Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: PROGRAM 1
This text is a transcript of the full lecture of Prof. Frye on Sept. 15, 1981. Only the bold part is used in this version.
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INTRODUCTION: AN APPROACH
My part of this course is a study of the narrative and imagery of the English Bible; and to clarify what I am trying to do in it, it might be worth sketching in a background of the history of the course, to explain why I started giving it in the first place.
It goes back to my days as a junior instructor, when I found myself saying to the head of my department here that I found some difficulty in getting my students to understand what was going on in Paradise Lost, which I was trying to teach. And the difficulty was obviously a lack of knowledge of the Bible. My chairman said, 'Well, how do you expect to teach Paradise Lost to people who don't know a Philistine from a Pharisee?' I was tempted to answer that given the middle-class status of my students, that particular distinction would perhaps not be too important for them. But I didn't often talk that way to my departmental chairman, and I said, 'Well, what do I do?' And he said, 'You offer a course in the English Bible'.
Well, in those days religious knowledge was a college subject at Victoria and Trinity and St. Michael's. University College also had religious knowledge courses, but it had to give them euphemistic titles like 'Near Eastern Studies' or 'Oriental Languages' so that Queen's Park would not be frightened into thinking that a college with an interest in God was drawing money from the province.
The courses naturally differed a great deal. If you went to St. Michael's you got St. Thomas Aquinas exclusively, with perhaps a course or two in St. Augustine for dessert: so that the religion courses were rather enclosed in the various colleges. When the university department of Religion was organized, I was able to go on teaching the course within that department. But then, under the new regulations, it became a half-course, and as I think half-courses are nothing but a nuisance for students, I asked colleagues to give a course on Classical mythology as well, and so to round out and expand the original idea of the course, which is to provide for students, whether their main interest is literature or not, some knowledge of the cultural traditions that we've all been brought up in and which we are all conditioned by every time we draw a breath, whether we realize it or not.
It took me some time to hit on the right formula for a course in the Bible. I consulted the curricula of other universities, and found that they gave courses called 'The Bible as Literature', which involved chopping pieces out of the Bible like the Book of Job and the parables of Jesus and saying, 'Look, aren't they literary?' That approach violated all my instincts as a critic, because those instincts told me that what a critic does when he is confronted with any verbal document whatever is to start on page one at the upper left-hand corner and go on reading until he reaches the bottom right-hand corner of the last page. But many people who have attempted to do that with the Bible have flaked out very quickly, generally somewhere around the middle of Leviticus.
Part of the reason is that the Bible presents the appearance of being, not a book, but a small library of books, a miscellany of various texts: the suggestion is almost that there is no such book as the Bible. In fact, the word 'Bible' itself comes from the Greek ta biblia, which is plural: 'the little books'. So the possibility arises that 'the Bible', as we call it, is only a name we give for convenience to a pile of books that have got bound up in one cover.
So I had to go on to the next stage, which was to establish that there was a genuine unity in the Bible, and that that unity was of two kinds. The first was a unity of narrative. As I've said, not everybody gets through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation; but anybody who does will discover that the Bible does at least have a beginning and an end. It starts quite logically at the beginning of time with the Creation, it ends quite logically at the end of time with the apocalypse, and it surveys the whole of human history—or the part of history that interests it—in between, under the symbolic names of Adam and Israel.
So the narrative unity of the Bible, which is there in spite of the miscellaneous nature of its content, was something that I stressed. And that concern for narrative seems to me to be distinctive of the Bible among other sacred books. In the Koran, for example, the revelations of Mohammed were gathered up after his death and arranged in order of length, which suggests that revelation in the Koran pays no attention to narrative continuity—that's not what it is interested in. But the fact that the Bible is interested in it seems to be significant for the study of literature and for many other reasons.
The second way in which the Bible is unified is through a number of recurring images: mountain, sheep, river, hill, pasture, bride, bread, wine and so on. They echo and reecho all through the Bible and are repeated in so many ways as to suggest that they have a thematic importance: that they are actually building up some kind of interconnected unity. The present course is really based on this conception of the unity of the narrative of the Bible and the unity formed by its recurrent imagery.
The only form of the Bible that I can deal with is the Christian Bible, with its Old and New Testaments, however polemic those names may sound. In the first place, it's the only version of the Bible I know anything about, and in the second place it is the one that has been decisive for western culture through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to our own time.
