1. The Old Testament in Old English Literature
  2. Ælfric's Old Testament Works
  3. The Old Testament Books of Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees
  4. A Final Note

1. The Old Testament in Old English Literature

The Old Testament was one of the major influences on the writings of the Anglo-Saxons. As Malcolm Godden observes:

In terms of quantity at least, the Old Testament was the major influence on Old English literature: it was the source for about a third of the extant poetry and for a large part of the prose.(1)

A selective list of Old English texts that concentrated on the Old Testament includes the ‘Junius’ Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11) which contains several memorable poems (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel). There is as well the poetical Judith(2) (which stands as an interesting comparison to the prose version edited in this site, discussed in full in Chapter VIII, 3c), and also the lone Kentish Psalm, entitled ‘Misere mei Deus’, which is based on the Old Testament Psalm 50(3).

Two ‘translators’ of the Old Testament are known by name: Ælfric, of course, and Alfred. The king's version of fifty psalms is preserved in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS lat. 8824, commonly known as the Paris Psalter(4). Furthermore Alfred also uses a series of quotations from Exodus in the beginning of his Laws(5), thus allowing him to consider the relationships between God's Law, in the form of the Ten Commandments, and his own(6).

2. Ælfric's Old Testament Works

In 1967, J.C. Pope published his Homilies of Ælfric(7). In Chapter 6 of his Introduction Pope lists the Ælfric canon(8), giving not only the titles of all the works, but also the most recent editions they occur in. Under part (3), entitled ‘Non-Liturgical pieces’, there is the following entry:

(a) Old Testament

The following portions of the O.E. Hept. (ed. Crawford): Genesis, chs. I-III, VI-IX, and XII-XXIV, 22: Numbers, chs. XIII-XXXI; Joshua (except chs. I, 1-10, and XII); and Judges.

Kings (LS XVIII); Esther (Assmann VIII); Judith (Assmann IX); Maccabees (LS XXV)(9)

(Pope, p. 143)

Taking this into account, and including more recent studies, it is therefore possible to draw up a complete list of Ælfric's Old Testament works. These are:

Genesis (Crawford, 1922, pp. 81-212) — dated by Clemoes (1959) as between 992-1002 because of its links to the Preface to Genesis(10), which we know to have been written in the lifetime of Æþelweard, who died in 1002(11). The text published by Crawford is not entirely Ælfric's; of the chapters therein only I-III, VI-IX, and XII-XXIV are considered to have been written by him.

Numbers (Crawford, 1922, pp. 304-33) — once again, not all the chapters edited by Crawford are assumed to be Ælfric's, and only chs. XIII-XXXI are accepted. Numbers is an extension of the homily De Populo Israhel (Pope, XX, pp. 638–66)(12). Clemoes (1959) dates it to the earlier part of 1002–5.

Joshua (Crawford, 1922, pp. 377-401) — all the extant text appears to be by Ælfric, being an extension of the homily Dominica In Media Quadragesime(13). According to Clemoes, Joshua is the last piece of work that can be attributed to within Æþelweard's lifetime, thus placing it before 1002 (or 998, see above).

Judges (Crawford, 1922, pp. 401-18) — all the text edited by Crawford appears to be attributable to Ælfric and Clemoes places the date of Judges in the early part of the period 1002–5.

Job (Godden, XXX, pp. 260-67(14)) — dated 992 by Clemoes, under the publication of the whole of the Second Series of Catholic Homilies. It is the only one of the Old Testament pieces to be based in the Catholic Homily series.

Kings (LS, XVIII, pp. 384-413(15)) — Clemoes supplies a date for the Lives of Saints as a whole, seeing them as one long continuous project, completed in the latter part of 992–1002.

Judith — dated c.1002–5 (although Assmann suggests 997-1005).

Esther — Clemoes indicates that this homily was written around the same time as Judith, Numbers, Judges and others, i.e. 1002–5.

Maccabees — dated 992–1002 (see above under Kings).

