Bible As Durable

Nevertheless, those who believed that the status of the Bible could not survive either the evidence of its syncretistic origins or the historicist critique mounted against it by its more destructive critics were, like so many prophets of its demise, proved wrong. Similarly, reports of the death of Christianity, like those of the death of God, seem on the whole to have been greatly exaggerated. But one effect of the Higher Criticism and the French Revolution was to drive a wedge between the status of the Bible, and belief in the religion whose holy book it was supposed to be. 'The Jewish poets deserve a better fate', wrote the arch-radical and Deist, Tom Paine, 'than that of being bound up, as they are now with the trash that accompanies them, under the abused name of the word of God.' Certainly it would have been difficult to predict in 1700, at the height of neo-classicism, that a hundred years later, with the advent of Romanticism, the literary and aesthetic prestige of the Bible would be at a new zenith. Many biblical critics, both then and later, have failed to understand the significance of this, believing that if the historical authority of the Bible was undermined, then its authority was of only residual aesthetic rather than religious significance. Yet, as we have seen, the peculiar nature of the concept of the holy book as it has evolved within Western civilization has always resisted this kind of compartmentalization. The separation of biblical from literary criticism in fact only dates from the end of the eighteenth century (Prickett 1986:1-2). In the 1770s, Robert Lowth, the greatest English biblical critic of the century, in massive notes to his New Translation of Isaiah, was still following conventional aesthetics when he described Aristotle's Poetics as 'the Great Code of Criticism' (Lowth 1807: lxxviii); twenty years later William Blake was consciously to echo and challenge Lowth's formulation when he wrote that 'the Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art'. Ironically, that is not a view that Shelley would have disagreed with. The same English radicals, such as Paine, who were avidly reading Volney in the 1790s, even while they were rejecting the ecclesio-political authority claimed for the Bible by the ancien régime, were nevertheless turning to its apocalyptic prophecies in search of an appropriate language of change to describe the permanent transformation they had rightly perceived in the structure of European politics (Mee 1992). For Blake the new scholarship also offered something more: a way of escaping the repression and mystification often associated with the established notion of a holy book. His own prophetic works (which he printed and coloured himself) are unique among printed books in their refusal to create a single univocal text. To the despair of modern editors, each is subtly different from the next in the position of the words, or the arrangement and colouring of illustrations—thus preventing any one version establishing itself as final or definitive. For Blake, the power of the Bible lay not in its unchanging truth, but its dynamism and fluidity. As had so often happened in the past, by offering a new way of reading it, Volney and his fellow critics did not in the end so much destroy the power of the Bible, as give it a new lease of life—not least by calling attention to the fact that there had been many such re-readings before.

Extremes meet. In so far as the conventional fideistic readings of the Bible had stressed its special meaning in the individual personal circumstances of each believer, what they were also stressing, in spite of an accompanying rhetoric of unchanging permanence, was its polysemous responsiveness to change. In so far as the radicals stressed its constant re-writing of history to meet the changing circumstances of different societies, they were also tacitly admitting, in spite of an accompanying rhetoric of its essential primitivism and fluidity of meaning, the Bible's astonishing durability from age to age. What in the end differentiates the Bible from other holy books is not its incorporation of much primitive, legendary or miraculous material, nor its eclectic and diverse origins, but the way in which this material is incorporated. Each layer of appropriation is inevitably accompanied by a new hermeneutic theory. Thus, if we are to accept the postulates of the German Higher Critics, those shadowy first Hebrew scribes and redactors differed from those of the surrounding tribes not so much in the actual legends they were re-telling as in the way those legends were now made to serve the new creed of monotheism. The Church Fathers did not alter the words of the Hebrew Bible to create the Old Testament (those were divinely inspired); they altered the order of the books, concluding the Old Testament with Malachi, in order to point to the coming of Christ and the ultimate fulfilment of their messianic prophecies in the New. In turn, the Reformers of the sixteenth century did not alter the wording of the Vulgate, they translated it, consigning the deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament to the Apocry-pha, and insisting that Paul's Epistles should be read not typologically, but as theological argumentation. The Higher Critics and the Romantics, whether pro- or anti-Christian, by historicizing the canon, opened the way for yet another radical re-reading not merely of the text, but also of the idea of a holy book itself.

In human affairs, as in physics, there are no fixed points. Inevitably, it was not just the Bible that was transformed by such radical appropriations. The Vulgate, a single authoritative monolingual text for the entire Western Church, was the instrument of the new Imperial power of the Roman Church. Luther's translation of the Bible was to change the German language forever; his commentary on Romans to set the agenda of theological debate for centuries. Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, on which the Authorized Version was to be so closely modelled, did the same if not more for English. Typically, in defending his translation he turned naturally to the imagery of previous biblical appropriation—comparing contemporary Catholics to the Jews who had rejected Jesus:

because the kingdom of heaven, which is the scripture and word of God, may be so locked up, that he which readeth or heareth it, cannot understand it; as Christ testifieth how that the scribes and Pharisees had so shut it up (Matt. 23) and had taken away the key of knowledge (Luke 11) that their Jews which thought themselves within, were yet locked out, and are to this day that they can understand no sentence of the scripture unto their salvation, though they can rehearse the texts everywhere and dispute thereof as subtly as the popish doctors of dunce's dark learning, which with their sophistry, served us, as the Pharisees did the Jews.

(Tyndale 1989:3)

Enlightenment criticism and historicization, together with the Romantic reaction, gave to the Age of Revolution a new vocabulary and rhetoric— even in some cases a new agenda. Each changed reading in the light of new circumstances took as its text an earlier change—in what we are now beginning to realize is a tradition with no visible first point. The Bible is apparently a holy book without an ur-text, instead there are only endless layers of appropriation.

We return finally to the evasion with which we began: if the Bible is a holy book, how are we to define that term? If it were not cumbersome to the point of defeating its purpose, one of the most effective ways would be to tell its history—not, that is, biblical history, but the history of the Bible. That story alone is sufficient to establish its categorical uniqueness. Beyond the barest tautology we are into exclusive territory: a class of one whose full meaning we have yet to understand.

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