Sacred languages


Τηε λαστ φες μοντης Ι ηαωε βεεν στθδυινγ Νες Τεσταμεντ Γρεεκ, ανδ…

Sorry, I wrote with the wrong keyboard there. As I was saying, the last few months I have been studying New Testament Greek at the Israel Bible College. It’s something I’m doing together with my wife just for fun, as a husband-and-wife project. I know we are nerdy like that.

But as I’m taking on a second biblical language (already knowing Hebrew) I am noticing a few interesting things that I wanted to share with you.

No, I’m not going to come with revolutionary new ideas and theologies based on the original languages. Maybe some other time when I’ve had time to build a wall chart with yarn. For now, the point I want to make is this:

A language loses its magic once you learn it.

Think about it. Any time you think of a language with special spiritual or magic abilities, it’s always a language you don’t speak. Latin enjoyed this status in Europe for centuries because of the Roman Church. That’s why all the magic spells in Harry Potter are in Latin. But the moment you go to Pompeii and see the Latin graffiti on the walls, you realize pretty quickly that there’s nothing holy or special about this language. It was just a way people spoke, and those people happened to be the ones that conquered a sizeable chunk of the world at a certain point in history.

This is where all the jokes come from about accidentally summoning a demon when you study Latin. Really, if that was true, you would accidentally summon a demon when studying any ancient or holy language, whether Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, Sanskrit, Welsh, Elvish, or Klingon. And a lot more people would study those languages.

But the thing you learn when studying a language like this is that it is, in fact, tadaa – a language. It is a means of communication meant to facilitate the transfer of information from one human brain to another. The writing system, no matter how cool and mysterious it looks, is a system meant to transfer information from the brain of a writer to a reader. Which, admittedly, is really fascinating when the writer is separated from the reader by thousands of years. Still, there’s nothing special or holy about it. It’s the meaning, the gospel, the spiritual truth of the Bible that is life-changing. Not the symbols or phonetic sounds.

I could go on about badly made Hebrew tattoos, or the ways some people talk about Sanskrit like “the holiest and oldest language in the world” or the way Muslims go on about the “perfect Arabic” of the Qur’an, but I think you get what I’m saying. Stop idolizing languages, symbols, and phonetic sounds. Pay more attention to the actual information they are conveying.

Learning any new language is an amazing but painstaking journey. For several years, you need to be self-disciplined and focused. You lose the magic quickly, and instead of admiring the secret symbolism of the ancient Greek you start hating, but admiring, the intricate case system, the many verbs tenses, and the different moods and voices that this language has the ability to express. You learn concepts like “liquid verbs” that are really giving me a liquid brain, but you also gain the amazing peek into this ancient society. You hear the actual words that Paul the Apostle spoke, not just a translation of them.

I wrote before that writing is a system meant to transfer information from the brain of a writer to a reader. Actually understanding the original language, even just partly, gives you a rare insight into the brain of the New Testament authors. This is what makes us humans. The ability to convey information through speech in real time, and through writing over distances and centuries.

So yes, maybe there is something special, holy, and even spiritual about language. But contrary to popular thought, it’s not limited to symbols and sounds in languages you don’t know. Your own language has the same amazing ability to convey information from one person to another, and from one generation to another. Thousands of years from now, people might start tattooing words in this ancient and mystic language, “English.” Maybe putting the letter L on their doors to stave off demons. Because L has a special mystic meaning. It’s the first letter in the word “Lord” and “Lamb of God.”

Just be careful when you study English. You might accidentally summon a demon.

This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog, March 29, 2022, and reposted with permission.