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Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean, eds., Shaping the Bible in the Reformation
by Amlan Das Gupta

Gordon, Bruce and Matthew McLean, eds. Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars and their Readers in the Sixteenth Century.  Vol.  20 of Library of the Written Word. Boston and Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.  xii + 306 pp. ISBN 978-90-04-22947-1. $131 cloth.


Gordon and McLean’s collection of essays on Bible scholarship in the sixteenth century contains eleven contributions, each individually well-researched and for the most part embodying high standards of scholarship.  The essays, we learn, took shape from a series of workshop presentations: each of them represents a focused specialization within the broad area of sixteenth-century Bible studies.  Naturally there is no question of there being a connected narrative.  In fact, the book is a reminder of the necessary variousness of essays generated by seminars or workshops, even though there has been care taken to arrange the essays in a kind of chronological sequence.  I expect that there will be readers who will miss essays on texts, translations and commentary that they are interested in.  The Complutensian Polyglot might be one: there are no essays exclusively on Erasmus or Luther or Calvin, though their ghosts hover in the sidelines; nor is there anything much on the Anabaptists.  And in spite of the title—the age is after all one which saw great developments in regional language Bibles—more than half of the essays are about Latin Bibles, which is not surprising when we know that the work was undertaken under the auspices of the Protestant Latin Bible project at St Andrews.  But perhaps what is sacrificed in terms of connectedness or even comprehensiveness is largely made up in the value of the individual contributions.

The common themes that indisputably emerge after a reading of the volume are of course those that characterize the century in question: the miraculousness of the availability of the word of God in a state of mechanical reproduction and the wide dissemination of what might be termed humanist text technologies.  The editors nevertheless appear to have taken care to give at least glimpses of what went before and what came after.  Sabrina Corbellini’s fine contribution looks at the way in which knowledge of the vernacular Bible impacts the lives of the laity in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  As the reading habits of the laity came to incorporate Biblical literature, new questions about interpretation and exegesis arose, now no longer a matter for sequestered spiritual reflection, but located in the practices of daily life of lay persons.  Corbellini examines the interesting case of the “lay theologian” Feo Belcari, who writes of Holy Writ that it is “difficult to fully savour its taste, or to untie its knots/For secular people” (cit. Corbellini, 16).  He nevertheless appears to have made a fair job of it, acquiring knowledge of patristic and late medieval writings.  Corbellini also notes the recurrence of the metaphor of physical ingestion in the lay appropriation of the Bible: the intensity of sensory contact that she discusses is striking.

Two essays consider the incorporation of graphic material in printed Bibles, but from very different perspectives. August den Hollander discusses illustrations in early printed Latin Bibles in the Low Countries (1477-1547), noting that for the first fifty years of printing in the Low Countries, no illustrated Latin Bibles are found; the trade is still in medieval translations and the Vulgate.  Occasionally a woodcut or two could be used for decoration, or to fill up an empty page.  The reuse—and often circulation—of printers’ blocks is notable.  After 1520 or so, a move towards a more illustrative use of images is evident, resulting in the commissioning of new woodcuts.  Illustrations would have a number of uses, including those of aiding memory and facilitating interpretation.  One senses, however, that the material conditions of the printing presses still had an important role in the selection and use of illustrations, so that even in the later period the relation between text and image could be quite loose.  Justine Walden’s contribution is on the five maps printed in the Geneva Bible of 1560.  There are maps of Eden, Exodus, Canaan, the Holy Land in Christ’s time, and the travels of St Paul.  The author argues that these maps, though not distinguished in quality and “supernumerary for any doctrinal perspective” (187),were nevertheless important in allowing the English Geneva community to express the anguish of exile, and also express a dream of a resurgent “global” reformed church. Walden goes as far as to see in the format of the Geneva Bible a gesture towards the “cosmographic” project of Münster’s Cosmographia (Latin, 1550) and Ortelius’s Theatrum (1570).

Sebastian Münster, map-maker, lexicographer and Hebraist, is an important presence in the volume.  His Hebraica Biblia (1534-35, 1536) is one of the texts discussed by Stephen G. Burnett in his searching examination of the circulation of the so-called “Rabbinic Bible” among Christian Hebraists.  Conceived of by the wealthy Christian merchant and printer Daniel Bomberg, the Rabbinic Bible of 1517 (revised and expanded in 1525) was dedicated  to Leo X, well known to be a supporter of Hebrew learning.  It contained the Hebrew text, Aramaic targums and medieval Hebrew commentaries, and became a standard reference tool for Bible scholars.  Spalatin bought a copy for Melanchthon; Oecolampadius, Bucer and Reuchlin used it.  Too great a familiarity with the Rabbis could of course be potentially dangerous and even thought to be repugnant to Christian faith: but by the 1530s we find that the work had become standard issue for Christian Hebraists, and had a significant impact on the making of Münster’s Hebraica Biblia, which effectively presented the Hebrew text with a Latin digest of the commentaries.  Jewish history makes a sudden and unexpected appearance in one of the great Latin humanist translations of the Bible, as Irena Backus’s essay on Sebastian Castellio shows.  She notes that Castellio stands out in many respects among the Latin Bible translators, not the least for his innovative idea of interposing a section from Flavius Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities between the Old and New parts.  This develops into a searching examination on the “sacred” and the “profane” in Bible literature, particularly the appropriateness of placing Jewish history and scriptural text in such close proximity.  Of value too is her comparison between Castellio and Calvin’s attitudes towards the scriptural text and humanist notions of translations.

