The Bible in the Sixteenth Century

The Bible in the Sixteenth Century

by David C. Steinmetz

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The essays in this book take as their theses that the intellectual and religious life of the 16th century cannot be understood without attention to the preoccupation of 16th century humanists and theologians with the interpretation of the Bible. Topics explored are Jewish exegesis and problems of Old Testament interpretation and the relationship between the Bible and…  See more details below


The essays in this book take as their theses that the intellectual and religious life of the 16th century cannot be understood without attention to the preoccupation of 16th century humanists and theologians with the interpretation of the Bible. Topics explored are Jewish exegesis and problems of Old Testament interpretation and the relationship between the Bible and social, political, and institutional history.

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Duke University Press Books
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Duke Monographs in Medieval and Renaissance Studies
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The Bible in the Sixteenth Century

By David C. Steinmetz

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8271-3



Social History and Biblical Exegesis: Community, Family, and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-Century Germany

It is not often that social historians are given a formal reason to reflect on the biblical exegesis of the age that they study. Even social historians hardy enough to concede the general importance of ideas are likely to shrink from the daunting task of dealing with a subject so obviously bristling with technical difficulties. But a prejudice was common enough in the not-so-distant past to further guarantee that social history and biblical studies would remain separate. This was the assumption, on both sides, that we/they alone were dealing with timeless truths. Biblical scholars do not need to be reminded of this assumption on their part, but it was no less common among social historians who dealt not with "mere events" and mere personalities but with the "longue durée"—the glacial shifts in social and economic structure, the vast continuities that seemed to signal the reality beneath the apparent flux of everyday experience. In grasping imaginatively after comparative methods and interdisciplinary tools from anthropology, sociology, economics, and the experience of peoples from around the world, social historians often proclaimed, at least implicitly, the timelessness of their subjects—subjects such as the peasant economy, the village as a legal or political unit, the moral economy of the crowd, and the sense of time, or of space, or of work and play among "preindustrial" peoples. These subjects were not, of course, literally timeless. They showed characteristic shifts under the impact of industrialization, secularization, and urbanization, of "modernization" as it was once naively called. Few doubted, however, that the experiences of peoples in similar circumstances were fundamentally comparable because fundamentally similar. This assumption still undergirds a good deal of innovative work in social history today. I do not intend to claim that all such work suffers from a single, serious flaw, but it does seem important to me that social historians, even in France, are returning, haltingly and awkwardly, to narrative and events, if not yet to biography. For events, especially if they are "mere" events, are unique, unrepeated, and time-bound, not easily assimilated or even compared to presumably similar events in other times and places. In this shift biblical scholars may notice a similarity to what has happened in their own field. Whereas it was once common to search out those exegetes of the past with whom one agreed, calling them profound or brilliant or even inspired—men in whom the timeless spirit moved—it now seems easier to examine the peculiarities of biblical understanding in a given age without having to praise or blame, without holding up our own understanding of the truth of Scripture as an eternal standard by which the earnest efforts of earlier generations could be measured. My point is simply that in a certain sense both social historians and biblical scholars have recovered a sense of time and change, of disorientation and incommensurability.

With these remarks as a preface, I should like to engage in an illustration of what I mean drawn from my own work—a sort of retractatio, although not a retraction. I am inspired in part by the recent article by John Bossy entitled "Some Elementary Forms of Durkheim," an article that asks not whether Durkheim was right or how he came by his ideas but how anyone could have said what he said about religion and society. Some years ago in a book on witchcraft I argued, among other things, that witchcraft in the sixteenth century responded to tensions and changes in the family and the community. Although I was aware of how flexible the concept of witchcraft was, I was less careful with "community" and "family." I have come to conclude that, like witchcraft, these concepts must be understood in the context of the sixteenth century rather than from a modern or even comparative perspective. Whatever light these comparisons may ultimately shed, we must begin with the ideas of sixteenth-century contemporaries. But whose ideas exactly? It would be an odd apologist who argued that biblical ideas, even in the sixteenth century, were basic, popular, or common to all. Yet it is not so odd to argue that biblical ideas did represent, for at least the literate Christian, a set of idealistic concepts that enjoyed unique authority. To the extent that ordinary people respected this authority (and it was clearly not universal or absolute), and to just that extent, the social historian must interest himself in the biblical exegesis of the sixteenth century.

