Tag Archives: worship

The role of Hebrew in the Jewish-Aramaic World

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fall of Hebrew and the rise of Aramaic.

Hebrew and Aramaic are offshoots of Canaanite family of languages (which includes Phoenician). This fact is forwarded by the revered paleographer Joseph Naveh,1 the late influential philologist, linguist and member of the Israeli based Academy of the Hebrew Language, Edward Yechezkel Kutscher,2 and the current professor of the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, at the Bar-Ilan University, Prof. Gad Sarfatti.3

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 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 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 This reference shows how close the Aramean and Hebrew cultures and languages are finely woven together.7

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 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

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 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 Ezra himself discovered 50% of Jewish children did not know the language of Judah12 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

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

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

What is meant by the libuna’ah script? Rashi is alleged to have explained it as “Large characters as employed in amulets.”16 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

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

  2. This Dead Sea Scroll example comes from a fragment.19 It is written in Aramaic script but has a distinct Judaic influence. Some call it the Jewish Script, 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 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 Aramaic21

Josephus wrote his War of the Jews originally in what is understood to be Aramaic and later translated it into Greek.22 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 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 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 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

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

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 In fact, the first movement that first composited the Mishnah in written form around 200 AD, did not fully understand the Hebrew words.29

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 As for education, Greek was preferred because of the economic and business advantages.31 Only a passive knowledge of Hebrew was required by elementary school Aramaic students.32

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

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

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

According to Irenaeous, Eusebius, and Jerome, the Book of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.36 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 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

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

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.

———

A Jewish-Greek Perspective on the Tongues of Corinth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The series of articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure, approach, and complexity

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

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

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

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

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

The intercultural city of ancient Corinth

The city of Corinth is geographically located in a critical position. It is situated on a narrow finger of land called an isthmus which connects the southern tip of Greece with its mainland. In historic times, Corinth was caught between two rival cities; Sparta in the South, and Athens, slightly to the north-east. The Corinthian residents greatly suffered by choosing the wrong sides during many conflicts. Corinth was sacked and left desolate in 146 BC by the Roman consul Lucius Mummius2 in 146 B.C and left that way until 44 BC where it was purposely repopulated by the Romans.

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

The power of the Greek language

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

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

A proper understanding of Paul’s Hebrew identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first one, in his letter to the Romans11 stating there is no distinction between a Jew or a Greek–Ἕλλην Hellen. Paul was referring to a person of Greek origin who was not Jewish in this instance, not a Hellenized-Jew.

He then reiterated this theme again in Galatians. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus12

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

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

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

The composition of the original Corinthian assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in the first century the letters could not possibly have functioned as a marker distinctive of Christian identity. First, there is the obvious reason that there was not such religious category “Christian.” As far as can be determined by historians, archaeologists, and biblical scholars, there were no distinctively Christian institutions, buildings, or symbols in the first century, and few scholars believe that Christians did not materially distinguish themselves until the late third or early fourth century.14

. . . Modern readers of Paul tend to assume that Pharisees and other Jews would have considered Paul an apostate, a Jewish heretic who was no longer part of the Jewish community because of his belief in Jesus, and thus not really Jewish. In the context of the first century, however, Paul’s belief in Jesus did not make him less Jewish. Belief in a messianic savior figure is a very Jewish idea, as can be demonstrated by a historical analogy.15

Final thoughts before you read the rest of the articles

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

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

A New Kind of Tongues

How the Pentecostal definition of tongues changed in the early 1900s.

The late Assemblies of God teacher, writer, and professor Gary B. McGee wrote a very factual account on the development and evolution of the doctrine of tongues in the Pentecostal movement.

It is called, Shortcut to Language Preparation? Radical Evangelicals, Missions, and the Gift of Tongues.

It is a well researched article with substantiated sources. This is one of the most definitive works found covering the subject from the late nineteenth century onwards.

He cites the most important leaders in the modern tongues movement, and how the original emphasis was on the supernatural acquisition of foreign languages. This mystical acquirement was hoped to be a solution for the common perception that language learning was a long process and a barrier to a rapid missionary expansion throughout the world.

This forced a serious theological dilemma — miraculous language acquisition wasn’t working. Either the Pentecostal movement as a whole would have to admit they were wrong, or redefine the experience. The latter was chosen.

McGee admits that somewhere between 1906 and 1907 the doctrine of tongues had changed from what was perceived as spontaneous language acquisition into worship and intercession in the Spirit:

Not surprisingly, though claims of bestowed languages had the potential of being empirically verified, such claims severely tested the credulity of outside observers. Corroborating testimony that Pentecostals preached at will in their newfound languages and were actually understood by their hearers proved difficult to find. By late 1906 and 1907 radical evangelicals began reviewing the Scriptures to obtain a better understanding. Most came to recognize that speaking in tongues constituted worship and intercession in the Spirit (Rom. 8:26; I Cor. 14:2), which in turn furnished the believer with spiritual power. Since on either reading–glossolalia for functioning effectively in a foreign language or for spiritual worship–the notion of receiving languages reflected zeal and empowerment for evangelism, most Pentecostals seemed to have accepted the transition in meaning.

It is surprising to find here that an Assemblies of God teacher admitted to this, though it comes across very softly.

Unfortunately, he failed to go into any details on what figures were responsible for this change, and how it became an entrenched doctrine in such a short period.

The full document can be found here: Shortcut to Language Preparation? Radical Evangelicals, Missions, and the Gift of Tongues.