Skip to comments.THE PLAIN MAN'S GUIDE TO LATIN IN THE LITURGY
Posted on 07/16/2003 12:47:06 PM PDT by Hermann the Cherusker
THE PLAIN MAN'S GUIDE TO LATIN IN THE LITURGY
Latin in the early centuries of the Church - where was it spoken?
There were two official languages in the Roman Empire of the first few centuries AD, Latin in the west and Greek in the east. They were the languages of civil administration, of the army, of the law courts, of the major cities and of international trade. In addition, Latin had replaced various local languages as the dominant language of peninsular Italy, and Greek was likewise the dominant language of mainland Greece, the Aegean islands and the coastal cities of Asia Minor and Cyprus.
But the Empire as a whole was polyglot. Latin and Greek were not spoken, and to a considerable degree probably not even understood, by the great majority of the Roman Emperors' subjects, who lived in the small towns and the countryside, farmed the land or provided the services to those who did, and spoke a large number of diverse traditional languages.
The wider linguistic perspective
In the provinces of Gaul, Spain, Britain and parts of North Italy various branches of Celtic prevailed, in North Africa Punic and Berber, in Egypt Coptic, on the eastern side of the Adriatic Illyrian, and on the north shores of the Aegean Thracian. Asia Minor was a linguistic patchwork; in the interior Cappadocian, Isaurian and Lycaonian continued to be spoken till the end of the imperial period, and the people of Galatia, whose ancestors had emigrated there from Gaul hundreds of years earlier, still spoke in St Jerome's day a language similar to that of the district round Trier in north-east Gaul. The peoples of the lands lying between the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia spoke Semitic tongues such as Syriac and Aramaic. Many of the inhabitants of these provinces would perhaps have understood some Latin or Greek, as the case may be, but probably very few could speak them fluently and even fewer had them as first languages.
One of the leading authorities on the later Roman Empire has summed up the situation thus:
"There seems to have been a sharp cultural cleavage between the upper classes, who had not only received a literary education in Latin and Greek, but probably spoke one of other of these languages, and the mass of the people, who were not only illiterate, but spoke in a different tongue; it is clear that many of the common people, not only peasants but townspeople, had no knowledge of Greek or Latin." (A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, Basil Blackwell 1964, p. 995)
The early Christian communities
The Apostles were no exception. Though some of them, in particular St Peter and perhaps also St John, may well have learned Greek in later life, Aramaic was their first and for most of them their only language. Although Our Lord exhorted His Apostles to "Go forth and teach all nations", the emergent Church perforce remained confined to Aramaic-speaking Judaea until the conversion of St Paul, who was not only a Hellenised Jew and a Roman citizen who spoke and wrote good Greek in addition to his many other accomplishments, but who was also possessed of a burning conviction that the Christian message must be taken to the Gentiles and of the energy and determination to put this conviction into practice. And so, thanks to the missionary journeys of St Paul and his companions, Christian communities began to appear in many of the major cities of the eastern Roman Empire, and, at a quite early date, in Rome itself. There were certainly Christians living in Rome by the year 57, when St Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, and probably as early as 49, if the expulsion of the Jews from Rome referred to in Suetonius' Life of Claudius (also mentioned in Acts 18.2) occurred as a result of dissension between Orthodox and Christian Jews, as it is usually interpreted . There is, however, no evidence as to who planted the first seed of Christianity in the imperial capital, though it was certainly neither St Paul nor St Peter, who did not come to Rome until much later.
The earliest Jewish Christians in Palestine must have celebrated the Eucharist in Aramaic. The Hebrew in which most of the books of the Old Testament were written had already ceased to be a spoken language, and translations from Hebrew into Aramaic for use in the synagogues had probably already begun to be made. But Aramaic was no more than a relatively insignificant language spoken in a backwater of the Roman Empire, and the liturgy celebrated by St Paul's converts was unquestionably Greek. For scriptural readings, the new communities used the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. St Paul's letters to these communities, which were carefully preserved by them and became part of their corpus of standard liturgical readings, were in Greek, and so were the Gospels when they eventually came to be written. And although the language of Rome itself was Latin, the first Christian community in the imperial city also celebrated its liturgy in Greek.
