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The Original Languages

Linguists have a joke: “What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And what do you call a person who speaks one language? An American.”

Catholic apologetics need more apologists who have studied other languages. It is disconcerting to survey the field and realize just how few apologists there are who are proficient in other languages, particularly the biblical ones.

To be sure, some in the field—particularly cradle Catholics—have some knowledge of Latin. Others, such as those who come from particular ethnic groups, may know a modern language, such as Spanish. But there are not enough people with enough knowledge of enough languages. This leaves Catholic apologetics susceptible.

A Vulnerable Field

The vulnerability operates on multiple fronts. The first and most obvious is that if an apologist does not know the biblical languages, then he is going to have a problem interacting with apologists from other faiths who make claims about what Scripture says in the original.

Note that I did not say that he will have trouble interacting with non-Catholic apologists who know the biblical languages. The vulnerability is far greater than that: He will be unable to refute anyone who merely claims that the original language says something.

He also will be unable to speak with confidence when queried about how he knows claims that he wants to make about the original. How many times have you heard Catholic apologists mention the fact that in Aramaic, “Peter” is kepha and there is no word for “cousin” in that language? How many of the apologists making those claims have studied Aramaic? Not many.

They might be able to refer you to a source to document the claims, but they don’t know these things from their own study of the language and cannot speak on the issue with confidence or in greater depth.

A related but less obvious weakness is that the Catholic apologist who does not know the biblical languages will fail to gain insights that he otherwise would have if he were working with the original languages.

This vulnerability is not confined to the biblical languages. It also applies to the Church’s language, Latin. Without adequate knowledge of Latin, apologists cannot interact meaningfully with major ecclesiastical texts.

They cannot dig behind what they read in translation (which can be erroneous, particularly when ICEL is involved). They can’t tell you what the Holy See really said in a text from a pope or Vatican II or Trent or the liturgy. The current edition of Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum, the major doctrinal reference work constantly cited in Church documents, has never been translated.

Worse yet, apologists are cut off from major works of Church history in Latin. They also cannot read many of the writings of the Reformers in the original, meaning that much of useful apologetic material is locked away from them.

The problem also extends to modern languages such as German, French, and Italian. Comparatively little Catholic theology has been written in English, since English-speaking countries tend not to be Catholic. The major works of theology, many of which have never been translated, are all in European tongues.

To cite one example, the fifteen-volume Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, a major theological reference work, has never been translated. There is also an increasingly large number of important documents and notifications posted on the Vatican’s web site in Italian but unavailable in English.

Nor is the vulnerability confined to European languages. Since 9/11, there is a much greater need for Catholic apologists to be able to work with Arabic. If Catholic apologists are going to mount a convincing defense of Christianity versus Islam in the coming years, they will need to be able to interact meaningfully with what the Qur’an says in the original as well as numerous untranslated sources that Muslims consider authoritative or important.

In short, the field of Catholic apologetics is susceptible on many fronts due to a lack of people who have studied other languages.

There are apologists who have done so. But there are not enough of them, and any single person often can devote only a part of his time to working with other languages. As a result, the field as a whole does not have enough people with the skills needed to adequately meet the challenges it faces.

This needs to change.

The Fear Factor

The big fear that deters most people from studying another language is that it will be too hard. People can have language anxiety that is akin only to math anxiety in its intensity. Surely, language study is too hard to undertake.

Not true. In many countries it is the norm to speak more than one language. Language study is simply not that hard.

Even the thing that most frightens people—vocabulary memorization—is easier than they think. The reason is that languages tend to use certain words far more frequently than they use others.

In English, for example, the is the single most common word we have, accounting for more than 6 percent of all the words we use. Learn that one word and you can understand 6 percent of the English words you encounter. The second most common English word is the verb to be. Learn its forms and, together with the word the, you will understand a tenth of all the English words you encounter.

The same phenomenon happens in other languages. If you learn the high-frequency words, then you can minimize the amount of vocabulary you need to learn while maximizing the amount of what you understand.

Also, the vocabulary of one language helps with another. If you know any of the Romance languages (Latin, Italian, Spanish, French) or any of the Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic), many words you know from one language will appear in the vocabularies of its relatives, making them easier to learn.

Acquiring a vocabulary of the 1,500 most common words in a language will allow one to understand around 75 percent of the words one encounters in that language. In the languages that apologists most need—the biblical languages—you need far fewer to get to the same goal.

There are only 650 Aramaic words in the whole Bible. Learn those, and you will have learned the whole of biblical Aramaic’s vocabulary. (There are many more Aramaic words than this, of course, but these are the only ones you need for the Aramaic parts of the Bible.)

In biblical Hebrew, if you learn only the fifty most common words, you will know over half of the words in the Hebrew Old Testament. Learning the top 641 words (just two words a day for less than a year) will get you to 80 percent.

When we turn to New Testament Greek, the situation is the easiest of all. The vocabulary of the Greek New Testament is so concentrated that learning a mere 321 words will get you to the point of understanding 80 percent of the words in the New Testament. If you learned just one Greek word per day (which is not very difficult), you would be at 80 percent in less than a year.

Contemporary teachers of the biblical languages have realized that the frequency-based approach to vocabulary makes it much easier on the student, and they have begun incorporating the approach into their textbooks. There are also many support tools, like frequency-based vocabulary lists, that provide the same function.

Reading vs. Speaking

Another factor that can make learning an ancient language easier on the student is the fact that he needs to know only how to read the language. Reading and speaking a language are different skills, and the latter is much more difficult than the former. The first requires only that you be able to recognize and understand what someone has written; the latter requires that you be able to generate grammatically well-formed sentences on your own.

Textbook authors have not fully realized this fact yet, but it is starting to creep into the newer, cutting-edge textbooks. Fortunately, the deficiency can be compensated for by a teacher who can tell the students, “Don’t do the translate-into-Hebrew exercises. You’re here to learn to read the Bible, not to commit successful forgery.”

Looking Forward

Catholic apologetics needs people who are familiar with other languages, particularly the biblical and theological ones. Hopefully some readers will be sufficiently convinced of the need to take up the challenge and start studying.

Next month I’ll give you concrete recommendations about how to do this: what textbooks to use, how to find a teacher or a class, how to study on your own, and even what language resources are available if you aren’t yet ready to take the plunge. There’s a wealth of resources out there that can be useful, even if you haven’t yet decided to learn another language.

For now I’d like to offer a bit of encouragement: It’s not as hard as you think it is. Even very modest but consistent efforts at learning a language will bear fruit. If you learn just one word a day—something easily within the g.asp of anyone—you will accumulate a large amount of knowledge in a reasonable amount of time.

There are also personal benefits that go beyond those we have mentioned. There is real satisfaction in taking what was previously unintelligible and understanding what it means. This is particularly the case with the biblical languages. If you learn to speak one of these, then you are able to have direct encounters with the word of God, without being dependent on others to translate for you.

Many people got a glimmer of what this was like watching The Passion of the Christ, filmed as it was entirely in Aramaic and Latin. But imagine what it would be like not just hearing the original languages but being able to understand them as well.

Now consider that, though the movie was based on the gospel story, it was still a fictionalized account. It was not divinely inspired. But divinely inspired is precisely what Scripture is, and having a direct, unmediated encounter with the very words of God himself is the promise held by learning the biblical languages.

Who would not benefit spiritually by drawing closer to Christ by reading the very words he inspired?

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