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Australian eJournal of Theology 6 (February 2006)

A Socio-Linguistic Approach to Religious Language


Ron Holt

Abstract: Studies of religious language tend to work with a rather static, simplistic view
of language as possessing one criterion of meaningfulness and one basic form (the
theistic world-view). A more linguistic approach suggests, however, that language is
much more complex, with ongoing questions of how meaning works, how language is
comprehended or learned, and so forth. Rather than investigating religious language
from a vaguely reified apex, we need to approach it from its on the ground base via
languages volatility. Some variables relating to the particularities and generalities of
religious language include three multiple variables (genre, language and religion) and
three binary variables (level, time and mode). Respectively, they point to important
distinctions between: authentic and distilled language; the historical nature of every
utterance and the interpretative nature of every understanding; the more analytical
meaning of the written text and the more participatory power of the oral word.
Key Words: religious language; socio-linguistics; language variation; linguistic modes;
genre; oral language; written language; temporality

he twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented, intellectual interest in language.


The discipline of linguistics, for example, rapidly outgrew its ancillary role of a tool
for field studies in anthropology and established itself as a burgeoning independent field
of study with numerous theoretical and applied focal points which in turn have attracted
the attention of social sciences such as psychology and sociology. Philosophy, too, was
characterised as having taken a linguistic turn during this period, particularly its British,
analytical variety1 and specifically religious language has increasingly come under
scrutiny by both theologians and students of other disciplines, such as literary criticism.2
Philosophers have tended to focus on the epistemological status and nature of
religious belief, rather than on religious language itself. That is, their attention has been
almost exclusively trained on the meaningfulness of religious language in general, logical
terms rather than on the linguistic characteristics themselves. Thus, philosophical
1

C. Wright and B. Hale (eds.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

See, e.g., I.T. Ramsey, Religious Language (London: SCM, 1957); F. Ferre, Language, Logic and God (New York:
Harper and Row, 1961); D.D. Evans, The Logic of Self-Involvement: A Philosophical Study of Everyday Language
with Special Reference to the Christian Use of Language about God the Creator (London: SCM, 1963); R.H. Ayers,
and W.T. Blackstone (eds.), Religious Language and Knowledge (Athens: University of Georgia, 1972); M.J.
Charlesworth (ed.), The Problem of Religious Language (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974); P. Donovan,
Religious Language (London: Sheldon Press, 1976); A.C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament
Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer and
Wittgenstein (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1980); T.W. Jennings , Beyond Theism: A Grammar of God-Language
(New York: OUP, 1985); W.P. Alston, Divine Nature and Human Language: Essays in Philosophical
Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); H. Tonkin and A.A. Keef (eds.), Language in Religion
(Lanham: University Press of America, 1989); D. Chidester, Word and Light: Seeing, Hearing, and Religious
Discourse (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); S.E. Porter (ed.), The Nature of Religious Language: A
Colloquium, Roehampton Institute London Papers 1 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).
2

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discussion - in the English speaking world at least has tended to confine religious
language to minimalist propositions like God exists or God loves us, or to summarise it
in functional terms as exclusively or fundamentally emotive, or moral, or convictional, and
so forth.3
Conversely, literary approaches to religious language have tended, with some
justification, to emphasize the limitations of rationalist-empirical epistemology and the
special semantic status and complexity of poetic truth in its various forms.4 Theological
approaches have most notably been concerned with language as integral to both the
humans self-understanding and Gods self-communication (as in Rahners theology of the
word,5 with the scriptural representation of Gods Word6 and with the nature of
linguistic symbols, metaphors and myths.)7
Within this general, developing interest in religious language two related
phenomena stand out: the tendency to view it as a relatively undifferentiated monolith
and the consequent, relative lack of interest in the particular linguistic features of the
many varieties of religious language -notwithstanding such ground-breaking studies as
the nature of speech acts and performatives in the Genesis account of the Creation by
Evans, Ebelings broad analysis of languages relevance for theology, or Mananzans
analysis of the characteristics of creedal language, or Crystals small-scale analysis of the
prosodic features of four modalities of spoken religious language; or even the more
philologically oriented description of scriptural, literary genres by scholars such as
Fohrer.8 The general situation, in short, has been aptly summarised by Prozesky as:
(Religious language) has been assumed to possess a uniformity by virtue of which its
total compass could be subjected to a single criterion of meaning.9 Thus, it is frequently
asserted, for example, that religious language is figurative, not literal, when clearly both
types are frequently encountered: Where were you when I founded the earth? (Job 38:4)

A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (London: Gollancz, 1946); R.B. Braithwaite, An Empiricists View of the
Nature of Religious Belief (Cambridge: CUP, 1955); W. Zuurdeeg, An Analytical Philosophy of Religion (New
York: Abingdon, 1958); B.L. Clarke, Reason and Revelation: A Linguistic Distinction, in R.H. Ayers and W.T.
Blackstone (eds.), Religious Language and Knowledge (Athens: University of Georgia, 1972), 44-60.
3

C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. W. Hooper (London: Bles, 1967); T. Fawcett, The Symbolical Language of
Religion (London: SCM, 1970); D. Patterson, The Affirming Flame. Religion, Language, Literature (Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); N. Fry, The Double Vision. Language and Meaning in Religion
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991); J.S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (New
York: State University of New York, 1998).
4

