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date: 01 June 2020

(p. 111) Scholarship (p. 112)

(p. 113) Introduction to Part II

The mass of humanist erudition in the sixteenth century that underlay the translation and refinement of the biblical text is hard to overestimate. Scholars fought over the relative authority of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin versions of the Bible, each with their own complex histories of transmission, mistransmission, interpolation, and questionable integrity. Biblical scholarship increased exponentially with the publication of patristic editions, the collation of editions and manuscript witnesses, the increasing familiarity with rabbinic, Eastern and Arabic scholarship, the linguistic acuity of increasing numbers of scholarly centres, and the sheer mass of intellectual resources devoted to exegetical questions. The post-reformation landscape, on its pan-European scale, was one in which scholars pored over not only theologically contentious translations—whether ecclesiastical or eucharistic—but every aspect of both Old and New Testaments. The seventeenth century was no less avid in its biblical scholarship, although the landscape of scholarship changed in quite significant ways.

The essays here make clear that in an important sense, to speak of the ‘Bible in English’ or other European vernaculars is very much to miss the point. Both the text itself and the commentary traditions around it were conducted in classical tongues. Latin remained the language of such scholarship, conducted in the Republic of Letters (often enough, the republic of poison-pen letters). This Latin had as its object of study the Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Chaldee, and Coptic languages and traditions, and among its most prestigious outputs were several major polyglot Bibles—all of which, prior to the London Polyglot of 1657, were Catholic scholarly enterprises (see Chronology). Nicholas Hardy’s essay on the study of the Septuagint in the seventeenth century demonstrates how complex a matter questions of hermeneutics and philology might remain, tracing the debate on the very nature of theological exposition among scholars who, in the light of emerging manuscript evidence, an expanding patristic corpus, and a renewed focus on the integrity of Vulgate, Septuagint, and Hebrew Bibles, sought to redefine the object of exegetical and textual (p. 114) criticism. Their concerns were stylistic as well as philological; they fought to establish how one should go about the collation, sifting, glossing, and, more controversially, emendation of received texts. Not only the translation, but the canon of the Bible was tussled over, at times furiously, in the era. There was a long history of instability at the edges of the biblical canon, and discussion of the Apocrypha had been a regular feature of patristic and post-patristic debate. Arial Hessayon’s essay traces this debate and how the Reformation made it a confessional issue, so that Catholic and Protestant Bibles came to differ quite substantially, in, for instance, the Lutheran excision of the Epistle of James, with its fiery attacks on the rich, or of Maccabees, on the supposition that it was used by Catholics to justify, by turn, ‘good works’ as a path to salvation and the existence of purgatory. The cumulative oscillations of the Apocrypha in Bibles across the sixteenth century attest to how potent an issue the biblical corpus remained and how, in the English context, the use of apocryphal works in the Book of Common Prayer aroused ire.

Scholarship has become very much aware of how fecund a notion the biblical ‘literal’ was, as a tool for thinking textually, theologically, and even scientifically. It bears relatively little resemblance to versions of the literal which emerged in the nineteenth century and which equate the literal with the bare surface of the word. In the wake of the widespread Protestant rejection of the quadriga—the ‘fourfold method’ of interpretation in which the multiple levels of meaning, literal, allegorical, anagogical, and moral, were deemed to coexist in the polyvalent biblical word—the burden of interpretation fell on the literal sense. And yet the apparent richness of the post-Reformation scope of the literal leads to the suspicion that the loss of the quadriga, with all its interpretative wealth and scope, was not entirely universal, that exegetes regularly smuggled a great deal into the literal sense. Debora Shuger, dealing with this complexity in exegetical sermon writing and commentary, explores how the lineage of Christian allegorical and literal interpretation is complicated by its awareness of, and unease about, Jewish exegetical traditions, that did not allow for the typology whereby Old Testament passages were routinely described as referring ‘literally’ to Christ. One of most important fault lines dividing Catholics and Protestants was their respective attitudes to the Bible: Protestants insisted upon the sufficiency of the Bible alone, sola scriptura, in any part of the essentials of religion, while Catholicism deemed this a disingenuous neglect of interpretative lineage and tradition, pointing out the absence from the Bible of such fundamentals as the Trinity. While both positions were often caricatured and traduced in the polemical literature of the era, they were also subject to complex and sophisticated analysis, perhaps nowhere more so than in the context of scholarship informing Richard Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (1593), the subject of Torrance Kirby’s essay, which explores a superlatively complex hermeneutics of the ‘literal’ meaning of the Bible.

