prominent according to Jennifer Dines in her book, The Septuagint, that this Greek translation may have forced the Jewish community to explicitly state that the Hebrew text was inspired.(22)Jennifer Mary Dines. The Septuagint. New York: T&T Clark, 2004 Pg. 64

God dictated to Moses the importance of literacy for the perpetuation of the faith, “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…”(23)Deuteronomy 6:9 though this was not ever completely established, because 700 years later at the time of Ezra, as mentioned by the great thirteenth century AD Jewish thinker, Maimonides, Hebrew was switched to a liturgical language and required an interpreter for any local reading.(24)Maimonides הלכות תפילה This will be demonstrated in more detail with the next upcoming article. 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.”(25)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.

An objection can be raised that Hebrew had this level of prominence through the study of tomb epitaphs. Jewish tombs have been uncovered in Rome with dates beginning from 63 BC and ending at 300 AD. Out of the 534 names, 76% had a Greek name, 23% a Latin, and only five contained Hebrew, Aramaic, or hybrid names.(26)http://www.livius.org/di-dn/diaspora/rome.html There are a number of problems with this conclusion. First of all, it reflects a long period of time, over 400 years. The Jews who had lived there during the time of Paul may have still kept their original mother tongue and the results are a later calculation. Secondly, Corinth was an international city that was a major intersection for the Jewish diaspora. There would always be an influx of Jews from Israel that would maintain the language. Thirdly, Hebrew may have been retained strictly as a liturgical language which would hardly have been reflected on burial inscriptions.

A relatively unknown group of Hellenized Jews later evolved a system called minhag-romania, whereby they performed “traditional Jewish prayers that were recited and chanted in Greek, but were written with Hebrew letters.”(27)http://gulnbla.tripod.com/romaniotes.htm This unusual rite was based upon the fact that they understood that the Rabbis dictated all readings must be from Assyrian Script. It is not known how large this movement was, or when it began. The website article contains little substantiation.

The composition of the earliest Corinthian assembly.

Paul’s strong background in Judaism, the appointment of a synagogue leader to lead the original Corinthian assembly, and the liturgical problems outlined by Paul in I Corinthians demonstrate that this was a highly influenced Jewish organisation. A second century writing dubiously claimed to be by Clement claimed that the Greek adherents quickly outgrew the Jewish ones in a short manner of time, “Seeing that our people who were given to be abandoned from God, have become more numerous than of the righteous who have God.”(28)MPG Vol. 1. Clement. Epistola II Ad Corinthios. Chapter 2. Col. 333 This suggests the abandonment of directly connected Jewish traditions and liturgies probably before the end of the first century.

What does this all mean?

Although the majority of these authors were of a later age, the majority of takes give a good outline demonstrating what kind of ethnic and linguistic tensions confronted Paul in the initial Corinthian Church. Epiphanius’ statement about Greek ethnic infighting and Hebrew being part of the original Corinthian liturgy is a very plausible explanation. The best one that has come forward.■

Next: Jewish Liturgy and the Tongues of Corinth.

References   [ + ]

Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind

The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, by Solomon Hart. Italy. 1850.
The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, by Solomon Hart. Italy. 1850.

The history of Hebrew as the first language is a fascinating story that travels through Patristic, Rabbinic, and the Greek worlds. It is an open debate that has raged on for over 1,500 years.

The perception of the Hebrew language in Western literature, especially by the ecclesiastical writers is an interesting theological exploration that seldom is talked or written about. Since it is the language of the Old Testament Bible, it obviously has some kind of reverent status among Judaism and Christianity. How this sacred language is viewed and applied varies. One of them being that Hebrew was the first language of mankind, another promoting Hebrew as the language which God personally used, and there is an allusion to the use of Hebrew with the pentecostal tongues outburst. It then begs the question, was Hebrew the first language of mankind?

Well, the answer is obvious that Hebrew wasn’t the first language of mankind. Historical linguists could easily prove such an assertion. In fact, Hebrew isn’t even one of the oldest languages. However, perception and reality are not parallel terms in the world of religion. This is an investigation into the perception of Hebrew as the first language.

The primacy of Hebrew was established in the Church at an early stage. A Syriac manuscript attributed to Clement (fourth Bishop of Rome 88-99 AD) categorically stated that Hebrew was the first language of mankind, “until then, only one language, Hebrew is dear to God.”(1)W. Frankenberg. De Syrischen Clementinem mit Griechischem Paralleltext. Verlag: J.C. Heinrichs. 1937. Pg. 39

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, originally believed it to be not only the original language of mankind but also the language of the prophets and of divine authority:

. . . and Heber is singled out for mention before all the sons of Shem, though he is in the fifth generation from him, and the language that the authority of patriarchs and prophets has safeguarded, not only in their discourses but also in the sacred books, is called Hebrew. Surely when the question arises in connection with the division of languages, in what domain that early common language could have survived–and beyond any shadow of doubt the punishment involved in change of language was not imposed in any domain where this language survived–what other answer comes to mind save that it persisted in the family of the man from whose name its own was derived? Thus we find no slight indication of the righteousness of this tribe, in that, when other peoples were stricken by the change of languages, it alone was exempt from any such penalty.(2)Augustine. City of God. Trans. by Sanford, E. and Green, W. Vol. 5. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1995. Pg. 64

However, the thirteenth-century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, believed that Augustine had later retracted this view.(3)S. Thomae Opera. Robert Busa, S.I. ed. Fromman-Holzboog. 1980. Vol. 6. Reportationes. 092 RPL cp3. Pg. 469 Even if the theology was wrong, it still represented the perception of Hebrew by a noticeable percentage in the fourth-century church.

There was a push-back to the theory of Hebrew being the first language of mankind. The foremost opponent was the fourth-century church father, Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory was a very articulate thinker who brought in a broad range of subjects into his works. He specifically addressed the nature of human language in his work, Contra Eunomium, where he described that the Hebrew language was not an ancient one, and absurd that anyone thought that the personal language of God was Hebrew.(4)see Gregory of Nyssa: Answer to Eunomius’s Second Book

Gregory of Nyssa’s treaty did not entirely dispel the belief that Hebrew was the original language. At least two-sixth century leaders supported Hebrew as the first language of mankind. The sixth century Joannes Malalas wrote that Adam spoke in Hebrew.(5)Joannes Malala, Chronologica. MPG: Vol. 97. Col. 75 Procopius of Gaza believed that Heber at the tower of Babel was the only one to preserve the first language of Hebrew because he resisted participating in the building of the tower.(6)MPG Vol. 87 Pt. 1. Col. 316 (vers. 14) The theory does not stop at the sixth-century.

The eighth-century historian and theologian, Bede, believed the initial language was Hebrew until the flood.(7)0627-0735 Beda Venerabilis Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Migne Patrologia Latina. Voluma 092: Col 0937-0996A (www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu). Pg. 1

The tenth-century Oecumenius, Bishop of Trikka, believed when Christ spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, it was in the Hebrew language.(8)Oecumenii Triccae Episcopi. Comment. In Acta Apostolorum. [175]. MPG. Vol. 118. Col. 289.