R.L.Masson, Language, Thinking and God in Karl Rahners Theology of the Word: A Critical Evaluation of
Rahners Perspective on the Problem of Religious Language (PhD dissertion, Fordham University, 1978).
5

N. Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: CUP,
1995).
6

P. Tillich, The Meaning of Symbol, in F. Forrester Church (ed.), The Essential Tillich: An Anthology of the
Writings of Paul Tillich (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 41-43; J. Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate (London:
SCM, 1993); P. Ricoeur, A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, ed. M.J.Valdes (New York:
Harvester, 1991); S. McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia:
Fortress, 1982); J.M. Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); J.
Sloek, Devotional Language, trans. H.Mossin (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1996).
7

D.D.Evans, The Logic of Self-Involvement: A Philosophical Study of Everyday Language with Special Reference to
the Christian Use of Language about God the Creator (London: SCM, 1963); G. Ebeling, Introduction to a
Theological Theory of Language, trans. R.A.Wilson (London: Collins, 1973); M.J. Mananzan, The Language
Game of Confessing Ones Belief: A Wittgensteinian-Austinian Approach to the Linguistic Analysis of Creedal
Statements (Tbingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1974); D. Crystal, Nonsegmental Phonology in Religious
Modalities, in W.J. Samarin (ed.), Language in Religious Practice (Rowley: Newbury House, 1976), 17-25; G.
Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament, trans. D.Green (London: SPCK, 1974).
8

M.H. Prozesky, Context and Variety in Religious Language, Scottish Journal of Theology 29 (1976): 204.

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no less than Saul... applied for letters to the synagogues at Damascus authorising him to
arrest any followers of the new way (Acts 9: 1-2).

A Sociolinguistic Perspective
This essentialist or categorical approach to religious language parallels to some extent the
situation within linguistics itself from roughly the 1950s to the 1970s. Chomskys
justified attack on the Behaviourist psychological theory of language learning and his own
theory of linguistic competence10 as an independent abstract entity remote from
linguistic performance11 resulted in an exclusive focus on the grammatical operations
involved in generating sentences, in the hope of discovering the system represented in
the
brain.12
The
neglecting,
in
the
Chomskian
distinction
between
competence/performance (or knowledge/use), of the aspect of speakers actual use of
their linguistic knowledge in the real world13 led increasingly to a re-emphasis on the
natural variability of actual language use, associated with the rise of the discipline of
sociolinguistics.14 As one commentator noted: it is not language but a particular language
which is acquired by the child,15 so that Chomskys project of the study of potential
performance of an idealised speaker-hearer,16 of mapping the native speakers ideal
knowledge, increasingly appeared, at least to some linguists, to be overly biological and
trite, akin perhaps to Lennerbergs analogy of language with the ability of human beings to
walk upright.17
The present writer would not completely share such a negative view of Chomskys
theory, particularly since one aspect, his innateness hypothesis of first language
acquisition, is of special relevance for theology; however, just as the variationist
perspective on language generally has been of major significance in the development of
linguistics (especially discourse analysis), since the 1970s, so too it can usefully illuminate
discussions of religious language.
At the broadest level, sociolinguistics views language as a dynamic, culturalbehavioural, symbolical system comprising two opposing or competing forces: centrifugal
and centripetal (to borrow an analogy from physics). The former represents the
peripheral pressure for language variation and individuation; the latter the centralising
pressure for standardisation or homogenisation.18 Sociolinguistics is thus largely
concerned with the identification of the variables that promote either force, the mapping
N. Chomsky, Review of Skinners Verbal Behaviour, Language 35 (1959): 26-58; N. Chomsky, Formal
Properties of Grammars, in R.Luce et al. (eds.), Handbook of Mathematical Psychology, vol. 2 (New York: Wiley,
1963).
10

B.L. Derwing, Transformational Grammar as a Theory of Language Acquisition: A Study in the Empirical,
Conceptual and Methodological Foundations of Contemporary Theory (Cambridge: CUP, 1973), 285.
11

12

Chomsky, Formal Properties of Grammars, 326.

13

J. Greene, Psycholinguistics. Chomsky and Psychology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 196.

D. Hymes, On Communicative Competence, in J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (eds.), Sociolinguistics


(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972); N. Coupland, and A. Jaworski (eds.) Sociolinguistics: A Reader and
Coursebook (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1997).
14

15

T. Luckmann, The Sociology of Language (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), 30.

N. Chomsky, Language and Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 3.
E.H. Lenneberg, Biological Foundations of Language (New York: Wiley, 1967); I. Robinson, The New
Grammarians Funeral: A Critique of Noam Chomskys Linguistics (Cambridge: CUP, 1975).
16
17

J. Milroy, and L. Milroy, Authority in Language: Investigating Language Prescription and Standardisation
(London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1985); R. Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1992); R.F. Holt, The Discourse Ethics of Sports Print Journalism, Culture, Sport, Society 3.3(2000):
88-103.
18

