Ælfric’s Libellus de Veteri Testamento et Novi: A Translation

Noah's Ark in the Old English Heptateuch (London, BL, Claudius B.iv), courtesy of the British Library.
Noah’s Ark–stylized as a Viking ship–with raven, in the Old English Heptateuch (London, BL, Claudius B.iv, fol. 15r), courtesy of the British Library.

Last July, I posted a translation of Ælfric of Eynsham‘s Old English Preface to Genesis for the benefit of those interested in a modern rendering. Since then, I’ve been overwhelmingly pleased by the attention it’s garnered–over 1,300 views as of this posting! In the same spirit, I’m now posting my translation of Ælfric’s Libellus de Veteri Testamento et Novi (Little Book on the Old and New Testaments), also known as his Letter to Sigeweard. This “little book” (composed c.1005-6) offers many more insights into the author’s reading, attitudes, and interpretations of the Bible in general, a fascinating companion piece to the Preface to Genesis (composed c.992-1002). For all of that, it provides a significant synthesis of early medieval biblical knowledge.

As with the Preface to Genesis, I offer this translation under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Likewise, for the Old English, I primarily relied on The Old English Heptateuch and Ælfric’s Libellus de Veteri Testamento et Novi, Volume One: Introduction and Text, ed. Richard Marsden, EETS OS 330 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009); although I have also consulted the previous edition in The Old English Version of the Old English Heptateuch, Aelfric’s Treatise on the Old and New Testament and his Preface to Genesis, ed. S. J. Crawford, EETS OS 160 (London: Oxford UP, 1922). Since this text is longer, and contains many more quotations, I have supplied some notes about biblical sources in square brackets; I have retained the Latin for Ælfric’s quotations (since he quoted the Latin Vulgate, compiled and mostly translated by Jerome), but these should not pose difficulties since they are followed by the author’s own English translations.

Here begins a little book of the Old Testament and New.

This work was composed for one man, but it may nevertheless profit many.

Abbot Ælfric graciously greets Sigeweard at Eastheolon. I tell you the truth that someone is very wise, who speaks with works, and who has advanced for God and for the world, who has adorned oneself with good works. And it is very clear in the holy canon that the holy men who began good works, that they were honorable in this world. And now the saints are in the joy of the kingdom of heaven, and their memory will continue in the world now and forever for their earnestness and their faith in God. The careless men, who dried up their lives in all idleness, and so ended, their memory is forgotten in holy writings, except that the Old Testament tells of their evil deeds and that they are damned. You asked me very often for writings in English, and I did not grant it to you all too quickly, before when you desired this from me with your works; then you eagerly asked me, for the love of God, that I speak with you at home at your house. And then you greatly complained, when I was with you, that you might not obtain my writings. Now I desire that you at least should have this little book, now that you like wisdom. And you desire to have it so that you are not deprived of all of my books.

God loves good works and he desires to have them from us. And indeed it is written about him that he himself rejoices in his own works, just as the psalmist sang about him thus: “May the glory of the Lord endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works.” [Psalm 103:31] That is in the English language, “May the glory of our Lord be forever and ever; our Lord rejoices in his own works.” Thus spoke the prophet. The almighty Maker manifested himself through the great work which the made at the beginning and he desired that creation should see his glory and dwell with him in glory in eternity under his lordship, ever obedient to him; therefore, it is very evil that the made creation, which he shaped and made, are not obedient. This world was not at the beginning, but God himself made it, who continues without any beginning to his great glory, and in his majesty, just as mighty as he is now, and all so great in his light, because he is truly light and life and truthfulness. And wisdom was ever in his wise thoughts so that he desired to make the wonderful creation, about which he desired to shape creation through his great wisdom, and through his true love he gave life to the life that they have. Here is the Holy Trinity in these three persons. The almighty Father comes from no others, and the great wisdom born of the wise Father ever from himself without beginning, who has since redeemed us from our bondage with his incarnation which he took on from Mary. Now love is ever common to both of them, that is the Holy Spirit, who is so great he gives life to all things; and he is so mighty that with his grace he illuminates all of the angels who dwell in heaven, and the hearts of all men who live on earth, those who rightly believe in the living God. And he truthfully forgives the sins of all men, who willfully themselves repent their sins, and there is no forgiveness except through his grace. And he speaks through the prophets who prophesied about Christ, because he is the desire and certain love of the Father and of the Son, just as we said before. He gives sevenfold graces to humankind (about which I wrote before in some other writings in the English language), just as the prophet Isaiah set in his book of prophecy.

The almighty Shaper, when he shaped the angels, then through his wisdom on the first day he made ten troops of angels in great beauty, many thousands at the creation, so that they would worship him in his glory, all of them bodiless, light, and strong, living in joy without all sins, so beautiful of nature that we may not say. And no evil thing was among the angels yet, nor did any evil come through the creation of God, because he himself is all good and every good comes from him, and the angels then lived in glory with God. Alas, then within six days the true God made the creation which he desired to make. One angel, he who was excellent, perceived how beautiful he himself was, and how shining in glory, and knew his strength, that he was made mighty, and then he greatly liked his worthiness. He was named “Lucifer,” that is “light-bearing,” for the mighty brightness of his great form. Then it seemed to him too unseemly that he should obey any lord, when he was so excellent, and he desired not to worship him who had made him, and not to thank him ever for what he had given him, and not to be subject to him very eagerly for the great glory with which he had honored him. He desired not to have his Maker as his lord, nor did he desire to continue in faithfulness to the true Son of God, who made him beautiful, but he desired to win for himself a kingdom with power, and desired through pride of mind to make himself God, and secured companions for himself against the will of God, to his folly in eagerness. Then he had no throng where he might sit, because heaven desired not to suffer him, nor was there any kingdom that might be his against the will of God, who made all things. Then the proud one found which strengths were his, then when his feet might not even stand anywhere, but then he fell down, and he turned into the devil, and all of his companions fell from the household of God into the torments of hell by their works.

