- "Take it and eat it up":The Bible, Culture, and Taste
Jonathan Sheehan's excellent The Enlightenment Bible explores how "the authority of the Bible was reconstituted as a piece of heritage of the West" (xi) between the Reformation and the nineteenth century in both Germany and England. Sheehan has written a book about the Bible that is both learned and accessible, making The Enlightenment Bible a worthy sequel to the classic works of Hans Frei, Stephen Pricket, and David Norton, and historical surveys by Christopher Hill and Brian Moynahan of the Bible and its influence on particular eras. Sheehan's argument also complements and complicates the idea of a conservative clerical Enlightenment offered by historians such as J. G. A. Pocock, Jonathan Clark, and Brian Young. Like them, Sheehan rejects the traditional association of the Enlightenment and secularization, which he understands to be more about the "transformation and reconstruction" of religion than its "disappearance" (xi). Rather than constituting a single, sacred object like the Reformation Bible, the Enlightenment Bible becomes an ongoing intellectual "project" (91) designed to demonstrate the Bible's continued relevancy to evolving modernity. The Bible in the eighteenth century gained a range of new authorities grounded in the modern "disciplinary domains" of philology, pedagogy, history, and poetry (91).
Sheehan's first section is devoted to the Reformation Bible and its problematic relation to translation. Vernacular translations initially raised unsettling challenges to traditional conceptions of biblical, ecclesiastical, and political authority. Whereas religious fervor and scholarship worked in conjunction between the Luther translation (1522) and the King James Version (1611), the Reformation ended by the early seventeenth century as Protestant orthodoxies became entrenched, and translations were no longer revised by new scholarship. The new vernacular canon was closed, "texts were fixed, liturgies solidified, [and] catechisms hardened into rigid forms" (4). The Luther Bible and King James Bible quickly gained a status akin to their divinely inspired originals. Even though Luther had doubted the canonicity of some biblical books, by 1530 he was repeatedly depicted with iconography formerly associated with Jerome, the inspired translator of the Vulgate, and considered popularly as the thirteenth apostle (5–11). In England, the establishment of one supreme translation took longer because of the political turmoil created by the Restoration. William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale had worked outside the royal authority of Henry VIII, and the most popular English Bible before the King James Version was the Geneva Bible, which was composed by Marian exiles (1557–60). Both James I and Archbishop Laud saw this version, heavily laden with commentary, as critical of royal power (22), but they pushed for a new translation through arguments of piety. The last Geneva Bible was published in 1645, succumbing to the Authorized Version even as the English Civil War was speeding to a head. Although Christopher Hill has noted that some religious Dissenters would [End Page 487] continue to use the Geneva Bible through the early part of the eighteenth century, for most of England the Authorized Version was a text that promoted national and ecclesiastical unity after 1660 and 1688.
Thus, the Enlightenment Bible began when scholarship and translation parted ways. Continued scholarship in philology and textual criticism had the potential to destabilize the new cultural weight of the vernacular Bibles, but as Sheehan emphasizes, with very few exceptions these critical endeavors evolved out of efforts to strengthen biblical authority. While there were new attempts at translations, they consistently lacked the political support or aesthetic success to supplant the accepted vernacular version. Biblical scholarship continued unabated, however. By 1707 the Englishman John Mill had identified over 30,000 textual variations in the New Testament alone. Whereas Deists like Anthony Collins used these textual variants to challenge biblical authority, Mill believed that the textual work he was doing would lay the foundation for a new translation of the Bible purged of textual inaccuracies. This translation would lift the veil of human error from the holy word and effect...