Bible As Problematic

Though historically European Christian communities may have had little difficulty in accepting the Bible's general relevance to their immediate situation, they have always been simultaneously aware that in some very profound sense it was nevertheless an alien book. That such a statement immediately sounds as if it is flying in the face of two millennia of often highly rhetorical and emotional polemic to the contrary is an indication of the tensions behind all discussions of the 'relevance' of the Bible. Ricoeur's claim that the letters of St Paul were no less addressed to him than to the Romans, the Galatians, and the Corinthians (Ricoeur 1981:191), is a modern and deliberately paradoxical restatement of an argument that in origins goes back at least to the days of the Church Fathers. Nevertheless, in spite of the way in which the traditional culture of many European Protestant societies has centred on particular translations of the Bible, it has never been possible for them to lose sight altogether of the immense cultural distance separating them from the worlds of both the Old and New Testaments. The immense weight of traditional moralistic and devotional rhetoric urging people to see it as pointing directly to themselves merely serves to illustrate the almost intractable scale of the original problem.

As might be expected, the result has been a polarization of reactions. On the one hand the tradition of medieval stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts where the Patriarchs or apostles are performing their typological roles in contemporary dress and setting has been continued with increasing personal emphasis into the post-Reformation world. We are familiar with the corresponding deployment of biblical metaphor and typology not merely in religious and moral polemics but in the parallel contemporary discourses of politics, of trade, medicine, and everyday life. The Sarum Antiphoner, a late fourteenth-century manuscript at Ranworth Church, near Norwich, shows Jonah, dressed much as a local parson, being swallowed by a great fish from the nearby Broad. A panel of thirteenth-century stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral shows Jesus raising Jairus's daughter in a curiously perspectived medieval merchant's house. To James I of England, thundering against the filthy habit of smoking, it seemed entirely natural to compare the perverted lusts of smokers to the Children of Israel 'lusting in the wilderness after quails'. To Oliver Cromwell, fighting against Catholics in Ireland, it seemed no less appropriate to justify the brutal obliteration of Catholic society and, if necessary, the massacre of his opponents, by supporting the Protestant Plantation in Ulster with images of the Israelites occupying Canaan appropriated from the book of Joshua. To the Catholic Gaelic Irish of the same period—and later—it seemed equally obvious to compare their sufferings with 'the children of Israel in Egypt under the oppression of the enemies of God'—a reciprocity of images that has prompted Conor Cruise O'Brien to comment that one could say Ireland was inhabited not really by Protestants and Catholics but by two sets of imaginary Jews (O'Brien 1972:309).

On the other hand, it has prompted an equally fierce resistance to the Bible's traditional status as a holy book. One example must stand for many. In September 1791 the Revolutionary French National Assembly was formally presented by its Secretary, the former aristocrat Constantin-François de Volney, with a short monograph entitled Les Ruines, ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires. The enigmatic title gave little clue to its real thesis, which concerned the origins of religion, and in particular of Christianity. According to Volney, not merely all Indo-European and Semitic religion but even astrology as well could be traced back to a common origin in ancient Egypt at least seventeen thousand years ago. All modern forms of supernatural and revealed religion were, he claimed, in reality nothing more than the misplaced products of primitive nature-worship, time, and the accidents of historical diffusion. Thus the gods of Egypt had been appropriated by the Aryans into their own pantheon before being eventually reduced to a single deity in Persia in the sixth century BCE. This new syncretistic monotheism had in turn been adopted by the Israelites when released from the Babylonian captivity by the Persians, transmitted to the Christians and thence eventually to Muhammad and the Bedouin tribesmen of the Arabian desert: 'Jews, Christians, Mahometans, howsoever lofty may be your pretensions, you are in your spiritual and immaterial system, only the blundering followers of Zoroaster' (Volney 1881:83). In keeping with the uniformitarian assumptions of the Enlightenment, miracles were attributed to the power of imagination, the gods to their origins in the forces of nature and the regulation of human society to the operation of natural law and self-love (ibid.: 14-15, 93) Volney supported this argument by a dazzling and a curious range of erudition ranging from Hindu cosmology to the esoteric doctrines of the Essenes (ibid.: 83, 845). That, together with its strongly revolutionary and anti-clerical context, was sufficient to account for the book's immediate popularity both inside and outside France. At least three English translations had appeared by the end of the 1790s, and it was still being reprinted by freethinking and radical groups in Britain as late as the 1880s.

