Is Ancient Greek a left brain language? And Ancient Hebrew a right brain one? Yes, says Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And, he says, it has a huge bearing on how the Bible has been understood.
Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. Like most early scripts, Ancient Hebrew was written like Hebrew and Arabic are today—without vowels and written from right to left. It is a right brain language, says Sacks, because to understand the meaning of any word, “you have to understand the total context in which it occurs.”
Sacks sees it this way:
Ancient Greek was the first language ever to be written from left to right, which activates the left brain. You don’t need to understand the total context here. You derive meaning word by word, in small components.
The emergence of the world’s first left brain language also coincided with the first instances of “left brain thinking”: the philosophy of Aristotle, Epicurus and other Greek scholars. This atomistic, evidence-based approach to interpreting the world eventually led to modern-day science.
Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. It was translated into Greek between 300 BC and 200 BC. It was the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the early Christians used to spread the religion.
Judaism and Christianity began as right brain religions, based on that Ancient Hebrew way of thinking. But early in its evolution, Christianity took a turn. The word of Christianity—the Old Testament—was translated into Greek (and the New Testament was written in Greek).
Sacks concludes that Christianity was a right brain religion translated into a left brain language. And the religion encompassed those two ways of thinking: the metaphysical and the analytical. For many centuries – until the Enlightenment—the prevailing view in Europe was that religion and science were part of the same thing.
I don’t know enough about all this to draw any conclusions. (Readers: please comment…) But I think it’s important to maintain some skepticism. For example, Sacks seems to be arguing that we can infer a certain mindset based on language—that, for example, the lack of vowels in written Ancient Hebrew means that its speakers were big picture rather than piecemeal thinkers. Here’s a good reminder that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions about what a language reveals about beliefs.
Aside from Jonathan Sacks, the pod has several other segments, most of them related either to Modern Hebrew or to the Bible:
Nina Porzucki profiles the Hebrew Language Academy, a charter school in Brooklyn, NY.
Matthew Bell takes a tour of Tel Aviv’s Occupy-like tent city, with its Hebrew (and occasional English and Arabic) signs and slogans.
Michael Erard, author of the forthcoming Babel No More, talks about 19th century Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, and his policing of erroneous translations of the Bible.
British philosopher A. C. Grayling and former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London Giles Fraser debate Grayling’s secular re-imagining of the Bible, The Good Book.
Finally, a conversation with ethnomusicologist Heather MacLachlan. She’s just written a book called Burma’s Pop Music Industry. Particularly popular in Burma are well-known Western songs that sound almost identical to the originals—except they are sung in Burmese with totally different lyrics.
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