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of these onto the language itself and the general explanation of such phenomena. Thus, for
example, major variables promoting variation in language would be: nation, region
(dialect), socio-economic status (sociolect), ethnicity (ethnolect), gender (gendolect), time,
person (idiolect), situation/context and function; major standardisation variables would
be: urbanisation, technology, power, formality, government, organisation and systems,
institutions, education, occupation and mass media.19 The language effects of such
variables would be evident in any or all of a languages sub-systems: phonology
(pronunciation and intonation or graphological style), morphology (word structure),
syntax (sentence grammar), semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (strategic aspects of
language use, ways of doing things with language).20

Language Variation
This variable nature of language can often be quite invisible, even to sophisticated
language-users, including, as we have seen, interrogators of religious language. The
following is an attempt to briefly outline some major, background variables that would
clearly affect religious language, with a view to underlining the problematic nature of
approaches which view it in simple propositional terms.
An initial distinction that can easily be overlooked is that of religion itself, in two
respects. First, since some religions and their variants (e.g. Hinayana Buddhism or
Taoism) may operate without a God-concept, it could be appropriate to distinguish
between God-language and the more general term: religious language.21 Secondly,
different religions, and different traditions within each of them, may well conceive of
language itself quite differently and may even have quite developed views about the
nature of language. The Hindu and especially the Buddhist traditions, for example,
developed sophisticated, sceptical theories of language22 and within the Catholic tradition
of Christianity the legacies, again, of sophisticated theories of meaning, such as those of
Augustine and Aquinas, exert a background influence on theological discussions, and
would clearly mark it off from, say, fundamentalist Christian notions of language.23
Second, an important distinction is that between the linguistic and metalinguistic
levels of language - what might usefully be called primary and secondary religious
language, respectively. The former may be thought of as language in use, in the
experiential world or Lebenswelt (life-world, to use Husserls term) of the individual. The
latter may be characterised as language about such existential language. Thus, the
language of worship or scripture would exemplify the category linguistic or primary and
the language of the present paper would exemplify the term metalinguistic. This
secondary level has further been usefully differentiated by Hall into second- and thirdorder kinds of religious language,24 the former referring to the language of biblical
19

T.A. van Dijk, (ed.), Discourse as Social Interaction (London: Sage, 1997).

20

J.L. Mey, Pragmatics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

21

Jennings , Beyond Theism, 142.

K. Brown (ed.), The Essential Teachings of Hinduism (London: Rider, 1988); P. Harvey, An Introduction to
Buddhism: Teaching, History and Practices (Cambridge: CUP, 1990); S. Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Language (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
23 M.L. Colish, The Mirror of Language: A Study in the Medieval Theory of Knowledge (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); J. Barensten, The Validity of Human Language: A Vehicle for Divine
Truth, Grace Theological Journal 9. 1 (1988): 21-43; B. Stock, Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-knowledge
and the Ethics of Interpretation (Cambridge: Belknap, 1996).
22

R.W. Hall, The Meaning and Justification of Religious Propositions, in H. Tonkin and A.A. Keef
(eds.), Language in Religion (Lanham: University Press of America, 1989), 17.
24

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theology and the latter to systematic theology, including philosophy of religion.


Charlesworth also suggested a division of secondary religious language into a second and
third level: theology, defined as theorizing about religious activities, and natural or
philosophical theology which concerns itself with the presuppositions made by the
religious believer in her/his first-level religious language.25 Charlesworths latter category
would include, too, language itself as an object of examination, something that has become
particularly pertinent since around 1900 when general scepticism about language has
often developed into radical pessimism and, more recently, postmodernist nihilism.26
Figure 1 below seeks to represent these distinctions visually.

The notion of level overlaps with another important variable, that of genre. The
secondary level of published theological language, for example, would share certain
features with academic discourse and, within that broad division, with certain genres of
academic writing - and would no doubt reveal some differences too. The primary level of
religious language would, of course, be far more differentiated; proposals for its most
basic categorisation include language to, from or about God;27 Ricoeurs different
linguistic modes of prophetic address, hymnic praise, projection of narrative worlds and
indirect communication of wisdom literature;28 and Prozeskys typology of worshipful
language, kerygma, doctrine, instruction, edification.29 Other broader classifications,
based on a more literary notion of genre, might include, for example: mythopoetic,
historical, fictional narrative, genealogical, lamenting, hymnic, legalistic, wisdom,
prophetic, poetic, apocalyptic, gospel, parabolic, epistolary, and so forth. To be truly
25

Charlesworth (ed.), The Problem of Religious Language, 3.

Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language; G. Steiner, Real Presences (London: Faber & Faber,
1991; Cupitt, The Long-Legged Fly: A Theology of Language and Desire (London: SCM, 1991).
26

A.C. Thiselton, Speech-Act Theory and the Claim that God Speaks: Nicholas Wolterstorffs Divine
Discourse, Scottish Journal of Theology 50.1 (1997): 98.
27

A.C. Thiselton, Religious Language, in A.E. McGrath (ed.), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian
Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 318.
28

29

Prozesky, Context and Variety in Religious Language, 208.