The eleventh-century philosopher-theologian, Michael Psellos, referred to an ideology that placed Hebrew as the first common language. He also postulated that Pentecost could have been the speakers vocalizing in Hebrew while the audience heard it in their own language. He does not necessarily endorse either of these views. He was expressing a number of possibilities to interpret the Pentecost text found in the Book of Acts.(9) Michaelis Pselli Theologica. Vol. 1. Paul Gautier ed. BSB B.G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft. 1989. Pg. 294. Another eleventh-century writer, George Kedrenos, borrowing from the same tradition that Malalas subscribed to, suggested that the only language Adam knew was Hebrew.(10) Georgii Cedreni. Historiam Compendium. MPG Vol. 121. Col. 49

Hebrew as the first language is not a dominant theme in Rabbinic writings. There is one distinct incidence of this being the divine language in the later work called the Sefer Haggada, “And the Lord spoke from Sinai. This is the Hebrew language”,(11) Sefer Haggada (in Hebrew) Tel-Abib: Dvir co. Ltd. Book III, 3b. My translation. but this contradicts the standard Talmudic teaching that God spoke in all the languages at Mount Sinai.

Jewish thought claimed that they had a direct connection to the Angelic realm because of their knowledge of Hebrew:

What is the difference between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of the Gentiles? …He communicated with the Gentile prophets only in half speech but with the prophets of Israel He communicated in full speech, in language of love, in language of holiness, in the language wherewith the ministering Angels praise Him.(12)Gen. R. LII, 5 as quoted in A. Cohen. Everyman’s Talmud. London: Dent and Song. 1978. Pg. 122

The sanctity of Hebrew was used as a polemic against the encroachment of Greek and Aramaic into the Jewish community. One of the volleys against them was the fact that the Angels only understood prayers in Hebrew:

For R. Johanan declared: if anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic [ie. a foreign tongue] the ministering Angels do not pay attention to him because they do not understand that language.(13)Sotah 33a. Talmud Babli “Nashim III”. The Soncino Talmud. Trans. by Epstein I. London: Soncino Press. 1935. Pg. 162. An online version can be found at http://come-and-hear.com/sotah/sotah_33.html

There was a constant tension with the Rabbis on whether learning a language other than Hebrew should be encouraged even though Greek was an economic and social advantage. “Asked R. Joshua: should men teach his son Greek? he said to them ‘He shall teach us in an hour that there is no day and night”.(14)Sefer Haggada. III, 3b

Of course, the ancient Greeks and their adherents could not comprehend any language other than their own being the divine or first language. They especially couldn’t think of Hebrew as the viable alternative.

The Greeks believed their language and culture to be superior to anything else. For example, the last non-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian, rejected what was then known to be the sect of the Galileans (Christianity) because it was not of Greek origin, nor wrought from the Greek language, and worse yet, it came from something obscure and unimportant as Hebrew. This can be gleaned from an argument by the fifth-century Pope of Alexandria, Cyril. He wrote a lengthy refutation against Julian’s diatribe. Here is an important quote relating to Hebrew being a sacred language;

For you esteem very lightly the distinguished men with the one subsequent Hebrew language that went a different way from the Greek, and I reckon that your Ausonian which was made for everyone, that you arranged it a certain number? Furthermore, has it not been truly said to us that if we wish to understand the straight and narrow, the Greek language is not about to be held as the author of religious devotion. . . And so we are taught that the greatest place of moral virtue is through the sacred writings of the divinely inspired Scriptures. Nevertheless, we use such things for the preparation of sound teachings with Greek thoughts since we are not familiar with the Hebrew language.(15)The original Greek: S. Cyrilli Alexandrini, Contra Julianum, Lib. VII [234]. MPG: Vol. 76. Col. 858. English translation is mine.

The Greeks understood that their language was supreme and this attitude carried over into the Roman world. One of the greatest Roman leaders and Orators, the Latin-speaking Cicero, so highly valued the writings of the Greek Philosopher Plato that the god Jupiter “were it his nature to use human speech, would thus discourse.”(16)Plutarch. The Parallel Lives. The Loeb Classical Library. Trans. by Bernadotte Perrin. 1919. Pg. 141

Why Hebrew was so elevated by a number of prominent Christian leaders throughout the centuries in one aspect but neglected in most western ecclesiastical theological discourses is a mystery. Internal church discussions have historically been built on the Greek or Latin language.

As mentioned earlier, one cannot deduce what the first language of mankind was. Joseph Naveh, in his book, Early History of the Alphabet may be getting closer to the first language. He proposes that Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Latin and a host of other languages can be traced to a Proto-Canaanite language.(17) Joseph Naveh. Early History of the Alphabet. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1982. Pg. 10 Hebrew itself is in the middle of the Proto-Canaanite pack of later developed languages. He is restricting his knowledge to Semitic languages only, and this does not go back far enough. Sumerian is by far an older language, but that too may have been one of many languages that existed around 2700 BC. It is one of the few to have survived in written form from that period that is available to us today. There are not enough physical forms of written ancient languages that date far back to make any credible claims of a first language.

This hasn’t stopped inquiries into the subject. Cécile Young covers the topic of the first language in depth within his book: Etienne Fourmont (1683-1745) Oriental and Chinese Languages in Eighteenth-Century France.

The debate on the first language of mankind had actually started as early as the fourth century among the fathers of the Church. St Jerome, St Chrysostom, and St Augustine claimed that Hebrew was the most ancient language while St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Ephrem the Syrian contradicted this claim (the latter claimed Syriac as the first language). Up to the seventeenth-century, the debate was still open, and the Church still maintained Hebrew as the divine language. Brian Walton, editor of the famous Polyglot Bible published in 1657, declared: “The first language, Hebrew, most certainly comes from God himself; on that there should be universal agreement.” In 1669, John Webb (1611-1672), and English architect and antiquarian, claimed Chinese as the first language in his A Historical Essay Endeavouring (sic) a Probability that the Language of the Empire of China is the Primitive Language (London, 1669). In his controversial work Histoire critique du Vieux Testament, censured in 1678, Richard Simon had dismissed the idea of a divine language taught by Adam to God; he still supported the hypothesis that Hebrew could be the first language, although he was ready to express some doubts about it.

The fourteenth-century Italian poet and philosopher, Dante Alighieri, best known for his work The Divine Comedy also deeply contemplated on this subject in De vulgari Eloquentia:

“So the Hebrew language was that which the lips of the first speaker moulded.”(18)Book I, chapter 6. http://www.danteonline.it/english/opere.asp?idope=3&idlang=UK

From this basis Dante built his premise on the development of languages from one singular language to the many that were expressed in his day. He intended to write four volumes on the subject but abandoned the project after one and a half. The reasons why he stopped is unknown.

