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The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies.

THE DEATH OF SCRIPTURE AND THE RISE OF BIBLICAL STUDIES. By Michael C. Legaspi. New York: Oxford University, 2010. Pp. xv + 222. $74.

Legaspi tells a story of the decline of the Bible as a text meant for worship in the hands of an ecclesial community, and of the rise of Scripture as texts meant for poking and prodding by university professors, who, in 18th-century Germany, were the equivalent of state bureaucrats. The first three chapters outline the post-Reformation environment that paved the way for the replacement of lectio divina with oriental philology. In the wake of religious wars, emerging nation-states created modern universities whose goal, says L., "was and is irenicism" (7). Beginning with Erasmus, various scholars attempted to use the Bible to mediate disputes where theologians had come to a stalemate. Out of this arose the model philologist, who went behind the public text to discover alternative versions in an effort to shed further light on controversial passages. Ideally, the philologist could find a solution behind the very same text that warring churches had used to bludgeon their opposition. Much like Kantian rationality, professional philology could bring peace where there had long been only war.

By the 18th century, academic study of the Bible emerged at places like Gottingen, the home of Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791), L.'s bete noire. These institutions gave no harbor to divisive confessionalism. "It is not surprising," L notes, "that this approach to the Bible ... lent shape and support to the larger project of recovering a scholarly, nonconfessional Bible" (33). Although first imagined in a medieval period as essentially ecclesial institutions, universities were now organs of the state, and consequently were expected to promote the state, not just the church, through cultural and economic advance. In place of theology faculties that in the post-Reformation era accented polemical difference, universities such as Gottingen privileged academic work that would build bridges and came to replace confessionally-rooted biblical theologians with philologists.

L. positions Michaelis as the most pivotal figure in the creation of Hebrew philology, or Hebraistik, an essential disciplinary development for these changes. Michaelis sought to connect "dead" Hebrew with "living" Semitic languages, chiefly Arabic, in order to bring to life the real meaning of OT texts. L. notes not a little methodological anti-Judaism in Michaelis (esp. 98), who wholly ignored the living presence of German Jewry as a living connection to Hebrew religion. At the foundation of Michaelis's method was an approach toward theology that would expel not only Judaism, but also Christian faith claims from the academic study of religion.

The final expulsion, detailed in chapters 5 and 6, is of theology from the Bible itself. In his investigation of the Psalms, Michaelis relies upon Robert Lowth to assert the excellence of Hebrew poetry. Because their poetry was comparable to or even eclipsed that of ancient Greece and Rome, the Israelite texts had a divine quality. Its texts were sacred, argued Lowth and then Michaelis, because they were sublime; the theology that inspired the Psalmist possessed no merit. In his final chapter L. shows how Michaelis transformed Moses from the founder of a theocracy into an agreeable figure for an 18th-century audience. Moses, suggested Michaelis, supported the same kind of civic nationalism extolled by Friedrich the Great! L. laments that "by recovering Moses as a classical figure, Michaelis balanced the demands of Wissenschaft ... against the deep commitment to theological irenicism and social utility required by his university context" (152).

Inevitably this work will draw comparisons to Hans Frei's Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and Jonathan Sheehan's Enlightenment Bible (2005). All three narrate the emancipation of the Bible from ecclesial authority. L. judges this decoupling an unmitigated disaster, whereas Sheehan seems to omit his own judgment. Readers allergic to polemics will probably wince at the beginning and end of The Death of Scripture, where L.'s rhetoric is loudest--consider the final paragraph, where he writes, "I believe that the scriptural Bible and the academic Bible are fundamentally different creations oriented toward rival interpretive communities.... Academic criticism tempers belief, while scriptural reading edifies and directs it. In this sense, they work at cross-purposes" (169).

Those more invested in the project of modem biblical criticism might have more bones to pick with L. In my judgment he oversells the importance of the 16th-century split in the Western church as a causal agent in devolution of Scripture into text. The Middle Ages, as any history of religious orders shows, knew deep and painful divisions rooted in foundational approaches that led to divergent approaches to Scripture. The 16th century did not invent but rather inherited these patterns of rhetoric and theological diversity. The theological failure, however, became entangled with a political failure that could not avoid engaging in warfare despite its exponential rise in economic cost and loss of life. Additionally, L. omits almost all social history. One wonders whether there were Jews in Gottingen and whether Michaelis's anti-Judaism resulted from bad theology or from social structures that contributed to growing antagonism. Finally, the book might have benefited from a chapter that examined the Wirkungsgeschichte of Michaelis's work in the same thorough fashion with which L. examines other episodes relating to his thesis. Such an examination would counter objections that such better-known figures as Spinoza or Richard Simon or Kant should be blamed for the decline. In the meantime, though, theologians should thank L. for initiating what one hopes will be a long and fruitful, if not irenic, conversation.


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Author:Kaplan, Grant
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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