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representative of religious language in general, however, they would need to be extended


beyond the foundational texts to categories like: mystical language, homiletics, testimony,
organisational/institutional language, pastoral and mediated language (including
literature of both the literary and popular varieties, as well as journalism in its various
form group and interpersonal spiritual communication, both formal and informal). Such
genres are also likely, on closer examination, to reveal sub-genres, or further patterened
differences within themselves.
Fourth, the temporal aspect represents another important source of variation. The
most obvious distinction is that between synchronic and diachronic, that is, respectively,
between language at a particular time in history (the eleventh century, for example, or the
1920s or the year 2,000) and the tracing of language over a period of time (of any length
from, say, two generations to across two millennia). For example, the various genres
referred to above could be treated comparatively across time (diachronically) or
contemporaneously across place (synchronically).
For the Christian, the tension between past and present is particularly complex
because of the bi-directional dialectic between the present and the particular point in time
in the past when the Word as the divine self-expression has been uttered into the struggle
and groaning of the universal process, so to offer a new hope of reconciled existence,30
and between both these dimensions and the incalculable imminence of a fulfilling ending
of time as such. This dialectic has been the fundamental concern of the study of
hermeneutics, both biblical and other varieties,31 which views its role essentially as the
fusing of the two horizons of the past and the present,32 of exegesis (the meaning of a text
for its author) and interpretation (the texts present-day meaning).33
The hermeneutical perspective also overlaps with our fifth variable: context. Two
terms from literary studies, heteroglossia and intertextuality, are useful for exemplifying
this general concept and although, given their field of origin, they are used exclusively in
terms of written text, they could apply to oral texts as well. The former term was coined
in 1929 by Bakhtin, a Russian semiotician and literary theorist, to point to the polyvocal
nature of texts, to the dialogic quality of language, (its) ability...to juxtapose language
drawn from and invoking language environments of different kinds.34 He viewed all
human discourse as heteroglossic although he was particularly concerned with the
literary form of the novel whose language he characterised as: ...not...unitary, completely
finished off, indubitably adequate, but rather a living mix of varied and opposing
voices.35 As Eagleton has commented in this regard:
The sign was to be seen less as a fixed unit (like a signal) than as an active component
of speech, modified and transformed in meaning by the variable social tones, valuations
and connotations it condensed within itself in specific social conditions. Since such
valuations and connotations were constantly shifting, since the linguistic community
was in fact a heterogeneous society composed of many conflicting interests, the sign for
30

T. Kelly, An Expanding Theology: Faith in a World of Connections (Sydney: Dwyer, 1993), 32.

Thiselton, The Two Horizons; K. Mueller-Vollmer (ed.), The Hermeneutics Reader: Texts of the German
Tradition from the Enlightenment to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1985).
31

H.-G. Gadamer, The Historicity of Understanding, in Mueller-Vollmer (ed.), The Hermeneutics Reader, 269ff.
P.J. Achtemeier, An Introduction to the New Hermeneutic, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 13f;
Thiselton, The Two Horizons.
32
33

A. Georgakopoulou and D. Goutsos, Discourse Analysis: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University


Press, 1997), 159.
34

Cited in S. Prickett, Words and the Word: Language, Poetics and Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge: CUP,
1986), 210.
35

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Bakhtin was a less a neutral element in a given structure than a focus of struggle and
contention. It was not simply a matter of asking what the sign meant, but of
investigating its varied history, as conflicting social groups, classes, individuals and
discourses sought to appropriate it and imbue it with their own meanings...Words
were multi-accentual rather than frozen in meaning: they were always the words of
one particular human subject for another, and this practical context would shape and
shift their meaning.36

Without assenting fully to the conflict model of society inherent in the above quotation,
the point is well made that the word meanings contained in texts are interactive and
dynamic, that each word use is to some extent a recontextualisation, living, as it were, on
the boundary of its own context and another, alien context.37 An example of this notion of
interactivity would be, say, Chapters 24 and 25 of Matthews Gospel which, while
advancing the narrative of the situation prior to Jesus Passion, clearly alludes to a
number of problems besetting the immediate Christian community the author is
specifically addressing some 40 years later, including: widespread anxiety about the
imminence of the Second Coming and associated questions about the validity of the
Christian concept of Messiah; dispute and hostility concerning the demarcation of Judaism
and Christianity, especially from those among the Jews who subscribe to a new
fundamentalist approach associated with the rise of Rabbinic Judaism after 7O CE; general
political and social unrest and discord; an environment in which cranks and false teachers
of various types thrive and spread confusion; the frequent giving up of the Christian faith,
even by those in positions of leadership within the Christian community; general
unfaithfulness to the moral precepts of Jesus; hostility from outside the community,
especially towards Christian missionaries and hostility both within and without towards
non-Jewish Christians.
A closely related term, intertextuality, coined Kristeva,38 usefully represents the
idea that any text is a link in a chain of texts, reacting to, drawing in, and transforming
other texts,...necessarily shaped by socially available repertoires of genres.39 Thus, any
text is an intertext in a succession of texts already existing or yet to be written.40 The
connections between texts are various and may be marked, for example, by formal
features (such as the conventions of the sonnet form of poetry), by allusion (such as the
word-play in an advertising slogan like Worth its Wait, or the newspaper headline:
Comedy of Terrors), by direct citation (such as T.S.Eliots use in 1927 of an extract from a
sixteenth century sermon at the beginning of his poem The Journey of the Magi), and by
subversion (as in graffiti on advertising billboards or in William Goldings parody in his
novel Lord of the Flies (1954) of the nineteenth century adventure novel The Coral Island.
Such intertextuality may also be overt or conscious (as in James Joyces imitation of
various styles in Ulysses [1922]) or latent or unconscious (as in, say, Herman Melvilles
[1819-91] assimilation of styles ranging from Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John
Milton to the vernacular of contemporary merchant seamen).
Both terms, in short, are a reminder of the fact that the various text-types we daily
encounter (whether written or spoken or pictorial) are not independent but highly
T. Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 101f.
37 Bakhtin, cited in Prickett, Words and the Word, 213.
36

