Roots of ‘Religion’

By Philologos

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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Brad Rappaport from Brooklyn writes:

“Recently, I read in my dictionary that the origin of the word ‘religion’ lies in the Latin word ligare, to bind. I found this interesting, not only because of the tradition of laying tefillin, but also because of the story of the binding of Isaac. Could it be, I reasoned, that Abraham is the founder of biblical faith because he sets a model that is binding for our own conduct, i.e., being willing to sacrifice our own ambitions for what is ordained by God? However, I then found on the Internet that this origin of the word ‘religion’ is in dispute. Does that mean that all my fine sentiments about the word’s significance are worthless?”

Nothing is worthless if something can be learned from it. Let’s see what can be learned from Rappaport’s speculations.

The etymology of “religion” is indeed disputed. This is not, of course, the case when it comes to English, which clearly inherited the word from Latin religio. Rather it applies to Latin itself, in which it is not clear what the component parts of the noun religio are or mean. The ancient Romans disagreed about this. Cicero, for example, thought that religio derived from the verb relegere in its sense of “to re-read or go over a text,” religion being a body of custom and law that demands study and transmission.

On the other hand, the Christian writer Lactantius, writing in the early fourth century, opted for religare, a verb meaning “to fasten or bind.” “We are,” he said in his book “Divinae Institutiones,” “tied to God and bound to him [religati] by the bond of piety, and it is from this, and not, as Cicero holds, from careful study [relegendo], that religion has received its name.” Lactantius’s greater contemporary, Augustine, preferred this etymology to Cicero’s while suggesting yet another possibility: re-eligere, “to choose again,” religion being the recovery of the link with God that sin has sundered.

It may be that Lactantius and Augustine rejected Cicero’s etymology because it made religio seem too close to such Jewish terms as torah, mishnah and talmud, all Hebrew words having to do with teaching and studying. Since unlike the practice of Judaism, the Christian religion, as they saw it, was a matter of binding faith and commitment rather than of accumulated knowledge, the religare etymology may have appealed to them for the opposite reason than that proposed by Rappaport: as a way of distancing Christianity from Jewish concepts rather than of adopting them.

In any case, however, the “binding” of tefillin on an observant Jew’s arm and the “binding” of Isaac in Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son on Mount Moriah have never been, to the best of my knowledge, closely associated with each other in Judaism. Nor do they share the same word. To put on tefillin in rabbinic Hebrew is, as Rappaport refers to it, le’haniah. tefillin, to “lay” them on one’s arm, a term that does not in itself imply submission to God’s will, although the biblical verb for the same act, kashar, “tie,” might seem more suggestive of this. The verb for what Abraham did to Isaac, on the other hand, is akad, which generally refers to the trussing of an animal prior to its being slaughtered, sheared, neutered, etc. Although the Akedah, as Isaac’s binding is known in Judaism, has always functioned there as a powerful symbol of the Jewish willingness to sacrifice all for God (as well as functioning in Christian theology as a prefiguration of the Crucifixion), it has never served as a symbol of the overall Jewish relationship to God, which was certainly not pictured as one of being trussed upon His altar.

To return to the word “religion,” it is a curious fact that, although all the ancestors of today’s Europeans had (like the ancestors of all the world’s inhabitants) what we would call religions, no ancient Indo-European language had a specific word for religion, Latin having been the first — which is why the great majority of modern European languages have some version of religio as their term for it. Probably this was because, precisely since religion was everywhere in the ancient world and no activity was divorced from it, it never struck anyone as a distinct aspect of life calling for a name of its own. There were names for specific gods, ceremonies, rituals, forms of worship, cults, sects, etc., because all these were discrete things; religion itself was the unnamed totality of them all, the forest that couldn’t be seen for all its trees.

It took the Romans, who in conquering the world were forced to become its first anthropologists, to realize that behind all this multifariousness was something about which it was possible to generalize. From its original meaning of “punctilious respect for the sacred,” religio came to denote any comprehensive human system of organizing and expressing such respect. Religio was, Cicero wrote, cultus deorum, “the worship of the gods.” Whether he was also right about where the word came from would appear to be anyone’s guess.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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