What is a Hebrew Inscription doing in St Mungo’s Cathedral Glasgow? Gam zu letovah! By Canon Jim Foley

What is a Hebrew Inscription doing in St Mungo’s Cathedral Glasgow? Gam zu letovah! By Canon Jim Foley

by Canon Jim Foley

Some twenty-five years ago James Kinnear, one of our distinguished parishioners, drew my attention to a little-known inscription in Hebrew to be found by only the most diligent of visitors to the crypt of St Mungo’s Cathedral, Glasgow, just a few feet away from the tomb of the saint. The cathedral and nearby museum attract many thousands of visitors each year. By contrast the Hebrew inscription seems to have attracted James Kinnear and myself and a handful of inquisitive scholars. As a dedicated volunteer-guide to the cathedral he was aware of its presence but could find no translation of the text or explanation of how it came to be there in the first place. James was not the man to let this enigma go unresolved for long.

He was not the first to notice the inscription. Other scholars were aware of it and some had attempted a translation. Had it been a quotation from the Hebrew Bible it would have been a piece of cake to trace the text to its source and to submit any one of the extant translations. However, there is no parallel in the Hebrew Bible to match our text and, to put it mildly, though its sentiments are admirable, it is grammatically a bit of a mess. The text before us certainly did not come from the pen of Isaiah, nor did the engraving come from the hand of Eric Gill.

The problem of offering a translation is compounded by the fact that it is more of a graffito than a bona fide inscription. It looks as if it had been scratched out in a hurry by a perpetrator anxious to escape the attention of the cathedral beadle. The Hebrew letters are reasonably well-formed and recognisable as such but the stone pillar on which they are engraved is in poor shape and is quite friable. The last two lines are in such a mess that they give the impression that the culprit was bundled out of the crypt before he could finish his masterpiece. In any case they have defied all attempts at reconstruction.

There are eight lines set out in the manner of a poetic psalm and, in keeping with Hebrew practice, the text contains the consonants only. Very much out of keeping with Hebrew practice, each pair of lines ends with an identical syllable in the manner of much popular English prosody. The Hebrew poets had other fish to fry and rhyming couplets were not among them. There are two or three words in each line. In fact, our furtive engraver was evidently in such a hurry to get the job done that he has adopted a kind of Hebrew Pitman’s shorthand. On top of this, all attempts to date the inscription have ended in tears.

In the hope that some polyglot reader of these pages or, even better, an exponent of the Dead Sea Scrolls may chance by with a more convincing reading of the text than I have been able to provide, I print below the inscription as it stands in Hebrew, unashamedly deprived of any trace of syntax. Further down an attempted English version, or as near to such a thing as seems possible.

hebrew.text.realA PROVISIONAL TRANSLATION

With the Lord on my side 1

who can prevail against me? 2

My spirit (rises to) the heavens 3

(to be) with those who live forever. 4

He raises me from earth below 5

Where all is vanity. 6

————– his glory. 7

Text indecipherable 8

A rather startling claim was made by an earlier student of this arcane text that ‘lines 1 and 2 contain an obvious reference to the Epistle to the Romans 8.31 and line 3 is a reminiscence of Philippians 3.20’. Readers with time on their hands may wish to weigh this claim against the two New Testament texts in question.

If God is for us,
who can be against us?
Romans 8.31

We are citizens of heaven
and we eagerly await our saviour to come from heaven,
the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our weak mortal bodies
and make them like his own glorious body,
using the power by which he is able
to bring all things under his rule.
Philippians 3.20f

Lines 1-2 are an exact parallel to Romans 8.31. Lines 3-8 likewise speak in similar terms of human destiny in heaven, of mortality and human frailty and of the prospect of glory in heaven.

On the strength of this verbal similarity, it is further speculated that the St Mungo inscription is the work of a Christian student at the cathedral school who decided to leave his mark, as students have been known to do, in the form of a brave attempt to render into Hebrew a couple of texts from Saint Paul. Whatever about the beadle of St Mungo’s Cathedral, I don’t believe the Jewish citizens of Glasgow would be impressed by his workmanship.

I don’t expect I will be the last to agonise over this elusive text, nor do I expect to see a queue the length of Castle Street intent on finding the answer to my question: What is a Hebrew inscription doing in St Mungo’s Cathedral, Glasgow?

Gam zu letovah! Even this is for the good!

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