Saucy to Princes

Gerald Hammond

  • The Book: A History of the Bible by Christopher de Hamel
    Phaidon, 352 pp, £24.95, September 2001, ISBN 0 7148 3774 1
  • The Wycliffe New Testament 1388 edited by W.R. Cooper
    British Library, 528 pp, £20.00, May 2002, ISBN 0 7123 4728 3

Julia Kristeva was in Manchester in March to give a lecture. One of the pleasures of her visit, for me, the day after the lecture and en route to the Manchester United superstore, was to accompany her on a tour of the Deansgate branch of the John Rylands University Library. Mrs Rylands, the extraordinary founder of the collection, was particularly keen on Bibles, and among the many Biblical treasures is a tiny triangular fragment of the text of St John’s Gospel, catalogued as Gr. Pap. 457. A reasonably reliable dating of the fragment is c.125, making it the earliest surviving witness to the New Testament. It was the first time Kristeva had seen the fragment and perhaps the tenth time I had, but I doubt that our sense of wonder was any different. There, in its portable transparent box, was the earliest relic of the Book.

In Christopher de Hamel’s history, the Rylands fragment is reproduced life-size in the final chapter: life-size but not, to my faulty memory at least, very true to its actual appearance. In the reproduction the papyrus is a kind of drab olive; in the Rylands, with the sun coming through the windows, it is brighter, more like light khaki, setting off the black ink of its text very clearly. The text itself, on one side of the fragment, comes from John 18, the passage in which Pilate asks: ‘What is truth?’

The other thing that de Hamel’s reproduction can’t show, but which a privileged visitor to the Rylands can see, is that the fragment has writing on both sides. It comes not from a scroll but from a codex. As early as 125, what later became Biblical text already took the form of a book. The book may give way to the screen some time soon but it has been with us now for two thousand years – and de Hamel’s main argument is that it is essentially the product of our Biblical culture. So, the jagged triangle in the Rylands is the closest we can get to our intellectual origins, not only in the West but now across much of the world. For our libraries and universities it can be claimed as our founding material object.

Some of its outgrowths are wonderfully exotic. De Hamel has fun in his chapter on the Missionary Bible, listing the largely 19th-century versions of the Bible, or of bits of it, in African languages. It was translated into Hausa, spoken in West Africa, into Ashanti, spoken in the Gold Coast, into Ibo, spoken in Southern Nigeria, into Nupé, spoken in Northern Nigeria, and so on, the roll call of largely Protestant translators stretching down the page:

Saint Matthew in Benga (spoken on the island of Corisco, West Africa), translated by G. McQueen of the American Presbyterian Mission, New York, 1861; the Gospels in Ewe (spoken in Togoland and Dahomey, West Africa), translated by B. Schlegel of the Bremen Bible Society, Stuttgart, 1861; the New Testament in Efik (spoken in Calabar, West Africa), translated from the Greek by Hugh Goldie (1815-95), Edinburgh, 1862; Saint Luke in Dinka (spoken on the White Nile), translated by the Roman Catholic Central African Mission, Brixen, 1866, a rare instance of a Catholic translation in a profession dominated by Protestants; Ruth and Jonah in Southern Swahili (spoken in the region of Zanzibar), translated by Edward Steere (1828-82), Zanzibar, 1868, and Saint Matthew by the same translator, London, 1869; Saint Matthew in Susu (spoken in French Guinea, West Africa), probably translated by J.H.A. Dupont (a West Indian of African descent, from Codrington College, Barbados), Oxford, 1869.

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[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Stefan Collini (13 December 2001).