Dante leads to one of the most popular publications printed in the 16th century, The Golden Legend (Latin: Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum). This book was written by Jacobus de Voragine and was a collection of biographies about the lives of the Saints. The author tends to elevate these Saints into mythical proportions and lands this work into the realm of folklore. However, the work reflects the theological opinions and emotions of that time. Mr. Voragine taught that Adam named all the animals in the Hebrew language because there was no other language except this one.(19)http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume1.asp

There is a variety of responses to this question and the conclusion depends on one’s religious affiliation and background. I once asked an older Mennonite woman what language God spoke in, and she quickly replied, “German” because every time she reads the Book of Genesis, where God spoke in the garden, He said, “Adam wo bist du?”

This is another demonstration that the answer to this intriguing doctrine may never end.

References   [ + ]

Nazianzus' Tongues of Pentecost Paradox

The paradox of Nazianzus’ two choices on understanding the tongues of Pentecost, and how this debate continued for almost a millennium.

Gregory posited two theories about Pentecost in his typical Greek philosophical style. Were the apostles speaking in a sound or single voice, and the hearers supernaturally hearing their own? Or was it simply a miracle of spontaneously conversing in foreign languages unknown beforehand by those speaking?

He brought up both points of view, and in the end sided with it being a miracle of speech. However, a Latin translation error later obscured his intent and gave equal credence to both points of view with no resolution as to which case was the right one. This stirred up many debates over the centuries. This essay journeys into Gregory’s work in the original Greek to decipher what he meant and then traces the development of this thought through the eyes of the Latin Church.

See Alex Poulos’ translation from the Greek of Gregory Nazianzus’ Oration 41.

Gregory Nazianzus’ original Oration On Pentecost was penned in Greek during the fourth century. However, we have few, if any Greek manuscripts that date earlier than the ninth century attributed to Gregory’s Orations.

This is where a copy translated by a man named Rufinus’ becomes important. He translated the work from Greek into Latin during the fifth century and remains one of the oldest texts on the subject. However, his translation does not exactly parallel the available Greek editions. Some argue that Rufinus took too much liberty when rephrasing important elements and, therefore, the results are an amplified version. The amplification may be true, and consequently, it must be read with some caution as an original source text.

One must keep in mind that the Latin work was by far more popular than the Greek text. Largely because the Western Church world was Latin-based. The Latin translation set the basis for their understanding of Nazianzus’ Orations. It is a key point in the history of the tongues dogma.

See Rufinus on Gregory of Nazianzus Work on Pentecost, which contains the actual Latin text translated into English.

Who was Rufinus? “(Rufinus Aquileiensis; 340/345 – 410) was a monk, historian, and theologian. He is best known as a translator of Greek patristic material into Latin.”(1)Wikipedia He was heavily influenced by the Alexandrian Church community, especially that of Didymus the Blind.

It can all be traced back to where Rufinus failed to identify an important distinction which would have changed the nature of his translation, he misunderstood the particle αρα, ara as ἅρα instead of ἆρα. The first being then, so, naturally, as it appears, and the second a particle introducing a question. The small markings above the first letter, which are hardly bigger than the tip of a pen, help to pronounce the word. In this case, it makes a world of difference how it ought to be pronounced. The definition depends on this.

One must not be too hard on Rufinus in making this mistake. He lived in an era where those markings hardly existed. In his time, one had to know instinctively that the pronunciation was different by the context. These markings, called diacritics, were hardly used or widespread during his time. For contemporary translators of ancient Greek they are a godsend – it saves hours of study and avoids errors.

Rufinus understood the first option in translating the text, which gives more credence to the miracle of hearing than Nazianzus intended.

A second problem flows from the first. In the Greek text, a brief sentence follows the two preferences that were given to show which one was his choice. Gregory believed that it was a miracle of speaking, when he wrote: Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι, “Regarding this one, I much prefer”.(2) My own paraphrase. Alex Poulos has it translated as “I much prefer this approach” However, Rufinus did not include this statement in his translation. That would be a natural process if he understood it as being ἅρα instead of ἆρα. This caused even more controversy.

It may be argued that the Greek text, Καθὰ καὶ μᾶλλον τίθεμαι was a later emendation. The text was theoretically added after Rufinus’ time that posited Gregory had preferred the miracle of speaking. The Rufinus Latin translation of the original is older than the present Greek manuscripts that we have available today. So it is an argument requiring further investigation. A look into a Syriac version of Gregory’s work, which draws from manuscripts older than most Greek Oration texts, provides an answer that it did exist.

It does contain the miracle of speaking clause — though a modern editor of this text has a note that the sense here is not clear.(3)”den Satz verstanden hat, ist nicht klar” Sancti Gregorii Nazianzeni opera. Versio Syriaca, II. Orationes XIII et XLI . Belgium: Brepols Publishing. 2002 Pg. 90 Claude Detienne, a specialist in these works, believes the existent Syriac works of Nazianzus’ Orations show obvious signs of revision and cannot be relied upon as close to the original.(4)Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca. Vol. 41. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers. 2000 Pg. 178 However, Detienne fails to demonstrate how this is revised, or how it relates to this instance.

The structure of Oration 41 itself demonstrates it did exist. If one reads the Gregory text further where he goes on to correlate the tongues of Pentecost with that of Babel, it infers that he did support the miracle of speaking.

Another item for evidence which supports Nazianzus’ miracle of speaking is that of Thomas Aquinas. He stated; “Whereby a gloss of Gregory says that the Holy Spirit appeared upon the disciples as fiery languages and gave knowledge to all languages,”(5)Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: On the Grace of Tongues in English, IIa IIae q. 176. Translation is mine. “ubi dicit Glossa Gregorii quod spiritus sanctus super discipulos in igneis linguis apparuit, et eis omnium linguarum scientiam dedit.” which clearly shows that he understood Nazianzus believing it to be a miracle of speaking.

Also if Gregory’s preference is found in his argument structure. It is styled in a Greek rhetorical argument called an enthymeme. That is two arguments laid out with no conclusion stated because the right one is too obvious. The apparent one being that the miracle consisted of people miraculously speaking in foreign languages.

In order for this enthymeme to work, Gregory purposely changed the biblical passage of Acts 2:6 from τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ to ταῖς ἰδὶαις φωναῖς. This is because the argument of one sound emanating and the miracle of hearing could not use the actual wording from the Book of Acts which has τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ. The Biblical text relates specifically to language, not sounds. If it was one sound being brought forth, the people would have heard it as a sound, not as a language. The miracle consisted internally within the mind after what the ears heard. Without this change from language to sound, Acts 2:6 naturally supports a miracle of speaking, and Gregory would lack any argument. Nowhere else in any manuscript or writer is there found the switching of τῇ ἰδίᾳ διαλέκτῳ to ταῖς ἰδὶαις φωναῖς. If this weren’t done, the enthymeme wouldn’t work. As an enthymeme, φωναῖς can work either way. So he set this word as the basis for his argument.

Gregory’s particular word usage in his Orations, chapter 41, is reminiscent of the Neoplatonic leader and writer, Plotinus in his work entitled the Ennead 6.4.12.

Plotinus: “Think of a sound passing through the air and carrying a word; an ear within range catches and comprehends; and the sound and word will strike upon any other ear you may imagine. . .”(6)http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1271&chapter=4120&layout=html&Itemid=27. Thanks to Alex Poulos for pointing this out.