38

J. Kristeva, Word, Dialogue and Novel, in T. Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).

N. Fairclough and R. Wodak, Critical Discourse Analaysis, in T.A.van Dijk (ed.), Discourse as Social
Interaction: Discourse Studies, a Multidisciplinary Introduction, vol. 2 (London: Sage, 1997), 262.
39

R. Chapman, Intertextuality, in T.McArthur (ed.), The Oxford Companion to the English Language (Oxford:
OUP, 1992), 525.
40

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interactive. Genre reflects the fact, too, that we group such texts into types, thereby
bringing to our understandings of new texts our cumulative understandings of past texts
and genres.
In this regard, clearly, the length of the Judaeo-Christian tradition represents
something of a challenge, if we are not to smother it unduly with a purely contemporary
perspective. The original Greek for Bible (ta biblia - the books) is a useful reminder that
in the case of the Scriptures we are dealing less with a title than with a library, with
heterogeneity rather than a unified, single composition; this is further emphasized by the
frequent Hebrew designation of its 39 books simply as migra (the text or that which is
read) or as tanakh (an acronym for torah or Pentateuch, neviim or Prophets and ketuvim
or everything else).41
With the events of the Hebrew Bible spanning some two thousand years, from
c.1800 BCE (the age of the patriarchs) to 140 BCE (the Maccabean Wars), and its actual
formation spanning some nine hundred years (c.1000 - 100 BCE),42 many earlier materials
were rewritten into later texts, presumably to improve their intelligibility; thus,
Chronicles I and II, for example, contain amplified rewritings from Genesis, Samuel and
Kings, and Jeremiahs sermons are rewritings in the wake of the Exile.43 We know, too,
from excavations such as that uncovering the Ugaritic texts in Northern Syria in 1939 that
many inter-connections existed between the Hebrew texts and early Canaanite
(fourteenth century BCE), Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Phoenician and Aramaic texts.44
Although the contents of the New Testament were written over a relatively short
period of about 60 years and are less heterogeneous than the Old Testament, they are
inevitably entwined with the time and place of their composition. Letters, for example,
which comprise 21 of the New Testaments 27 books, were a common literary medium
used by Jewish and Graeco-Roman religious authors, philosophers and rulers. The Gospels
consciously used a form, to evangelion (the good news), that was also used for imperial
proclamations; they also (along with Acts) resonate with various forms of popular
Hellenistic biography and romance, such as: the life and miracles of a divinely endowed
person (aretology), the memoirs of a great teacher reported by a student or narratives
organised around the fulfilment of a prophecy or quest.45 They also, of course, interrelate
amongst themselves, the most likely order of composition being Mark, Matthew and Luke
via reconstructed Q (German Quelle - source) and John,46 with the term Gospel itself
initially being variously used as referring to God (Mk 1:14; Rom 1:1), the kingdom of
God (Lk 16:16), Jesus (Mk 1:1; Gal 1:7), salvation (Rom 1:16) or narrative (Lk 1:1), or
to a generic form (Mk 1:1; Phil 1:5) rather than a specific exemplar (usage prevalent by the
time of Iraeneus, second century).

R. Alter, Introduction to the Old Testament, in R. Alter & F. Kermode (eds.), The Literary Guide to the Bible
(London: Fontana, 1997), 12.
41

42

Donald Senior (ed.), The Catholic Study Bible (New York: OUP, 1990).

G.L. Bruns, Midrash and Allegory: The Beginnings of Scriptural Interpretation, in R. Alter & F. Kermode
(eds.), The Literary Guide to the Bible, 626.
43

J.C. Greenfield, The Hebrew Bible and Canaanite Literature, in R. Alter & F. Kermode (eds.), The Literary
Guide to the Bible, 549f.
44

H. Elsom, The New Testament and Greco-Roman Writing, in R. Alter & F. Kermode (eds.), The Literary
Guide to the Bible, 561-78; F. Kermode, Introduction to the New Testament, in R. Alter & F. Kermode
(eds.), The Literary Guide to the Bible, 375-86.
45

N. Perrin and D.C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction (San Diego: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1982).
46

