Book Review: The Enlightenment Bible

June 01, 2007

Book Review: The Enlightenment Bible

Book Title: The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture

Author: Jonathan Sheehan,

Publishing Information: Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. xvi + 273 pp.

Reviewed by Benjamin Myers

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Protestants in England and Germany discovered that the Bible —so familiar for so long—was becoming “strange, awkward, and new” (p. 27). Since the Reformation, the Bible had occupied a central place in European religious and cultural life by virtue of its unique theological function. The authority and importance of the Bible rested on the fact that it communicated theological truth—that it was the very Word of God.

At the time of the Enlightenment, however, the Bible’s theological function was sharply called into question. No longer was the Bible regarded simply as a unique source of revelation, or as a text whose miraculous authorship guaranteed its authority. The Enlightenment ushered in a post-theological age and, as a result, the Bible’s own theological role seemed to be redundant. What is to be done with the Bible in such a posttheological age? How is the Bible to be invested with meaning and authority when its connection to theological truth has been severed? In this major new study, Jonathan Sheehan argues that “the Enlightenment Bible” was the attempt to answer precisely these questions.

The story of the Enlightenment Bible is thus the story of “the posttheological Bible” (p. 64). It’s the story of the creative transformation of the Bible into something wholly new—into a work whose authority was located not in a transcendent world, but in the immanent world of modern culture. The story of the Enlightenment Bible is therefore also the story of Western secularisation. Indeed, according to Sheehan, the Bible itself is one of the chief sites of the secularising process. Secularisation is not the gradual disappearance of religion. Rather, it is the process by which religion creatively transforms and reconstructs itself.

The Enlightenment Bible thus emerged in the eighteenth century as a secularised Bible, “a Bible whose meaning, significance and function ensured its vitality in a postconfessional and posttheological age” (p. 28). The project of this secularised Bible was driven by devout believers, who used new tools of scholarship and translation to take up the challenge of redefining the place of the Bible in their contemporary world. Or to be more precise, the new scholarly tools were developed precisely for the reconstruction of the Bible itself—and these tools were, at the same time, central to the whole project of modernity.

Sheehan’s focus is thus on a specific set of institutions and practices that was integral to the emergence of modernity. These complex new practices of scholarship and translation “open[ed] up the Enlightenment to possibilities of religious reconstruction and recuperation” (p. xii). Such practices were exercised with special energy in England and Germany, the dominant Protestant countries in the eighteenth century. Of course, the Enlightenment Bible was a distinctively Protestant achievement simply because the Bible was so fundamental to the continuing identity of Protestant communities; only by redefining and reconstructing the Bible itself could Protestant communities also redefine themselves in their new cultural environment.

Early in the eighteenth century, German Pietists engaged in massive efforts to develop a purely literal translation of the Bible. The goal of this scholarship was to free the Bible from its theological familiarity and to bring it to life by means of new translation. Pietist scholars produced a host of such translations, culminating in J. J. Junckherrott’s 1732 New Testament—which was almost completely incomprehensible. Take, for instance, Junckherrott’s translation of Romans 13:1: “All souls to essences there outside holding themselves there above should arrange themselves there underneath since there is no there outside essence not thus from God there the being outside essences are arranged beneath the being of God” (pp. 71-72). If this highlights the absurdity inherent in the notion of a “literal” translation, it also illustrates the ability of translation to make the Bible new precisely by making it strange.

In the same way, new encyclopaedic editions of the Bible combined translation with masses of annotations, and in doing so “offered an exhilarating yet frightening freedom, collapsing the distinction between scholarly and lay domains” (pp. 83-84). A scholarly approach to the Bible was now available to all, so that the Bible could become a non-partisan, non-theological text. Again, there were inherent absurdities in this project. The Berleburger Bible, for example, aimed to include all possible information, and the resulting work filled eight folio volumes, with a total of over 8,000 pages—hardly suitable for the average reader!

