Languages in Christian History

Languages in Christian History

This is a sort of layman’s introduction to languages I wrote as a quick guide for those interested in the study of theology and history of the church, especially as it pertains to the Bible or Christian literature, for occasionally the complexities easily trip up new learners. It is by no means exhaustive, but rather exists as a primer for new learners.

Like the C.S. Lewis snippet, ‘If you can’t put it in plain English, you probably don’t know it’,1 this article will show there are three biblical languages to keep in mind, four categories of the most significant languages of the early and medieval church, various and more tongues that help demonstrate the mission of Christ very early and widespread, as well as a plethora connected with Bible translation in the modern period.2

Biblical Languages (c. 2000 B.C. to 30 A.D.)

First of all, there are essentially two biblical languages, ones that the Bible was written in; that is, Hebrew, for the Old Testament, (henceforth called ‘First Testament’, or sometimes called ‘Hebrew Bible), and the second is Greek. In this sense there is a very simple divide.

However, in reality, there is a sort of triad, for Aramaic was the tongue many Hebrews spoke in after the Exile from Babylon, and Jesus himself likely spoke Aramaic, though his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is fairly uncertain.

The New Testament, however, was written in the Gentile tongue of the Greeks, while the First Testament was founded upon the language of the Hebrew people.

So, essentially, as it pertains to the Christian Bible, there are three languages to keep in mind: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Let’s take a quick look at these three.

(1) Hebrew: Hebrew is the tongue of the Hebrew people, which the first books of the Christian Bible were produced. The First Testament closes around 400 A.D., then much of the Apocrypha is produced (in the intermittent period before Christ), and then Christ dies in 30 A.D., the New Testament being produced between then and 100 A.D.

(2) Aramaic: Most of the Bible is written in Hebrew or Greek, but there are some long Aramaic portions. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, and snippets in the New Testament also show up in Aramaic. Outside the Bible, Targums and the Peshitta are profitable to read in Aramaic.

(3) Greek: Greek is easily one of the oldest, if not the oldest, language still used in modern times. However, as we know, the way we speak changes over time.3

As such, Greek too has transformed over the last thousand years. But, when learning the Bible, you are reading a specific kind of Greek (Biblical Greek), and Biblical Greek is a subset of Ancient Greek, called Koine Greek, meaning ‘Common Greek’.

It was the language of ordinary pedestrians, folks on the street, and was the lingua franca, common tongue, of the ancient world, much like English is today, and were Arabic, Latin, and Chinese in the past around their own respective regions.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the church spread to the south, toward Ethiopia, towards the North and Armenia, towards the East (as far as India), and to the West, past Rome, within the first 100 years.

In this next segment, I am going to try to summarize 1,000 years of history after Christ (ca. year 100 – 1200, so forgive the oversimplification at points).

This is to be a primer for more advanced study, and concerns not all languages of the world, but those that are tethered to the spread of Christianity in Church History.

Early Christianity: Major Languages (c. 30 A.D. to 400 A.D.)

If there is anything to remember, try to think of the big four: Greek, Ge’ez, Latin, and Syriac. Significance here is simply defined as its use for a modern, western person probably reading this blog.

(1) Greek: Greek continued on, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. While it changed in dialects, and forms, like Latin, and died out as a lingua franca corresponding with the rise of Latin and Arabic, Greek has persisted to this day.

If one wants to learn about the Apostolic Fathers (early Christians from the year 100 A.D. to 200 A.D.), the Church Council era (ca. 300) or even John of Damascus (ca. 750 A.D.), or the Easter Orthodox Church after the formal split in 1054 A.D., one would learn Greek.

(Significance for church literature, 30 A.D. – Present)

Greek’s significance is also felt in that it was a major translation of the Hebrew Bible in 300 B.C. (before Jesus), called the Septuagint, (abbreviated as LXX). This is what makes Greek so important at a variety of levels.

(2) Coptic-Ge’ez: Coptic is vernacular Egyptian, but it was mostly written using the Greek Script. Coptic was a language that lived on even until about the 1600’s in Egypt, but essentially is dead today.

(Significance for church literature: very early Christianity, 100 A.D. to 400 A.D.) 

Ge’ez, on the other hand is the Ethiopic language which has remained as a pertinent church body throughout history, since it largely converted as a nation around the year 300 A.D.

Among the first Christian coinage, was the Ethiopic nation’s currency. Most important works in this language are the literature of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

(Significance for church literature, 300 A.D – Present)

(3) Latin: The reason Latin became the language the Bible was translated into throughout the Western World (west of Egypt and Constantinople) was because it was the common tongue of the people, the vernacular.