Gregory wrote:

“As supposed: in the first manner it was one voice being sounded forth, and on the other, many being heard, to such an extent the air emitting a loud sound, so that I should say more clearly; from the one sound many sounds were made.”

This is too close to be accidental. Neoplatonic theory, and especially Plotinus, would likely have assigned the miracle of Pentecost of a sound emanating from the lips and the receiver converting the sound into whatever they want. This one sound theory have been an easy association for fourth-century Greeks to make. Gregory acknowledged this theory in his coverage of the Pentecostal tongues miracle.

Further to this, Gregory provided some more information in a different part of the text about it being a miracle of speech. However, it is not an easy one to notice on the first read and requires some explanation. Here is the text:

“That it may well be while these ones are speaking in the sounds of those who are hearing, the very thing is produced in foreign languages.”(7)ᾖ, λαλούντων φωναῖς ταῖς ἰδίαις τῶν ἀκουόντων, ὅπερ γίνεται, ἀλλοτρίαις This is a difficult passage to understand. Ἀλλοτρίαις, which is used for foreign languages, is ambiguous here. Does it mean simply internal sounds created in the mind, such as described by Philo of Alexandria as explained further down, or foreign words? The Jacob Bullius Latin published text in the sixteenth century chose to italicize this word, suggesting an important keyword that has religious significance. However, no further explanation is given as to why it is italicized.

A few Latin writings relating to Oration 41 may provide some much-needed clues. Answers specifically can be found from Bede’s understanding of this word, and the Latin translation of Nicetas of Serrone’s copy of Oration 41. They carefully touch on this word using externus. It clearly was conceived by them as the outward manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s arrival with languages; not an internal miracle worked out within the mind of the hearer.

The Syriac produces a more literal approach to ἀλλοτρίαις. Its translation is ܒܢܘܟܪ̈ܝܬܐ, bnokrita, which the Payne-Smith dictionary described as “foreign, strange, unusual, alien.”(8) J. Payne Smith – p. 332 as found at http://dukhrana.com/lexicon/search.php The whole Syriac text on Oration 41 along with this keyword infers that they spoke in foreign languages that had no linguistic parent-child relationship with their domestic language. It wasn’t simply a Hebrew speaker speaking in Aramaic, or Persian, where they share some basic commonalities, or an Attic speaker relating in Doric, which comes from the Greek lineage. What the people spoke at Pentecost was beyond their known language families; it went into far-off, strange, and exotic languages that could not be easily adapted or trained by the human intellect on such short notice. It was a miracle.

A Greek source was found in the fourth-century that used this word in a similar context. This was John Chrysostom’s 35th Homily on I First Corinthians, where he clearly wrote it in the dative, ἀλλοτρίᾳ to mean a foreign language.(9) MPG Vol. 61. In Epist. I Ad Corinth. Hom. XXXV. Col. 300

Oration 41 forces one to ask: did Gregory write the text in such a way to demonstrate the miracle of hearing was the dominant dogma during his time, the second as his personal opinion and the better alternative? The lack of historical texts available to us today on such a subject make it difficult to determine.

There are vestiges of the one voice, many sounds theory in Jewish literature, Plotinus, Philo of Alexandria, and in at least one of the Church Fathers that gives it some credence.

The Midrash Rabbah tried to explain how God communicated to Moses on Mt. Sinai and encountered the same theological problem. It wrote that God spoke in all the languages of the world, which consisted symbolically of 70 languages. “R. Johanan said: it was one voice that divided itself into seven voices and these into seventy languages. R. Simeon Lakish said: [it was the voice] from which all subsequent prophets received their prophecy… The meaning, however, of ‘the voice of the Lord is with power’ is that it was with the power of all voices,”(10)Midrash Rabbah. Trans. by S. Lehrman. London: Soncino Press. 1961. 3rd ed. Vol.? Pg. 336

Added to this is a quote from Shab. 88b. “Every phrase which issued from the mouth of the All-powerful divided itself into seventy languages”.(11)A. Cohen. Everyman’s Talmud. New York: Schocken Books. 1975. Reprint of the 1949 edition. Pg. 62

However, this is not a universal position. There have been thoughts found in both Jewish and Christian writings that believe the personal language of God is Hebrew.

See Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind for more information.

The Talmud indicates that the subject of one voice many sounds pre-dates Gregory theologically, but one must be careful. The Talmud was penned between the third and sixth centuries, and the contributors were not immune to Neoplatonic influences that may have an effect on their coverage of the divine language.

An important author to consult on this subject is the first century Hellenistic Jewish Biblical Philosopher,(12)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo Philo of Alexandria. He concluded that God could not be confined to a human voice. The voice was something different when He spoke to Moses and the people:

But the power of God, breathing forth vigorously, aroused and excited a new kind of miraculous voice, and diffusing its sound in every direction, made the end more conspicuous at a distance than the beginning, implanting in the soul of each individual another hearing much superior to that which exists through the medium of the ears.(13)http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book26.html

It was a form of sound that was non-human in origin and bypassed the ears. It was processed directly in the mind.

In the fifth century Theodoret of Cyrus connected the one voice emanating with a twist — he connected it with the Trinity:

“and seeing that also at the forming of man it says, “Let us make man according to our image and likeness.” Naturally then also dividing the one voice into many, it brings companions the Son and the holy Spirit.”(14)My translation. MPG: Vol 83. Graecarum affect Curatio -II De Principio. Col. 845

The Venerable Bede, the Northeast England seventh century monk who had talents in history, theology, astronomy, and so much more delved into this subject as well. On the topic of the mechanics behind the tongues of Pentecost, he quoted the sixth century Pope Gregory the First, whose wordplay makes it appear as if it is one sound being expressed in languages. God is the sound, who enters the soul silently, and when the person speaks, the fire of the invisible sound produces external languages. He was playing with an old thought, but giving current values.

““And suddenly a sound was made from heaven as if of a mighty wind coming” etc. The Lord indeed appeared by means of fire as the blessed Pope Gregory explains, but made through inner speech itself. And neither the God of fire, nor the sound made a noise but by that which was externally produced, this was expressed in respect to what was conducted on the inside. That it rendered within the disciples as ones who had come on fire, with zeal and skill in the word, the outside showed the fiery tongues. Therefore the elements had been brought up in accordance with an outward sign, that the persons were experiencing the fire and the sound by the true invisible fire and the hearts were being taught by the voice without sound.”(15)Translated by me from MPL. Vol. 92 Bedæ Venerabilis: Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Col. 945

This was playing with the sound and the miracle of hearing dogma, but yielding speaking in foreign languages.

Bede has both elements of Pentecost being a miracle of hearing or speaking in his initial commentary on the Book of Acts. He vacillates between both, but the edge is slightly towards hearing.