The Old Testament was of course written in Hebrew, except for a few passages in the later language Aramaic, which replaced Hebrew as a spoken language and was probably the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. In Hebrew, only the consonants are written down, so that all the vowels are editorial. Therefore the establishing of the text of the Hebrew Bible took quite a long while, and was still going on in New Testament times. Some centuries before that, it had been translated into Greek for the benefit of Jews living in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. The number of translators was traditionally seventy, and so the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament has been called the Septuagint, usually abbreviated LXX. The Hebrew text in the form in which we have it was established later—it's called the Masoretic, the scholarly or traditional text established by rabbis and scholars working mainly around the environs of Lake Tiberius in Galilee. So the LXX is in many respects older than the Hebrew text that we have, and sometimes preserves more primitive readings.
The New Testament was written in Greek by writers whose native language probably was not Greek. The kind of Greek they wrote was called koine, the popular Greek which was distributed all through the Near Eastern countries as a kind of common language. The writers of the New Testament may have been familiar to differing degrees with the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, but when they quoted from the Old Testament they tended to use the Septuagint. And that is the beginning of a principle which is rather important for the history of Christianity. In any sacred book, there is enough concentration in the writing, and enough attention paid to it by those who accept it as sacred, for the linguistic characteristics of the original language to be of great importance. Any Jewish interpretation or commentary on the Hebrew Old Testament inevitably takes great care to study the linguistic nuances of the Hebrew original, and similarly with the Koran, which is so bound up with the linguistic characteristics of Arabic that in practice the Arabic language has had to go everywhere that the Islamic religion has gone.
In contrast, Christianity as a religion has been dependent from the beginning on translation. After the New Testament period, the center of power in the western world shifted to Rome, and with that shift came the need for a Latin translation of the Bible. The Latin translation that appeared was known as the Vulgate, that is, the one in common use. The translation was made by St. Jerome, in what may well be the greatest effort of scholarship ever achieved by a single man. For the next thousand years, the Vulgate Latin Bible was the Bible as far as Europe was concerned. There was very little knowledge of Greek or Hebrew through the Middle Ages, and the Vulgate was for the most part as far as anyone could go in reading the Bible.
Already in the Middle Ages, the question had arisen of translating the Bible into the vernacular (or modern) languages. It was resisted by authorities of the church establishment, partly because the issue very soon got involved with reform movements within the church. One of these reform movements was led in England by John Wyclif, a contemporary of Chaucer in the fourteenth century. His disciples, working mainly after his death, produced an English translation of the entire Bible, which was of course a translation of the Vulgate Latin text, not of the Greek and Hebrew. Nevertheless, the Wyclifite Bible became the basis for all future English translations. In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation broke out in Germany under Luther, and one of Luther's major efforts to consolidate his position was to make a complete German translation of the Bible, which became among other things a cornerstone of modern German literature.
Similar efforts were made in England. Henry VIII, you remember, declared himself to be the head of the Church, but didn't want to make any alteration in church doctrine, so he amused himself in his later years by executing Protestants for heresy and Catholics for denying his claim to be head of the Church. Thus, William Tyndale, the first person to work on the translation of the Bible into English from Greek and Hebrew sources, was a refugee and had to work on the Continent. Eventually he was caught by Henry's goon squad and transported back to England, where he was burned at the stake along with copies of his Bible. Henry VIII, with that versatility of intention which is often found in people who have tertiary syphilis, had begun his reign by being called 'Defender of the Faith' by the Pope, because he had written a pamphlet attacking Martin Luther—that is to say, his minister Sir Thomas More had written it but Henry had signed it. However, as 'Defender of the Faith', he changed his mind about what faith he was going to defend, and in the last years of his reign the English Bible in the hands of various other translators, including Miles Coverdale, had become established as the official Bible for the Church of England of which he was now the head.
Well, in Queen Elizabeth's reign, there were two Bibles. One was very largely the product of the right-wing establishment in the Church of England, and was called the Bishop's Bible. The other was a Puritan Bible, which again had been produced by refugees on the Continent during Queen Mary's reign. It was called the Geneva Bible but is sometimes called the 'breeches Bible' because in the story of Adam and Eve it is said that after the Fall they knew that they were naked, and so they tried to make for themselves what the King James Bible refers to chastely as 'aprons' but the Puritan Bible calls 'breeches'. The Bishop's Bible was the one that was approved of during Elizabeth's reign: the Geneva Bible was not. The objections against it were less to its scholarship, which was very thorough, than to its marginal notes, which were very copious, and which set out the infallible rightness of the Puritan position and the madness and obstinacy of everyone who opposed it. But both circulated in England, and Shakespeare is believed by scholars to have used—almost certainly by mere accident—the Bishop's Bible for his earlier plays, and the Geneva Bible for his later ones.