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Gospel resonates, of course, with the Hebrew Bible (Isa 52:7, 61:1; cf. Lk 4:16-20)
and the New Testament generally understands the Old as a latent precursor of itself (e.g.,
cf. Mt 3:16-17 and Gen 22,28; Gal 4:22-31), so that the last five chapters of Mark alone
contain some 57 direct Old Testament quotations and no less than 160 allusions to it,
giving the original texts an open character and making the Bible like an expanding
telescope and Jesus the hermeneutical principle of the Old Law.47
Despite the interactive context of the various texts of both Testaments, it is also
worth remembering that, with the possible exception of the author of Revelation,48 that
the single/joint writers/editors of the various books did not suppose they were
candidates for entry into a fixed corpus. The closing of the respective canons - at the end of
the first century CE at the Council of Jamnia and towards the end of the fourth century,
associated with Athanasius list in 367 (although the Catholic Church definitively closed
only at the Council of Trent, 1546-63) - constituted a certain homogenising effect, so that
both Testaments came to be seen as a unified, single work, eternally fixed, unalterable,
and of such immeasurable interpretative potential that it remains, despite its unaltered
state, sufficient for all future times.49 The hermeneutical ramification of canonisation is
well illustrated by Barton who raises the question of whether, say, Ecclesiastes would be
understood in the same way if it had been discovered in identical form amongst, say, the
Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran?50 Thus, the act of canonising is comparable, say, to the
framing of a section of a large canvas, whereby the framed section becomes spotlighted or
focussed and its more fluid continuities with the surrounding landscape become
progressively dimmer - although flickers may even still occur, as with the discovery in
1886-7 at Akhmim, Egypt of a possible Gospel by Peter, or the publication in 1935 (added
to in 1987) of the so-called Egerton Gospel based on a papyrus fragment (Egerton 2), or,
from the Nag Hammadi Library, the finding of a possible Gospel by Thomas based on three
different copies of the original Greek text around 200-250 CE and a Coptic text (c. 350 CE)
of 114 sayings of Jesus.51
There were, of course, considerable pressures for canonisation. In the case of the
Jewish canon these included: the need to re-establish traditional religious values and
authority after the return from the Exile (and in Babylon itself, where a considerable
Jewish community remained and thrived), the decline of Hebrew as a spoken language,
war with Rome and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the subsequent decline of
cultic forms of worship, together with the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. In the case of the
Christian canon, factors included: the rapid, geographical spread of the new way; the rise
of Gnosticism and many other heresies; the centrality of sacred texts in the early
liturgies; the persecutions of Christians by Roman and other authorities; and the
astonishingly rapid adoption by Christians of the codex, or new, book-like format for
storing text - in preference to the scroll.52 More specific historical and theological reasons
why the early churches gradually reached consensus in this regard has, of course, been the
G.T. Montague, Understanding the Bible: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (New York: Paulist
Press, 1997), 23,41.
47

48

Kermode, Introduction to the New Testament, 378.

F. Kermode, The Canon, in R. Alter & F. Kermode (eds.), The Literary Guide to the Bible, 603.
J. Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984),
102.
49
50

G. Stanton, Other Early Christian Writings: Didache, Ignatius, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, in J. Barclay and J.
Sweet (eds.), Early Christian Thought in its Jewish Context (Cambridge: CUP, 1996).
51

Stanton, Other Early Christian Writings; A.N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel
(London: SCM, 1964), 16.
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project of the historical-critical tradition of biblical theology since the eighteenth century a project that has increasingly come to understand its role as the dauntingly integrative
one of reconciling the philological-exegetical, the historical-critical and the literary
approaches with ones own horizon or situatedness.53
This discussion of Scripture leads us to a further, useful variable of language: mode
or the medium in which the textual message is delivered. The dominance of the printed
text in the modern world easily blinds us to the equivalent dominance of the oral text in
the worlds that span the evolution of the Old and New Testaments. Like the foundational
texts of other great religious traditions, such as the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads (Antze
1992: 73), early Hebrew books were transmitted, elaborated and refined orally for many
generations before being written down (e.g. Eccl 12:9-10). Even after the committing of
oral text to written form became custom, renewed emphasis on the oral mode occurred in
the Jewish tradition from at least period of the Second Temple (third-second centuries
BCE) in the form of oral discussion and teaching, concerned mostly with legalistic aspects
of the written torah. The period 50 BCE to 200 CE saw a proliferation of such oral
teachings (called mishnah - repetition), based on the system of various schools of sages or
rabbis attracting a group of scholars who meticulously memorized the teachers
interpretations and, in turn, eventually transmitted them to their disciples. During the
second century in Israel numerous mishnah collections began to be committed to writing,
with one collection, by c.200 CE, (that of the rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi,) achieving recognition
as the authoritative compilation.54 Although there is still some dispute as to its precise
genre, the mishnah certainly emphasized legal codification arranged around six main
sedarim (orders): agriculture, appointed times, women, damages, holy things, purities,
and yet is considered essentially as a work of poetry...formulated to facilitate oral
repetition and memorization...through its severe adherence to a few stunningly simple
patterns of language.55 It became, in turn, the basis for further systematic study in both
Israel and Babylonia resulting in the third century in voluminous commentary in Aramaic
called thegemara (completion) in two versions: the Palestinian and even larger
Babylonian, which were further edited between the fourth and sixth centuries CE,
becoming popularly known, together with the mishnah, as the talmud
(teaching/instruction). Despite the comittal of this oral tradition (called generally
midrash - exposition/giving an account) to written form, it has continued until today to
be regarded as oral torah or torah she-beal peh (by memory.)56
The eventual texts of the New Testament, (together with other oral or written
accounts,) though written down much more quickly and based on dramatic, oral witness
of first- and second-hand accounts of the teachings and events surrounding the Messiahs
short presence, also appear to reveal continuity with the tradition of midrash, to judge by
the report of the first century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, that the practice of
spontaneous exegesis was the norm in early Christian worship.57 Christianity, however,
was less legalistic and also did not record oral commentary in such a meticulous fashion as
the Talmudic tradition, with authorship being considered personal rather than communal
S. Neill and T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 (Oxford: OUP, 1988); Montague,
Understanding the Bible.
53

R.J. Zwi Werblowsky and G. Wigoder (eds.), The Oxford Companion of the Jewish Religion (New York: OUP,
1997), 471.
54

55

J. Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), xi.