Ælfric's interest in the Old Testament is evident throughout a large portion of his writings, notably in helping to explain events in the New Testament. For example, in his Sermo de Sacrificio in Die Pascae (Godden, XV, pp. 150–60) where he explains the historical perspective of the Paschal lamb, and in Dominica .II. Post Aepiphania Domini (Godden, IV, pp. 29–40) he lists the six ages of the Old Testament (ll. 83–91)(16). However, it would be wrong to assume that he viewed the Old Testament merely as a touchstone to understanding the doctrines of Christ. It served that purpose, undoubtedly, but it also held its own messages and lessons. This dual approach to the Old Testament can be seen throughout the three texts edited here.

3. The Old Testament Books of Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees

The source for these three homilies by Ælfric, to be discussed later in more detail (Chapter VII), is clearly the Vulgate. Although all three biblical books have been involved, to a certain extent, in continuing controversies over their canonicity, they were placed in the Vulgate and consequently used by Ælfric, as is made clear by his observations in the Letter to Sigeweard(17). In this, dated 1005–6, he not only presents a treatise on the Old and New Testaments, but also indicates which books he ‘translated’. The letter, addressed to his friend Sigeweard, a local dignitary, mentions each biblical book in turn. Towards the end of the section on the Old Testament Ælfric refers directly to the books of Esther, Judith and the Maccabees. On Esther he comments:

Hester seo cwen, þe hire kynn ahredde, hæfð eac ane boc on þisum getele, for ðan þe Godes lof ys gelogod þæron; ða ic awend on Englisc on ure wisan sceortlice.
(Crawford, 1922, p. 48(18))

And on Judith:

Iudith seo wuduwe, þe oferwann Holofernem þone Siriscan ealdormann, hæfð hire agenne boc betwux þisum bocum be hire agenum sige; seo ys eac on Englisc on ure wisan gesette...
(Crawford, 1922, p. 48)

Following this, there is some discussion of the two books of the Maccabees, representing fifty-seven lines in Crawford's edition, which brings to an end the first section of the Letter. Ælfric declares that he has translated the two books, pointing out that if the English mirror Judas Maccabees's faith they too will be victorious against their enemies:

Ac uton wyrcean mihte on þone mihtigan God, 7 he to nahte gedeð urne deriendlican fynd. Machabeus þa gefylde ðas foresædan word mid stranglicum weorcum, 7 oferwann his fynd, 7 sint for ði gesette his sigefæstan dæda on þam twam bibliothecan Gode to wurðmynte, 7 ic awende hig on Englisc 7 rædon gif ge wyllað eow sylfum to ræde!
(Crawford, 1922, pp. 30-31)

Judith is an uncomplicated account of the actions of the beautiful and resourceful widow of the same name. In the story we are told that the Assyrian General, Holofernes, was sent by King Nabuchadnezzar to conquer and subdue several nations. In this he is totally successful until he first encounters the Jews in the city of Bethulia. Inside the city the Jews are brought to the brink of surrender through starvation until one of them, Judith, offers to visit Holofernes under the guise of being a deserter. The Assyrian is so taken by her beauty that he invites her to his tent. There, after a banquet, Judith is able to kill him and steal back to the city taking his head as proof of her victory. The book ends with the Canticle of Judith, which is usually recognised as having apocalyptic undertones. The historical authenticity of the book is open to question, for it contains serious errors relating to historical and geographical details(19), but the story is often considered a symbolic representation and celebration of chastity.

Judith herself is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, and indeed the proper name is used only in one other passage (Genesis 26:34). If one also takes into account that the name Judith possibly equates to the Hebrew word for ‘jewess’, it is understandable that some scholars have viewed the book as being symbolic of the whole Jewish nation. Indeed Jews and Protestants regard the text as apocryphal whilst Roman Catholics view it as deuterocanonical.

The book of Esther sets out the foundation of the Jewish feast of Purim or ‘Lots’. The story is similar in tone to both Judith and the Maccabees in that it relates events in which the Jews are delivered from mortal danger. Its historical accuracy is also open to question. The story is set in Susa, at the palace of the Persian King Xerxes I (‘Assuerus’ or ‘Artaxerxes’), around the mid-fifth century B.C. Having abandoned his wife (Queen Vasthi), the king marries the beautiful Jewess Esther. The plot then centres on the schemes of the Chief Vizier, Aman, who is determined to see all the Jews in the country slaughtered and to bring about the downfall of both Esther, and her foster-father Mordecai. However, Esther thwarts the plan and the Jews are reprieved. Aman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, and on the 13th of Adar (February/March), the day previously assigned for their genocide, the Jews are allowed to defend themselves and gain victory.

Those who feel that Esther has validity as an historical document place emphasis on its description of the origin of Purim, Mordecai's genealogy, and the character of Xerxes as being consistent with other biblical writings. The counter opinion, however, points to the several historical inaccuracies in the book. It is difficult to imagine the carrying out of the planned slaughter, and this leads many to believe that most of the action is symbolic; i.e. that the trust in God displayed by Esther and others ultimately leads to their salvation. Similarly, the irony of Aman dying in a trap he himself prepared can also be taken as allegorical. Furthermore, some scholars have pointed to the similarities between the story in the Bible and a tradition in Babylonian mythology which relates the victory of their gods over those of Elam. Here, the Babylonian deities, Marduk and Ishtar (identified with Mordecai and Esther) triumph over their counterparts Humman and Mashti (Aman and Vasthi). There is, however, no evidence that these questions ever crossed Ælfric's mind. Whilst compiling his translation of Esther for the Vulgate, Jerome recognized 107 verses as ‘additions’ placing them at the end of the book (these are largely ignored by Ælfric). Protestants consequently view the Additions to the Book of Esther as apocryphal (see Metzger and Coogan (1993), pp. 198–201).Those who feel it is non-historical point to its over-glorification of the Jews and its somewhat contrived plot. One should note that the Septuagint additions are not always included in modern day Bibles.

Finally, there is the Maccabees. Four independent books entitled Maccabees are known today. However, the third and fourth were not included in the Vulgate, and consequently bear no relevance to Ælfric's version. Therefore, this edition will, when referring to the text, be discussing the first two books, i.e. I Maccabees and II Maccabees. Even though the two books in the Vulgate are clearly independent works, differing greatly in style although sharing common themes, Ælfric selects liberally from both.

The Maccabees were the sons of Mathathias, a Jewish priest who died mid-second century B.C. To understand the emergence of the Maccabees one must remember their place in Jewish history. At the time there had begun the first steps of ‘Hellenization’: namely the imposition of the worship of Zeus and other Greek gods, as well as the recognition of the king as being ‘Epiphanes’, the manifestation of God. This practice seems to have divided Jewish thought, with some supporting such policies, and others opposing them. It is to the latter group that the Maccabees belonged. Having witnessed the plundering of the temple at Jerusalem and its subsequent dedication to Zeus, Mathathias of Modin began the rebellion in 167 B.C., when he refused to offer sacrifice on a pagan altar. Forced to flee to the hills with his five sons, Mathathias began to rally troops to his cause and began a lengthy guerrilla war against the Syrians, which was to eventually end in triumph.

I Maccabees details the events of the period 175–134 B.C. It is divided into four components: a ‘Prelude’, and then separate sections on Judas, Jonathan, and Simon. With the death of Mathathias in 166 B.C. leadership passed to his son Judas, the most striking figure of the whole work. He led the resistance for six years until his death at the battle of Laisa (Elasa) at the hands of Bacchides. During that time the guerrilla army strengthened considerably to the size where it was able to meet the Syrian army in the field. Judas repulsed several attacks before his death, defeating Appollonius, Seron at Bethhoron, Lysias's army under the command of Nicanor and Gorgias, and Lysias himself at Bethsura.

After the death of Judas the leadership passed to Jonathan who commanded from 160–143 B.C. Jonathan is notable for the diplomatic success of making a truce with Bacchides. This allowed him both time to regroup his army and also to support Alexander Balas, the pretender to the Syrian throne, receiving in return the appointment of High Priest. In 145 B.C. Demetrius II deposed Alexander, and Jonathan was forced to side with Antiochus VI, son of Balas, only to be treacherously murdered at the hands of his regent Tryphon.

From 143–134 B.C. the Maccabean cause was led by Simon (or ‘Thasi’), who sided with Demetrius II in his opposition against Antiochus VI. The book ends with the assassination of Simon by Ptolemy, and of his two sons Judas and John, leaving John Hyrcanus, his remaining heir, to escape and continue the dynasty.

