GREEK AND HEBREW - “HOLY LANGUAGES”
The Jewish Talmud designates Hebrew as “the Holy Language” and prescribes when it must be used. The following passage is from the Mishnah (Oral Torah, that, with the Gemara, makes up the Talmud):
The following may be said in any language: the exhortation to the suspected adultress (Num. 5:19-22), the avowal with regard to the Second Tithe (Deut. 16:13-15), the recitation of the Shema (Deut. 6:4), the Tefillah,* the blessings after meals, the oath of witnesses, and the oath with regard to a deposit (Lev. 6:1-7).
The following must be said in the Holy Language: the affirmation with the First Fruits (Deut. 26: 1-4), the formula for halitzah (Deut. 25:5-10, the ceremony regarding the man who will not marry his brother’s widow), the blessings and curses (Deut. 27: 15-26, 28: 3-14), the Priestly Blessing, the blessings of the High Priest, the words of the king, the formula when the neck of the heifer is to be broken (Deut. 21:3), and the words of the Anointed for Battle when he speaks to the people.
Martin Luther’s opinion that Hebrew is a holy language was stated in his introduction to the Psalms in his German translation of the Bible:
The Hebrew language is so rich that no other language can satisfactorily equal it, for it has many words meaning singing, praising, honoring, rejoicing, sorrowing, etc., where we have hardly one. And it is so especially rich in words referring to divine and holy things, that it easily has ten names with which it refers to God, where we have but the one word, God, so that it may indeed be called a holy tongue. Therefore, no translation can reproduce the richness of the Hebrew speech, without even considering the embellishing words, that are called “figuras,” in which it also surpasses all other tongues.
* The Tefillah originally described only prayers of petition and thanksgiving, but now the word is used to describe any prayer. This prayer may be said in any language with a congregation. When praying alone, the Tefillah must be said in Hebrew. The reason for this is that when a Jew prays with a congregation, his petitions go straight to God, who understands all languages. When he prays alone, he needs the intervention of angels to persuade God to listen to his prayer. Angels know only Hebrew.
Elswhere Luther wrote:
The Greeks have excellent and lovely words, but they lack sententiousness (moral terms and maxims). Their language is pleasant and charming, but it is not rich in maxims. The Hebrew is above all others simple, but it is majestic and splendid, plain and of few words but much is behind them, so that no other speech can come up to it. The Hebrew language is the best and richest in words and is pure, does not go begging, has its own color. The Greek, Latin, and German go begging. They have many “composita,” while the Hebrew has none.
Until about 1860 the kind of Greek used in the New Testament stood almost alone as a peculiar form of the language. Since it was not used by the classical Greek writers or found elsewhere, some theologians came up with the idea that it was a special holy language. A German scholar named Richard Rothe called it “a language of the Holy Ghost.”
Others, however, felt differently. In 1863, Bishop Lightfoot, referred to a Greek word in a lecture he was giving that was found only in the New Testament and in the writings of Herodotus, c.484-425 B.C. He commented: “You are not to suppose that the word had fallen out of use in the interval (between Herodotus and New Testament times), only that it had not been used in the books which remain to us; probably it had been part of the common speech all along. I will go further, and say that if we could only recover letters that ordinary people wrote to each other without any thought of being literary, we should have the greatest possible help for understanding the language of the New Testament generally.”
This remarkable prophecy was fulfilled from the 1880s onwards, as large numbers of letters and documents written by ordinary people came to light after two millennia of burial in the sands of Egypt. Many of these were written on scraps of papyrus or on pieces of pottery (ostraca). These vernacular documents, recovered from ancient garbage dumps, proved to be written in New Testament Greek. The “language of the Holy Ghost” turned out to be the common speech of that day. So, scholars gave it the name “Koine (Common) Greek.”
C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963, noted that the language employed in the New Testament is a degraded form of literary Greek:
The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art; it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of ‘basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.*
From antiquity the area of the world called Greece has known many versions of its language. Its prehistoric speech is now called “Pelasgian.” This was followed by Minoan, Mycenean Linear A, Mycenean Linear B, Homeric, Æolic, Ionic, Achæan, Doric, Classical (of philosophers and dramatists), and Biblical (Koine). The Old Testment’s reference to “Javan” comes from “Ionian,” and the term “Achæa” was used in the records of the Hittites. The modern designation “Greek” comes from Roman writings and pertains to the settlements of the Græci people in the vicinity of Naples.
The Greeks have never called themselves “Greeks.” In Mycenean times they were apparently known as “Achæans,” judging from contemporary Hittite writings. This is one of several names they bore in the poems of Homer, the earliest surviving Greek literature. When the Mycenean age ended, the term “Hellene” permanently replaced all the others, and “Hellas” became the collective noun for the Greeks taken together. Today Hellas is the name of their country.
Because they never united as a nation, “Hellas” was essentially an abstraction, like Christendom in the Middle Ages or Islam at the present time. These Hellenic people spread themselves all over the Mediterranean coastlands, and they called the inhabitants of the inland regions “barbarians.” And although their city-states still carried on petty warfare amongst themselves, they had a consciousness of belonging to a single culture - “our being of the same stock and the same speech, our common shrines of the gods and rituals, our similar customs,” as Herodotus phrased it.
When Alexander the Great overthrew and supplanted the Persian Empire in his day, he succeeded in broadcasting Greek ideals and the Greek language all over the known world. And thus the Scripture of the Hebrews came to be converted to that language in Alexandria (as the Septuagint), and the Gospel of the new Christian movement was spread abroad in that common tongue.
Richard L. Atkins
*Excerpt from God In The Dock, Essays On Theology And Ethics by C. S. Lewis, Eerdmans, 1970, p. 230