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Henry Barclay Swete

By the Rev. J.H. Srawley, M.A., Selwyn College, Cambridge, The Expository Times 10 (1899) 536-539

   The subject of the present sketch occupies the chair of the Regius Professorship of Divinity at Cambridge. Dr. Swete is a biblical scholar and theologian of whom any university might well be proud. The extensive range of his biblical and patristic studies, careful and exact scholarship, and the variety of his work have given him an eminent place among the scholars of today, and have secured for him the attention and respect of his fellow-labourers in the same field of study.

It is not the purpose, however, of the writer of this sketch to attempt to appraise the merits of Dr. Swete. That is beyond his powers. To estimate the value of the work of any living man must always be a difficult and delicate task. Nor is it the writer's intention, however much personal indebtedness might induce him, to attempt anything in the way of a public eulogy, knowing how distasteful to the subject of this sketch anything of the kind would be. Accordingly, the present article will be confined as far as possible to illustrating the services which Dr. Swete has rendered to biblical and theological learning, by some account of his work, together with such personal details of his life as are likely to interest the reader.

Born in 1835, Henry Barclay Swete educated at King's College, London, and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, of which latter foundation he was a scholar. Among his university distinctions may be mentioned the Carus Prize in 1855 and the Members' Prize in 1857. In 1858 he graduated with the First Class Honours in the Classical Tripos, and shortly afterwards was elected a Fellow of his College. For some years he was engaged in pastoral work, holding successively the curacies of Blagdon and All Saints', Cambridge. From 1869-77 he was occupied with College work as dean, tutor, and theological lecturer at his own college. It was during this period that his first great piece of theological work was done. This consisted of two essays on the history of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, published in 1873 and 1876. From 1877-90 he held the college living of Ashdon, a small country village in Essex. It will thus be seen that from the conclusion of his undergraduate days to the time of his recall to Cambridge in 1890 to occupy the professorship which he now holds, Dr. Swete has led a comparatively quiet and uneventful life. Over twenty years have been spent in pastoral work, and thirteen of these in a country village. During a portion of this time, however, from 1882-90, he fulfilled the duties of Professor of Pastoral Theology at King's College, London, of which he was elected a Fellow in 1891. But the retirement of an English country parsonage, in this case as in so many others, has been productive of good results to the cause of scholarship and learning, and if circumstances have conspired with Dr. Swete's natural shrinking from a life of publicity to give him sufficient leisure for study and literary work, the world of scholarship at least has good cause for gratitude. The somewhat uneventful course of these years was broken, however, by occasional travel, generally in search of health, including a visit to Egypt and Palestine in 1868-69 and to Asia Minor, Turkey, and Greece in 1888. More recently, in 1894, a similar cause led him to an interesting visit to North Africa.

Dr. Swete is an indefatigable worker, as is evidenced by the amount of work which he has already produced. During his residence at Ashdon he published to two volumes of his critical edition of the commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia upon the Minor Epistles of St. Paul, including the Latin version and Greek fragments. The work is prefaced by a lengthy introduction, in which are discussed the text and history of the Latin translation, the exegetical value of the commentaries and their relation to other ancient commentaries, and, lastly, the doctrinal system of Theodore. A few years later, in 1887, Dr. Swete made a further contribution to the study of this extremely interesting Father in his article on Theodore in Smith's Dictionary of Christian Biography. The whole of this work forms a solid contribution to patristic learning and a valuable aid to the student of the exegesis of St. Paul's Epistles.

Within the same period falls a still more valuable contribution to the same Dictionary, the article upon the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, which appeared in 1882 and embodied the results of his earlier studies. The history of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is a subject which Dr. Swete has made quite his own, and it is not too much to say of this article that is has become the locus classicus for students of the history of this portion of Christian doctrine. Quite recently Dr. Swete has made a further contribution to the subject by an article in the new Dictionary of the Bible edited by Dr. Hastings, in which he deals with the revelation of the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testament and the Apocrypha.

During the same period Dr. Swete began his work, of which we shall have to speak more fully later on, of editing a new edition of the Septuagint, the first volumes of which was produced in 1887.

We have as yet said nothing of Dr. Swete's connexion with other scholars. In addition to the privilege of occasional intercourse with Bishops Lightfoot and Westcott, the friendship of Dr. Hort, and subsequently the association with him in theological work at Cambridge, have been especially fruitful to the cause of scholarship, and have further helped to identify Dr. Swete with the traditions and ideas of the Cambridge school of biblical criticism. It was especially to Dr. Hort's help and counsel that much of the plan and working out of the manual edition of the Cambridge Septuagint were due.

