God's Last Words: Reading the English Bible from the Reformation to Fundamentalism.
When Daniel Defoe asserted that his Robinson Crusoe (1719) was "a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it," he was writing at a pregnant moment in English culture, which would soon see the birth of the realistic novel as well as the emergence of the modern, copyrighted author. David S. Katz pays attention to Defoe and other harbingers of cultural change in his marvelously ambitious and creative study, God's Last Words. Katz, who holds the Abraham Horodisch Chair for the History of Books at Tel Aviv University, focuses his cultural lens on the preeminent book of British history, the Bible in English translation. His main premise is that the English Bible cannot be understood apart from its readers and their constantly shifting "horizon of expectations"--the assumptions (what Hans-Georg Gadamer called "prejudices") that they brought to the text. Accordingly, Katz's book is a sweeping survey of key intellectual figures (almost exclusively in England) and their varied responses to the biblical text. He paints a vivid picture of a sacred book caught between evolving notions of "fact," "fiction," and the various intermediate shades of gray.
Beginning with Reformation foundations--Luther's axiom of sola scriptura and Tyndale's English translation of Scripture--Katz moves to the era of the English Civil War, which he views as the "high water mark" (40) of bibliolatry in Anglo-Protestantism prior to the emergence of modern fundamentalism. During this time, English politicians and the public alike came to know the Bible as a "natural resource" (74)--a deposit to be mined for divine providences, or keys to the past, present, and especially the future. Yet as the English searched the Scriptures ever more feverishly, these intense investigations led some readers to question the sturdiness of the biblical edifice. All the while, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were contributing to further shifts in reader response. Katz surveys a variety of reading strategies from the age of science and reason, including those of Hobbes (who denied the scientific validity of the Bible and focused instead on the right use of the Bible as the foundation of a Christian commonwealth), Newton (who sought to synthesize science and religion through rules of biblical interpretation privileging literal, univocal readings mirroring the unvarying mechanistic laws of the universe), and Hume (whose skepticism toward reason itself in favor of practical biblical morality contributed, Katz argues, to the rise of biblical paraphrases dedicated to conveying the core biblical message). Besides these familiar Enlightenment figures, Katz considers several aesthetes who attempted to build a protective wall around Scripture by treating it first and foremost as literature. Such figures ranged from Robert Lowth, Bishop of London, who analyzed the glories of Old Testament poetry, to John Hutchinson, who attempted to unlock the hidden messages contained in biblical Hebrew.
Katz is at his most suggestive when he turns to the horizon shift prompted by the rise of copyright and the emergence of the modern notion of the author. This transition occurred in the eighteenth century simultaneous with lively debates over the "standardized" texts of Greek and Hebrew Scripture as reconstructed by Richard Bentley, Benjamin Kennicott, and others. To its opponents, textual criticism destabilized the "copyrighted" received text of Scripture; to others, it was a quest to restore the Bible's original words as they emanated from the divine author. Katz cites the discussion over the (in)authenticity of the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7) as one example of the problem of text standardization. German higher criticism introduced graver concerns as scholars--typified by Reimarus, who famously calculated the improbable number of days necessary for all the Israelites to cross the Red Sea--concluded that the Bible simply does not add up. This, along with the Darwinian threat to biblical creationism, led scholars such as W. Robertson Smith to yet another view of Scripture--that revelation itself is progressive, and that the Bible, like nature, has evolution written all over it.
Katz ranges over many fields, including intellectual history, the history of the book, reader-response theory, textual criticism, anthropology, and the history of religion. The book's least developed aspect is its chronological endpoint, American fundamentalism, which he treats in just four pages. In fundamentalism, which Katz sees as a throwback to the purportedly uncomplicated sola scriptura of Luther, the English Bible comes full circle from the Reformation. Yet to invoke Luther as fundamentalism's principal precursor is to overlook not only Luther's sacramental realism (which precluded a narrow bibliolatry) but also his decidedly unfundamentalist refusal to equate all of the canon (recall the "epistle of straw," James) with the Word of God. American fundamentalism's defining concept of biblical inerrancy presupposes a more Reformed view of scriptural authority and, above all, a fully modern notion of factual correspondence that Katz himself discusses earlier in his book.
Katz's glancing treatment of fundamentalism, however, does not seriously mar his otherwise authoritative survey of four centuries of the English Bible and its readers. With considerable erudition, occasional wry humor, and subtle analysis, he reminds us--and this cannot be said often enough in a world still dominated by debates over the factual accuracy of biblical history--that the Bible's readers give Holy Writ a cultural life of its own.
Peter J. Thuesen
Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis
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|Author:||Thuesen, Peter J.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2005|
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