Then on the sixth day after this was done, the almighty God made a man from the earth, Adam, with his hands, and he gave a soul to him, and also afterward Eve from a rib of Adam, so that they, and their offspring with them, should have the fair dwelling that the fiend lost, if they obeyed their Maker rightly. Then the devil also deceived the humans, so that they quickly broke the command of God and became mortal, and he drove both of them out of that joy to this earth, and they lived in sorrow and in great labor, and all of their offspring who came from them afterward, until our Savior Christ redeemed our evil, just as the narrative tells us after.

We take from these books the order that Moses wrote, the famous leader, just as God himself dictated in their private speech, then when he dwelled with God on Mount Sinai for forty days and undertook his teaching, and he did not care for food in all of that time because of the great example of that book learning. He wrote five books with wonderful language. The first is Genesis, which includes the first narrative from creation and about the sin of Adam, and how he lived nine-hundred-thirty years in the first age of this world, and had children by his wife Eve. And afterward he went with sorrow to hell. His son was Cain, who killed his brother, named Abel, an innocent man, because of his own envy that he had toward him. And the offspring of Cain, who came from him afterward, were all drowned in the deep flood, which killed all of humankind in Noah’s days, except for the eight who were in the ark, and afterward nothing came from that evil family line. But after the murder of Abel, Adam had another son who was named Seth. From that line came those who remained alive, Noah and his wife and their three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, with their three wives. Now we will quickly tell the order—because we have often written about this with more understanding than you might see—and also the significance.

That Adam, who was made by God on the sixth day, signified our Savior Christ, who came to this world and renewed us to his likeness. Eve, who God himself made from the side of Adam, signified the church of God that was afterward born from the side of Christ. The murder of Abel signified the murder of our Savior, whom the Jews murdered, evil brothers just as Cain was. Seth, the son of Adam, is said to be first, and he undoubtedly signified Christ, who arose from the dead on the third day. The seventh man from Adam was named Enoch. He did the will of God, and God took him with whole body up out of this life, and he is alive still, just as Elijah, the noble prophet, who was also taken to the other life, and they both will come against Antichrist, so that they will throw down his falsehood through God and then both will be murdered by the fiend himself. And they will rise again just as all men will. Noah, who was in the ark during the great flood that drowned the whole world except for eight people, is interpreted “requies,” that is “rest” in English. And he signified Christ, who came forth to us so that he might bring us from this world to rest and to joy with him. And so forth to the end, each holy father with words or with deeds announced our Savior and his certain journey.

Here was the first age of this world. And the second age of this world was from the time of Abraham, the old patriarch. Now the book tells us about the offspring of Noah, that his sons had seventy-two sons, who began to build that wonderful city and the high tower that would rise up to the heavens by their foolishness. But God himself came to that place, and looked at their work and gave to each of them a different language, so that to each of them it was unknown what the other said. And so they quickly ceased the building, and then they journeyed to far lands and so there were as many languages as there were men. In the same age people raised up idolatry widely throughout the world, just as we wrote about before in another treatise for the strengthening of belief. And in this age the evil people of the five cities, the entire people of the land of the Sodomites, were all suddenly burned with sulfurous fire, and their city with them, except for Lot alone, whom God out of there with his three relatives for his righteousness. From Noah’s eldest son, who was named Shem, came the Hebrew people, who believed in God, Abraham’s forefathers, and his father was Terah, who first lived in the kingdom of Chaldea, until Abraham journeyed to Canaan by God’s command, where his people lived afterward. Abraham the patriarch had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, and he worshipped God with all of his heart, and the heavenly God often spoke to him because of his great belief, because he desired to offer to God his own son, Isaac the beloved, as an offering on his altar in the old way, if God so desired it. Then God blessed him and his son was safe. And God himself promised that through his offspring all humankind should be blessed for his great belief and for his obedience that he had toward God. Abraham, who desired to offer Isaac by God’s command, had signified the heavenly father, who sent his son to die for us. And Isaac signified the Savior Christ, who was killed for us.

Then the third age remained until David the great king, of Abraham’s offspring, from whom afterward came Christ, who delivered all humankind. From Ham, Noah’s son, came the Canaanite people. And from Japheth, the youngest, who was blessed through Noah, came the northern people by the North Sea, because three parts of the world are divided through them: Asia in the eastern part for the eldest son, Africa in the southern part for the people of Ham, and Europe in the northern part for the offspring of Japheth. And after Noah’s flood the almighty God gave to all humankind in common many fish and birds and four-footed beasts and clean cattle out of his great goodness. But nevertheless he forbade them from taking blood. Isaac then had Esau and Jacob, two twins of great significance, but the younger brother, who was named Jacob, was beloved by God for his good customs, and he was blessed for his innocence. He had twelve sons, who were the patriarchs, famous men. And there was a great famine for seven years altogether, and they all journeyed to the land of Egypt, where they found food. His [Jacob’s] youngest son (except for one) was named Joseph, who in the land of Egypt was a lord under the king, who was greatly pleased with him. And there he held his father in full honor with all his brothers and their children together. And Joseph lived in the land joyfully for one-hundred-ten years. And the book of Genesis thus ends here.

The second book is named Exodus, which Moses wrote, about the great signs and the ten plagues that were done to Pharaoh the king and to his people by the almighty God, in the time of Moses. He was born, just as this book makes known to us, and his brother Aaron, the son of Amram, in Pharaoh’s day, very dear to God, men very mighty in many wonders. Then God desired to have from that land those people, Abraham’s offspring, again in their land, but the Pharaoh did not desire to let those people go from him, until God sent to him ten kinds of very terrible torments for his injuries. And afterward Moses let that people out of Pharaoh’s slavery, after four-hundred years since Jacob came there with the Hebrew people. In that army, which journeyed from Egypt, were six-hundred-thousand men besides wives and children, except the tribe of Levi, which was not named there. Then through God’s strength Moses led them all over the Red Sea, just as we read in the books. And Pharaoh the king still followed behind them, with a greater army; he desired to have that people again in his land in his loathsome slavery. Then the sea opened in front of Moses and the water stood around them as stone walls above their heads, and they went on the ground until they all came up safely, praising the heavenly God with song. Moses then struck the sea with his staff, and then the water fell over Pharaoh’s army, over his many chariots and great riders, and it drowned them all, so that not one man survived there. Now the book tells us that God afterward fed the entire army with heavenly food, and each day for forty winters he came down from heaven during the journey in the wilderness, and from hard stone came running water for them. And God gave to them the law, that is an open law as rules for the people, in the five books that Moses wrote, just as God directed him.

