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Monday, 31 January 2011

William Bedwell – not "eccentric"!

Personal background

William Bedwell was born in 1561/2, He was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge and became a scholar of Trinity in May 1584, though he was never fellow of his college. He was Rector of St. Ethelburgh's, Bishopsgate Street in London, and was selected by Lancelot Andrewes in 1604 to be one of his Westminster company of translators. These men worked without remuneration (!), so as a reward Andrewes introduced him to a ‘living’ in 1607, becoming vicar of Tottenham High Cross, London.

Bedwell was known as the father of Arabic studies in England, and his scope included all the oriental languages. He made translations of the Scriptures into Hebrew, Syriac, Chaldee and Arabic. Bedwell produced a Persian dictionary, which is among Archbishop Laud's manuscripts, still preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. However, he was especially dedicated to Arabic, because it was very little known in northern Europe.

The value of Arabic

Bedwell said the practical importance of Arabic was seen in that, from the Fortunate Islands (possibly Madeira, Canary Islands, Azores, Cape Verde and Bermuda) to the China Seas it was the only language of religion and was the chief language of diplomacy and business.

He also believed Arabic had real value because the literature was rich in theology, medicine, and mathematics. Many ancient authors had also been translated into Arabic. He knew that Arabic, being a cognate (= cousin) language of Hebrew, was a significant resource in trying to discover the meaning of unusual Hebrew words in the Old Testament.

His influence on other scholars

Thomas Van Erpe (Erpenius), was a most renowned professor of Oriental languages at Leiden, Holland. He visited England in 1606. Bedwell’s reputation for Arabic learning was so great, that Erpenius sought him out for guidance and direction in his studies. Erpenius was only 22, and not yet professor, whereas Bedwell’s influence was well established by this time. Alex. McClure says Erpenius is often reputed to have been the first to promote and revive the study of the Arabic language and literature in Europe, but the older English scholar was, in fact, ahead of him.

Dr. Edward Pococke ” filled the first chair of Arabic at Oxford in 1636. Bedwell had been tutor to him also. “His rare scholarship and personal qualities brought him influential friends, foremost among these being John Selden and John Owen.”

Arabists on the European continent rated Bedwell highly, either visiting him or corresponding with him. They waited keenly for the publication of his Arabic Lexicon in three volumes, which was the first of its kind.

Bedwell too, went travelling to discover Arabic manuscripts, as there was a dearth of such materials in England. He went to Holland to examine the collections of the Huguenot Joseph Scaliger who “from his throne at Leiden ruled the learned world.”

Whilst in Antwerp Bedwell published the epistles of John in Arabic and Latin in 1612. This was a book where the two languages are printed on the same page, side by side.

After his death Bedwell's manuscripts - useful for their numerous notes - were loaned to the University of Cambridge, and with a font of types for printing them. Here they were consulted by Edmund Castell during the creation of his monumental Lexicon Heptaglotton (1669). This was a combined lexicon of Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Persian and Arabic produced over 18 years by the Cambridge Prof. of Arabic.

The influence of Islam

In his study of Arabic literature, Bedwell translated an 'Index' of the Suras of the Koran, which he had derived from comparing the manuscripts. He wrote “The 'Trudgeman'"' an interpretive work which explains how Arabic words were being used by Western writers, when describing the world of the Near East. It bears evidence of very wide reading in all such works, from the Byzantines downwards.

Bedwell had none of the illusions, which are quite widespread today, about the teachings of Mohammed. He refused to simplistically identify Muslem scholarship with a manuscript written in Arabic! In 1615, he published his book, "A Discovery of the Impostures of Mahomet and of the Koran."

A.N.(1) implies Bedwell called the Koran blasphemous, and Mohammed - the amanuensis of a supposed divine revelation - a "seducer." Such a description he says reactively is "vituperative," such conduct is "eccentric." Notwithstanding, Bedwell's judgements were based on first-hand study of the Koran in Arabic, not on a pre-occupation with political correctness. For example, there are a number of verses in the Koran (2) where the Sonship of Christ is specifically denied, such as Q 4:171 and especially Q 19:34-35:

Such was Jesus the son
Of Mary: (it is) a statement
Of truth, about which
They (vainly) dispute.
It is not befitting
To (the majesty of) Allah
That He should beget
A son.

Q4: 156-158 also denies that Jesus Christ was crucified - at the last moment someone else took his place. No wonder then, if Bedwell considered the Koran not noble, but blasphemous. For a 16th century Christian minister, the deity and atoning death of Jesus was central to the Christian faith. Indeed, Lancelot Andrewes and others had Bartholomew Legate and John Wightman shamefully put to death for denying these basic truths of Christianity. "Eccentric" means 'off-centre,’ ‘on-a-tangent.’ To "seduce" is to lead astray. Bedwell was not being eccentric in his value-judgements; rather, they conformed to the established orthodoxy of the day. When Mohammed was commanded by an angel in the cave to “recite!’ what he heard, he protested that he was completely illiterate.”(3) It’s not surprising therefore that he confused begetting a son, with the result of a sexual relationship. Whereas, for the Christian who should know better, Jesus Christ is at the very centre of his thinking - all else is eccentric. Do we infer from this criticism of Bedwell, that A.N. writes not as a Christian?

Practical effect of knowing Arabic

Donald Waite (4) explains why he believes Bedwell’s specialist knowledge put the scholar in a different class from today’s translators:

William Bedwell, with his Arabic, Persian, and other Oriental languages, was greatly superior to our modern translators. Many modern “translators” come up to a word, and in a footnote somewhere, or in an index at the bottom of the page, they’ll say the meaning of this Hebrew word is uncertain; so they’ll have some other rendition of it. Well, the meaning of it is uncertain, perhaps, to these men who were living . . . when the NIV came out. ...; but these men who translated the KING JAMES BIBLE knew their cognate languages well. They understood these references and there was no question in their mind about what most of these words meant. . . . Cognate languages are simply sister languages related to Hebrew like Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic and so on. They are related like brother and sister.

A word may be clear, or maybe the word is what they call a hapaxlegomenon. Hapax means "once” and legomenon means “spoken or written.” This particular word was used once only in all the New Testament Greek or Old Testament Hebrew. So it is difficult to tell sometimes what these hapaxlegomena (in the plural) mean. They go to other sources to try to understand the meaning. The translators of the KING JAMES, who knew Arabic, Persian, Aramaic, Coptic and all the various cognate languages, could go to these languages and understand very clearly. But the men living today, because they don’t know these cognate languages as well [they don’t know fifteen languages like Andrews for example], just throw up their hands and say the meaning of the Hebrew is not certain.

William Bedwell died aged 70, in 1632. Let’s give McClure the last word on his significant contribution to the KJV:

Some modern scholars have fancied, that we have an advantage in our times over the translators of King James's day, by reason of the greater attention which is supposed to be paid at present to what are called the "cognate" and "Shemetic" languages, and especially the Arabic by which much light is thought to be reflected upon Hebrew words and phrases. It is evident, however, that Mr. Bedwell and others, among his fellow-laborers, were thoroughly conversant in this part of the broad field of sacred criticism.
(1) Nicolson, Adam. (2003) Power and glory: Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible, Lon: Harper. pp. 101, 192.
(2) Sookhdeo Patrick (2001) A Christian's Pocket Guide to Islam, UK: Christian Focus, p. 38.
(3) Rogerson, Barnaby (2003) The Prophet Mohammed, Lon: Abacus, p. 89.
(4) Waite, D. A. (1992/2004) Defending the King James Bible NJ: Bible For Today, p. 69.

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