Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Value of Knowing the Bible’s Transmission History (Westcott)

Westcott’s words to clergy-in-training from his Lessons from Work (1901):
2. The study [of the Bible] must be systematic, and again it must be thorough. Even the external history of the Sacred books illustrates the action of the Spirit in the Christian Society, and gives a personal reality to the past. It cannot be a matter of indifference to know how the New Testament — to limit myself to that — has come down to us; to look at the Manuscripts from which our fathers drew words of life, to trace the stirring history of the version through which the teaching of Apostles has been made accessible to men of other tongues. Almost every great Library has some touching memorial of biblical labour before which it is well for us to pause. Every Oxford man here has, I trust, looked with deep questionings of heart, on the very copy of the Acts which our own Bede read and quoted, turning from the familiar Latin to the original Greek, and so laying the foundation of biblical scholarship for his countrymen: every Cambridge man on the precious copy of the Gospels and Acts which Beza offered as his choicest gift to the University, and many, I hope, have read on the open page the memorable saying found only there, which seems to mark the distinction between popular tradition and apostolic record : every visitor to the British Museum, on the copy of the Latin Gospel, which was once carried about with Cuthbert’s body, and noticed its leaves, stained with sea water, a testimony to the perils which his followers endured in their wanderings. In such treasures the Diocese of Durham has a large share. We claim as our own three Manuscripts of the Vulgate of unsurpassed interest, the most authoritative copy of the whole Bible, written at Jarrow, under the direction of Bede’s Master, and sent as a present to the Pope, the most exquisite copy of a single Gospel, St John, which was placed in the coffin of Cuthbert when he was laid to rest; and the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in his honour, to which I have already referred, to which was added at Chester-le-Street, one of the first, if not the very first, translation of the Gospels into an English dialect. The three are strangely different in form, in writing, in ornament, yet alike in the general character of their text. We may then well be proud of these works of the leaders of our Northern Church; and for my own part, I delight to remember that our English Version is marked as no other version is marked, by a double and in some sense a fourfold seal of martyrdom. The great scholar who laid its sure foundations and the brave pastor who first brought the fragments together which completed its original structure died simply for their faith; and so too, though less purely, the statesman and the prelate who first procured its authoritative publication.  
Such details have, I think, far more than a literary interest. They help us to feel the value of our heritage. They make the past live again for us, live with the life which is truly life. 
So touched with a grateful sense of the care which our own fathers have lavished on the books which we have received, we approach their interpretation. And here I counsel you most earnestly to do two things habitually, to read the original Greek, and in reading the English version to strive to recall the Greek. In doing this question each word in the apostolic text, and in your imperfect recollection of it, till it has told its lesson: till each apostolic word has rendered its peculiar meaning: till each error in your own version has revealed the loss which it entailed. 

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