If Volney's thesis appears to have lost something of its shock value today— not least because later biblical scholarship has confirmed so much of his evidence—we only need to recall just how devastating in the long term his radical and relativistic historicism was to prove for nineteenth-century Christianity. Though we are more likely to associate the impact of such a methodology in Victorian Britain with later names like those of Hennell, Feuerbach, Strauss, and Renan, this is more because Volney's association with the French Revolution effectively served to discredit his scholarship among the clergy and the world of the Anglican establishment than because his arguments were themselves ineffective. Volney remains a key figure in the history of interpretative theory, and, as the number of translations suggests, he had a considerable direct impact on English radicals at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries (Thompson 1965:1078). The book was a major influence on Tom Paine. Thomas Spence published lengthy extracts from The Ruins in his journal Pig's Meat or Universal School of Man's Rights (McCalman 1988:24). It was also extensively summarized in the Freethinking Christian's Magazine and in the strongly anti-Christian Theological Enquirer, as well as in other pamphlets by its editor, George Cannon, an ex-Spencean turned (among other things) pornographer, who published a number of eruditely ironic pseudo-theological works under the pen-name of the Reverend Erasmus Perkins (McCalman 1988:74). One of the contributors to Cannon's Enquirer was the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who allowed him to publish extracts from both his 'Refutation of Deism' and 'Queen Mab' in the first issue of March 1815. If 'Queen Mab', which was to become one of the classic texts of early nineteenth-century radicalism, shows unmistakable evidence of Volney's influence, the same is equally true of his now betterknown poem of 1817, 'Ozymandias'. After all, Ramses II (Ozymandias is the Greek form of the name) was, of course, not merely an earthly tyrant, but also a god. Like Blake—who also knew Volney's book—Shelley was quick to see the connections between earthly and spiritual tyranny. That same year, 1817, Mary Shelley, the poet's wife, was to give the Ruins of Empire further mythopoeic status by putting it on her Monster's reading list in Frankenstein.

Though there was little in the general thesis of Volney's syncretistic and diffusionist argument that was specifically new, and that had not appeared in the writings of, say, Vico, Holbach, Sir William Jones's studies of classical Indian languages and religion, or in such eighteenth-century German historical critics of the Bible as Eichhorn, Reimarus and Lessing, it was perhaps the first time that a polemical work of this kind had caught the popular imagination to this degree. Nor was its refusal to make clear separation between Christianity and other Near Eastern religions the most shocking of its conclusions. Worse, perhaps, was its claim that the Bible had antecedents that might extend back over a period of up to seventeen thousand years. Standard biblical commentaries of the eighteenth century were often in the habit of including not merely the dates BCE of particular events, but also the date of those events after the Creation of the world—which as everyone knew, following the famous calculations of Archbishop Ussher, had occurred in 4004 BCE. Even this implied attack on conventional biblical dating was, however, probably less disturbing for many orthodox Christians than another implicit suggestion of Volney's: that the Old Testament—and in particular the book of Genesis—was not the earliest known written text.

For many contemporary scholars the authority of the Bible was bound up with the belief that Hebrew was the oldest known language—containing at least elements of the original unfallen Adamic language where words stood in an essential rather than a contingent and arbitrary relationship to the things they described (Aarsleff 1982:58-60). Thus even Johann Gottfried Herder, in his great literary study of the Old Testament, The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, published only shortly before in 1782-3, had done no more than sum up conventional wisdom when he took it for granted that Hebrew poetry 'expresses the earliest perceptions, the simplest forms, by which the human soul expressed its thoughts, the most uncorrupted affections that bound and guided it'. But Herder had still been a clergyman—however unorthodox a one. The idea that there might be behind Genesis a nexus of yet older literary texts, and that the first book of the Bible, so far from being in every sense the beginning of written human experience, the fount and origin of all history, was in some sense a re-writing or a commentary on those texts, constituted for many as great a challenge to contemporary thought as the sixteenth-century substitution of the Copernican for the Ptolemaic astronomical system, or Darwin's placing of Man within the chain of evolutionary biology. Far from being the foundation document of Christian civilization, laid down by divine fiat, it now seemed possible, to those prepared to consider the iconoclastic arguments of Volney and his successors, that the Bible in some sense had begun as an appropriation of the mythological and historical writings of other earlier civilizations.

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