Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

From Philology to Fossils: The Biblical Encyclopedia in Early Modern Europe

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

From Philology to Fossils: The Biblical Encyclopedia in Early Modern Europe

Article excerpt

In his 1672 Two Letters of Advice on the study of divinity the English polymath and antiquarian Henry Dodwell recommended the diligent pursuit of "Philological Learning" for all those interested in the biblical text. To read the Bible properly demanded discipline and a steadfast attention to "the Tongues and Phrases" of the biblical authors, which "will be gotten by reading ancient Authors in their own words." Sometimes, however, words were not enough. To understand "matters of Fact" in their entirety, readers would have to turn to "the thing it self." "It will be necessary to study and compare History, and Chronology, and Geographical descriptions" of the biblical lands, Dodwell explained, nor could one neglect either the "Doctrinals ... and the Traditions of the Jewish Church" or the histories told by the "ancientest Greek Poets."1 The deist Anthony Collins was mocking, but at the same time recognizing, this totalistic ideal that shaped biblical scholarship as it developed in the later seventeenth century when he remarked in 1713 that "there is not perhaps in the World so miscellaneous a Book, and which treats of such Variety of things as the Bible does":

There is a natural History of the Creation of the whole Universe..and a Civil and Ecclesiastical History of all Mankind from the Beginning of the World for above 2000 years. ... There are contain'd in it the municipal Laws of a Country, the Institution of two Religions ... several natural and miraculous Phaenomena of Nature; Descriptions of magnificent Buildings, References to Husbandry, Sailing, Physick, Pharmacy, Mathematicks, and every thing else that can be named.2

The idea of ordering this immense variety of information was, for Collins, the ultimate joke. But other scholars were far more serious about this pursuit, not least Dodwell himself, who suggested that the "professed Divine ... make the Bible his Common place Book for all his other Studies." In doing so, the divine would find himself able to organize (in memory and on paper) the enormous quantities of information available about the biblical world.'

Dodwell the antiquarian was not alone in his catholic aspirations for the pursuit of scholarship. This was, after all, a time when antiquarianism-as Arnaldo Momigliano reminded us fifty years ago and as the "new antiquarianism" pioneered by scholars like Anthony Grafton, Blandine Barret-Kriegel, and Peter Miller reminds us today-became a dominant form of literary expression, as it experimented with new methods of historical research, new evidentiary protocols, and new comprehensive visions of the scholarly task.4 Dodwell was firmly within this context, but his suggestion that the Bible become a pragmatic tool for organizing information nonetheless bears some scrutiny. It came at a time of particular anxiety that, as Richard Yeo has put it, "the growth of books had reached a crisis point." "How is it possible to understand the whole universe?" asked one puzzled scholar in 1643, and his voice was only one of a chorus complaining of the overwhelming amount of sheer data available for scholarly processing.5 But unlike other scholars content to lament this state of affairs, Dodwell had in mind a solution, one that was independent of the materials studied, one that was wholly formal and functional. The quantity of information, he intimated, could be brought to heel through the intercession of a technique of organization that would allow for the flexible arrangement and display of virtually all the materials that might fall into the hands of the biblical scholar, the commonplace book.

In this article I will focus on techniques for presenting and organizing materials as they were developed within biblical scholarship in response to what this forum is calling the "information overload" of the early modern period. My goal is neither to rehearse the anxieties felt by scholars (nicely detailed here by Ann Blair and Richard Yeo), nor is it to explore the varieties of theological, historical, and philological knowledge developed within early modern biblical scholarship. …

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