Ironically, a thousand years later, after Latin had produced a number of dialects, it was no longer the common tongue of the people, and many (but not all) in the church wanted to keep it as the only authorized version amongst their church bodies.

Eventually, there was an explosion of translation accompanied by the Reformations (my term for the usually singular ‘Protestant Reformation’), into vernacular languages, the common tongue of German, and English, and French, and otherwise. Even now, Latin is very profitable to know and be aware of in the West.

 (Significance for church literature: mostly 200 A.D. to present)

(4) Syriac: Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic which was extremely popular in Eastern Christianity, and the Church of the East (farther East than the Eastern Orthodox Church).

The Eastern Church was far bigger than the Eastern Orthodox/Latin Churches at one time, for many centuries (though largely ignored in Church History books for a variety of reasons).

Syriac Christianity spread into China at one point, at least by the year 600 A.D. (not a typo, not 1600 A.D., as often thought). In the 200’s in Edessa, churches began to use Syriac for modern worship.

Syriac penetrated China as early as the 600’s, and largely died out, or at least retracted, in the 1300’s after the Mongol conquests.

 (Significance for church literature: mostly 200 A.D. to 1300 A.D) 

Eventually, it was slowly replaced by Arabic. However, even the St. Thomas Churches in Indian probably were largely Syriac-using churches, as well as in China, and in the Middle East, demonstrating just how big and wide this church-body was. Syriac is actually largely important in Quranic studies too in determining what Muhammad would have known about the Bible, because of what translations of the Bible he would (or would not) have had access to (either written or orally).

A Syriac Manuscript of 1 Corinthians 13:4-14:4. MS Syriac 148 (Mingana Collection)

All in all, it can be seen that Coptic-Ge’ez were significant church languages in North Africa, Latin was used in Western-North Africa and Western Europe, Greek was mostly used along the bridge of Eastern Europe and in Western Asia, and Syriac (Aramaic) was used mostly in Eastern Asia. The big three, are probably Latin, Greek, and Syriac, Coptic and Ge’ez combined making up a larger fourth which should be appended.

Early Christianity: Minor Languages (c. 30 A.D – 400 A.D.)

However, these were not the only tongues that the Gospel was rendered in, for even Acts 2 gives a list of seventeen nations whose people heard the message of Christianity at the Pentecost holiday in 30 A.D. Many other languages: Armenian, Old Nubian, and Georgian just a sample, exist as an example of the number of languages to which Christian thought spread.

Middle Christianity: Minor Languages (c. 400 – 1300 A.D.)

Though most of the major languages persisted through the eras of middle Christianity (Latin, Greek, Syriac), as the Great Commission went out, the Gospel became rendered into more languages.

These languages increasingly became significant. Think Gothic, Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese, and European Vernaculars. One has to remember that Latin, Syriac, and Greek persisted as the major tongues, but all these languages demonstrate the breadth and mission of Christianity.

(1) Gothic Languages: In the 300’s, Ulfilas translated a lot into Gothic, which is a language of Germanic tribes.

(2) Irish: The Irish truly ‘saved’ European civilization, out of God’s providence and ‘geographic luck’. The Irish converted fairly early to Christianity, translated and copied many books, preserving them for centuries in Ireland, and then after the Viking invasions, sent missions back to Europe, repopulating the Middle Ages with libraries, and manuscripts, long forgotten or burned on the European continent.

The Irish added some significant things to the writing of languages (capital letters, punctuation, the Greek script we use now is Irish). Most of Irish is written in the margins of Latin manuscripts, but plenty of evidence exists to demonstrate the Irish loved their language too.

(3) Arabic: While Arabic has a stigma now attached to Islam, many important Christian poets and writers wrote in Arabic. The oldest known Arabic-Christian writing (470 A.D.), is in a Christian context.4

(4) Chinese – Though Syriac was primarily the language of the church of the east, a few monuments and documents in Chinese show Christianity’s impact there, at least in Eastern China. The Nestorian Stele, erected in 781 A.D., tells of a Christian missionary who came in 635 A.D. Moreover, the Jesus Sutras (about nine of them), were written and sealed before about the year 1000 A.D.

(5) Cyrillic Languages: Cyril and Methodius (826–869, 815–885), were Christian missionaries who eventually invented the Cyrillic Script on their mission to the Slavs to render Old Church Slavonic, in Eastern European. The Cyrillic Script (way of writing), eventually became the basis for Russian and other languages in the surrounding region.

One must remember, a Script is different from a Language; for instance, English and Inuit are often written in Roman Characters (Latin Alphabet), but Inuit has a far different history (and even script of its own). However, we are simplifying the process simply on the way they are written for the moment. The reason it looks similar, but not exactly the same, as the Latin alphabet is because both were based upon Greek, but taken in different directions.

