Biblia Americana

America's First Bible Commentary, A Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

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Cotton Mather
Editor(s): 
Robert E. Brown
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , February
     2018.
     754 pages.
     $149.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783161558801.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Volume 9 of Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana addresses what Mather considered interpretive challenges in the Pauline epistles. Drawing from hundreds of secular, Jewish, and Christian sources, some gleaned from Mather’s own reading and others cited from secondary sources, Mather began the Biblia Americana in 1693. Unsuccessful in getting it published, however, Mather continued to add to the massive work until the end of his life. Though now published in volumes following the sequence of the biblical text and billed as a commentary, this is hardly a traditional commentary. Mather did not adopt the style employed by his contemporary Matthew Henry, for example. Nor is Mather concerned with the kind of theological categories or experiential glosses typically found in other commentaries. Editor Robert E. Brown calls Biblia Americana something closer to eclectic Jewish midrash. Mather also intended something akin to an encyclopedia—a current survey of scholarly opinions on the texts under examination. Volume 9, addressing only Romans through Philemon, represents 424 manuscript pages, 5% of the Biblia overall and 20% of Mather’s New Testament commentary. 

Scholarship deployed by Mather (by his own accounting) includes philology, ancient history, law, Talmudic writings, natural philosophy, and geography. Mather occasionally tackles interpretive challenges with a traditional hermeneutic, interpreting scripture with scripture, but he more often relies on contemporary historical and scientific explanations to determine the meaning of words in their original context. This sometimes means breaking with his orthodox community on aspects of the Hebrew Bible’s transmission and editorial revision, for example. Likewise, though Mather did not discount miracles as being any less than (as he described them) “a work above known power of second causes in that order of things wherein God has fixed the world,” he also was content to suggest that some providential actions were carried out within the bounds of natural law (20). In the more specific case of the books under examination in this volume, Mather believed that the Pauline epistles were authentic and complete, though (with impressive success) he strove to place them chronologically. 

What is particularly interesting about Mather’s commentary, particularly in addressing the Pauline epistles, is Mather’s relative lack of interest in elucidating distinctively Reformed Protestant theology. Predictable exceptions include a discussion of predestination in his discussion of Romans 9, wherein Mather explicitly departs from Calvin’s “praeterition” (i.e., double predestination or reprobation) and approvingly quotes John Davenant, an Anglican theologian prominent at the time (126-27). However, Mather says very little about such controversies elsewhere. 

Mather is much more interested in responding to those who contested the reliability of scripture though the lines of opposition he draws are not the same as those suggested by some intellectual historians. In the tradition of Protestant Hebraism (John Lightfoot being the most significant Hebraist of the age) and the humanist ethos of ad fontes, Mather used philology to mollify critics of scripture’s reliability. Mather’s scholarship enlisted not only Lightfoot but also Anglicans Edward Stillingfleet and Daniel Whitby (the latter being Mather’s most cited source).

What is perhaps most significant for students of this period—particularly those carelessly using the word “Enlightenment” to characterize a movement bent on undermining confidence in divine revelation—is Mather’s great confidence in John Locke. Though often (and erroneously) characterized as an Enlightenment opponent of Christianity, Locke’s Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (1705-1707) does not engage controversies about authenticity or authorship. Thanks to Locke’s excellent scholarship and his own interest in the original meaning of the Pauline epistles, he becomes Mather’s most substantive resource and enables him to capitalize on the Republic of Letters without succumbing to its more cynical critics (e.g., Spinoza or the Deists). Mather even made use of the more heterodox Hugo Grotius and cited him some forty times. This suggests an important distinction between what Mather saw as humanistic piety and what he would scorn as a less erudite pietism or biblicism. 

Unfortunately, Brown suggests a false dichotomy on divine inspiration of scripture wherein Mather supposedly had to choose between either a kind of ecstatic divine possession or else biblical authors’ retention of their rational faculties and particular style while also becoming fallible. Mather was certainly not obliged to steer between Scylla and Charybdis here, and the continental reformers and humanists who preceded him were not either. What makes Mather so interesting is not that he eschewed ecstatic possession but that he sought to make infallibility compatible with burgeoning higher criticism and the search for “primitive Christianity” in authors such as Locke. Unlike Jean Le Clerc, however, Mather was not trying to create a hierarchy wherein the most authoritative passages of scripture agreed with reason or the “authentic” teachings of Jesus. Mather was, in Brown’s words “harmonizing new critical insights with a traditional, high view of the Bible’s integrity and authority as an inspired text” (16). All true knowledge, Mather believed, was compatible with the Bible. Mather also believed (apart from his rather typically Protestant concern about “Papists”) that the greater threat to the church was Deism’s attack on “priestcraft.” 

This volume is worthwhile for students of Mather, Puritanism, early America, and biblical criticism and commentary generally. Brown’s excellent editorial work and apparatus demonstrates not only Mather’s own impressive intellectual range and the powerful range of Puritanism generally, but also the broad scope of scholarship on matters central and secondary for understanding the Pauline epistles. Mather’s work is also relevant as one defense among many of divine inspiration of scripture, though Biblia Americana also evinces the accommodation and concession that Mather’s side gave over the last few centuries. Unfortunately, as a work that remained in manuscript form until the present day, it cannot be called influential. Like the lost record of the Putney Debates or Locke’s Two Tracts, one is left to imagine what impact these volumes might have had on the future had they been released in the past.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glenn A. Moots is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Northwood University and co-editor of Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American War of Independence (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cotton Mather was the leading New England theologian of his period, Mather was both a defender of Reformed orthodoxy and an intellectual innovator, who propagated the Pietist renewal of Protestantism and embraced ideas of the early Enlightenment. Best known for his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), he published more than 400 works in various fields including church history, natural theology, and medicine.

Robert E. Brown is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at James Madison University.

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