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
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.