Beyond Babel

During the 16th and the 17th c. polyglot editions of the Scripture were monuments of humanist philology and colossal publishing ventures. Their aim was no less than to provide materials for a reconstruction of the original text of the Bible based on the comparison of the variant readings preserved in the oldest manuscript versions of the Scripture. They presented an increasingly ambitious array of languages: the Complutensian Polyglot, published in Alcalà de Henares in 1517-1522,  proposed four (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin);  the Antwerp Polyglot five in 1568-1573 (with the addition of Syriac) (1628-1645); the Parisian Polyglot seven in 1628-1645 (with Samaritan and Arabic.)

In England the London clergyman Brian Walton, who had been deprived of his church in 1641 under the accusation of “subtle tricks and popish innovations”, formed in royalist Oxford the plan of a Polyglot which added versions in Persian and Ethiopic to the languages of the Paris Polyglot. Backed by Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) and John Selden (1584-1654), and approved by the Council of State in 1652 the work was advertised by subscription. Both royalists and republicans supported the project that was completed in three years only, between 1655 and 1657, whereas the Paris Polyglot had slogged for eighteen years. In the first issue the preface gave thanks to Cromwell for allowing the paper to be imported duty-free. At the restoration of Charles II, a loyal dedication to the king was added, and the preface was reprinted, with the thanks to Cromwell removed.