For all that the turn to the ‘literal’ might seem to imply that Protestant authors would eschew the non-biblical, the pagan, and the Jewish in their approaches to the Bible, this is resolutely not the case. On the contrary, the impulse to historicize the scriptures, to put them in concert with cognate cultures, was deep set. No previous era had worked quite so intensively to contextualize the Bible, with two disciplines in particular—sacred geography and biblical chronology—coming to characterize this. Zur Shalev’s chapter explores how ideas of the fertility of the Holy Land—both past and present—became enwrought in complex theological debates, about the nature of land, covenant, and providence, negotiating the difficult, though contested fact that the Israel which pilgrims encountered and the Palestine that was reported in scholarly map-filled texts seemed curiously arid. Making rich use of (p. 115) classical geographies and historians, early modern scholarship sought to explain, deny, or query how and why this was so. Scott Mandelbrote writes on the importance of sacred chronologies and the extensive intellectual investment in allying the Bible to secular histories in a variety of quasi-scientific endeavours. Both a technical-mathematical and theological discipline that traversed millenarianism and close textual scholarship, chronology, for all its idiosyncratic nature—and it attracted its share of contemporary ridicule—characterizes that most quintessential early modern expectation that all learning, whether natural history, astronomy, or the humanities, might be put to task in understanding the Bible.

It is also the case that early readers, and sometimes surprising ones, developed a degree of scepticism about the intrinsic wholeness and reliability of the biblical text, or at least utilized a hermeneutic that suspended ‘mere’ certainty. Neil Forsyth’s essay on Milton addresses some of the fraught issues around the nature of the biblical text, and, the extent to which Protestant readers came to presume and, within tight parameters, to accept biblical corruption. This was an issue with differing consequences when it was discussed in a scholarly context and when it was the subject of analysis by Goodwin or Hobbes, in a polemical context that was more pressingly political and more fleetingly concerned with learned nuance. The chapter explores Milton the exegete, and how the interpretative protocols in his unpublished theological tract, De doctrina Christiana, underlie, though also create exegetical difficulties for, Paradise Lost.

The diverse lenses through which the biblical can be seen in the early modern era are, in some respects, difficult to reconcile. Attention to the Hebrew vowel points, or to the legal-contextual minutiae of Deuteronomy seems a long way from the soldiers’ catechisms of the Civil Wars, and the ecclesiology of Anglicanism in the 1630s can seem quite distant from the home-spun politics of the radicals and enthusiasts. And yet their distance should not be exaggerated. Crawford Gribben’s chapter traverses these apparently alien modes of interest in the Bible, ranging from the concern about the stability of the English text of the Bible in a mass print market, to anxiety about the authenticity of the translation in the context of polyglot projects. The sheer volume of Bibles in circulation is hard to credit, but well attested. The ongoing allegiance to the Geneva Bible and its annotations through the Civil Wars, and the variety of editions and annotative aids to reading the scriptures jostle in importance with the scholarly projects of the interregnum; Gribben’s chapter traces the mutual effects of the popular and the elite, neither quite insulated from the other.

Nicholas McDowell’s chapter traces a context of ‘antiscripturism’ that constituted a slowly unfolding panic at the numbers (and social quality) of those whose cynicism about the text of the Bible had appeared in print. Putting politically radical scepticism in dialogue with Latitudinarian and Anglican traditions of sceptical exegesis, McDowell produces an account that refutes the supposition that blunt anti-intellectualism lay at the root of such attitudes, and creates a lineage for such thought out of the surprising resource of pre-Enlightenment orthodox Anglicanism, from Hooker to Chillingworth to Taylor. Scholarship was, then, not cordoned off from other interpretative acts, even if, at times, it found itself engaged in rebarbative dispute, and while its acts of superlative pedantry were open both to mockery and to accusations of contorting the Bible out of simple shape, scriptural scholars were also widely admired and their contributions to early modern culture can hardly be overestimated. (p. 116)