K. Macfarlane: Biblical Scholarship in an Age of Controversy

Biblical Scholarship in an Age of Controversy. The Polemical World of Hugh Broughton (1549–1612)

Macfarlane, Kirsten
Anzahl Seiten
VIII, 266 S.
£ 70.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tomás Antonio Valle, History, University of Notre Dame

This monograph is both the first substantial study of Hugh Broughton, a major English biblical scholar and controversialist at the turn of the seventeenth century, and a distinctive contribution to the history of early modern erudition. In the last twenty years, historians have increasingly demonstrated the long-lasting influence of Renaissance textual criticism on the development of European culture. A recognizably modern worldview developed not primarily from a Scientific Revolution or New Philosophies, but rather due to practices of comparative reading sensitive to historical and philological questions. Moreover, while most historiography has focused on figures whose views resemble modern ones—often called “liberal,” “radical,” or “heterodox”—recent work has revealed that the religious mainstream employed the same reading practices, including high-level biblical criticism. This research has significantly undermined the classic, teleological narrative leading to “Enlightenment” and has instead suggested a pluralistic account of early modernity.[1]

Macfarlane intends to advance this field on three fronts. First, focusing on a polemical, itinerant figure reveals how erudition shaped and was shaped by lived realities. This is the Polemical World of the title, one where scholars collaborate with craftsmen, engage Jews in oral debate, hold sermons for large crowds of commoners, and flee from country to country just ahead of imprisonment. Second, Macfarlane further integrates scholarship with the everyday by emphasizing both Broughton’s project to bring erudite biblical knowledge to ordinary Christians and the “enormous popular support” (p. 111) for this project among common Englishmen and women. This would mean that the history of scholarship is far more relevant to cultural history and popular religious history than has hitherto been appreciated and would forge a welcome bond between histories of erudite and popular reading.

Third, Macfarlane pushes back against what she calls “the old ‘unintended consequences’ theory” (p. 15): that early modern Christian scholars eagerly sharpened the tools of historical and critical scholarship to foil their confessional rivals, not realizing that those tools would undermine their own confession and Christianity as a whole by proving the uninspired, human origin of scripture. According to Macfarlane, this thesis not only presupposes a modern, secular viewpoint in which biblical criticism is “inherently radical” (p. 16); it also implicitly condemns all sincerely believing scholars of that era for not recognizing the powder keg on which they struck their matches.

It is this willingness to write off religious erudition as somehow self-deceptive (or worse, disingenuous) that Macfarlane seeks to counteract with her re-evaluation of Broughton. The English Hebraist provides a perfect foil for the idea that biblical criticism undermined the doctrine of scripture’s divine inspiration. He held to a more literal version of inspiration than virtually any other scholar of his time, claiming that “both Testaments were pure to the letter” (p. 9), without even orthographic corruptions. Yet, he was also more willing than many contemporaries—including those with less stringent opinions about the biblical text—to apply the most recent scholarly methods to scripture. For example, Broughton used a sophisticated analysis of Semitic philology to demonstrate that an apparent Greek orthographic error in 2 Peter was no error at all (pp. 195–198).

Throughout the book, Macfarlane traces and explains such sinuous lines of reasoning with admirable skill and clarity. She reconstructs how early modern intellectual culture formed an interwoven whole, with manifold connections between confessional doctrines and erudite argumentative details that, from a modern perspective, have nothing to do with theology. Showing how this culture drew Broughton from his initial chronological studies into theological debate and towards the issue of vernacular translation is the author’s focus in Chapters 1 and 2. A revised version of a 2018 article, Chapter 3 investigates Broughton’s work on the genealogical tables that later became prefatory material to the King James Version of the Bible, showing how he used innovative formats to make complex information comprehensible to non-learned readers.

The next two chapters follow Broughton on his itinerant travels through continental Europe. Chapter 4 puts him literally in conversation with Jewish communities, arguing that he became increasingly dedicated to verifying the purity of scripture using historical and philological arguments because these arguments could be deployed against the Jews. Chapter 5 recounts the fascinating path that led Broughton to seek support for his intervention in English scriptural debates first from the Swiss Reformed and then from German Catholics. Returning to the realm of scholarship, the last chapter provides a lucid, insightful analysis of the relevance of Hebrew and Aramaic philology for interpreting the Greek New Testament and for translating it into the vernacular.

In reconstructing Broughton’s career, Macfarlane has synthesized a vast array of not only thorny, technical, often quadrilingual works, but polemical ones as well. This includes drawing on several archives: particularly careful is the account of Broughton’s interactions with the Swiss, using manuscript holdings from Geneva and Basel (pp. 166–178). She presents a rich perspective on the enmeshment of religious doctrine and technical scholarship, a spider’s web of associations in which a single move could cause distant vibrations. By showing that Broughton could both hold to an extreme position on scripture’s textual inspiration and practice sophisticated historical and philological criticism, she succeeds in widening the parameters of the best recent work in her field.