56

L. Fine, The Unwritten Torah, Parabola 17.3 (1992): 65.

57

H. Coward, Sacred Word and Sacred Texts: Scripture in World Religions (New York: Orbis, 1988), 166.

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- as is evident in the profusion of writings from the patristic period. Nevertheless, just as
much of the oral language of faith in any religious tradition will inevitably be ephemeral,
so much that was significant was recorded in writing and, indeed, may live on in liturgy,58
which raises a number of important modal distinctions, namely: between texts that are
recorded speech and texts that are written, and between language written to be spoken
and spoken to be written, and so on.
Thus, the Jewish idea of an oral torah, which may re-assert itself at any time with
great vigour (as was the case with the medieval kabbalah [tradition] and eighteenth
century, East European Hasidic movements), is relevant to Christianity. As Bruns has
pointed out, it also stood for a form of life...a basic hermeneutical principle...that the
understanding of a text (is not) simply a state of intellectual agreement...or conceptual
grasp.59 Rather, the sacred text was understood as binding in the sense that proper
dialogic involvement with its meaning should translate into worldly action and conduct;
that is, the major concern resided in the texts implicatory force, not just with its form
and meaning.
Ong, in his discussion of the psychodynamics of orality makes the further point
that the different modes of language are associated with a different consciousness:
Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he
views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer...I gather sound simultaneously from
every direction at once: I am at the centre of my auditory word, which envelops me...By
contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typically
visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart...The auditory ideal, by contrast is
harmony, a putting together...60

Mode would seem, in other words, to be associated with different functions; the oral may,
with its directness of mediation, have not only more implicatory or transformative force
but also more relational or personalising power, suggesting that along with the
progressive writing of religion there exists the concommitant, constant challenge of a
dialogic recovery of orality (particularly poignant, for example, in the case of homiletics
and non-liturgical, spiritual community-building). In fact, the relative merits of both
modes have been of considerable interest to theology recently, in relation to Derridas
denigration of both orality and the concept of subject61 and Pickstocks (1998)
deconstruction of the inventor of deconstruction in refuting his critique of Platos defence
of dialectic (orality) in his Phaedrus and in her argument for liturgy as the highest form of
language (...that which both expresses and performs shared values of what is
praiseworthy.)62
Diachronically, however, we can too easily assume that orality and literacy are
invariant. In his study of St. Augustines theory of language and reading, Stock, for
example, points out that in the fourth century books were normally read aloud because of
the un-punctuated format of scrolls and codices: Visual reading did not make serious
progress until Latin was recognised to be a foreign language, word-separation became
common in manuscripts, and punctuation gave rise to... a grammar of legibility.63 (Fisher
H. Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church, 2 vols., trans. B.L. Woolf (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1993); F.
Forrester Church and T.J. Mulry, The Macmillan Book of Earliest Christian Prayers (New
York: Macmillan, 1988).
58

59

Bruns, Midrash and Allegory, 628f.

60

W.J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge, 1995), 72.

61

J. Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978).

62

C. Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 40.

63

Stock, Augustine the Reader, 5.

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has pointed out that in the English language punctuation only emerged fully in the
sixteenth century.)64
A final variable of particular relevance to religious language is language itself. The
multilingualism of the Bible, for example, is quite complex. Not only are there significant
differences in style in the Greek of the New Testament and in the Hebrew of the Old
Testament, three books in the latter were partly written in Aramaic which displaced
Hebrew as the vernacular of the Jews after the release from the Exile (sixth century BCE)
until after the Arab conquests of the seventh century CE, but survived as a theological
language (for example, in the thirteenth century, Spanish, classical kabbalistic text, the
zohar [splendour] and in contemporary prayer liturgy [opening of the domestic Passover
ceremony, kol nidre and kaddish]) and even as a living language (Assyrian) amongst
certain Christian communities in Northern Iraq, most of whom emigrated from
persecution to North and South America in the 1930s.65
From the third century BCE a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, plus an additional
twelve books called the apochrypha (hidden things), was progressively produced during
the next four centuries, mainly for the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora, particularly in
Egypt; it became known by a Latin name, the septuagint (seventy), based on the legend
that 72 Jewish scholars in Alexandria produced identical translations in 72 days. Alongside
it there also grew up the widespread, devotional use of Aramaic paraphrases of parts of
the torah called targumim (translations), originating from both Palestine and Babylonia
and continuing at least until the thirteenth century CE.66 By the fourth century, for
Christians, the Latin vulgate (made public), St Jeromes translation of both Testaments
from the original Hebrew and Greek, became the normative Western text.
Such multilingualism was, however, only foundational and textual. Apart from the
rapid growth of oral vernacular uses of religious language, there occurred the gradual
proliferation of cultic-liturgical languages, apart from Greek and Latin, such as: Syriac,
Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Old Slavonic67 and, since the Reformation, of vernacular Bible
translations (which, according to the Wycliffe Society, in 1996 numbered 2,086). The issue
of translation naturally involves notions of transculturation and raises the spectre of
linguistic distortion and specific translations, with massive cultural repercussions, and
may reveal fundamentally opposed philosophies of translation - such as, say, St. Jeromes
principle of absolute literalness in the Vulgate and Luthers notion of translating for a
specific, intended audience (anticipating Nidas dominant influence on modern Bible
translation).68 In fact, modern translation theory tends to view any concept of absolute
translatability as highly dubious, advocating instead that each translation needs to be
carefully evaluated as a concrete act of performance, in terms of: text-type, purpose and
principles.69
Connected, too, with the problem of translation is the question of the literary nature
of the Bible. If prose is largely restricted, in the Old Testament at least, to narrative interestingly, the opposite of most other ancient cultures - then might not much of its truth
64

