Book Reviews

The Bible as Book: The Reformation, Orlaith O’Sullivan (Ed.),
The British Library & Oak Knoll Press with The Scriptorium Center for
Christian Antiquities, 2000, x+182 pp., £40.00, ISBN 0 7123 4675 9

Ably assisted by Ellen Herron, Dr. Orlaith O’Sullivan has edited papers given at the 1997 Hereford Conference on the Christian Scriptures to produce a lively book of essays, offering the reader what her introduction describes as ‘broader perspectives’ to enlarge the range of an ‘intricate, staggering historical period’ (p.7). And for those who might scent further ‘revisionism’ here, the ‘very different picture of the Reformation’ that emerges is no negative dismissal of either sixteenth-century principle or practice, but rather a profound and positive analysis of what elsewhere Jaroslav Pelikan once termed ‘the Reformation of the Bible and the Bible of the Reformation’.

A brief review cannot do justice to contributors who comprise a baker’s dozen, but in terms of real value to Reformation Studies a number of essays demand honourable mention. Very much on form, Professor Daniell affords further fascinating insights with a focus on ‘the pioneering work of William Tyndale’, in particular the way his skills as a translator ‘gave the English language a plain prose style of the very greatest importance’ (p.39). But to forward the judgement (surely not his own?) that Tyndale ‘was a greater scholar even than Erasmus’ must infringe the offside rule! In John Knox’s Bible, Dr David Wright spotlights a Scot who evidently mastered the art of misquotation and he ought now to write more on the fascinating theme of period pulpiteering. The whole issue of authority is deftly handled by Richard Duerden, a scholar who does not allow respect for ‘philological accuracy and stylistic beauty’ to obscure shrewd grasp of texts used to forward ‘ideology, authority and power’ (p.9). Well aware of the need to restrain free interpretation, Duerden notes that ‘Tyndale proves Thomas More’s point’ in so far as an ‘English Bible introduces plurality where there was unity’ (p.13). Yet as ever, it was Martin Luther who first set out fundamentals, and in a valuable piece on that Wittenberg professor’s Lectures on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, William Campbell is at pains to underline the christological emphasis of a pastor clearly convinced that ‘every word in the Bible points to Jesus’ (p.106). To prefer Roman Papal institutionalism was thus to ignore the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and if Luther ‘was guilty of taking biblical texts out of context’, his approach remained ‘primarily theological’.

Superbly produced with a useful bibliography (but limited index), the work includes a central wallet of 35 illustrations, a pictorial theme Professor Pettegree (and, in a separate article, Dr. Tatiana Spring) elaborates in his fine focus The Law and the Gospel. Few would contest the fact that the whole age was one of widespread illiteracy, Erasmus often castigating even the clergy as at best ‘semi-literati’. If oral teaching and reading, preaching and catechism clearly aided the impact of ‘the new religion’, progress in printing methods unquestionably promoted further advance by the sheer visual impact of woodcuts and line drawings. Professor Pettegree is certainly convinced that ‘in terms of communication this was quite revolutionary’ (p.123), and traces the ‘Evangelical Pictorial Theme’ with careful reference to Cranach, Durer, Hans Holbein the Younger, Altdorfer and the Law-Gospel motif, that ‘intricate iconographic construction original to the first generation of the reform’ (p.132).

Peter Newman Brooks Robinson College, Cambridge

The Blind Devotion of the People: Popular Religion and the English Reformation [Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History] by Robert Whiting, CUP 1989, ISBN 0 521 35606 7 (hardback), ISBN 0 521 42439 9 (paperback)

A recent issue of an American archaeology journal discussed an excavation, arguing that an ancient city in the Middle East had been exclusively Jewish for a long period of time; stone vessels, an absence of pork bones, and ritual baths were the markers used to reach this conclusion. Such detective work is fascinating for the reader; yet it gives us scant insight into the hearts and minds of that city’s human inhabitants. Instead, it leaves us begging for more.

The limits of an anthropological approach to history are likewise on display in The Blind Devotion of the People, which plumbs the reactions of Tudor churchgoers to the turmoil of the Reformation, using non-documentary evidence in addition to wills and church records. Vast primary research was required for this book, focusing on Devon and Cornwall (two regions not ideally representative of Tudor Britain as a whole).

In sum: how did the average Englishman feel about the twists and turns in religious policy launched by Henry VIII and pursued on-and-off for the remainder of the century? For a new generation of revisionist historians, the Tudor Reformation was less a popular movement than an ideology foisted by an elite upon the mass of ordinary folk, quite content with the orthodox ways that had sustained them and their communities for a thousand years.

The Blind Devotion reflects this revisionist philosophy, but cannot entirely embrace it, because the historical record does not support it. As for the charge of vandalism levelled against the Henrician administration, Thomas Cromwell’s men had no monopoly on destruction; more than a few parish churches had faced demolition derbies and sporadic acts of irreverence long before the 1530s got under way.