We have named two books. Leviticus is the third, Numbers the fourth, the fifth is named Deuteronomy, that is “the second law.” These three books tell us how afterward they went over that wide wilderness, there where no man had lived before, and about the great wonders that God worked for them for forty years through the entire narrative. And we have certainly translated it into English, in which men may hear how the heavenly God spoke with works and with wonders to them. And then he also set those works in writings, for people to remember in great significance. And the famous Moses, when he was one-hundred-twenty winters in age, then he went from life, and God himself buried him and set Joshua in Moses’ place, as the leader for the people. And Moses had blessed him before, and God himself promised him that he desired to be with him in great wonders just as he was with Moses.

The book that he wrote, the book of Joshua, says how he went with the people of Israel to the land of Abraham, and how he then won the land, and how the sun stood until he had the victory, and how he divided all the land. I also translated this into English for the ealdorman Æthelweard, in which people may see God’s great wonders done with works. His father was named Nun, and he lived for one-hundred-ten years altogether, and then after his great victory he died, and afterward the people lived there under Moses’ law. Joshua had signified the Savior, because he led the people to the land that was promised to them, just as does the Savior, who leads those who believe in him to the kingdom of heaven, if they please him with good works.

After this there were certainly judges in the same land for the people of Israel, who guided the people, just as it is written in Liber Iudicum, that is “the book of Judges.” The book clearly tells us about that people, that they lived in peace as long as they eagerly worshipped the heavenly God in his religious observances, and as often as they abandoned the living God, then they were plundered and reproach done to them by heathen people who lived around them. Again when they called out in earnest to God with true penance, then he sent help to them through some judge who withstood their enemies and delivered them from their misery. And so they long lived in that land. This one people may read, whoever cares to hear it, in the English book that I translated about this. I thought that through that wonderful narrative your mind might turn to the will of God in earnest; but this book is thus here ended. After this there was one woman who was named Ruth, of the Moabite people, but she was married to the grandfather Jesse, and this Jesse was the father of David. The book that tells this is named the book of Ruth, and it is arranged in our Bible.

After these judges the people of Israel chose kings from themselves, just as the narrative tells us, in the time of Samuel, the faithful prophet. About this are written certainly four books, which are named Liber Regum in Latin, that is “the book of kings” as it is called together. And Chronicles lies beside them. This is the fifth book, for the many instructions that this one book has before the others, and they wrote these books as Samuel and Kings. In these books it tells us that Saul was chosen first as king over the Israelite people, because they desired to have some defender that would protect them from the heathen people, and they made their desires known to the prophet Samuel, that they desired the people to have a king, just as other people in all lands had. So then Samuel told that to God, and God allowed that they set as king over them Saul, son of Kish. And afterward he ruled for forty years’ time and he defended that people against heathen peoples strongly with weapons, although he went astray in many other things. David, the son of Jesse, the worthy psalmist of the first tribe that was called Judah, was afterward chosen through God as king over the people of Israel, to defend them. And he ruled strongly and defended that people against heathen peoples who lived among them. And he always had victory and killed the heathens in every battle, because he worshipped the almighty God with all his heart, and with good works he set his kingdom in order, and he held this kingdom for forty years altogether, and his fame is fully told in faithful books.

And the fourth age of this world remained from David until Daniel the prophet. David is called “fortis manum”; in significance that is “strong hand” in English, because he tamed the wild bear and tore open his jaws without any weapon. And he also tamed the wild lion, broke his jaws with his bare hands. And he went into combat against the giant, who was named Goliath, when he was a boy, and with his sling killed the unbelieving giant so that he lay senseless, and he cut off his head and brought all of the Philistines to flight, who fought against Saul, and he had the victory. He had signified the Savior Christ who is the strong hand, who easily tames the powerful devil; and he won from him all the faithful into his church, just as David took the sheep from the beasts. He is a holy prophet and he prophesied much about our Savior Christ, just as the Psalms make known to us, which he sang through the Holy Spirit as praise to God, and the Psalter is one book that through God he set among the other books in the Bible. In his old age he set as king his son, the wise Solomon. And afterward he ruled for forty winters, ever in full peace, and for his great wisdom kings honored him and men sought his wisdom from far lands, and they came from every land to honor him with offerings. And he held his people from every battle. He raised up for God that incomparable temple in Jerusalem, in wonderful skill, so beautifully built and so well built and so wide-spreading a house, wrought with gold and with white silver, so we may not say. He wrote three books through his wisdom. One is Parabole, that is “the book of proverbs,” not as you say, but proverbs of wisdom and warning against error and how people may best avoid sins and the way to journey that directs us toward God. The other is called Ecclesiastes, that is in English “advice for all people,” and suitable to hear in high council. The third is called Cantica Canticorum, that says in English “foremost of all songs”; this he sand about Christ and about the church of Christ, that is all the congregation who believes in Christ. And now these books stand in the Bible. Solomon is called “peaceful” in English, and he signified our Savior Christ who brought peace to us and is the Prince of Peace, who united us with the host of angels and raised up for us a church, which is his congregation.

Now many kings are in the book of Kings, about whom I also wrote a certain book in English. Some of them were righteous and always worshipped God, just as Hezekiah was, and afterward Josiah, and some others also, who were victorious and held their kingdom fittingly through God, whom they worshipped, and they lived in peace. Some were lawless and did great evil, when they did not obey God, nor did God help them, and they murdered their people through their misdeeds and in shame through unbelief, and they ended evilly in their disrepute, just as Zedekiah the unhappy king who was led in bonds to the city of Babylon, and a man killed his two sons before his sight and afterward blinded him and set him in prison, and afterward misery came over the land. Nebuchadnezzar, the famous king in the Chaldean land, came to Jerusalem with a great army and killed the people and overthrew the city and tore down the temple, four-hundred years after it was built, because of the unbelief of the kings, who abandoned their Lord, and the carelessness of the people, who did not obey God; and he led the king, who was named Achan, with him to Chaldea, very unseemly, so that while in captivity he might know his evil deeds against the heavenly God. Then the king of Chaldea came to his land with the plunder and the remnant, in which was Daniel, the worthy prophet, and the three boys who were named thus: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And otherwise they were named Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael. The king commanded these three boys to be cast into the burning oven, but their bonds were soon burned up and they were safe, praising with song the heavenly God, who held them in the hot oven so that their hair was not even burned up. And the king commanded them to come out of the oven.

