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Friday, 2 December 2011

William Thorne - a strange contention

Academic background

William Thorne was born in 1568 in Semley, Wiltshire. His background, according to University records, made him a ‘plebe’ (plebeius: neither a gentleman nor a clergyman)! However, there was a pre-existing link between Thorne's family and the aristocratic family of Pembrokes.(1) Thorne entered Winchester College in his teens (1582) and from there went up to New College, Oxford, graduating BA in 1589. An MA followed in 1592. Five years later he was ‘licensed to preach.’ He was Regius professor of Hebrew in Oxford from 1598 for six years, until 1604. In the meantime, he formalized his divinity studies, receiving a BD in 1600, with a doctorate two years later.

His linguistic abilities

Thorne was both a classical and Hebrew scholar. His ability to read Hebrew is evidenced in some extant letters and poems, which were written to him in Hebrew. He himself is known to have written at least one poem in Hebrew.

Thorne frequently corresponded with the well-known Dutch Hebraist Johann Drusius (Johannes van-den-Driesche). In 1609 the latter dedicated one of his writings to Thorne, expressing gratitude that he had generously taken in Drusius's son, John, for two years in Oxford. John was a prodigy, said to have mastered Hebrew at the age of nine! In this writing, in 1609, Drusius quotes some Syriac too, adding a remark in such a way as to imply Thorne also knew some Syriac. There is some indication that Thorne may have also been able to read Arabic. The Elizabethan poet and clergyman Charles Fitzgeffrey devoted a Latin epigram to him in his Affaniae (1601), in admiration of Thorne’s oriental scholarship.

Ecclesiastical offices

William Thorne became dean of Chichester in 1601. The same year he became rector of Tollard Royal, Wiltshire, and two years later prebend of Bussall. Another three years passed, and he took the vicarage of Amport, Hampshire, in 1606. Then, a year later in 1607 he became canon of Chichester and rector of Birdham, Sussex. Then in 1613 the prebend of Hova Villa, and with the passing pf another three years he became rector of North Marden, Sussex. Finally in 1619 he took the rectory at Warblington, Hampshire.

Translator of the KJV

There is no good reason to doubt that William Thorne was a member of the first Oxford company, translating the Major and Minor Old Testament prophets. Thorne’s involvement in the project is made certain by a paper, written in 1606, housed in the Public Records Office, London. This is worth quoting in detail, as follows:

At the request of Dr. Thorne, his majesty’s chaplain, we whose names are hereunto subscribed have thought it equal and just to make known unto all, whom it appertained, that he hath for many years read the public Hebrew lecture with very good recommendation in the University of Oxford, that he is now likewise very necessarily employed in the translation of that part of the Old Testament which is remitted to that university, that he doth govern in the church of Chichester where he is dean with judgment and discretion, and that in the one and the other place he hath ever been and now is of very good and honest reputation. (2)[emphasis added]
This was a petition written in 1606, signed by fourteen bishops, including Thomas Bilson of Winchester and Thomas Ravis of Gloucester - both involved, respectively, as editor and translator of the KJV.

Earliest is best?

What more evidence, then, does the enquirer seek before Thorne‘s name is confidently added to the first Oxford company of translators? Why is doubt still expressed by some, as to Thorne’s membership of the Oxford translation committee? The answer relates to the thorny question of the ostensibly scientific principle, when applied to manuscripts. This says, “earliest is best,“ and Thorne’s name is not mentioned in the earliest lists of translators. This is analogous to the disputed question whether the KJV Text itself represents an inferior unscientific scholarship (compared to more contemporary translations), because the King’s translators did not seek out and prefer the textual readings of the earliest extant Greek manuscripts, nor did they assume that, because they (such few as existed) were earlier, they were therefore better.

The evidence in support of Thorne’s involvement, is substantial, as quoted, even if his name is not among the 48 scholars listed in the British museum. For example, would Thomas Bilson and Thomas Ravis have signed the document as worded, if Thorne had not been involved in the translation? Moreover, Thorne’s credentials as former Regius professor of Hebrew at Oxford for six years, as well as being the King's chaplain, would have been more than enough to make him eminently suitable for inclusion in the translation project. Thorne was also a member of John Case's circle. This was a group of Oxford students who regularly met in Case’s own house in Oxford, to discuss philosophical topics, up to 1600. In 1592 John Case wrote a dedicatory verse to one of Thorne’s works - a commonplace book reorganizing Cicero's ideas on rhetoric, with extensive reference to Aristotle. (1) Thorne clearly was in the wider environment of Oxford scholarship, and this group included several of the Oxford translators. One of them, Ralph Ravens, was also wrongly omitted from some of the early lists. Failure to invite Thorne to join a translation company ran the risk of being received as an insult.

Final days

William Thorne died in 1630 and was buried in Chichester Cathedral. There is no record to suggest he ever married.

(1) DeCoursey Mathew, (2004) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Authorized Version of the Bible, translators of the.
(2) Payne, Gustavus, (1959/1977)The men behind the King James version. MI: Baker pp. Pp. 46, 75-76

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