Let me begin with a few remarks on community, a subject that has been overwhelmed by sociological theorizing for over a century. It is perhaps not surprising that there is no single word in the Bible for what we often mean by community: the Vulgate does not even contain the medieval word communitas. There are, of course, words for town and village and settlement, but there is no general term for a union of settlers bound together by ties of neighborhood, cooperation, interdependence, friendship, or relatedness. Sixteenth-century Germans did not use Gemeinschaft as a social term, and Luther explicitly rejected the word when it was used by others as a translation of communio. Genossenschaft and Gesellschaft were both specialized abstractions. The closest word in Germany may well have been Gemeinde, but that word raises some interesting problems.

When Luther undertook to translate the Greco-Latin term ecclesia into German, he might have chosen Kirche, just as the King James translators chose church seventy years later. But Kirche seemed to convey too much of the institution dominated by clerics and too little sense of the congregation. He could have chosen to invent a German word Ekklesia, just as Saint Jerome had done in turning the Greek into Latin; but Luther did not believe in neologisms, at least when borrowed from foreign languages. And so he regularly translated ekklesia with Gemeinde, a word that seemed to catch both the secular and the sacred aura of the Greek. Gemeinde had an additional advantage in German: it was already a venerable old word. William Tyndale had tried to accomplish a similar anticlerical feat in his English translation of ekklesia, avoiding the term church in favor of congregation, but he was bitterly and effectively attacked by Thomas More for distorting the sense of Scripture and the shape of the English language. And so congregation dropped out as the general term for the church in England. In Germany, Gemeinde stuck.

Luther's Bible speaks of the man who strays from the way of wisdom: he will remain in the community of the dead. "Ein Mensch der vom wege der klugheit irret, der wird bleiben in der Todten gemeine" (Proverbs 21:16). The Book of Acts describes the assembly of the Jewish synagogue in Antioch. After listening to the preaching of Saint Paul, the assembly (Gemeine; Acts 13:43) broke up and went their separate ways. Similarly, when Paul's teaching caused disruption in Ephesus, the pagans gathered in a disorderly assembly (ecclesia confusa, Gemeine; Acts 19:32) and were told to settle their disputes either in court or in a regular assembly (ecclesia, Gemeine; Acts 19:39–40). In other words, Luther's translation used a word that easily covered secular assemblies. In his Vermanung zum Sacrament (1537) Luther even remarked that the Gemeine were the "people who came together in a group at the market" "die gemeine oder das volck so zu hauff auff den marckt gelauffen war." In an extended sense Gemeinde could mean the civil community in general: "Just so a citizen is insufferable if he wants to be helped, protected, and liberated by the community [Gemeine] without doing anything in return for the community [Gemeine]." In reference to John 18:36 ("My kingdom is not of this world") Luther contended that in these words Christianity was "separated from all civil communities" ("die Christenheit wirt aussgezogen von allen weltlichen gemeynen").

In addition to these secular meanings for Gemeinde, Luther's Bible regularly used the word to describe the people of Israel (Exodus 12:3, 19; Numbers 1:2, etc.), the body of Christians, the church in general ("and on this rock I will build my Gemeine," Matthew 16:18), and the individual churches as well (as, for example, the persecution of the Gemeine in Jerusalem [Acts 8:1], or the letters to the seven churches(Gemeine) of Asia in Revelation, chapters 2-3). Examples are numerous, but the point is surely clear. By avoiding Kirche as often as possible, Luther found a way of interpreting ekklesia with a word that emphasized the fact that the Greek word had originally meant both sacred and profane assemblies and that it was not primarily a building or a clerical organization but a community. This was a remarkably happy translation in many ways, but it did carry with it the danger that regardless of what Luther and other theologians might try to teach explicitly, it was very difficult to distinguish the church from the local community. Whether as an institution or as the body of the faithful, it was natural for German readers and listeners to confuse the two.

