Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.02

Tim Denecker, Ideas on Language in Early Latin Christianity: From Tertullian to Isidore of Seville. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, 142.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. xv, 497.  ISBN 9789004349872.  $172.00.  

Reviewed by Dorothea Weber, University of Salzburg (


Metalinguistics, which enjoys increasing interest among scholars, is a fascinating topic for the study of Christian Late Antiquity, since it combines approaches of ancient pagan philosophy with biblical narratives and the Christian idea of the Logos as the Second Divine Person. In his impressive monograph, Tim Denecker presents and interprets the pertinent primary texts with the aim of delineating a history of the linguistic ideas and concepts to be found in Latin Christian authors between the late second and the early seventh centuries. Given that in two of the three main parts, issues are dealt with which were not discussed in the pagan literature of that time, the restriction to Christian authors is justified. The corpus of the primary sources comprises virtually all texts from Tertullian to Isidore of Seville (on the anonymous Commentarius in Iob see below), but leaves aside “language manuals [...] composed by early Christian Latin authors” (4). This limitation seems necessary to avoid exceeding the scope of a monograph. Nevertheless, it might restrict the reader’s appreciation of contexts: Augustine’s De grammatica, for example, written at about the same time as his Cassiciacum dialogues, is excluded, though it contains perhaps more relevant information. On the other hand, Isidore’s fourfold periodization of Latin is discussed (229–232, Etymologiae 9,1,6sq.), although it does not pertain to specifically Christian issues.

Denecker organizes the source texts in three major subject areas: “Language History”, “Language Diversity”, and “Language Description”, thus managing to encompass the phenomena of language as discussed in (Christian) Late Antiquity in a clear and well-differentiated structure. Issues pertaining to the fictionality of contents and to paralinguistic forms of communication as well as to approaches developed in modern linguistics have been deliberately and justifiably left aside. Each of the three main parts starts with a short introduction, then the primary sources are presented and discussed mainly in chronological order. Interconnections between these texts are commented on from a wider perspective in the concluding chapters (“Summary”).

Following a general introduction (1–22) along the lines of a handbook article, where Denecker sets out his aims and methods and delineates the social framework, intellectual life, and atmosphere in which Latin literature in Late Antiquity was produced, part 1 (“Language History”, 23–118) deals with topics more or less closely related to the exegesis of the book of Genesis: In “The Origin and Nature of Language” (25–56) Denecker discusses hypotheses regarding the human capacity for language and speech according to different exegetical approaches to Gn 1 sq.; in “The Primeval Situation” (57–95) he presents and comments on concepts of the character of the primeval language and its diversification, which were stimulated by the biblical narration of Gn 3–10; whereas in “The Origin of Linguistic Diversity” (96–118) he analyses reflections on the linguistic consequences of God’s intervention at Babel. However, the distinction made between pessimistic and optimistic interpretations of the confusion of languages seems over-systematized. Whether or not an author places greater stress on the confusion as a punishment or as a means of improvement does not indicate positions on linguistic matters; rather, this is the consequence of an exegetical standpoint which may vary according to pastoral needs. In part 1 Denecker presents many fascinating observations on details, for example on the combination of exegesis and philosophy of language in Isidore, Etymologiae 12,1,1 (43), on two problematic passages in Filastrius and Ambrosiaster respectively about the character of the primeval language and its relation to Hebrew (64–74), and on various attempts to harmonize Gn 10 with the narration of Gn 11.

In part 2 (“Language Diversity”) Denecker first analyses interpretations and evaluations of the linguistic diversity which was brought about by the confusion of languages (121-149). As expected, in the majority of primary sources this was interpreted as punishment by God and as detracting from the ideal of humankind in unity, though in some texts, for example in Jerome’s Epistulae 60 and 106, the variety of languages was judged as indicating the Christianization of the whole oikumene. In the second chapter (“Appraisals and Uses of Multilingual Competence”, 150–196) the author deals mainly with statements and observations on learning foreign languages, on the theory and practice of translating (the bible), and on the multilingualism required for preaching, in administration, and in trade. The end of part 2 consists of a chapter on “Interpretations and Uses of ‘Unnatural’ Multilingual Competence” (197–219). Here a topic is dealt with which is once again grounded in a biblical narration: Just as the apostles were endowed with glossolalia at Pentecost, in hagiographical accounts saints are reported as having a miraculous command of several languages. In this chapter, of course, Jerome’s linguistic competence as vir trilinguis is commented on as are some statements on language learning made by Augustine in Confessiones.

