[Milton-L] Rev. of The Bible and the People

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Fri Feb 13 15:21:14 EST 2009

Teaching HEL(L?) this semester and found what the review said below
about Wyclif's Bible interesting.  Looks like a good read.

Jim R

Lori Anne Ferrell.  The Bible and the People.  New Haven  Yale
University Press, 2009.  288 pp.  $32.50 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Arthur Williamson (California State University-Sacramento)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser

How Do I Know?  The Bible Tells Me So

Lori Anne Ferrell presents a briskly written discussion of the
Bible's shifting role and significance within major Anglophone
cultures.  Her trajectory is a long one.  Beginning with the early
Norman Gundulf Bible, she proceeds to the thirteenth-century portable
Paris Bibles of the traveling mendicant orders, to the Wycliffe
scriptures and the Lollards.  Naturally enough, the Reformation
figures prominently and, most centrally, the King James Version, her
study continuing through the world of the Enlightenment, the
Victorians, and into the present moment.  The book closes with a
discussion of the eighth-century Lindisfarne Gospels and modern
reproductions of the manuscript, thus joining the medieval world with
the present and reflecting with Walter Benjamin on "authenticity,"
reproduction, and text--the central theme of the volume.

The book, therefore, at once offers a history of a book as well as a
history of what a "book" meant, an undertaking inherently involving
scribal and print culture studies.  Here surely lies a daunting
challenge for both author and reader.  Or does it?  Ferrell wears her
learning lightly.  _The Bible and the People_ visibly seeks to be
accessible, for Ferrell writes in a chatty, self-regarding style that
many will doubtless find engaging.  The formidable complexities lie
beneath the surface awaiting for those who wish to pursue them.

The thesis is straightforward: throughout its history in the West,
the Bible has rarely appeared ever in its original languages, has
been continuously "translated" in every sense of the word, and still
the text has remained remarkably, even amazingly, stable over the
centuries.  Thus, the Bible has, at times, found itself transformed
from a working book to a venerated item.  It has been universalized
through vernacular translations.  It has been sliced, diced, and
reassembled by figures as different as the pious Nicholas Ferrar and
the Deist Thomas Jefferson.  It has been gender selected and pared
down, most notably by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  It has been inflated
and overwhelmed with Victorian illustrations.  It has been made
available in parcels through subscription.  It has appeared in
disposable magazine form. This "impossible book"--unique in the
Western experience--can never be gotten right, and yet has always
contrived to be right.  It has spoken in a near infinity of voices
and yet maintained a common coherence.  That, for Ferrell, is its
mystery, its wonder.

Along the way, Ferrell makes a number of interesting observations.
As she rightly points out, the renowned King James Authorized Version
(1611) needs to be seen as a reactionary document that sought to undo
the radicalism of the Geneva Bible (1560).  The latter's commentary,
with its historical vision of human experience--so well suited to
that revolutionary decade--was stripped away.  The word "church"
replaced the far less hierarchical and less clerical "congregation."
Further, "congregation" might also carry classical political
meanings.  Scotland's revolutionary leaders in 1559-60 called
themselves the "Lords of the Congregation," unimaginable as the Lords
of the "Church."  The King James Bible arose during a period of
deepening conservatism in Britain and throughout Europe.  Small
wonder the Geneva Bible persisted in radical Scotland well after
1611.  And yet the language of the King James Bible was harnessed to
revolutionary causes right into the 1960s and beyond.  Its cadences
eventually reached so deeply into the Anglophone mind that more
accurate renderings of the original could only seem "inauthentic,"
not "really" the Bible.  The well-known line from Isaiah 1:18
(reputedly Lyndon Johnson's favorite) ran, "Come now, let us reason
together."  The New English Bible (1961) gave the passage, apparently
closer to the sense of the Hebrew, as "Come now, let us argue it
out."  The accurate and the authentic palpably diverge.

Ferrell's approach to the Bible and its multiple Anglophone
incarnations is decidedly conservative, one characterized by awe,
splendor, wonder, and reverence rather than critical distance.
Higher criticism of the late nineteenth century barely surfaces,
while the anticlericalism and anti-scripturalism of Anatole France,
Robert Ingersoll, or even the Quakers run completely counter to the
spirit of the book.  Theirs is a vanished world, however much of the
people, and out of tune with late twentieth-century sensibility.
Ferrell notes the Tridentine prohibition of any vernacular version of
scripture or any Latin version other than the Jerome's Vulgate.  But
she declines to consider the fraught confessional conflict about
understanding the Bible, where skepticism emerged as the great weapon
of the Counter-Reformation.[1]  It is hard to imagine a more central
dispute about spirituality and its connection to the sacred text.

Perhaps surprising, neo-Catholic revisionism also informs _The Bible
and the People_ in important ways.  We encounter sixteenth-century
"Reformations" rather than a single coherent Reformation.  In
contrast, the medieval world emerges as an integrated, almost organic
structure from which heretical departure occurred only inadvertently.
 The Reformation itself was backward looking.  Protestants were
simply wrong to claim that the Middle Ages did not know the Bible;
medieval people learned Bible stories (and messages) through plays,
images, and clerical reading aloud.

Ferrell does comment at various points that medieval literacy was
"discouragingly low" (e.g., p. 38).  But, we might well ask,
discouraging to whom?  It did not discourage the Middle Ages because
salvation did not require scripture but a sacramental system--derived
from scripture, to be sure, but much more as well.  That, of course,
was the reformers' point.  The Reformation proposed instead a
historical vision of salvation, founded on scriptural prophecy, that
was altogether unprecedented and that confronted the atemporal
symbols of the medieval period.  The sacred drama, the unfolding of
the apocalypse--the story of the rise of Antichrist--underwrote the
Reformation and Protestant piety, working a far-reaching
temporalization of European culture.[2]  Ferrell mentions Antichrist
and the apocalypse but neither concept informs her argument (pp. 82,
153).  Her preoccupation with transcendent mystery, no less than her
ambivalence about the Reformation, does not bespeak confessional
choices, but instead suggests deep reservations about modernity.  The
book is very much a part of our increasingly sacralized post-1960s

None of this can take away from the book's achievement.  Whatever its
assumptions or implications, _The Bible and the People_ succeeds in
drawing together a vast range of material within a comfortable
compass; in combining extraordinary learning with an almost folksy
accessibility; and in introducing highly abstruse concepts with
grace, wit, and often considerable charm.  Such a book inherently
required high levels of selectivity, and the selections have largely
proven to be wise.  To conclude in the style favored by the author:
way to go Lori Anne!


[1]. Richard Popkin has provided the foundational discussion of the
early modern debate about the authority and interpretation of
scripture, in T_he History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle_
(Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2]. There now exists an enormous literature on this subject.  For a
recent survey, see A. H. Williamson, _Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and
the Making of the Modern World_ (Westport: Greenwood, 2008).

Citation: Arthur Williamson. Review of Ferrell, Lori Anne, _The Bible
and the People_. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. February, 2009.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=23532

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

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