by Ibn Warraq (January 2010)
George Eliot’s advocacy of Palestine as a homeland for the Jews must, of course, be seen against the background of Nineteenth Century Britain’s “Restorationism” as Zionism was then termed, as well as the Nineteenth Century German and Italian national liberation movements. Eliot’s novel is set during the period when the Kingdom of Prussia defeated the Austrian Empire at the Battle of Königgrätz, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Sadowa in Bohemia, on July 3, 1866-a battle often listed as one of the twenty decisive battles of the world. We could also take a much longer view, and place Eliot’s ideas in the context of Britain’s entire historical rapport with Palestine.
Barbara Tuchman takes the story of Britain’s attachment to Palestine to the early Middle Ages. Britain had been developing such an attachment for various religious, spiritual and cultural reasons for a very long time, and the principal one among these was, of course, the English Bible and its prophecies. The Bible came to be adopted, in the words of Thomas Huxley, as “the national epic of Britain.” Even the origins of the British Church were sought in Palestine, and they were found in the person of Joseph of Arimathea, the rich Jew and secret disciple of Jesus, and a member of the Sanhedrin. He is said to have founded the Abbey of Glastonbury in 63 C.E. More certainly, Britons showed a decided propensity to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land beginning within two generations of the conversion of Constantine. And by the time of St. Willibald of Wessex, who arrived in Palestine in 721 C.E. the custom was well-established, though we do not know the names of the British pilgrims. One of the later known pilgrims was Saewulf, who wended his way to Jerusalem in 1102. In the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer [died 1400], the Wife of Bath boasts that she has been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times.
Rather strangely, the Crusades did not really penetrate into English consciousness as one might have expected. King Richard the Lionheart, who hardly spent any time in England, did inspire some legends and folklore about his adventures in Palestine, as did the valorous deeds of Robert Curthose [died 1134] in the First Crusade. The exploits of Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, were celebrated much later by Thomas Heywood, the Elizabethan playwright, in about the year 1600 when the latter’s play Four Prentices of London was staged to enthusiastic crowds.
with their shields and scutcheons, drum and soldiers:
Godfrey's shield, having a maidenhead with a crown
in it; Charles's shield the Haberdasher's Arms.
Robert. Behold the high walls of Jerusalem,
Which Titus and Vespasian once brake down:
From off these turrets have the ancient Jews
Seen worlds of people mustering on these plains.
Oh, princes, which of all your eyes are dry,
To look upon this temple, now destroy'd?
Yonder did stand the great Jehovah's house,
In midst of all his people, there he dwelt:
Vessels of gold did serve his sacrifice,
And with him for the people spake the priests.
There was the ark, the shewbread, Aaron's rod,
Sanctum sanctorum, and the Cherubins.
Now in that holy place, where God himself
Was personally present, Pagans dwell,
False gods are rear'd, each temple idols bears.
Oh, who can see this, and abstain from tears?
When he came riding to Jerusalem,
Whilst the religious people spread his way
With flowers and garments, and Hosanna cry'd.
Yonder did stand the great church, where he taught,
Confuting all the Scribes and Pharisees.
This place did witness all his miracles:
Within this place did stand the judgment seat,
Where Pontius Pilate with the elders sate,
Where they condemn’d him to be whipp'd and crown'd,
To be derided, mock'd, and crucified,
His hands bor'd through with nails, his side with spears.
By the time of Queen Elizabeth, the English had become familiar with Jerusalem and its environs thanks largely to the availability of the Bible in English, to which we now turn. In the Thirteenth Century, “the first question ever asked by an Inquisitor of a ‘heretic’ was whether he knew any part of the Bible in his own tongue.” The story of the Bible in English is the story of the brave individuals who defied the Inquisitor, and who were determined to make the Bible available in the vernacular so that everyone from the ploughman to the baker had direct access, without the intermediation of a priest, to the words and deeds of Jesus and all those patriarchs and prophets inspired by God.
