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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.