The Romans foresaw the death of Latin

Peter Costello examines Latin in the biblical tradition

The journalist Kieron Wood has written in to commend my recent piece on the “latter day Latin classics”. He has, however, to disagree with me about the role of Latin today. I had suggested that many traditional minded people saw Latin as a way of preserving a scared tradition. He says this is only partly true, but reminds readers that the Tridentine Mass is offered in Latin for all to engage with in St Kevin’s in Dublin’s Harrington Street. 

But he passes over my main point which was that Latin was not intrinsically a sacred language. That it had also been the language through which the ancient classics were revived in the Renaissance leading on to the emergence of the Enlightenment, often seen by many as the source of today’s irreligion.

But there is no escaping the fact that Latin has become even more a dead language as the study of it passes from schools and universities. 

This was foreseen by one of the earliest Latin poets whose work survives to us, Naevius, who died c. 190 BC. His epitaph on himself evokes a time when “Obliti sunt Romani loquier lingua Latini” – “the Romans [will] forget how to speak the Latin language”. 

But my belief that the rites of the Church should be conducted in vernacular languages is not based on linguistics or on history, but is rooted in Scripture.

The opening of the Church’s mission is described in The Acts of the Apostles (2: 1- 42):  “When the days of Pentecost were accomplished they were all together in one place … and there appeared to them parted tongues, as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost; and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.”

The apostles went out in the streets and into the market place and began, under the leadership of Peter, to preach the Good News.

In Jerusalem there were then “Jews, devout men, out of every nation under Heaven…Parthians and Medes and Elamites and inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,  Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews also and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians.”   All of them exclaimed “we have heard them speak in our own tongues the wonderful works of God”.

Without entering into any discussion of glossolalia, this is a significant moment:  “They were all astonished and wondered, saying one to another: ‘What meaneth this?’”

Many were converted and “they were persevering in the doctrines of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of the bread and in prayers”.

This seems to associate ‘the breaking of the bread’ with the teaching to all comers of the truth of Christ in their own language – whether Arabic or Mesopotamian, or whatever.

Doubtless those “strangers of Rome” heard the apostles in their native Latin, but they were only a part of what was now a universal Church. Mesopotamia and Arabia were not even part of the Roman Empire at all, but belonged to the Parthian Empire, where Latin was not spoken.

I think that in Lent especially these chapters are worth pondering on.

But so too is another matter. Traditionally that company present in the upper room (where the Last Supper had been held) when the inspiration of the Holy Spirit descended included the Virgin Mary. In many later paintings, over her head, as over those of the apostles, there also hovers a tongue of fire. The text indeed says: “… and upon my handmaidens will I pour out in those days my spirit and they shall prophecy.”

In the first days of the Church there seems then to have been no distinction between men and women in carrying out the service of the God. But this is to lead us into other, perhaps even more controversial areas that the use of Latin.

And yes: I do realise that that the quotations above are from the English translation of the New Testament published at Rheims in1582. I happen to prefer its literary quality to the modern versions, which makes me I suppose a kind of traditionalist.