The language of paradise: Hebrew or syriac? Linguistic speculations and linguistic realities in late antiquity

Yonatan Moss*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Language plays a central role in the creation and paradise accounts of Gen. 1–3. God creates the world through a string of speech-acts. The narrative of the paradise account is propelled forward by a series of conversations between God, Adam, Eve, and the serpent. Adam's very first act is to give names to the animals (Gen. 2.19–20) and his first encounter with woman is verbal: he exclaims his satisfaction and names her “woman” (Gen. 2.23). Language is central to the paradise account, but the Bible does not make clear what particular language this was. Neither, for that matter, does the text specify what language was spoken before the Confusion of Tongues described in Gen. 11. Late antique commentators, both Christian and Jewish, consistently gave one of two answers to this question: according to some, the language spoken by Adam was Hebrew; according to others it was Aramaic, or Syriac. Unlike some of the early modern speculations on this question which tended to be ridiculously chauvinist, as for example, the opinion of the sixteenth-century linguist Johannes Goropius that the language of paradise was the Brabantic form of Dutch spoken in his city of Antwerp, the late antique opinions did not line up only according to religious divides. While the desire to assert cultural and ethnic superiority may be reasonably postulated as one kind of motivation for statements on the matter, the fact is that most Christian sources, including a minority opinion even among Syriac writers, assert Hebrew as the primordial language.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationParadise in Antiquity
Subtitle of host publicationJewish and Christian Views
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780511760648
ISBN (Print)9780521117869
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2010
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2010.


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