“…that while the hearers were of the diverse nations, each one according to their language coming from this one speech itself, which had been uttered by the Apostle, that it entered upon the hearer and seized the intellect. Except perhaps according to this, it seemed those who are hearing to be a greater miracle than those who were speaking.”(16)My translation. from MPL. Vol. 92 Bedæ Venerabilis: Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Col. 945-948. See https://charlesasullivan.com/3409/bedes-initial-commentary-on-acts-21-19/ for more info

Bede questions and even withdraws the idea of hearing being the miracle in his later edition of his commentary on Acts entitled, The Book of Reflections on the Acts of the Apostles, stating that Gregory believed it to be a miracle of speaking. However, this was a tacit admission because directly after this correction, he wrote:

“On the other hand I do not think this to be an error. If either of the two can be trusted to have taken place, and that the apostles in the holy Spirit clearly understood the languages of the nations and had the ability to speak, and the words too were in whatever language expressed by a great miracle, to all who were hearing, that they equally had the ability to learn.”(17)Translated by me. MPL. Vol. 92. Bedæ Venerabilis: Liber Retractationis In Actus Apostolorum. Col. 998-1000

There must have been some internal discussion, or unmentioned manuscript that he sourced to cause this change. Even though he made a correction, it appears it was a grudging one. He didn’t want to be completely wrong, and thus minified the whole argument. If the miracle was of hearing or speaking, it was a miracle, and why bother to be so opinionated on either side? He felt the only difference was a semantical one.

Bede described the person under the influence of the Spirit sequentially going through the languages of the universes demonstrates that he is paraphrasing the Rufinus Latin edition for his thoughts. He does delve into mentioning one Greek word on the topic but fails to reference any Greek after this.

Saint Maximus the Confessor, a seventh century Byzantine theologian who had a major impact on theology and mysticism during this time period, also delved into the Nazianzus text, but did not add any new interpretations, or resolution.(18) See Alex Poulos’ translation and commentary, https://mapoulos.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/maximus-the-confessor-on-spiritual-gifts/

The debate between these two ideas started to die down by the time of Thomas Aquinas, who stated definitively in the quote earlier on, that Nazianzus believed the tongues of Pentecost to be a miracle of speech. However, it may still have been in dispute during his time, as at least two authors, the tenth century Michael Psellos, and the twelfth century Church leader, Nicetas of Serrone,(19)Could be the eleventh-century, I arbitrarily guess here from the order of MPG due to lack of information have supplied effort to resolve the problem.

Michael Psellos is an important contributor to the tongues issue. He is one of the most interesting and mysterious persons encountered in the Gift of Tongues Project. His biographical footprint is very small which adds to his mystique. The Catholic New Advent website described him as a “Byzantine statesman, scholar, and author, born apparently at Constantinople, 1018; died probably 1078. . . his many-sided literary work and the elegance of his style give him a chief place among contemporary scholars,” which really doesn’t explain too much. Stratis Papaioannou has a much better description from his book, Michael Psellos: Rhetoric and Authorship in Byzantium, described him both as a “pompous rhetorician”, “ingenious thinker”, and notoriously self-centered.(20) Stratis Papaioannou. Michael Psellos: Rhetoric and Authorship in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013. Pg. 3 He was quite wealthy and had a wide network of friends and associates.

The New Advent article proceeds to explain that he lived both in and around Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) and was politically involved with various leaders working his way up to being the Secretary of State. He had a love-hate relationship with the Church where one of the lower moments in that relationship was his stance on choosing Plato over Aristotle. The Church tolerated the non-Christian writings of Aristotle but frowned on Plato. He studied theology but loved philosophy, and this was a continued source of contention.

He liked to write in the old classical Greek style, using Greek rhetoric, and copious references and assumptions derived from Neo-Platonist, Christian, and classical Greek writers. He gave a comprehensive view of Pentecost from a variety of sources that remains unmatched. The one caveat is the English reader comprehending his use of Greek rhetoric.

He completely agreed that the miracle of speech was Nazianzus’ personal position on Pentecost. He consideredthis an absolute. However, it is unsure which position he believed was best by the way he wrote. Perhaps he didn’t care about the proper solution and found the paradox a form to express his rhetorical skills and his comprehensive knowledge at great length – possibly the most on the subject than any other author. His argument demonstrates that he combines the Biblical Pentecost with portions of Rufinus’ translation, along with reviews of Neo-Platonists such as Porphurios, Iamblichus, and Proclus, and analyzed the madness of those prophetesses of Apollo who “burned with madness” and spoke Assyrian, Persian, and Phoenician with metre and rhythm that was was not learned beforehand. Psellos does not make a connection between the Greek prophetesses and the Christian rite of tongues, rather he made a clear distinction. The prophetesses were in a drug induced inspired state and were out of their senses when they spoke, whereas the Apostles, although supernaturally inspired, were in complete control of their faculties and understood the languages they spoke and heard.(21)See Psellos on the Tongues of Pentecost

This then takes us to Nicetas of Serrone, who lived and worked around the Constantinople area (now Istanbul, Turkey), and specifically Heracalea. (22) a name given to so many locations, I am not so sure what area of the north east Meditteranean it is He copied Nazianzus’ work and added some modern commentary to it. He, unfortunately, did not resolve the tension; it simply was a restatement of the original text with contemporary words.(23)For the Greek see Alex Poulos’ transcription from the Greek miniscule: https://mapoulos.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/gregoryandnicetasonpentecost2.pdf For the Latin see MPG Vol. 127. Col. 1477ff. There is no English translation that I am aware of. It does prove that the debate still raged on.

It appears that there were many fourth century Christian, Neoplatonic, and Jewish communities who favoured that God spoke in one voice, and the hearers understood the words in their own language. Not all of these camps wrote on Pentecost but had their own various reasons for arriving at the same conclusion. In the case of Pentecost, they would have understood it was a miracle of hearing. Nazianzus had carefully weaved an argument that recognized such a position but posited that it was a miracle of speaking. However, because of cultural influences, and the key omissions by Rufinus in his Latin translation of Nazianzus’ key text on the subject, the miracle of hearing persisted as a minor church doctrine at least to the eighth century, and likely more. ■

References   [ + ]

The Purpose of Prayer


The ArtScroll Siddur contains one of the best definitions of prayer found anywhere. A siddur is a Jewish prayer book that outlines personal and communal prayers for almost any occasion; life, death, loss, birth, success, and everything in-between. It is written from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. The following is an excerpt.

“Prayer, a Timeless Need

When we think of the word ‘prayer’ we think of our needs and requests, and the litany is endless: ‘Heal me.’ ‘Enlighten me.’ Enrich me.’ ‘Redeem me.’ ‘Glorify me.’ ‘Forgive me.’

Perhaps our concept of prayer has all been wrong. As children we would ask God to grant our wishes, just as we asked our parent to take us places and to buy us toys. “Please, Father take me to . . . !’ ‘Please, Mother, buy me that . . .!’ ‘Please God, give me this . . .!’ Rather than fall into the modern trap of insisting that man can control so much of his life and environment that he need not pray, let us examine what prayer really is, and always was. When we are done, we will realize that the commandment to pray is no less binding today than ever, and that our need for its benefits is perhaps greater than ever.