The story of the Bible in English picks up really with the work of John Wycliffe [alternative spellings Wyclif, Wycliff, Wiclef, Wicliffe, or Wickliffe], born circa 1328 – died 31 December 1384]. However, it would be churlish to pass by the efforts of earlier sages who quoted from the Bible in Latin, or who rendered the Bible into Anglo-Saxon. Saint Gildas, who probably died in the year 570 C.E. wrote a sermon in three parts, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae or On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, recounting the conquest of his land by Saxons, Jutes, and Danes. “After every battle he cites an Old Testament analogy and on every page quotes from the Pentateuch, the Prophets, or the Psalms.” The learned and Venerable Bede [born 672 or 673; died 735] translated The Gospel according to John into Anglo-Saxon; King Alfred, ever solicitous of the education of his people, translated the Psalms and the Ten Commandments. Bible stories were also done into Old English; the Scriptures were written in parallel columns beside the Latin.
Caedmon [died between 679- 684] is said by Bede to have devoted himself to religious poetry, and to translations from the Old and New Testaments into Old English, the language of his only surviving lines, the opening of his poem known as Caedmon’s Hymn. The Heliand is an epic poem in Old Saxon composed in the first half of the Ninth century recounting the life of Jesus, and is based on pseudo-Tatian’s Gospel Harmony. The author of the Heliand is also thought to have written a poem on Genesis, based largely on the Bible account.
Aelfric of Eynsham [c. 955 – c. 1010], also Alfric, and known as Aelfric the Grammarian, was an English abbot, and a writer in Old English of hagiography, homilies, biblical commentaries, and other genres. He wrote Judith, a homily in 452 verses around the year 1000. It is written in Old English alliterative prose, and paraphrases the Biblical original. Aelfric also wrote a paraphrase of parts of the Old Testament, known as the West Saxon Gospels, rather reluctantly fearing that its wider dissemination would lead common people to believe that the practices of the Ancient Israelites were still acceptable for Christians. His homily on Judith is not to be confused with the Judith an anonymous Old English paraphrase of the Biblical story of Holofernes in the Book of Judith. The exact date of the latter is disputed, some suggest the early tenth century for its composition, others would date it even later. Richard Rolle [1290–1349], an English mystic, translated several parts of the Bible including the Psalms into a Northern English dialect; later copies were adapted into Southern English dialects.
These old and Middle English verses, paraphrases, and translations had no influence on the translations into English of the Old and New Testament that began in earnest only with John Wycliffe. As I hope to devote an entire article in several parts to the Bible in English, I shall only adumbrate the story of translations leading upto the magnificent Authorised Version of King James of 1611.
John Wycliffe [c.1328 -1384] defended the right of every man, whether cleric or layman, to examine the Bible for himself. Only the Bible could be the standard by which Church doctrine must be tried; the opinions of popes, cardinals and friars were worthless except in so far as they were founded on Scripture itself. The only way to free Christian minds of the corrupt tyrannies of papal rule was to make the Bible available to them directly so that they could judge for themselves. A full literal translation of the Bible into English was the only way make it accessible to everyman and woman, the partial translations into Old English or Anglo-Saxon of the Middle Ages were inadequate since the latter languages were no longer comprehensible to the majority of Englishmen.
By Wycliffe’s day, against a background of English patriotism and the birth of English literature with the works of William Langland [c.1332 – c 1386], John Gower [c. 1330 – 1408], and his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer [c. 1343 –1400], the call for a complete translation became more and more frequent and adamant, and had taken a nationalistic cast. The Wycliffe Bible of 1380 was in fact a translation of the Latin Vulgate by two of Wycliffe’s friends, John Purvey and Nicholas of Hereford, and was the first complete English Bible. A second version, far less literal, came out after Wycliffe’s death in 1384, and contains far more native English idiom, and became the accepted one.
William Tyndale [1494-1536], often called the Father of the English Bible, studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and became proficent in Greek. Like Wycliffe, Tyndale wanted to have the New Testament in a language that the ordinary man or woman could understand. His translation of the NT came out in 1525, and was the first to be printed, and the first to be translated from the original Greek. He also began to translate the OT from the Hebrew, but never completed his task.
Miles Coverdale [1488-1569], educated at Cambridge was an Augustinian Friar, and eventually a bishop. Coverdale worked as Tyndale’s assistant, and helped him with the Pentateuch. Coverdale’s Bible came out in 1535, and was the first complete printed edition of the Bible in English. As he had no pretence to any profound knowledge of either Greek or Hebrew, Coverdale made generous use of Tyndale’s translation, and also relied on the Vulgate, Luther’s German Bible, Zwingli and Pagninus. However, he did provide the translation of the Psalms for the Book of Common Prayer, the revised version of which appeared in 1662.
