So, there I was last Sunday, standing with the rest of the congregation, singing a Christmas carol and entering into the spirit of Christmas, when I got a rude shock.
The Mental Picture
“Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains . . .” As we sang, I visualized flocks of sheep asleep under the starry night sky; the watching shepherds by their little campfire, the sudden appearance of the angel of God with his announcement of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah; and, of course, the blast of light and music as the heavenly choirs burst onto the scene with their song of praise and promise.
But then my mental picture was shattered as we sang the chorus, echoing what the angels sang, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”
The Rude Shock
What?! What nonsense is this?! Latin? No way! Why on earth would angels sing in Latin, the language of the hated Roman oppressors? The language of the occupying soldiers!
No, those Christmas angel choirs didn’t sing in Latin. Of course not. They sang in Aramaic, the native language of the shepherds—the language the shepherds’ forefathers had learned to speak centuries before, during several generations of exile in Babylon—what is now Iraq.
Singing about the greatness of God to Judean shepherds in the Romans’ language would make as much sense as singing to North Americans in the Canelas’ language. I can hear it already, “Quê ha côjkwa kam mehcunea jirôpê, Pahpãm pejti ne cati na me harẽ!”
What a thrilling message!. . . .Not!
God Spoke in Hebrew
God, the Great Linguist, always communicates to people in their own language. In the beginning, he spoke directly to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets in Hebrew, the language of the people of Israel. That is why almost the entire Old Testament was written in Hebrew.
God Spoke in Aramaic
Later on, God spoke to the Jewish people in Palestine in Aramaic. Jesus told his parables in Aramaic, taught the disciples to pray in Aramaic, and for many years all Jesus’ teachings and stories about Jesus circulated as oral traditions in Aramaic.
God Spoke in Greek
Several generations before Jesus was born, scholars translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek since it was the most important, most used language in the Mediterranean region. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John eventually translated all Jesus stories and teachings from Aramaic into Greek and wrote them down. The rest of the books of the New Testament were also written in Greek. God, therefore, spoke Greek to millions more people.
God Spoke in Latin
Several centuries later, through the work of Jerome the Bible translator, God communicated in Latin to more millions of people in Europe and the Mediterranean region who spoke Latin as their first language.
By the way, the Bible was translated into ordinary Greek and Latin, the language spoken by people in their homes and on the streets, not into the high classic forms used by scholars and the elite.
All this flashed through my mind as I continued singing that Christmas carol. We sat down and during the announcements I scribbled some notes for this column.
Christianity is Unique Among World Religions
- Christianity is the only world religion that has no special “Holy Language.” Hebrew is not, nor is Greek. Neither Latin nor King James Version English is a “Holy Language.” To God, there are no unclean cultures or improper languages. In one sense, every language and every culture can, through Bible translation, become a “Holy Language.”
- Christianity is the only world religion in which almost none of the actual words of the Founder are preserved in the language in which He spoke them. Except for a half a dozen phrases such as Jesus’ words from the cross, every word from His mouth, we know only from the Greek translation.
- Christianity is the only world religion that spreads through the translation of the Bible into other languages. Right from the beginning, Christianity was a translated religion, the only world religion that is propagated almost totally outside the language of the Founder.
- Christianity is the only world religion that adopts the indigenous names for the High God, the God of the Bible: El, Yahweh, Theos, Deo, Deus, Gott, God, Pahpam, Tupan, Imana, Yala, Kalunga, and thousands more.
- Christianity is the only world religion that has no cultural or geographical centre. Christianity is as much at home in a cave in Cambodia as in a cathedral in Canberra.
- Christianity is the only world religion whose Holy Book is, by far, the most translated book in the world. It has been translated in whole or in part or is being translated right now in over five thousand languages. Bible translation projects are expected to be started in the remaining languages of the world by the year 2025.
- Christianity is also unique in that it flourishes where the Bible is read in the ordinary, mundane, everyday language of the people. On the other hand, Christianity is weak and anemic where believers are forced to read a Bible that is not in their own heart language. The very reason God revealed Himself in the Bible is so He would be known by people in every language and ethnic group. The Bible, therefore, exists to spread Christianity.
- By abandoning Jesus’ mother tongue, Christianity has liberated the Good News to every language. No language is incapable of fully holding the truth of God’s Word.
The Language of Christmas
So, is there a language of Christmas? Yes. Any language is the language of Christmas when the full meaning of Christmas is transmitted to the mind and heart of the hearer or reader. Those angels knew and sang in the language of their hearers.