With regard to her main interventions, Chapter 5 in particular shines for its placement of scholarly life (and not just abstract erudition) within the pragmatic context of confessional politics. Macfarlane also demonstrates Broughton’s distinctive interest in making erudite exegesis available to a broad, non-learned public, balancing his explicit claims with careful analysis of the layouts and printing techniques he employed. Her claim that a broad, non-learned public was equally engaged does not find clear substantiation here: she in fact defers the main evidence for popular use of Broughton’s scholarship to her second book project (p. 59 n. 125, 208 n. 102).

Macfarlane is not successful, moreover, in her critique of the “unintended consequences” theory of secularization. For one thing, her precise intervention is difficult to pinpoint, in part because she does not engage the expansive literature relevant to this issue, aside from studies specifically within the history of scholarship and biblical criticism.[2] More problematically, she also replicates the secular perspective and assumptions she ostensibly intends to correct.

Identifying herself and her readers as “we [. . .] non-believers” (p. 17), she affirms that “in the sixteenth century, there was more than enough historical and philological evidence to undermine the divinity of the Bible tout court” (p. 18). Such an assertion reflects the very assumption she criticizes in the “unintended consequences” theory — that biblical scholarship “had a radical destructive potential within it waiting to be unleashed” (pp. 17–18). Likewise, it undermines her emphatic claim (“often made, but rarely taken [. . .] seriously”) that biblical criticism was viewed as a neutral “tool” by sixteenth-century scholars (p. 17).

Her intervention, then, is not that philological and historical criticism were (or are) neutral tools, but only that they were thought to be such in early modernity. This claim in fact bolsters the argument for unintended secularization by positing that early modern religious actors were fundamentally mistaken. Thus, though Macfarlane compellingly argues that Broughton could envision “a trajectory for [biblical criticism] which ended in reformed scripturalism” (p. 217), her own secular perspective implies that Broughton’s vision was just another instance of how he could be “remarkably blind” and “unable to perceive the dangerous theological ramifications of his work” (p. 219).

Escaping this secular frame could have revealed a deeper theoretical intervention. For example, Macfarlane consistently refers to Broughton’s opinions regarding the Bible’s word-for-word, letter-for-letter inspiration as “beliefs” (pp. 28, 198, 215). But, by her own account, he not only substantiated his view on the basis of the best scholarship of his own day, but also derived his specific articulations of the position from rabbinic source material (p. 11). That is, he formulated his putatively faith-based view using the exact tools that Macfarlane claims as “cutting-edge” (p. 16). Pursuing this line of thought would put into question the distinction between theological doctrine and scholarly knowledge—a normative divide that underlies much recent historiography, including the present volume.

On some key points, Macfarlane’s book does not fulfill its promise. In spite of that, her re-evaluation of Broughton is a skillful, substantial contribution to the history of scholarship, worth the attention of anyone working in the field.

[1] Two volumes summarizing a great deal of recent work are Dirk van Miert / Henk Nellen / Piet Steenbakkers / Jetze Touber (eds.), Scriptural Authority and Biblical Criticism in the Dutch Golden Age. God’s Word Questioned, Oxford 2017; and Dmitri Levitin / Nicholas Hardy (eds.), Confessionalisation and Erudition in Early Modern Europe. An Episode in the History of the Humanities, Oxford 2019.
[2] Absent are major narratives based on an “unintended” trajectory, such as Martin Mulsow, Enlightenment Underground. Radical Germany, 1680–1720, trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort, Charlottesville 2015; Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation. How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Cambridge 2012; theoretical writings regarding the study of religion and religious actors such as Brad S. Gregory, The Other Confessional History. On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion, in: History and Theory 45 n. 4 (2006), pp. 132–149; Alister Chapman / John Coffey / Brad S. Gregory (eds.), Seeing Things Their Way. Intellectual History and the Return of Religion, Notre Dame 2009; Ethan H. Shagan, “Can Historians End the Reformation?”, in: Archive for Reformation History 97 (2006), pp. 298–306; James Chappel, Beyond Tocqueville. A Plea to Stop ‘Taking Religion Seriously’,in: Modern Intellectual History 10 n. 3 (2013), pp. 697–708; or broader discussions of secularism and secularization such as Craig Calhoun / Mark Juergensmeyer / Jonathan VanAntwerpen (eds.), Rethinking Secularism, Oxford 2011.

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