The Unexpected Consequences of Scholarly Standards
by Euan Cameron
We are all familiar with the expression “be careful what you wish for”. The phrase has become a staple of journalistic headlines and even rap lyrics. When we aim for what we think is a clearly defined goal, dramatic unexpected consequences may follow.
This essay suggests that the quest for ever more precise religious scholarship ended up by causing a crisis of uncertainty – entirely against the expectations and the wishes of those who began that quest. In the Reformation, scholar-theologians laid massive expectations on the text of Scripture to direct, authenticate and justify their conclusions. They believed that Scripture, by the action of the Holy Spirit, authenticated itself, independent of any institution. That implied, however, that the text of Scripture had to be established with the greatest possible exactitude. Consequently, reformers relied upon ‘sacred philology’ to purify and clarify the text.
Renaissance humanists had already begun to apply techniques of textual editing to the Bible. The first step was to restore access to the Scriptures in the original languages, and in the ancient paraphrases (the Targums and others) conserved in the Semitic languages of the Near East. The great Polyglot Bible of Alcalà, completed around 1520, was only the first of four scholarly polyglot editions of Scripture: those of Antwerp, Paris and London appeared between c.1570 and c.1658.
- Polyglot Bible of Alcalá de Henares, 1514-1517
These ruinously expensive scholarly tours de force allowed a few very, very learned readers to compare the insights of translators and redactors of Old and New Testament from past centuries. They included not just Hebrew and Greek editions but Aramaic paraphrases, variant Latin translations, and versions of the sacred texts in Arabic, Persian and Samaritan Hebrew.
Yet this scholarly enterprise could not quite hide the fact that the manuscripts used, which purported to contain the “original” texts of Scripture, were far from perfect. The Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts dated from late in the first millennium CE: no earlier copies were known until the 20th century. More perplexing still was the Greek New Testament. The convenient study edition in the early 16th century was not the Alcalà Polyglot, but the much more readily available Greek and Latin of Erasmus, first issued in 1516 and revised several times thereafter.
Erasmus had limited Greek texts at his disposal – at first he had no absolutely complete manuscript of the New Testament. Those which he had were medieval Byzantine copies. Yet Erasmus’s New Testament, after multiple revisions, underlay Protestant Greek Bibles of the early modern period. The scholar-publisher Robert Estienne revised it several times in the 1550s in Paris and Geneva (coincidentally introducing verse numbering into the New Testament for the first time in 1551). Théodore de Bèze, Calvin’s disciple and successor at Geneva, performed further editorial work. By the 1630s this composite edition became known as the ‘received text’ or textus receptus of the Christian New Testament. It acquired (and still holds in some circles) a quasi-canonical status despite being inconsistent with many early authorities.
By the 19th century, many scholars acknowledged that tinkering with this ‘received text’ was pointless: a complete new edition would be needed, based on the earliest surviving manuscripts and on quotations in Patristic authorities. Karl Lachmann argued in 1831 that the textus receptus should be ‘received’ by no-one. As Constantin von Tischendorff wrote in the tract published as When Were Our Gospels Written? (1866) “we have at last hit upon a better plan … which is to set aside this textus receptus altogether, and to construct a fresh text, derived immediately from the most ancient and authoritative sources. In this way only can we secure a text approximating as closely as possible to that which came from the Apostles.”
The work of Tischendorff, Westcott and Hort, Nestle and Aland, and many others would yield us the Greek New Testament in the version used today. However, in the meantime scholars had adjusted to the insurmountable difficulties of establishing a single, canonical, “perfect” text of Scripture. Editing Scripture came to mean collecting, sorting, and classifying divergent readings. In 1707 John Mill published an edition of the New Testament containing some 30,000 variants. Mill also urged that the “harder” reading, the one which seemed problematic or even at times absurd, was more likely to be ancient than the smoother and more comfortable one. The sacred text should be sought in an inherently perplexing and difficult form. The scholar should identify the densest critical thickets of difficulty, and try to pick through to the most ancient readings.
