Saturday, December 6, 2014

Charles Wand Mitchell Translator of Ephrem's Prose Refutations Was Canadian (!)

Charles Wand Mitchell: a living palimpsest
by Rev. Fr. Dale A. Johnson 

"One see here another palimpsest: and ancient features in town and countryside are disappearing beyond all the subtleties of chemistry to restore." 

This statement was made by a military chaplain a year before his death on May 3, 1917 on the front lines during World War I. His words hint at his life as a scholar and in this case a scholar of Syriac. It is a profound spiritual perception shaped by his manuscript studies of a nearly hidden Syriac text that lay beneath B.M. Add. 14623. What Charles Wand Mitchell discovered was Ephraim's Prose Refutations beneath 88 leaves of parchment that had been washed, rebound, and written upon with new text in 823 AD. It was difficult enough to read the Syriac of the first part of the manuscript which Overbeck had done in 1865. But to read the nearly invisible palimpsest in a long lost manuscript required an heroic effort and dedication.

Seeing the “message beneath the message” is a way of seeing that only the spiritually gifted can do. Such a man was Charles Wand Mitchell.

Sometimes in the most remote places, a Syriac scholar arises. It seems to be proof of the desire of the Heavenly Father to spread the love for language of his Son to the ends of the earth. In 1879 a tiny school opened near Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Today a large community of Syriac speaking Christians have immigrated to this area. That three room school provided a firm foundation for Charles Wand Mitchell who was born the year before its founding. CW Mitchell went on to study at Bishop's College in the same community.

Bishop's is one of the oldest universities in Canada. The school was founded in 1843 by the Anglican bishop George Mountain. This was the greatest of his achievements , the establishment of the Lower Canadian Church University, Bishop's College, Lennoxville, for the education of clergymen. It was at Bishop's that Charles Wand Michell distinguished himself both a student and as a lecturer. In 1901 we find him lecturing at Bishop's College. In 1902 he left Canada and became an advanced student at Cambridge University. By 1904 he had won the highest honors in biblical languages at Cambridge University and was awarded the Tyrwhitt University Scholarship for Hebrew and the Jeremie Prize for the Septuagint. It was during this time that he met Francis Burkitt the newly appointed Norrisian Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. He was 14 years Mitchell's senior. Yet they both had a deep love for the language of Jesus, the palimpsest of all language. I believe it was Burkitt who introduced Mitchell to the spiritual beauty of Syriac. Burkitt previously had experience with the Sinaitic palimsest found by Drs. Lewis and Gibson in 1892. Beneath the text of Female Lives of the Saints, the gospels in Syriac faintly appeared.

A palimpsest found in B.M. Supp. 14623 turned out to be the missing pages of Ephrem's Prose Refutations. The 88 pages of B.M. Supp. 14623 belonged to be part of another manuscript published by Overbeck in 1865. The lost pages of Ephrem's Prose Refutations were reunited to the original 19 pages published by Overbeck. The connection was made by Mitchell. Later he was assisted by a chemical process, a reagent solution, applied to the pages of delicate vellum in 1908 by a Dr. Barrett. While Mitchell had already been at work on the hidden text, it advanced his work a thousand-fold. This is one of the great stories of detective work by a Syriac scholar.

Unfortunately the life of Charles Ward Mitchell ended all too briefly. Much of this detective work occurred at Taylors Merchant School in central London. This was a boys school close to the British Museum that allowed him to perform his real work as a scholar. But Mitchell was a foreigner in a foreign land. After all he was Canadian. Perhaps, his teacher and friend, F. C. Burkitt said it best when he said “When the first Canadian contingent came over and landed at Plymouth he felt it impossible that they should be in the post of danger and he stay behind in England, and in 1915 he became a Chaplain to the Forces, first at Shorncliffe, then with Bishop Gwynne during the winter of 1915-16 at General Head Quarters, and finally, as he wished, he went to the Front as Chaplain to the 8th Battalion East Yorks.”

Upon the news of the death of the Rev. Charles Wand Mitchell, A. A. Beven and F.C. Burkitt finished with the final details of the publication of the palimpsest. The publisher and typesetter had nearly half the work completed the the rest was in its final stage. It does not belittle the work of Bevan and Burkitt, for it was their loyalty both to Mitchell and the language of our Lord that this work came to light. Nevertheless, Mitchell left us a palimpsest of theological thought. He taught us to look deeply into the text and to discover what mysteries it may contain. But more than studying the physical text, he taught us that this is an exercise for an even deeper practice. We are to use our spiritual eyes and discover the meaning of the words in order to put them into practice. He did this in his own life by serving his countrymen in a time of war. What greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his brother we are told in scripture. Unless we are willing to love one another in practice we are merely a clanging symbol. Mitchell was a true palimpsest. [Dale Johnson Syriac Genius, p. 108, 109]

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.