Here begins the fifth age of this world. It remained straight until Christ himself came in the sixth age of this world, born in human form from the womb of Mary, he who was ever with God his almighty Father. Then the remnant of the ravaged [Israelite] people lived in the Chaldean land und the king; they knew their sins against the almighty God. They lived there for one-hundred-seventy years in misery until King Cyrus sent them back again to the land of Judea, from which they had been led, and commanded them to raise up the incomparable temple again, just as the almighty God sent it into his mind, so that he might be merciful to his people after such great misery. And afterward they lived there until Christ himself was born. Now there were two more books set in order as books of Solomon, since he composed them; because the language is disposed in his likeness and for their eloquence, some have ascribed them to him, but Jesus, the son of Sirach, wrote them. One is Liber Sapientiae, that is “the book of wisdom”; the second is called Ecclesiasticus, very great books, and people read them regularly in church for great wisdom.

Now we will take the prophets, who prophesied about Christ through the Holy Spirit, about the coming of the Savior to this earth in true human form, just as we will write about hereafter. A certain prophet in the time of the kings was named Isaiah, just as the book makes known to us. He prophesied about Christ very wisely, just as if he were an evangelist, very worthily, and said in his writing just as we say here: “Ecce uirgo concipiet et pariet filium et uocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel” [Isaiah 7:14] and so on. “Behold a virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son and his name will be called ‘God himself is with us.’” Again the same prophet wrote in his writing: “Puer natus est nobis et filius datus est nobis” [Isaiah 9:6] and so on. “A child is born and a son is given to us, and his rule is on his shoulders. And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, certainly the strong God, and Father of the world to come, truly the Prince of Peace. And his kingdom shall be manifold and there will never be an end to his eternal peace.” His book is very great and has much about Christ and about God’s fame over all humankind, in spiritual meaning for the church of God. He preached belief in the land of Judea and forbade unrighteousness, until the cruel king named Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, cut him in two and so killed him.

The prophet Jeremiah was a very holy prophet in the land from his childhood. About that God himself said to him: “Truly I knew you before I shaped you in your mother’s womb, and I made you holy before you were born, and I set you as a prophet to the people.” He lived in purity and he wrote on book through the Holy Spirit in his prophecy, great and manifold in teaching of spiritual meaning for the people, also about the Savior. He was often bound and brought to prison for his holy teaching, and he lamented greatly for the sins of the people, just as his book tells us. And he was stoned to death in Egypt for his belief. The wise man Plato, and the wisest man among the heathen people, had spoken to him, and the wise prophet then instructed him so that he knew belief in the living God, just as Augustine wrote it in his books. And Jeremiah is our special prophet.

The prophet Ezekiel was ravaged with the people, when the king of the Chaldeans killed the Jews and drove the remnant to his land, when Daniel the prophet was also taken. And then Ezekiel lived there in misery, and prophesied there and wrote one book great in writing about humankind and about our Lord, very deep in meaning, until the leader of that remnant people killed him, just as a certain teacher makes known to us.

The prophet Daniel lived in Chaldea, worthy to the kings, and wrote one book in his prophecy, which God himself made known. And he clearly told in his writing about the birth of Christ, just as he came to humanity, four-hundred-ninety years from Darius the king until our Lord came in true human form from the womb of Mary. His book is very great in manifold significance, too long to tell here about their writings, and how he was thrown to the wild lions; we have written about that in English in a certain sermon once. He was not killed, but he himself died, when he was one-hundred-ten years in age, and he was buried in Babylonia.

In addition, there are still twelve prophets, who wrote twelve books in their prophecies, in certain parts smaller in writing, great in meaning, about the incarnation of Christ and about the people of God, just as God himself made known to them, whose names we will write in this work. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (who was within the whale for three nights, and the whale bore him to the city of Nineveh, and his deeds signified our Lord’s death, who lay in the grave for so long a time, but he arose from death through his divine strength) Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, who named the Savior by his name thus: “Ego autem in Domino gaudebo et exultabo in Deo Iesu meo.” [Habakkuk 3:18] That is in English, “I rejoice in the Lord and I exult in God my Savior. Our Savior was named Jesus in life and so this prophet said before he was born, and just as the archangel said it in the gospel. He is also named Christ. A certain prophet told about that many hundreds of years before he was born: “Adstiterunt reges terre et principes conuenerunt in unum aduersus Dominum et aduersus Christum eius.” [Acts 4:26] “Earthly kings and princes will rise against our Lord and the Savior Christ.” That was King Herod and Pilate the prince, just as the apostles understood about it. Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

There were also other prophets who did not write any books, just as there was Elijah and Elisha, but their wonders are written about in the book of kings in famous memory. There were ten maidens at different times among the heathen people, who some called “Sibylls,” that is “prophetess.” And they prophesied all about the Savior Christ and their books set out very clearly the true God about all of his deeds with full belief, because God desired the heathen people to have knowledge and belief in him, but their books are not in our canon in the Bible, just as the others are.

The writer Ezra wrote one book, how that people again came from the land of Chaldea to the land of Judea, and they raised up the city Jerusalem and the temple within, just as King Cyrus gave them leave after the seventy years that they lived in their land. And the book is set in this canon with deep meaning in secret signs.

One high servant of God in the land of Uz was named Job, a very faithful man wealthy in possessions. He was tested by the deceitful devil, just as his book tells us, which he himself wrote after he was tested. I translated into English a certain sermon about that before, and it is also certainly a prophecy about Christ and about his church, just as teachers say. And the book is included in this canon.

Another Jewish man was also tested, named Tobias, very benevolent and very believing in the living God. He was also taken to the land of Syria, but nevertheless he held his belief here with good works. And God tested him, so that he was blind and so lived for ten years, but God healed him again through his archangel, named Raphael, just as the narrative tells us in his own book which he himself wrote. And the book is added to this total, because there is also great meaning in it.

