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Shazam! The Power of Language in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
From “Abracadabra” to “Shazam,” and from “Say the magic word” to “Open Sesame,” humans have long believed that words and languages have a power far beyond and far deeper than their simple rational meanings.
The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia developed a mythological explanation for this belief. Humans, the ancient legend of the Tower of Babel story goes, once spoke a divine language, the language God gave to us. This divine language enabled the first humans to communicate with God himself. But one day mankind joined together and decided to build a tower to invade heaven and become divine. To confound their diabolical plot, God caused them to forget this sacred language and gave them thousands of different languages so they would never again unite and try to storm the gates of heaven. Until today, according to belief, humans have remained divided into squabbling and warring peoples.
However, the ancient peoples also believed that each of the languages spoken in the world was a shard of that shattered vessel of the original God-given language; each contained a small portion or fleeting glimpse of the original divine language. Furthermore, they believed, God had taken pity on poor humanity and sought to restore this long-lost sacred language: Over the centuries God revealed a series of teachings to humanity which humans gathered into three great collections—the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible, and the Koran. Each of these books not only tells stories and contains lofty teachings, but contains elements of the ancient language of God.
Over the centuries prophets revealed many teachings to the ancient Jews which were collected into the Jewish Bible, according to belief. In ancient Israel a caste of priests evolved who collected and monopolized the power of reading and writing and jealously kept this power. Even the kings of Israel had to turn to these possessors of the power of reading and writing to administer their kingdom, and the masses of people literally worshipped these great men who held this power. When the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. and Hebrew died out as a spoken language, a caste of rabbis emerged who again monopolized this sacred language and the quest to restore the long-lost language of God.
The early Christian churches likewise accepted the belief that each particular translation of Scriptures contained a deeper hidden message that only the highly trained and deeply religious priestly caste could access. The Catholics used Latin in their liturgy until recently, the Orthodox used Old Greek and Old Church Slavonic, and the Ethiopians remain loyal to Ge’ez, millennia after anyone still spoke these languages.
For Muslims, the Koran itself clearly indicates that God himself chose to make his last revelations to humankind in the sacred Arabic language. Sura 39:27-28 reads, “It is a Koran in Arabic, without any crookedness therein, in order that they may guard against Evil.” Only the sacred Arabic language was able to communicate the teachings of God without “crookedness”—distortions, errors, or confusion. For this reason Muslims pray only in Arabic even if they speak English or Chinese as their first language.
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Ronald J. Brown is an associate professor at Touro College and Unification Theological Seminary. This essay is based on the second of his three-part lecture series at the Mid-Manhattan Library.
“Sacred Languages in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” took place at the Mid-Manhattan Library on December 6.
His next lecture, “The Messiah from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to Modern Popular Culture,” will be held February 7 at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.
His first lecture, “Venerating the Books: Rituals and Magic Surrounding the Scriptures of the Three Abrahamic Faiths,” took place October 25.