Part 3 (“Language Description”) deals with observations on language as a whole and on linguistic phenomena, thus covering the broad area ranging from reflections on linguistic correctness to hypotheses on the permutation of letters. Following the structure of Late Antique grammatical treatises, the topics are arranged according to quantitative criteria in four chapters: “The Language Level” (223–258), “The Sentence Level” (259–286), “The Word Level” (287–339), and “The Letter Level” (340–387). Denecker gives the reader inter alia an excellent outline of discussions regarding regional and local differences occurring in one language (238–247) and of linguistic value judgments (247–256); he deals with the idea of etymology as a means of discovering the true nature of things (291–303), analyses what Jerome and Augustine said about the history of the Hebrew alphabet (357–360), and even mentions what Venantius Fortunatus and Gregory the Great thought about runes (361–363). In each of the four chapters, the Christian authors largely drew on what was taught at school from texts which were pagan or at least not specifically Christian. Thus, in part 3 the limitation of the analysis to Christian texts does not serve heuristic ends. “Overview and Conclusion” (388–395) summarizes the guiding questions, and the respective answers are summed up. The exhaustive bibliography, an index of ancient sources, and an index of subjects and names complete the book.

Denecker’s monograph is important and useful. There are but a few minor points of criticism which do not diminish the principal value of the book, for example: (a) The distinction between ‘central’ authors with ‘original’ or ‘innovative’ ideas, and ‘peripheral’ authors who draw on others (18) is unhistorical because it does not take into account that for us the position of an author often remains unclear since model texts may have been lost. (b) Augustine, De Genesi contra Manichaeos 2,5,6 is not about language as a consequence of the Fall (36), but about the mode of communication God chooses to address humanity: before the Fall this was direct and immediate, whereas after the Fall God communicated His will through the ministry of human beings. (c) In the preface to the Commentarius in epistulas Paulinas Gal. 3 “Jerome complains about the harmful effect of Hebrew on his mastery of Latin” (153). It should be noted that by stridor lectionis Hebraicae Jerome probably alludes to the sound of some Hebrew words which was regarded as cacophonous in Latin and thus avoided by the rhetorically skilled. Besides, this lament should be regarded as topical (“Bescheidenheitstopos”).1 (d) The title of Augustine’s Locutiones in Heptateuchum should be rendered as: “Characteristic expressions of the Bible, which occur according to peculiarities […] of the Hebrew and Greek language” instead of “[...] which appear to agree to the respective peculiarities […]” (268). (e) It remains unclear why in the case of some texts Denecker relies on older, uncritical editions, though better are available, e.g., Augustine’s Enarrationes in psalmos (partly edited in CSEL 93–95), Minucius Felix (Kytzler 1982), Prosper De vocatione gentium (CSEL 97) etc.; this seems to be a consequence of using the online Library of Latin Texts (cf. 4). If this is the case, we may be permitted to ask why scholars still produce critical editions at all. (f) Among the primary sources, an extensive Arian commentary on Job from the late 4th century is missing, probably because its text is not in LLT. This commentary contains the only Latin testimony to Job 42,17b (LXX) where the Syriac is attested as prior to the Hebrew. In the explanation, the anonymous author has Moses translate the Syriac text into Hebrew and expand it in order to teach the people in the Egyptian desert. This narration would have had its place in the passage dealing with the primeval language (60). Yet, it had no detectable effect on Christian literature in Latin Late Antiquity.

These minor criticisms aside, Denecker has published an excellent monograph which, thanks to its clear structure, its comprehensiveness, and accuracy will be fundamental to any further scholarly work on the concepts of language and linguistics in Late Antiquity.


1.   Cp. Neil Adkin, “Jerome’s Vow 'Never to Reread the Classics'”, Revue des études anciennes 101 (1999): 161–167 (166). ​

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