A man of many tongues
Dr. Mercer will be horrified at this announcement of the honour, for he shudders at publicity. He did not tell me. But I was curious about the tiny purple rosette, recognizably a French decoration of some sort, which he wore in his buttonhole, and found out about it later, for I did not dare ask him, having badgered the poor man enough.
For I had managed to drag from his reluctant lips that he knew some 40 tongues and dialects, Semitic and Egyptian, many of them old, some of them dead when Latin and Greek were living languages.
By a further process of extraction, I succeeded in learning that he can read every European language.
It happened that Dr. Mercer was - when I called on him at Trinity House - in a state of as near indignation as this scholarly, mild man could achieve. That day, the papers had, sensationally from his point of view, featured his discovery of a new Book of Ecclesiastes, implying that this meant a complete supplanting of the present book, and even stating that he would give to the world a new Old Testament.
That misrepresentation of his great, if modest, achievement in finding, on his recent trip to Abyssinia [Ethiopia], the earliest copy of Ecclesiastes yet known (its date being 1400 A. D.) and of his intention to revise the text of Ecclesiastes to the extent of the words or sentences on which the discovery threw fresh light.
“ In no case are any of the Bible books copied from the original, as it was originally written,” said Dr. Mercer. “ The earliest copy of the book of Job yet found was written 1,400 years after the death of Job. This had been copied and recopied through generations. Think of the intrusions that crept into the original text and of the mistakes that were multiplied on each writing.
“ Frequently copies were old, faded and tattered before they were further copied, and words had to be guessed at where they had vanished from the text. And the copyists, no doubt, often sought to improve on the original language.”
“ Then the Bible, as we know it, has descended to us through many writings by many men of many temperaments and of varying literary skill?”
“ Why, yes. The Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Septuagint [a Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures that dates from the third century B. C.]. Then, Ethiopic scholars in the sixth century, A.D., took the Hebrew and Greek texts and translated them into Ethiopic. It is not until 400 years later that we find the earliest Hebrew texts. The earliest extant Hebrew manuscripts are no earlier than the tenth century. So that what you read today in the Old Testament is a version of Israelitish history, happenings and literature as they were related in books dating from the tenth century and no earlier.”
To be continued.