Tres Linguae Sacrae: Three Sacred Languages--Hebrew, Greek, and Latin
Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, wrote St. Jerome in his Commentary on Isaiah. And if what the Jewish poet Hayim Nahman Bialik said is true for Judaism is also true for Scripture (which we have no reason to doubt)--that knowing Judaism in translation is like kissing one's mother through a veil--then we encounter at least some impediment, though it be as thin as a veil, in being ignorant of the Greek and Hebrew of the Scriptures.
Tres sunt autem linguae sacrae: Hebraea, Graeca, Latina,
quae toto orbe maxime excellunt.
His enim tribus linguis super crucem Domini
a Pilato fuit causa eius scripta.
The justification for St. Isidore's claim was built upon Pilate's command--surely guided by divine Providence in St. Isidore's view--that the titulus crucis, the placard on the True Cross that identified Jesus' supposed crime, was to be written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." (John 19:19; cf. Luke 23:38; Matt. 27:37, 15:26)
In his poem "Apotheosis," the 4th century Christian poet Prudentius wrote about Pontius Pilate's stumbling into the truth that Jesus was, in fact, King of the Jews, and not only of the Jews, but of the entire Cosmos, the Pantokrator, as follows:
Pilatus iubet ignorans "I, scriba, tripictis
digere versiculis quae sit subfixa potestas,
fronte crucis titulus sit triplex, triplice lingua
agnoscat Iudaea legens et Graecia norit
et venerata Deum percenseat aurea Roma."
In ignorance, Pilate commands, "Go, scribe, and thrice
Inscribe the lines under which power hangs affixed,
Afront the cross, let the title be thrice, in three tongues
That by reading, Judaea may recognize, the Greeks know,
And golden and venerated Rome regard God."
To be sure, other religious traditions have their own sacred languages. For example, the Muslims have the classical Arabic of the Qur'an. The Hindus have their Sanskrit. The Copts have their Coptic, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches their Slavonic.
But for the Roman Catholic, and really for all Christians of the West, the three sacred languages have been, are still, and forever must be, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
St. Jerome, who translated the New Testament from Greek to Latin and the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin and gave the Church the Vulgate, obviously had intimate knowledge of all three sacred tongues.
Yet St. Jerome's contemporary St. Augustine, while he had knowledge of Latin beyond criticism, admits in his Confessions that as a youth he disliked Greek, though retained some facility with it, and that his knowledge of Hebrew was such that he would not even recognize Genesis 1:1 if Moses himself read it to him in Hebrew. Conf. I.13-14, XI.3 Also, we mustn't forget that St. Thomas Aquinas had virtually no knowledge of either Greek or Hebrew, and yet he is the common doctor of the Church, and his knowledge of the faith and his sanctity are both unimpeachable.
Goethe said that he who does not know foreign languages knows nothing of his own. But this is not entirely true. The critic Ben Johnson famously said of William Shakespeare that he had "small Latin and less Greek." Hebrew goes unmentioned by Johnson, but we may be sure that Shakespeare's knowledge of Hebrew was less even than his Greek. Shakespeare, we might hardly point out, got along quite famously without such knowledge, and knew his English quite well pace Goethe's observations.
So it is not necessary for salvation, or even necessary for literary ability, to know Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. Nor is it necessary to travel to Rome or Jerusalem to be a saint. Nevertheless, there is much value in having at least some familiarity with these three languages, or at least some of their words, just as there has always been value to going on pilgrimage to holy sites. Exploring Hebrew, Greek, and Latin is analogous to going on an intellectual or conceptual pilgrimage.
Perhaps we can learn something about ourselves, or about Church, or about our Faith, or even about God by learning a little about Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.
The Old Testament, of course, is by and large written in Hebrew, although the 2nd century B.C. Greek translation of it known as the Septuagint--itself a Greek word worth exploring--is of venerable pedigree. The New Testament comes to us in Greek, though it is full of Semitisms that one unfamiliar with Hebrew or Aramaic would be deaf to. Obviously, knowledge of some Hebrew and Greek helps facilitate or develop intimacy with Scriptures.
Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, wrote St. Jerome in his Commentary on Isaiah. And if what the Jewish poet Hayim Nahman Bialik said is true for Judaism is also true for Scripture (which we have no reason to doubt)--that knowing Judaism in translation is like kissing one's mother through a veil--then we ...
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