Translation and Re-interpretation in the Anglo-Saxon Genesis: Poetic Catechesis for an Oral Culture

Date

2013-05

Authors

Welch, David R.

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Worldwide access

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Abstract

The Old English Genesis is a poetic paraphrase, in Anglo-Saxon oral-formulaic verse, of the first twenty-two chapters of the Biblical book, ending with the Sacrifice of Isaac. In this thesis I argue that the poem is effectively a translation of Genesis into the language of vernacular poetry for the purpose of catechesis. For the Anglo-Saxons, poetry was not merely a category of literature, but the traditional way of conveying what is most significant, the language of meaning; it makes sense, therefore, that the missionary-monks of England would have cast Scripture, the most meaningful Text, into the words of poetry. But this is not the only level on which Genesis engages the poetic tradition. It responds to the Germanic worldview and corresponding ideals of virtue that are communicated through oral poetry, re-interpreting them in the light of the revealed Word of God. By casting this Word into familiar words (the language of oral-formulaic poetry), themes (the beginning of the world, the relation of the gods and men, and the way men ought to live), and characters (the Germanic heroic ideal in contrast to Christian virtue), Genesis takes what is best in the pagan tradition and puts it into the service of Christian truth. Through the poem, the Word reveals Himself to the Anglo-Saxons by means of familiar terms and ideas, now re-interpreted and infused with new Life.

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Keywords

Old English poetry., Christian poetry., Theology., Biblical exegesis., Biblical translation., Anglo-Saxon culture., Norse mythology., Monastic culture.

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