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The Emancipation of Biblical Philology in the Dutch Republic, 1590–1670. Dirk Van Miert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. xxiv + 296 pp. $99.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 September 2019

Jan Bloemendal*
Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands / Ruhr-Universität Bochum
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Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 2019 

This wonderful study was written in the context of the research project Biblical Criticism in the Seventeenth Century, led by Henk Nellen and Piet Steenbakkers. The publications of this fruitful and inspiring project also include Scriptural Authority and Biblical Criticism in the Dutch Golden Age: God's Word Questioned (2017) and Jetze Touber's Spinoza and Biblical Philology in the Dutch Republic, 1660–1710 (2018).

The Emancipation of Biblical Philology departs from the question of how the philological methods of the Leiden-based French scholar Josephus Justus Scaliger cast their shadows on all biblical scholarship of the early modern Netherlands and England until Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus appeared, in 1670. Or, rather, “How … did the strong philological tradition of Leiden [University, JB] play out in the hands of different scholars who fostered conflicting agendas?” (21). Van Miert starts with an introduction on biblical philology in the sixteenth century, and then treats Joseph Scaliger's biblical scholarship (chapter 1). That biblical philology had its societal impact is shown in chapter 2, “Biblical Philology: Nothing Radical (1609–1619),” which discusses the Twelve Years Truce controversies concerning the interpretation of divine providence, which involved far-ranging political consequences, and chapter 3, “Mobilizing Biblical Philology: The States’ Translation (1619–1637),” which discusses the political implications of this influential Dutch translation of the Bible. At the core of the book are chapter 4, “The Biblical Philology of Daniel Heinsius (1619–1641),” and chapter 5, “Grotius's Annotationes on the Bible (1619–1645).” The two following chapters treat their intellectual opponents “Claude Saumaise and the ‘Hairy War’ (1640–1650)” and “Radical Philology: Isaac de La Peyrère (1643–1660).” The book ends with chapter 8, “On the Eve of Spinoza: The Rise of Biblical Philology (1650–1670),” and a conclusion.

Van Miert clearly defines philology as “the study of a (biblical) text by means of textual criticism, linguistic analysis, and historical contextualization” (xiii), though he is aware of the anachronism of the terms. Moreover, he argues that it makes little sense to speak of the “pre-critical period” when designating the times before Spinoza's TTP, since critical methods were already in use. He also challenges Jonathan Israel's thesis on the radical Enlightenment as starting with Spinoza, who was not so much a radical innovator as someone building on the achievements of his predecessors.

Two of these predecessors were Heinsius and Grotius, both favorite students of Scaliger, and friends who became political and religious opponents. Heinsius was a classical scholar and a Latin and Dutch poet when he acted as the States’ secretary at the famous and notorious Synod of Dordrecht. Then he turned to biblical philology, with the same reluctant attitude as his famous teacher. Both wanted to correct the text of the Bible only reticently and almost always confined themselves in noting variants. In his work on the Bible, he left the textual criticism to the professor of Greek Jeremias Hoelzlin. Heinsius wrote two commentaries: Aristarchus Sacer (1627), a commentary on the Greek poet Nonnus's paraphrase of the Gospel of John, and Sacrae Exercitationes (1639), a commentary on the entire New Testament. Van Miert rightly stresses the importance of the prolegomena to the Aristarchus Sacer (named after the “arch-critic” Aristarchus of Samothrace). Heinsius, as is known, was criticized for his conception of biblical Greek as a Hebraizing Greek dialect (“dialectus Hellenistica”) spoken by Hellenistic Jews (119). As a result of this idea, his work on biblical philology was mainly linguistic. The fact that this fairly orthodox Protestant philologist wrote two such learned commentaries paved the way for other theologians to write their own commentaries. Grotius wrote Annotationes, which he wished to publish after having read Heinsius's works. Part of Annotationes saw the light of day only posthumously. Grotius contributed to biblical philology by his historical-critical method, which was based on historical contextualization, and by the irenic overtones of his commentary. Philology was not his aim, but his method moves toward a moral-philosophical ideal. Both Heinsius and Grotius followed in the footsteps of Scaliger, but both did so in their own ways, as did their opponents.