MILTON REVIEW 
Shuger, Debora Kuller. The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Subjectivity,
and Sacrifice. The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics 29.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. xv + 297 pp. ISBN:
Reviewed by David Reinheimer
August 23, 1996
- As a title, The Renaissance Bible is somewhat misleading,
for Debora Kuller Shuger's provocative third book concentrates rather on
the discourses surrounding the Bible. These philological, legal, and
literary discourses are negotiated in terms of biblical scholarship and
lead into unexpected territory: "Discussions of Christ's agony in the
garden unfold into meditations on the conflictual and decentered structures
of subjectivity, comparative anthropology unexpectedly surfaces in
theological speculation on the Atonement, and passion narratives explore
the psychological and historical dialectics of male violence and victimage"
(5). These surprisingly modern concerns lead to a suggestion lurking
throughout the book that late twentieth-century methodologies are
especially appropriate to the study of the Renaissance. Yet the central
issue of the study is sacrifice--Christ's sacrifice, tragic sacrifice, and
female sacrifice--an issue that, as the book clearly demonstrates, gives
rise to fundamental modern tenets of subjectivity and alterity. Shuger's
perceptive and engaging book succeeds in the attempt to produce "broadly
conceived scholarship on the Bible between the decline of medieval allegory
and the rise of Higher Criticism" (2).
- Shuger begins by defining Renaissance biblical scholarship and its
methodologies by differentiating between dogmatic humanists and the
respublica litterarum sacrarum. Early modern exegesis breaks from medieval
allegoresis by shifting from a grammatical, ahistorical, typological
approach to language to a rhetorical, synchronic, cultural approach to
history. This shift, first seen in Erasmus, develops in two directions:
first, toward dogmatic humanism, which deployed the new philology in
defense of doctrine; and second, toward the respublica litterarum sacrarum,
a closely knit textual community of Renaissance Biblical scholars that
changes its method from textual to historical criticism. This second shift
involved a concern with antiquities that is "so oddly parallel to
contemporary cultural materialisms" (30) and leads to a historicism that
acknowledges the fundamental alterity of the past. In the respublica,
semiotics is treated as a branch of cultural history, meaning derives from
cultural practice, and law becomes the articulation of cultural categories
(26-7). Again, the past typifies the present: "In granting analytic
priority to the cultural codes marking the text...Renaissance biblical
commentaries resemble the new historicisms of the late twentieth century"
(46). Shuger's effective delineation of the respublica, which includes
scholars such as Grotius, Selden, Casaubon, and Heinsius, nicely sets the
stage for her exploration of the community's cutural criticism.
- Shuger focuses next on law, as many of the exegetes in the
respublica were trained in the law, and a spate of rediscovered Jewish
texts made legal interpretation of biblical culture possible. In Grotius'
De satisfactione Christi, a defense of the Atonement against Socinus, the
Atonement is set against the normative principles of Roman law, and
sacrifice emerges as the issue that defines Christian and modern
consciousness. Grotius sees God as rector rather than dominus, shifting
the legal paradigm from private to public law, from economics to politics.
When Grotius addresses substitution, however, his argument starts to
unravel, and his efforts merely expose "the incommensurability between the
logic of substitution and normative legal principles" (68). The
acknowledgement of history's alterity in the section on substitution leads
to the development of cultural anthropology, a surprising connection to the
- The first two chapters of Shuger's book follow closely on one
another, but the remaining chapters show more clearly the book's nature:
"This book is instead an essay in the literal sense of the the term, a
tentative and partial exploration of the cultural work done by the
Renaissance Bible--or rather by Renaissance biblical discourses" (2). That
the book is organized as an essay does not distract from its effectiveness;
rather, the reader is invited along on the journey of exploration by a
style that is collegial and amicable, at times even conspiratorial, a style
that is one of the greatest strengths of the work. "But perhaps there is
other game afoot," she writes. "And so on into the first of several
scholarly labyrinths" (60-1). The reader willingly plunges into these
labyrinths, a Watson to Shuger's Holmes. Although the journey ultimately
ends with the discovery of a rich field for biblical and Renaissance
scholars, there are some false steps: "Renaissance biblical scholarship
does not often deal with [issues concerning the author or authors]--to my
surprise, since I began this chapter planning to record the emergence of
the subject out of the ashes of medieval allegorical exegesis" (45). The
reader's engagement with the process of the book makes the product that
much more compelling.
