Bede, the Bible and Trailblazing

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes:

St Bede (673–735), whom the Church commemorates on 27 May, was one of Britain’s great polymaths. Bede was a pedagogue, computist and historian. He is best known today for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. His works were standard academic fare throughout the Middle Ages. Bede’s personal holiness resulted in folk calling him ‘venerable’ by the ninth century. In the eleventh century, his bones were translated from his monastery, St Paul’s, Jarrow, to Durham Cathedral to allow for veneration of this erudite monk. 

We commemorate saints’ lives to learn from their example and so imitate them in our own. Although Bede was a master of many subjects, the apple of his eye was the Bible. From Bede we learn the eminence of the study of the Holy Scriptures, along with the Spirit-filled imperative to share knowledge of God’s Word with others.

St Bede was schooled in Latin and Greek. Not only did he write in Latin, but he wrote books to assist others to understand it. He wrote commentaries on many books of the Bible. As he grew older, he realised that his fellow Christians in Britain would benefit from a translation of the Bible into their vernacular, that is, into Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Old English is the earliest form of our English language, spoken and written in Anglo-Saxon Britain from the middle of the fifth century until the middle of the twelfth century.

According to his student, Cuthbert, also a monk at Jarrow, the Venerable Bede set out to translate the Gospel of John into Old English at the very end of his life. Bede is said to have worked on it diligently, dictating it to his scribe, Wilbert, yet another monk at Jarrow, and finishing it on his deathbed. Sadly, Bede’s translation is lost. We know of it only because of Cuthbert’s account of Bede’s death. A cynic sees the end of a story there. A person of faith, though, sees a story beginning there, at least on these Islands, of God’s Word in our native tongue. Old-English translations of the Gospels began to appear in the tenth century. The fourteenth century gave us John Wycliffe’s translation of the entire Bible into English. The story of the Bible in English continues into the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the translations of Myles Coverdale, William Tyndale and the King James Bible. An integral part of that story is the shaping of the English language as we know it by these translations and the Books of Common Prayer which rely heavily upon them. 

Yet the story of the Bible’s translation into English is not merely about opening the Word to all but about the Word’s pride of place in an intellectual life. What Bede the saint and sage exemplifies is a thirst for the highest truths, the truths of God, that may only be found in God’s revealed Word. As St Paul wrote to St Timothy so long ago, ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, andis profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the person of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works’ (2 Timothy 3.16–17). 

We have advanced in leaps and bounds in terms of our understanding of the created order. Indeed, we find ourselves today reassessing our God-given dominion over the things of nature as per Genesis 1.26–31 in terms of our manipulation to the point that, perhaps, we have done more harm than good. St Bede’s De natura rerum, written in 703 about natural phenomena, and his De temporum ratione, written in 723 about the reckoning of time, were impressive in the eighth century. Advances in the physical sciences have continued apace into the twentieth-first century. We have gone to the moon and beyond, cured innumerable diseases, and continue to progress technologically to the benefit of our earthy lives. No doubt Bede would celebrate our triumphs in the physical sciences, but weep at our losses in the sacred sciences. For as sacred science goes, we Christians put far too little emphasis on the Holy Scriptures in order to progress spiritually to the benefit of our eternal lives. ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’ (John 17.3). 

There is nothing more important that we can learn from the Venerable Bede than a devotion to the Holy Scriptures. The Psalmist reminds us that God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (119.105). By reading, marking and learning the Holy Scriptures, our forebears in the faith, like Bede, are the trailblazers on the illuminated path that leads from earthly life unto life eternal. 

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is currently Director of Studies and on 1st July 2023 becomes Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.