Queen Esther, who delivered her people, also has one book in this total, because the glory of God is told in it.

Judith the widow, who overcame Holofernes the Syrian chief, has her own book among these books, about her own victory. It is also set into English in our manner, as an example to you men so that you eagerly defend the land with weapons against the attacking army.

Two books are set among these books according to the custom of the church, which bear the love of God, named Maccabees, for their great victory, because they fought greatly with weapons against the heathen army who greatly fought them, who desired to destroy them and take them from the land that God gave them, and to destroy the glory of God. Behold, then Matthias, the great servant of God, with his five sons, fought against the great army more often than you would believe. And they had victory through the true God, whom they believed according to the law of Moses. They did not desire to fight with beautiful words only, so that they spoke well, and turned back in case the troublesome saying came to them that the prophet spoke about a certain people thus: “Et iratus est furore Dominus in populo suo et abhominatus hereditate suam” [Psalm 105:40] et cetera. “The Lord was angry with fury at his people and he abhorred his inheritance. And he took them to heathen hands and their enemies truly had power over them, and the enemies injuriously afflicted them, and they were humbled under their hands.” Maccabee the famous champion of God did not desire to have this judgment through his Lord’s anger, but it was more pleasing to him that he called out in earnest to his God with belief in another speech: “Da nobis Domine auxilium de tribulatione quia uana salus hominis” [Psalm 59:13; 107:13] et cetera. “Give us, dear Lord, your true help in our trouble and make us stronger, because the help of humans is weak and idle, but let us work greatly in the strong God, and he will turn our injurious enemies to nothing.” Then Maccabee fulfilled these aforesaid words with strong works and overcame his enemies, and therefore his victorious deeds are written in two books in the Bible, for the glory of God. And I translated theme into English and you may read them if you desire, to read them for yourself.

Here ends the Old Testament.

Here begins the New Testament.

I tell you now, Sigeweard, that I have set here these few examples from the old books in the Old Testament under the law of Moses, and now if you desire all the wisdom that is in those books,[1] you might believe that I do not deceive you in this work. Now I desire to tell you briefly again about the New Testament after the coming of Christ, so that you might not be deprived of the meaning, although you may not fully receive all of the writings of this work, so that you will have an example through this little book.

“Lex et prophete usque ad Iohannem sicut legitur in euangelio.” [Matthew 11:13] “The law of Moses, and truly the prophets, remained until John was born,”[2] who baptized Christ. He is the end of the old law and with him begins the preaching of the gospel, and he was born at the coming of Christ. Just as the daystar goes up at daybreak before the sun, so John shone in holy preaching before the Savior. And he was his herald in his preaching, and with his baptism he made known that the baptism of Christ was to come. Christ himself said about him that not a single one among the children of women had come who was a greater man than he, but Christ was not included in this comparison, he who was born from a pure virgin. Nor did John right any book specially, but his deeds are written in the gospels of the Lord, whom he baptized, and his forerunner in life and in death, and now his fame stands wherever Christendom might be and the books of Christ might come.

Four books of Christ are written about himself. Matthew wrote one of those, who was with the Savior, his own disciple traveling in this life, and he saw his wonders and wrote them in a book, so that they might come as a reminder, in the Hebrew language, after the passion of Christ in the land of the Jews, those who believed in God; and he is the first evangelist in the order. The evangelist Mark, who was with Peter in teaching, his own godson grown up in the teaching of God, wrote the second book about the preaching of Peter, about which he learned from his education in the city of Rome, just as he was asked to do by the faithful citizens from that city who believed in God through the preaching of Peter. The evangelist Luke wrote the third book, who from childhood followed the apostles and afterward traveled with Paul on his journey and learned from him the gospel teaching, living in purity, and wrote the book of Christ in the land of Achaia in the Greek language, as learned it from the teaching of Paul and the teaching of the apostles. In the land of Asia, just as the bishops asked, John the apostle began the fourth book about the divinity of Christ, in the Greek language, and about the deepness which the Lord uncovered to him, when he laid on his lovely breast, in which was hidden the heavenly gold-hoard. These are the four rivers from one wellspring that go widely out of paradise over the people of God. And these four evangelists were long ago signified as Ezekiel saw them: Matthew in the form of a man, Mark as a lion, Luke as a calf, John as an eagle, because the signs signified them. Matthew wrote about the humanity of Christ; and Mark as a lion called out to tame humankind, as in the wilderness; and Luke began with the priest Zechariah, who offered a calf to God as an offering; and John as an eagle eagerly looked at high mysteries with his sharp eyes and wrote his gospel about the divinity of Christ.

These four books make known how Christ came to humans through Mary the virgin, the Redeemer of the world, in the sixth age of this world, about which the prophets wrote in books, in the city of Bethlehem within Judea, in the days of Augustus the noble Caesar, and then many thousands of angels made his birth known with heavenly song. Then three kings came to Christ with gifts, from far eastern kingdoms. And Herod killed all the little children who were in the land, so that he might kill Christ, but he did not come to him, because he so sought him with deceit, and the evil king died in misery. These books clearly tell us about Christ, how he worked wonders and how he was baptized and how he chose apostles, who are messengers, twelve in the beginning, when he first preached. The names that are named in books: Peter and Andrew, James and John, Thomas and the other James, Philip and Bartholomew, Thaddeus [Jude], and Paul. But Paul was chosen after the Ascension of Christ, and Matthias also was chosen to replace Judas, who betrayed Christ and then was condemned. After these he chose seventy-two for his teaching, as his disciples. Then he sent all of them to every city where they were to go, so that people might know of his coming, but we did not find their names written in books.

Then he lived with people on this earth for thirty-three years, and also some more, and raised up Christendom and made known with wonders, just as his gospel says, that he is the Son of God, when he raised dead men through his strength and easily healed each illness. And he turned water into wine-like drink and went over the sea on dry feet and stilled the winds with the command of his words and drove devils out of the afflicted with madness and gave mind after madness. Then afterward he died of his own will, hanged on a cross for our redemption, and arose from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven to his heavenly father, winning the victory, and he rules all things and will come again to judge all humankind on the great day, each one by deeds. I tell this briefly, because I have written about these four books in forty sermons in the English language, and some others also. Then you may read about this narrative in more understanding than I tell here.

