BMCR 2018.07.20

Scriptural Authority and Biblical Criticism in the Dutch Golden Age: God’s Word Questioned

, , , , Scriptural Authority and Biblical Criticism in the Dutch Golden Age: God's Word Questioned. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. xvi, 449. ISBN 9780198806837. $110.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book is about developments in biblical scholarship in the context of the Dutch Republic in the Golden Age, a period to which the editors refer as the ‘long seventeenth century’. It is the outcome of a conference held in 2012, God’s Word Questioned: Biblical Criticism and Scriptural Authority in the Dutch Golden Age, originating in the editors’ research project Biblical Criticism and Secularization in the Seventeenth Century (2009-2014).

The seventeen contributions in this volume explore how biblical scholarship changed in the seventeenth-century Dutch republic and what these changes meant for ecclesiastical authority. In the introduction, the editors list four main themes: historicization; faith vs. reason; ecclesiastical authority and orthodoxy; and Spinoza’s radical philology. These run as common threads through the entire book, which is organized in seven parts, each focusing on a more specific theme or period. Since the nature of biblical scholarship is itself an object of study, the editors use a broad definition of biblical philology (or biblical criticism).

The purpose of the volume is not to present a synthetic view, but rather to give a panoramic overview of the period and to ‘gather the strands’, as the editors do at the end of the introduction. There, they draw several conclusions (pp. 12-15): free discussions on the bible existed earlier than is commonly believed, and the notion of an ‘academic bible’, i.e., the bible as an object of historical investigation, existed within orthodox circles. However, the revolution they describe was a slow one and, overall, this was still a pre-critical period.

The book contributes to a larger debate on the history of biblical scholarship and its implications for secularization, modernity, and the Enlightenment. It explicitly refers to and positions itself in this debate: it is full of references to relevant and recent publications. Next to discussions about secularization, the book contributes to debates about the history of the humanities and the discipline of philology.

The main contribution of this volume to these academic debates lies in the variety of issues and sources addressed, ranging from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, from pious forgeries to subversive criticism, covering Jewish, liberal, and orthodox reformed scholarship. The expertise of the contributors on multiple subjects is evident, and the studies are concrete and source-based. This variety could have made it difficult to maintain a clear focus, but the volume succeeds in doing this, especially in the editors’ contributions. The organization around common themes and questions make this volume more than the sum of its parts.

For this reason, the book has a wide relevance: it will be useful not only for readers interested in the particular case studies under discussion, but also for those interested in the history of philology and its implications for the history of science and modernity. I therefore highly recommend this book.

In what follows, I comment on a selection of chapters only, to illustrate how the contributions connect to each other and the main question and themes. I concentrate on the contributions by the four editors of the volume, as well as the two chapters on Spinoza’s radical philology, by Grafton and Israel.

The first chapter is an introductory essay by two of the editors, Henk Nellen and Piet Steenbakkers. Providing context for all the chapters that follow, its function is to sketch the main debates that took place in biblical philology in the seventeenth century, concentrating on Thomas Hobbes, Lodewijk Meyer, and Spinoza. The description of Spinoza’s scholarship overlaps to some extent with the chapter by Israel, but the authors of this chapter are more reserved about Spinoza’s scholarly innovations (e.g., with regard to text-critical problems, p. 56). The essay includes a helpful discussion of complex notions such as modernity, secularization, and Enlightenment. Although these notions are problematic, the authors argue, they are necessary to make sense of the developments in the period. The authors’ main conclusion is that specific features of secularization and the Enlightenment, as defined by Israel, were already visible in the late seventeenth century, which is earlier than commonly believed. However, this development was limited to specific circles. This introductory essay addresses important points, but it could be confusing to readers that it functions separately from the general introduction.

Dirk van Miert concentrates on a comparison between Heinsius and Grotius, as representatives of Scaliger’s heritage (ch. 4). He argues that Heinsius’ and Grotius’ projects, though similar in nature, resulted in widely different outcomes, because of the social and philosophical context in which these authors worked. Van Miert applies his insights to the case of Spinoza, whose radical philology depended on his philosophical outlook and his independent circumstances.