(6) Old English – The Old English actually got a translation of the Hexateuch (the first six books of the Bible, Genesis – Joshua [actually even Judges in one version]), around the year 1000 A.D.

So, while one must keep these in the back of your mind, remember that Mongol Christians (in the largest empire in the world at one point), used Syriac; Eastern Orthodox Christians still used Greek, and Western Christians largely used Latin.

These above languages are simply examples of complimentary languages that demonstrate the Church’s Great Commission.

Reformations Christianity: Major Languages (ca. 1300 A.D. to 1800 A.D.)

While ‘Reformations’ does not quite describe the Christian happenings in other parts of the world exactly, there is no doubt Christianity as a whole was affected by the European Reformations.

I start the ‘Reformations’ timetable a little earlier than most, since I am including a context that primed Christian thought in this region for the consequent Reformation.

(1) Vernacular European Languages: John Wycliffe produces an English translation at the end of the 1300’s, while the Czech’s got a version from John Huss. Erasmus eventually translates the New Testament from Greek to Latin (a bigger deal than this seems, since this had not been done largely for a millennia – since Jerome); and, Luther translated the Bible into German around 1522.

Gutenberg’s printing press largely contributes to this matter (ca. 1450’s), where the first book printed on it was, of course, the Bible. French and Spanish Bible’s also came in the 1500’s.

(2) Vernacular World Languages: After the initial ‘Reformation’ in Europe, eventually Protestant Churches sent out many missionaries, often behind Roman-Catholic Missionaries, who made first-contact with many in Japan, the Americas, the African continent, and India.

Think of Francis Xavier, William Carey, and some of these other missionaries, who founded missions that would go on to begin the work of translated Christian truth into the tongues of other language.

Unfortunately, missions were often led by people who had conquest in mind first, and secondly the Kingdom of Christ, a disaster the church should always apologize for being involved in.

However, many of these missions were successful, for instance the conversion of Congo in the 1500’s, and the King Alfonso of Congo converted, hoping to establish Christian schools and such for his country before 1516 (the Reformation date is often recorded as 1517, remember), recorded in his many long letters to the King of Portugal.

This and the early-modern period became the age of Bible-translation.

Modern Christianity: (1800’s to Present)

(1) Vernacular Tongues: Missions in modern Christianity is often tethered to Bible translation. I do not wish to try to cover the whole world (Australia, East-Asia [especially Korea], North America, South America, and the outskirts of Africa [as well as replanting once-thriving churches in the Middle-East]).

Roman Catholics picked up the Hangul script (for Korean) and started publishing in it around the year 1790, and a Bible becomes completed around 1880, the same time as other Bibles.

For instance, in Africa, Uganda gets a complete Bible starting in the late 1880’s and the project continues until about the 1980’s, now a complete Bible. Sotho, in South Africa acquired a completed Bible, as well as Zulu by about 1883.

In North America, the Russian Orthodox church made a late 1800’s venture into Alaska (even California). And recently, in the 2000’s here, the Canadian Bible Society presented a completed Inuit Bible (I see at least a smattering of Inuit literature at the libraries in Toronto).

(2) German and French: German became the language of much modern theology, while French was a dominant language (especially of Archaeology). Modern study of the Bible is supplemented by these.

Even early reformers wrote in Latin and their vernaclars: John Calvin wrote in Latin and French, Luthter German and Latin, etc., etc. Bavnick is in Dutch. Spanish and Portuguese could be usefully if studying Liberation theology. Some of these depends on your field of inquiry.

(3) English: Of course, English has become the lingua franca of the world, and most translations of almost everything eventually get rendered into English.

(4) Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Arabic, Hindi: Though this is a combination of distinct languages, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Arabic all have significant influence along with the numerous other languages that exist along side these. It simply depends on your world region.

All in all, one should remember at least the three biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek; the four major church languages: Latin, Greek, Ge’ez, and Syriac; as well as the modern-research tongues; particularly the European triad of French, German, and their sibling English.

Thankfully, in the modern era, the languages have become too numerous to count, but as far as major scholarly material, the European triad, as well as even Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, etc., etc., are significant in their own nuances and ways.

Hopefully, this guide services as a decent introduction to the languages one would need to know (or simply know of) to interact with the history of Christianity.

Footnotes

  1. Obviously, paraphrased.
  2. These all testify to God’s word and our knowledge of history in various ways and can be helpful for a student to know off the top of their head (what languages are most important, most widespread, and what time period which one could associate these).
  3. Shakespeare is still ‘modern’ English and you certainly do not normally talk like in his plays; however, his material is at least fairly understandable to a native speaker of English.
  4. http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/archaeologists-discover-earliest-known-arabic-writing-was-penned-christian-020778