A couple of years ago jamessal gave me a copy of How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, by James L. Kugel, and I’ve finally gotten around to it (prompted by the fact that he’s now reading it himself); it makes an excellent companion to the Schniedewind book quoted in this post. I’m about halfway through the first chapter, “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship,” and I want to pass along this section, a nice illustration of how language and culture can interact:
To enter the world of scripture’s mysteries was thus a matter for trained professionals; only a priest or a monk schooled in the ways of fourfold interpretation, and especially in the interpretations of his predecessors, could say for sure what this or that verse meant. It would never occur to ordinary people to try their hand at interpretation—to begin with, they did not own their own Bibles, and they could not read. No, the Bible was something that ordinary people experienced in other ways. It was read aloud in public, preached about at church or in open markets; its stories were illustrated on stained glass windows and mosaic floors and the carved capitals of columns; it was recounted in poems, sung in hymns, and retold in passion plays—in these ways the Bible was everywhere, and no one escaped its influence. But its interpretation was not up for discussion; that had been decided a long time ago.
There was a word in medieval Latin for what drove this attitude toward Scripture: auctoritas. This is our word “authority,” but it had a special resonance in Latin. It was what the auctores—meaning both the “authors” and the “authorities”—had established long ago. Their wisdom—set down in the writings of the Church Fathers and later Christian teachers—could never be challenged, nor would anyone ever want to. (In fact, when, as sometimes happened, a later scholar had a new idea, he would usually seek to connect it to something that had been written by an earlier, authoritative figure—“This is what Augustine really meant when he said X or Y.”) Auctoritas was all- powerful and unquestioned: the Bible meant what the authorities had always said it meant. […]
[Auctoritas began to be widely questioned during the Renaissance.]
One contributory factor in the breakdown of auctoritas was the rapidly spreading knowledge of the Hebrew language among Christians. Until the late Renaissance, an astonishingly small number of Christian scholars had any notion of this tongue (although they could easily have learned it from the Jews in their towns). Starting at this time, however, Christians began to learn biblical Hebrew (as well as Greek), soon aided by the availability of little primers on the language’s grammar and vocabulary, written in Latin and printed on the recently invented printing press. Throughout the Middle Ages, the great authority on Hebrew in the Christian world had been the fourth-century scholar Jerome, translator of the Hebrew Bible into Latin. His writings about the Hebrew language in general as well as about specific words were repeated unquestioningly. Now, at first tentatively and later with greater assurance, Christian scholars began to question his authority, until some finally dared utter the words, “Jerome was wrong.” Soon, everything was up for grabs. Careful scholars ought, of course, to consult the writings of their predecessors, but people no longer assumed that the proper understanding of the Bible lay in the translations and commentaries of the past. Now they could read the Bible’s words for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
Ah, the primal thrill of extricating yourself from the swaddling clothes of dependence on Authority and finding yourself able to say “Jerome was wrong”! (For Jerome, of course, substitute Lenin, your father, or whatever might be appropriate.)