Mr. Jake Brannum wrote:

Perhaps the most obvious growing difference between the East and the West was the use of language. Although when the Empire had initially been split into two governances, Latin had remained the official language of administration for both halves, the language of the secular elite and of church liturgy was divided: Greek in the East and Latin in the West. Already by the 5th century and Emperor Leo I, the Eastern emperors themselves had begun to legislate in Greek (90), demonstrating that the divide between the two halves was already well under way before the so-called Fall of the West in 476. With the different languages came different texts, different liturgies, different Bibles, resulting in early irreconcilable cultures between the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire that would only continue to increase as time went on.

I would like to agree, disagree and expand on the notion of the language basis of differentiation in the Empire (whether we are speaking of Rome or the period after the end of unified government in the west). It is absolutely true that language can be a barrier. The Greeks famously coined the term “barbarian” as some sort onomatopoeic reflection of the sounds of non-Greek languages and there isn’t much question that the intent was disparagement.

In addition, even the division into Latin versus Greek is a vast oversimplification. While Latin does seem to have pervaded most of the Roman West giving rise to what we call Romance languages today, Greek was by no means the only competing language. In Egypt, always among the most populous parts of the Mediterranean, large numbers of people retained descendants of the language of the ancient Pharaohs. In mid-East, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as a lingua franca, but Hebrew was retained as a literary language–and more on that in a moment. And further east, while Greek can be found as far as Bactria, most populations spoke variations of Persian and other languages native to the region. To the south-east, Arabic was widespread.

Despite all that variation, many within the educated elite could deal with both Latin and Greek, and therefore the cultural divide was not quite so high. I’d like to focus on one important moment in the history of linguistic issues to illustrate how sometimes things worked in unexpected ways.

Once Rome accepted Christianity, one of the ramifications of that decision was a necessity to publish the Scripture on which the religion was based. While many people today would imagine that the original language of Scripture was Hebrew (at least what we now call “the Old Testament”), the situation was a bit more complicated than that. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews (using the term loosely) had long claimed that a translation of Scripture into Greek was nothing less than divinely inspired (Letter of Aristeas). To make a long story short, despite centuries of research and the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is quite impossible to determine whether the current Hebrew text (more on that in a moment) or Greek text (the “Septuagint”) is more reliable, and the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that in specific instances there is evidence on both sides.

At the time the first texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint were being copied and transmitted around the Mediterranean, first by Jewish and later by Christian copyists and communities, there was also a translation of the texts into Latin. This version is known as the Vetus Latina.

In the very late fourth century (CE) Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin. It is difficult to know exactly how he went about establishing the Hebrew text, most scholars presume that he was able to use a mss of Origen’s Hexapla despite Origen having by then been declared a heretic. Jerome mentions on a few occasions consulting Jews, and several studies have demonstrated that whatever text he used was closely related to the text that would become the basis of later Hebrew Bibles (the Masoretic Text). In doing this, he privileged that text over the Greek of the Septuagint.

Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) was acclaimed and widely distributed. This had an odd consequence: the original Latin text (the Vetus Latina) was so thoroughly supplanted that today we are unable to reproduce it. It survives in more than 27 different versions and there is little question that large portions of these variants were not from whatever the original might have been but rather copied from patristics or even the Vulgate itself. And the reason this is important is that the Vetus Latina is in itself a witness to the Septuagint (which also has a very complex manuscript history) which has to be regarded as a core text of the original Bible. In essence, when we compare the Vulgate to the Hebrew Bible of today, we are comparing two sides of the same coin!

Jews are found in lesser or greater numbers throughout the territories of the Roman Empire including all those places in the Roman West that waned and waxed after the mid-fifth century. They carried their sacred texts and their Hebrew and Aramaic languages wherever they went. In some places, the walls between Hebrew study and Latin or Greek were very high. But here and there we find breaches in those walls. A Jerome who, despite many seemingly antisemitic viewpoints, nevertheless is happy to make use of Jewish education in his efforts. Christians and Jews connected and learned from each other, if only sporadically and often because a Jew had converted to Christianity.

But Jews also borrowed from Christian sources when they deemed it necessary. Lacking a copy of Josephus’s works in any Jewish language because the books were preserved by Christians and ignored by Jews for almost a milennium, a tenth century Jew, probably in Italy, created a pastiche of Josephus adding in various legends from rabbinic sources and called his work “Yossipon” (a variant on the name Josephus).

Itinerant Jews learned the language of the communities among which they sojourned. Abraham ibn Ezra was born in Muslim Spain (most of his children would convert to Islam) and acquired a deep knowledge of Arabic culture, language and science. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, he traveled and taught in North Africa, Italy and France and even England. Many of his works survive: treatises on philosophy, mathematics, grammar, astronomy, astrology, and above all commentaries on the Bible. He was a great defender of Sa’adia Ga’on, who lived in the far eastern part of the Jewish world (Sura, Babylonia, now Iraq).

And so we see that despite the vast distances and language barriers, a Jew born in eleventh century Spain could know the works of an Iraqi and teach them in England.

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