Reviewed by Arthur Williamson (California State University-Sacramento)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser
How Do I Know? The Bible Tells Me So
Lori Anne Ferrell presents a briskly written discussion of the Bible’s shifting role and significance within major Anglophone cultures. Her trajectory is a long one. Beginning with the early Norman Gundulf Bible, she proceeds to the thirteenth-century portable Paris Bibles of the traveling mendicant orders, to the Wycliffe scriptures and the Lollards. Naturally enough, the Reformation figures prominently and, most centrally, the King James Version, her study continuing through the world of the Enlightenment, the Victorians, and into the present moment. The book closes with a discussion of the eighth-century Lindisfarne Gospels and modern reproductions of the manuscript, thus joining the medieval world with the present and reflecting with Walter Benjamin on “authenticity,” reproduction, and text--the central theme of the volume.
The book, therefore, at once offers a history of a book as well as a history of what a “book” meant, an undertaking inherently involving scribal and print culture studies. Here surely lies a daunting challenge for both author and reader. Or does it? Ferrell wears her learning lightly. The Bible and the People visibly seeks to be accessible, for Ferrell writes in a chatty, self-regarding style that many will doubtless find engaging. The formidable complexities lie beneath the surface awaiting for those who wish to pursue them.
The thesis is straightforward: throughout its history in the West, the Bible has rarely appeared ever in its original languages, has been continuously “translated” in every sense of the word, and still the text has remained remarkably, even amazingly, stable over the centuries. Thus, the Bible has, at times, found itself transformed from a working book to a venerated item. It has been universalized through vernacular translations. It has been sliced, diced, and reassembled by figures as different as the pious Nicholas Ferrar and the Deist Thomas Jefferson. It has been gender selected and pared down, most notably by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It has been inflated and overwhelmed with Victorian illustrations. It has been made available in parcels through subscription. It has appeared in disposable magazine form. This “impossible book”--unique in the Western experience--can never be gotten right, and yet has always contrived to be right. It has spoken in a near infinity of voices and yet maintained a common coherence. That, for Ferrell, is its mystery, its wonder.
Along the way, Ferrell makes a number of interesting observations. As she rightly points out, the renowned King James Authorized Version (1611) needs to be seen as a reactionary document that sought to undo the radicalism of the Geneva Bible (1560). The latter’s commentary, with its historical vision of human experience--so well suited to that revolutionary decade--was stripped away. The word “church” replaced the far less hierarchical and less clerical “congregation.” Further, “congregation” might also carry classical political meanings. Scotland’s revolutionary leaders in 1559-60 called themselves the “Lords of the Congregation,” unimaginable as the Lords of the “Church.” The King James Bible arose during a period of deepening conservatism in Britain and throughout Europe. Small wonder the Geneva Bible persisted in radical Scotland well after 1611. And yet the language of the King James Bible was harnessed to revolutionary causes right into the 1960s and beyond. Its cadences eventually reached so deeply into the Anglophone mind that more accurate renderings of the original could only seem “inauthentic,” not “really” the Bible. The well-known line from Isaiah 1:18 (reputedly Lyndon Johnson’s favorite) ran, “Come now, let us reason together.” The New English Bible (1961) gave the passage, apparently closer to the sense of the Hebrew, as “Come now, let us argue it out.” The accurate and the authentic palpably diverge.
Ferrell’s approach to the Bible and its multiple Anglophone incarnations is decidedly conservative, one characterized by awe, splendor, wonder, and reverence rather than critical distance. Higher criticism of the late nineteenth century barely surfaces, while the anticlericalism and anti-scripturalism of Anatole France, Robert Ingersoll, or even the Quakers run completely counter to the spirit of the book. Theirs is a vanished world, however much of the people, and out of tune with late twentieth-century sensibility. Ferrell notes the Tridentine prohibition of any vernacular version of scripture or any Latin version other than the Jerome’s Vulgate. But she declines to consider the fraught confessional conflict about understanding the Bible, where skepticism emerged as the great weapon of the Counter-Reformation. It is hard to imagine a more central dispute about spirituality and its connection to the sacred text.
Perhaps surprising, neo-Catholic revisionism also informs The Bible and the People in important ways. We encounter sixteenth-century “Reformations” rather than a single coherent Reformation. In contrast, the medieval world emerges as an integrated, almost organic structure from which heretical departure occurred only inadvertently. The Reformation itself was backward looking. Protestants were simply wrong to claim that the Middle Ages did not know the Bible; medieval people learned Bible stories (and messages) through plays, images, and clerical reading aloud.
Ferrell does comment at various points that medieval literacy was “discouragingly low” (e.g., p. 38). But, we might well ask, discouraging to whom? It did not discourage the Middle Ages because salvation did not require scripture but a sacramental system--derived from scripture, to be sure, but much more as well. That, of course, was the reformers’ point. The Reformation proposed instead a historical vision of salvation, founded on scriptural prophecy, that was altogether unprecedented and that confronted the atemporal symbols of the medieval period. The sacred drama, the unfolding of the apocalypse--the story of the rise of Antichrist--underwrote the Reformation and Protestant piety, working a far-reaching temporalization of European culture. Ferrell mentions Antichrist and the apocalypse but neither concept informs her argument (pp. 82, 153). Her preoccupation with transcendent mystery, no less than her ambivalence about the Reformation, does not bespeak confessional choices, but instead suggests deep reservations about modernity. The book is very much a part of our increasingly sacralized post-1960s age.
None of this can take away from the book’s achievement. Whatever its assumptions or implications, The Bible and the People succeeds in drawing together a vast range of material within a comfortable compass; in combining extraordinary learning with an almost folksy accessibility; and in introducing highly abstruse concepts with grace, wit, and often considerable charm. Such a book inherently required high levels of selectivity, and the selections have largely proven to be wise. To conclude in the style favored by the author: way to go Lori Anne!
. Richard Popkin has provided the foundational discussion of the early modern debate about the authority and interpretation of scripture, in The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
. There now exists an enormous literature on this subject. For a recent survey, see A. H. Williamson, Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World (Westport: Greenwood, 2008).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Arthur Williamson. Review of Ferrell, Lori Anne, The Bible and the People.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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