By John Thorpe
When you first see the explosion of color, design, and detail, it can take your breath away. Surely the effect was the same in the early eighth century, when Christian monks at a remote island abbey first laid eyes on the lavishly decorated volume that we call today the Lindisfarne Gospels.
This volume of the four Gospels was copied for the use of the monks at Lindisfarne Abbey, a powerful symbol of British Christianity on an island off the northeast coast of England. The manuscript features unusually elaborate illuminations, intricate “carpet pages” full of colorful Celtic interlace, and a beautifully rounded Latin script. With the book itself now in the British Library, the decorations in this manuscript have been digitized and can be viewed in their full glory online. Pictured here is the first page (called the “incipit” page) of the Gospel of John.
But among all the gorgeous artwork on this page, there are words that seem like they do not belong. Scrawled in a very different, angular, and sloppy-looking script, with plain black ink, are other words, in another language, by another hand. By the 10th century, the monks in the Lindisfarne community knew little enough of Latin (or could not read the Celtic script) that each word needed to be translated for readers of Anglo-Saxon heritage. So above each word of Latin, a translator wrote the corresponding word in Old English, so the words of the ancient evangelists could reach a new generation. Here, in the detail, above the Latin word evangelium is written the Old English god spel.
These two words, on this particular artifact, hold within them a powerful linguistic history of the Anglican tradition. The original word, evangelium, is actually a holdover from Greek – the language in which the first generation of Apostles and Christian leaders chose to express the amazing story of Jesus Christ. The prefix eu– means “good,” and the stem angelion means “message” or “news.” For the first Christians, that was the one word that summed up the entire message of Jesus in a proverbial nutshell. If you had to put the whole experience of Jesus’s disciples on a billboard, or choose a marketing slogan for it, or find a rallying cry when your people were being persecuted, this is the word the ancient Christians chose: good news. Their world turned around imperial Rome and was enamored of the pax Romana, but Christians found an alternative message: Jesus Christ alone is good news for the world. The first Christians who came to the British Isles, likely with the Roman military, probably knew and used the word euangelion.
But the Greek word euangelion had to be changed for Latin-speaking Christians in the later Roman Empire, so it received a Latin ending and became evangelium. The Latinization of the Greek original happened during Christianity’s worst persecutions, but it also reflects the Church’s triumph and rise to a position of cultural power and influence. This message about Jesus could no longer be expressed only in Greek: it had to migrate into a new language to reach new people. It had to take on the imperial language, so that eventually the emperors themselves would bow the knee to the King of Kings.
Then Rome fell, and violence and chaos descended on Western Europe. But even the destruction of the political and social order could not stop the evangelium of Jesus Christ from going forward, reaching new people in new places. The script in which the word evangelium is written is Irish half-uncial. This script developed in the early middle ages specifically for church use, and was adapted for use in the monasteries of Ireland after the fall of the Empire. When much of the learning and literature of the classical world was lost to Western Europe, the monks of Ireland, and of the tiny island havens of Iona and Lindisfarne, preserved the ancient texts. They sent missionaries back to the barbarian mainland bearing the evangelium of Jesus Christ, now written in Irish half-uncial.
As the evangelium of Christ began slowly to re-evangelize both England itself and continental Europe, it found an audience among speakers of Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic languages. These peoples knew something of Latin, but their unique cultures required a new approach. Realizing this, the 10th century monks of the Lindisfarne community longed for the words of the evangelists to be spoken to them anew. Hence the words that we now identify as Old English were written in the Lindisfarne manuscript. Here gud means “good” and spel means “message” or “news.” Thus the word “gospel” was coined to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a new mission field, and the scrawling, sloppy script in the Lindisfarne manuscript, far from defacing this artistic treasure (which was already several centuries old), is evidence of the transformative power of the Gospel.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has not stood still across the centuries, and neither have the Lindisfarne Gospels. When the monk penned Old English words on this gorgeous manuscript, his community was in exile, chased from their ancient home by Danish invaders. After the Norman invasion in 1066, monastic life in England grew quickly. A new priory was established on the tiny island, and the monks of Lindisfarne came home, bringing their Gospels with them. The English church would revolve around the life of monasteries like Lindisfarne for the next half millennium, counting on them to spread the good news to the English people.
When Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries in 1537, in an effort both to reform the English church and fill his royal coffers, the priory became an artillery fort, and the valuable Gospel book at Lindisfarne was lost, perhaps sold to help finance Henry’s wars. But the book later reappeared in the private collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), MP during the difficult years of the Stuart dynasty. During this century, the entire Bible was finally translated into English, so the Lindisfarne monk’s scrawl stands in a direct line to Tyndale, Coverdale, and Wycliffe: men who risked their lives to publish the word of God in the English language. The 1611 King James Bible represented the triumph of this effort, as well as a compromise between the warring Episcopal and Puritan factions in the English church.
The Lindisfarne Gospels remained in the Cotton library during the English Civil War, the Interregnum, and the Restoration; and it formed a part of the founding collection of British Museum in 1753. The book has borne witness for 1,300 years to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition.
Fr. John Thorpe is a graduate student at St. Louis University and a priest in the Diocese of Dallas.