Archive for February, 2023

History I Never Knew – “The Matrix” and Its Biblical Origin

February 13, 2023

I’m not big on science fiction, so I never saw that Keanu Reeves movie about a dystopian future; Wikipedia calls “The Matrix” “the cyberpunk of science fiction.” Not my thing.  I do vaguely remember matrices from Algebra II. Wasn’t very good at them or that subject, but at least I passed.

King James VI of Scotland at age 19, the future King James I of England.

So, what is a matrix, anyway? Did you know that it is a womb, that wellspring of all life on earth, that precious gift carried by the female of all species?

I didn’t know either, but now I do.  I saw it in my King James Bible, my 2022 Christmas gift to myself. More about that remarkable piece of literature presently.

In Exodus 12, God unleashes the Angel of Death upon the Egyptians, that final plague which will at last persuade Pharaoh to let his people go. The angel passes over and does not enter the houses of the Israelites when he sees the blood on their doorposts lintels.

Near the end of Chapter 12, God lays out the rules of the Passover commemoration. At the beginning of Chapter 13, He tells Moses, “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast, it is mine.”

Now here, Exodus 13: 12, 15, when Moses is repeating the Lord’s instructions to the people, is the passage that struck me:

That thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast, the males shall be the Lord’s…And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all of the first born of the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but the firstborn of my children I shall redeem.”

I’ve checked several other translations of the Bible, and none that I’ve seen say “matrix” in the above passage. Not even the New King James version.  Why, I wondered, did this happen here, and apparently only here?

Let’s start with an online search. I found several definitions of matrix; most were mathematical or scientific. But here’s one clue. According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the second, and formal, definition is “the formal social, political, etc. situation from which a society or person grows and develops,” e.g. “the European cultural matrix.”

 Well, if it’s something from which one grows and develops, that seems pretty close to a mother’s womb, does it not? Even the word itself seems quite close to the Latin word for mother: mater.

So how did it get into the King James Bible? For a clue, I suggest God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson. The King James Bible is regarded, rightly I believe, as Nicolson says in the preface “the greatest work in prose ever written in English.”

And who wrote it? This is the amazing part. It’s the work of a committee. There’s the old joke about a camel’s being a horse designed by a committee. And there’s another saying attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and never found a statue to a committee.”

But the King James Bible is the exception that proves the rule. Six companies of translators, of whom we know about fifty names, did the job for King James I of England.  They were mostly high-ranking churchmen and academics, all very well connected to the political establishment. And they had to be. Their job wasn’t a religious or theological one. It was profoundly political.

James I had come down the Great North Road from Scotland, where he had been known as James VI. He had been king there since the age of one, when his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was deposed. She was eventually executed in 1587 for plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. James succeeded the long-lived Elizabeth in 1603.

To say that he started off rather precariously is an understatement. Liz I had stayed long past her time, and there was a lot of bad stuff going on: a plague, the Gunpowder Plot, Catholic power-grab attempts both real and imagined. James, as king, was head of the Church of England. There were a lot of competing bibles already in circulation, and they were unending sources of trouble.

Just a few examples – William Tyndale, a Lutheran, had to flee to the continent when it looked like his translation was going to offend the authorities. He ended up being murdered – garroted — in Flanders, betrayed by an English spy who was probably working for Thomas More, according to Nicolson. Then there was the Calvinist Geneva Bible, an artfully done book that unfortunately contained many explanatory notes that attacked the idea of unfettered royal power. That was the bible brought to America by the Pilgrims; it wasn’t welcome in England, obviously.

 James needed a bible that would reinforce his power as head of the Church of England and king of the realm.  That’s why he assembled his translators and set them to work. It was politics. Religious doctrine and beliefs took a back seat.

But the finished product wasn’t a propaganda piece, either. It didn’t attempt to beat back the fashionable and controversial Puritan doctrines or to compete with the Catholics’ Douay-Rheims Bible. The translators weren’t shameless political suck-ups. They consulted all available versions of the bible in the course of their work, but they also went back to the sources, poring over ancient Greek and Hebrew texts.  They wanted to produce something universal, rather than contemporary.

They succeeded brilliantly, with a bible worthy of the age of Shakespeare, one whose “subject is majesty, not tyranny, and its political purpose was unifying and enfolding, to elide the kingliness of God with the godliness of kings, to make royal power and divine glory one indivisible garment which could be wrapped around the nation as a whole,” as Nicolson sums it up.

The First Westminster Company of translators took charge of the first twelve books of the King James Bible. It was they who selected “matrix” as the precise word for that rendition of Mosaic Law. Their director, Lancelot Andrewes, had been Royal Chaplain to both Elizabeth and James. He “could look the church’s adversaries in the eye, and he was clever enough to slalom around the complexities of theological dispute; not only a great scholar but also a government man, aware of political realities, able to articulate the correct version of the truth. He was a trusty…and used for his extensive network of connections.”

Lancelot Andrewes, chief translator of the King James Bible

Lancelot Andrewes spent five hours every morning in prayer, much of it as he cried copious tears, weeping for the miserableness of his soul.  Maybe he had a guilty conscience. You could say that Andrewes got a helping hand, albeit indirectly, from whores and hookers. Oops, sorry, I mean “sex workers.” How so?

He was also a former Bishop of Winchester. That was one of the most lucrative bishop gigs in the entire Church of England, thanks in large part to the efforts of “Winchester Geese.” Real geese dotted much of the Winchester landscape back in those times, but the area also had a robust and profitable prostitution industry. The busy and popular ladies of the evening were nicknamed after the geese.

The bishop of Winchester had vast land tracts and many properties that housed the dens of iniquity. Much of the bishop’s income came directly from those “Winchester Geese.” Profits from the brothel business also paid for the founding and upkeep of several of Oxford’s most prestigious institutions – New College, Magdalen, and Corpus Christi among them.

You might remember the 1966 pop song “Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band.  If you do, you recall that the singer lamented “Winchester Cathedral, You’re bringing me down. You stood and you watched as my baby left town.”

She probably left town because he didn’t pay his bill.

And now you know the rest of the story – of several stories, actually. I hope I’ve added even a little bit to your worldly wisdom, because

“He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fooles shall be destroyed.”

–Proverbs 13:20