II Maccabees, possibly written later than I Maccabees, reiterates some of the major events of the rebellion. The book takes on more the form of an emotive discourse, embellished with rhetorical appeals, exaggerations, and descriptions of miracles. The acts of God are emphasized, convincing many theologians that this work was designed to appeal to the audience's religious beliefs rather than a concerted attempt to detail the rebellion(20).

4. A Final Note

Ælfric's biblical ‘translations’ are like a pool of water that people have dipped into from time to time as has suited their needs. This group of his writings has predominantly been used merely to support theories about the seemingly more important Catholic Homilies or Lives of Saints. Yet, as this brief investigation indicates, Ælfric himself viewed this area of his work as being of utmost importance and relevance (as indicated by his Letter to Sigeweard), in keeping with the respect and reverence that the Anglo-Saxons held for the Old Testament. It is hoped that this edition will help to change the emphasis of Ælfrician studies by placing his Old Testament narratives at the forefront of discussion.

(1) M. Godden, ‘Biblical Literature: the Old Testament’ in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (eds.) M. Lapidge and M. R. Godden (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 206-226; see also B. C. Raw, ‘Biblical Literature: the New Testament’, idem, pp. 227-242. [To return click here.]

(2) Found in the Beowulf Manuscript, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv, ff. 202a-209a. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(3) From British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian D. vi, ff. 70. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(4) See Bately, J. M., ‘Old English Prose Before and During the Reign of Alfred’, ASE 17 (1988), pp. 93–138. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(5) These are dated from the late 880s to the early 890s. The relevant extracts from the Old Testament are: Exodus 20:1-3, 7-17, 23; 21:1-36; 22:1-11, 16-29, 31; and 23:1-2, 4, 6-9, 13. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(6) Ælfric, on the other hand, was concerned with the difference between the Old Law and the New Law (see Chapter VIII, 2b). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(7) J. C. Pope, The Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, EETS, OS 259 & 260 (London, 1967–68). Hereafter referred to as Pope, homily number, or page number. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(8) Compare P. Clemoes, ‘The Chronology of Ælfric's Works’ in The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of Their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins (ed.) P. Clemoes (London, 1959), pp. 212-47. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(9) With respect as to which parts of the Old English Genesis are by Ælfric, Pope relies ultimately on K. Jost, ‘Unechte Ælfrictexte’, Anglia 51 (1927), pp. 81–103, 177–219; J. Raith, ‘Ælfric's Share in the Old English Pentateuch’, RES 3 (1952), pp. 305–14. For a more recent study see A. Smith, The Anonymous Parts of the Old English Hexateuch (Cambridge, 1985). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(10) Also printed by Crawford (1922, pp. 76-88). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(11) However, Clemoes does note the possibility that Æthelweard died in 998, which necessitates the acceptance of a four-year span of error. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(12) That is to say, De Populo Israhel has as its sources, Exodus 32, and Numbers 11, 13, 14, 16, and 21. In his introduction to the homily (p. 638), Pope notes also the overlapping with De Oratione Moysi (LS, XIII). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(13) Found as homily XII in M. R. Godden, Ælfric's Catholic Homilies, the Second Series: Text, EETS, Supplementary Series, 5 (London, 1979), pp. 121-26. Texts in Godden are hereafter referred to as Godden, followed by homily number. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(14)Dominica .I. In Mense Septembri. Quando Legitur Iob. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(15) Sermo Excerptus De Libro Regum.[To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(16) See also A. S. Cook, Biblical Quotations in Old English Prose Writers: Second Series, Edited with Latin Originals, Index of Biblical Passages, and Index of Principal Words (London, 1903). Here Cook lists all the biblical books that Ælfric is reputed either to have ‘translated’ or to have quoted from in some form or other. In connection with the Old Testament these are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, Kings I and II, Chronicles I and II, Ezra, Job, Psalms (various), Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel (plus Song of the Three Holy Children and Bel and the Dragon), Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi, Tobit, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus.[To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(17) For the most recent study of this see J. Wilcox, Ælfric's Prefaces (Durham, 1994).[To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(18) S. J. Crawford, The Old English Version of the Heptateuch, EETS, OS 160 (London, 1922), p.48.[To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(19) See B. M. Metzger and M. D. Coogan (eds.), The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford, 1993), pp. 399–402. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(20) See Metzger and Coogan (1993), pp. 475–82. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]