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Review: Archbishop Benson on the Apocalypse

The Journal of Theological Studies 2 (1901) 302-305

The Apocalypse. an Introductory Study of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, being a presentment of the structure of the book and of the fundamental principles of its interpretation

By EDWARD WHITE BENSON, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury.
(London, Macmillan & Co., Limited, 1900.)

Forty years ago, in view of a proposed Commentary upon the New Testament, Hort, then Vicar of St. Ippolyt's, suggested ‘a partition the whole New Testament’ between Lightfoot, Westcott, and himself.<note 1> The Johannine writings fell to the share of the present Bishop of Durham, but the Apocalypse was ‘not finally assigned’<note 2> Benson, who at the time had recently entered upon his duties at Wellington, does not appear to have been mentioned in connexion with this particular book, although a hope was entertained that he might undertake the Epistle to the Hebrews. But the Apocalypse possessed stronger attractions for a nature so deeply in sympathy with the visionary and the symbolical. ‘All his life, perhaps’ (his daughter writes), ‘he had been peculiarly interested in the Revelation … When the book was actually beguni I do not know, but for many years he habitually worked at it before breakfast, and on any unoccupied Sunday afternoons. <note 3>Cyprian and the Study grew together under the Archbishop's hands at Lambeth and Addington, and in his last journey he carried both with him, ‘that no moment might be lost in the intervals.’ But while the Cyprian was practically ready for publication, the Study was left in an unfinished state. It is in this condition that it has been given to the world, the Editor having rightly judged that ‘it is better to leave a characteristic’ work rough-hewn than to let any hand but that of the master round the outlines and smooth the surfaces <note 4>.’

The Archbishop's own estimate of his work is characteristic. ‘If it ever sees the light’ (he wrote in 1896) ‘many will think it a very odd book. Folks are edified in such different ways. But it has edified me, which was what I began it for<note 5>.’ These words on the whole give a fair idea of the book. It is certainly not without a vein of oddity, which. shows itself both in the plan and in the execution. The volume consists of five Essays, broken into two groups by a translation which is preceded by an analysis, quaintly called ‘a Breviate.’ An Introduction, an Appendix, and a series of aphorisms adapted from Auberlen, complete the collection. The style is as unconventional as the arrangement; the Archbishop's Thucydidean ‘avoidance of the obvious<note 6>’ makes itself felt here even more distinctly than in the Cyprian. And there are ‘folks’ who will not be ‘edified’ by the contents. Readers whose interest in the Apocalypse is limited to questions of Introduction — sources, authorship, date, and text — will be disappointed; and even less encouragement is given to those who regard it as a promising field for prophetic research. The Study ‘makes no pretensions to be an Interpretation, still less what many Interpretations are, a new Prophecy<note 7>.’ To the Archbishop the Revelation presented itself as an apocalypse of ‘principles and powers,’ and not a prediction of particular events or a foreshadowing of historical personages. His one historical note is intended to show by an example the baselessness of a system which interprets ‘by persons and events<note 8>.’ The true key to the Apocalypse is to be found in attention to the structure of the book. It is here that the student will find the Study an enormous help. Under the Archbishop's guidance order springs out of chaos; the perplexed mass of visions, voices, songs, descriptions, becomes a great spiritual drama, with its characters, its scenery, its occasional bursts of choric poetry; whether the work of a single author or one in which Jewish sources have been laid under contribution by a Christian hand, the Apocalypse in its present form is seen to be a magnificent unity. This result is obtained not by technical arguments, which another pen may presently overthrow, but by a sympathetic handling of the book which appeals the imagination and to the spiritual sense. Fragmentary as the Study is, it leaves an impression of the substantial oneness of the Revelation, which criticism will not easily efface.

The scholarship of the book is not unworthy of the Senior Medallist and Master of Wellington. Yet the translation will seem ‘odd’ enough to the reader who forgets Archbishop Benson's intense sympathy with his author. It is a deliberate attempt to reproduce in English the glorious audacities of the original. Who but Benson would have ventured to print ‘the Was’ as a rendering of St. John’s ὁὁ ἦν? The version is full of surprises, some of which are novelties; e.g. 4, 3 ‘like /304/ a vision of jasper stone’; 10, 7 ‘and the mystery of God was finished’; 12,10 ’the Kingdom became our God's and the authority His Christ's’; 14,1 ‘behold the Lamb gone to stand on the mount Sion’; 15,2 ‘them that come conquering forth from the Wildbeast’; 17,5 ‘a name written a mystery’; 20,14 ‘this is Death the Second’; 21, 17 ‘man's measure which is angel's measure’; 22,15 ‘out, ye dogs.’

