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What does the phrase "or euer" mean in Middle English from the 1500s?

It's often translated as "before", but I'm trying to find out specifically the cultural connotation of what the word could mean other than just "before".

The place that I find this is from the 1535 Coverdale Bible. It is used throughout the bible. All modern translations translate to "before", however I believe that based on my understandings of scripture that it may be lost in translation. In translation it makes the verse appear to be saying that one person existed before another person, but I need to fully understand the phrase to reduce any other possibility.

Here is one of the several verses that what this word specifically means or could mean, could change the entire meaning of the verse:

Iesus sayde vnto the: Verely verely I saye vnto you: Or euer Abraham was, I am.

The direct translation to Early Modern English would be:

"Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily I say unto you: _______ Abraham was, I am."

I can see that in some other verses, "before" may be a correct translation. However, I am suspicious that the phrase may also mean something different than the pure word "before", so I am trying to glean the full context of the word.

The original Greek from the correct manuscripts would also be in order to continue to reduce any other possibilities; but as it is, right now I am only trying to see what possibilities this word could mean via the 1535 translator.

The Textus Receptus was the manuscript used for the 1611 King James Bible, and it uses the word "πριν" in the Greek. However, this is not the manuscript used for the 1535 Coverdale Bible.

The 1535 Coverdale Bible uses the Latin Vulgate. It may be that no true manuscript of the Latin Vulgate exists today. The Catholic Church purged all known manuscripts in the 1500s and 1600s, so it's not clear whether a genuine manuscript exists today of the Latin Vulgate. Thus why I can't really go back to the source to find the original word, so instead I want to see what this phrase could possibly mean in the 1535 translation, known as the first complete English Bible translation.

That is, what the meaning of the Middle English (1535) phrase could possibly mean in Early Modern English (also known as King James English), which is the closest English that is still legible to modern English readers without significantly changing the words.


Update: based on my suspicion that "or euer" could be an old spelling of "or ever", I continued further research. I found evidence my suspicion may be correct:

Preposition or

(now archaic or dialect) Before; ere. Followed by "ever" or "ere"

1611, The Holy Bible, […] (King James Version), London: […] Robert Barker, […],
OCLC 964384981, Ecclesiastes 12:6-7:
Or euer the siluer corde be loose ... Then shall the dust returne to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall returne vnto God who gaue it.

1834, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht, A wicked whisper came, and made

Source: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/or

So, it can mean "or ever", which might help. It could be this is post-Middle English and in fact perhaps Early Modern English, as it was used also in 1611. Middle English was typically used until about 1500. But based on some of the spellings, it does look closer to Middle English, it could be only beginning the transition.


Another source confirms:

Or, prep., conj., adv. before. Comb.: or ever, WW.

Source: Middle English Dictionary


Thanks to the answer that I accepted, this is solved. "or euer" means "ere ever" which can mean:

  • before ever
  • rather than ever
  • soon ever

So, it could mean on the one hand "before Abraham was", but it could also mean "rather than abraham was", which could imply not a timeframe, but a hierarchy -- that is, that Jesus was saying he is greater than Abraham, not necessarily that he "existed" before he was even born, which is the common modern theological interpretation.

I was trying to see if there was any other possibility than the modern translation/interpretation. I see that yes, there is another possibility. This was very helpful for my research.

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  • This has all the makings of an extremely interesting question...but please provide your basic research. In the meantime +1
    – Cascabel
    Jan 10 at 21:12
  • In the meantime, could you please give a complete sentence as an example?
    – Greybeard
    Jan 10 at 21:28
  • 1
    As various stages "v" and "u" (and "i" and "j") were almost interchangeable
    – Henry
    Jan 11 at 15:49
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    Given the phrase "or euer" seems to be used a number of times in the Bible, and given that it seems to always mean "before", why do you think this would be any different? Also, I might suggest you look at the Koine Greek version of the gospel instead of a Middle English translation if you are trying to find the "true" meaning (that which the author intended and not one that simply fits your narrative).
    – PC Luddite
    Jan 11 at 17:07
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    It just seems unlikely to me that a single translator or even a group of translators producing a single translation would use the exact same phrase consistently only to mean something different exactly once.
    – PC Luddite
    Jan 11 at 17:11
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Or is not the "or" of Modern English, but Or = ere = before.

OED:

ere, adv.1, prep., conj., and adj.

B. prep. 1. a. Before (in time).

Forms: β. Middle English–1600s (1800s archaic) or, Middle English ore.

d. with the addition of ever.

β.

1608 W. Shakespeare King Lear vii. 445 This heart shall breake, in a 100. thousand flowes Or ere ile weepe.

1611 Bible (King James) Dan. vi. 24 The Lyons..brake all their bones in pieces or euer they came at the bottome of the den.

1883 A. C. Swinburne Cent. Roundels 23 These, or ever man was, were.

And euer is not the common form of "ever" of Modern English - i.e. = for all time - but the rarer one:

Ever:

Forms: Middle English–1600s euer,

ever: 6. Used for emphasis: on any supposition, by any chance, at all. Also appended to relative pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs, giving to them a generalized or indefinite force. These combinations are now always written as single words: see whoever pron., whosoever pron., however adv., whatever pron., etc.

d. Added for emphasis to the temporal conjunctions as soon as, so soon as, before, ere

c1400 (▸?c1380) Pearl l. 328 Schal I efte forgo hit er euer I fyne?

1844 E. B. Barrett Drama of Exile in Poems I. 48 Or ever she [sc. the Earth] knew sin!

1872 G. W. Dasent Three to One II. 256 I know what is to happen, before ever I get up-stairs.

2001 N. Gaiman Amer. Gods (2002) xx. 605 I was a god before ever I was a kobold.

Thus: Iesus sayde vnto the: Verely verely I saye vnto you: Or euer Abraham was, I am. = Jesus said to them: Truly, truly I tell you: before ever Abraham existed, I existed. (Joh:8:58)

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  • 1
    Extremely helpful. I think you have solve the conundrum. As soon as you said "ere", then I got it. Yes, this seems to be the correct answer: "ere ever". Since "ere" is not precisely "before", then it leaves other interpretations open, but it solves my issue to know that "or" = "ere". Jan 10 at 22:13
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    @languageaddict Also, "was/am" doesn't necessarily mean "existed", It does in that context and also via its origins in early Old English.
    – Greybeard
    Jan 10 at 22:22
  • It's worth noting: "ere" also can mean a different context than "before the other". Your note about "or" meaning "ere" though helps me move forward with research. So I'm going to accept your answer. ere âr► prep. Previous to; before. conj. Rather than; before. Early; soon. So, it can also mean "rather than", which changes the potential meaning of the verse considerably. Jan 10 at 22:23
  • @languageaddict I'm looking for a less conventional interpretation of the phrase. Do you mean that you want it to mean something else, or that you want the English further modernising? If the former, I would suggest examining the Koine Greek.
    – Greybeard
    Jan 10 at 22:26
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    “I’m looking for a less conventional interpretation” I read that as “I’m not interested in what it really means, I’m interested in findings ways in which to misread the sentence but still be able to make some sort of specious argument for it.”
    – Jim
    Jan 10 at 22:40

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