Reviews of

New Cambridge History of The Bible (Vol. 3)

In Cambridge University Press, Emanuel CONTAC, Euan CAMERON, Printing, Reception history, Translation, Transmission history, Uncategorized on January 13, 2017 at 2:00 pm


2017.01.02 | Euan Cameron, ed. The New Cambridge History of The Bible. Volume 3: from 1450 to 1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xx + 975 pages. Hardback £125. ISBN: 9780521513425.

Review by Emanuel Conțac, Pentecostal Theological Institute of Bucharest.

The third volume in the New History of the Bible series published by CUP, assembles 34 papers and essays surveying the complex evolution and influence of the most disseminated hypertext in the printing era.
Whereas the editors of the initial series had compressed the post-Reformation period into a single volume, in the revised series the past 500 years are covered by two separate volumes, each addressing a wider variety of topics than would have been possible to include in a single 650-page volume.

If reading such a bulky tome from cover to cover is not an insurmountable challenge, writing a review of reasonable proportions that will adequately reflect the multifaceted nature of the work definitely is. That being the case, I will try to acquaint the readers with the basic layout of the volume, focusing in some detail on certain specific problems which happen to fall within my area of expertise.

The six essays included in the first part (“Retrieving and Editing the Text in Early Modern Europe”) pro­vide the reader with valuable information about the cultural factors that contributed to the emergence of the printed editions of the original texts, while also describing the bitter controversies stirred by such luminaries as Reuchlin, Erasmus and Wettstein. The chapter on Polyglot Bibles amply illustrates the danger that these costly products could pose for their proprietors, many of whom were bankrupted by the too bold printing enterprises on which they embarked.

The nine essays in the second part of the volume (“Producing and Disseminating the Bible in Transla­tion”) tackle the production of Bibles in both Latin and the main vernacular languages of Western Europe (German, Dutch, French, English, Italian and Spanish). Given the influence exerted by Luther’s Bible, this work is dealt with at large in a separate essay (ch. 9), whereas the German Bibles printed outside the Lutheran movement (mainly in Switzerland) are introduced and commented on independently (ch. 11). Because vernacular translation of the Bible was usually the province of Protestant scholars, most of the informa­tion included in these papers is largely focused on the Protestant printers and translators. Chapter 14 (“Bibles in Central and Eastern European Vernaculars to c. 1750” by Graeme Murdock) touches briefly on aspects related to the Romanian Bible and, while giving a good general overview of the situation, could be improved by removing some factually incorrect assertions. Coresi, the Wallachian printer who was instru­mental in publishing some of the earliest Romanian books, was a deacon, not a priest (p. 355). The version of Genesis and Exodus (1582) was not accomplished solely by Mihály Tordasi, as implied by Murdock (p. 355). Rather, the so-called Palia was the result of a joint effort by a team consisting of five Reform-minded scholars: Herce Ștefan, Zacan Efrem, Peștișel Moisi and one Achirie, all coordinated by Tordaș Mihai, who at the time was the bishop of the Reformed Wallachian church in Transylvania. In connection with the New Testament published at Bălgrad (Gyulafe­hérvár, modern-day Alba Iulia), in 1648, it is important to know that, despite the high-sounding protestations of the Preface, which claims that the translation followed mainly the Greek text, the Vorlage was to a large degree the Latin trans­lation of Theodore Beza, as found in his diglot editions. Whether Simion Ștefan was the only translator who continued the activity of Silvestru is still a moot question. For a work of this magnitude, his team must have included a few other scholars who remained anonymous.

