Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Enlightenment Bible

Sheehan, Jonathan. The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, and Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

In The Enlightenment Bible, Jonathan Sheehan presents multiple important issues related to interpretation of the Bible, its role in the development of modern Europe, and issues of translation of texts.  The question of what went into the Bible and who decided what it meant is provide an important look at the intellectual history of early modern Europe, as well as some important clues to our modern understanding of the Bible.  Sheehan’s argument is particularly interesting in light of the significant number of modern Americans that profess the belief that the Bible is the literal truth of God’s word.

The question of translation and of the books included in the Bible is critical to both meaning and use of the text.  Although Luther relied on Greek versions of the New Testament in creating his German vernacular Bible, by the seventeenth some German and English Protestants were unsatisfied with the stultification and rigidity enforced by a Protestant hierarchy no less stifling than the Catholic one supposedly left behind by the Reformation.  In order to break out of this pattern, a select group of scholars focused on the “original” Greek and Hebrew texts to determine the true meaning of Biblical passages.

This work, performed by both professional and amateur translators frequently included all of the normal scholarly apparatus, providing footnotes with alternative translations and historical context for contentious passages.  This work included reference to apocrypha and other non-canonical sources, which raised the question of how the received text of bible came to be, and why these outside sources should be used to aid in understanding the original text.  This particular issue, which reaches back to the Council of Nicaea, calls into question the line of argument that suggests that the Bible is always the product of divine inspiration.  This is a significant issue for many modern Americans in mainstream modern denominations who base their core values on the belief that the Bible contains the literal truth regarding creation, the crucifixion, and other Biblical events.

As a historian, I find this process both troubling and fascinating.  It is troubling to me due to its influence on our ability to “know” or to “understand” the past.  In some ways, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries feel easier and more comfortable in terms of interpretation of the motivations and ideals of individual actors.  This feeling is enhanced by the amount of written documents available from those individuals or describing those individuals.  However, as Sheehan shows in his discussion of the change in interpretation of the Bible from a strictly religious to a cultural document, it is a false sense of security to assume that the surface sameness allows us to uncritically accept documents.  A more detailed understanding of alien and variegated past culture is necessary before we can argue that they hand a similar understanding of a given cultural artifact like the Bible.

It seems that the danger of blindly accepting that past peoples share our view is particularly present when dealing with shared cultural artifacts like the Bible, the United States Constitution, or the Magna Carta.  The potential problem is that we will project our own understandings of these documents onto the past.  A modern example of this is the modern political debate over the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, in which both sides of the debate attempt to appropriate the “intentions” of the writers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  This same debate is played out on similar terms with the First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of Religion.

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