Man’s Essence

AS A SYNONYM for a human being the Mishhah (Baba Kamma 2a) uses the name מַבְעֶה [mav’eh], an unfamiliar word that the Talmud (ibid. 3b) derives from the root בעה, to pray. In other words, the Talmud defines man as ‘the creature that prays.’ Furthermore, the Talmud teaches that even נֶפֶשׁ, the life-sustaining soul, is synonymous with prayer (Berachos 5b). Strange. Such definitions appear fitting intensely spiritual observant people — but what of someone whose observance is casual, or a non-believer? The Talmud’s teaching applies even to such people. How, then, is prayer so central to their lives?

What is man but his soul, for his soul and intelligence are what make him ‘man’ rather than simply a higher order of beast. And what is man’s soul but his innermost longing, whatever matters to him most? As the Sages pithily expressed it, a burglar prays for God’s help as he prepares to enter the home of his victim (Berachos 63b in Ein Yaakov). Incongruous, is it not, that on the threshold of a sin that may result in violence, even murder, the thief asks for the help of the One Who commands him to desist? Yes, but because his most sincere desire is to commit his crime undetected, his soul cries out for success. Wherever one puts his faith is a form of prayer, whether or not that word is in his vocabulary (Michtav MeEliyahu).

Prayer, then, is not a list of requests. It is an introspective process, a clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what he should be, and how to achieve the transformation. Indeed, the commandment to pray is expressed by the Torah as a service of the heart, not of the mouth (Taanis 2a).

To the extent that we improve ourselves with prayer, we become capable of absorbing God’s blessing, but the blessings depend on each person’s mission. One man’s task may be to act as God’s treasurer, to amass wealth and distribute it for worthy causes, or to set an example of how to remain uncorrupted by riches. Another’s mission may call for modest or reduced circumstances. Meyer Amshel Rothschild became rich because his mission was to be the banker of monarchs and the patron of paupers, and Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli remained destitute because his mission was to subsist on a crust of bread and bowl of beans, and joyously say that he never experienced a bad day in his life! Each recited the prayer for prosperity in Shemoneh Esrei and each was answered — in the manner that was best for him. But the reasons for these differences between people and nations are not apparent to human intelligence. Nor do we discern the hand of God in the complexities of everyday life.

In this welter of contradictions, man needs all his inner strength as a Jew and bearer of the Torah to ward off the attacks on his faith. We may enter adulthood with the idealism of youth and faith ingrained by parents and teachers, but life chips away incessantly at them. In the eloquent words of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb): Life often robs you of the power and strength its circumstances make necessary, for it tends to remove truth from you and to offer falsehood; it forces you to surrender where your task is to conquer.

Modern society has learned that people ‘burn themselves out’ if they never withdraw to relax and regain perspective and inner strength. What makes us think we can fight the moral war demanded by God without removing ourselves from the trenches every now and then to regain our perspectives on the purpose and strategy of the battle?

Prayer’s Function

ITS HEBREW NAME IS תְּפִלָּה, tefillah, a word that gives us an insight into the Torah’s concept of prayer. The root of tefillah is פלל, to judge, to differentiate, to clarify, to decide. In life, we constantly sort out evidence from rumor, valid options from wild speculations, fact from fancy. The exercise of such judgement is פְּלִילָה. Indeed, the word פְּלִילִים (from פלל) is used for a court of law (Exodus 21:22), and what is the function of a court if not to sift evidence and make a decision? A logical extension of פלל is the related root פלה, meaning a clear separation between two things. Thus, prayer is the soul’s yearning to define what truly matters and to ignore the trivialities that often masquerade as essential (Siddur Avodas HaLev).

People always question the need for prayer — does not God know our requirements without being reminded? Of course He does, He knows them better than we do. If prayer were intended only to inform God of our desires an deficiencies, it would be unnecessary. Its true purpose is to raise the level of the supplicants by helping them develop true perceptions of life so that they can become worthy of His blessing.

This is the function of the evaluating, decision-making process of תְּפִלָּה, prayer. The Hebrew verb for praying is מִתְפַּלֵּל; it is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself. Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgement; a process of removing oneself for the tumult of life to a little corner of truth and refastening the bonds that tie on to the purpose of life.”

Used with permission from Mesorah Publications, ltd. The Complete ArtScroll Siddur: a new translation and anthologized commentary, by Rabbi Nosson Scherman. New York: Mesorah Publications, ltd.1985. Pg. XII-XIII

The ArtScroll Siddur continues to describe prayer in detail for a number more pages. To read the complete article, one can purchase an ArtScroll Siddur from the ArtScroll website, or visit a local Jewish library.

The grammar and punctuation in this reprint follows the ArtScroll Siddur print copy.

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   [ + ]

The Last Name of Christ

A look at the historic family name of Jesus, Panthera, and the modern debate that surrounds it.

The last name debate is part of a quest to define the historical Jesus through alternative sources other than the Bible or standard Christian literature. The exploration of the historical Jesus has produced a variety of conclusions, such as the tortured image in the movie “The Passion of Christ”, the sexually angst Messiah in the controversial “Last Temptation of Christ”, the married Jesus portrayed in the ABC television special, “Jesus, Mary and Davinci”, and the illegitimate son of a foreign soldier in the film “Jesus of Montreal”,.

Jesus had a last name known as Pantherus, which was not a big deal within ecclesiastical or Talmudic literature, but has become a big deal with some modern writers and researchers.

People universally believe that Jesus Christ is His first and last name. However, Christ is an honorific title assigned to Him. It is not His last name. Others would describe Him as Jesus of Nazareth. This is a nickname, not the last name. A few would conjecture Jesus son of Joseph or of Mary. Either one of these could be correct, but there is a third option that is supported by history, Jesus Panthera.

The first known use, and variations of the name

There are variations of the Pantherus name such as Panterus, Pandira, Panthera, etc., This has to do with the transitions between Greek, Latin, Hebrew, English, and ancient author spellings. This will be explained below.

Origen first served the name as Panthera (Πανθήρα).(1)Origen Against Celsus. 1:32 One Epiphanius manuscript posits this name as Panther.(2)ΠΑΝΑΡΙΟΣ ΕΙΤ’ ΟΥΝ ΚΙΒΩΤΙΟΣ νη While a later citation of Epiphanius has it as Pantheros (Πάνθερος) which the Latin parallel translation renders as Pantherus.(3)see the Latin translation of St. Anastasii, Questiones, MPG: Vol. 89. Col. 811 There are two Aramaic forms; the first one is Pandira or Pandera from פנדירא, and the second is either transliterated as Panthera or Pantera from פנטירא. פנדירא Pandira is more commonly found at the popular available texts examined though פנטירא Pantera occurs far less frequently. For the purpose of this study, the most commonly used English equivalent Panthera will be the descriptive noun.

How do we know His last name was Panthera?

Origen, John of Damascus, Epiphanius and controversially some small snippets from Jewish literature freely use this last name in connection with Jesus. The Church fathers do not dispute such usage, whereas there is controversy within the Jewish literary traditions. The following is a closer look at how this last name was introduced in the ancient works, how it has evolved in usage, and the contemporary debates surrounding the surname.

