Tim Linnell [tim@thelinnells.freeserve.co.uk], a descendant of the artist, has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web his scanned text of The Life of John Linnell, which the London publishers Bentley and Son brought out in 1892. George P. Landow has adapted it for html, adding links to the original text.

Biblical Criticism — Early Studies — Desire for Tranquillity — Hebrew and Greek Studies — Diatheekee — Abraham's Covenant — 'The Lord's Day' — Views in regard to Sunday — Burnt-offerings.

decorated initial 'R'EFERENCE has already been made to the circumstance that Linnell was early attracted to Biblical studies through his surroundings as a religious man, but chiefly by the example of his future father-in-law, Mr. Thomas Palmer. He does not appear to have carried his studies very far, however, at that time, and they were probably soon relinquished — albeit, the taste he had manifested from boyhood for reading, and for book-learning in general, was hereby greatly increased.

His Biblical studies were not taken up or resumed in any definite and continuous way until 1843, when, in company with his sons, he set to work in earnest to study the original texts of the Scriptures. He had now more time for literary pursuits. and returned to his early love with great zeal. What he had learned as a young man at Mr. Palmer's house in Swallow Street — not much, perhaps, in amount — served him in good stead, and proved to be a useful basis to work upon. He at a later period put it on record that the foundation of the critical knowledge of the Bible which he afterwards attained was laid in those early days, adding that his subsequent attainments, small as they were in amount, he esteemed as the greatest of his acquisitions.

So great became his desire to widen and deepen the extent of his knowledge about the time that he reached the fiftieth year of his age, that he was led by it to forego many amusements and recreations in order that he might give the more time to reading and study. Indeed, it now became his first thought how he could best promote tranquillity and peace of mind, and thus cut off many possible sources of interruption. The adoption of this principle of action, together with a daily recourse to literature, and especially to the Scriptures, as the source of all truth and the anchorage of all hope, spared him no end of trouble and annoyance, and caused him in advanced age to write:

'I cannot recount all the benefits I have derived from pursuing this method. It has been my guiding-star, my compass, my sail, and my rudder.'

He was greatly aided in his Biblical studies — and, indeed, was to some extent stimulated thereto — by the publication of several works, which served as helps to the study of the Old and the New Testaments, and the languages in which they were written. One of those works was Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (the first edition of which was published in 1843). Other works from which he derived great aid were 'The Englishman's Greek Concordance to the New Testament,' Dawson's 'Analytical Lexicon to the New Testament,' Lee's Hebrew Grammar, Gesenius's Hebrew Lexicon, and 'The Englishman's Hebrew Concordance to the Old Testament.'

He also obtained facsimile reprints of the uncial-letter texts of the Greek New Testament Scriptures, likewise many of the best critical works on the texts. In short, he spared no pains, and counted no cost, in his desire to arrive at the true meaning of the Sacred Writings. It cannot be said that he became a thorough master of Greek and Hebrew; but he acquired a sufficient acquaintance with them to be able to compare the English version with the originals, and to draw his conclusions as to their true meaning and form of expression.

His researches in this field resulted in the publication of several pamphlets on Biblical subjects, all of which are characterized by careful research and considerable critical acumen. His first work, which was published by Trübner in 1856, when, therefore, he was in his sixty-fourth year, is a comprehensive argument against the misnaming of the Scriptures the Old and the New Testaments, instead of, as he contends they should be called, 'The Old and New Covenants.' It is entitled 'Diatheekee,' the word which, in the Septuagint Greek Version of the Old Testament, is the translation of the Hebrew word [...] (breeth).

In the Old Testament this word is rendered covenant; but in the New Testament portion of the Authorized Version the Greek word (diathéké) the equivalent of breeth is in some instances given as testament, following the Old Latin Version, which, however, in every case has testamentum, whereas the English Version has testament in thirteen places, and covenant in twenty places. Hence it is that we get our word 'Testament.'

Linnell's contention was that if the word 'testament' ever in Old Latin signified 'pact' or 'covenant,' it now has such signification no longer, and so misleads. The main object of his pamphlet, therefore, was to prove that the word 'covenant should be used throughout the New Testament as the translation of the Greek word diathéké; in the original; and he supports his view with great cogency and force.

Since the issue of this little pamphlet a new and independent version of the Scriptures has been made by Wellbeloved and others (published by Longmans in 1862), which, in every instance where the word testament' occurs in other translations, substitutes the more correct term 'covenant.'