Given that Protestantism had laid such emphasis on the authority of self-interpreting and self-authenticating scripture, this was not good news. Biblical scholars, who were supposedly intended to restore and preserve the text of Scripture for the theologians to work on, seemed instead to be telling people how difficult it was to be sure what the sacred text actually said! A series of scandalous books in the 17th century made the situation more troubling. Louis Cappel (1585-1658) Professor of Hebrew in the French reformed academy at Saumur, echoed the theories of the Jewish philologist Elias Levita (1469-1549). He reasoned that the vowel points in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Scripture were not authentic but very late, around a thousand years later than the archaic text to which they had been added. Losing the vowel points meant that much reading of Hebrew Scripture became a matter of interpretation rather than certainty.
In the later 17th century two other authors, neither a Protestant, added fuel to the fires. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) argued that, on the internal evidence of the Hebrew Bible itself, it must represent a post-exilic compilation of mostly anonymous or pseudonymous authorities. The French Oratorian Priest Richard Simon (1638-1712) refuted Protestant claims about the sole authority of Scripture, by pointing out that the text had undergone innumerable redactions and transformations. One must either believe that all editorial interventions since Scripture was written were also divinely inspired; or, one must credit the Catholic Church with supernatural authority in conserving and interpreting it.
This accumulation of scholarly questions affected the work of dogmatic theologians. Scripture could no longer confer the absolute certainty that the confessional debates of the age demanded. One might question, in truth, whether the minutely detailed dogmatic questions that occupied the energies of the framers of the Lutheran Formula of Concord, or the delegates to the Synod of Dort or the Westminster Assembly of Divines, could ever have been answered conclusively from any scriptural text – despite the entrenched habit of voluminous proof-texting which typically accompanied these enterprises and their Catholic rivals. In response to the skeptics about Scripture and the hesitations of the textual critics, some 17th-century dogmatic Protestant theologians formulated and laid greater stress on the dogma of ‘scriptural inerrancy’.
In the Formula of Consensus of the Swiss Churches of 1675, the first articles proclaimed that Hebrew Scripture as preserved in the traditional text was infallibly accurate and reliable, and explicitly refuted those who had tried to bring it into doubt by comparison with other antique Semitic-language editions. Over time this approach became formalized as the doctrine that Scripture, correctly conserved and faithfully interpreted, was literally inerrant in all its parts. The principle survives in some conservative Protestant movements – though inerrancy is sometimes attributed to the hypothetical “autograph” text rather than any one of the surviving variants. (Whether it would be attributed to the lost letters of Paul, alluded to but not conserved in the canon, is an interesting question.)
Stepping back a little, a fascinating and unexpected outcome emerges from this whole process. A firewall was put in place between the biblical scholar and the systematic theologian. In the time of the early reformers, it would hardly have occurred to anyone that these two academic practices could be distinguished, let alone opposed to one another. The same theologians who wrote the summae of Reformation theology were also commentators and exegetes.Yet by the end of the 17th century if not before, the foundations had been laid of our present academic specializations.
Biblical scholars focused on the immense technical difficulties of reconstructing the text. They tried to interpret it in the light of the historical and cultural settings in which it was written. Systematic theologians organized doctrines schematically according to the heads of doctrine. They undertook this task with some dependence on the catechisms and confessions of faith of their churches. The impulses of the biblical scholar and the theologian might overlap, for instance in the writing of pastoral commentaries: but their instincts had diverged – and continue to do so. The problems experienced in keeping our theological curriculum coherent for pastoral and ministerial needs lie deeply rooted in the legacy of the early modern period.
A related process separated the church historians from the biblical scholars. At the end of the Middle Ages and in the early Reformation, it was assumed that the chronology of the world recorded in the Hebrew Bible offered an accurate and trustworthy account of events, including the ages of the patriarchs. It was also assumed that history recorded in the Scriptures was older than that of classical Greek and Roman antiquity. The two narratives could, however, be integrated into one story – and needed to be, since classical historians filled in the gaps between the two Testaments. Biblical world history had a theological message. All monarchies, governments and peoples, whether of believers or unbelievers, were governed by the providential and judgmental reign of God. God raised up and deposed monarchies (especially the great ‘world monarchies’ which supposedly dominated the Mediterranean world in antiquity) and God’s judgment could be seen in their rise and fall.
