Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Athos 7: The Greek Religion

Jesus, like Socrates, wrote nothing. His first language was Aramaic, in the Galilean dialect, as it was for his disciples.


But Greek is the first language of Christianity, not Aramaic. Greek in its 'koine' vernacular was spoken and understood widely through the eastern Mediterranean in Jesus' time, and he and his disciples may well have been familiar with it.

Still, it is unexpected to find the gospels are in Greek. The disciples are presented as working men, of uncertain literacy, not expected to be capable of writing fluent Greek: the Gospel and Revelation of John are especially remarkable. Greek was a common language, but Aramaic was widely spoken and written too. Why did the gospel writers choose not to record Jesus' teachings and life in his and their native language?

Maybe Jesus' message was reckoned too subversive to present in the language of the high priests and the scribes.


The choice of Greek permitted the fusion of Jewish messianic prophecy with Hellenic science and philosophy, to create the rich and vigorous hybrid of Christianity. Perhaps, too, it brought into the new religion the Greek love of debate; of meticulous analysis and discussion; of reasoned, eloquent argument: maybe, too, the Greek tendency to discord and fission.


Greek gave Christianity the advantage of perhaps the finest language for the creation and expression of precise, detailed thought. Classical Greek has complex grammar and syntax, permitting refined and subtle thinking, and a huge dictionary. Greek writers created an unequalled legacy of intellectual and artistic literature, an unparalleled tradition for those developing the new religion.

Greek is written using a detailed, complete alphabet. The reader knows how to say each word.


By contrast, the first and only language of Islam is Arabic. Compared to Greek, Arabic is simple and limited. For example, the Arabic verb has only two tenses, denoting incomplete and completed action: there is no formal future tense in Arabic. But the imperative is well developed.

Arabic is written from right to left, in normal use omitting short vowel signs; so pat, pet, pit, pot, put, would each be written pt.


Lucretius complains of the difficulty of presenting Greek thinking in Latin (1): translation into Arabic is more difficult still.

Many Greek texts were translated into Arabic in the Caliphate, but not into the Arabic of Mohammad. Hourani, in his History of the Arab Peoples, pages 75-76, describes how Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians translated Greek texts into Syriac (a language related to Aramaic) and then into Arabic. He tells how their Arab rulers knew little of 'the languages of thought', and 'the Arabic language had not yet acquired the capacity to express the concepts of science and philosophy in a precise way'.

In the second to fourth centuries after Mohammad translation was intensive, mostly by Christian scholars.

'An essential part of their work was to expand the resources of the Arabic language, its vocabulary and idiom, to make it an adequate medium for the whole intellectual life of the age.'


It isn't clear that they succeeded. Still today it is difficult to translate English texts precisely into Arabic. In 'Oman our students had to be fluent in English to read textbooks. Despite huge expenditure by Arab governments on education, there are few textbooks in Arabic - neither originals nor translations.

Arabic-English dictionaries are few.

Arabic is a male language: it suits the master, the didact and the demagogue.


Here is the Greek Lord's Prayer, the central text of Christianity, in English transliteration. Nouns are in bold, verbs are in italics; ē is long ee (eta), ō is long o (omega).

The Lord's Prayer has been translated into almost every language on earth. I can safely assume any reader is familiar with it.


Pater hēmōn ho en tois ouranois,

agiasthētō to onoma sou,

elthetōbasileia sou,

genēthētō to thelēma sou,

hōs en ouranōi kai epi gēs.

Ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion dos hēmin sēmeron;

kai aphes hēmin ta opheilēmata hēmon,

hos kai hēmeis aphēkamen tois opheiletais hēmōn;

kai mē eisenegkēs hēmas eis peirasmon,

alla rusai hēmas apo tou ponērou.


There are 57 words in total, of these 8 are verbs, and 12 are nouns.


Here is the nearest equivalent from the Qur'an, the 'Opening Surah', the Surah al Fatihah, again transliterated to English. Again nouns are in bold, with some difficulty, since Arabic may not always distinguish noun and adjective. Verbs are again in italic.

This is chanted millions of times everyday, in Arabic only. Translation is not approved. Many muslims can recite this with little or no comprehension. In Muscat Aziz, a muslim from Kerala, told us he could recite most of the Qur'an, but understood little of it. "O no, it is not for me to say what it means, the mullah does that."


Bismillahi ar rahmani ar rahimi

In the name of God the compasionate one, the merciful;


al hamdu lillahi rabbi al alamina

praise to God, lord of the worlds,


ar rahmani ar rahimi

the compassionate one, the merciful;


maliki yawmi ad dini

king of the day of judgement;


iyyaka na'budu wa iyyaka nasta'inu

you we worship and your aid we seek;


ihdina as sirata al mustaqima

show us the right way;


sirata al ladina an'amta 'alayhim 'gayr al maqdubi 'alayhim wala ad dalina

the way of grace, not the way of those of your anger, nor of those who stray.


In 41 words, 17 are nouns and 3 are verbs.


This is primarily a dedication, a commitment. The last line is usually taken to mean the Jews, who suffer God's anger, and Christians, who have strayed from the truth. Note that judeophobia is visceral in Islam.

The muslim message is simple: fear God and obey Mohammad - a terrible fate awaits those who do not.

The muslim aspires to be Abd-al-Lah: slave of the God.


The Christian message is truly a prayer. We are each the child of a heavenly father. We must love God, and serve him in the love of one another.


The christian prays to God the Father; the muslim prostrates before God the Führer.


And the original Christianity is in the Orthodox.


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(1) Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 1:136-140



Nec me animi fallit Graiorum obscura reperta

difficile inlustrare Latinibus versibus esse,

multa novis verbis praesertim cum sit agendum

propter egestatem linguae et rerum novitatem;


I know how hard it is, in Latin verse, to tell the deep discoveries of the Greeks,

Chiefly because our narrow speech must find the new terms needed to explain their originalities.