Elizabeth died in 1603. Her successor, King James VI of Scotland, moved to London to become King James I of England. King James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was of course Roman Catholic. He had listened to a lot of Puritan sermons in his youth, and this conditioned him in favor of the more right-wing establishment. In fact 'No bishop, no king' was one of his mottoes: he believed that the episcopal system was essential to the monarchy. However, his real motto was 'Blessed are the peacemakers', and he thought that he would try to achieve some kind of reconciliation between the Episcopalian right wing and the Puritan left wing: at that time the Puritans did not form a separate church but were a group within the Church of England. His way of achieving reconciliation was the time-honored way of calling a conference, which met at Hampton Court in 1604, and after a few weeks broke up with the usual theological hair pulling. But before it did so, it had passed one very important resolution, which was that there should be an authorized English translation of the Bible, to be done by a committee of scholars who would represent both Episcopalian and Puritan scholarship. These scholars worked on their translation for seven years, and when it finally appeared in 1611 it was known as the Authorized Version, because it was—as the title page says—'appointed to be read in churches'.
It is also often called the King James Bible. And please do not refer to it as the 'St. James Bible'. King James was a remarkable person in many ways: he was a poet, he was a literary critic, he was a diplomat, he was an anti-tobacco pamphleteer, he was strongly homosexual, was in all probability a bastard, but he was not a saint.
The Authorized Version held the field, and nobody else attempted another version of the Bible except the Roman Catholics, who again had to be working outside the country on the Continent. They had done a translation of the New Testament early in Elizabeth's reign, and by also translating the Old Testament produced the complete version known as the Douay Bible, because it was completed at Douay in France. It was finished in 1609, which was a little late for the translators of the 1611 Bible to make much use of it. In contrast to the King James Bible, the Douay Bible is based on the Vulgate, which the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in the sixteenth century had declared to be the authentic version of the Bible, and had stipulated that any Catholic translation of the Bible into English would have to follow the Vulgate original.
The sequence of English Bibles culminating in the King James Bible goes back to the Wyclif Bible, which again was a translation from the Vulgate. After 1611, scholars like Milton or Sir Thomas Browne usually continued to quote the Vulgate in Latin, but the use of the English Bible naturally grew as the language grew.
The King James Bible is the one I want to use for this course. I have various reasons for that. It is the most familiar and the most accessible version, and more importantly, the translators of the King James Bible were not out to make a new translation, they were out to make a traditional one.
There have always been two tendencies in Biblical scholarship, though they have often converged. One is the analytical tendency to try to establish what the original text says, which is the basis of the critical tradition. The other is the attempt to translate the Bible in accordance with what a consensus of ecclesiastical authorities have declared the meaning to be. Most copies of the King James translation in ordinary circulation omit two very important things; and I would like you to procure, if you possibly can, a version of the Bible which contains them both, as this Cambridge edition which I have does. The two things that are usually omitted are, first of all, the sequence of books known as the Apocrypha, which I will explain in a moment; and secondly, the Address to the Reader with which the King James translators prefaced their book. The Dedication to King James, which is almost invariably preserved in copies of the Authorized Version, is only a perfunctory piece of rhetoric, but the Address to the Reader is a very careful, very lucid, very honest statement of what the translators were trying to do and what their policy in translating was. And they say almost at once that rather than to make a brand new translation, they were trying to produce a version of the Bible that would be in general agreement with the whole tradition of Biblical translation.
What that means in practice is that the King James Bible is a Bible very close to the Vulgate tradition: therefore it comes very close to the Bible with which everyone in England before 1611 was familiar. And that is the main reason I want to use it.
The differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant translations of the Bible have been I think greatly exaggerated, and are mainly confined to a number of technical terms having to do with the organization of the church. The disputes turn on whether the word episcopos means 'bishop' or 'apostle'; whether the word ecclesia means 'church' or 'congregation'. There are perhaps half a dozen words of that kind, which we will not be concerned with in this course. We are concerned with the imagery of the Bible, with words like 'mountain' and 'river' and 'sheep' and 'body' and blood' and so forth, words which are so concrete that no translator can possibly get them wrong. So there aren't any major difficulties in translation or variety of translation that we need to be worried about.
