It is commonly said by scholars that Mass was said only in Greek, not Latin, in Rome in the early centuries. I am inclined to think that this will turn out to be one of those fads that dominate the academy for a while but pass away when the prestige of their initiators has faded from people’s minds.
Fr Uwe Michael Lang, in his useful book ‘The Voice of the Church at Prayer’ summarises the reasons for believing that Greek and not Latin was used for the Mass in those early days.
1. St Paul wrote to the Romans in Greek and the earliest known literary productions of the Roman Church (the Letter of Pope Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the writings of Justin Martyr) are in Greek. Therefore Greek was the ‘prevailing language’ of the Roman Church.
2. In the first two centuries there were several popes with Greek names, and Christian tomb inscriptions were written in Greek.
3. Victorinus, writing in Latin in Rome about 360, quotes some Greek words from a Eucharistic prayer.
4. ‘Ambrosiaster’, who was ‘perhaps a Roman presbyter’ writing about the same time says that some Latin-speakers prefer to chant in Greek, even without understanding the language, and that some Latins prefer the Creed in Greek.
And that seems to be it. It’s pretty weak. Suspiciously so, in fact. Are we not dealing here with an academic fad or fashion supported mainly by an aversion to Romanitas?
To look at the arguments in turn:-
1. All these examples show is that there were Greek speakers in the Church of Rome in the early centuries, but no one doubts that anyway. They hardly show that Greek was the prevailing language; but even if they did, they wouldn’t show that Latin was never used for the Mass. To come to the individual examples, if St Paul wrote to the Romans in Greek, that was perhaps because of the people sufficiently educated to be able to follow his epistle, a large number would have known that language, and because he wanted to quote throughout from the Greek version of the Old Testament, which had a much higher authority than any Latin version, if any Latin one existed. St Justin Martyr was from the Eastern half of the empire and only an immigrant in Rome, so it’s hardly surprising that he wrote in Greek. St Clement’s letter was written to the Corinthians, so naturally it was in Greek. 1st century Greeks were not, I think, in the habit of reading Latin. The origins of the Shepherd of Hermas are mysterious, but whoever wrote it, and whenever it was written, all it proves is that its author knew Greek!
2. Again, all this shows is that Greek was an influence in Rome in the early centuries. Some popes had Greek names because lots of people had Greek names, even in Rome. They didn’t necessarily all speak Greek as their first language, any more than a man with a Polish name born in England today to a second-generation Polish father and an English mother necessarily speaks Polish. Even if they did speak Greek as their first language, they would also have spoken Latin fluently, so what is proved about the liturgical language? Not all epitaphs are in Greek in the catacombs; the two languages are mixed together, sometimes in the same inscription.
3. As Fr Lang points out, Victorinus quotes the same part of the Eucharistic Prayer in Latin as well, elsewhere in the same work. In any case, it corresponds to part of a Syrian rite, not to any rite that is known to have been used in Rome. Yet the argument from Victorinus is often presented as the proof that Greek was the only liturgical language in Rome even into the second half of the 4th century!
4. The fact that Ambrosiaster talks of some people liking to sing Greek only shows that there was Greek in the Roman rite in his day. But so there is in our day: Kyrie eleison, hagios ho theos, hagios ischyros, hagios athanatos. Why might there not have been a Latin Mass with some Greek used, especially for those parts that were shared by the non-Roman rites?
No doubt plenty of Greek was spoken at dinner-parties in first century Rome. But the language of Rome was, well, Latin. It was the language of the ordinary people, but also that of the Senate. St Peter was not unaware Rome was to be the chief see of the empire of Christ on earth. Why would he and his successors have avoided the use of the Roman and imperial tongue; that language which, no less than Greek and Hebrew, had already proclaimed on the first Good Friday that God was reigning from the wood?