As a follow-up to this recent post, I thought I’d share this quote from an excellent book I copyedited a few years ago (and am now understanding a lot better), The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies by Michael Legaspi; he’s discussing the University of Halle (founded 1694):
More significantly, Halle successfully dispensed with that foundation of medieval learning, the Autoritätsprinzip [principle of authority — LH]. In the view of Münchhausen and his advisors, professors in too many places still accepted the outmoded notion that education consisted of the faithful transmission of authorized knowledge. Halle had been among the first and most notable German universities to reject the Autoritätsprinzip in an open and self-conscious way. As the first of the German Enlightenment universities, Halle exemplified the way that higher education in the period served the aims of “a monarchical court bent on using [the university] to provide the state with a deconfessionalized ruling elite.”
While I’m quoting Legaspi, I also liked his discussion of varying Christian attitudes toward the Masoretic vowel points:
Crises provoked by the Reformation, however, did not only intensify interest and investment in biblical interpretation. They also created the conditions for a stringent textualism that functioned to objectify the Bible, remove it from its larger ecclesial contexts, and turn it into a kind of hermeneutical battleground. A stringent approach to the textuality of the Bible, or rather to its state of textual corruption, became, within only a few generations, a fundamental premise for Catholics and Protestants in their respective theologies of scripture. The nature and extent of this textualization of the Bible in the seventeenth century is illustrated by the remarkable collaboration of Reformed scholar Louis Cappel (1585–1658) and French Oratorian Jean Morin (1591–1659).
Both were involved in the heated controversy over the age and origin of the Masoretic vowel points in the Hebrew Bible. The traditional Jewish view in the sixteenth century was that the consonants and vowel points of the Hebrew text were both part of the original Sinaitic revelation. The reformers and their Roman Catholic opponents, by contrast, asserted that the vowel points were comparatively recent and of human origin. In 1538, Elias Levita (1469–1549), a leading Jewish scholar in his generation, provided a definitive refutation of the antiquity of the vowel points in his Masoret ha-Masoret. In the wake of Levita’s challenge, the earlier Christian consensus evaporated. Roman Catholic theologians, relying on Levita’s scholarship, argued that the vowel points, which were only added later, were necessary to understand the consonantal text. Thus, they reasoned, Protestants committed to sola scriptura and veritas hebraica did not have direct access to the Old Testament. Not only were they reliant upon tradition for their understanding of the Bible, they were reliant upon Jewish tradition. To escape this predicament, many Protestants took sides with Jewish traditionalists and affirmed the antiquity and divine origin of the vowel points. Their great champions in this effort were the Buxtorfs of Basel, Johannes the elder (1564–1629) and Johannes the younger (1599–1664), the most influential and respected Christian Hebraists of their time.
The Buxtorfs’ most famous opponent, though, was not a Catholic polemicist. It was philologist and fellow Protestant Louis Cappel. In 1624, Cappel published anonymously a work entitled Arcanum punctuationis revelatum, or Mystery of the Points Revealed. In it he provided a devastating refutation of the elder Buxtorf. Cappel argued that debates in the Talmud refer not to the pointing activities of the Masoretes but to interpretive problems that arise from working with an unpointed text. Cappel also adduced various historical and philological arguments for the antiquity of the points; for example, that Jerome and the translators of the Septuagint knew nothing of pointed texts, that the names of vowels and accents have Aramaic and not Hebrew names, and that the marginal qere, which show how to pronounce the kethib, are, oddly, never pointed. Cappel argued further that unvocalized Hebrew consonants, contrary to Buxtorf’s opinion, do not permit arbitrary readings. Like Arabic, Hebrew, he argued, is perfectly readable without vowels; its syllabic structure and the occasional use of consonants to stand for vowels (matres lectionis) prevent the consonantal text from being fatally indeterminate. Finally, Cappel showed that the Masoretes developed the system of points in order to fix the tradition of vocalization no earlier than the second half of the first millennium of the Common Era.
The changing Protestant position is a good example of philology following theology.