Friends of the Prayer Book Annual Conference

Durham, 20th June 1998.

After a grand introduction in the chapel of Brancepath Castle on the eve of the Conference, we met in the much humbler surroundings of St Oswald’s Church Institute; an ordinary church hall with children’s pictures on the walls, and voices, perhaps of the same children, penetrating with the birdsong from outside. Three dozen of us assembled to attend to a sequence of eight concise lectures on Vernacular English versions of the Bible, under the general title 'Understanded of the People.’

Canon R J W Bevan, a former Subdean of Carlisle Cathedral and Queen’s Chaplain, introduced the programme with a cursory history of the aims of the respective translators as expressed in their prefaces, focussing particularly on Tyndale, Cranmer, the Dedication to King James and the Translators to the Reader (now only found in lectern editions) in the AV; and then the modern translations from the RV to the NIV and New AV, where the concern was how far to depart from established Cl6th versions in incorporating more recent scholarship and approaching a more contemporary speech.

SAJ Bradley then focussed our attention on the Caedmonian Bible-related religious poetry based on the Bodleian Junius xi MS, and used for illustration his own excellent translations in his Everyman Anglo-Saxon Poetry. His title, The Great Duty, (OE riht micel) is from the opening of Genesis: ‘A great duty is ours: that we should praise with our words and love with our hearts the Guardian of the heavens, the glorious King of hosts.’ This was neither translation nor paraphrase, but something closer to liturgy, and the speaker compared it with the familiar ‘It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty that we should at all times etc.’ This he saw as characteristic of OE religious texts, and reminded us that the fragment of the Caedmon hymn that Bede quotes is given in the context of the life of Hild, of her motherhood and tutorship of both the church and its leaders, and that Bede is focussed on the Holy Spirit at work among the English people and in the English language (their soul). The word of God through Caedmon was not only inspired, it was vernacularised, and with such power that this holy poetry was spiritually affective, converting the soul, so that the poet’s teachers were taught by their pupil’s poetry. The Caedmonian poetry was more than a versification of scripture. its force was inspirational, interpretative, liturgical. The word of scripture needed to be ‘unriddled’ by the ‘keys of the spirit’; our reading it was like seeing through a glass darkly. it required poets and scholars to ‘translate’ what in heaven would be seen ‘face to face’.

Mrs Ann Squires of Durham University followed this with a rich lecture on Aldred’s gloss on the Lindisfarne Gospels, almost entirely ignored by the British Museum’s video, but important as the earliest surviving Gospel in English. Aldred’s gloss is a word for word interlinear translation into the Northumbrian dialect, with interpretative marginal notes in English and Latin. In facing the problems of Latin word order and vocabulary, Aldred had recourse to Gospels other than the Lindisfarne, and sometimes offered a number of alternatives. Occasionally he misconstrued the Latin, as where he has Christ and not the centurion saying ‘I am unworthy’. But his work, for all its linguistic and historical value, is not strictly translation, but more of an aid to monks, priests and preachers in coping with the Vulgate.

Dr Richard Marsden is no stranger to the Tyndale Society or readers of Reformation. His lecture entitled ‘Ever Whole and Open’; English Versions of Scripture before Tyndale, covered much the same ground as his Tyndale Conference lecture, considering the continuities of English Scriptural phrasing by such works as the Ormulum and Cursor Mundi, oral preaching and vernacular homilies, Rolle, Mannyng and the Pricke of Conscience. This line though obscure and perhaps untraceable is yet unmistakeable, and was probably etched, like the AV until recently, into the English consciousness. Dr Marsden demonstrated this - the ‘failing face’ of Cain is one we already know - in instances like Tyndale’s ‘bear false witness’ in the decalogue, which he traced back to the Peterborough Chronicle (1127).

My own contribution on the revisions of the early Tudor translators followed lunch, and may well appear elsewhere in the Journal. Professor David Loades of the University of Wales then read us two papers tracing the history of the English Bibles, the first of these taking us as far as the ‘Cranmer’ and ‘Great’ Bibles, and the second from the first Geneva texts to the success of the King James Version. The first of these periods was one where the English Scriptures were fighting for their lives, and the very principle of the Word’s availability; the second was one where, in the long reign of Elizabeth, that battle had been won, and the Bible was established and ultimately ‘authorised’ - though never in fact appointed. This complex and inspissated history is one no doubt by now familiar to Tyndale supporters, but one or two points that the speaker touched on may well be worth reporting. One is that for all the zeal for the Bible cause on the part of both translators and their persecutors, the ones who put up the money for it, who ran the commercial risks and looked to the heavenly profits, were essentially London tradesmen, not state financiers. The Bible was a best seller, and a sound, if dangerous, investment. Another is that vernacular translations were made by Huguenots for the Channel Islands in 1620; in Welsh in 1567 (NT) and 1588.1 in Erse in 1602 (NT), though the whole Bible had to wait till 1817. But that Cornish and Manx had no vernacular Scriptures; subsequently - we might argue, consequently - both these languages have died out.

The day concluded with a stunning paper by Professor John Rogerson of Sheffield on The Influence of Hebrew Scholarship on the AV of the Old Testament. With reference to the work of Rashi - Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040-1105), who made a Commentary on the Talmud; Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), an Arabic poet and wandering scholar, who wrote of the ‘peasouper’ fog of London, and first ‘invented’ Deutero-Isaiah; and David Qmhi (1160?-1235?), whose Commentary on the Psalms was the first ever printed book in Hebrew, who made a Hebrew Grammar and Dictionary in Latin, and whose Michlol, or Book of Roots, like Isidore’s, was tremendously influential in Bible history. Looking at five OT passages which pose problems for translators and readers alike, Professor Rogerson demonstrated how the Jewish commentators had influenced the sense of the passage that was to be translated. Given that the text is either doubtful or unintelligible, and that the commentators, the experts, disagree, how is a mere translator to do his work diligently and faithfully? A fine instance appears in Coverdale’s holy guesswork: The AV has for Psalm 84:6 ‘Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well, the rain also filleth the pools.’ The Baca may be derived from the Hebrew verb to weep; a targum suggests it is a particular tree; Qimhi’s Dictionary makes it a mulberry tree; Ezra thinks it the name of a place (where much footwearing had made it such as water would fill with pools). None of these appear to be profitable to the reader’s soul. But Coverdale’s ‘Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well’ is splendid with the ring of Scripture, and not just venerable writing.

I was reluctant to undertake this task, and having done it, I am apologetic in the extreme: translating its spirit has proved to be beyond me. I have tried to convey something of the diverse richness, good sense, wise scholarship, and excited familiarity (Tyndale Society members will know what I mean) of our gathering and the day we shared together. I should be proud to be associated with its future conferences, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to those who have enjoyed ours. The modest, indeed self-effacing organiser, who deserves the thanks of all participants, was Miss Margot Johnson, of 37 Hallgarth Street, Durham, DH1 3AT, who will be able to furnish details of the Friends, of future conferences and events, and of this Conference’s published papers on request.

Gordon Jackson

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