April 4, 2011

Oscar Wilde and the Greek New Testament

Oscar Wilde dressed in 19th century Greek costume.

By John Sanidopoulos

Oscar Wilde was sometimes called the "apostle of beauty"; he once said "the Greek text of the Gospels was the most beautiful book in the world."[1]

From a young age Wilde showed a remarkable flair for the classics. At the Portora Royal School, where he’d been sent in the autumn of 1864, just before his tenth birthday, he won the classical medal examination with his extempore translations from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (the tragedy he loved above all others) and the Carpenter Prize for his superior performance on the examination on the Greek New Testament.

A popular anecdote says that in his viva voce examination for Divinity at Oxford, Oscar Wilde was required to translate from the Greek version of the New Testament, which was one of the set books. The passage chosen was from a very difficult pericope, Acts 26, which is full of obscure nautical terms relating to St. Paul's shipwreck [some say the passage was from the Passion of Christ]. Wilde began to translate, easily and accurately. The examiners were satisfied, and told him that this was enough. Wilde ignored them and continued to translate. After another attempt the examiners at last succeeded in stopping him, and told him that they were satisfied with his translation. "Oh, do let me go on," said Wilde, "I want to see how it ends."

His interest in the New Testament is shown by the fact that the book he put first on a list of books he requested when imprisoned for sodomy was a Greek New Testament, which aided in his repentance. It seems the English translation could not satisfy him, for he said: "When one returns to the Greek, it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some narrow and dark house."

1. Peter Levi, The Hill of Kronos (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981), p.10:

"But I came late to Greece, at the age of thirty-two, in 1963. I had started to learn ancient Greek as a schoolboy, at a school where Greek was hardly taught. All I knew about Greece then was the Elgin Marbles, of which I treasured some sepia-tinted and forbidding postcards, and the fact that Oscar Wilde, who in the summer of my fourteenth birthday had just become my literary idol, said the Greek text of the Gospels was the most beautiful book in the world. So I demanded to learn Greek, and changed schools in consequence. From that time I have never ceased to study the Greek language."

For Further Interests: