Auctoritas II.

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.

Comments

  1. Cappel argued further that unvocalized Hebrew consonants, contrary to Buxtorf’s opinion, do not permit arbitrary readings.

    I’d make that ‘almost invariably’ do not permit. In my experience, conflicting readings are occasionally possible. I have heard the argument, but can’t judge its validity, that the Biblical injunction against eating meat and dairy products together, comes from a false/alternate reading of the passage in Exodus 23:19, ‘Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.’ The reasoning is that חלב h.alav milk could easily be confused with the uncommon חלב h.alev fat. (The usual word for fat is שומן shuman, related to שמן shemen oil.) Hebrew scholar out there, if you’re reading this, please weigh in.

    The name Elias Levita was unknown to me; I was pleased to discover a Wiki entry about him. But I did know of one of his books, the Bovo-Bukh, a popular work whose title was ultimately corrupted into Yiddish בובע מעשה bobbe myseh (spellings vary), literally grandmother’s story but figuratively old wives’ tale or tall tale.

  2. It seems like a good example, also, of the contemporary complexity that usually attends the kind of upset-events we commemorate now as triumph points of reason over “blind faith”. No doubt real philological advances are perfectly compatible with the political usefulness of a “deconfessionalized elite.” No doubt even in those “monarchical court[s] bent on using [the university]” there was no necessary contradiction between the ends of cold political calculation and a real conviction in the righteousness of the means used to get there. But the mix of motives and allegiances seems to me something important to maintain in memory.

    Partly it’s just a matter of being fair, but I think it’s more than that. Remembering that few authorities fall because their strongest arguments are overturned, but usually trip-up over their weakest, seems to me a kind of implicit humility-precondition for any kind of meaningful interaction with the past. I know I’m preaching to the choir in this, but the way you ended your earlier post has stayed on my mind: Ah, the primal thrill of extricating yourself from the swaddling clothes of dependence on Authority and finding yourself able to say “Jerome was wrong”! Yes! How true! And yet. My sympathy instinctively lines up behind people like the Cappel you introduce above, but somehow, sometimes, I can’t help rooting for Erasmus against Luther.

  3. Glad to see you’re really getting into my world, LH! Makes a change from all the Russica… C D Ginsburg’s 19th-century long intro to and translation of Levita (available online) is still regularly cited, a powerhouse of scholarship that hasn’t been completely surpassed. There is also a useful Richard Muller article on the vowel-point controversy from 1980. What interests me is that a dominant strain of scholarship on early modern biblical criticism has seen it as a progress from blind theological dogmatism to philological awareness, but if you go into the details of these disputes you see, as you say, how messy it all was. And the extent to which personal details got in the way, for instance a Protestant friend of Cappel at Leiden who wanted to support his friend, and acknowledged the power of his argument, while remaining deeply unhappy about the point being argued, because it made heavy water for the principle of sola scriptura.

    There’s a fairly detailed examination of the textual problems caused by varying vowel-points, punctuation etc. in a mostly unknown work with an appealing title, Theophile Raynaud’s “Minutalia Sacra” or ‘holy trivialities’.

    And just wait till you get to the mad mad world of John Hutchinson, who wanted a de-vowelled interpretive free-for-all.

  4. Glad to see you’re really getting into my world, LH!

    I do it all for you!

  5. I’m fascinated by the vowel-points controversy; thanks for passing it along. But I don’t fully follow the argument in the second paragraph: given that Levita was essentially confirming what both Catholics and Protestants already believed – that the points were recent and human – what aspect of his scholarship gave the Catholics a new stick to beat the Protestants with, thus rupturing the consensus? Was it the claim that the texts weren’t fully understandable without the points? Could that really have been new?

    NB: in the last paragraph of the quote, “Cappel also adduced various historical and philological arguments for the antiquity of the points” should presumably read “…arguments against…”.

  6. The German Genius by Peter Watson describes (among many other things) the development of German universities, the learnèd folks associated with them (or not) and their ideas. That’s where I learned a bit about the U of Halle. The book as a whole is not bad as a quick whiz through history. However, the last section attempting to explain The German Mentality runs right off the rails.

  7. given that Levita was essentially confirming what both Catholics and Protestants already believed – that the points were recent and human – what aspect of his scholarship gave the Catholics a new stick to beat the Protestants with, thus rupturing the consensus?

    Because now the Catholics had a double stick to beat them with: “Not only does the recency of the points mean you can’t rely on sola scriptura, you need tradition as well, which means you might as well come back to Mother Church… but you’re relying on Jewish tradition! Ha-ha!” So the Protestants, or some of them, decided the best way out was to change their minds and say the points were in fact ancient, so you could stick to scriptura after all.

