aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Words, words, words

Ælfric (c. 995-c. 1010) was an abbot who lived at the height of Anglo-Saxon England. He is the most prolific writer of the extant corpus of Old English works. I've been reading in his "Introduction to the Old and New Testaments," which serves as preface for his Heptateuch, or translation into Old English of the first seven books of the Bible. It's a basic overview of what the Bible is all about and the Christian beliefs derived from it. Quite an achievement.

In his opening paragraph, addressed to his friend Sigwerth, he cites the Latin, Sit gloria Domini in seculum seculi; letabitur Dominus in operibus suis, and then says, "þæt ys on Engliscre spræce, 'Si ures Drihtenes wuldor on worulda woruldum; ure Drihten blissað on his agenum weorcum.'" That would be, in modern English, "Let there be to our Lord glory unto ages of ages; our Lord rejoices in his own works."

In this passage, Latin in seculum seculi is an alternative for in saecula saeculorum -- the Medieval Latin slowly wearing down the older form? Or maybe he's just citing from memory. Anyway, the Latin phrase here is a direct translation of the Greek eis tas aiwnas twn aiwnwn, meaning "for ever," but embodying the Hebrew concept of the Age. "For ever" does not imply an endless extension of time, but to an age that fulfills and supplants this age: the age to come. This world, this age, this state of affairs, will not last for ever, but a world, an age, a state of affairs is coming which will not be limited by time as this one is. The age of ages which is dawning upon us is the life of the world to come, the kingdom of heaven, the resurrection of the dead unto eternal life. And I've already used the word "world" as a translation here, which is giving my point away.

"World" is the English concept equivalent to Latin saeculum or Greek aiwn. And so in translating this biblical phrase into English, the OE writers said, on worulda woruldum. It is the ancestor of the phrase we sing every Sunday, "world without end." The world without end is not this one, but the one that is to come, the world of worlds, the fulfillment of all worlds there are or could ever be.

The word for "Lord" is a less direct translation. Some acculturation is going on here. Hebrew Adonai is a title exclusively applied to God. It means "our/the Lord." In Aramaic, the term is marana, as in the phrase, marana tha, "Our Lord, come!" In surrounding Semitic cultures, similar words were used more loosely, toward other gods and even other royal persons, but Jews ONLY used these words to refer to the God in covenant with Israel. Translating this concept introduced some new shades of meaning, I think. Greek translated adonai with kurios, which means "lord" in the sense of "boss," the one with the power to make himself obeyed; on the other hand, basileus, "king," is one who has the rightful authority to be obeyed. The two together image "might" versus "right," you might say, though both belong to Christ. In Latin, dominus was used to mean "lord," but in origin means a head of household, a very august position in Roman society. In Old English, drihten was in origin a military title, a name for a noble in his role as leader of a war band. The actual word "lord" (not cited in the passage, above) is from Old English hlaford, which means "loaf-ward(en)," the head of the manor who deals out bread to his workers. Christ is most often called in Old English the Hælend, meaning "healer, one who makes whole/restores)."

All of these status-words in Greek, Latin, and Old English lack the Hebrew covenantal focus, which makes me wonder about how early converts in those cultures viewed their connection with the God of the Bible. No doubt the insulating power of the context helped them understand God as the Bible portrays him; but, I imagine the human titles applied to God also overlaid the biblical meaning. God as a war leader is an image the Germanic peoples found very attractive; so much so, when Ulfilas translated the Bible for the Goths, he toned down the battle portions of the Old Testament. But Christ as the healer of the world is an interesting take on the role of the Savior.

And all this makes me wonder about how 21st Century Americans absorb and image these words, in whatever translation they meet them in. We are used to thinking of "heaven" as existing alongside the material universe; even when we hear preachers talk about the return of Christ, the emphasis is on a very material -- a very "this-worldly" -- glorification. The idea of eternity as something different from endless serial time, or the New Jerusalem being a different experience from some perfected social state of the (near) future, is hard to get across. For that matter, what does "king" or "lord" mean to a people who threw out monarchy and inherited nobility over 230 years ago?

It is not enough merely to teach people to recite slogans (cf. "receive Christ as Savior and Lord"), unless they have some idea of what the words mean, especially in relation to what we are asking them to believe and to act upon. Likewise, we must teach them what to hope for, both in this life and in the life of the world to come, on worulda woruldum.

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