Strange to think that a small Jewish sect could, within thirty years of the death of its founder in Jerusalem, spread at least as far as India to the East and Rome to the West. How could it happen?
There are sociological explanations: for instance, it was a religion which appealed particularly to the poor and to women, in a way that its contemporaries did not. There was the theological appeal, too, of monotheism, which resonated with the Platonic intellectual currents of the day better than the dominant polytheism of pagan folk religion, and pagans who admired the Jews now had the opportunity to join them.
At the same time, there was also bitter persecution, ridicule and humiliation, too. The well-off could have avoided all this by joining some other mystery cult, like that of Mithras or Osiris. Certainly, the fishermen, essentially small businessmen, who were leading the nascent Church could have afforded to avoid their martyrdoms by doing just this. Yet they did not.
The answer can be summed up in one word: Pentecost.
Ten days after the Ascension of the Lord, the Apostles were once again in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Then it was as though a wind was blowing, and they had a vision of tongues of flame lapping around their heads – the shape which would later define the bishops’ mitres, marking them as descendants of the Apostles. Inspired, in the literal sense of the word, these fishermen went out into the streets to preach the message of eternal life.
Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city. In those days, all the wealth was in the East. Europe was just a sideshow. Few Roman soldiers would want to go digging around the hovels of the savage Gauls and Britons when the riches of Judea, Persia and Babylon awaited. And so, in the streets, there were Jews and foreigners from all over the Middle East, meeting and greeting in a diverse babble. And as though reversing the story of Babel from which the word “babble” derives, the miracle of this story is that each of them heard and understood the message the Apostles were speaking as though it were in their own language.
This reveals a vital spiritual truth: God is not making the disciples speak Esperanto.
I don’t mean this literally, of course. The artificial language was not concocted by one Dr Zamenhof until the late 1800s. He was full of quite laudable Victorian optimism that all the world would one day communicate in a single tongue, and that this tongue could be “neutrally” contrived from a variety of other languages by a western European.
But no language is neutral. Language does not only express our thoughts, it guides and form them. A Chinese speaker thinks differently from a speaker of Farsi. Only one language means only one way of thought – which is why King Charlemagne said that to have another language is to have another soul.
To be sure, Esperanto is a simple and elegant language which can be learned quickly because it is all so neat and regular, constructed in one go by one person. In this respect, it is the linguistic equivalent of Paris, that city of Enlightenment precision, the winding alleys and juddering tenements of old swept away to make space for tidy, metric, Napoleonic blocks.
The languages which people actually speak, though, are more like London than Paris. The old irregularities, the funny little alleyways and dead ends, the buried rivers, all the quirks of the city’s layout are built around, but are all still there. Our languages are repositories of our peoples’ history, forming our thoughts in the pattern of our forebears. Shakespeare, Voltaire, Goethe, Cervantes, Homer, Rumi: none of these authors would be the same in Esperanto. The form of the language is inseparable from its content, and for this reason, there is no such thing as a “good translation.”
At Pentecost, God is not reversing Babel by forcing everybody into one language, one mindset, one way of seeing the world. Christianity should not be about making everybody exactly the same. At Pentecost, God speaks to every listener in the language that they understand.
So what is he saying?
In one sense, always the same thing, always the one word: but not a word which can be expressed in any human language. Rather, God’s Word is always the Word made flesh, written in DNA and bone and sinew, in the character of one man, Jesus Christ. The Word is always Christ, offering himself for the forgiveness of sin that we may share in his eternal, resurrected life.
And yet, this same Word is spoken differently to each of us, breathed in a myriad ways by the Holy Spirit which is God’s breath. Just look at the vast diversity of the saints: each of them reflects some different aspect of Christ, sings out his Word in a different tone. Their identity, and ours, is not erased by the Spirit, because his grace does not destroy our nature, but perfects it, in all its joyous multiplicity.
Only because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit could the little band of fishermen proclaim a message which would appeal to millions from every nation, right to the present day. And if we are willing to listen, who knows where the same Spirit might lead us?
Dio benu vin.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.