The ancient form or ceremony of making a covenant, or, literally, 'cutting a breeth,' was pictorially represented by the artist in a painting executed in 1853, a varied replica of which is still in the possession of the Linnell family. According to the ancient rite, a sacrificed victim was cut or divided into two portions, and the covenanting parties (who bound themselves thereby) passed between the divided pieces. Thus the covenant, or promise, was confirmed or ratified. This ceremony is described in Jer. xxxiv., and an illustration of it is given in Gen. xv. Here we see how 'Jehovah made a covenant with Abram.' As directed, Abram divided the victims into two portions, and set them opposite each other, and while in a deep sleep, in the darkness after sunset, 'a smoking furnace and a lamp of fire' (representing the Divine presence) passed between the pieces of the slain animals.

In his tract Linnell quotes as follows from Gen. xv.:

'Take to me an heifer of three years old . . . and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took to him all these and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one over against another.'

He explains that the last clause, literally translated, would read, 'gave each piece to meet or answer to its fellow,' i.e., opposite — to correspond — leaving a space between the corresponding pieces, for the party covenanting to walk through, as described in Jer. xxxiv. 18: "And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof."'

Then follows the sublime narrative of the peculiar deep sleep, or trance, which fell upon Abram, in which he learns the long-to-be-endured affliction of his posterity, and their ultimate possession of the land; also his own peaceful departure. And to confirm and witness, or ratify, the appointment of these things, God gives Abram the vision of the smoking furnace and lamp of fire passing between these divisions of the animals.

This is the scene represented by Linnell in his painting. A majestic form, or suggested Divine presence, is dimly seen passing between the two halves of the offering while the patriarch sleeps. It is a very fine composition, and grandly suggestive. Later he made a small oil sketch of it, in which the mysterious presence of Jehovah is represented by a flame of brilliant whiteness, the effect being to give an added mystery and sublimity to the subject.

The pamphlet concludes with an examination of the passage in Heb. ix. 15-18, in the light of the conclusions he has arrived at. In the words of the text referred to, the ratification of the 'new covenant' is spoken of. Here, by a more literal rendering of the original, and by consistently translating diatheekee by 'covenant,' the true sense of that word is maintained, and the argument of the writer has its full and proper force and meaning.

In 'The Speaker's Commentary' (published in 1881) the principle of translation and interpretation of the passage in question (Heb. ix. 15-18) which Linnell contended for in his essay is adopted. The rendering given of the clause in question is as follows:

'By reason of this, he is the mediator of the new covenant, that a death having taken place for redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they which are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must needs be alleged the death of him that made the covenant. For a covenant is steadfast that is made over the dead : whereas it hath no force when he that made the covenant liveth. For which cause neither was the first (covenant) dedicated (or inaugurated) without blood,' etc.

Another of our artist's striking works in the field of Biblical criticism is his treatise, published in 1859, entitled 'The Lord's Day the Day of the Lord.' As we have seen, Linnell was strongly opposed to Sabbatarianism, and in this little work he gives us his reasons for not believing in the common doctrine of a Sunday Sabbath. The phrase 'The Lord's day' occurs, he tells us, only once in the whole Bible (Rev. i. 10), and he explains his reasons for believing that it is another form of 'the day of the Lord.' '"The Lord's day" and "the day of the Lord,"' he says, 'are nothing more than two different modes of expressing the genitive case of the same noun.' And he supplies a number of quotations to show that this 'day of the Lord' meant an extended period, 'a thousand years being as one day, and a day as a thousand years, with the Lord'; in short, that it refers to the time and to the events which form the subject-matter of the prophecy contained in the Apocalypse.

Linnell gives his own translation of the words in Revelation upon which so much is based, and holds it to be a correct rendering, and one that conveys the true signification of the words of the original, viz.: 'I became by the Spirit in the day of the Lord, or day of Jehovah.' He adduces many instances in proof of the correctness of his rendering, and in support of his view that the phrase 'Lord's day' (in Revelation) is not a designation of the first day of the week he quotes Milton in his 'Christian Doctrine': 'Whether the festival of the Lord's day (an expression which occurs only once in Scripture, Rev. i. 10) was weekly or annual, cannot be pronounced with certainty, inasmuch as there is not (as in the case of the Lord's Supper) any account of its institution, or command for its celebration, to be found in Scripture. If it was the day of His resurrection, why, we may ask, should this be considered as the Lord's day in any higher sense than that of His birth, or death, or ascension? Why should it be held in higher consideration than the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit? And why should the celebration of the one occur weekly, whereas the commemoration of the others is not necessarily even annual, but remains at the discretion of each believer?'

And again:

'Those, therefore, who, on the authority of an expression occurring only once in Scripture, keep holy a Sabbath day, for the consecration of which no Divine command can be alleged, ought to consider the dangerous tendency of such an example, and the consequences with which it is likely to be followed in the interpretation of Scripture.'

