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date: 09 August 2020

(p. 559) Reception Histories (p. 560)

(p. 561) Introduction to Part VI

Reception history has been influential in biblical, literary, and historical scholarship, as well as the history of art. Rooted in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s distinction between Rezeptionsgeschichte (reception history), which emphasizes the agency involved in appropriating and applying a biblical text, and Wirkungsgeschichte (the history of use), which explores the shaping force of the text on society and culture, work in this capacious field asks how people took hold of and reworked texts, ideas, and artefacts to a variety of ends.1 The chapters in this section consider the appropriation and reworking of the Bible. The first three chapters offer case studies in early modern reception, ranging from what we might term John Donne’s ‘virtual Bible’, his compilation of interpretative and biblical resources, through the peculiarly Machiavellian Bible of John Saltmarsh, to the range of Bible stories that did so much to define post-Reformation Protestant visual culture. The final three chapters, in contrast, tackle questions of interiority, atheism, and critique, tracing shifting interpretations of the Bible in post-Reformation England, and demonstrating how scripture itself provided the interpretative resources which structured and inspired its changing uses.

Throughout his sermons, John Donne showcases a remarkable ability to track a single image across multiple books of the Bible. Emma Rhatigan notes that Donne rarely seems concerned to establish which of the available translations is most accurate; through the detailed analysis of a single sermon, delivered at Lincoln’s Inn, Rhatigan demonstrates that many of Donne’s quotations appear to come from memory or extra-biblical resources (p. 562) rather than any individual Bible. Her chapter considers the relationship between Donne’s biblical scholarship and the rhetorical and didactic demands of the sermon. The evidence of Donne’s most favoured Bible translation, the heavily glossed Vulgate, requires us, Rhatigan argues, to re-evaluate the distinction between ‘original’ and ‘secondary’ sources and to take into account the widespread use of commentaries and glosses as an essential intra-biblical resource.

Andrew Morrall’s chapter on domestic decoration also ties together the issues of dissemination addressed in Part III of this handbook (‘Spreading the Word’), and the question of how early modern men and women appropriated and interpreted a rich biblical culture. Though the Reformation has long been understood as iconoclastic and even iconophobic,2 recent scholarship has done much to recover a rich visual culture surrounding Protestant worship. Morrall explores the variety of Bible stories that constituted part of the visual experience of northern European householders, from windows to jugs, and fireplace tiles to moulded plasterwork. Biblical stories and scenes, Morrall argues, formed the basis for a common ethical education, promoted by leading humanists and Reformers. Catholic saints were replaced with a fund of exemplary biblical figures offering instruction in the paths of righteous living.

In contrast, Kevin Killeen explores the idiosyncratic readings produced by one individual, John Saltmarsh, who read biblical stories not as models of exemplary Christian behaviour, but for the Machiavellian social and economic strategies that could be derived from them. While the scriptures were usually understood to provide a resource to address morally complex problems, Saltmarsh discovered in them a biblical realpolitik. Interpreters were, however, faced with the problem of biblical characters who lie, cheat, and sin. Killeen explores the hermeneutic techniques used to mitigate these moments, including, most influentially, Augustine’s typological and figurative readings of the Old Testament. Saltmarsh scarcely fits this model, however, as he attempts instead to animate the Bible as a guide to political manoeuvre and economic advantage. Yet, Killeen demonstrates, Saltmarsh was scarcely an irreligious cynic; his approach to the Bible reveals shifting early modern understandings of the Bible, which distinguished between local narrative instances and the overall purpose of the word of God.

The final three chapters in this section get to grips with two of the major narratives of Western history: the ‘secularization thesis’ and the idea of inwardness. Erica Longfellow engages with debates surrounding the extent to which the early modern period gave birth to a new sense of individual identity and interiority.3 Longfellow approaches this question from a novel angle, charting the ways in which the Bible itself played with and produced effects of inwardness. Emphasizing the degree to which inwardness was already present in Christian discourse and in scripture, Longfellow explores how Protestant English translations of the New Testament worked to construct, but also to deny or criticize, the inward (p. 563) self. With the advent of Protestantism, Longfellow argues, the existing medieval tendency to conceive of the passions (emotions) as both physically and metaphorically inward was transformed into a paradigm of inward faith. This changing understanding of inwardness defined the relationship of the self to God and to other people. In the margins of the scriptures, Longfellow argues, Bible translators began a crucial debate about the limits of the hidden self in a visible world.

Roger Pooley’s chapter prompts readers to engage with another dominant historical and critical narrative: the ‘secularization thesis’, which holds that the early modern period witnessed a shift from a predominantly religious social order, in which the church and practices of belief dominated social and political life, to a rational and secular society founded on the distinction between church and state.4 Because of the legal as well as social impossibility of openly declaring one’s atheism, the evidence for atheism in this period comes mostly from a burgeoning anti-atheist literature. Pooley’s chapter first explores the misquotation or rejection of the Bible in drama and other literary forms, in which scepticism and irreligion can safely be attributed to characters, rather than to their author. Moving on to examine how atheism is voiced in the anti-atheist literature, Pooley demonstrates that, in many cases, writers against atheism avoid direct references to the scriptures, preferring to argue from nature or philosophy. Where they do occur, appeals to the Bible cluster around key texts, especially Psalm 14 and Romans 1: 18–22, which resonate across a range of literary and theological writings.

Where Pooley explores the possibilities and limits of atheism, Yvonne Sherwood approaches the secularization thesis from a different standpoint, bringing it into dialogue with questions of hermeneutics and critique. Like Killeen, Sherwood acknowledges the numerous inconsistencies, narrative doublings, and repetitions of the Bible. Sherwood examines treatments of King David between the Reformation and Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (first edition, 1697, translated into English in 1709) to dismantle the critical notion of early modernity as a watershed between theist pre-modernity and secular modernity. Exploring the inner-biblical tropes used to understand and negotiate the Bible’s own complexity, Sherwood takes issue with a Foucauldian concept of critique as encroaching on the biblical from the outside. Paying attention to the ways in which these texts were appropriated in the early modern period, the chapter shows how the era expanded the centuries-old interpretative machinery of ‘accommodation’ and traditional doctrines of divine judgement and original sin. Taken together, these chapters remind us of the variety of sometimes conflicting resources offered by scripture, and show the ways in which the scriptures’ very copiousness and inconsistency made possible new ways of thinking—including new ways of thinking about the Bible.


(1) Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, tr. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G Marshall, 2nd edn (London: Continuum, 2004; 1st German edn 1960). On the impact of reception theory on biblical study, see Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, and Jonathan Roberts (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(2) See, most influentially, Patrick Collinson, From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: The Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation, Stenton Lecture 1985 (Reading: University of Reading, 1986).

(3) See esp. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, tr. S. G. C. Middlemore, with a foreword by L. Goldscheider (London: Phaidon, 1944; 1st publ. as Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, 1860; Middlemore’s translation 1st publ. 1878). Burckhardt’s thesis has been widely critiqued, particularly by new historicist scholars. See e.g. Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass, ‘Introduction’ to de Grazia et al. (eds), Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1–14.

(4) For a summary of recent debates, see Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, ‘The Secularization Debate’, in Norris and Inglehart (eds), Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3–32.