The humanist program is more broadly surveyed in Josef Eskhult’s essay on neo-Latin Bibles. Castellio is again a major exemplar, but now set in the context of other Latin translations: Erasmus, Münster, Bibliander, Leo Jud and the Tremellius- Junius collaboration.  Latin translations in general, Eskhult concludes, fulfilled both the needs of technical exegesis and humanistic ideals of eloquence.  In a world in which the primacy of Latin was unchallenged, the space of Biblical translation taken as a whole proved to be a testing ground for humanist linguistic and rhetorical theory.  Amy Nelson Burnett probes into the turbulent waters of the Eucharist controversy in the early Reformation.  She points out that most modern assessments concentrate on the famous exchange between Luther and Zwingli in 1527, but by then the debate was well underway: a study of the wider context of the controversy draws in not only the early Reformed theologians, but also Anabaptists and sectarians.  While all the evangelists agreed that it was necessary to provide lay—vernacular—access to the text of Scripture, it also created new anxieties about interpretation and belief.

Two essays focus on readings and renderings of specific Old Testament books by Reformation Biblicists.  Bruce Gordon discusses Theodor Bibliander’s oration on Isaiah and his commentary on Nahum, while Kenneth Austin discusses Immanuel Tremellius’s commentary on the Psalms.  The essay on Bibliander concentrates on the Zurich reformed church after the death of Zwingli; while Bullinger came to head the church, Bibliander was appointed principal teacher of the Scriptures. Gordon draws attention to the distinctive combination of theological orthodoxy and humanist learning in Bibliander’s writings.  The works selected are different in kind: presumably they are chosen to illustrate two different aspects of Bibliander’s abilities. In the Isaiah commentary, Bibliander is concerned with the office of the prophet, the agent of inspired revelation, a model to which the reformed saints sought to conform themselves.  The Nahum commentary is also about prophecy, but here the question of inspired interpretation and paraphrase is uppermost—to the extent of using “Iovis” for the Hebrew God, a pious act of rescue of  “the blessed name of God from its wrongful possessors” (cit. 134).  Austin considers the edition of the Psalms produced by Immanuel Tremellius, Jewish convert and Bible translator, pillar of the Geneva church under Calvin. The Tremellius (or Tremellius-Junius) translation was much used in Reformed circles as a challenge to the authority of the Vulgate, a tradition that continued till Milton’s Christian Doctrine.  Austin links Tremellius’s preoccupation with the Psalms to Calvin’s advocacy of their use: they come to epitomize the Bible itself and stand out as examples of surpassing literary merit.

The longest essay included in the volume is that by Wim François on Augustinian theology and the Louvain school of Biblical scholarship between the middle of the sixteenth century and the middle of the seventeenth.  We thus enter into a new century: this is a valuable extension of the theme of the volume as it includes the Catholic response to the labors of the Reformed Latin translators.  After the Council of Trent in 1546 declared the Vulgate to be authoritative in style and doctrine, a critical revision of the text was also called for.  Work on this began at the Louvain theological school, and Johannes Henten (Hentenius) was entrusted with the task of revision.  François also considers the Antwerp Polyglot published by Plantin between 1568 and 1573.  The essay considers the renewed interest in Augustinian theories of free will and efficacious grace in Louvain theology, and the tensions that arose with influential propounders of Thomist and even Molinist positions.  This is a valuable and detailed examination of the theology of renewal in Catholic circles and spans the two Cornelius Jansens, of Ghent and Ypres.

Mark W. Elliott in the final essay of the volume writes on two seventeenth-century figures, the Calvinist (turned Arminian!) Johannes Piscator and the Lutheran Abraham Calov, and on their responses to the Latin Bibles. The main flurry of translation was over by the end of the sixteenth century and thus both had the benefit of a wide range of influential translations. Piscator, Elliott finds, uses the Tremellius translation in his Pentateuch commentaries, but also adds a column with a paraphrase of his own, thus drawing attention to the smallest details of syntax and vocabulary.  I must confess I find Elliott’s comments on the fascinating and undervalued Calov a little obscure.  I take it that his conclusion is that even the later Lutherans continued to value spirit over letter in Biblical translation and paraphrase.

The Bible industry of the sixteenth century is one that manifests different forms of agency:  those of the textualist, the translator, the interpreter, the printer, the bookseller, and many others besides.  The essays in Gordon and McLean’s volume tell us much about these roles, and the social context in which they were enacted.  The territory is familiar to those with an interest in early modern Bible studies, but the essays explore unfamiliar corners of it.[1]


Amlan Das Gupta

Jadavpur University


[1] A few printing errors and infelicities remain, which is rather depressing as they indicate poor proofing in a first-class production. The word “compliment” is misspelled twice in a single paragraph on p. 299.  “…intelletcus libi xix” on p. 295 (n.10) is surely “intellectus libri xix.”  Some others, by no means the whole list: 

pp. 41ff.  “epistles and gospels:” unnecessarily italicized

p. 164: Flavius Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities is cited in the main text as Antiq. While this is perfectly all right in a note, or even when followed by page or section number, it is unsightly in the main text.

p. 193: “Maps jibed [sic] with these concerns in the most basic of ways, engaging in concrete and worldly reality in order to encompass and represent it.”

p. 299: Münster is the usual spelling: this essay uses “Muenster.”

In most of the essays the abbreviations for the books of the Bible are, e.g., Matt.1.1 (with a stop at the end of the abbreviated form). This practice is abandoned in the last two essays—(Rom 3:28 on p. 298; Lev 10:13)

Perhaps the editors would consider a thorough revision in future reprints.




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Amlan Das Gupta, "Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean, eds., Shaping the Bible in the Reformation ," Spenser Review 43.2.35 (Fall 2013). Accessed July 22nd, 2018.
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