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!


  1. Sounds great! The contrast between ‘Scriptural’ and ‘academic’ as drawn in the excerpt reminds me of Ivan Illich’s thesis in ‘In the Vineyard of the Text’. Have you seen this book?

    1. It’s a really fantastic book. Again, though, it’s so expensive for its size that I wonder how much impact it’s going to have. In these days of economical choices being made in building collections both public and private, how often will the book selector opt for a “revisionist” history of scholarship, one that exposes and entire tradition of scholarship as anything but objective? (That’s not too much of a spoiler, I hope.)

      I hadn’t heard of In the Vineyard of the Text until you mentioned it. Hugh of St Victor is quite outside my religiochronohistoricogeocultural reading comfort zone!

    1. Good find, Daniel! I took that from the dust jacket, so he must’ve left Creighton for Andover quite recently.

      (Also, I hope you don’t mind that I edited your comment a little to turn the url into a link.)

  2. Thanks for the book reference. I’m trying to think how I can bamboozle my wife to pony up the $50+ to purchase it.
    And I admit — I’m stunned that Legaspi is teaching at Andover. For heaven’s sake, he has an MA and PhD from Harvard. Mind you, Andover is a highly prestigious prep school. But still…
    You have to wonder about all the newly-minted religion + theology PhDs trying to find teaching jobs in this weird economy and in this weird time for universities.
    That said, in this weird time, I thank God daily from the bottom of my heart that I have a job, and especially that I have a job that I love.

  3. Maybe a paperback will come out in a year or so? If it hadn’t been a topic that was on my mind lately, I think I wouldn’t have paid for the hardcover either, frankly. It’s a great book, though it’s much more impressive if you’ve got a series of others like it, all on the same topic, which I do. The topic is, basically, “the rotten foundations of modern critical Biblical studies,” and the books are this one, the Gerdmar I mentioned, and several by Jon Levenson and some others. It’s like looking at a pile of poop through a multifaceted diamond: same poop, different angles, seen through a beautiful medium. I hope that makes sense!

    Legaspi’s in a good spot. Andover has the name recognition, and it likely has no problem funding its professors and their families adequately, thankfully. If I were looking, that’s exactly the kind of place I’d want to go: somewhere small, a liberal arts school with a good reputation, well-funded by private monies, and leaning toward conservative rather than “postmodern aging hippy retards remaking the university in their image”.

    If the name you use is any indication of your job, then I’d agree! That sounds like a job to love!

  4. Thanks for this.. I have a question and comment:

    Does Legaspi mention possible reasons for why the scriptural Bible’s function receded into the margins after the Reformation? Could it be that perhaps liturgical, embodied readings of Scripture via the Orthodox faith were lumped/conflated into the liturgical, overly-spiritualized teachings of the West? Said crudely, did liturgy as a whole get a bad name because of the overemphasis on spiritual matters by the Western faith, thus finding the Eastern Orthodox guilty by association?

    Also, as Legaspi mentions, the stances of the scriptural and academic are different, but the respective vantage points are nevertheless in and around the biblical account. In this way, the rise of biblical exegesis on the part of scholars may indeed reroute us back toward embracing liturgy — only coming in through the back door, so to speak.

  5. Hey Kevin,
    I ponied up the $59.20 to buy the Legaspi book from Amazon, with my wife’s approval of course.

    I agree that Legaspi is in a good spot. Those Andover students he is teaching today will be at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford next year.

    No, I’m not a tennis pro, and I don’t live in Cabo San Lucas. I’m a technical writer here in the Silicon Valley, and I really do love my job. And I thank God every day that I have a job!

  6. I wondered how Orthodox he is, really, rather than by family background, when I saw his last child is named ‘Cato’. Is there a St. Cato? I guess there are more and more Orthodox priests who don’t require saints names as first names, but…

    1. I’ve no idea of his background, but I would certainly shy away from evaluating “how Orthodox” anyone is based on his child’s name. The children likely have Orthodox baptismal names in addition to their “secular” names. That’s common practice.

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