In 1890 Dr. Westcott, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, was consecrated Bishop of Durham, and Dr. Swete was appointed to succeed him in his professorial work at Cambridge. Hitherto his theological studies had been pursued amid other duties, but this new sphere enabled him to throw himself exclusively into theological teaching and work. The nine years which have elapsed since his appointment have been years of untiring work, though hampered at times by indifferent health. In addition to his professorial lectures, including courses on subjects connected with New Testament exegesis, Christian doctrine, and Church history, Dr. Swete has increasingly devoted himself to the task of arousing among younger Cambridge men an interest in biblical and theological studies, and stimulating them to original work and research. Those who have been privileged to study under his direction will not lightly forget his sympathetic and kindly manner, his readiness to devote time and trouble to aid those who seek his counsel, and still more his wide knowledge of the vast field of English and foreign theological literature.

But more especially has this new sphere of work set him free for literary labours. Since 1890 his productions have been numerous, and have attracted in an increasing degree the attention of scholars. In 1892 Trinity College, Dublin, recognised his work by conferring upon him the honourary degree of Litt.D.

We may select three of his productions as representative of the variety and quality of Dr. Swete's work. The first is the manual edition of the Septuagint. The history if this is given in the introduction of the first volume, which appeared in 1887. The work arose out of scheme suggested to the Syndics of the University Press by Dr. Scivener in 1875. The plan as finally adopted by the Committee included preparation of two editions, based upon the Vatican MS. The smaller edition, for which Dr. Swete has been responsible, was intended to prepare the way for a larger edition, which is now occupying the labours of two Cambridge scholars, and which will include an extensive apparatus criticus with Prolegomena. This smaller edition gives at the foot of the text the variations of a few of the most important uncial MSS, while appendices at the end of each volume present minor variations. The second volume appeared in 1891, and was followed in 1894 by a third, in which Dr. Swete received the assistance of two younger Cambridge scholars. It is easy to see how much the labours of the scholars who are engaged upon the larger edition have been lightened by this extensive piece of work, and the fact that it represents only one side of his interests and his productive power.

A small book, published in 1894, illustrates another side of Dr Swete's work. It bears the title The Apostles' Creed in Relation to Primitive Christianity, and contains a criticism of Dr. Harnack's theories upon the Apostles' Creed, which had recently been made accessible to the English public in an article by Mrs. Humphry Ward in the Nineteenth Century for July 1893. This book illustrates in a conspicuous manner some of the best features of Dr. Swete's work. The scholarship is careful and exact, the doctrinal inferences are drawn in a clear and convincing manner, and above all there is a crisp, light touch about the style, which is one of the features of all Dr. Swete's literary works.

A third work, which only appeared in the autumn of last year, reveals Dr. Swete in yet another aspect, as a biblical commentator. By his recent edition of St. Mark's Gospel he has laid biblical students under a fresh debt of gratitude. Hitherto there has been no adequate work dealing with this Gospel, which probably represents the most primitive tradition of the Lord's earthly life. Dr. Swete's new book is an instalment towards the supply of this deficiency. That it is an instalment only is implied in the preface to the book, in which the author expresses the hope that it may be possible for him to deal in a subsequent volume with some of the larger questions with regard to St. Mark's Gospel which still await further investigations. But within the limits of the present work he has given to scholars, meanwhile, a careful exegesis of the text of the Gospel. As a commentator the author exhibits the same precise and careful scholarship, and the same neatness of style, as characterize his other work. He treats in a broad and liberal spirit questions of criticism, he brings to bear upon the interpretation of the text an extensive knowledge of the comments of patristic writers, and above all his treatment is reverent, and lends itself to the purposes of devotional study. The hasty reader will not always find a ready- made answer to his inquiries. The author has written for the better sort of students, and for them his commentary will often be found to suggest fresh ideas upon familiar passages.

There are in conclusion, two fields of work in which we may with some confidence hope for further contributions in the future from Dr. Swete's pen. The first is, as we have said, a treatment of some questions arising out of St. Marks Gospel. The second is the resumption of his earlier studies upon the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. But he has already more than deserved our gratitude by the varied and extensive services which he has rendered to biblical and theological studies.

Besides occasional articles and pamphlets, the following is a list of Dr. Swete's more important works:

  • 1873.-On the Early History of the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
  • 1875.-Theodorus Lascaris Junior, De Processione Spiritus Sancti Oratio Apologetica.
  • 1876.-On the History of the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, from the Apos-tolic Age to the Death of Charlemagne.
  • 1880-82.-Theodore of Mopsuestia's Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul.
  • 1882-87.-Articles upon the 'Holy Ghost' and 'Theodore of Mopsuestia,' in Smith's Dictionary of Christian Biography.
  • 1887-94.-The Old Testament in Greek, 2nd ed.,1895-98.
  • 1894.-The Apostles' Creed in Relation to Primitive Christianity.
  • 1895.-Faith in Relation to Creed, Thought, and Life.
  • 1896.-Church Services and Service Books before the Reformation.
  • 1897.-'The Oxyrhynchus Fragment': a Lecture delivered at Cambridge in The Expository Times, September.
  • 1898.-The Gospel according to St. Mark: the Greek Text, with Introduction, Notes, and Indices.
  • 1899.-Art. 'Holy Spirit,' in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible.