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Browsing Fr. Joel Hastings

Why Latin?

Why do we value Latin over Hebrew and Greek translating?

I begin by admitting that my answer to this question may not be complete; however, I will at least provide reasons why Latin became the language of the Church, especially when so much original source material (in particular, the books of the Bible themselves) was written in either Hebrew [as with most of the Old Testament] or in Greek [for the New Testament]. In this column, I rely heavily on the online Catholic Encyclopedia (found at www.newadvent.org) under its article entitled “Ecclesiastical Latin.”

Generally speaking, languages gain their importance by the presence of the culture that has greatest influence in a place or circumstance. Whereas Hebrew was (and is) the language of Israel, Greek came into dominance by way of the ancient Greek empire and their project of bringing their own culture to all of the conquered lands (what is referred to as “Helenization”). Later, when the Roman Empire conquered these same lands (and more), the Latin language came into common use by many of the citizens. It was within this cultural setting of the Roman Empire that the Church’s preaching was initiated – needing to communicate with the people who spoke Greek or Latin. In particular, it was in places of northern Africa that Latin became necessary to the Church (though not the Classical Latin of Cicero, but a less formal dialect). It was here that the need of Latin translations from Greek and Hebrew were first specifically needed, with such persons as Tertullian, St. Cyprian, and St. Augustine serving as early authorities on translating Greek and Hebrew into Latin. These key persons began to “Latinize” many Greek words (and others too, for that matter) which grew the vocabulary of Latin, particularly in articulating and presenting the Christian faith.

No single person, however, was as influential to the Church’s use of and development of the Latin language and its vocabulary within the Church as St. Jerome.  While it is a common misconception that St. Jerome translated the entire Bible into Latin, more properly he is responsible for correcting and standardizing the Latin translations in the Latin Bible that is known as the Vulgate.

During this time of growth of Latin in daily life and in the Church’s writings, the use of Latin in the Church’s worship and theological texts also became more extensive. Importantly, the Latin language in common use suffered through the Middle Ages (due in part to invasions from outside the empire and the eventual fall of the empire). However, within the Church, the liturgy became the place where Latin both remained common and continued to grow. Given the word structure of Latin speech, including its many words of multiple syllables, the rhythm of Latin was such that its use in poetry/hymns and in being set to music (as chant) became the norm.  Accordingly, the Church’s own ritual books were normally written in Latin – both in the prayers themselves and in the instructive texts within them (known as “rubrics”). In fact, through this flourishing of Latin within the Church’s prayer and in her writings (both theology and in the Church’s official statements) it would come to pass that Latin would once more become seen as a standard for correctness (not unlike the Classical Latin of old) – making it standard from which all texts would be translated.

To this day, even though not every original document is written in Latin, every “official” document from the Holy See is promulgated or given to the public in Latin.  Likewise, much of the particular terminology we use in prayer and in teaching (such as the words “consubstantial” and “incarnate,” as used in the creed) come to use from the precision and correctness that is found in their original Latin.  Thus, while we still must acknowledge the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, it is the Latin
language that has most properly passed on to us the precise words and articulation of our faith, from its earliest uses down to our own age.



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