Friday, February 02, 2007

Textual Criticism and the Languages of the Early Church

In the latest issue of Neotestamentica, Rick Strelan (my doktorvater) has an article entitled: 'We Hear Them Telling in Our Own Tongues the Mighty Works of God' (Acts 2:11). The abstract reads:

The language map of the early Christians is rarely included in New Testament scholarship. This article argues that the understanding of the spread of Koine Greek needs to be nuanced; that local dialects and languages survived hellenization; and that early Christian communities were largely polyglot. The evidence suggests that prayer and songs, in particular, were often expressed in a vernacular, and that the early gospel traditions were transmitted in vernacular forms in some communities.

Strelan points out that, apart studies of the linguistic milieu of Palestine (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin), there is a virtual ignorance/avoidance of the study of local dialects by commentators and biblical reference books on early Christianity. His paper has three aims: (1) To nuance the use of Greek in the first Christian centuries, (2) to draw attention to the survival of local languages, and (3) to emphasize that a variety of languages were spoken in the early Christian communities.

In his conclusion, Strelan argues:

While evidence of vernacular usage in Christian worship practices is stronger from the later centuries, there is nothing in that evidence to suggest that this was an introduced phenomenon. The reasonable inference is that such was the case from the very earliest days of the Christian movement. Certainly, the evidence is strong that in the fourth century, some Christians in the empire heard the gospel and the Christian scriptures in their own languages. They also sang hymns and prayed in those languages. There is also good evidence that in the earlier centuries, local languages were used in prayer and in songs to the praise of God. There is also some evidence that illiterate Christians of the early generations of the movement maintained and passed on the tradition in an oral form in their vernacular. It is highly likely that such communication of the gospel, especially in story form, was common. Finally, there are hints within the New Testament itself that prayers, particularly, were offered also in languages other than Greek, and that Luke was himself aware of Christians in many parts of the empire who had heard in their own local languages ‘the mighty works of God’.

I think Strelan makes a good point here and we have to get away from the assumption that all Christians spoke their own local-indigenous language plus Greek. That is about as likely as thinking that most people in modern Europe speak their national language plus English (compare Amsterdam with Budapest on that one!).

For instance, given that most first-century inscriptions in Corinth are in Latin, we would do well to consider how that effected the linguistic milieu of the churches there. Likewise, if one accepts a Syrian provenance for the Gospel of Thomas we might seriously (re-)consider a Syriac Vorlage for Thomas as argued recently by Nicholas Perrin (but see the review of Perrin by Peter Williams in EJTh).

A cursory glance at the diverse array of languages and dialects of the NT mss is a further indicator of the assorted languages that Christianity was carried in (Ethiopic [Sahidic and Bohairic], Coptic, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Old Slavonic, and Georgian). Although these texts are obviously translations of Greek texts one has to wonder why their significance for the study of first and second century Christianity has not been pursued. Non-Greek and non-Aramaic speaking Christians emerged very early (certainly before 70 AD) and they would have needed or wanted translations and texts for their worship and ministry. Perhaps Tatian’s Diatessaron was not only a Gospel-harmony, but was also a quick way to get all four Gospels into the hands of Syriac speaking Christians. It is tenable to suppose that the various languages of our textual witnesses presuppose the diverse languages of Christians, of both the later and earlier centuries. While the manuscripts outside of the Greek and Latin texts may be numerically small and relatively late the translations themselves may have a longer antiquity and they point to a multi-lingual environment for Christians in Europe, North Africa, the Middle-East, and Eurasia. That of course begs the question as to what extent do we use fourth-fifth-sixth century mss to reconstruct the linguistic situation of Christians in the late first century and early secondary century. But it is an interesting question and Strelan fills in some of the details for us.


  1. Interesting ideas. On the issue of where Tom was written I'd be interested to know what grounds there are for supposing a Syrian origin. The 'Judas Thomas' agreement with the Acts of Tom and the Old Syriac Gospels don't exactly clinch it.

  2. Re: "Luke was himself aware of Christians in many parts of the empire who had heard in their own local languages ‘the mighty works of God’."

    A good read relevant to this particular text (Ac 2:11) is Metzger's article "Ancient Astrological Geography and Acts 2:9-11," in his New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic.

  3. Irenaeus talks about the spread of the Gospel among barbarian nations in the late 2nd century (Against Heresies III.4.2). It appears that, as far as he is aware, they were indeed acquainted with apostolic tradition, but not in written form. Of course that only goes as far as his own limited base of knowledge on the subject. But I would tend to think that for many areas of Christendom his picture probably applied well.