Then the apostles also wrote teachings for the people who live in belief, so that through their exhortations the mind is strengthened in belief in Christ and in Christendom, which newly sprang up in the great New Testament. The apostle Peter wrote two epistles, but they are more than one may read at mass and have great statements for the strengthening of belief. James the righteous wrote one epistle great in teaching, for the understanding of people, for everyone who holds to Christianity in their life. The evangelist John, worthy to God, wrote three epistles; those are three books filled with love, for the teaching of people. The apostle Jude wrote one epistle, not the lost Judas who betrayed the Savior but the holy Jude who always followed him, and here now are seven books in this canon. The apostle Paul wrote many epistles, because Christ set him as a teacher to all people, and in true earnestness he wrote about the customs that the faithful people hold in their lives, those who order themselves and their lives for God. The one apostle wrote fifteen epistles to the people who turned to belief. These are great books in the Bible and they profit us toward our righteousness, if we follow the teachings of the teacher to the people. He wrote one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, also one to the Galatians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Colossians, also one to the Hebrews, and to his own disciples, two to Timothy and one to Titus, one to Philemon, one to the Laodiceans. Fifteen in all, as loud as thunder to the faithful people.

About them I will say some few words. First about the Savior, how he taught us in his holy gospel, to love him: “Si diligitis me mandatu mea seruate” [John 14:15] et cetera. “If you love me, hold my commands. The one who loves me holds my speech and my father loves him and we will come to him and certainly will live with him afterward. He who does not love me does not hold my speech.” Here we may hear that the Savior loves the deed more than smooth words. Words wither, works stand. About this James the righteous apostle said: “Estote factores uerbi et non auditores tantum, fallentes uosmet ipsos.” [James 1:22] “Certainly be workers of the word with deeds and do not deceive yourselves, so that you listen to the words alone without the works.” John also taught us in these words: “Filioli mei non dilagamus uerbo neque lingua sed opere et ueritate.” [1 John 3:18] “My beloved children, let us not love, I ask, with word and with tongue, but with work and truthfulness.” The apostle Paul about the same said: “Qui dicunt se nosse Deum, factis autem negant.” [Titus 1:16] “They say that they know the true God, but with their works they deny him.” The one who promises repentance from evil and gives his pledge and again turns from that, how then may he have the help of the Savior, who sees and knows his heart, that he desires to turn his word against him again? But one might speak in earnest with his Lord, who desires that we speak with him with works, because the one who speaks well and does not fulfill his word, he does nothing except condemn himself.

The evangelist Luke, who was a doctor in life, wrote two books to heal our souls. One is the book of Christ, the other is named thus: Actus Apostolorum, that is in English language “the deeds of the apostles,” which they did together, and how afterward they journeyed to far lands, just as the Savior commanded in his holy gospel, that they should teach people and to turn them to belief with their preaching. Peter preached in the city of Antioch and there they were first called “Christian” men through him. And afterward he journeyed quickly to Rome and there preached belief to the citizens for twenty-five winters with wonders and signs, until Nero the Caesar killed him on a cross. Paul journeyed widely throughout this world, preaching to many people, until at last he came into the city of Rome and also preached there. And Nero commanded that he be beheaded on the same day on which he hanged Peter. Andrew preached in the land of Achaia and in Scythia, and afterward he was hanged on a cross for the name of the Savior. James the younger, who was the brother of John, preached to the Jews who were divided into twelve tribes, working signs, until King Herod beheaded him. His brother John preached in Asia in the eastern part of the world, and he was not killed but after many wonders he went to Christ, when he was ninety-nine winters old. Philip preached to the heathen people beside the Silver Sea, and afterward he went to Hierapolis and then died. Thomas preached in Parthia and Media and Hyrcania, until he came to India and there was killed for true belief. Bartholomew preached in India, in the far India, and was killed there. Matthew preached in the land of Ethiopia, who are the Sigelhearwa, and the king killed him, not the believing one but the unfaithful. James the righteous lived in the land within Jerusalem, preaching belief, until the Jews killed him. Simon and Judas were martyred together in the land of Persia for belief in Christ, which they preached, and they ordained bishops in their twelve dioceses, until a man killed them. Matthias, who was chosen in the place of Judas, so that the total of the apostles was filled, preached in the land of Judea. I have written about the endings of all of these apostles, except for Matthias, about which I cannot learn. You may read and lift yourself up in them, if you were to care for your own souls.

John lived in this life the longest. And in his exile he wrote the book named Apocalypse, that is “the uncovering,” which Christ made known to him in a spiritual vision about the Savior himself and his church and about the Judgment Day and the devil Antichrist, and about the resurrection to eternal life. And this book is the last in the Bible. I may say some more things about John, so that you will believe that he spoke with works to a certain boy, just as the narrative makes known to us, whom he loved and also served. Jerome the worthy and the wise writer, who brought our Bible into Latin from Greek and Hebrew books, he wrote about John the holy evangelist, the son of Christ’s aunt, in the ecclesiastical book Ecclesiastica Historia, saying about him thus: “Audi fabulum, non fabulum sed rem gestam de Iohanne apostolo” et cetera. “Hear this narrative, not as a false tale, but a thing done by John the apostle, and greatly remembered by all the faithful, done by him in old days.” The devilish Caesar was named Domitian, after Nero, who set cruel persecutions for the Christians and killed them with torments. He commanded the holy apostle to be taken, and he commanded him to be bathed in boiling oil, because the hot oil goes into the bone. And the oil for the bath was easily prepared for him. They brought John into that vat, into the boiling oil, but he was shielded through the strength of God and he went out of the bath with a safe body, just as he was innocent from fleshly lust and full lasciviousness. After this the hostile Caesar commanded, because John would not cease his preaching, that he be brought to an island, far in exile, which was named Patmos. And there he lived until the counselors of this Caesar killed their lord, just as it was done to him because of his cruelty and his mindlessness. And then the counselors deemed that all [of Domition’s deeds], what he desired before to do with his evil counsel, were worthless and overturned them all. Then the faithful apostle was called back from that island, home to the city of Ephesus, where he had lived, working God’s wonders and always teaching that people to believe.

