Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cureton, William
CURETON, WILLIAM (1808–1864), Syriac scholar, was born in 1808 at Westbury, Shropshire, and educated at the Newport grammar school. The death of his father having greatly reduced the means of the family, Cureton determined to spare his mother expense by proceeding to Christ Church, Oxford, as a servitor. He took a Careswell exhibition from his school, and was thus enabled to support himself. He entered in 1828, took his B.A. degree in 1831 (not in 1830, as all his biographies state), his M.A. in 1833, and eventually added the degrees of B.C.L. and D.C.L. by accumulation in 1858. Meanwhile he had taken deacon's orders in 1831, and was ordained priest in 1832. His first curacy was at Oddington in Oxfordshire, and Dean Gaisford, who was much attached to the industrious student, appointed him one of the chaplains of Christ Church. In 1840 he was select preacher to the university. In 1847 he became a chaplain in ordinary to the queen, and finally Lord John Russell presented him in 1849 to a canonry at Westminster, which he held, together with the adjoining rectory of St. Margaret's, until his death (17 June 1864), which was accelerated by a railway accident in the preceding year from which he never entirely rallied. His devotion to oriental learning began at an early age. He had hardly taken his bachelor's degree when he began Arabic, and his appointment to the post of sub-librarian at the Bodleian Library afforded him ample opportunities for continuing the study. He was at the Bodleian from 1834 to 1837, and then was transferred to the British Museum, where he became assistant-keeper of manuscripts, in succession to Sir F. Madden, promoted. His first duty at the Museum, where he was the only oriental scholar in the department, was to prepare a classified catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts, and the first part of this laborious work, comprising christian writings and treatises of Mohammedan theology, jurisprudence, and history, all minutely described in Latin, appeared in 1846. The materials for the continuation of the catalogue were also prepared. But a new study had already engaged Cureton's attention. During his official occupation at the British Museum immense additions had been made to the collection of Syriac manuscripts. When he entered the department these numbered about eighty; but the accession of numerous manuscripts of the highest importance from the Nitrian monasteries, which were purchased and brought over partly by the mediation of Dr. Tattam in 1841 and 1843, raised the total to nearly six hundred. Cureton, who knew nothing of Syriac when he came to the department, set himself zealously to work to conquer the not very serious difficulties of the language, and to set in order and classify the new acquisitions from the Nitrian valley. His labours while drawing up an outline catalogue were amply rewarded by the discovery of many manuscripts of the highest interest, of which he gave an account in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ 1845, together with an interesting narrative of the manner in which they were discovered and purchased. He had afterwards occasion to review his official labours in his evidence before the commission on the constitution of the British Museum, from the minutes of which some of the foregoing statements have been derived. The most celebrated discovery which Cureton made among the Syriac manuscripts in the Nitrian collection was that of the famous Epistles of St. Ignatius to Polycarp, the Ephesians and the Romans, which he maintained to be the only original and genuine text. He published his ‘Epistles of St. Ignatius’ in 1845, and a spirited controversy followed. Christopher Wordsworth, afterwards bishop of Lincoln, Lee, and Bunsen supported Cureton, while Baur, Jacobson, and others opposed him. Cureton himself replied to Wordsworth in a calm and convincing manner in his ‘Vindiciæ Ignatianæ,’ 1846, and Lipsius afterwards confirmed his view. The latest verdict, however, that of Dr. Lightfoot, bishop of Durham, has been given decisively against the position taken by Cureton. Another discovery was of at least equal importance. Among the British Museum MSS. Cureton lighted upon some fragments of a Syriac version of the Gospels, differing decidedly from the ordinary Peshito version, and, as the discoverer maintained, representing the original Hebrew of St. Matthew much more closely than the Peshito. The ‘Curetonian Gospels’ will always remain a monument of his discernment and industry. Another important discovery was that of the ‘Festal Letters of Athanasius,’ which Cureton hastened to publish through the Oriental Text Society in 1848; they have been translated into English for Pusey's ‘Library of the Fathers,’ and also into German. Other editions of this energetic scholar during his official career were the ‘Corpus Ignatianum,’ 1849, and ‘Fragments of the Iliad from a Syriac palimpsest,’ found among the Nitrian MSS., and published by the trustees in 1851. After his retirement to Westminster, Cureton continued his scholarly labours unabated. In 1853 appeared his text of the ‘Ecclesiastical History of John of Ephesus’ (Oxford University Press), an important work, which was translated in 1860 by Dr. Payne Smith, the present (1887) dean of Canterbury. In 1855 Cureton brought out his ‘Spicilegium Syriacum,’ containing valuable remains of Bardesanes, Melito of Sardes, Ambrose, and others, the attribution of which, however, has since been contested by Merx and Ewald. The ‘Remains of an ancient recension of the Four Gospels in Syriac,’ already referred to, came out in 1858; Eusebius's ‘History of the Martyrs in Palestine’ in 1861; and Cureton's latest work, ‘Ancient Syriac Documents relative to the earliest Establishment of Christianity in Edessa and the Neighbouring Countries,’ was published, after his death, in 1864. As a Syriac scholar, Cureton's industry and zeal gave him a high, though not an unassailable, position, and his amiability of character was seen alike in controversy and in the help he was ever pleased to render to fellow-students. Witnesses of his early labours in Arabic are his edition of Esh-Shahrastani's ‘Kitab el-milal wa-n-nahal,’ or ‘History of Mohammedan Sects,’ published by the Oriental Text Society in 1842 (vol. ii. 1846); of Nasafi's ‘Pillar of the Faith of the Sunnites,’ in the same series, 1843; and of Thancum ben Joseph of Jerusalem's Arabic ‘Commentary on Lamentations,’ 1843. He was an active member of the Society for the Publication of Oriental Texts, a member of the Royal and other societies, and an honorary D.D. of Halle. In 1855 he was elected a correspondent of the Institute of France. Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, and in 1860 obtained the rare distinction of being chosen a foreign associate of that academy. He was also crown trustee of the British Museum. As a clergyman he was noted for his excellent educational work in Westminster, and several of his sermons have been published.
[Times, 30 June 1864, an article understood to have originated in the department of manuscripts of the British Museum; British Museum and Bodleian Library Archives; Report of Commissioners appointed to inquire into the constitution, &c., of the British Museum, Minutes of Evidence, 1850; Oxford University Calendar, 1829 ff.; private information.]