Men will venerate something, is Linnell's conclusion; but, in proportion to their ignorance of the true God, they have always worshipped the created more than the Creator, and among the many superstitions arising from that 'ignorance,' the observance of days seems to have been one which has been highly esteemed from the remotest times. 'Howbeit,' he continues, quoting from Paul to the Galatians, 'that when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereto ye desire again to be in bondage? You observe days, and months, and times (seasons), and years (anniversaries). I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed labour in vain upon you.'

As we have before seen, when John Linnell arrived at a conclusion on a given subject, he was never afraid to follow it to its logical consequences; and so, in regard to this question of the Sabbath, having satisfied himself that there is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of what is called the Lord's day, he ceased to regard it as in any special sense holy. Hence he 'regarded every day alike,' and, touching himself personally, he did just the same on Sunday as on other days, working at his painting, and attending to other matters without making any difference. At the same time he did not interfere with the liberty of other people, but left everyone to act as he chose.

Subsequently his daughter Mary translated, with his approval, a work from the French of Louis Victor Mellet, entitled 'Sunday and the Sabbath' (Trübner and Co.), the argument of which is that the Sabbatic rest is simply a Judaical ordinance peculiar to the first covenant, belonging to the whole mass of legal ceremonies, and that there is no day of rest ordained of God for the Christian. This, in brief, was Linnell's belief, and he acted upon it unflinchingly to the day of his death.

His labours in Biblical criticism include still another work. It is entitled 'Burnt-offering not in the Hebrew Bible,' and was published in 1864 by E. Allen, Edgware Road. In this little work of twenty-six pages a revised version is given of the first four chapters of Leviticus. The chief point argued is that the sacrifice described by Moses (in Lev. i. 2, 3) is to be rendered, if we would strictly adhere to the sense of the words of the original, not a 'burnt-offering,' but an 'ascension-sacrifice'; and that the offering was not burnt, but fumed upon the altar.

Thus the Hebrew text of Lev. i. 2, 3, 9 he renders:

'Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, If any man among you bring a gift to Jehovah, ye shall from the cattle of the herd, and from the flock, bring your gifts. If his gift be an ascension-sacrifice , he shall bring from the herd a perfect male to the door of the tent of appointment; he shall bring it for acceptance before Jehovah, and he shall put his hand upon the head of the ascension-sacrifice, and it shall be accepted to propitiate for him. And he shall kill the bull before Jehovah. . . . And the priests, Aaron's sons, shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat upon the wood, which is upon the fire, which is upon the altar . . . and the priest shall fume (kahtar) the whole on the altar, an ascension by fire of an odour of fragrance to Jehovah it is.'

The Hebrew word kahtar, Linnell explains, signifies 'to fume, to raise an odour by heat.' 'In the original of the Book of Leviticus, everything is said to be fumed until, in the fourth chapter, the sin-sacrifice is, with wonderful emphasis, ordered to be burned (sahraph) outside the camp. The use of this word sahraph, the proper word for burn, for the first time in connection with the sin-sacrifice, has a poetic force entirely lost in the Authorized Version, where everything is said to have been burned previously, which in the original is said to have been fumed.'

'With what sublime moral emphasis,' exclaims the writer, 'is the hatefulness of sin expressed by all the previous sacrifices being fumed only for an odour of fragrance to Jehovah, incense forming an essential part of such sacrifices; and then the whole bull for the sin-sacrifice taken outside the camp, and burnt in a fire with wood: "where the refuse is poured out shall he be burned." The two ideas are totally opposite; one is the expression of peace, the other of execration.'

The sacred text, Linnell affirms, does not place foremost the action of the fire by which the ascension of the soothing odour to Jehovah was caused, 'but the ascension itself,' and 'calls the sacrifice an ascension by fire of an odour of fragrance to Jehovah.' All, he goes on to say in conclusion, was intended 'to express gratitude, acceptance, atonement, and pacification; whereas burning of the sin-sacrifice was the expression of hatred and execration against sin.' Everything was done to express some important idea, but to confuse those ideas, as the Authorized Version unavoidably does by its inaccurate renderings, is a great loss to those who can only read that version while seeking for exact knowledge of Divine things.'

It will be confessed that all that the author advances on this interesting point of criticism, as on others with which he deals in his various works, is highly suggestive, and exhibits in a striking light the original and penetrative genius of the man, one of whose leading traits appears to have been a burning passion for the truth.


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts John Linnell Next Contents

Last modified 8 December 2001