J.H. Fisher, The Emergence of Standard English (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996), 12.

C. Rabin, Liturgy and Language in Judaism, in W.J. Samarin (ed.), Language in Religious Practice, 137; D.
Crystal (ed.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge: CUP, 1987), 316.
65

66

Rabin, Liturgy and Language in Judaism, 137.

T.M. McFadden and R.J. Litz, Liturgical Language, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion (Washington DC:
Corpus, 1979): 2038.
67

68

W. Wilss, The Science of Translation: Problems and Methods (Tbingen: Gunter Narr, 1982), 31.

69

M. Shuttleworth and M. Cowie, Dictionary of Translation Studies (Manchester: St. Jerome, 1997): 180.

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relate to multivalent, poetic-aesthetic language, rather than literal language? If so, how can
one preserve its literary force in the face of the press for denotative precision? As
Hammond comments: Does literal... mean the same thing as accurate or faithful?70
Such issues are often deeply felt by the faithful but little discussed. In the English speaking
world, for example, many Anglicans have argued for the restitution of earlier, more
literary translations, such as the Authorized Version71 and, more widely, many from other
faith traditions and language environments perceive modern liturgical and scriptural
language varieties, with their insistence on a bland, plain style, as problematically
condescending, semantically simplistic and constituting nothing less than a spiritually selfdestructive domestication of God.

Conclusion
This brief outline of a variationist perspective simply makes the general point that
religious language is complex and dynamic in terms of function, style, historical context,
interrelation with other texts, mode and language vehicle; it is therefore naive to consider
it in terms of there being one criterion of meaningfulness and one basic language... into
which everything... must be translated.72 Rather, it has been suggested that a more
productive approach is that of investigating the actual instances and varieties of religious
language in terms of their actual linguistic characteristics and of broadly modelling
language as a kind of constellation of discourse held in balance by two opposing forces: a
central attraction for uniformity and generality and a peripheral pull for individuation and
particularity.
Thus, discussion of the variable of level made the point that it is important to
distinguish between the authentic language of faith itself and the intellectualised language
about such faith language and discussion of genre pointed to the utility of carefully
considering the different stylistic patternings and purposes of religious language within
that broad division of level. The variable of time underlined the historical nature of
every utterance and the interpretative nature of every understanding; additionally, the
temporal dimension challenges modern notions of authorship and manuscript and the
process of canonisation entails decisive though ambiguous selection and interpretation
criteria, as well as the question of the status of non-canonical literature and tradition. As
Prozesky noted: (Religious language entails) not just the theistic world-view and
terminology of the first century... but also the accumulating heritage of both Church and
secular world down the centuries.73 The concepts of heteroglossia and intertextuality
also accentuated this aspect of language as continuum, as shared or interdependent
subjectivity.
Mode raised the tension between the more analytical meaning of written text and
the more participatory power of the oral word; it also suggests that language is at the very
heart of both faith and theology by virtue of its being the medium of both religious
experience and practical action, the medium of unaffecting, routinised thought and of
powerful, new insight.
G. Hammond, English Translators of the Bible, in R. Alter & F. Kermode (eds.), The Literary Guide to the
Bible, 648.
70

M.A. Doody, How Shall we Sing the Lords Song upon an Alien Soil? The New Episcopalian Liturgy, in L.
Michaels and C. Ricks (eds.), The State of the Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 108-24.
71

F. Waismann, Language Strata, in A. Flew (ed.), Logic and Language, 2nd series (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953),
29.
72

73

Prozesky, Context and Variety in Religious Language, 211.

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This latter characteristic, despite languages final inadequacy, that opaque


residuum of inexpressibility,74 is persuasively described by Ebeling as its most profound
mystery: ...through it we can reach the heart of another, even though we have no control
over how it is received... and that language that goes to the heart can even change the
heart.75
Author: Ron Holt holds a doctorate in socio-linguistics (Macquarie University) and is
currently Head of the School of Languages at Auckland University of Technology. He has
taught Humanities in senior secondary schools in both Australia and Europe and in
universities in Australasia, Europe, US and Asia. Recently he completed an MA (Theol)
through the Australian Catholic University.
Email: ron.holt@aut.ac.nz

74

Colish, The Mirror of Language, 34.

75

Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language, 123.

14