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  • A Medieval Puritan Welcomes the Early American EnlightenmentWhat Bible Commentaries Can Offer Postsecular and Literary Studies
  • Abram Van Engen (bio)
Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary; a Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, volume 5, Proverbs-Jeremiah
cotton mather
Edited by jan stievermann
Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2015
Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana
jan stievermann
Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2016

In college, I studied the history of literary criticism using a massive collection called The Critical Tradition (1989), which ran from Plato to John Guillory. I loved this big, beautiful book (Richter). It seemed to cover just about every way of looking at a text, along with patterns, stories, lines of development, tensions, contradictions, and contested views in the history of literary criticism. Even then, however, I knew that one important tradition went mostly unrepresented. The Critical Tradition was not concerned with biblical criticism; it defined “the critical tradition” in largely nonreligious terms, tracking theories of interpretation that had little to do with sacred texts.

Between Plato and John Guillory, however, hermeneutics—that is, the practice of interpretation and the dialogue about what constitutes proper or improper methods of interpretation—had a great deal to do with sacred [End Page 423] texts. Long before the rise of Christianity, theories of interpretation developed in order to understand God (or the gods) through holy and inspired words. And for centuries after the birth of Christianity, throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, hermeneutics took shape mainly in relation to the Christian Bible. Books on how to interpret scripture, like Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (397 AD), had far-ranging and long-lasting consequences. In short, literary criticism and biblical criticism share a heritage and a history. The hermeneutic revolutions that would eventually shape literary studies arose primarily from contested attempts to understand and apply what many considered to be the written Word of God.

The Biblia Americana is Cotton Mather’s attempt to interpret the Bible in the midst of his age’s hermeneutic revolutions. His does not proceed, like some commentaries, from verse to verse with comments on every passage. Instead, he collects “illustrations” of scripture from diverse sources, inserting them into the proper places as he comes across them in his reading. The printed commentary follows scripture, therefore, but the annotations mix Mather’s ruminations and illustrations gathered from over thirty-five years. Because he recorded mostly without erasure, two very different sources might sit side-by-side in the Biblia, and a much older Mather might follow immediately the musings of a much younger Mather. Moreover, the entries come in the form of Q&A—rhetorical questions in a Socratic style. The Biblia Americana thus can best be described as a commonplace book put into the form of a catechism serving as a commentary on scripture.1 Moreover, Mather’s collection of illustrations often comes from other collections he had at his disposal. For all these reasons, this ever-unfinished book is eminently useful. In putting the Biblia Americana into print, Reiner Smolinski’s editorial team is now making accessible one of the most important commonplace books of the early American Enlightenment. It is an anthology of anthologies, an encyclopedia of the era.

And what a tome it was. Weighing in at forty-five hundred manuscript pages, it was not published until now—no publisher in Mather’s day would take on such a task. Instead, the commentary has gone mostly unread and unnoticed in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Appearing now in ten volumes of almost a thousand pages each, the Biblia Americana project is the product of astonishing editorial labor. Those many, many pages of Mather’s collected commentary overflow with references [End Page 424] that are “international, interdenominational, multilingual, historically all-encompassing, and, as we would say today, transdisciplinary” (Stievermann 28). Mather believed that all knowledge could be used to illustrate the Bible, and the Bible, in turn, could illuminate all knowledge. Nothing was to be excluded. As one of Mather’s contemporaries wrote, “You certainly have not neglected any subject to support its elegant style. You...


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