The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture. By Jonathan Sheenan


Pp. xvi, 273 , Princeton and Oxford , Princeton University Press , 2005 , £24.95 .

Jonathan Sheenan's detailed and learned study of Biblical scholarship and translation in eighteenth-century Germany and England proposes a version of secularization which concentrates on the reconstruction rather than the disappearance of the Bible. The author argues in the introduction that the reconstitution of the cultural Bible as a piece of heritage of the West ‘forged a model of biblical authority that could endure in a post-theological era’ (p.xi).

The book opens with a number of considerations which show how the Enlightenment Bible grew out of the vernacular Bible of the Protestant Reformation. Initially scholars invented the tools of biblical decanonization. Consequently a new vernacular biblical canon was instituted, and further translation practice was paralysed during much of the seventeenth century. Much energy went into perfecting philological scholarship, but no new translations were attempted. The Germans stuck to their Luther Bibles as the English stuck to their King James Bibles.

But all this changed in the eighteenth century. If, after the Reformation the Bible primarily remained a piece of theological writing, eighteenth-century translations changed it into a book with very different meanings. German pietism combined with English historical textual criticism and led to a direct reinvention of the Bible. In this process Sheenan distinguishes five categories of translations: the documentary Bible, the moral Bible, the literary Bible, the archival Bible, the cultural Bible. The translators behind these versions of the Bible worked for different audiences and served very different needs.

For the documentary Bible Sheenan concentrates mainly on the work of the German pietist scholar Johann Albrecht Bengel, who attempted to order the New Testament manuscripts in hierarchical groups to produce a translation which, he wrote, ‘carefully express[ed] the true Greek original’. In assessing errors in, and discrepancies between, different manuscripts, Bengel studied the Bible as a historical document, ignoring its theological content. His method was to become deeply influential on later Biblical scholarship.

Johann Lorenz Schmidt and Karl Friedrich Bahrdt are the key-figures in Sheenan's chapter on the pedagogical or moral Bible. The discussion of Schmidt's doing away with the Hebrew idiom of the Bible in order to make it easier to bring the book's message to modern man and Bahrdt's attempt to produce a translation in pure German expressions by adding lines of his own is illuminating. It is a pity that Sheenan choses merely to mention, and not to discuss, Hermann Samuel Reimarus and Philip Dodderidge in this context.

The influence of the poetic quality of the Bible is given ample space in the chapter on Robert Lowe and his followers. Sheenan sees the emergence of the poetic Bible as coming at a moment of national consolidation. It marked the decline of theology and prophesy, he stresses, but opened up scenarios for nineteenth-century nationalist interpretations of Judaism and Christianity.

Particularly interesting is the chapter on the so-called archival Bible and Johann David Michaelis's research into the life and language of the people on the Arabian peninsula. When he suggested a philological and scientific expedition to the Red Sea and the Yemen to the Danish king (‘the Augustus of the North’) the plan was eagerly adopted. In 1761 a group of scholars set sail for the East to describe its geography, natural history and (religious) customs. They were also to pay special attention to how things were called in the various Arabic dialects, and the philologist on the expedition was instructed to bring important codices back from St Catherine's in the Sinai. Sheenan rightly stresses the botanical (but might have added the zoological) success of the expedition and sees the philological achievements as failures. Admittedly, the scholars failed to obtain the important Codex Sinaiticus, but recent research by the Danish historian Stig Rasmussen has shown that other important manuscripts were purchased for the Royal Collection in Copenhagen (Den Arabiske Rejse 1761–1767: En dansk ekspedition set i videnskabshistorisk perspektiv, Copenhagen, 1990). One wonders, moreover, why Sheenan, who has ploughed through a myriad of eighteenth-century publications, should have chosen to read Niebuhr's travel account in Robert and Eva Grün's hopelessly rewritten and abridged version of 1973 and have ignored Niebuhr's own fine 1774 text.

The book finishes with a final manifestation of the Bible. Sheenan shows that around 1850 the sense of the Bible as a cultural text had become commonplace in both Germany and England. If the earlier manifestations of the Enlightenment Bible – whether documentary, moral, literary, or archival – never flourished in England as they did in Germany, the cultural Bible became an important feature of the Victorian religious landscape. It was above all, Sheenan argues, Matthew Arnold who was instrumental in forging a new Bible for a post-theological age: ‘Beyond inspiration, beyond the Word of God, this Bible would stand its own as a modern classic’ (p.258).The inclusion of the Bible in Oxford's World's Classics in 1997 proves this thesis.

The Enlightenment Bible is a well-researched and well-written book. There are good discussions of perspectives on Bible translation in England, but it greatest strengths lie in the eighteenth-century German situation. Sheenan's study is an innovative contribution to the debate about the causes of secularization in Europe and will remain important in the historiography of the Bible.