- Despite that disclaimer, Shuger does present a clear and compelling
picture of the "chimerical self." After discussing Grotius's treatment of
Christ's sacrifice, Shuger turns to a group of Calvinist passion narratives
that, through a rhetoric of identification, shift their reader's position
from observer to participant, from torturer to tortured, and "produce an
unstable, divided selfhood, fissured by its own responses to violence"
(91). This chimerical, decentered selfhood resides as well in Christ, who
amorphously shifts between dependent and frightened child, self-assertive
champion, obedient and dutiful son, and subversive aggressor. The
Calvinist narratives, especially Nashe's Christs Teares over Jerusalem,
present the Fall of Jerusalem as the climax of the passion, and these
"urban apocalypses imply a conceptual link between economic prosperity and
the decomposition of manhood into effeminacy or brutality" (126). Shuger
concludes that "biblical interpretation thus germinates, in the form of
myth, the two obsessive themes of the postmedieval West: psychological
fragmentation and socioeconomic decadence, themes heavy with gendered
anxieties about violence and weakness" (127).
- The final two chapters of the book turn to examples of female
sacrifice. First, George Buchanan's Jephthes sive votum tragoedia
conflates Euripides' story of Iphigenia with the story of Jephthah's
daughter, with some intriguing results. After examining, as Renaissance
exegetes did, the philological connection between ritual blood
sacrifice--even female blood sacrifice--and katharsis, Shuger
metadramatically explicates Buchanan's now virtually unknown tragedy.
Jephthah's daughter conventionally symbolizes tragedy itself, and tragic
sacrifice replaces ritual sacrifice, as Buchanan taps into the genre memory
of classical tragedy. The last chapter addresses narratives of Mary
Magdalene's vigil outside Christ's tomb. Examining two pre-Reformation
narratives, a "Chaucerian" and an "Origenist," Shuger looks at the
subversive sexualization of the Magdalene's relationship to Christ. While
Mary's sexuality and abandonment place her outside cultural norms, she
comes to be a curious example, "a model of suffering, solitary, forsaken
humanity" (185). The subversive, transgressive female was proscribed by
social practice, yet Mary is a traditional construct of religious
subjectivity, of male and female inwardness.
- While Shuger does not include Milton as a member of the respublica,
Shuger's compelling and imaginative reading of biblically negotiated
discourses in the Renaissance is of interest to any Milton scholar. Her
book lucidly argues that the fundamental issues of modern selfhood are
acknowledged and negotiated in Renaissance biblical discourses surrounding
"border problems [such as] sacrifice, selfhood, cruelty, and sexuality"
(5), issues that operate as well in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
In the introduction, Shuger laments the paucity of biblical scholarship
between the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century; as the first study of
the Renaissance Bible by an Anglo-American scholar in decades, The
Renaissance Bible does much to answer the lament. Shuger's work has
reopened a field of study that will contribute to the greater understanding
of both the Renaissance Bible and Milton's work.
Library of Congress Information
Author: Shuger, Debora K., 1953-
Title: The Renaissance Bible : scholarship, sacrifice, and
subjectivity / Debora Kuller Shuger.
Published: Berkeley : University of California Press, c1994.
Description: xv, 297 p. : ill. ; 23 cm.
Series: The New historicism ; 29
LC Call No.: BS500 .S46 1994
Dewey No.: 220/.094/09024 20
ISBN: 0520084802 (alk. paper)
Notes: Includes bibliographical references (p. 261-280) and
Subjects: Bible -- Criticism, interpretation, etc. -- History --
Modern period, 1500-
European literature -- Renaissance, 1450-1600.
European literature -- 17th century.
Christianity and literature.
Bible -- In literature.
Control No.: 93005892
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