The great prestige of the King James Bible in literature is largely due to the fact that it was an authorized version appointed to be read in churches. That is, its rhythm is based on the spoken word, and while there are a great many lapses, the ear of the King James translators for the spoken word was extremely acute. And because of that the Authorized Version has held the field even against more scholarly modern translations. The oral basis of the King James Bible, the fact that this translation was intended primarily to be read aloud, accounts for many of its features, such as the practice of printing every sentence as a separate paragraph, which makes sense for public reading. The result is that the Authorized Version has established itself as part of our oral heritage: the sounds, the cadences of that translation keep echoing through our minds whether we realize it or not.
It was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that the need for revised versions began to make itself felt, and even then the prestige of the King James Bible rather overshadowed them. There was a British Revised Version in 1885, and an American Revised Version in 1900: both of them, from the literary point of view, were flops. They made very limited headway, partly because the genuine scholars on the translating committee were always being outvoted by the old fuddy duddies opposed to any change whatever; and, more important, they fell afoul of the principle of translating that it is not the scholarly knowledge of the original that makes a translation permanent, but sensitivity to one's own language. These translators, in attempting a kind of middle course between the language of the early seventeenth century and the spoken language of 1885 and 1900, fell between two stools. For example, there is a phrase that is repeated very frequently through the Old Testament—'Yahweh Sabaoth'—which in the King James Version is 'The lord of hosts', a magnificent phrase. The American Revised Version renders this 'Jehovah of hosts'. Now that is a mistranslation, even if it is more accurate than the King James Version. If you doubt that it's a mistranslation, just try it out on your eardrum. 'Jehovah of hosts' reveals a profound insensitivity to English as a spoken language, and no translation that makes a boner like that has any chance of surviving.
Various other translations appeared later in the twentieth century. The Revised Standard Version of 1952 is one that I refer to a good deal myself. If you pick up the annotated version, which is annotated by Bruce Metzger of Princeton for the Old Testament, I forget just who for the New, you get an extremely valuable book that has very unobtrusive comments and footnotes. The New English Bible—which is more British than the RSV, which is largely American scholarship—came out in 1970. And the leading Roman Catholic Bible at present is called the Jerusalem Bible. As I say, I would like to use the King James Bible for my own quotations, and I would like to feel free to refer to the Apocrypha as well, so it would be an advantage to have a Bible that includes it.
The Apocrypha is a group of fourteen books which were almost certainly written originally in Hebrew. But the word 'apocrypha' means 'hidden' or 'concealed': the 'cryp' part of it is from the same root as our words 'crypt' and 'cryptic'—things hidden away. And what was hidden in this case was the Hebrew original. When the rabbinical scholars of the early Christian centuries were making up their canonical books, they excluded the books that had no Hebrew original. Consequently, those survived only in Greek texts or, in one case, a Latin one, though in later years archeologists have recovered some parts of the Hebrew originals.
St. Jerome, when he made his Vulgate translation of the Bible into Latin, translated the books of the Apocrypha, but the put them in a separate section. The Church of Rome, however, overruled him on this point, and so Roman Catholic Bibles even today have the books of the Apocrypha along with the books of the Hebrew Old Testament. The Apocrypha was also a part of the 1611 enterprise, and was translated along with the Old and New Testaments. But the Protestants tended to go back to St. Jerome's practice of keeping the Apocryphal books separate, and as a result they dropped out of most Protestant Bibles in ordinary circulation. In reading earlier English literature, however, you have to keep in mind the fact that the books of the Apocrypha were quite as familiar to readers in England as the books of the Old and the New Testaments. For example, in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, which is an extremely Biblical play, Shylock hails Portia as a 'Daniel come to judgment', meaning that she is a very good lawyer. But Daniel does not appear as a lawyer in the Book of Daniel: he appears as a lawyer only in a couple of books in the Apocrypha: the story of Susanna, and the story of Bel and the Dragon.
