In the beginning was what word?

Any reading of the gospel of St John has to come up short even before the initial throat-clearing has finished. It begins with a claim derived from no primary sources and based upon no credible authority, asserting that “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God”. To which the magnanimous response might be a bemused: “Interesting, nice try” if not something less polite, more Saxon, and certainly more cynical.

As the Oxford scholar John Barton’s recently published, magisterial A History of the Bible makes clear, the real story of the Bible is driven by the interposition of varying languages and dialects, publishers and transcribers, high-minded wishful thinkers and all the downright vagabonds who have put their thumbprints all over the Good Book during the intervening centuries. Out of all this frenetic chaos only one thing is clear about The Beginning. If a word was anywhere to be found in the vicinity, there is no evidence of its meriting the definite article.

The vanity of the ambitions of our species is always getting us into this sort of trouble, and it’s totally unnecessary, given the joys to be taken from life without all this overweening. Science, wine, music, and a bright-eyed love are way, way more than enough.

We find a similar phenomenon emerging from the history of something comparatively recent: the emergence of the English language is a story of centuries rather than millennia, but again we see some of those same thumbprints. Consider the 15th-century lifetime of publisher William Caxton, born in the year of the death of Henry V: a time still dominated by Old English and the medieval mind.

There were no printing presses in Europe when Caxton was born but, within his lifespan, he oversaw the introduction of moveable type into England, becoming the country’s first significant publisher while living through not one but two successive regime changes in the eclipsing of the royal houses of Lancaster and York. Knowing more than a little about the art of getting on, he published over 100 books in his final, active years – most of them in English. Under increasing pressure to print more, faster, he had at least one major hurdle to surmount: the question, what precisely is English?

There were at least six major dialects around England as his printing press started rolling, and a tradition of centuries of transcribers copying out what had been often heard but not always seen: there was nothing set in stone for what was then still a minor European language. But as he published, he created a record. The power of the written word was beginning to grow and, largely as a result of his work and that of the publishers who followed William Caxton, the English Renaissance truly took off in the 150 years following his death.

In his words was truly a beginning, for out of modern English grew so much of the modern world.