Sacred Languages: LATIN, GREEK, AND HEBREW
The Church regards three, and only three, languages as "sacred." These, as referred to several times in Sacred Scripture (Luke 23:38, John
19:20, Apocalypse 9:11), are Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. As history clearly shows, Providence consecrated these three languages at different periods to
divine purposes. Each of these languages was, in some form, specially dedicated to religious purposes in contrast to the vernacular.
It is a common misconception that the Jews of Christ's time spoke Hebrew. They did not. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian
captivity in 538 B.C., they were speaking a form of Syriac, sometimes called Aramaic, as their vernacular. Hebrew had become a sacred
language, not a vernacular, reserved for religious services and the teaching of the rabbis, much as Latin came to be used in the Roman
Catholic Church. (Hebrew is related to Syriac in somewhat the same way as French to Italian. They have a common ancestor, but the speaker of
one would not easily understand the other.)
The question sometimes arises: what language did Christ speak? It seems most reasonable to think that He spoke Syriac as a vernacular,
but used the sacred language Hebrew in the synagogues where He taught among the rabbis. Again, at the Passover it is most reasonable to think
that he used Hebrew for the Seder, which was a sacred service for the Jews.
What language did Christ speak before Pontius Pilate (and even with the Roman centurion earlier)? This is a more difficult question. It is
unlikely that Pilate, a Roman official, would have condescended to speak the language of a subject people for official business. The Gospels do not
mention the presence of translators, though this fact might have been omitted as a detail of insignificance, so it would have been possible for the two to
have compromised on Greek, which was commonly used in the Eastern Empire, even for official purposes, as a kind of lingua franca.
However, there is no reason to believe that the two could not have used Latin. There would be some justification for this assumption. It
is known that the Roman emperor Tiberius (r. A.D. 14-37) was passionate about the Latin language, and defendants could be forced to address the courts in
Latin. The emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) "not only struck from the list of jurors a man of high birth, a leading citizen of the province of Greece,
because he did not know Latin, but even deprived him of the rights of citizenship, and he would not allow anyone to render at law a defense of his
life except in his own words, as well as he could, without the help of a lawyer" (Suetonius, Divus Claudius, XVI.2). Even Cleopatra (51-30 B.C)
studied Latin in order to negotiate with Marc Anthony (ca. 83-30 B.C), although the two could easily have used Greek.
Moreover, Pilate was known, both in the Sacred Scripture and in the secular historians, to have laid the heavy hand of Rome upon Jewish
insurrectionists. Pilate may, therefore, have been disposed to enforce the language of Rome upon his administration. Christ, from His human nature,
would certainly have been exposed to at least some Latin, even in the eastern empire. There is a sense, when one reads the Latin Bible, that in the
Gospels the Latin quotations of the colloquy between Christ and Pilate could be the original, which were only afterward translated into Greek when written
We learn from Epistle XII of the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca to St. Paul, one of fourteen letters between the two, that St. Paul,
during his captivity in Rome, wrote in Latin, and good Latin at that. St. Paul's Latin ad a cadence intrinsic to the language, "the organ tone of
Another misconception is that the Church, even in Rome and Italy, used a Greek vernacular exclusively for the first two or three
centuries, then changed to a vernacular Latin. Until recently, this had been the common scholarly opinion.
More recent evidence, however, in the form of a Latin inscription of ca. A.D. 79, discovered in 1862 at Pompeii, indicates already the
liturgical use of Latin. We known from the Acts of the Apostles (28:13) that St. Paul visited the nearby city of Puteoli for seven days, where
there already existed a community of Latin-speaking Christians. Of the 1800 inscriptions cataloged in that city, all appear in Latin, none in
On the basis of a scholarly analysis of this evidence, it has been demonstrated that the language of the Christian ritual at Rome, from the
groundline of its existence, was Latin and not Greek.... The language that mattered in the Apostolic Age was not Greek, but Latin" (Paul
Berry, The Christian Inscription at Pompeii [Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, c. 1995]).
It is regarded as highly unlikely that a Roman would participate in a Christian ritual celebrated in Greek. Even the Greek of the Kyrie
Eleison was not officially added to the liturgy until the close of the fifth century. The chanting of the Latin hymn Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
can be traced to a time before the papacy of Pope Clement (91-100), and a Christianized Latin, harkening back to a formal, classical Latin, was
already beginning to be reserved for religious and sacred use.