The Dark Bible
Cultures of Interpretation in Early Modern England
- ISBN: 9780192896322
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: December 2022
If asked, many of us would likely say that critical engagement with the Bible began with Enlightenment rationalism. In a broad sense this is true; if we are thinking in terms of the long sweep of history, the Enlightenment is a useful place to locate the questioning of longstanding assumptions regarding the Bible. And yet, as with all generalities, this does not tell the entire story. Alison Knight’s The Dark Bible: Cultures of Interpretation in Early Modern England is a helpful reminder of a more complex history of engagement with the Bible, offering a fascinating account of the ways in which readers grappled with the challenges of reading Scripture in early modern England.
Knight’s introduction situates the study historically and conceptually, outlining the role of the Bible in early modernity. Within this, she pushes back against overly simplistic notions that “create a picture of the Bible as a universal treasury, a straightforward source for doctrine, images, and phrases that early modern writers and readers might deploy” (5-6). Rather, in the era under investigation—roughly the early 16th to the mid-17th centuries in England—readers were well aware of the difficulties that the Bible could present, and grappled with these “dark places” in various ways. Knight structures the study around a list from Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who in the late 16th century had delineated some challenges faced in reading Scripture, including contradiction, ambiguity, defects, disorder, idiom, and figurative language. While contemporary readers may associate the dark places of the Bible with those which are considered morally and ethically suspect, it was the issues noted above which were most difficult and pressing for readers in the early modern era.
The first chapter explores the theme of contradiction in the Bible. From antiquity readers had followed the principle that Scripture’s difficult texts should be read and understood in light of clearer passages, and this “conference of places” would become a hallmark of Protestant interpretation. And yet important events during this period highlighted the complexity of this issue, the most consequential of which was Henry VIII’s “Great Matter,” and the competing claims concerning marriage found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Knight highlights the complicated and far-reaching ways in which readers handled the limits of theological constructs concerning Scripture when faced with specific textual challenges.
In chapter 2, Knight turns to the issue of ambiguity in Scripture, exploring how interpreters dealt with the fact that biblical words can mean more than one thing. Broadly speaking, Protestants found ambiguity disconcerting, and the way forward was deeper study and faith. For Catholics, ambiguity was seen as part of the rich multivocality of Scripture, and thus the wisdom of the Church was needed for direction and correct interpretation. Knight explores these issues through the poetry (and treason trial) of the Jesuit priest Robert Southwell, as well as the sermons and poetry of John Donne.
Defects in Scripture are the subject of chapter 3. Here Knight explores how readers grappled with parts of the Bible that seem to be incomplete. This was seen most clearly in translations in this period, where it became common for translators to supply missing words and to fill in gaps when deemed necessary. Knight explores Job 19:26, Romans 5:18, and Hosea 13:9 as examples of such challenges, offering snapshots of how readers and translators (both Catholic and Protestant) navigated these issues.
In the fourth chapter, Knight moves to the subject of disorder in the Bible—that is, the lack of narrative and historical continuity in the text. One popular approach in this era was to draw a conceptual distinction between history and narrative, with the latter understood to provide more flexibility for rhetorical and theological purposes. Biblical harmonies also became popular in this period, especially attempts to harmonize the Gospels. “Despite early modern defenses of the Bible’s disorder as rhetorical rather than historically erroneous, and despite discussions of the literary and spiritual value of arrangements other than chronological,” Knight writes, we see “the lengths that harmonizers and paraphrasts could go to in order to establish more orderly, more chronological, Bibles” (175).
Knight next turns to the topic of idiom in chapter 5, exploring how early modern readers dealt with the fact that meaning is often lost in translation. The question of how literal a translation should be would take on increasing importance as vernacular translations multiplied in this era. Another development was the use of marginal notes and annotations to aid understanding of Hebrew and Greek terms. Knight offers extensive examples from English Bibles of this period, including Tyndale’s version, the Coverdale Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Douai-Rheims, and the King James Bible, amongst others. Each of these demonstrates the challenge of retaining the original divine wording, while also making this truth accessible in the vernacular for contemporary readers.
Figurative elements of Scripture are the subject of chapter 6. While figurative interpretation became less popular following the Reformation, readers remained well aware of the Bible’s own use of figurative language, including allegory, metaphor, and typology. This gave rise to a major point of contention between Catholics and Protestants in this era, namely, identifying when a passage should be understood figuratively. Here Knight uses a number of interesting examples, including debates concerning the Eucharist.
The volume concludes with an epilogue that brings together the various strands of the study. Knight situates her own work among a growing field of those who have “demonstrated remarkable continuities of method and tools (if not context or conclusions) between the biblical scholarship of the late sixteen and early seventeenth centuries, and that of the late seventeenth and eighteenth” (275). This is not to assume a simple anticipation of later scholarship; rather, rooted in their confessional traditions, readers of the 16th and early 17th centuries “were aware of, and deeply invested in exploring and explaining” a difficult and sometimes problematic biblical text (276).
This is a valuable and meticulously researched volume that will be of particular interest to historians, theologians, and biblical scholars. Knight’s engagement with primary sources is extensive, with interlocutors ranging from antiquity to the early modern era. The volume clearly and helpfully outlines the complicated set of factors involved in shaping how readers engaged with the complexity of the Bible in the period under investigation, drawing on—but also moving beyond—differences in Catholic and Protestant approaches to reading and interpretation. Knight’s study is a helpful reminder of the ways in which readers have long grappled with the complexity of the Bible in ways that have resonance even down to the present.
Bradford A. Anderson is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Dublin City University, Ireland.Bradford AndersonDate Of Review:July 28, 2023