The books of the Old Testament, the books of the New Testament, and the fourteen books of the Apocrypha make up what we ordinarily call the Bible. There are a number of other peripheral books that didn't make it into either the Bible or the Apocrypha, some of which have a good deal of interest in their own right. For example, there is a collection of writings named the Pseudepigrapha, which is Greek for 'false writings' because they were ascribed to venerable figures who assuredly did not write them. It's true that a great many of the books in the Bible itself are pseudepigrapha in the same sense, but that is another kind of question. These books are very largely prophecies about the end of the world. They were written in the last three centuries before the Christian era, and are almost certainly Hebrew and Jewish in origin. The best known of them are two books ascribed to the patriarch Enoch. Enoch is referred to in the Book of Genesis as the great-grandfather of Noah. He is supposed to have written a long apocalyptic prophecy that was accepted in the early Church as authentic. There is a reference to it in the New Testament, in that curious little epistle known as the Epistle of Jude, the second to last book in the New Testament. There is a quotation from the Book of Enoch that speaks of its author as the seventh in descent from Adam, which Enoch is according to the Genesis genealogies. But it very soon became clear that the Enoch of the Old Testament could not possibly have written this book, so it fell out of favor and disappeared from western Europe, turning up again in Abyssinia around 1790 in an Ethiopian version. There is a Second Book of Enoch which turned up thirty or forty years later than that in south Russia, and various other books of the same kind in this collection. Some of them are classics in their own right, like the Testament of the Three Patriarchs and the Sayings of the Fathers. A man called R.H. Charles has edited the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in two volumes, and that is the version to refer to if you want to know more about them.
There are also a number of writings that didn't get into the New Testament canon. Some of them might very well have done so: there are two letters by Clement—St. Clement, who was a leader in the early Church—and there are a few others of the same quality. But for the most part, a number of apocryphal writings exist that in the Middle Ages were accepted yet which modern historical scholarship has rejected entirely as having any claim to authenticity. But as long as they were accepted, they had an important cultural influence. For example, if you read Middle English, you'll find there are many references to the 'harrowing of hell'. Jesus after his death is supposed to have descended to hell and rescued all the people who were destined for salvation, starting with Adam and Eve and ending with John the Baptist. This is accepted as a part of the gospel, in, for example, Chaucer, but it is entirely apocryphal. It goes back to a book called the Gospel of Nicodemus, or sometimes the Acts of Pilate. It is an interesting book, but as a gospel it's a fraud, unacceptable as having any historical basis at all.
And then there are a number of infancy gospels, which elaborate legends about the childhood of Jesus. In one of them, Jesus is out making mud pies and one of his little pals comes along and interferes with his play, so the infant Jesus strikes him dead. The dead child's mother comes to complain to the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin Mary says to Jesus, 'Now look, you shouldn't go around killing people, it is bad for public relations'. So the infant Jesus says, 'Oh well, all right'. And so he goes back and brings the little boy back to life again and goes on with his mud pies. In another part of the same book, he is represented as being somewhat bewildered that the other children didn't want to play with him: and so these books go prattling on and on, with the inventiveness of second rate minds. At the same time, it is they as gospels which, for example, assign an ancestry for the Virgin Mary and make her daughter to St. Anne. St. Anne was the patron saint, I believe, of the province of Quebec—St. Anne de Beauprise. There was a famous shrine there, until it was realized that there is no historical evidence for the existence of St. Anne, nothing in the Bible about her at all: so the title was transferred to John the Baptist. In any case, these books have been edited by a man named Montague James, who calls them the New Testament Apocrypha. M.R. James was the headmaster of Eton College: he wrote some excellent ghost stories and was also a Classical scholar who edited these books.
There are also two secular writers to whom I may be referring quite frequently. One was a Jewish philosopher living in Alexandria in Egypt during the time of Jesus, known to posterity as Philo Judaeus. He was a Platonic philosopher, who attempted to derive the doctrine of Forms in Plato from the account of creation in Genesis: and while there is a good deal of straining to make interpretive points in his books, they are also full of interest for anybody who is interested in the Biblical pattern of imagery. Also, there is a great Jewish historian, Josephus, who lived at the time of the Roman destruction of Judea and who wrote a book called Antiquities of the Jews, which covers much the same ground as the Old Testament but adds a great deal of detail in the later period. He is, for example, fascinated by King Herod, who turns up at the beginning of the New Testament, and a great deal of his book is devoted to Herod and his doings. He has a later book called Wars of the Jews, which deals with the final struggles against the Roman power. And he is, again, invaluable as a historical authority for the Old Testament period.
We don't know much about the Gnostic gospels because they survive only in the works of the orthodox Christians who attacked them. And of course there were political reasons why the orthodox opponents' books survived but the Gnostic books themselves didn't. But their opponents did quote fairly liberally from them, so one can learn a good deal about the Gnostics. The best introduction to Gnosticism is by Hans Jonas: it's called The Gnostic Religion. But there were pagan and Jewish Gnostics as well as Christian ones: it was a pretty widespread movement. I'll be coming to the Gnostics later in this course and will deal with some of the issues they raised.