Origen on the last name of Jesus.

Origen lived in the third-century. He is considered one of the most comprehensive writers of the earlier Church. The name Panthera is part of a debate between himself and an author named Celsus. We do not know much about Celsus today, except for what is contained in Origen’s work. We know from Origen that he was not a Christian and wrote a polemic against Christianity. He must have been popular because Origen devoted considerable time writing a treaty against his assaults.

Celsus was contesting the divinity of Christ, while Origen was supporting it. The last name was not incredulous to Origen, just the way it was being used.

Celsus argued that Jesus was the result of an adulterous relationship Mary had with a soldier named Panthera.

The original manuscript of Celsus does not independently exist today, except the excerpts found in Origen’s text. In it, he quoted Celsus about Jesus;

But let us now return to where the Jew is introduced, speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera;” and let us see whether those who have blindly concocted these fables about the adultery of the Virgin with Panthera, and her rejection by the carpenter, did not invent these stories to overturn His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost: for they could have falsified the history in a different manner, on account of its extremely miraculous character, and not have admitted, as it were against their will, that Jesus was born of no ordinary human marriage. It was to be expected, indeed, that those who would not believe the miraculous birth of Jesus would invent some falsehood. And their not doing this in a credible manner, but (their) preserving the fact that it was not by Joseph that the Virgin conceived Jesus, rendered the falsehood very palpable to those who can understand and detect such inventions.(4)Origen. Against Celsus. Book 1 Chapter XXXII. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.vi.ix.i.xxxiii.html

Epiphanius on Panthera.

But there is another clue. It is found in work called Against Heresies.(5) ΠΑΝΑΡΙΟΣ ΕΙΤ’ ΟΥΝ ΚΙΒΩΤΙΟΣ νη Or see MPG: Vol.42. VII [103] Col. 707ff The citation can also be found in a seventh-century work by Anastasios of Sinai called Questions and Answers.(6)St. Anastasii, Questiones, MPG: Vol. 89. Col. 811

οὗτος μὲν γὰρ ὁ Ἰωσὴφ ἀδελφὸς γίνεται τοῦ Κλωπᾶ, ἦν δὲ υἱὸς τοῦ Ἰακώβ, ἐπίκλην δὲ Πάνθηρ καλουμένου· ἀμφότεροι οὗτοι ἀπὸ τοῦ Πάνθηρος ἐπίκλην γεννῶνται.

For thus on the one hand, Joseph was the brother of Cleopha, while on the other he was the son of Jacob, of whom additionally was called by the surname Panther. So that these two were born from the one surnamed Panthera.(7)translation mine

In other words, Joseph’s father, Jacob, was granted this surname by some unknown vested authority. The Greek surname was likely accepted by Jacob out of political or economic certainty. Gedaliah Alon, a historian specializing in the Second Jewish commonwealth, believed this was an era where Jews had little or no civic rights whatsoever in Palestine and to know the Greek language and culture provided a serious economic advantage.(8)Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Transl. and edited by Gershon Levi. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1980. Pg. 136 “Jews who lived or traded in the urban areas had to familiarize themselves with Greek, and to acquire at least some knowledge of things Hellenic.”(9)IBID, Alon Pg. 138 Joseph was a carpenter — a trade potentially passed down by his father. In order to conduct business and be involved in community affairs, the Panthera surname would have been a significant economic advantage.

One could argue that the introduction of Panthera into his work was added much later by an editor or redactor after Epiphanius’ death. This could be true but given that the name is used by Origen already, this is probably not the case.

John of Damascus on Panther and Barpanther.

The eighth-century Church leader, John of Damascus, also recognized the Panthera lineage. He believed Mary to be a tribal relative of Panther. “Panther begat Barpanther, so called. This Barpanther begat Joachim: Joachim begat the holy Mother of God.”(10)S. D. F. Salmond trans. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. IX. 1898: Book IV:XIV http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf209.iii.iv.iv.xiv.html?highlight=panther#highlight However the Barpanther lineage doctrine is not found in the Origen or Epiphanius texts. It is likely a later tradition.

The last name of Jesus in Jewish literature.

There are potential references to Jesus in the Talmud, but this is highly controversial.

The first problem is censorship. Jewish literature has historically been under antisemitic and theological pressure from the Church. This tension has paralleled Jewish existence for almost two millennia. Because of this, references to Jesus in Jewish literature have been blotted out, censored, removed, or written in cryptic terms. However, many supposed references removed have been restored.(11)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_in_the_Talmud Even if one counts all the restored accounts, it does not amount to very much.

This same type of behavior can be found in early Christian literature towards the Roman Government. Very little negativity or direct criticism can be found towards the Government even when they deserved such condemnation.

The scant references that can be casually associated with Jesus and Christianity are highly debated. Jesus and Christianity in the Talmud is a study to itself. The focus here is solely on the name Panthera and how it fits in with the Jesus narrative.

Many claims are made with little reference to the source works themselves. This investigation includes the Jewish source texts. These include the original Aramaic text along with an English translation. Those readers not familiar with Aramaic are free to jump the originals and concentrate on the English.

The Targumic Dictionary.

Marcus Jastrow’s popular Targumic Dictionary seems to have the definitive answer. It refers to Jesus as “the son of Pandera”(12)Marcus Jastrow. Sefer Melim of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi… New York: The Judaica Press. 1985. Pg. 599 – a very obscure comment on first observation if there is no information available from any other source.

However this is a surface answer. The details make this assertion a difficult one to substantiate. Maybe it is referring to Jesus, maybe not.

Tosefta Hullin 2 is the closest to being a legitimate reference.

Gil Student’s popular website article on the subject, The Jesus Narrative In The Talmud, thinks Tosefta Hullin 2 is the only legitimate reference from ancient Jewish literature outside the Bible. The so-called Christian Hebraist, R. Trevor Herford, who is oft-quoted but little is known about this author, believed there were more. He demonstrates this in his book, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash.

The actual Tosefta Hullin passage:

Jacob Neusner translates it as:

Tosefta-tractate Hullin 2:23

Eleazar b. Damah was
bitten by a snake.
And Jacob of Kefar Sama came to
heal him in the name of Jesus son of Pantera
And R. Ishmael did not allow him [to accept the healing].
He said to him,
“You are not permtted [to accept healing from him], Ben Dama.”
He said to him,
“I shall bring you proof that he may heal me.”
But he did not have time to bring the [promised] proof before he dropped dead.

Tosefta-tractate Hullin 2:23

Said R. Ishmael,
“Happy are you, Ben Dama.
For you have expired in peace,
but you did not break down the hedge erected by sages
“For whoever breaks down the hedge erected by the sages
eventually suffers punishment,
as it is said,
“He who breaks down a hedge is bitten by a snake (Qoh. 10:8).”(13)How Not to Study Judaism: Examples and Counter-Examples Pg. 72

It may have been better to have only included the line concerning son of Pantera, but the whole reference is so interesting, I couldn’t leave out the rest.

