ISSN: 1086-6523


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: 0-520-08480-2.

Reviewed by David Reinheimer
August 23, 1996

    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).

    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.

    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 present.

    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.

    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).

    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.

    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.

    David Reinheimer

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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