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John Carey (trad.), The Ever-New Tongue: The Text in the Book of Lismore, Turnhout, Brepols, 2018, xii + 192 pages, ISBN 978-2-503-57929-0, 35 €.

Stephen C. E. Hopkins

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1The present volume is the fifteenth in AELAC (Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne)’s Apocryphes series, which aims to present translations of important Christian apocrypha to a broad scholarly audience. It presents the earliest surviving recension (ca. 9th-10th cent.) of one of the most intriguing apocryphal compositions found in Old and Middle Irish, In Tenga Bithnúa (The Ever-new Tongue; ITB henceforth). The editor and translator, John Carey, has previously produced the masterful Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum edition of In Tenga Bithnúa (The Ever-new Tongue) in 2009, which presented the texts of three major recensions together—a real gift to scholars, but too cumbersome and costly for most readers. Thankfully, this volume grants easy access to the earliest and most conservative iteration from the Book of Lismore (1408-1411) while still maintaining important resources for readers who wish to engage with ITB more deeply. Beyond a deft translation of ITB, the volume features an up-to-date bibliography, careful discussion of the complicated manuscript situation, the fascinating background and sources of ITB, and a brief examination of the text’s theological purpose and implications. Beyond these, the volume also provides a useful appendix on dating the text from linguistic evidence (the first of its kind for ITB), an important methodological excursus, especially since most Old Irish texts survive in manuscripts far younger than the text under discussion.

2ITB itself is a mesmerizing composition—purportedly a vision spoken by the Apostle Philip, nicknamed “the Ever-new Tongue” in honor of his martyrdom in which, according to the unique Irish tradition, his tongue is cut out seven times in a series of vain attempts at stopping him from preaching the gospel. The apostle begins by quoting the first words from the book of Genesis, and claims that before this vision had been revealed, humanity had no means of comprehending the complexity of the workings of the natural world. According to ITB, Philip descends upon Mt. Zion in a bolt of spinning light to teach an assembly of Eastern kings and bishops (also called “the wise men of the Hebrews”) all the secrets and wonders of the entirety of creation. He often speaks at length in a pseudo-angelic language before the text translates his words for readers (Carey helpfully provides an intriguing, if inconclusive, linguistic analysis of the angelic language, which appears to be the invention of the compiler). The revelation then systematically presents facets of creation and their complexities and remarkable features, loosely following the order detailed in Genesis, from the natures and colors of the winds to the heavenly bodies, to the creation and fall of the angels, to an overview of salvation history as narrated in scripture. The apostle even reveals that, foreknowing the fall of the angels, God created the material that would eventually become hell, though it was shapeless until their rebellion. Midway through the revelation, some of the hearers express incredulity, and one of them, anachronistically named Judas Maccabeus, is killed by having his eyes burst and his body charred by a blast of flaming wind. Carey (p. 26) suggests that here, and throughout the vision, the author’s purpose was to inspire readers with wonder and reverence at God’s creation in order to encourage devotional and mystical growth, an idea echoed in the teachings of Columbanus (ob. 615). For non-Celticists, the work is not only worth reading for its own strange merits, but also for its imagery, which may well lie behind other puzzling medieval religious images and motifs. For scholars of apocrypha, Irish texts such as this often present early evidence for important apocrypha attested later elsewhere. The text is also well worth consideration since, as Carey argues (42-73), its unknown exemplar bears many signs of Egyptian and Gnostic theological influence, attesting to the trans-Mediterranean movement of literature in the Late Antique period (in the case of Ireland, the material is thought to have been imported from the apocrypha-loving Priscillianists in Visigothic Spain, as David Dumville has argued elsewhere; see Dumville, “Biblical Apocrypha and the Early Irish: A Preliminary Investigation”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1973, pp. 299-338).

3Carey’s thorough introduction (81 pages long) serves as an overview of the text at hand, but also provides an excellent and digestible introduction to the methodological debates and challenges inherent to the study of apocrypha in Irish religious texts. After providing a brief summary of previous scholarly attempts to classify the text (p. 27), Carey provides a careful analysis of the text from several angles: first from the “structure of the book” (pp. 28-29), then with reference to the recensions and manuscripts (pp. 30-35), then a synopsis (pp. 35-38), followed by meticulous consideration of “background and sources” (pp. 38-104). After the translation comes a series of appendices and indices, including a glossary that should prove beneficial for those unfamiliar with the terminology of Apocrypha and New Testament studies on the one hand, and with Celtic studies on the other. The three indices (General, Index of Scriptural References, and Index of Sources) are particularly welcomed, since they allow readers coming to the text with particular sources in mind to locate these easily in the translation.

4The translation of ITB is itself fluid, readable, and an enjoyable rendering of a truly delightful text, a great asset to those who do not read Old Irish. Given the relative difficulty involved in learning Celtic languages, the omission of the Old Irish text is understandable, especially given the series’ target readership. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate, especially since the appendix on dating the text brings its relevancy to the fore. Fortunately, Carey makes up for this by marking in Italics the Latin texts which the Irish quotes, noting their sources and original Latin phrasing in brief footnotes. This, at least, allows readers to picture the pastiche of Irish and Latin found in the text, as well as the compositional layers that may be glimpsed thereby. Yet those who wish to access the Old Irish can do so elsewhere. The volume is to be commended for its lucid and succinct summation of previous scholarship and the argument that Carey presents for the text’s possible origins—namely, that this undeniably unusual treatise owes its existence to two major strands. That is, Latin versions of the Acts of Philip II, evidence for which can be detected in early Irish literature, were combined with an otherwise unknown Egyptian revelation discourse to generate a “hexaemeral-eschatological” treatise in Latin, which was later translated into the Old Irish text under examination. (p. 28) That this fusion was appreciated by audiences over the centuries is amply attested by the many surviving manuscripts of ITB, and it is to be hoped that this volume rekindles its fame in our own day.

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Electronic reference

Stephen C. E. Hopkins, “John Carey (trad.), The Ever-New Tongue: The Text in the Book of Lismore, Turnhout, Brepols, 2018, xii + 192 pages, ISBN 978-2-503-57929-0, 35 €.”Memini [Online], 25 | 2019, Online since 29 December 2019, connection on 28 May 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Stephen C. E. Hopkins

University of Central Florida

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