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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity

Jan Stievermann, 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).

Stieverman-MatherThis erudite exposition of Mather’s exegesis arrives hot on the heels of Stievermann’s volume of Mather’s commentary on Proverbs-Jeremiah (i.e. hot on the heels of volume 5 of Mather’s Biblia Americana, a massive commentary on all of Protestant Scripture). In fact, “in many respects,” Stievermann writes, “this monograph . . . serves as a kind of companion piece to volume five of the [Biblia] edition. It examines in detail Mather’s annotations on the biblical books covered in volume five and discusses specific subjects and hermeneutical problems that figure prominently there. At the same time,” however, this new monograph functions as “the first interpretative synthesis and overall appraisal of Mather’s engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures” (p. 3). It pays the most attention to Mather’s commentary on the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. But it also introduces us to Mather’s life-long struggle to interpret the Old Testament in light of new learning in the field of biblical criticism—the “rocket science” of Mather’s day, in Stievermann’s estimation (p. 99).

This book makes several important scholarly contributions, overturning old canards about Mather and his work. It demonstrates, for instance, that “New England” and “America” play “a very minor role” in Mather’s biblical exegesis. “Where American contexts come into play,” Stievermann contends, “they usually do so in ways that defy stereotypical views of Mather and the Puritans.” Most other “early Americanists” have usually studied Mather in relation to later trends in American cultural history. But from Stievermann’s perspective, it is “unmistakably clear that Mather, despite his long history as a quintessentially American figure, has to be studied as a figure whose thinking was not so much inward-looking as intensely transatlantic in orientation” (pp. 91, 97).

Stievermann also demonstrates that “experiential piety” shaped Mather’s exegesis, especially Mather’s efforts to hold “erudition” and “piety” together in his work (pp. 381-411, a theme that Stievermann’s student, Ryan Hoselton, is treating in his doctoral dissertation). And he claims throughout the monograph that Mather deserves far more attention than he gets from those who study biblical scholarship in early modern Europe and its North American colonies. “Measured by the attention that is bestowed on [Jonathan] Edwards, Mather the theologian still stands as a relatively minor figure and Mather the biblical exegete remains largely unknown.” Stievermann’s scholarship, he says, “seeks to make a contribution to remedying this situation, throwing into relief Mather’s profile as a representative of a moderate Christian Enlightenment, an early evangelical intellectual in America, and a pioneer of biblical criticism in America” (p. 106).

“The title of this book, ‘Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity,’” indicates what Stievermann deems “the most important overarching themes” of his investigation of Mather and the Bible. As Mather came of age, “traditional Christian understandings of the prophetic and, more broadly the prefigurative, character of the Hebrew Bible had come under critical interrogation in unprecedented ways.” Historicism spread, eroding trust in the integrity and doctrinal coherence of the Old and New Testaments. “Biblical exegetes—and especially scholars of the Hebrew Bible—who began to debate questions such as the Jewish particularity of the Christian Old Testament, the textual history of the Pentateuch, and its scientific value as an account of the world’s beginning played no small role” in these historical developments. “In the simplest terms,” then, Stievermann seeks in this work to help us understand Mather’s method of handling these changes. Or as he puts the matter himself, “this book is about 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” (pp. 4-6).

This is the most important book ever written on biblical scholarship in early American history. It is simply must reading for all who work on early modern Christianity.

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.