References to William Tyndale in Blind Devotion are thin on the ground. But WT is always waiting somewhere offstage. For as we know, the switch to Bible Christianity (courtesy of Tyndale) wrought huge changes in the mindsets of an often stubborn populace, and England would never be the same again.

What form did this transformation take at the grass roots? The author describes pre-Henrician British piety as not absolute, but always impressive. And mind-boggling as well; it takes a maximum effort of the imagination for us to enter into the delirium of the orthodox believer. The faithful of that era lived in a world of outward observances; and religious ritual in the early 1500s rested upon a structure of liturgical paraphernalia and the arcane language used to describe it. Ever heard of ‘cruets’, ‘sacring bells’, ‘rood-lofts’, and ‘bede-rolls’ (not to be confused with bread-rolls)? If you cross a ‘pyx’ and a ‘pax’, do you get a pickaxe?

All this gadgetry required a shadow economy to manufacture and maintain it. Before the Reformation, parishioners were ready and willing to prop up this economy with cold cash in order to keep their local churches in spruce condition, while spending heavily on intercessory prayers for themselves and their deceased loved ones.

In the author’s mind, these outlays represented personal and collective investment in the community. According to this view, the depth of this financial commitment can be gauged from the provisions of last wills and testaments; and that is true, up to a point. Yet wills were not the Gallup Polls of the 16th century, nor is it clear to what extent they were an accurate yardstick of innermost conviction, or simply a barometer of contemporary social pressures. In Blind Devotion, the author notes few if any bequests of books and Bibles in Devonian and Cornish wills, but this type of argument-from-silence leads one into treacherous methodological water; there may be simpler explanations for the gaps in the record.

We have all read accounts of how early English Bibles flew off the shelves in city bookstores; but it is possible that Bible enthusiasm was less than evenly distributed in the provinces. The habit of Bible reading may have taken slow root in areas accustomed to mystery plays rather than the printed page, or where inhabitants had Cornish rather than English as their mother tongue. Even after Tyndale, there were language barriers to conquer.

Whatever the initial ambivalence of the people, however, it is clear that smells-and-bells religion never recovered from the Tudor onslaught. Here, wills and craftsmen’s records do have a fascinating story to tell. A reverse black hole appears, as bequests for church decorations evaporate, masses and other intercessions for the dead are terminated, and parishioners start spending more on the upkeep of their own private residences. The home was fast becoming not just an Englishman’s castle, but also a place for quiet contemplation of Scripture. Interior decorators in Britain owe a debt to William Tyndale which, it seems to me, has yet to be fully acknowledged.

The insistence by Cromwell’s local officials that ordinary folk were ‘docile’ and ‘conformable’ to the religious reforms may have been self-serving, but it contained a germ of truth. A go-along-get-along philosophy prevailed, with many moistened fingers hoisted in the air.

Who can say that a wait-and-see approach was cowardly, given the chaos of those times? The true attitude, I think, lay somewhere in between passive acquiescence and a shrewd assessment of the possibilities afforded by freedom. Otherwise, country people were bit players in this historical pageant, spectators at the Coliseum, while real religious policy was hammered out at Court and in the capital. But then we knew that, anyway. Still, Blind Devotion makes a useful reference source for Reformation enthusiasts.

Neil L. Inglis, Washington, March 2001

John Frith - Scholar and Martyr by Bryan Raynor, Pond View Books, ISBN 1 871044 78 2, £21.95 including p&p. This book can be ordered directly from the author at Sevenoaks School, Sevenoaks, Kent TN13 1HU, England.

John Frith (or Fryth) deserves to be better known as a figure in the English Reformation, and this biography by Bryan Raynor, to which the Bishop of Liverpool contributes a foreword, is most welcome.

The author writes with enthusiasm and gives a workmanlike account of Frith’s life, his writings and his friendship with other reformers (including Tyndale) from his birth as Westerham in 1503 until his execution at Smithfield some thirty years later.

The picture of Frith which emerges is an attractive one and it is impossible not to feel that he would have received a sympathetic hearing in any reasonable community. But the representatives of the church of his time were too much the prisoners of their own presuppositions to do him justice and Frith suffered calumny, persecution and ultimately death at the stake. So perished a man notable for his ability, rectitude and gentleness of spirit. It was a grievous loss to religion in England.

The author tells his story well, but one must confess to having certain reservations. We are told (p.155) that the reformed Church of England is a ‘new church whose teaching is based on the Word of God’. Surely not a new church: reformed certainly, renewed if you will, yet Ecclesia Anglicana predates the Reformation by centuries. The church of Tyndale, of Cranmer, of Hooker is also the church of Augustine, Bede and Anselm. And George Carey is the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury.