Those were the big theological questions. Some writers linked biblical history to apocalyptic predictions. By reading the signs in scripture, one could discern how phases in the history of the world were leading towards the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment. The craft of biblical ‘chronology’, more technical and less profound, fused with this theological history. No-one before 1600 saw anything absurd in totting up the ages of the patriarchs, prophets and kings of Hebrew antiquity, to work out how old the world was at the time of its great events – especially those of salvation history. One could also calculate how many years had passed since creation to the then present day.
Biblical chronology or ‘supputation’ attracted some of the best theological minds of the era. The Hebrew Scriptures used for the Vulgate gave different dates for the ages of the patriarchs than those found in the Septuagint Greek translation (and therefore in Eusebius). Most medieval and early modern ‘supputators’ favoured the Hebrew numbering. Protestant computers of the age of the world such as Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger came up with a figure around 3970-3975 for the age of the world at the time of the birth of Christ. They then integrated the chronology of the ancient world with the prophecies of the Book of Daniel. These prophecies, specifically chapter 9:24-27, appeared to foretell the coming of the Messiah at the precise time (490 years after the alleged writing of the Book of Daniel) when Jesus entered on the final days of his earthly ministry. Thus they “proved” the relevance and reliability of Hebrew Scripture as a key to Christian revelation.
Scholars of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century did not know when to stop. They tried to accommodate, integrate and reconcile all the calendars of the antique civilizations then known. The fruits appeared in the fantastically elaborate, linguistically and culturally exotic work of Joseph Justus Scaliger, On the Emendation of Times (1583). After pages of intricate computation and argument, Scaliger estimated the date of Jesus’s nativity according to five different calendars, concluding that it took place in year 3948 since creation. After acid remarks about his rivals, Scaliger received a multi-volume rebuttal from the enormously learned French Jesuit Denis Petau (1583-1652) in the 1620s – 1630s.
By the mid-17th century serious observers wondered whether one could ever achieve an accurate chronology of world history. If such prodigious erudition could not bring certainty, nothing could. Scholarship actually made the problem worse. In 1616 Pietro della Valle brought to Europe the first text of the Samaritan Pentateuch. This text, written in a form of Hebrew and therefore not to be dismissed as a translation, offered biblical chronologies which matched neither the Hebrew nor the Greek versions (they were shorter than both).
When the best efforts of textual and historical critics failed so spectacularly, it became conceivable, if not yet acceptable, to suppose that the Scriptures were never intended as precise guides to religious doctrine or historical understanding. The eccentric French Huguenot Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676) achieved a succès de scandale in 1655 by claiming that Adam was not the first human being, only the first ancient Hebrew. Most scholars did not take him seriously at the time; but his notions fed more skeptical thinkers in the following century.
In the Protestant world, Christian belief and inquiry survived the disintegration of early modern certainties. Romantic theologians like Schleiermacher welcomed and embraced the detaching of the religious vision from claims about scientific realities. However, the disintegration of Christian learning into a range of distinct and sometimes competing truth-claims, nurtured in often separate intellectual guilds, made the life of the churches more difficult (as well, perhaps, as more authentic and realistic).
As historians we should inquire how this disintegration took place, since it regulates how we think and work today. The Reformation played a critical role, but not the role sometimes assigned to it. The Reformers did not believe in the breakdown of authority or the primacy of individual judgment. They assigned supreme authority to inspired Scripture: but they then laid an unbearable burden on critical study of the Scriptures. They championed scholarly techniques, which were fated to undermine rather than support such authority. The Reformation sponsored infinitely precise investigation into the sources of faith. Rather than establishing one secure ground for truth, such inquiry showed that the hoped-for certainty in doctrine and history could never be attained. Divine truth must always be discerned, if ever, through the messy and incoherent business of human affairs and human texts.
Scholarship had played a crucial part in this discovery. It had done so in spite of itself, and in this learning process its failures proved far more important than its successes. Be careful what you wish for.