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What Have They Done to the Bible? A history of modern biblical interpretation

02 November 2006


Liturgical Press US/Columba £27.99

 Wrestling with dragonets: Our ancestors fought their doubts, too, says Robin Griffith-Jones

THIS BOOK, the author starts, "is for those who enjoy learning". Such readers have a feast in store. Sandys-Wunsch imparts his encyclopaedic knowledge briskly, with "a whiff of Gilbert and Sullivan whimsy" (and none the worse for that).

It will be read, I suspect, in small doses, but it will be consulted often.

The author introduces the nature and concerns of biblical exegesis, and then takes us, in successive chapters, through the history of its interpretation in the Renaissance, the Baroque, the early Enlightenment, 1700-1750, and 1750-1800. He concentrates on the 17th and 18th centuries, appropriately enough for another harmless drudge who enjoys living (as he says) in the 18th century.

A reader who encounters its great exegetes — Bengel, Reimarus, Wettstein, among dozens — will find in this book a lively sketch of their work and their context. Sandys-Wunsch summarises the 19th century; and in an epilogue sketches his own views on the authority and proper reading of the Bible.

At times a reader might have preferred fewer summaries of long-forgotten books, and a more extended treatment of the intellectual and theological background to the enterprise. (The pages given over to a single theme — the influence of Pietism, or the readings of Revelation — are among the most engaging.)

The author himself admits that A. F. Büsching "had no real ability for thinking about complicated matters", and did well to change career. Sandys-Wunsch found a response to Büsching by J. T. A. Jockenack, "otherwise unknown to the history of scholarship", in a remote corner of Yale Library. Such figures encumber the book; but it is hard to resent the space given to J. G. Becanus of Antwerp, who argued that the most primitive language has the shortest words, that Flemish has shorter words than Hebrew, and so (QED) that Adam and Eve spoke Flemish in the Garden of Eden.

The author quotes a beautiful passage from Charles Lamb. As a child, Lamb found a history of the Bible in his father’s study. "It consisted of Old Testament stories, orderly set down, with the objection appended to each story and the solution of the objection regularly tacked on to that . . . The bane and the antidote were both before you. To doubts so put, and so quashed, there seemed to be an end for ever. The dragon is dead, for the foot of the veriest babe to trample on. But from the womb of those crushed errors young dragonets would creep, exceeding the prowess of so tender a Saint George as myself to vanquish.

I became staggered and perplexed, a sceptic in long coats. I was not to disbelieve [the pretty Bible stories], but — the next thing to that — I was to be quite sure that some one or other would or had disbelieved them."

Lamb may have been one of the youngest, but is certainly not the last, to have been unsettled by these dragonets. Sandys-Wunsch will help students to recognise that our forebears wondered and worried and sought solutions no less fervently than we do.

The commitment of those who have gone before us is inspiring — even infectious. We may be surprised by these intellectual ancestors, but we should be grateful to them, too: to Herder, who recited Hebrew poetry to the rising sun; to Hahn, who invented a machine to help calculate the dimensions of the heavenly Jerusalem; and to Eichhorn, who recommended to two American students — unused to the rigours of real, German application — that they study for a mere ten hours a day, seven days a week.

The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple, in London.

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