Major Reviews -- A History of the Bible as Literature. (Volumes I and II) by David Norton

Article excerpt

A History of the Bible as Literature. Volume I: From Antiquity to 1700; Volume II: From 1700 to the Present Day, by David Norton. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993. 375 pp. and 493 pp. $59.95 each. ISBN 0-521-33398-9 and 0-521-3339-7.

FROM THE COVER DESIGN (esp. William Blake's Christian Reading in His Book), through more than 750 pages of detailed, well-argued text, including over twenty useful illustrations of manuscripts, to the entertaining and informative appendices, this work is a delight to read. Norton is to be commended on this project. What he has done is not only well done, it is well worth doing.

Norton traces the idea of the Bible as literature through the Christian tradition from the second century to the mid-twentieth century. He does not attempt to trace similar themes in Jewish tradition nor to go much behind the emergence of an educated Christian leadership in the second century, beginning with Justin Martytr. Within these limits, this work is a model of clarity, scholarship, and analysis.

The introduction sets the agenda with the Pauline metaphor of having this "treasure in earthen vessels." The treasure here is the biblical content: the lore, the ideas, the morals, the images, the "truth." The earthen vessels are the various verbal forms in which the Bible exists, from Hebrew and Greek through multi-form translations. This basic duality sets the agenda for the book: To what extent have Christians been interested in the verbal forms and not just in the truth of the Bible? Can we admire the earthen vessels?

Chapter 2 balances the opposition to eloquence from leaders like Justin, Tatian, and Tertullian with the more positive appreciation of the rhetorical tradition in Clement of Alexandria and Lactanius. Even the more positive views do not see the Bible as literature in any important sense, however. In comparison with classical tradition, the Bible is seen as plain speech. (In fact, this is one of its virtues.) Much is made of Paul's disclaimer of rhetorical skills (1 Cor. 2), with only an occasional commentator noting that this is a fine rhetorical device.

Norton devotes short, separate chapters to Jerome and Augustine before moving on to the role of the Bible in the Middle Ages and the new stirrings of translation in the Renaissance and Reformation. By Chapter 6 we are discussing the challenge of translating the Bible into English--or more specifically, whether the Bible ought to be translated into such an inferior language ("English--the Angle not the angel speech," p. 63). The rest of Volume I traces the conflicting theories, aesthetic values, ideas, and politics of the English translation of the Bible in fascinating detail, including the translation, controversy, and eventual dominance of the King James Bible. This is a story few are familiar with and one that will destroy many of the cultural fictions about that translation. (Norton shows, for example, that the translators had little intention of producing a literary translation

Vol. …