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Tag: St. Augustine

Eco: The Return to Hebrew


Hildegard von Bingen, Universal Man, Liber Divinorum Operum, or Book of Divine Works, 1165. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.   

“From Origen to Augustine, almost all of the church Fathers assumed, as a matter of incontrovertible fact, that, before the confusion, humanity’s primordial language was Hebrew.

The most notable dissenting voice was Gregory of Nyssa (Contra Eunomium). God, he thought, could not have spoken Hebrew; were we to imagine, he said ironically, a schoolmaster God drilling our forefathers in the Hebrew alphabet (cf. Borst 1957-63: I, 2, and II/1, 3.1)?

Despite this, the image of Hebrew as the divine language survived through the Middle Ages (cf. De Lubac 1959: II, 3.3).

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, it no longer seemed enough simply to maintain that Hebrew was the photo-language (little being known thereof): it was deemed necessary to promote its study, and, if possible, its diffusion.

By now we are in a climate very different from that of St. Augustine: not only do the interpreters wish to go back to the text in its original version, but they do it with the conviction that the original and holy language of scripture was the only one capable of expressing its sacred truth.

What has happened in the meantime is, of course, the Reformation. Protestants refused to accept the claim of the Catholic church to be the sole mediator and interpreter, placing itself, with its canonic Latin translations, between the believer and the Holy Writ.

Out of this refusal to accept the church’s traditional interpretation of scripture arose the stimulus to study the languages in which the sacred texts had first been formulated.

The contemporary debate over this was varied and complex. The most comprehensive treatment is contained perhaps in Brian Walton’s In biblia polyglotta prolegomena (1673: especially 1-3).

However, the story of this debate during the Renaissance is so complex (see Demonet 1992) that we shall limit ourselves to a gallery of exemplary portraits.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 73-5.

Eco: Before and After Europe, 2


MC Escher, Tower of Babel, 1928. This image of a drawing is copyrighted by the artist, who died in 1972. Low-resolution images of works of art for purposes of critical commentary qualify for fair use under United States copyright law.

“Despite this, by the second century AD, there had begun to form the suspicion that Latin and Greek might not be the only languages which expressed harmoniously the totality of experience.

Slowly spreading across the Greco-Roman world, obscure revelations appeared; some were attributed to Persian magi, others to an Egyptian divinity called Thoth-Hermes, to Chaldean oracles, and even to the very Pythagorean and Orphic traditions which, though born on Greek soil, had long been smothered under the weight of the great rationalist philosophy.

By now, the classical rationalism, elaborated and re-elaborated over centuries, had begun to show signs of age. With this, traditional religion entered a period of crisis as well. The imperial pagan religion had become a purely formal affair, no more than a simple expression of loyalty.

Each people had been allowed to keep its own gods. These were accommodated to the Latin pantheon, no one bothering over contradictions, synonyms or homonyms. The term characterizing this leveling toleration for any type of religion (and for any type of philosophy or knowledge as well) is syncretism.

An unintended result of this syncretism, however, was that a diffused sort of religiosity began to grow in the souls of the most sensitive. It was manifested by a belief in the universal World Soul; a soul which subsisted in stars and in earthly objects alike.

Our own, individual, souls were but small particles of the great World Soul. Since the reason of philosophers proved unable to supply truths about important matters such as these, men and women sought revelations beyond reason, through visions, and through communications with the godhead itself.

It was in this climate that Pythagoreanism was reborn. From its beginnings, Pythagoreans had regarded themselves as the keepers of a mystic form of knowledge, and practiced initiatory rites.

Their understanding of the laws of music and mathematics was presented as the fruit of revelation obtained from the Egyptians. By the time of Pythagoreanism’s second appearance, however, Egyptian civilization had been eradicated by the Greek and Latin conquerors.

Egypt itself had now become an enigma, no more than an incomprehensible hieroglyph. Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: one is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something unutterably profound.

That such wisdom could exist while still remaining unknown, however, could only be accounted for by the fact that the language in which this wisdom was expressed had remained unknown as well.

This was the reasoning of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote in his Lives of the Philosophers in the third century AD:

“There are those who assert that philosophy started among the Barbarians: there were, they claim, Magi among the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Gymnosophists of India, the Druids among the Celts and Galatians” (I).