    “Cappel also adduced various historical and philological arguments for the antiquity of the points” should presumably read “…arguments against…”.

    Yes, I think you’re right. Good catch.

  8. Paul Ogden: I’m no scholar of Biblical Hebrew, but the reading of “fat” or perhaps “tallow” instead of milk is not impossible. “Chelev” as tallow is important in biblical discussions of sacrifices. Interesting.

    As for “bobe-mayse,” it has always puzzled me that the connection to Elias Levitas is so widely asserted. Why should “bobe-mayses” be any different from “old wive’s tales” or German Altweibermärchen or Russian “babushkiny skazki”? Especially since the plot of the Bovo-bukh is nothing like a bobe-mayse; it is instead a romance adventure.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    old wives’ tales etc

    I see that this phrase has German and Russian counterparts, but I wonder how far it extends to other languages. There is no similar phrase in French. The closest I can think of is des remèdes de bonne femme, literally ‘good woman’s remedies’, meaning traditional but probably ineffective medicines.

    The French adjective, although normally meaning ‘good’, used in bonhomme and bonne femme is actually slightly derogatory, as in English “good old” meaning ‘simple, unsophisticated, etc’. A ‘snow man’ is un bonhomme de neige. Une bonne femme can be even more derogatory than un bonhomme. For instance, a woman suspecting her husband of cheating could refer to her rival as cette bonne femme ‘that woman’. Without necessarily implying suggestions of depravity, both the masculine and feminine terms refer to people that the speaker considers outside (and below) their social circle.

  10. I am not really a linguistic expert on Biblical Hebrew either. However, I think a “fat” reading is pretty implausible in that context. Many of the prohibitions in the Jewish law seem to be codifications of earlier folk taboos. There are other recorded instances of Near Eastern cultures with the belief that cooking a offspring in its mother’s milk would cause the mother to stop lactating. I can’t remember the precise historical setting of this documented folk belief, but it feels like a pretty natural superstition, as superstitions go. It’s not so far from being true; killing an offspring will frequently diminish milk production in a mammalian mother. And it also has a certain visceral feeling of wrongness associated with it; cooking the kid in the milk meant to nourish it could seem like a rather strong violation of the essence of motherhood.

    Morevoer, the idea of cooking an offspring in its mother’s fat is a actually a rather odd one. The Exodus passage would be a very odd way to phrase what is essentially of prohibition on cooking parent and child in the same dish. Doing that would entail butchering mother and offspring together, something that is not generally done, since mother goats are valuable milk producers, as well as, in the hypothesized situation, producers of useful meat kids. If the mother and child had to be cooked at the same time, that might indicate a significant hunger problem, which is exactly the time when the niceties of of the law are likely to be (and are, in modern interpretations, supposed to be) ignored.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    Re marie-lucie’s last point (although it seems like this ought to go in the “mistress” etc. thread), there was supposedly once a usage in English (most of us moderns have perhaps primarily encountered it in historical fiction set before 1700, but I don’t think it’s entirely a modern “period” affectation) of using “Goodman SURNAME” and “Goodwife SURNAME” as polite forms of address to people whose social standing was by the standards of the day not sufficiently exalted to qualify to be addressed as “Mr. SURNAME” or “Mrs. SURNAME.”

  12. John Cowan says:

    The OED shows goodman in use from the mid-16C to the mid-18C as a synonym for master (i.e. the owner of a business or head of a household) who were of lower status: specially to a yeoman farmer, the host of an inn, the jailor of a prison, and in one case the Devil. It was also used in direct address or before an occupational name.

    Goodwife and its shortened form goody (cf. hussy < housewife) were applied to the same general uses during the same period.

  13. The changing Protestant position is a good example of philology following theology.

    The sola scriptura principle itself requires theology to follow philology. Theology and philology seem to follow each other. Like the tigers that chased each other around a tree until they turned into butter.

  14. Like the tigers that chased each other around a tree until they turned into butter.

    If I remember rightly, that story wasn’t very PC.

  15. It wasn’t RC either. Sort of non-denominational.

  16. John Cowan says:

    The story as such (set in South India) is perfectly fine. The name “Sambo” picked up unfortunate associations, and the original illustrations were typical 19C-early 20C racist iconography. Since the book is in the public domain, there are many versions with renamed characters and new illustrations.

