Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The political Bible in early modern England 

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben

Kevin Killeen, The political Bible in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), ISBN: 1107107970, xii+310 pp., £75.00.

[1] Over the last ten years, a sequence of articles by Kevin Killeen has offered some of the most stimulating re-readings of the reception of the Bible in early modern literary and political writing. In this volume, Killeen brings together the conclusions of these arguments with new texts and contexts in what will surely come to be recognised as one of the most important literary and historical discussions of the cultures of the early modern Bible.

[2] The religious turn in early modern studies is reflected in a range of recent studies of authors, genres and major texts. Scholarly interest in the political potential of Bible reading in early modern England is, of course, long-standing, with Christopher Hill’s The English Bible and the seventeenth-century revolution (1992) being one of the most widely used works in this field. But this interest has been given an important new stimulus in recent years, as scholars working on the subject have drawn upon new methodologies, including the history of the book, and have addressed new research questions, including questions of gender and orientalist scholarship, while engaging with new historiographical insights, especially in terms of the revisionism that has challenged the older and often Marxist frames of historical interpretation. Some of these issues were brought to the fore in Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish sources and the transformation of European political thought (2010), although that work tended to overlook some of the less appealing or less modern uses to which early modern exegesis was put. Literary critics are famously slow to attend to new developments in historical writing, but the new religious turn in early modern studies has brought together literary critics and historians in new ways and to advance new kinds of debate. The cross-disciplinary potential of this engagement was evident in The Oxford handbook of the Bible in early modern England, c 1530-1700 (2015), which Killeen co-edited with Helen Smith and Rachel Willie, and which represented a major new statement of biblical influences in writing from the period, as well as in Victoria Brownlee’s Biblical readings and literary writings in early modern England, 1558-1625 (2018), which has become another important contribution to the debate. But Killeen’s new book moves beyond these other contributions by examining how Old Testament narratives and motifs impacted upon constructions of politics in a period of national and international crisis. Everyone knows that the Bible mattered in early modern England, and that in contexts far removed from the liturgical or theological. But few historians or literary scholars have the equipment to identify allusions beyond the best-known biblical stories, or have the patience to chase down the exegetical traditions through which these familiar stories may become de-familiarised in the process of early modern interpretation. Killeen does both, and more, as he documents how important were Old Testament narratives in framing and challenging assumptions of political power.

[3] Wisely, Killeen’s work limits its points of reference to discussions of biblical kings in seventeenth-century publications. He argues that readings of these kings and their reigns “constitute a major lexicon of early modern political thought,” and that references to these kings were specific and particular, with each monarch representing distinct qualities with which early modern exemplars could be contrasted or compared. In Killeen’s account, the high degree of biblical literacy that was sustained among early modern commentators allowed for an allusive range that could balance an impressive range of connotative power. But Killeen makes this argument while recognising that exegetical traditions were themselves changing through this period, and that the parties that struggled to control the interpretation of Scripture did so by undermining the religious-political claims of their rivals. And so Killeen argues against assumptions in some earlier writing that biblical allusion allowed for a language of code and evasion, as if only one side in the seventeenth-century culture war could recognise an Old Testament reference and understand its suggestive power. If the Bible was ubiquitous, its contents were well-known, and Killeen tracks down the significance of that knowledge in discussions of the character and effect of early modern hermeneutics, while examining among other discourses the reception of biblical civil wars, responses to tyranny, and imaginings of regicide.

[4] The political Bible in early modern England is therefore a major statement on the development of a distinctive rhetoric in political discussion in early modern England. It makes definitive judgements on the power of biblical images while embarking on some important new lines of enquiry related to the relationship of these images to questions of gender. Killeen’s new book is a determined, insightful and very welcome contribution to a discussion that will be pertinent to scholars across disciplines of the northern Renaissance.

Queen’s University Belfast, January 2019

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