BMCR 2023.02.41

The slow fall of Babel: languages and identities in Late Antique Christianity

, The slow fall of Babel: languages and identities in Late Antique Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 400. ISBN 9781108980821



The study of Late Antique Christianity has undergone much growth through the incorporation of sources written in languages other than Greek and Latin. Recent anthologies have sought to make available texts composed in languages such as Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Syriac.[1] The diverse linguistic settings of different regions have also received much attention, be it the diglossia exhibited in Egyptian Christian literature, language contact between Greek and Syriac in Northern Mesopotamia, or the development of literacy in the Caucasus.[2] With this broader background, Yulia Minets’s timely monograph The Slow Fall of Babel investigates the ways in which Late Antique Christian sources reflect on and conceptualize language. The book takes as its source material Christian texts written roughly between 200 and 600 ce in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and occasionally Coptic, focusing on Christian interpretations of “language-related phenomena described in the biblical narrative” (p. 7) as well as “metalinguistic comments in early Christian narratives” (p. 8). On the whole, Minets sets out to explore how Christian elites conceptualized language, how this related to their idea of self and other, and to what extent language played a role in their religious identities.

The concise introduction and first two chapters provide the necessary background for the detailed studies found in the final four chapters. The introduction situates the book in the scholarly discussion of language and defines important, but debated, concepts such as religious identity. Chapter 1 offers a comprehensive overview of the socio-linguistic situation of the Late Antique World, covering the Roman Empire, Near East, Egypt, North Africa, Europe, and the Balkans. The survey is united by the somewhat elusive concept of the alloglottic Other, recognized as in ancient sources as “instances when ancient writers discussed languages that they perceived as foreign and when their understanding was not much different from what we would designate by the same concept today” (p. 6). Aside from languages with extensive written heritages, one encounters here less attested languages such as Phrygian or Galatian in Anatolia, the diversity of Coptic dialects, and the influence of Iberian, Celtiberian, Lusitanian, and Aquitanian on the Latin of the Iberian Peninsula. Minets emphasizes that this linguistic diversity initially did not map onto confessional identity, even if later it played a role in inter-confessional polemics. She rather seeks to demonstrate “that confessional boundaries and language usages in Late Antiquity produced an astonishing mosaic of dynamic combinations, partial overlaps, shifting boundaries, and local peculiarities that extended way beyond any one-size-fits-all definition” (p. 52). This diverse socio-linguistic setting meant that Christian elites must have regularly come into contact with the alloglottic Other, even if this did not always lead to reflection on language.

The second chapter turns to reflections on language found in Greco-Roman and Jewish sources. The survey of Greco-Roman literature covers Homer, tragedians and comedians, Herodotus and Thucydides, philosophers, Hellenism, and the rise of a bilingual empire. The overview of Jewish literature begins with sources from the Second Temple Period and moves to Philo and the Rabbis, with an emphasis on the discussion surrounding the language of revelation. This chapter does not aim to offer novel interpretations of the sources but rather to provide an orientation for readers, and as such will be ideal for those unfamiliar with these bodies of literature looking for comparative materials. But Minets also uses these sources to examine where and why reflection on the alloglottic Other surfaces. This does not occur in situations where the presence of linguistic differences can be ignored but rather when the alloglottic Other is “important enough to become a subject of thought, fears, and admiration” (p. 98).

The third and fourth chapters focus on biblical passages that served as points of departure for reflection on language. The story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11:1–9 forms the focus of Chapter 3. Minets begins with the ambiguities of the biblical text. The Table of Nations in Genesis 10 implies linguistic diversity before Babel, especially Genesis 10:5 which speaks of Japheth’s descendants being divided according to language. The start of the Tower of Babel narrative, on the other hand, seems to imply that humankind had a single language (Genesis 11:1). This exegetical crux was addressed by many Jewish and Christian interpreters and translators, who developed different solutions to the question of the primordial language, whether Hebrew or otherwise: (1) the cessation of Hebrew between the Tower of Babel and Abraham; (2) the preservation of Hebrew despite Babel; and (3) alternatives to Hebrew as the primordial language. Further, from the fourth century onward, Babel was seen as the starting point of linguistic diversity which led to reflections on the history of other languages and their interrelationships. Minets concludes the chapter by examining discussions of the language of God – whether Hebrew as asserted by many Jewish authors or no human language at all as found in many Christian authors – and then demonstrating that Babel was seen both in a negative and, perhaps more surprisingly, positive light.

Chapter 4 takes as its starting point the gift of speaking in tongues from the narrative of Pentecost in Acts 2:1–13. Minets begins with an analysis of the interpretive possibilities of the biblical passage itself, including references to “speaking in tongues” in Acts 10:46; 19:6 as well as 1 Corinthians 12–14. The different meanings of “speaking in tongues” in these passages – speaking in foreign languages in Acts, ecstatic speech in 1 Corinthians – posed an exegetical problem for early Christian exegetes. Second- and third-century sources seem to associate it with ecstatic speech, while a minority tradition – which endured throughout early Christianity – understood it to be the gift of speaking in the languages of angels. Starting in the fourth century, the interpretation of “speaking in tongues” as speaking in foreign languages started to take hold, with Eusebius of Caesarea’s works playing a major role even if he himself did not specifically assert this. In contrast to the Babel story that challenged Christians think about the origins of linguistic diversity, the Pentecost episode resulted in a variety of interpretations seeking to address the problem of a theoretically unified tradition without a standard language.

