The Emancipation of Biblical Philology in the Dutch Republic


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Dirk van Miert
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For well over a century the emphasis in most Biblical Studies departments has not been on theology, but on philology, and this historical-critical method has risen to prominence as one of the biblical scholar’s principal methodologies. Where did this focus on contextualizing the Bible in its Greco-Roman context come from? When did the emphasis on the necessity of comparing textual variants between the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text and the Samaritan Pentateuch come to the fore in Biblical studies? Ultimately, when did doubt about the Bible as God’s revelation to man begin to be a position held by some scholars? 

In The Emancipation of Biblical Philology in the Dutch Republic, 1590-1670, Dirk van Miert provides strong answers to these important questions by taking us to the University of Leiden in the 17th century, a place which he aptly describes as the first “centre of critical historical philology” (11). Van Miert takes us through the personal and secretive correspondence of Joseph Scaliger (29-36), as well as through the marginal annotations of his books (47-49), before passing swiftly through the writings of Jacobus Arminius, Daniel Heinsius, Hugo Grotius, and Claude Saumaise, among others. Ultimately, van Miert builds up to the publication of Spinoza’s Tractus theologico-politicus in 1670 and argues that biblical philology was emancipated from its subservient role to theology due to an increasing awareness of the complexity of the transmissions of the biblical text. Van Miert does not claim that the aforementioned theologians doubted the authority of Scripture, though some thinkers like Isaac La Peyrère certainly did, but rather that their focus on interrogating every word and even syllable of Scripture led, through the triumph of philology, to a new approach to biblical study, one which men like Spinoza would ultimately use to directly confront the Bible’s absolute truth claims.

Van Miert keeps his largely compelling argument tight through extensive use of primary sources. In one of the most pleasing-to-read sections of the book, he focuses on the “Hairy War” that took place as part of the Dutch Further Reformation in the 1640s, as scholars argued over whether men could have long hair based upon First Corinthians 11:14-15 (170-191). This is the only developed example in which van Miert demonstrates that philological debates filtered down to the non-academic community, as he emphasizes that much of the controversy’s literary output took place in the vernacular rather than in Latin as the debate set the United Provinces aflame. While van Miert’s analysis of pamphlet literature is fascinating, this reader is not convinced that a leap can be made from this debate to the rise of doubt over the historicity of Scripture. While there were philologists at the time who doubted Mosaic authorship or identified genealogical discrepancies in Genesis which they found almost insurmountable (202, 220-27), there is little evidence that this level of questioning reached a popular level. There is, after all, a big difference between the moderate philology involved in a debate over Paul’s meaning in his statement that it is “degrading” for men to have long hair, and the comprehensive assault on Scripture spearheaded by Spinoza’s radical use of philology.

One of the strengths of this book is its awareness of the Wirkungsgeschichte of various biblical texts. Therefore, while the study covers the period 1590-1670, van Miert posits his Dutch philologists in a theological tradition that was already influenced by the approaches to Scripture pioneered by Erasmus and Theodore Beza, who both engaged in philology to some extent. To offer just one example, van Miert shows how Arminius was influenced by Jesus’ injunction in John 5:39 to “search the Scriptures.” This injunction had taken on importance in the writings of Paul of Burgos, a converted Jew, as early as 1475: in Scrutinium scripturarum Burgos interpreted John 5:39 as associated with studying the Talmud. Van Miert then notes how the King James Version’s “Letter to the Reader” and John Selden both interpret the same verse in a way that opened the door for the Protestant reader to think critically about the biblical text himself. Van Miert’s positioning of Arminius’ thinking in Christian reception history shows that he does not isolate his philological protagonists in a vacuum, but sees them rather in their pan-European theological context (57).

I did not intend to write about the fact that van Miert does not touch upon the rise of biblical philology in the Dutch Jewish community as this is not a part of the book’s stated purpose and this work has already been touched upon by Benjamin Fisher, who shows how Jews such as Menasseh ben Israel used philological techniques to defend the inerrancy of Scripture (“God's Word Defended: Menasseh ben Israel, Biblical Chronology, and the Erosion of Biblical Authority,” in Dirk van Miert et al, eds. Scriptural Authority and Biblical Criticism in the Dutch Golden Age: God's Word Questioned [Oxford University Press, 2017], 155-174). However, van Miert inadvertently draws attention to Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel when he writes that Dionysius Vossius translated “Menasseh ben Israel’s work on idolatry, De idololatria liber” which was published in 1641 (221). This is a mistake. Menasseh wrote no such work: Maimonides was the author of this treatise. And yet, van Miert does show an awareness of the way in which biblical philology led to a positive scholarly interaction between Christians and Jews (154).

On a final note, this book is very technical, and without a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, the reader may not grasp fully the philological debates that van Miert surveys in this study. Additionally, van Miert gives no biographical information for the biblical scholars whom he analyses, and this may be problematic for those without prior knowledge of 17th-century Dutch philologists.

Overall, The Emancipation of Biblical Theology is rewarding and I recommend it. It posits an interesting reason for change in the history of methods of studying the Bible and provides many fascinating insights into the theological and philological scene at universities in the Dutch Golden Age.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lawrence Rabone is a doctoral studennt in Jewish/Christian Studies at the University of Manchester.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dirk van Miert is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Cultural History at Utrecht University and specializes in the history of knowledge, with particular focus on the Republic of Letters. He obtained his doctorate at the University of Amsterdam in 2004 and held long-term postdoctoral fellowships at the Warburg Institute, University of London; the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science; and the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies of Utrecht University.


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