If you are curious about the actual text, here it is. If you cannot read this language, feel free to skip, as this will not affect the full explanation.(14)http://he.wikisource.org

הלכה כב
מַעֲשֶׂה בְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן דָּמָה,
שֶׁנְּשָׁכוֹ נָחָשׁ,
וּבָא יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ כְּפַר סַמָּא
לְרַפֹּאתוֹ מִשּׁוּם יֵשׁוּעַ בֶּן פַּנְטֵרָא
וְלֹא הִנִּיחוֹ רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל.
אָמְרוּ לוֹ:
“אֵי אַתָּה רַשַּׁי, בֶּן דָּמָה!”
אָמַר לוֹ:
“אֲנִי אָבִיא לָךְ רְאָיָה שֶׁיְּרַפְּאֶנּוּ!”
וְלֹא הִסְפִּיק לְהָבִיא רְאָיָה, עַד שֶׁמֵּת.

הלכה כג
אָמַר רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל:
“אַשְׁרֵיךָ בֶּן דָּמָה!
שֶׁיָּצָאתָ בְשָׁלוֹם,
וְלֹא פָרַצְתָּ גְּדֵרָן שֶׁלַּחֲכָמִים!”
שֶׁכָּל הַפּוֹרֵץ גְּדֵרָן שֶׁלַּחֲכָמִים,
לַסּוֹף פֻּרְעָנוּת בָּא עָלָיו,
שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: (קֹהֶלֶת י,ח)
“וּפֹרֵץ גָּדֵר יִשְּׁכֶנּוּ נָחָשׁ.”

Talmud Babli Sandhedrin 67a.

This passage begins the difficult journey into comparative Talmudic texts. The commonly used Aramaic version of Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 67a has no reference to Panthera in its main copy, though it is noted as an addition.(15)סנהדרין סז א

Here is the text:

And this they did to Ben Stada in Lydda ([H]), and they hung him on the eve of Passover. Ben Stada was Ben Padira. R. Hisda said: ‘The husband was Stada, the paramour Pandira. But was nor the husband Pappos b. Judah? — His mother’s name was Stada. But his mother was Miriam, a dresser of woman’s hair? ([H] megaddela neshayia): — As they say in Pumbaditha, This woman has turned away ([H]) from her husband.(16)http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_67.html

Older manuscripts contain this complete verse, while newer ones do not. There is no reference to Stada or Pandira at all in the newer Talmud manuscripts. This has stirred controversy on a number of levels.

On the historical connection to Jesus, Gil Student describes three problems:

1. Mary Magdalene was not Jesus’ mother. Neither was Mary a hairdresser.
2. Jesus’ step-father was Joseph. Ben Stada’s step-father was Pappos Ben Yehudah.
3. Pappos Ben Yehudah is a known figure from other places in Talmudic literature. . . He died in the year 134. If Pappos Ben Yehudah was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva’s, he must have been born well after Jesus’ death and certainly could not be his father.”(17)The Jesus Narrative In The Talmud

There are a number of play-on-words in the Aramaic. It feels like a tongue-in-cheek reference.

This passage gets more mysterious when one looks at the calligraphy variation found in the Talmud Babli manuscript identified with Jerusalem, Yad Harav Herzo. The picture below shows something odd:(18)YHH Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 67a


As circled in yellow, וכן עשו לבן סטדא בלוד “And this they did to Ben Stada in Lydda,” is highlighted in a much in a larger and bolder style – more than any other text on the whole page. It is even larger than the headers for the titles Mishna and Gemara found on the page. The name Ben Stada is written a second time later on and is emphatic, but not so large as the first time. Why? What is the scribe trying to communicate by doing this? I really don’t know, but the scribe wanted to make sure that the reader captured the nuance of this text. The emphatic calligraphy wanted to alert the reader to something not normative. Whatever the intention was, it is not clear.

Another manuscript digitally available at the Hebrew University website, named Firenze, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale has the Panthera text as well.(19)BNC Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 67a


However, you have to look hard to find this one. There is nothing unusual. It is a regular part of the text. The Latin marginalia needs to be examined. It may relate to the text in question. However, the resolution supplied by the University is too low to read it.

Various interpretations of Panthera.

Celsus’ testimony was received in a limited fashion until 1859 when the argument got some welcome assistance from an archaeological discovery in Germany. A grave of a Roman soldier named, Tib(erius) Iul(ius) Abdes Pantera, was uncovered. The tombstone had information that led to a connection with the ancient Lebanese city of Sidon–a place not far from Israel’s borders and which Jesus had visited.(20)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius_Iulius_Abdes_Pantera

The date on the grave indicated the soldier lived around the same time as Christ walked on earth. Consequently, some connected the dots and believed the Panthera on the tomb may have been Christ’s real father.

The actual text reads:

Tib(erius) Iul(ius) Abdes Pantera
Sidonia ann(orum) LXII
stipen(diorum) XXXX miles exs(ignifer?)
coh(orte) I sagittariorum
h(ic) s(itus) e(st)

Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera
from Sidon, aged 62 years
served 40 years, former standard bearer(?)
of the first cohort of archers
lies here(21)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius_Iulius_Abdes_Pantera

The concept that Jesus was the son of a soldier was reintroduced to contemporary thinkers by the famed novel writer James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) though it is only very brief, it may have been shocking for the large Christian community.(22)James Joyce. Ulysses. ND. Plain Label Books. Pg. 882 http://books.google.com/books?id=mBNjq2PSbgAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=ulysses#PPA1,M1 James Joyce. Finnegan’s Wake. The concept of Panteras may have been the intellectual fancy during this period as Hitler used this to believe that the historical Jesus was not of Jewish origin, but “the son of one Panthera, a Greek soldier in the Roman army.”(23)Konrad Heiden. Der Fuehrer: Hitler’s Rise to Power. Trans. by Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1944. Pg. 632 In 1966, Marcello Craveri’s book, La vita di Gesù, connected the Roman soldier buried in Germany, Abdes Pantera, as being the father of Jesus.(24)IBID http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius_Iulius_Abdes_Pantera

Scholars throughout the centuries have been puzzled by Jesus having the surname Panthera and have sought various methods to explain it. Some thought Panthera to be a mockery by the Jewish writers with the emphasis on its Aramaic root meaning “spots of a leopard,” an allusion to Jesus being a deceiver. Others have concluded that it sounded similar to the Greek word for virgin and must be understood this way.

Much ado about nothing.

The last name from a religious perspective is nothing shocking or revolutionary to the Church Fathers and the Jewish texts. None of the references deny the association of the Panthera name with the family of Christ. However, the mystery behind the name is the source of the controversy. A select few have used it for historic name-calling and a few but notable people have taken it further to mean that Jesus was an illegitimate child. It is difficult to assert this conclusion with a small handful of sentences and maybe 200 words – even more incredulous to make a connection of the life of Christ with a random tombstone found in Germany. This connection has as much a chance of being real as the James Ossuary — a funerary container with the dead bones of a person with the alleged inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” written on it and later concluded as a forgery.

The Panthera connection was known by the ancients and accepted without dispute. The subject is not significant in the big scheme of things as some are trying to make it out to be.

References   [ + ]