Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 1

I’m entering into a conversation of sorts with a companion with whom I share a number of interests and convictions, John Henry Blunt (1823-1884). A priest of the Church of England and a scholar of Scripture, theology, and the medieval Church, Blunt was a voluminous author passionate about communicating his knowledge to a popular audience. As such, Blunt represents a serious scholar from the latter half of the nineteenth century interested in conveying to “the churchman” of his day what should be thought, known, and believed about a wide variety of topics. Theologically, he was of the High Church party and saw its great work as “preserving the substantial catholicity of the the Church of England…and also that of renewing its life and vigour.” (Dictionary of Heresies, p. 200).

The text I’m interested in at the moment is A Key to the Knowledge and Use of the Holy Bible published by Rivingtons in 1868. It’s laid out in a set of nine chapters along with an appendix and an index:

Blunt’s Table of Contents

To move through it logically, I’ll begin with the first chapter…

Blunt’s initial chapter, “Literary History of the Holy Bible” is an investigation of the authorship of the biblical books and how they passed through a succession of translations to the reading public of his day. He breaks this discussion into 5 major topics:

  1. Universal Interest in the Bible (I.e., why is it that modern people care about an old book)
  2. General Structure of the Bible
  3. Gradual Growth of the Holy Bible
  4. Ancient Copies [and translations] of the Holy Bible
  5. The English Bible

On the whole, I find his writing clear and informed. It is the strongest in his discussions of the historical material in sections 4 and 5. He does, to my mind, exaggerate a bit the breadth of the circulation of the sections of the Scriptures in Old English, but does appropriately convey the presence of the vernacular Scriptures during the medieval period. He and I part ways in two major places: first, in his initial discussions of the intent and worth of the Scriptures; second, in the authorship and dating of the various biblical books.

In Section 1, Blunt identifies three principal reasons why the Bible deserves to be the subject of universal interest:

[1.] The Bible has always been received as the original source of all our knowledge respecting God’s dealings with mankind in respect to spiritual things. [2.] It contains the only reliable account of man’s future beyond this life. [3.] It offers itself as a guide to the attainment of happiness for ever in the world to come.

(Blunt, 2-3)

I have few quibbles with the first point and quite like the emphasis on reception–I think that’s key in a way that he doesn’t explore. I have more issues with his points 2 and 3. I am probably more of a Christian humanist than Blunt, and think his focus on the future life after death overly narrow. Surely the Christian message, the biblical message, is about the relationships between God and humanity that start on this side of death–the virtues of Christ and the life of salvation are birthed in the sacraments and not at our graves. If I were to rewrite point 3 it would simply state: “…it offers itself as a guide to the attainment of happiness in the presence of God…” a formulation that encompasses both the present and what is to come.

In terms of authorship and dating, Blunt follows a strictly traditional scheme based in patristic and medieval writings that flatly attribute the various books of the Bible with the authors in their titles as displayed in a chronological table:

Beginning of the Chronological Table (Blunt, 5)

On the formation of the Old Testament itself, he explains that:

…before the captivity, Hezekiah caused other sacred writings [apart from the Pentateuch] to be collected together, though not to be added to the “Law;” and after the [Babylonian] Captivity, Ezra and Nehemiah, under Divine direction, collected all those which are now reckoned by the Church of England among the number of the Canonical books of the Old Testament, re-copied them uniformly in the Chaldaic character (that now known as Hebrew), and arranged them in three divisions…

Blunt, 8

Thus, while he admits the framework of an editorial process, he sees it operative only at the level of collecting whole books

At this point in biblical scholarship, the Synoptic Problem—the project of untangling the literary relationships between Matthew, Mark, and Luke—had been underway since the turn of the century in German circles, and questions regarding the unity of the Pentateuch were active but not as developed. It’s worth noting that five years before the publication of Blunt’s book, The first missionary bishop of Natal, John Colenso, had been censured by his brother bishops because—in his research around translating the Bible into Zulu—he had questioned the historical accuracy and literary unity of the Pentateuch and Joshua. Insisting that his fellow bishops had no jurisdiction over him, Colenso continued in his work and was, in large measure, the occasion of the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.

It’s equally notable that the High Church party was vocally opposed to Colenso and his biblical thought.

[At some point I really should dig deeper into Colenso’s own writings; I know of them chiefly through later summaries.]

Blunt’s final paragraph of this chapter conveys his final word on all matters canonical, textual, and linguistic:

The conclusion, then, for those who are not very conversant indeed with the learned languages, is this:– that the Authorized [i.e. King James] Version of the Holy Bible is a just and faithful representative of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek Apocrypha, and the Greek New Testament; and that in using it for his instruction or his devotion, the plain man may use it with a firm confidence that he is using that which will give him substantially true impressions of what has come down to us under the name of Holy Scripture.

Blunt, 29.

The goal here is to give confidence to the ordinary person that the text they are hearing in church and reading at home is a faithful witness of the original. The motive is sound; the content, generally so, given the amount of hedging in “substantially true impressions.”

I can’t agree with the paragraph before this one where Blunt avers that “[the KJV] has been severely criticized in past (and especially in recent) years; but really learned theologians are agreed that whatever faults may exist in our English Bible, it is so nearly perfect, that it is almost hopeless to try and improve it; while all attempts at improving it have confirmed this verdict.” (Blunt, 29). Yes, the sound and meter of it have never been matched in subsequent English translations. The quality of its base texts and the limited knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern philology possessed by its translators, however, remain a whole other story.

Update: Following up on a hunch, I found some very interesting material from Blunt on Colenso and contemporary German scholarship. I’ll post on that next before continuing on…

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