My children

The city needed lawyers.

– Alister McGrath, from In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture

That epigraph has little bearing on this post. I just like the idea of a city needing lawyers. Remember all of those American constitutional lawyers flying to Moscow shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union? Those were heady days. There’s reason to conclude that Putin has since retained other counsel.

1 John's opening in Tyndale's version
1 John’s opening in Tyndale’s version

Anyway, Geneva needed lawyers, and John Calvin needed work. The rest is history. But I’d like to refer to a little of it here as an introduction to a particular English translation of 1 John 1:1 that has resonated with me a lot lately.

The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, was a fruit of Calvin’s association with Geneva’s Protestant Reformation, and it remained the most popular English Bible for decades after the King James hit the presses in 1611. Between 1578 and 1616, the “Geneva Bible” also became the common name given to a number of very similar translations, Alister McGrath reports. Christopher Barker, to whom Elizabeth had granted sole publishing rights to the Geneva, would modify the text based on the work of English exiles in Geneva.1 (Why would Elizabeth grant a license to a Bible she didn’t really like? It was complicated, but the biggest factor was the Geneva Bible’s overwhelming popularity in England. Elizabeth was no fool, as I’m sure you know.)

I’m really into how one of these “composite” Bibles (as McGrath calls them) – a 1599 version – renders that first verse, and the next three, of First John.

First John opens like John’s gospel, though the syntax isn’t as grand and doesn’t echo Genesis’s opening as directly. The Word is still the subject, but it’s not the grammatical subject; “That which” is, or, I guess, “was”: “That which was from the beginning.” The epistle’s opening discards the gospel’s anastrophe (“In the beginning was the Word”) for a series of subordinate clauses that makes the subject the object. The epistle sounds flatter, too, and without the slight reverb; we’re exchanging Lawrence Olivier’s intonations for maybe Calvin Coolidge’s.

1 John’s opening in an early Geneva version

The audiences and purposes differ, too. The gospel’s stated audience is those who haven’t heard or believed in the Word, but the epistle’s audience is “my little children.” The gospel’s purpose is that, “believing, you might have life in his name.” The epistle’s purpose – bringing the readers into equal fellowship with the Word the witnesses have seen, heard, and touched – is as focused as its syntax is unfocused. My 1599 Geneva puts all of verse 2 in parenthesis and interrupts verse 3 with an “I say” just to signal that we’re trying to complete the sentence the epistle starts with. Just to clean things up for the English eye and ear.

Now we’re getting to what I love about the 1599 version of 1 John’s opening. Where Tyndale (an earlier New Testament version) has “which we have sene with oure eyes which we have loked vpon and oure hondes have hadled,” my 1599 Geneva adds words to create an incredulous tone through an occasional iambic meter:

That which was from the beginning, which wee haue heard, which wee haue seene with these our eyes, which wee haue looked vpon, and these handes of ours haue handled of that Word of life, [emphasis mine]

I can see John, standing before his children, pointing his index fingers to his eyes at “seen” and “these” and “eyes,” and repeatedly moving his outspread fingers away from his breast to the rhythm of “hands” and “ours” and “handled.”

You need a fix of incarnation or immanence? Meditate on this, children.

° ° °

We’ll be in the flesh at Kenyon for B’s senior art show this weekend. Very excited about it. So nice to have the four of us together again.

For her wide-ranging project, B’s been bringing in extra help – a physics professor to help her with electrical issues, some kind fellow students to help her with installation and other matters. Before she started, she knew almost as little as I do about physics, but her outreach to the physics professor landed her this semester in what has become one of her favorite courses, a survey of the physics involved in different gadgets, some of which the students get to create. Kenyon’s been a good match for B’s art because she wants to incorporate stuff outside of traditional art-think (whatever that is).

Her two-week spring break ended today. It really wasn’t a break; she and her fellow senior art majors, about twenty of them, had moved into some new dorms and had worked on the ten-day show that opens Wednesday night.

° ° °

I don’t know how many winter breaks we’ve had. We celebrated the season’s fourteenth snow day today after last night’s nine inches. So today I shoveled, napped, and graded essays. We’re now a day shy of missing three weeks of school. We’re also a day shy of using up all of our fifteen-snow-day allotment. After Day Fifteen, they’ll extend the school year further into June.

It snowed some more today after school was canceled, and it stayed below freezing all day, too, but they’re still making us go back tomorrow. It’s possible, though, we’ll get another snowstorm before the month’s over, according to the weather bureau’s long-range forecast. After all of this, I’d hate to leave that last day on the table.

  1. Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, at 128.

5 thoughts on “My children

  1. Lovely photo, hope the show goes well.

    I also wanted to express appreciation for you post from way back ‘East Coker on the rebind’ , the title of which has been catching my eye for a while. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with the Four Quartets lately. I liked what you said about being able to carrying the stone around with you even if you couldn’t decipher it.

    1. Thank you, Lucy! Revisiting East Coker helped me get my mind around being in my early fifties. I’m so glad you’re a Four Quartets fan, too. I look forward to listening to Eliot reading it in his own voice through the link you kindly placed on your site. I didn’t know a recording of his reading was available.

  2. Congratulations and best wishes to artist-daughter and parents on the coming exhibition! You have supported her in her path and been with her in her continuing journey. Interesting how physics can support the art. Hope to see some photos of the opening?

    That is a lot of snow! Gives me the shivers for it brings back memories of the winters of my youth in Winnipeg. One year our final exams at the university had to be postponed because of a massive snow storm — in April!

    1. Thank you, Marja-Leena! I’m going to take pictures, and I think she’ll let me post some of them. Bethany’s favorite thing right now is not so much mastering a medium but learning how to do stuff related (and seemingly unrelated) to art. She has a lot of curiosity. She loved Japan, but the year there almost did her in because her school there had no means of doing studio art.

      We’ve never had so much snow in March. More may be on the way next week, though it’s a better bet that it will hit points northeast of Washington.

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