Review by Michael Cover
In The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Michael Legaspi tells a tale of two Bibles: the Bible of Christian Scripture and the Bible of the secular academy. The narrative that Legaspi presents is clear and compelling, although some might wish to qualify parts of it. According to Legaspi, the Protestant Reformation introduced a crisis of authority for Christian Scripture. As both Reformers and Counter-Reformers grasped after proof texts, Scripture failed the Church as a court of final approval. This “death of Scripture” left the Bible open for new appropriations.
The Death of Scripture
The bulk of Legaspi’s monograph focuses on one such appropriation: the use and transformation of the Bible at the newly founded University of Göttingen, Georgia Augusta. At the center of his inquiry stands the celebrated orientalist Johann David Michaelis (1717-91), who, according to Legaspi, was central to the birth of the academic Bible. In turning the Bible, primarily his beloved Old Testament, into a historical document, Michaelis was able to salvage a text capable of transcending the intra-Protestant polemics that threatened to destroy many theological faculties. “Given the choice between the scriptural Bible and something else, university men, the fathers of modern criticism, chose something else” (p. viii).
Michaelis transformed the Bible by translating it from Scripture into literature. The liturgical immediacy of the German vernacular or the Latin vulgate was replaced by “the dead Hebrew language,” which needed to be decoded. Influenced by the work of Robert Lowth in England, Michaelis also championed the idea of “Hebrew poetry.” Thus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the Psalms received new life as poetic texts, even as their prophetic voice was being eclipsed.
Legaspi has helped us understand the current crisis in biblical studies in several respects. First, Legaspi insists that the major contrast relevant for understanding the history of biblical interpretation is not modern versus postmodern methods of exegesis but rather scriptural versus academic conceptions of the Bible. Created by and for different groups, each Bible stands, at least in origin, hermetically sealed from the other — however impossible it may be to keep these two Bibles from talking to one another in practice.
Legaspi has also given us a history of the rise of biblical studies, rooted firmly in the irenicism of the Enlightenment university and the methodology of historical criticism. It is understandable, in light of Legaspi’s analysis, that the current return of biblical studies to Babel (see John J. Collins’s Bible after Babel [Eerdmans, 2005]) has coincided with the rejection of the historical-critical method, the common language which initially helped to stabilize it. It also suggests that any new unity within biblical studies will depend upon the leadership of universities asking again Michaelis’s question of the Bible’s relevance in either confessional or post-confessional modes.
In several respects, Legaspi’s discussion is either underdeveloped or points in unexplored directions. For instance, Legaspi, an Orthodox Christian, claims that the Reformation killed Scripture, a thesis argued similarly by Roman Catholic historian Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation. This claim, however, is rather swiftly asserted and has been disputed by Protestant historians. Second, Legaspi admits, somewhat paradoxically, that despite its death, the scriptural Bible in fact lives on and, in many traditions, comes into dialogue with the academic Bible. Legaspi’s book implicitly asks but never answers the question of how the two Bibles should interact. As Church and university become both closer to and more alien from one another in the 21st century, this question will need to be revisited with greater urgency. Legaspi’s book will no doubt be required reading for this discussion.
The Rev. Michael Cover is a Lilly postdoctoral teaching fellow at Valparaiso University and theologian in residence at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Chesterton, Indiana.
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