  17. Something just occurred to me that may vitiate my claim about “avoiding separation” of the transitive übersetzen. I am a landlubber living in a landlocked location, so I don’t often hear uses of übersetzen at all. Up on the north coast things might well be different.

    My claim that the example sentence sounds weird still stands.

  18. Another comment gone to meet its moderator.

  19. John Cowan says:

    Another comment on the wrong post, actually.

  20. Thanks, John. It was actually the right post for that comment. My followup comment to it is here on the wrong post.

  21. The French adjective, although normally meaning ‘good’, used in bonhomme and bonne femme is actually slightly derogatory

    There’s a French brand of jams and marmalades called Bonne Maman. Surely that usage can’t be negative!

    The link is to the US site. I see the company has a UK site too. (The company’s sites in France and Switzerland show a wider range of foodstuffs.)

  22. Femme and maman are not the same thing.

    C’était qui la femme qui t’accompagnait hier soir ?
    C’était pas une femme, c’était maman !

  23. marie-lucie says:

    PO: At one time Bonne Maman and Bon Papa were alternatives to Grandmaman and Grandpapa ‘Granny’ and ‘Grampa’ (literally ‘Grandmommy’ and ‘Granddaddy’), all of which seem to be old-fashioned now (usually replaced by “Mamie” and “Papi/Papy”). So the jams sold by Bonne Maman is supposed to remind customers of their grandmothers’ homemade jams. (These jams are actually available now at my local supermarket in Halifax, Canada).

    I think it is only the combinations bonhomme and bonne femme which are pejorative as I mentioned above, otherwise the adjective does mean ‘good’.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Stu:

    C’était qui la femme qui t’accompagnait hier soir ?
    C’était pas une femme, c’était maman !

    I think this is an attempt to adapt the English joke about That was no lady, that was my wife! That joke would not work well in French because la femme means both ‘woman’(as opposed to ‘man’) and ‘wife’. But to refer respectfully to a mature woman, as is obviously the case here, the usual word would be la dame ‘the lady’ (and similarly for a man: le monsieur). To me, la dame would be the only suitable word for a woman old enough to be one’s mother.

    C’était pas une femme suggests to me that the person was a man.

    On the other hand, with the increasing influence of English vocabulary and literal translation, it is possible that la femme is now used in contexts where older people (such as myself) would only use la dame.

  25. A recipe on p. 216 of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is called Sole Bonne Femme. Many variations on the recipe and even videos at Google.

    That this phrase recalls for me Shakespeare’s fishmonger’s daughter must surely be a coincidence.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    PO, bonne femme in the name of a recipe means something like ‘home cooking’ in English – plain, hearty, filling dishes without fancy ingredients, spices, etc. There could still be many recipes, depending on the regions.

  27. C’était pas une femme suggests to me that the person was a man.

    Yes, marie-lucie, that was what I meant. I wasn’t trying to render the old cornpone joke, but rather this:

    - Who was that woman I saw you with last night ?
    - That was no woman, that was mama.

    I.e. mama is something special, she’s not one of those “women”. I was thinking of the original Psycho film.

  28. Both jokes work by the same mechanism: a formulaic response makes the responder say something he probably didn’t want to say. “Who was that lady ?” / “That was no lady, that was my wife” (=> my wife is not a lady). “Who was that woman ?” / “That was no woman, that was my mother” (=> my mother is a man).

  29. Well, except that the second one doesn’t make any sense unless you happen to be thinking of Psycho, so it doesn’t really work. Good effort, though!

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Am I missing something? I saw Psycho a long time ago. When you do see the mother, she is a preserved corpse. Oh, you must mean the earlier scene where the killer, pretending to be his mother (not that anyone would take that figure for an actual woman), is actually the son. Rather a far-fetched explanation for your joke, Stu! I would never have thought of that if both you and LH had not mentioned the film.

  31. I only mentioned it because Stu did; it would never have occurred to me unprompted. I had no idea what “C’était pas une femme, c’était maman !” was supposed to mean.

  32. Behind the joke is Hitchcock and the many films and TV series episodes I’ve seem about serial killers of women. Also that supposedly homosexual thing about Mother Represents Women So Women Cannot Be Sexually Attractive But Men Can. That’s why I wrote maman instead of ma mère.

    We see here how meaning evolves over time as a series of exchanges of the form statement/(mis)understanding, never stops evolving, and is not something that “inheres” in a statement.

    We also see how I apparently succeeded in composing two sentences in colloquial French without screwing up on syntax, vocab or register. The joke failed, but my work is done.

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