The use of the Bible along confessional lines (Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) is a topic discussed in the third part of the volume (“Processing the Bible: Commentary, Catechesis, Liturgy”), which also devotes attention to issues such as the authority of the Bible and the emergence of new theories of interpretation in the Renaissance. A few chapters analyze the use of the Bible in preaching, catechiz­ing believers and worship. The most exotic contribution in this section is arguably the one concerning “Orthodox Biblical Exegesis in the Early Modern World (1450-1750).” In this chapter, the statements pertaining to the Romanian context deserve mention once again because they do not do justice to the facts as known to scholars who are at home in the subject. According to Athanasios Despotis, “in Romania in the sixteenth century Diaconul Coresi (d. 1583) attempted to immunise the Romanian Church against the spread of Lutheran and Calvinist works and translations of the Bible by publishing Slavonic and Romanian translations of the Gospels, the Psalter and various other liturgical texts” (p. 529). In point of fact, during his career as a printer, Coresi, who must have possessed more economic acumen and pragmatism than he is given credit for by scholars writing about him in the 21th century, printed books in the service of Orthodox, Lutheran or Reformed patrons. In 1556 he moved to Brașov (Kronstadt), a town which had adopted the Reformation in 1542, at the invitation of its Lutheran magistrates. In March 1559, the latter made an unsuccessful attempt to reform the Orthodox Wallachian church outside the town walls and commis­sioned Coresi to publish a Catechism (Întrebare creștinească), which is a thoroughly Protestant work, with the wording of the Lord’s Prayer and the striking absence of the “filioque” addition in the Nicene Creed being the only elements redolent of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Homiliarium (Tâlcul Evangheliilor) published in 1567, under the patronage of Hungarian nobleman Forró Miklós of Háporton and largely based on a Postil by Péter Juhász Méliusz, Válogatott prédikációk (Selected Sermons), contains such vicious attacks against priests, monks, masses for the dead and various other practices bitterly denounced as superstitious that the ultimate scope of the book can more accurately be described as “demolition” than as “immunization.” The Book of Prayers (Molitevnic), which is bound with the Homiliarum, is a typically Reformed liturgical book, seeking to eliminate everything unbiblical (holy oil, holy water, candles etc.), in order to introduce a pure version of Christianity, reduced to its basics, with prayers and hymns taken mainly from the Psalms. That Coresi could work not only for the Orthodox princes of Wallachia, but also for various Protestant authorities (Lutheran or Reformed) is a clear indication that, like most tradesmen, he was aware that money is not in the least tainted by the smell of heresy.

In the same chapter, Despotis writes, in connection with the Romanian Bible published in 1688, that “it is not known for certain who translated the Septuagint into Romanian” (p. 529) and that “it is not clear who was responsible for the translation of the Old Testament” (p. 530). In fact, the name of the translator has been known for quite a while, at least since 1963, the year when Virgil Cândea made the groundbreaking discovery that MS. 45 of the Romanian Academy Library in Cluj-Napoca was a revision of the OT transla­tion completed by the Moldavian boyar Nicolae Milescu during his stay at Constantinople in 1661-1664. A full transcription of the manuscript with ample notes and comments has been published recently by the University of Iași Press (Vechiul Testament – Septuaginta. Versiunea lui Nicolae Spătarul Milescu), under the supervision of professor Eugen Munteanu.

Since the Bible has had ample effects in a wide variety of domains, the fourth part of the volume (“The Bible in the Broader Culture”) attempts to identify and describe what is in part Wirkungsgeschichte and in part Rezeptionsgeschichte. The main topics selected for discussion are the use (and misuse) of the Bible in political and scientific debates, as well as the influence of the Bible on historiography, literature, painting and music.

Finally, the last part of the volume (“Beyond Europe”) is also the shortest, consisting of only two chap­ters, which explore the presence of the Bible in European colonial thought. Their scope, however, is not too large, for both essays address the issues arising from the discovery of what we now call South America. The reader who expects to find a separate chapter about the role played by the Bible in North America will be disappointed. The missionary activity of John Eliot and his translation of the New Testament into Algo­nquian are briefly examined on roughly two pages in the “Afterword,” but nothing is said about the way in which the Bible informed the Weltanschauung of the New England colonists or their relationship both with the world they had left behind and with the natives they encountered in their new home. Also missing are comments on the quasi-unanimous “hermeneutics of slavery,” which must have provided the New World slave owners with the consensus justifying that institution, in which cracks began to appear in the 1670s (first within the Quaker communities).

A feature which makes this volume a weighty scholarly product is the extensive use of primary sources. While the style is uneven across all the chapters (Bruce Gordon deserves special commendation for his clear and elegant prose), the wealth of information makes this massive tome a worthy addition in the library of biblical scholars who are aware that the Bible continues, in a sense, to grow within the Church and sometimes even outside it, having developed a life of its own.

Emanuel Conțac
Theological Pentecostal Institute of Bucharest
emanuelcontac [ at ]

  1. Reblogged this on Vaisamar and commented:
    Reading the third volume of the New Cambridge History of the Bible has been a most rewarding experience. Here are some notes I made while perusing this bulky volume.

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