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Interview with Dom Henry Wansbrough about his New Book E-mail
Written by Ian Boxall   
Thursday, 08 April 2010 15:47

The Use and Abuse of the Bible
(T & T Clark, 2010, 209pp, ISBN 9780567 09057 7)


Interviewer: You are a biblical scholar, not a historian. What led you to embark on this subject?
Dom Henry: One of the features of the Catholic tradition is an interest in the development and use of the Bible down the ages. In the course of the development of the Bible itself texts are used and re-used, acquiring new meanings and resonances. We can’t even pinpoint a particular moment when the text may be held to be the definitive text. Is the Hebrew or the Septuagint the definitive text of the Old Testament? The same is true in the course of the history of the Church. The Bible is used and applied in different ways, and for a Catholic this too is under the inspiration of the Spirit. It can of course also be misapplied, as I would hold it has been misapplied for political purposes by the State of Israel.

In any case, this is not altogether my first excursus into the history of the Bible. In 2006 I published The Story of the Bible, how it came to us (Darton, Longman & Todd), which was concerned chiefly with the textual transmission of the Bible and its translations. I also wrote recently a long dictionary-article on ‘The History and Impact of English Bible Translations, 1300-1800’ for Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the History of its Interpretation, edited by Magne Saebo (Göttingen, Vandenboeck & Ruprecht, 2008).

Interviewer: How did you choose the subjects for each chapter? Aren’t they a bit eclectic?
Dom Henry: The first chapter arose out of some work I did for the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the use of rabbinic argumentation in the New Testament. Most of the subsequent chapters were on old friends and acquaintances whom I wanted to get to know better. Melito of Sardis was an old friend from a seminar in my undergraduate days at Fribourg, as well as a blood-curdling example of anti-Semitism. I was alerted to Origen some years ago by a remark in a lecture by Luke Timothy Johnson: he was just starting a sabbatical and said he was going to devote it to reading Origen, the greatest exegete of all time. The chapter on the Wesleys sprang out of a lecture I heard by a Methodist theologian, Norman Wallwork.

Interviewer: Did you find some chapters more interesting to research and write than others?
Dom Henry: As a monk in the North-East of England (and now with the honorary title Cathedral Prior of Durham) I am bound to regard St Bede as a special friend and monastic ideal: ‘it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write’. His erudition is fantastic, but his wit and laughter are a delight also. As a classicist (my first degree was Greats at Oxford) I have always been fascinated by Jerome, by his laughable conceit, his virulent bad temper, his ability to switch from high-flown, sophisticated classical allusion to the simplicity of the gospels, and of course his disastrous decision to give preference to the hebraica veritas. Also, si licet parva componere magnis, I regret to say that I share with him and Erasmus a tendency to work too fast – as was confirmed by the number of mistakes picked up by the brilliant copy-editor in New Zealand. It was also a joy getting to know those Two Norfolk Ladies, and to make a first serious excursion into the late medieval world of the English mystics, in which my interest had been re-charged by a series of lectures by Santha Bhattacharji.

Interviewer: Did you learn anything of importance to yourself in the course of studying for this book?
Dom Henry: I think the single most important fact I came to appreciate more was the unnecessary tragedy of the Reformation. It became ever clearer to me that Martin Luther was driven out of the Church by the unsympathetic treatment he received from the Church authorities, beginning with stupid rivalries between religious orders. It went wrong from the very start: the list of theses he is supposed to have pinned up is clearly intended as challenging debating points – a cheeky, cockerel crowing. They were taken as serious beliefs, and the downward spiral continued from there. The Church certainly needed reform, and many of his protests were valid. I was bewitched by the subtlety and brilliance of his exegesis and methods. If only the demonizing campaign against him had not turned him against the whole tradition of the Church, he could well have been an important force in reforming it from within.