The father of a friend of mine once characterised the US-American approach to travel in the following manner: "Do Europe in three days: Pisa, Florence and the Bingen Mauseturm." Be that as it may: this book by Lori Anne Ferrell, a professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University, certainly "does" a lot in 3 pages (including the index): "The Bible and the people", "The eye of the beholder: the English Bible, c.1066-1200", "On the road and in the street: the English Bible, c.1200-1500", "The politics of translation: the Bible in English, c.1500-1700", "Missions and markets: the Bible in America, c.1600-1800", "On not understanding the Bible", "Extra-illustrating (sic) the Bible", "Traveling companion: the Bible in the nineteenth century" and, last but not least, "Old wine in new wineskins: the Bible in the twentieth century".
An interesting attempt, and certainly an ambitious one. Do you wonder, though, about the scarlet thread running through all of this? I do, too. It is hard to pin down what the book is really intended to address: it is not so much about the Bible and the people, in the sense of examining the Bible as a force in social and political history, but rather about the cultural history of the Bible and its materiality (to use a trendy term) in the anglophone West through the ages.
The book's main body starts with high medieval Latin manuscripts and ends with an account of a hotchpotch of weird and wonderful modern and postmodern English (and American) translations of the Good Book: The Woman's Bible, "the teen-magazine format Bible Revolve and Refuel", the ExtremeTeen Bible, and other doubtless important publications. I am sure that the editors of the Catholic Study Bible will be proud that the fruits of their labours, too, are mentioned in the final chapter. Ferrell's book certainly introduces us to some of the more unusual aspects and material results of the dissemination of the Bible, especially of the US-American variety. But does that warrant the exuberant advance praise lavished on the book by, among others, an Oxford colleague who enthuses about "this deeply-felt, engagingly accessible and enjoyable book"?
An understandable reaction to the scope of this book would be to deem it impossible for one person to cover what the table of contents promises to cover. And indeed, although I am all in favour of an interdisciplinary approach to the history of the Bible, my initial reluctance is confirmed not just by the superficiality to which the author condemns herself by choosing to deal with an impossibly huge topic in less than 300 pages, but also by some remarkable factual errors.
Jerome produced his Vulgate by translating the Old Testament afresh from the Hebrew texts available to him (while also adducing some of the older versions to assist his decision-making, at a time when no Latin translation of the Hebrew original existed). It is therefore surprising to read that "for his base texts Jerome used existing Latin translations of the Hebrew Bible (sic) and a Greek manuscript of the New Testament. In other words, this consummate scholar translated the most lasting and influential Bible in Christian history out of already corrupted versions of its books". Is this one of the "historical gems" referred to by another advance praiser, commenting on Ferrell's "fascinating elucidation of the world's most read book"?
Here we have another indication of what is wrong with The Bible and the People: although, in principle, it is to be welcomed with regard to its topic and scope, its author signally fails to fulfil her ambition.
The Bible and the People
By Lori Anne Ferrell
Yale University Press, 320pp, £19.99
Published 7 April 2009