The Archbishop's view of the Greek of the Apocalypse is set forth in a separate Essay characterically called ‘A Grammar of Ungrammar.’ Starting from the cautious admissions of Dionysius of Alexandria, he works his way through the solecisms so called, and defends the greater part of them on various grounds. The writer's habit of introducing without notice comments proceeding sometimes from himself, sometimes from Christ or from the ‘hierophant,’ has the effect of breaking the grammatical structure and producing the appearance of a solecism which does not really exist. In other cases grammatical difficulties are met by a slight change in the punctuation, or by an improved translation. Thus in 7,4 ἐσφραγισμένοι is right, if a comma precedes, as it does in the text of W. H. ; in 22, 5 the true construction is καὶ νὺξ οὐκ ἔσται ἔτι . . καὶ φῶς ἡλίου [οὐκ ἔσταο ἔτἰ. It is admitted, however, that when all deductions have been made, some insoluble anomalies remain. Only two examples are given ( 14,19 τὴν ληνὸν . . τὸν μέγαν, 21,14 τὸ τεῖχος … ἔχων); but the Essay was left unfinished, and we may perhaps add 11,4 οὗτοί εἰσιν αἱ δύο ἐλαῖαι . . αἱ . . ἑστῶτες, 12,5. ἔτεκεν υἱὸν ἄρσεν, where neither W. H.'s υἱόν, nor υἱὸν ἄρσενα (P 95 al.) improves the sense, and 19,20 εἰς τὴν λίμνην τοῦ πυρὸς τῆς καιομένης. In dealing with the writer's use of λέγων, the Archbishop rightly calls attention to the practice of the LXX; but it is surely unnecessary to find an extreme case of this anomaly in Mc. 15, 36 δραμὼν δέ τις . . ἐπότιζεν αὐτὸν λέγων, where he regards λέγων as practically equivalent to οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ εἶπαν of Mt. 27, 49.

Here and there the Archbishop has perhaps suffered his judgement to be warped by his sympathies, as when he translates ὰδικεῖν by ‘wrong’ when it relates to the inanimate creation (6,6; 7, 3; 9,4)<note 9>, although Lc. 10,19 or even his favourite author Thucydides might have suggested a different rendering in such combinations as ὰδικεῖν τὴν γῆς, τὸν χόρτον, τὸ ἔλαιον. A more serious drawback is the absence of any due recognition of the Semitic influences which affect both the language and the thought of the Apocalypse; through the limitations imposed upon him by the exacting claims of his office, Archbishop Benson was compelled to study the book ‘solely from the point of view of a Greek scholar <note 10>.’ But these defects do not interfere with the general usefulness of the work. Within its own province it renders unique service to the student. A mere πάρεργον — one of two πάρεργα produced amidst the incessant labours of an archiepiscopate — the Study is a monument of the enthusiasm, the power of realization, the spiritual insight and force, which characterized the personality of its author.


Edward White BensonEdward White Benson

Born:. July 14, 1829

Died: October 9, 1896

Biography: Father of the Bensons: The Life of Edward White Benson, Sometime Archbishop of Canterbury by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd. Lennard, 226 pp., £16.99, ISBN 1 85291 138 7


Note 1: Life and Letters of F.J.A. Hort, pp. 417 f.

Note 2: Prefatory note to Dr. Hort's I Peter, by Bishop Westcott.

Note 3: Apocalypse, p. ix.

Note 4: Ib. p. xii.

Note 5: Apocalypse, p. xii.

Note 6: Prefatory note to Cyprian, p. iii.

Note 7: Apocalypse, p.I

Note 8: Ib. p.176.

Note 9: Apocalypse, p.73, note: ‘ “Wrong” — ἀδικεῖν, does not in the Apocalypse lose its sense, [? when it is used] as here, of the innocent creation.’

Note 10: lb. p.131.