In one of the two chapters that concentrate specifically on Spinoza, Anthony Grafton evaluates Spinoza’s influence and importance, by contextualizing his scholarship practically (ch. 8). He argues that Spinoza vocalized ideas about the bible that were already around at the time, in ‘the air he breathed’ in Amsterdam (p. 183). Grafton discusses some of the sources and contemporary debates that Spinoza had access to, illustrating with clear examples how complicated it is to establish ‘what [Spinoza] knew, when he knew it, and how he used it’ (p. 187). His analysis results in a more nuanced view of Spinoza’s merits as an innovative biblical scholar.

Jonathan Israel’s focus is different from Grafton’s and counterbalances it to some degree (ch. 9). Israel concentrates on Spinoza’s philosophical assumptions, especially his naturalism, and his ‘prejudice-free’ approach to scripture. He claims that Spinoza’s contribution to biblical scholarship remains unique (p. 198), and that it is important not to overstate Spinoza’s debt to others (p. 201). He thereby reinforces the view that Spinoza’s radical philology undermined the established order in the form of sovereignty, laws, and institutions, because these are no longer necessary and absolute.

Finally, Jetze Touber, in his chapter, discusses the new biblical philology in the context of orthodox reformed circles (ch. 15). He problematizes the confusion of Coccejan theology with Cartesian philosophy, a confusion that dates back to the seventeenth century itself. It is caused, Touber argues, by a linear intellectual history, which contrasts conservative and progressive scholarship – thereby illustrating how historiography can muddle our understanding of these developments. Touber argues that the Coccejans became controversial because of their ‘scripturarianism’, i.e., their approach to scripture, rather than because of their Cartesian philosophy. His chapter manages to clarify a complicated debate by carefully distinguishing between groups, positions, and arguments.

Authors and titles

Editors’ Introduction
1: Biblical Philology in the Long Seventeenth Century: New Orientations, Henk Nellen and Piet Steenbakkers

Part I: Famous Cases of pia fraus
2: The Johannine Comma from Erasmus to Westminster, Grantley McDonald
3: Stronger than Fiction: The ‘Velesian Readings’ of the Greek New Testament, Jan Krans

Part II: The Boundaries of Early Modern Orthodoxy Challenged
4: The Janus Face of Scaliger’s Philological Heritage: The Biblical Annotations of Heinsius and Grotius, Dirk van Miert
5: The Naked Truth of Scripture: André Rivet between Bellarmine and Grotius, Anthony Ossa-Richardson

Part III: Old Testament Judaism
6: God’s Word Confirmed: Authority, Truth, and the Text of the Early Modern Jewish Bible, David Kromhout and Irene E. Zwiep
7: God’s Word Defended: Menasseh ben Israel, Biblical Chronology, and the Erosion of Biblical Authority, Benjamin Fisher

Part IV: Benedictus de Spinoza: Ancestry and Heritage
8: Spinoza’s Hermeneutics: Some Heretical Thoughts, Anthony Grafton
9: How Did Spinoza Declare War on Theology and Theologians?, Jonathan Israel

Part V: Innovative Exegesis by Remonstrant, Mennonite, and Other Liberal Thinkers
10: The Biblical Hermeneutics of Philip van Limborch (1633—1712) and Its Intellectual Challenges, Kęstutis Daugirdas
11: Pierre Bayle and Biblical Criticism, Jean Bernier
12: Bayle, the Bible, and the Remonstrant Tradition at the Time of the Commentaire philosophique, Maria-Cristina Pitassi
13: Witches and Forgers: Anthonie van Dale on Biblical History and the Authority of the Septuagint, Scott Mandelbrote

Part VI: Orthodox Reformed Exegetes Enter the Fray
14: Biblical Criticism, Knowledge, and the First Commandment in Gisbertus Voetius (1589—1676), Aza Goudriaan
15: Biblical Philology and Hermeneutical Debate in the Dutch Republic in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century, Jetze Touber
Part VII: Biblical Criticism in the Eighteenth Century
16: The Bible as Secular Story: The Northern War and King Josias as Interpreted by Hermann von der Hardt (1660—1746), Martin Mulsow
17: Critics of the Critics: Johann Scheuchzer and His Followers in Defence of the Biblical Miracle, Bernd Roling