Again, the author reminds us that Frith and other reformers rejected the doctrine of the Real Presence, and it clearly has no place in his theology. But this doctrine (which is not quite the same as the doctrine of transubstantia-tion) keeps resurfacing (in some form) in Anglicanism and not only in Anglo-Catholic circles; witness the high sacramental doctrine of Charles Wesley’s Eucharistic hymns:

To every faithful soul appear
And show Thy Real Presence here

It is a difficult subject, and one is touching on a mystery - and a holy mystery at that - but one can only feel that a more sympathetic consideration of the issues involved would have been helpful. One wonders how Frith would have reacted to Wesley: could he have accepted the Real Presence, as Wesley understood it?

In the bibliography the main historical source given is d’Aubigné’s History of the Reformation. It is good to be reminded of this great work. But d’Aubigné wrote in the 1860s and copies of his work are not readily available - and a good deal of historical research has taken place since his time. It would have been helpful to have had a reference to something more recent.

There are a few errors of fact. The Tyndale monument is on Nibley Knoll, not Stinchcombe Hill (p.41). The two places are four or five miles apart. The reference to the author’s former pupils, Bilney and Warham, is most interesting, but surely they cannot be the direct descendants of the men whose names they bear: both men, after all, had taken vows of celibacy.

Despite its shortcomings, this book is worth buying and the author deserves our gratitude. It is particularly felicitous that he has chosen to include John Frith’s communion prayer at the end of the last chapter. The prayer is a masterpiece, and tells us more about Frith’s character than any catalogue of his deeds could do. It transcends the divisions of Frith’s time and of our own, and is worthy of a place in the devotional life of every one who seeks to follow his Lord.

Robin Everitt, January 2001

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of Christianity
by Carsten Peter Thiede, Published by Lion, £18.00, 256 pp.

I must confess that I have never been among those who were swept up with enthusiasm over the literary merit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, I have been bemused by the enormous attention given to them to the cost of a greater appreciation of the existent Bible - Old and New.

Carsten Thiede in the book under review expresses my view with a gift for understatement which he must have picked up during his studies in Oxford: ‘It is true, of course, that the Dead Sea Scrolls and the first Judeo-Christian texts are the only collections of Jewish writings of the late Second Temple period which have survived in manuscript form. But this does not mean that such an archaeological and papyrological fact should force us to treat the more ancient writings of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek ... any less seriously.’

Sometimes I wish that every trace of the printed Bible and memory of it would disappear, only to be discovered in its entirety in manuscript form by modern Bedouins in ancient pots! What excitement there would be - and people would value and pore over as great literature what they now dismiss as Jewish and Christian propaganda. The Dead Sea Scrolls would then be put in its proper place as footnotes to a far greater literature, less worthy even than the apocrypha and pseudo-epigrapha.

With this background of personal apathy, my praise for Professor Thiede’s study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish origins of Christianity should make all readers of this review rush to buy the book. I found it a compelling read like a mystery in which the clues are being revealed but the resolution cannot be found until the end of the book. I hesitate to reveal his conclusions because it could deprive you of the pleasure in reading it, so I will be careful only to whet your appetite.

First, his chapters on the Essenes, of whom some argue that Jesus was one, demythologizes the sect. He proves that they were not monolithic puritanical fanatics but ordinary people seeking a better way of life and taking different paths even with their own ranks in doing so. He proves that they were not one ‘hippie’ camp near the caves but were, like other Jewish sects widespread. Indeed, he makes a convincing case that Jesus asked his disciples to organize the Last Supper in an Essene home in Jerusalem. There are surprises along the way for the reader as he is taught who were the Essenes.

Secondly, the history of the Scrolls against the background of the political machinations and academic rivalries and acquisitiveness provides a fascinating read. His down to earth approach and his generosity to other scholars in the field convinced me that he had no axe to grind but was sincere in seeking the truth. His research into reference to libraries in the Dead Sea area during the past millennia invite his readers to wonder as he does why archaeologists had left it to wandering Bedouins to make the discoveries that it was in their remit to do.

Thiede presents his scholarship findings in a manner which will not put the reader off. When on occasion the proofs he provides to explain the origins and contents of the text became complicated, I was happy to skim the pages with the confidence that I could trust his conclusions without going into the detail. Perhaps what makes this scholarly work so readable is that the author is not obsessed with coming up with some brilliant theory to put other scholars to shame. He is not looking in the Caves for something sensational. He is only seeking to understand what was there. The result he achieves is an appreciation that the period of the origin of Christianity was a period of great tension and transition for a people desperate for a Messiah to bring salvation on his wings, and that in the Qumram caves one finds a reflection of multifaceted expression of religious piety, yearnings and expectations.

The book is filled with interesting insights into the New Testament texts, which made me as a novice translator of the Christian Bible, underline passages, make comments in the margins and fold over the corner of pages. I will not tell you whether or not he believes that Jesus was an Essene or influenced by them, or whether Peter’s communism was a replication of the Essene community. You will have to buy the book. But I will tell you that he draws a rich tapestry of Jewish life in which early Christianity provided major threads and colours which will leave the interested reader, as it left me, much the wiser. The book is an impressive combination of thorough (but modest) scholarship and popular (but literary) presentation.

Dr Sidney Brichto

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