The Authority of the Book

Symposia, The Politics of Sacred Texts

…any consideration of the question of the political implications of naming certain scriptures ‘sacred’ will be severely limited if it is not attentive to sacred scriptures qua material (or digital) books.

In an age of mass production and digital replication, we are frequently forgetful of the materiality and particularity of entities. To those accustomed to a world of fungible commodities, any physical instantiation of a commodity is largely interchangeable with any other. There is an implicit metaphysics operative here, whereby an object’s existence qua commodity is one in which all its physical and sensory qualities are rendered entirely accidental, falling away from our view. The commodity itself is an abstract and immaterial thing.

 

Such a characteristically modern phenomenological relationship with the world—a relationship with the world shaped by the radical fungibility established by money, mass production, and digital replication—can affect our understandings of sacred texts too. For us, a text can function like the commodity, existing behind the realm of the particular as an entirely immaterial entity, manifested in the realm of the particular in fungible material and digital form. People accustomed to thinking of sacred scriptures as immaterial ‘texts’ can be unmindful or instinctively dismissive of the significance of sacred scriptures’ existence as material ‘books’. Yet any consideration of the question of the political implications of naming certain scriptures ‘sacred’ will be severely limited if it is not attentive to sacred scriptures qua material (or digital) books.

 

 

Few images are more powerfully illustrative of the importance of the sacred text as material book as the propagandistic title page of Henry VIII’s 1539 Great Bible, reproduced above. The page presents an entire vision of authority and royal sovereignty as it was conceived in Tudor England. Squeezed in at the top centre, above the enthroned Henry, who dominates the page, Christ, speaking from the glories of heaven, addresses Henry, who is depicted kneeling in the upper right-hand corner. Christ declares that he has found in Henry a man after his own heart, to do his will (an allusion to Paul’s description of King David in Acts 13:22). Henry, borrowing the words of King David in Psalm 119:105, responds that Christ’s word is like a lantern to his feet.

 

Secure in his divine right, in the most prominent part of the title page’s image, Henry sits in his throne, declaring that he has made a decree that all should serve God. The authority of the sacred scriptures, committed to and established by Henry’s own authority, is then passed on by him to others:

 

Henry VIII’s balanced actions at the right and left sides of the border present him as a figure who unifies the role of Moses, one who imparts law to judges, and St Paul, an authority who offers counsel to an apostle on the conduct of Christian missions to the Gentiles. In the second register of the border, Cranmer is empowered to ‘command and teach’ religious doctrine (1 Tim. 4:11), casting him in the role of a new Timothy who, as the favoured colleague of Pauline Henry, is entrusted with converting the English to an evangelical religious programme. Cromwell in turn receives a Mosaic charge to ‘judge righteously’ and to ‘hear the small and the great alike’ (Deut. 1:16-17).

John N. King, “The royal image, 1535-1603” in Tudor Political Culture. Edited by Dale Hoak (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 111

 

From Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, Bibles are then handed to judges and clerics, with instructions that they seek peace and depart from evil and tend the flock of God respectively. Finally, at the bottom of the page, on the left a cleric addresses people, charging them to pray for kings and those in authority, while on the right men languish in a gaol. From the general population at the bottom of the page comes the united refrains of ‘vivat rex’ and ‘God save the kynge’ (English appears here for the first time alongside the Latin).

 

The title page of Henry’s Great Bible served both to situate the scriptures it contained within a framework of royal sovereignty and to present a vision of scriptural authority that would undergird and strengthen Henry’s rule. The foregrounding and symbolic representation of the figure of Henry served to establish a direct connection between his authority and the authority of the sacred scriptures and of Christ.

 

The use of the Bible by both clerics and judges was intended to reinforce Henry’s own authority; the fruit of the transmission of the scriptures is primarily praise of and submission to King Henry, rather than the worship of Christ. Henry is presented as the intermediary of Christ’s authority, his dominating figure literally pushing Christ towards the margin. As the one divinely entrusted with the production and distribution of the authoritative Scriptures, Henry was able to assume a quasi-papal intermediating role in his people’s religion that secured his kingdom against the serious threat of Rome’s authority.

 

The publication and dissemination of Henry VIII’s Great Bible was a considered political move. As a physical book, especially in an era before true mass production, a Bible both symbolized and conveyed divine authority. By authorizing and controlling the production, distribution, ownership, and use of such books, the Bible’s authority could be tethered to Henry’s own. It was also an attempt to address the threat posed by Bibles published apart from royal or ecclesial authorization, Bibles that might embolden seditious elements of society. Where religion held considerable authority, yet religious ignorance was widespread and socially volatile, a royally-authorized Bible was a shrewd attempt to manage and mitigate such forces.

 

This vision of the king’s authority being closely connected to the production, distribution, and interpretation of the sacred book is not without biblical precedent. In Deuteronomy 17:18-20, the king of Israel is instructed to produce his own copy of the Law from the copy placed before the priests (cf. Deuteronomy 31:24-26). This was a symbolic authorization of the king, something that both symbolized his especial authority and the fact that he was answerable to God’s own authority.

 

The materiality of sacred texts hasn’t ceased to be a matter of importance in our world. One of the effects of the mass production and digital replication of such texts has been the sapping of the public and political authority of sacred scriptures. The historic intermediation or mediation of scriptural authority has been closely connected to the restricted production, dissemination, ownership, or use of sacred texts.

 

Long before the books of the Bible were bound in a single volume, the unity of Christian’s sacred texts was discovered in the lectionary and life of the Church. Sacred texts were like genealogical entities, copied and transmitted down both generations of manuscripts and generations of churches’ lives. Beautiful and laboriously produced biblical manuscripts were icons of the connection between the authority of Christ and the faithful reception and transmission of that authority by ordered communities of his people, a reception and transmission that was fundamental to their existence. The hearing and interpretation of the Bible also occurred in the Church.

 

When sacred texts are published by secular publishers and primarily read in private by individual owners, who interpret them for themselves, the politics of texts change considerably. This change is one primarily brought about by technology, yet it can have far-reaching theological and political implications.

 

The more that the modern Bible has been conformed to the logic of the immaterial commodity, the more the functioning of its authority has tended to follow the logic of the market. Where Henry VIII once sat enthroned as the intermediator of divine authority on the title page of his Great Bible, the private consumer of the Bible now sits, biblical authority now serving to underwrite the consumer’s religious self-expression. Whereas Henry’s sovereignty was effective enough to produce a kingdom submitted to Scripture—at least in principle—a multitude of private intermediators of scriptural authority has had no such success, producing instead a frequently misleading sense of Scripture’s own inclarity and the repeated frustration of its public authority.

Symposium Essays

John Howell

Nahodishgish, or The Midnight Monument

Perhaps most crucially, one needs to know by whose authority any particular “text” is so named.

Vanessa Zoltan

Silence in Jane Eyre

Like all sacred texts, Jane Eyre does not simply offer clear, direct answers to the questions I ask of it. It requires, rather, the work of exegesis.

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