While German scholars were busy with their textual and philological labours, devout scholars in England were developing “the moral Bible” as a pedagogic tool that would be “digestible to the sensitive stomachs of the modern age” (p. 119). The moral Bible was aimed not at linguistic purity but at conceptual faithfulness, and this was to be achieved by clearing away the unnecessary obstacles created by the ancient world of the biblical writers. Thus Edward Harwood, for instance, re-translated the Lord’s Prayer in this morally palatable way: “O Thou great governor and parent of universal nature—who manifest thy glory to the blessed inhabitants of heaven— may all thy rational creatures in all the parts of boundless dominion be happy in the knowledge of thy existence and providence …” (p. 118). German pedagogues likewise tried to create a new moral Bible and in Germany this trend went hand-in-hand with nationalist sentiments. The translator Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, for example, went so far as to characterise Greek as “a bastard of a language,” and he claimed that the Bible’s “dreadful oriental dialogue” had to be replaced with “pure German expressions” which reflected the content, rather than the form, of the original (p. 140).

More sober attempts to overcome the problem of archaism resulted in what Sheehan calls “the literary Bible”. At a time when the theological significance of the Old Testament was in question, poetic translators sought to reclaim the Old Testament as an enduring source of great poetry. Literary scholars in England and Germany felt that the unique qualities of Hebrew poetry could bridge the historical gulf between the ancient world and the present, so that the “sublimity” of the Old Testament would invest the book with continuing significance.

In contrast, other scholars wanted to make the Old Testament relevant not by overcoming its archaism, but precisely by highlighting its historical strangeness. So emerged “the archival Bible”, as historians sought to present a Bible “no longer comforting in its familiarity, but disorienting in its alien splendour” (p. 186). Through painstaking work, and through a series of expeditions to Arabia, these historical scholars produced new annotated Bibles which “dissolv[ed] the shell of recognition” and so opened the way to new encounters with the exotic world of the Bible itself (p. 192). Scholarship thus became a tool of estrangement and, again, it was hoped that this sense of exotic strangeness would secure a place of continuing significance for the Bible in the modern world.

By the late eighteenth century then, the Enlightenment Bible had been invented. It was “a distributed, ramified, diverse Bible, but one independent of theology, one that could survive being embedded within the matrix of ‘culture’” (p. 220). By the end of the century, the huge labours of Bible translation had given way, but they had laid the groundwork for the emergence of this “cultural Bible” in both England and Germany. No longer tied to God’s Word, the Enlightenment Bible now became authoritative by virtue of its connection to secular modern culture. “Instead of theology, culture would be the new rock atop which the legitimacy of the Bible was built” (p. xiv).  

The theology of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism played a crucial role here, since this new theology was based on a fundamental separation between the Bible and religious truth. Thus on the one hand the Bible became increasingly distant from theology and on the other hand “culture” emerged as the basis of theological truth and religious community—a development that would, in turn, lead to the dark and inextricable connection between theology and nationalist culture in twentieth-century Germany.

In this book, Jonathan Sheehan offers a remarkable new perspective on the process of modern secularisation. He argues persuasively that secularisation is not the eclipse or disappearance of religion, but rather the creative transformation and adaptation of religion. Indeed, the process of secularisation is itself driven precisely by the modern reinvention of religion. To speak of the death of religion in the modern world is thus a contradiction in terms, since the transformation of religion is itself central to the whole project of modernity. The identity and self-understanding of a secularised world depend on religion; religion is modernity’s raison d’être.

On the one hand, then, the Enlightenment Bible illustrates the role of religion in the shaping of our secularised world, and the remarkable ability of Christian faith to reinvent itself in new historical situations. On the other hand, however, the lesson of the Enlightenment Bible is that a theology which has cut itself loose from the Bible will inevitably look to secure itself on some other basis. And as the history of nineteenth- and twentiethcentury German nationalism shows all too clearly, a theology grounded on culture forfeits its ability to engage in prophetic criticism of that culture, and subsequently becomes complicit in the culture’s own ideological injustices.

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