The fifth chapter turns from the biblical narratives to the lived realities of Late Antiquity Christianity as represented in discourse regarding the alloglottic Other. The New Testament provided no clear guidelines on the use of language. While some passages seem to dismantle such differences (e.g., Colossians 3:11), others can be read as supporting “cultural protectionism, isolationism, and elitism” (Matthew 7:6; p. 222). Second- and third-century writings often dismantle the elevated status of the Greek language, showing an openness to other traditions of thought. This trend continued into the fourth and fifth centuries, when many Christian authors from elite backgrounds asserted unity in the faith despite the diversity of languages. But signs of an implicit hierarchy of languages can still be found in these sources. John Chrysostom, for example, could both assert the harmony of the urban Greek speakers of Antioch and the Aramaic speakers from the surrounding villages, but in the same breath characterize Greek speakers as those who could “teach by words,” while Aramaic speakers were those “engaged in ‘the teaching of deeds’” (p. 234). Minets also examines attempts to legitimize the use of a particular language for theology, sometimes at the expense of others. While such legitimation was rarely necessary for Greek, it happened with some regularity for Latin: Ambrose of Milan insisted on the use of Latin in worship instead of Gothic, and Hilary of Poitiers was the first to argue for Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as the three sacred languages. Syriac writings show a particular sensitivity to linguistic difference, as exhibited in exegetical literature on episodes such as Joseph in Egypt. This sensitivity could be employed in situations of confessional difference when needed.

The sixth and final chapter examines remarks on language found in hagiographical sources. Hagiographers not only portrayed the multilingualism of some saints as a cause for wonder but also represented the lack of linguistic training of others as a sign of holiness in their rejection of worldly wisdom. On the one hand, the ability of Christians to speak in other languages had a quotidian character. The Bohairic Life of Pachomius, for example, simply reports how monks who did not know Greek would live with a Greek-speaking monk to acquire the language. But at least two Greek sources and numerous Syriac texts report on the gift of speaking in foreign tongues (xenolalia), including John of Ephesus’s account of Symeon of Beth Arsham who was said to have had the same God-given talent as the apostles and could learn any new language three days after arriving in the region. Hagiographical sources also portray saints as those able to withstand the fear or deceit brought by demons who could speak in multiple languages. The sixth chapter is followed by an extended conclusion that weaves together the diverse threads pursued in this monograph, a fifty-page bibliography, divided into scriptural, primary, and secondary sources, and a comprehensive index.

Rich in source material, this monograph presents a coherent narrative regarding early Christian linguistic reflection, providing necessary background information for those new to the subject, anchoring elite Christian discussions of the topic in biblical exegesis, and carefully commenting on the lived experience of linguistic diversity. Quite apart from its own ambitions, the book is a treasure trove of references to Christian reflections on language, including many sources that may not immediately come to mind. The analysis of source materials here will lend itself well to studies that seek to expand upon it, be it geographically to cover regions like the Caucasus[3] or linguistically to include the rise of Arabic as a Christian literary language before and after the rise of Islam.[4] To this end, The Slow Fall of Babel has already demonstrated the fascinating discourse surrounding language in Late Antique Christian sources and will provide a strong foundation for further work.



[1] See, for example, Bart D. Ehrman and Andrew S. Jacobs, eds., Christianity in Late Antiquity, 300–450 C.E.: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Mark DelCogliano et al., eds., The Cambridge Edition of Early Christian Writings, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017–); J. Edward Walters, ed., Eastern Christianity: A Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021); Michael Philip Penn et al., eds., Invitation to Syriac Christianity: An Anthology (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022).

[2] Jean-Luc Fournet, The Rise of Coptic: Egyptian versus Greek in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020); Aaron Michael Butts, Language Change in the Wake of Empire: Syriac in Its Greco-Roman Context, Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic 11 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016); Jost Gippert, “The Development of Literacy in the Caucasian Territories,” ERC Advanced Grant (Universität Hamburg, 2022–2027).

[3] Jean-Pierre Mahé, trans., L’Alphabet arménien dans l’histoire et dans la mémoire: Korioun, Vie de Machtots; Vardan Areveltsi, Panégyrique des Saints Traducteurs, Bibliothèque de l’Orient chrétien 5 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2018).

[4] Jack Tannous, “Arabic as Christian Language and Arabic as the Language of Christians,” in Medieval Encounters: Arabic-Speaking Christians and Islam, ed. Ayman S. Ibrahim, Gorgias Handbooks 55 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2022), 1–93.