This is not so surprising as it might first seem; Christianity was, from the Roman point of view, a religion imported from the Greek-speaking east. Moreover, all educated upper class Romans and many middle class Romans learnt to speak and write Greek as school children, not only for cultural reasons but also because it was from these classes that the provincial governors, administrators and army commanders were drawn and they had to be capable of serving in the eastern provinces. Even among the uneducated masses there were many immigrants, particularly slaves and ex-slaves from the east, who spoke or at least understood Greek. What is perhaps more surprising is that notwithstanding the great increase in the size and importance of the Christian community in Rome, and the gradual spread of the faith throughout the western Empire, Greek remained the liturgical language of the Roman Church throughout the second and third centuries.
The change to Latin
Only in the fourth century did this change, and the change was not complete until nearly the end of the century. Unfortunately we know very little about how this took place, not even whether it was sudden or gradual. The fact that the inscriptions on the tombs of the Popes change from Greek to Latin from the time of St Cornelius, who died a martyr in 253, has been claimed by some scholars to be significant, but in fact there is no evidence that this was accompanied by any change in the language of the liturgy. What is certain is that the Canon (Eucharistic Prayer) was still being said in Greek after the middle of the fourth century, since the author Marius Victorinus Afer, in a treatise against the Arians written about the year 360 switches from Latin into Greek when he wants to quote from it.
Soon after this date, however, the central portion of the Roman Canon, which has survived (with some linguistic variations) to this day, was quoted by St Ambrose (who died in 397) in his De Sacramentis. This Canon appears to be a new composition, not a translation from Greek, and it seems therefore that the switch from Greek to Latin, at least for the Canon of the Mass, took place during the papacy of St Damasus (364-388). This does not necessarily mean that the changeover to Latin had not begun before his papacy; it may have been a gradual process. The readings in particular may already have been in Latin by St Damasus' time. We know that both the Old and the New Testaments had been translated into Latin many years earlier, at least as early as the time of Tertullian who died around the year 225. Fragments of this pre-Vulgate Latin text have been preserved in writings of the period and they survived here and there in the liturgy even after St Jerome'' translation was adopted for general liturgical use.
Tradition of non-vernacular languages
This change in the liturgical language of the west has often been quoted as a precedent for change to a vernacular liturgy by twentieth-century enthusiasts for such a liturgy. It is, however, nothing of the sort. In the first place, Latin, though it was spoken by the educated classes and generally in the larger cities of the west, was, as we have seen, not the first language of the majority of the subjects of the Roman Empire outside Italy. St Augustine tells us in one of his letters that when he was arguing with the Donatists, who came mainly from an estate and farming background, he had to use interpreters since he had little Punic and they had no Latin. St Augustine's opponents would have been most surprised to have been told by a twentieth-century liturgical reformer that the switch to Latin was a change to the vernacular. The nun Egeria, who made a pilgrimage to Palestine in the closing years of the fourth century, and left an account of her journey, tells us that in that country the appointed readings were first read in the liturgical language, Greek, and then translated into Aramaic for the benefit of the congregation, a procedure strikingly similar to that which prevailed in the old Roman rite prior to the post-Conciliar reforms.
Secondly, the change was from a single liturgical language, Greek, to another single liturgical language, Latin; there was never any question of translating the liturgy into a large number of vernacular languages. The latter is an innovation of the second half of the twentieth century, without precedent in the history of the Catholic Church.
Reasons for the change from Greek to Latin
The reasons for the change from Greek to Latin, like many later changes in the liturgy, were probably largely political. The Emperor Diocletian, at the beginning of the fourth century, had divided the Empire into a western and an eastern half, with a separate emperor, or Augustus, for each half. It was temporarily reunited by Constantine, who moved the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium which he renamed Constantinople after himself. But after his death in 337 it was divided once more, this time for good, and the two halves increasingly went their separate ways, in outlook as well as in language. It is this division of the Empire that lies at the root of the division between Catholic west and Orthodox east that persists to this day. In this context, it was almost inevitable that the Church of Rome, the capital of the western empire, should cease to use Greek as its liturgical language. The personality of St Damasus may also have played some part; he was born into a well off family from the upper levels of society and had a profound admiration for Latin literature and Roman culture; it was at his behest that St Jerome undertook his translation of the entire Bible into Latin, and he embellished Rome with a number of new churches dedicated to Roman saints, San Lorenzo in Damaso and Santa Pudenziana in particular. His Romanising tendencies were continued by his successor Siricius, to whom we owe the magnificent though sadly mutilated apse mosaic in Santa Pudenziana in which Christ appears surrounded by His apostles, all dressed like Roman senators.
