The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution
The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford's Flies: Miracles and the Pulp Press During the English Revolution
The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, and, except to believers in plenary inspiration, it is a rather random, miscellaneous, and fortuitous compilation. It is possible to regard it as in some sense a unity, but that unity has been imposed by history, by the fact that its parts have coexisted and been interpreted together for so long. If the early Christian bishop Marcion had had his way in the second century there would not be an Old Testament in Christian Bibles. But for good or ill the Old Testament has been, formidably and formatively, in the Bible. And the constituent books are not quite the same books as they would have been if each had survived in isolation.
Of course this is to say a great deal less than that, bound together, they offer the one essential reference book, a complete guide to conduct, private and public, as well as to salvation. Yet the notion that they did so—the Old Testament no less than the New—was generally assumed by the communities that accepted Reform in the sixteenth century, and it prevailed until late in the next.
The Book of Books;
On which who looks,
As he should do aright, shall never need
Wish for a better light
To guide him in the night….
So the poet Christopher Harvey, in one of the many well-chosen epigraphs in Christopher Hill’s book on ways the Bible was used during the English revolution. On the other hand, as Luther remarked, “the Gospel cannot be preached without offence and tumult.”
Here the Gospel means the whole Bible, and conduct derived from its teaching might indeed be offensive and tumultuous. Some Old Testament texts recommend extreme violence against opponents, people who in some way violate the norms of one’s group, so the habit of doing exactly what it recommends can have drastic consequences. All who knew the text thoroughly—and that was a large number, including, for example, Cromwell and his troopers—could easily hold that massacre, assassination, and other horrors, such as the persecution of witches, were mandatory.
According to Deuteronomy 7:1–6, those who were led by the Lord into other people’s lands should possess them, and destroy the previous owners without compassion: this, Christopher Hill points out, was a colonialist’s license to steal and exterminate. Saint Paul said women should stay quiet and accept subjection, and that was that. If simple literal instruction was lacking there was always the resource of allegorical interpretation, which made biblical events and examples directly relevant to one’s own moment. Babylonish and Egyptian captivities were regularly invoked. Charles I was Ahab, his Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, Jezebel. The unfortunate royal habit of marrying alien and Catholic princesses was condemned in advance by several biblical instances.
The king was a principal target for biblical slings and arrows. A House of Commons preacher urged members to follow the orders of Jesus and Ezekiel: “those mine enemies…bring hither and slay them before me,” and “slay utterly,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.