Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Why Paul wrote in Greek to the Romans

And why not -say- in Latin, the "official language" of Rome? Cicero provides a concise, even if partial, explanation (giving also - mutatis mutandis - one of the reasons why this blog is mostly in English rather than in Italian):
Nam si quis minorem gloriae fructum putat ex graecis versibus percipi quam ex latinis, vehementer errat, propterea quod graeca leguntur in omnibus fere gentibus, latina suis finibus, exiguis sane, continentur. (Cicero, Pro Archia, 23 - written 62 BCE)
Which is not to say that Cicero did not want to cultivate good Latin writing, or that he was detached from his own Roman culture, as we know. I think this passage is interesting also because it could serve as a reminder of the difficult collocation of the literary genre of Romans: perhaps a personal letter to the Church of Rome, perhaps a sort of encyclical epistle, perhaps a kind of lehrbrief, or perhaps something else.

Juvenal's third satire (65 CE) tells us how contemporary Rome was filled with Greek-speaking people (divitibus gens acceptissima nostris, Juvenal says, with an interesting sociological remark). There is some modern relevance to the theme of people lamenting that their home country is "polluted" by foreigners and invoking the expulsion, in the name of the preservation of the "purer" race, of these foreigneres and in general of those adhering to foreign customs (emphasis mine):
Quae nunc divitibus gens acceptissima nostris et quos praecipue fugiam, properabo fateri, nec pudor opstabit. Non possum ferre, Quirites, Graecam urbem; quamvis quota potio faecis Achaei? Iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes, et linguam et mores et cum tibicine chordas obliquas nec non gentilia tympana secum vexit et ad circum iussas prostare puellas. Ite, quibus grata est picta lupa barbara mitra! (Juvenal, Satire 3, 58-66)
Both Clemens Romanus (ca. 88-98 CE) and Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 98-115 CE) wrote in Greek, Ignatius specifically writing in Greek to the Church of Rome; there are several other examples of writers writing in Greek in Rome in the first centuries CE: for instance, Galen (in Rome after 168 CE, serving as physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus), or Justin Martyr (Apologia, 148-161 CE). On the other hand, the first known Christians writing in Latin are Apollonius and Pope Victor I (late 2nd half of II CE). Whoever visits the Roman catacombs soon realizes that most of the inscriptions there are written in Greek rather than in Latin: out of 534 inscriptions, 405 are in Greek, 123 in Latin, 3 in Hebrew, 1 in Aramaic, 1 is bilingual Greek-Latin, 1 is bilingual Greek-Aramaic (Fitzmyer, Romans, Introduction, VII; incidentally, the Italian edition - Lettera ai Romani, Piemme, 1999 - wrongly dates Cicero's Pro Archia to the 1st century CE rather than BCE). Apropos bilingualism, note the review of J.N. Adams, M. Janse, S. Swain, Bilingualism in Ancient Society: Language Contact and the Written Text, Oxford, 2002 - a book I hope to get access to soon.

Liturgically, Justin in his First Apology describes how the Eucharist was celebrated in Greek in Rome; on the other hand, we have a fragment of the De Sacramentis written by the Pseudo-Ambrose, ca. 400, where the Roman liturgy is apparently said in Latin. In liturgy then, the transition from Greek to Latin happened somewhere in between these data points, but it seems difficult or controversial to be more precise. We also know that under Pope Damasus (366-384) the Vulgate became the official version of the Bible used in the Roman liturgy. Greek did not disappear completely: for example, those familiar with Roman or Ambrosian Catholic rites can easily remember that parts of the Mass are still in Greek today (notably the invocation Kyrie Eleison). Note also the symbol IHΣ abbreviating the word ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, the so-called monogram of Christ XP, the two letters Α-Ω to signify beginning and end, and the iconography of the fish, Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ, acrostic for Ιησους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σοτερ.

In summary, all evidence points to the fact that by the time Romans was written, a substantial part (if not the majority) of the population in Rome was bilingual, that contemporary Christian literature was indeed normally written in Greek, that Greek was a common (if not the usual) language of Roman Christians and a kind of lingua franca, and that Greek continued to be used in Rome and in Roman rites for several more decades and perhaps centuries. The transition from Greek to Latin happened gradually, with Greek's usage progressively disappearing; and by the end of the fourth century CE we have strong indications that Roman liturgy had converged into using Latin rather than Greek in most of its forms.

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