The classical Greeks had identified barbarians as those who could not even articulate their speech. It now seemed that these very mumblings were of a sacred language, filled with the promise of tacit revelations (Festugière 1944-54:I).

I have given a summary of the cultural atmosphere at this time because, albeit in a delayed fashion, it was destined to have a deep influence on our story. Although no one at the time proposed the reconstruction of the perfect language, the need for one was, by now, vaguely felt.

We shall see that the suggestions, first planted during these years, flowered more than twelve centuries later in humanistic and Renaissance culture (and beyond); this will constitute a central thread in the story I am about to tell.

In the meantime, Christianity had become a state religion, expressed in the Greek of the patristic East and in the Latin still spoken in the West. After St. Jerome translated the Old Testament in the fourth century, the need to know Hebrew as a sacred language grew weaker. This happened to Greek as well.

A typical example of this cultural lack is given by St. Augustine, a man of vast culture, and the most important exponent of Christian thought at the end of the empire.

The Christian revelation is founded on an Old Testament written in Hebrew and a New Testament written, for the most part, in Greek. St. Augustine, however, knew no Hebrew; and his knowledge of Greek was, to say the least, patchy (cf. Marrou 1958).

This amounts to a somewhat paradoxical situation: the man who set himself the task of interpreting scripture in order to discover the true meaning of the divine word could read it only in a Latin translation.

The notion that he ought to consult the Hebrew original never really seems to have entered Augustine’s mind. He did not entirely trust the Jews, nurturing a suspicion that, in their versions, they might have erased all references to the coming of Christ.

The only critical procedure he would allow was that of comparing translations in order to find the most likely version. In this way, St. Augustine, though the father of hermeneutics, was certainly not destined to become the father of philology.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 12-4.


Porphyry and the Oracle of Hecate on Christ.

Porphyry (234-305 AD) wrote the Philosophy of Oracles and Against the Christians, both now lost to history. Theodosius II burned all works of Porphyry in 435 and 448 AD, so all that remains are tantalizing fragments quoted by Christian apologists. In other words, what we know about Porphyry comes from his sworn enemies, who rebutted him as they excerpted him.

In Philosophy of Oracles, Porphyry defended the traditional paganism of his day:

“How can these people be thought worthy of forbearance? They have not only turned away from those who from earliest time have been thought of as divine among all Greeks and barbarians… but by emperors, law-givers and philosophers— all of a given mind.

But also, in choosing impieties and atheism, they have preferred their fellow creatures. And to what sort of penalties might they not be subjected who… are fugitives from the things of their Fathers?”

In his fifteen volume Adversus Christianos, Porphyry criticized Christianity for the paucity of its literature, observing that the immature corpus of Christian writings paled in comparison to the oeuvre of paganism. He also distinguished between the original oral traditions of Christianity, straight from the mouth of the Lord, and the subsequent corruption of that doctrine at the hands of the apostles. Keep in mind that Porphyry was writing a mere 300 years after the Crucifixion.

In this fragment, where Porphyry is quoted by St. Augustine (De Civitate Dei, l. xix. cap. 23), the Oracle…

“…The oracle declared Christ to be a most pious man, and his soul, like the soul of other pious men after death, favored with immortality; and that the mistaken Christians worship him.

And when we asked, Why, then, was he condemned? The goddess (Hecate) answered in the oracle: The body indeed is ever liable to debilitating torments; but the soul of the pious dwells in the heavenly mansion.

But that soul has fatally been the occasion to many other souls to be involved in error, to whom it has not been given to acknowledge the immortal Jove.

But himself is pious, and gone to heaven as other pious men do. Him, therefore, thou shalt not blaspheme; but pity the folly of men, because of the danger they are in.”

–From Porphyry, Philosophy of Oracles.

Wilken, R. (1979). “Pagan Criticism of Christianity: Greek Religion and Christian Faith,” in W. Schoedel and R. Wilken, eds., Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition, pp. 117–134.

Digeser, E. D. (1998). “Lactantius, Porphyry, and the Debate over Religious Toleration,” The Journal of Roman Studies 88, pp. 129–146.

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