Legaspi, The Death of Scripture

I will let the beginning of Michael Legaspi’s praface in his The Death of the Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies present his thesis, as it works so very well:

Consider two scenes. The first takes place in an Eastern Orthodox church. The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is under way. From behind the icon screen, the priest comes into view, carrying overhead, in solemn procession, an ornately bound, gold-plated volume: the Book of the Gospels. All stand. There is incense in the air. Acolytes, candles in hand, stand by to illuminate the reading of the Gospel. In that moment, the people are told not to look, to follow texts with their eyes, but rather to listen. The priest proclaims, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” and the people go silent. In the liturgy, the faithful see the Bible in procession, hear it in song, and venerate its holiness and authority with signs of loyalty and submission. The one thing the faithful to do not actually do during this service, however, is read the Bible. It is always read to the people by someone else. Written words voiced by readers and expounded by preaching are transmuted into oral and immediate ones. The second scene is a biblical studies seminar in a university classroom. It too is filled with people. They sit, not stand. At the center is a long table. On it are many Bibles, various copies in assorted languages: Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Latin. Some lie open, others are pushed aside into impromptu stacks. They share the table with other writings: teacher’s notes, photocopies, reference works, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries. The atmosphere is sociable but cerebral, quiet but static. Heads are bowed, but over books. There are readers here too, but the oral performances are tracked closely by others whose eyes are attuned carefully to common texts. There is speech, but no song or prayer. Spoken words belong only to individuals. The texts focus readerly vision. Commentary is controlled.

In both senses, the Bible is at the center. In the first, its words are invisible, fleetingly oral, melodic. In the second, they are visible, unmoving, inscribed and fixed on pages. The two scenes represent very different enterprises. Yet they are not different because they embody different assumptions, discourses, and communal identities, though this is certainly the case. They are different, ultimately, because they have come into being by virtue of independent realities and by way of separate histories. They are different because the two groups, as a result of these histories and realities, are actually engaged with different Bibles: a scriptural Bible, and an academic Bible.

This book tells the story of the academic Bible, how and why it came into being. It begins at a moment when the scriptural BIble evoked by the liturgical scene above had already receded to the margins of modern Western cultural and public life. The Reformation engendered a crisis of authority in which authority itself–its location, its nature, its sources–was contested. As a result of this crisis, the ecclesial underpinnings of the scriptural Bible becasme too weak, too fragmented to sustain its place at the center of Western Christendom. It was moved to the boundaries, where, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it fueled confessional and anticonfessional theological programs, some critical and others traditional. Many of the tools and much of the material that would later be used to create the academic Bible were developed in the two centuries following the Reformation. Yet the academic Bible did not come into being until the eighteenth century, when biblical criticism took shape at the modern university as a post-confessional enterprise. The academic Bible was created by scholars who saw that the scriptural Bible, embedded as it was in confessional particularities, was inimical to the socio-political project from which Enlightenment universities drew their purpose and support. Given the choice between the scriptural Bible and something else, university men, the fathers of modern criticism, chose something else.

(pp vii-viii)

Although I already had found the book’s description interesting enough to promptly order it (and to bump it up upon its arrival ahead of all the other books I have waiting yet to be read), I was pleasantly surprised by the above mention of Orthodox liturgy, and moreso to learn through the course of the Preface that Legaspi and his family are Orthodox. Michael Legaspi is Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University.

The chapters of the book, presenting a development of Legaspi’s elegantly presented argument, are:
1. From Scripture to Text
2. Bible and Theology at an Englightenment University
3. The Study of Classical Antiquity at Göttingen
4. Michaelis and the Dead Hebrew Language
5. Lowth, Michaelis, and the Invention of Biblical Poetry
6. Michaelis, Moses, and the Recovery of the Bible
The book uses endnotes, but fortunately of the usable kind where the header of the page notes where the notes are to be found (the only dish in which these accursed things are palatable). Likewise there’s an actually helpful bibliography (not one of thoase “for further reading” abominations), an index, and an index of Biblical references. The last numbered page is 222, so it’s a compact volume. As one might tell from the chapter titles, Michaelis appears as something of a case study throughout. Aside from being a fascinating and pivotal character, Michaelis also became someone in whose image other academics (re)created themselves, and still do, to a degree. So in a way, his story is Everyscholar’s story in the Enlightenment.

Constantly coming to my mind as I read this book is Anders Gerdmars Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (Brill, 2009), one of the most important books published in the last decade, in my opinion. The two, of course, are describing from slightly different viewpoints and from different levels of granularity the same period and several of the same characters and institutions while in general covering the same subject: the foundations of modern academic Biblical Studies. The two books, Death of Scripture (such an exquisitly provocative title!) and Roots of Anti-Semitism, are thoroughly complementary. Both involved intensive research into the historical context of the (re)foundations of German universities and the personnel involved in those and other movements of social and political import from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries especially. The scholarship here is impeccable. Legaspi shows a deft had (just as Gerdmar does!) in summarizing and commenting astutely on various developments, making them easily grasped for those without benefit of more detailed histories in mind. Various humorous asides are also included, often of historical character. It makes the reading all that more compelling.

I am only at the beginning of chapter 3 now, but I write this, even if prematurely, to tell all and sundry: buy this book! It will be especially fascinating to those interested in intellectual history. There have been indications (now I can’t find them) in Legaspi that there are some surprises in store along the way. He does not hesitate to characterize his work as “revisionist” (p. 6):

“This book, however, is not simply an intellectual biography of Michaelis. It is also a revisionist account of the early history of biblical scholarship. A correct understanding of this history is essential to contemporary discussions about the role of biblical criticism in academic theology.”

Note the positive connotation of “revisionist” here: correcting the incorrect, bringing light to the Gentiles, or whatever you want to call it. In any case, it’s a good thing. And Legaspi’s writing itself is very pleasant to read (I was going to write “delicious”, but that’s a bit strong): it’s not overly complex, but is not shy of complexity where warranted. Oversimplification and dumbing-down are thankfully absent (as are any atrocious boxes filled with graphics and inane sub-literate summaries of the main text). This is an academic book from an academic press (Oxford, 2010), with an academic target (zing! in two senses!) in its sights.

Anyhow, I’m enjoying it. Others of my readers will, too, I’m certain. Happy reading!