J.B. Phillips, one of the great Bible translators of the twentieth century, once remarked, “Men and women who would be deeply ashamed of having their ignorance exposed in matters of poetry, music, ballet or painting, for example, are not in the least perturbed to be found ignorant of the New Testament.”
The Bible has helped to form the English we speak, and the German, and the French. And many other languages. It has given us expressions that had to be invented in order to convey its meanings – like “eat, drink and be merry”, “my brother’s keeper”, “the salt of the earth”. In The Book of Books Melvin Bragg points out that Shakespeare quotes the Bible over a thousand times.
Today there are international visitors alighting from tourist coaches to cram into the queue for the Library of Trinity College to see the Gospels in the form of the Book of Kells. Some make it up Dame Street to Dublin Castle to see one of our national treasures – the collection of early Biblical documents in the Chester Beatty Library. These include the world’s oldest surviving copy of all four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, dating back to around AD150.
Those who venture up Kildare Street to Leinster House’s next door neighbour, the National Museum, can inspect the Faddan More Psalter, a copy of the Book of Psalms (from about AD800) delicately dug out of a bog in North Tipperary by Eddie Fogarty, a bulldozer driver, in 2006.
It makes you question, “Do these visitors know something we’ve forgotten?” Our history would suggest they do.
For his court-martial Thomas McDonagh, signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, prepared a speech in his own hand-writing. He saw himself as part of “a small section of the great, unnumbered company of martyrs, whose Captain is the Christ who died on Calvary.”
Padraig Pearse had an obsession with the Gospels’ account of the Passion of Christ. In his last address to his pupils at St Enda’s School in Rathfarnham he returned to one of his favourite themes: “It had taken the blood of the son of God to redeem the world. It would take the blood of the sons of Ireland to redeem Ireland.”
The fascination with Jesus of Nazareth which was shown by Pearse and McDonagh continues to this day. “Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries,” says Jaroslav Pelikan, History Professor at Yale University. “If it were possible, with some sort of super-magnet, to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?”
It’s no wonder that the men of 1916 would spend time thinking about Christ’s death since the Bible spends a disproportionate number of column-inches on it. The Bible then goes on to the forgiveness that Christ’s sacrifice enabled. Forgiveness is a big deal in Ireland today with constant appeals for those in charge to say they’re sorry and to ask for forgiveness. Without these Biblical concepts in public life those appeals may continue to fall on deaf ears.
Remember that famous moral compass we’re supposed to have lost – the one that gives you guidelines for fairness in public life, an exposé of the likely faults in the church and proposes permanent cures for addiction? I think you’ll find it in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle – or in any decent bookshop in the country.
It speaks truth to power in a way that disconcerts “the powers that be” (another Bible expression). William Tyndale, the first person to translate and print the New Testament in English (in 1526) found himself on the receiving end when he actually came to print the Bible. He printed them with 11cm x 15cm pages (about half the size of a paperback) because they had to be smuggled into England from the continent.
The Bishop of London ordered them in bulk but then, to Tyndale’s horror, burned them in a bonfire in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. Just ten years later Tyndale himself was executed and burned. But by then a book that has changed history had been firmly thrust into public life. Where it belongs.