Then after some time, the apostle went, just as he was called by the faithful, to nearby cities, to preach belief. And he raised up churches in every diocese, where there were none before, and he also set ordained priests with them, about whom the Holy Spirit always made known to him, just as the narrative tells us. Then he came to one city, just as he was asked, near to Ephesus, and he ordained a bishop there and taught ecclesiastical customs himself to the ordained priests whom he called there, and with great glory he taught the people there to believe in God with glad hearts.

Then John saw a certain boy in the people, younger in age and of special form, strong in size and handsome in the face, very glad in mind and sharp in action, and he began to love the young boy in his gentle custom, so that he converted him to Christ. Then John looked up at the bishop, who was newly ordained, and spoke to him thus: “Dear bishop, know that I desire that you have this young man with you in your teaching at home, and I entrust him to you with great diligence in the witness of Christ and this church.” So then the bishop happily undertook the aforesaid boy and said that he desired to take care of him with eagerness, as he asked him, with him in his living. Then John again repeated his words and often asked the bishop with commands that he should make known holy belief to the young boy. And he went home again to the city of Ephesus, to his bishopric.

Then the bishop, just as he was asked, undertook the young boy and daily taught him the teachings of Christ and held him dearly until he baptized him with the full truth so that he was faithful. And so he lived with him in honor, until the bishop let him go by his will, expecting that he should remain in the gift of God in spiritual customs. Then he [the bishop] quickly saw that he [the boy] was keeper of himself, in immature freedom and unsteady customs, and then he began to love sins too greatly and many vices with his young companions, who unadvisedly followed their idle lusts into defilement and perverse behaviors. He and his companions then began to love great drunkenness in nightly error, and they brought him so that he began to steal in their custom, and he often took himself to their sinful customs and to more crimes with the wicked flock. Then he severely took their teachings in his skill of terrible deeds. And just as a spirited horse who is unbridled and does not obey the one who sits upon him, so the boy went in his wicked deeds and in crimes, greatly strengthened in despair of his own salvation, so that he doubted the mercy of his Lord and he did not heed his baptism which he had undertaken. Then it seemed to him too insignificant that he should do the lesser sins but he always learned more and more in his wickedness and he let no one be his equal in evil. He did not allow that he might be subjected by his evil companions who had led him astray before, but he desired to be the greatest in that evil flock and worked his companions to all be robbers, in all wickedness in the wide hills.

Then after some time again, the apostle went to the aforesaid city, in which the bishop lived who had the boy in his came before, just as John commanded. And he entrusted him and he was very happy at the bishopric. After he had done the service of the Lord and fulfilled the thing for which he was called, then he said earnestly: “So, dear bishop, now bring me that one that I entrusted to you before in the trust of the Lord and in the witness that you shall make known in this church.” Then he was pale and believed that he asked some other treasure or some property, which he had undertaken from the apostle. But he thought again that the blessed John would not be in error, nor ask about what he had not entrusted before, and he hesitated timidly. Then John saw that he was pale and again spoke to him thus: “I ask you now about that young boy and that brother soul, who is dear to me, whom I entrusted to you.” Then the old man began to sigh grievously and was certainly overcome with tears, and said to John, “Dear one, he is now dead.” Then John suddenly asked and said: “Alas, how is he dead, or which death?” He spoke to him again to answer thus: “He is dead to God, because he broke away viciously and unbelieving. And now he has become a bandit and leader of the criminals who he has gathered to himself, and he lives in a hill with many criminals, over whom he is now leader and general.”

So then John shook his head with immense sadness and said to the bishop: “I gave to you the good shepherding of the soul of this brother to hold, but now a horse to ride should be prepared for me and you will lead the way that goes to the criminals.” And soon men found for him what he was asking, and he very quickly hastened from the church, until he saw the passage of the criminals and certainly came to the guards. Then the guards took his reins firmly, so that he might not break away in flight in any way. But he did not desire to flee, nor to take flight, but he called out over all: “I come to you myself. Now lead me forward, without harm, to your leader.” Then they quickly called out to the boy, who was their general, and then he came armed. And he was quickly overcome with shame, when he knew the apostle of Christ, and he began to flee from his presence. Then John roused the horse with his spurs and was after him and did not regard his age, called out loudly and said to the fleeing boy: “Oh, my son. Why do you flee from your father? Why do you flee from this old and unarmed man? Do not fear, oh wretched one; you still have hope of life. I desire to give an account for your soul to Christ, and I willingly desire to give my life for your soul, just as the Savior gave himself for us, and I would give my soul for yours. Now stand here and hear these words and believe that the Savior sent me to you.”

Then when he heard these words the bandit stood and fell to the ground with all his body and cast away his weapons and wept very bitterly, and he fell trembling at John’s feet with sadness and howling, overcome with tears, asking that he might have mercy on him, and hid his right hand, greatly ashamed for the criminal deeds that he had done and for the murders that he committed with that hand. Then the apostle swore that he truly desired to obtain mercy for him from the merciful Savior. And he also bent down to him and seized his right hand, for which he was fearful for his criminal deeds, and led him away weeping to the church, and he prayed often for him with brotherly love, just as he promised to him, to the Savior, and also with fasting for many days, until obtained for him mercy from the merciful Christ. He also comforted him with his beautiful teaching, and his frightened mind very splendidly with his soft comfort, so that he would not become hopeless. And he ceased for nothing until his soul within was gladdened through the Holy Spirit, and he had mercy for all of his misdeeds. He also ordained him to the service of the Savior, but the narrative does not tell us where he set him, except that he gave a true example to all the repenting who convert to the Lord, so that if they might be wise they may arise from the death of their souls and from the bonds of their sins and gladden their Maker with true penance and have that eternal life with the beloved Savior, who rules for eternity. Amen.