The Authorised Version of 1611, also known as the King James Version [KJV], was the work of 54 scholars, and prepared in Shakespeare’s England, containing some of the most sublime English prose and poetry, poetry and prose that has influenced the English language and the course of English literature. Strictly speaking it was not an original translation, even though many of the scholars had some knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but more of an inspired redaction relying upon previously published work, such as the Bible translations of Tyndale, Coverdale, and others. It has been calculated that 80 per cent of the words for the NT come from Tyndale, for example.
T. H. Huxley reminds us, writing in the Nineteenth Century, the importance of the Bible to England and English culture,
“And then consider the great historical fact that for three centuries, this Book has been woven into the life of all that is best and noblest in English history; that it has become the national epic of Britain, and is familiar to noble and simple, from John-o 'Groat's Mouse to Land's End, as Dante and Tasso once were to the Italians; that it is written in the noblest and purest English, and abounds in exquisite beauties of mere literary form; and, finally that it forbids the veriest hind who never left his village to be ignorant of the existence of other countries and other civilizations, and of a great past, stretching back to the further limits of the oldest nations in the world. By the study of what other book could children be so much humanized and made to feel that each figure in the vast historical procession fills, like themselves, but a momentary space in the interval between two Eternities; and earns the blessings or the curses of all time, according to the effort to do good and hate evil?”
Barbara Tuchman summarises the significance of these English translations as well, “With the translation of the Bible into English and its adoption as the highest authority for an autonomous English Church, the history, traditions, and moral law of the Hebrew nation became part of the English culture; became for a period of three centuries the most powerful single influence on that culture. It linked, to repeat Matthew Arnold’s phrase, ‘the genius and history of us English, and our American descendants across the Atlantic, to the genius and history of the Hebrew people’. This is far from saying that it made England a Judaeophile nation, but without the background of the English Bible it is doubtful that the Balfour Declaration would ever have been issued in the name of the British government or the Mandate for Palestine undertaken, even given the strategic factors that later came into play”.
In the Age of Discovery, especially in the Sixteenth century, commerce, not salvation, was the chief attraction of the East. And yet, there were always travellers to the East, moved by curiosity and the Renaissance spirit of inquiry, who left journals and diaries that kept alive acquaintance with the Holy Land.
On January 5, 1648, the following petition was addressed,
“The humble Petition of Johanna Cartwright, Widow, and Ebenezer,Cartwright, her Son, free-bom of England, and now Inhabitants of the City of Amsterdam,
“That your Petitioners, being conversant in that city with and amongst some of Israel's race, called Jews, and growing sensible of their heavy outcryes and clamours against the intolerable cruelty of this our English nation, exercised against them by that (and other) inhumane exceeding great massacre of them, in the reign of Richard the Second, King of this land, and their banishment ever since, with the penalty of death to be inflicted upon any if 'they return into this land; that by discourse with them, and serious perusal of their Prophets, both they and we find, that the time of the recall draweth nigh; whereby they together with us shall come to know the Emanuel, the Lord of life, light, and glory, even as we are now known of him; and that this nation of England, with the inhabitants of the Netherlands, shall be the first and readiest to transport Israel's sons and daughters, in their ships, to the land promised to their forefathers, Abraham, Israel, and Jacob, for an everlasting inheritance.
“For the glorious manifestation whereof, and pyous means thereunto, your Petitioners humbly pray, that the inhumane cruel statute of banishment, made against them, may be repealed, and they, under the Christian banner of charity and brotherly love, may again be received and permitted to trade and dwell amongst you in this land, as now they do in the Netherlands. By which act of mercy, your Petitioners are assured of, the wrath of God will be much appeased towards you for their innocent bloodshed; and they thereby daily enlightened in the saving knowledge of him, for whom they look daily, and expect, as their King of Eternal Glory, and both their and our Lord God of Salvation (Christ Jesus). For the glorious accomplishing whereof, your Petitioners do and shall ever address themselves to the true peace, and pray, &c.”
