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.

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