Now we have told about the ecclesiastical books in the old law and also in the new. Then there are the two testaments about the incarnation of Christ and about the Holy Trinity in true oneness, as Isaiah saw in his spiritual vision how God himself sat. And two seraphim sung around him, who are two of the host of angels: “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus sabaoth.” [Isaiah 6:3] That is in English: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts. All the expanse of the earth is filled with his glory.” The two seraphim truly signify the Old Testament and also the New, which with words and with works always praise the Almighty God, who alone rules in one Divinity without beginning and end. The teachers who do not desire to take their learning from these holy books, nor their examples, are like the teachers about whom Christ himself said: “Cecus si ceco ducatum prestet, ambo in foueam cadent.” [Matthew 15:14] “If the blind man is leader of the blind, then they will both fall into some blind pit.” The teachers who desire to take their teachings from these holy books, and their examples, from both the Old Testament and the New, are like the teachers about whom Christ himself also said: “Omnis scriba doctus in regno celorum similis est homini patri familias qui profert de thesauro suo noua et uetera.” [Matthew 13:52] “Every learned scribe in the kingdom of God is like the lord who continually brings out of his own gold-hoard old things and new.” Seventy-two books are in the Bible, because some of them are set in two for their length in the faithful church: he may see that, who knows the canon. And so many people were divided at the marvelous city, which the giants desired to make with boasting, after Noah’s flood, before they were separated. And so many were the disciples that our Savior sent to humankind to preach the book learning with Christendom, which came into this world through the Savior himself and through his preachers. So other books are written by the holy teachers that people have everywhere throughout Christendom, to the praise of Christ.

And the sixth age of this world stands from Christ straight until Judgment Day, unknown to all humans, but it is known to the Savior. The seventh age is flowed with these six from the righteous Abel until the end of this world, not in living people but in dead souls in the other life, where they rejoice, praying still for eternal life when they will arise, just as we all shall rise from the dead safely to our Lord together. The eighth age is the one eternal day after our resurrection, when we will rise with God in soul and in body in eternal joy. And there will be no end to that one day, when the saints will shine just as the sun does now. How may the man go well who turned his mind from all these books and is so willful that it is pleasing to him that he always lives by his own conduct, cut off from these, so he may not know the writings of Christ? Moses the great prophet taught us in his writings, thus saying to all: “Interroga patrem tuum et adnuntiabit tibi maiores tuos et dicent tibi” [Deuteronomy 32:7] et cetera. That is in English: “Ask your Father about the true God and he will make him known to you. Ask your elders and they will tell you.” If you do not desire to know and be wise, you shall learn there, where there will be pains in terrible torments, so that you know whom you rejected and whose writings.

The wise should consider with wise thoughts, when too much evil is upon humankind, which of the leg of the royal throne might be broken, and quickly repair it. The royal throne stands on these three legs: Laboratores, bellatores, oratores. Laborers are those who toil for food, farmers and peasants who undertake that one thing. Prayers are those who intercede for us to God and further Christendom among Christian people in the kingdom of God, with spiritual battle, committed to the one thing, for the need of us all. Warriors are those who hold our cities and also our land against the surging armies, fighting with weapons, just as Paul, the teacher of the people, said in his teaching: “Non sine causa portat miles gladium” [Romans 13:4] et cetera. “The warrior does not bear his sword without cause. He is the servant of God, a need for himself, to set misery to evil workers.” The royal throne stands on these three legs, and if one is fractured, it will quickly fall down, to the certain harm of the other legs. But what does this offer us about which to consider? Those who should take care should consider this. The righteous God loves right judgments, but rewards too often turn right judgments to wrong against the will of the Lord, and the evil comes over all people, where vice rules securely. He who is the servant of God should judge rightly without any rewards with truthfulness. Then he glorifies God with good customs and his reward will be great from God, who lives and rules world without end. Amen.

I would tell about the unfortunate people, about the Jews, who hanged our Lord, but first I would say that which I have said before. Many of the people there believed in Christ, but the most part of that people id not believe in him and therefore perished. Much misery came upon them after the passion of Christ in all misfortunes, and many of that people were killed with sudden attacks. And they killed the apostles of Christ, the younger James and the righteous James, and they stoned Stephen with hard stones and their evil increased, to their harm, and they would not lament the killing of the Savior, nor with any repentance ask for his mercy. Then he [God] sent strange signs to them and afterward an invasion by the Romans. Vespasian was Caesar at the time. He sent to them his son Titus with a great army of the Roman people and beset their city, until they died from hunger. And human bodies were cast out over the wall because of the hateful stench, and in no way might they defend the many because of their weakness. They chewed their belts and eagerly ate grass, and each one took what little others had, and meat from their mouths, very immoderately, and robbers ran through all the city and sharply sought with great threat for hidden food in their treasure chambers, and beat every man who had anything if he would speak against their madness. It is not for us to tell of the shameful murder that was done there, but many hundreds of the poor people were killed by the great famine—more than we will tell—and afterward the robbers killed each other and the city was seized and torn down entirely, as the Savior said before his passion. Of the young boys who came through the famine in all the land, they led away to make fine linens, just as they were strung along. And from the boys the race is still everywhere, and this was the retribution for their evil deeds, and also the torments of hell, which is heavier on them. Now you might well know that works speak more than the naked word, which has no efficacy. Even so there is good work in good words, when a man teachers another and strengthens him to belief with true learning, and a man speaks wisdom for the need and direction of many, so that God who rules forever is praised. Amen.

You desired to invite me, when I was with you, that I drink for pleasure much more than my custom. But know, dear man, that the one who compels another over his strength to drink, that he might bear both of their guilt, if any harm comes upon him from that drink. Our Savior Christ in his holy gospel forbade over-drinking to all those who believed; let he who desires hold his instruction. And after the Savior, the holy teachers set the vices through their teachings and taught that a man should not drink so to harm, because over-drinking undoubtedly destroys a man’s soul and his health. And illness comes from drinking.

Whoever might copy this book, let them copy by the exemplar and, for the love of God, let them correct it so that it might not be in error, a danger to the writer and slander to me.

[1] Here the manuscript is damaged, and I have provided a conjectural translation, partly based on reconstructions in the previous edition by William L’Isle, A Saxon Treatise concerning the Old and New Testament (London, 1623)—though Marsden only notes these emendations and does not include them in his text.

[2] Marsden does not indicate this as a translation, but it is clearly Ælfric’s rendering of the verse, with some adaptations.


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