The petition of the Cartwrights, two English Puritans living in the Netherlands, reflects the extent to which attitudes in Seventeenth Century England had changed, a change wrought by the English Bible working through the Puritan movement. In earlier centuries, Palestine had been seen as a land of largely Christian Associations. “Now it came to be remembered as the homeland of the Jews, the land carrying the Scriptural promise of Israel’s return.” It is at the beginning of the Seventeenth century that the movement among the English for the return of the Jews to Palestine began, but it was not a movement for the sake of the Jews, but for the sake of the promise made to them.
“According to Scripture the kingdom of Israel for all mankind would come when the people of Israel were restored to Zion. Only then would the world see the advent of the Messiah or, in Christian terms, the Second Advent. The return was visioned, of course, only in terms of a Jewish nation converted to Christianity, for this was to be the signal for the working out of the promise.”
As early as 1621, Sir Henry Finch, a British Member of Parliament and Puritan common lawyer, had exhorted, in “The World’s Great Restauration [Restoration], or The Calling of the Jews and with them of all Nations and Kingdoms of the Earth to the Faith of Christ,” the Jews to reclaim the Holy Land, “Out of all the places of thy dispersion, East, West, North and South, His purpose is to bring thee home again and to marry thee to Himself by faith for evermore.”
It is from the middle of the Seventeenth century we do find the second of the two motives that compelled the British to take an interest in Palestine. We have already emphasized the religious motive, but from now on we shall encounter the profit motive, whether commercial, military, or imperial.
By the Nineteenth Century, an evangelical version of Protestatantism also believed that the conversion of the Jews could not come about until the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Among the early advocates of Restorationism were Lord Lindsay, Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Palmerston, Disraeli, Lord Manchester, Holman Hunt, Sir Charles Warren, Hall Caine, Charles Henry Churchill, and of course, George Eliot. For example, Lord Lindsay wrote: “[The soil of] Palestine still enjoys her sabbaths, and only waits for the return of her banished children, and the application of industry, commensurate with her agricultural capabilities, to burst once more into universal luxuriance, and be all that she ever was in the days of Solomon.”
While Charles Henry Churchill, a British resident of Damascus, wrote in 1841 a letter to the Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore stating, “...I consider the object to be perfectly obtainable. But, two things are indispensably necessary. Firstly, that the Jews will themselves take up the matter unanimously. Secondly, that the European powers will aid them in their views...”
Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, an Evangelical Christian, was also a fervent restorationist, and perhaps the greatest influence on the views of George Eliot. He wrote, “The inherent vitality of the Hebrew race reasserts itself with amazing persistence. Its genius, to tell the truth, adapts itself more or less to all the currents of civilization all over the world, nevertheless always emerging with distinctive features and a gallant recovery of vigor.” Shaftesbury had confessed to his biographer, Edwin Hodder, in his belief in the Second Advent, which “has always been a moving principle in my life, for I see everything going on in the world subordinate to this great event.” And since the restoration of the Jews was required for the Second Advent, Shaftesbury “never had a shadow of a doubt that the Jews were to return to their own land...It was his daily prayer, his daily hope. ‘Oh pray for the peace of Jerusalem!’ were the words engraven on the ring he always wore on his right hand.”
Lord Shaftesbury undoubtedly influenced Prime Minister Palmerston and his successors in the government, whom he also urged to protect the Jews already living in Palestine. A report in The Times in 1840 hinted that Lord Shaftesbury had tried to ascertain the views of the Jews on the proposed restoration, and whether and when they were ready to live in Palestine and invest their capital in agriculture, whether they would pay for their own passage, whether they would be willing to live under Turkish rule, protected by Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, Austro- Hungary. Shaftesbury had convinced Palmerston to write to the British Ambassador in Constantinople:
“There exists at the present time among the Jews dispersed over Europe, a strong notion that the time is approaching for their nation to return to Palestine...It would be of manifest importance to the Sultan to encourage the Jews to return and to settle in Palestine because the wealth which they would bring with them would increase the resources of the Sultan's dominions; and the Jewish people, if returning under the sanction and protection and at the invitation of the Sultan, would be a check on any future evil designs of Mehmet Ali or his successors... I have to instruct Your Excellency strongly to recommend to hold out every just encouragement to the Jews of Europe to return to Palestine.” 
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