Sweeney’s Booknotes: Biblia Americana, Volume 5: Proverbs – Jeremiah

Cotton Mather, Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, a Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Volume 5: Proverbs – Jeremiah, ed. Jan Stievermann (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015)

Mather Vol 5This is the most important volume of Mather’s Biblia to appear since Reiner Smolinski’s volume on Genesis. Its editor, Jan Stievermann, serves as Executive Editor of this groundbreaking project, and has published a major monograph on Mather’s exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures as well, which is hot off the press: Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity.

Those who have not yet heard of this project should be brought up to speed. This is the fourth volume published—though the fifth in the series—of a ten-volume edition of Mather’s most extensive work. Compiled over a span of nearly 35 years (1693-1728) on 4,583 sheets (double-columned, folio), eventually bound in six volumes, Mather’s “Biblia Americana” proved too large, until now, to attract a publisher. Nonetheless, it represents the oldest commentary on all of the Protestant canon in America.

Reiner Smolinski, who teaches at Georgia State University, has given much of his life to poring over this hidden treasure at the Massachusetts Historical Society. With Stievermann, he leads a team of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic committed to realizing Mather’s dream of publishing this summa. Volume one, on Genesis, was published in 2010. Volume three, on Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, appeared in 2013. Volume four, on Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, and the Psalms, appeared in 2014. Now this, the fifth volume, on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, moves us much further still into Mather’s erudition, demonstrating that biblical higher criticism began in North America long before the well-known inroads made by modern German scholars.

This is not a book on Edwards, but is part of the most important scholarly project on early American biblical exegesis ever attempted. Arriving as it does at a time of renewed scholarly interest in the Bible in America, this edition will spark new insights into American religious, cultural, and intellectual history. As noted earlier on this website, it has already led to three important monographs by members of its editorial team: Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2015); Stievermann’s monograph noted above, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity: Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in Cotton Mather’s “Biblia Americana, Beiträge zur historischen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016); and Reiner Smolinski, Cotton Mather and His World: An Intellectual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming). It has also yielded a volume of learned essays on its subject: Reiner Smolinski and Jan Stievermann, eds., Cotton Mather and Biblia Americana–America’s First Bible Commentary: Essays in Reappraisal (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

Stievermann’s “Editor’s Introduction” (pp. 1-136) to the volume under review is remarkably erudite and exceptionally informative regarding Mather’s place in the history of early modern biblical criticism. “On the most fundamental level,” Stievermann summarizes helpfully, “the commentaries contained in this volume show Cotton Mather’s struggle to read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture in ways that he thought were intellectually justifiable as a highly educated scholar and which also felt satisfying and nurturing as a devout believer. In Mather’s period, the traditional Christian understandings of the Hebrew Bible, including its prophetic and more broadly prefigurative character, had come under growing pressure from new forms of biblical criticism. These forms were simultaneously informed by and contributing to a rising awareness of what we today would call the historicity of the Scriptures” (p. 9).

Mather engaged these forms carefully, resisted the ones that did the most harm to Christian faith, but also revised his understanding of biblical passages in light of them to an appreciable degree. In another summative statement, Stievermann explains that “Mather belonged to a generation of scholarly theologians who were already confronted with deep-reaching historical challenges to the authority of the Bible, and the Old Testament especially. Some of the uneasy questions about authorship, genre, provenance, or the factual realism of the scriptural narratives that would later be rigorously brought to bear on the Bible as a whole, were already being formulated with regard to the Hebrew Scriptures. Mather did not shy away from these questions but engaged them as fully as his orthodox commitments allowed. Moreover, the basic legitimacy of time-honored modes of interpreting the Old Testament as prophetically, typologically or mystically prefiguring Christ and the gospel could no longer be taken for granted. Although Mather himself had not the slightest doubt about this status, he, like many other theologian-scholars of his generation, felt the need to make new apologetical arguments in support of the traditional view, and to practice the traditional modes of prefigurative interpretation with a new self-conscious attention to the historical dimension of the original texts” (pp. 12-13). Stievermann tracks Mather’s work with these developments like a native, introducing us to a long-lost world of Christian scholarship.

Here is the notice of this volume on the website of Stievermann’s Jonathan Edwards Center in Heidelberg, which includes a (handsome!) picture of the editor.

This is now essential reading for anyone interested in Mather and/or the study of the Bible in the early modern West.

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