Latin or the vernacular?
Latin was to remain the liturgical language of western Europe for the next 1,600 years, notwithstanding a proposal at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century to allow use of the vernacular. The Protestant reformers had made a vernacular liturgy one of their central principles, and the liturgies which each group of reformers, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian or Anglican, composed for use in its own churches naturally emphasised the particular beliefs of that group, as distinct not only from orthodox Catholic beliefs but also from those of other Protestants. The Council fathers, faced with an unprecedented assault on the Church's teaching and fearful that vernacular liturgies would dilute the deposit of faith and allow scope for all sorts of diverse interpretations of Catholic doctrine, rejected the proposal and decided against allowing the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. In fact, the ecclesiastical authorities remained strongly opposed even to the publication of translations of the liturgy into the vernacular until the influence of the liturgical movement in the nineteenth century brought about a softening of this attitude, and the Church began to allow the publication of the missals in Latin, side by side with vernacular translations, with which Catholics of the pre-Vatican II era were so familiar.
The history of the last two hundred years, like that of the sixteenth century, has also witnessed a major assault on the Church's teaching, not this time from dissident Christians but from atheistic materialism. The fathers of Vatican II, like their Tridentine predecessors, accordingly emphasised the importance of retaining Latin as the liturgical language of the Church, declaring that "The use of the Latin tongue is to be maintained in the Latin rites, except where some special law obtains" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 36, 1). The reasons for retaining Latin are very well expressed in the introduction to the St John's Missal for Every Day (C. Goodliffe Neale Ltd., Birmingham 1963):
"By so using Latin she [the Church] avoids all the inconvenience that would arise in the use of the various modern languages which are constantly increasing and changing their vocabulary?To change the formulae of prayers according as changes took place in the languages would be opening the door to unceasing changes and even to heresy, for the worst errors may arise from the use of words and phrases that are not fixed in an exact and unchanging manner. If the use of the vulgar tongue were everywhere allowed, the Church would be obliged to bring her liturgical formularies in conformity with all the dialects spoken throughout the world, and to exercise a ceaseless vigilance over them?The use of the Latin language affords a guarantee of unity to the Catholic liturgy."
Unfortunately, in the post-Conciliar period little attention has been paid either to the decrees of the Council or warnings such as that quoted above, and the result has been the almost total disappearance of Latin from our churches and its replacement with translations into the vernacular whose orthodoxy no less than whose literary merit have been a constant source of disagreement and dissension ever since.
[Taken from the Latin Mass Society's November 2001 Newsletter.]
The one point I disagree with is this: "The Apostles were no exception. Though some of them, in particular St Peter and perhaps also St John, may well have learned Greek in later life, Aramaic was their first and for most of them their only language."
I believe more of the Apostles and Evangelists learned or knew other languages. Some of the traditions are summarized here. For example, Sts. Thomas and Bartholomew must have learned Parthian and Sanskrit or some equivalent to evangelize in India and Persia (St. Bartholomew also evangelized in Armenia), Sts. Simon and Jude worked in Mesopotamia and Persia - Aramaic may have partially sufficed, but they probably also needed Parthian, St. Andrew would have needed Scythic or Gothic to work in Scythia north of the Black Sea. St. Mark would have perforce needed to know Coptic to work in Alexandria and Egypt, and to found that rite. St. Paul also evangelized in Spain, and probably could have used Celtic he might have known from Asia Minor, or perhaps a translator from Galatia.
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Very interesting! I've always wondered where the different Apostles went. I have not seen much information in this regard.
Be back later for the rest of the article.
There it is! I have often surmised that, in the very beginning, Aramaic would have been used.
IMHO, it would have been absolutely beautiful to preserve the aramaic for the Consecration, for those words "This is my body - This is the blood of the new covenant" were first spoken by our Lord in Aramaic.
Great post!! Thanks for the ping ... I find the early church history most interesting.
Still is, in the Chaldean Rite at least...
I have been to 2 or 3 D.L. of the Marionites and their (syro-chaldaic?) Aramaic Chanting for the Consecration is beautiful. It certainly is superior to the Eucharistic Prayers one normally hears at the N.O. One hears the Roman Canon at the N.O. about as often as one hears Eminem sing Gregorian Chant.