Social historians need to know, therefore, that there was no clear word for and no distinct concept of secular community in sixteenth-century Germany. Biblical language almost seemed to require the confusion of church, community, congregation, and assembly. As a practical matter, then, secular historians of Germany need to look into the ecclesiae of village life when they try to say something about changing conceptions of community in centuries past.

I should like to make a similar point with respect to the idea of family. The word Familie was surprisingly late in getting to Germany. It was borrowed in the sixteenth century from French and seems to have been pronounced in French fashion (famille) through the seventeenth century; it became common only in the eighteenth century. Drawn as it was from the Latin familia, it originally meant household, and especially servants. Indeed, the Vulgate regularly used familia for oikos (household), as Reformation scholars know from the difficulty the orthodox had in proving that infant baptism was practiced by the primitive church. When a father was baptized with all his familia it might mean only that his wife and household servants were baptized with him, without implying that infants were included. In any event, my point is somewhat different. When Luther came to translate the words that the Vulgate took as familia, he yielded to no temptation to invent a new German word by adapting familia to German usage. And so he got by with Gesinde, Haus, and Geschlecht, words meaning roughly "servants," "household," and "kindred." Close as these words are to what the Bible may have meant, they are all far from what we mean by family, especially in its warmest emotional settings.

Social historians need to know that sixteenth-century Germans had words for and concepts of kindred, lineage, household, and servants, but no word for the nuclear family, nor one for the extended family, either, unless by that term we mean to include all of one's relatives. When Familie finally did enter the German language with a rush in the eighteenth century, it displaced Haus, which was gradually reduced to merely architectural dimensions. If historians knew something of these changes, we might recognize another indication that households regularly included servants in the early modern period, and we might be even more inclined to agree with theorists who have pointed to the invention of the family as a modern nuclear nest for the nurture of children and a refuge from the world for husbands who have come increasingly to work far from home. Certainly the spread of the word Familie in German tells us something important about the way Germans were coming to conceive of the domestic unit.

As Otto Brunner pointed out long ago, the basis of the early modern economy (oikonomia) remained theoikos (household) right through the seventeenth century. When Germans thought of Wirtschaft, therefore, they had no vision of a national or regional abstraction, but only the experience of the domestic economy at their fingertips. Economy was infused with moral and emotional implications largely because it was primarily a domestic metaphor. Here is the reason why the Bible seemed to provide adequate guidance even in economic matters: the economy had its base in domestic relations that the Old and New Testaments were keenly interested in shaping. What can seem like the naïveté of economic writers in the sixteenth century, then, is not just a matter of their ignorance. In our terms they hardly knew they had an economy, just as they lived out their days without a "family" in the sense described above. Of course, the realists may say that the people of the sixteenth century did have an economy, a community, and a family in our sense of the terms, regardless of whether or not they had words for these things. Objects exist whether we know their names or not; but concepts are not things, and we run a real risk if we treat concepts as things. The nominalists among us, at any event, may gladly sacrifice synthetic power for the historical insight that comes from treating ideas in their own words—literally, in their own terms. Our conceptions depend largely on the words we use for them.

This becomes even clearer when we turn to the subject of witchcraft. Surely no one would argue that all peoples have witches, whether they think so or not. Everything in this case rests on what people thought, and in few other cases is it clearer that biblical exegesis made a real difference. In the Old Testament sorcery was first and foremost among the "abhorrent practices of the nations," a contamination to be rooted out as an act of fidelity to God alone (Deuteronomy 18:9–14). Judaism apparently recognized something dangerously religious in the rituals of magic, necromancy, divination, healing spells, and harmful sorcery, and as such they were regarded as surviving elements of paganism, akin to idolatry and human sacrifice and fully worthy of the severe penalty meted out to them (stoning to death). It is easy to see why some of these practices were regarded as abominations—forecasting the future, for example, seemed to infringe on God's sovereignty—but other offenses are harder to understand. The apodictic command in Exodus 22:18 states: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The

Hebrew term for witch here is mekhashepha, but it is not a common word in the Old Testament. As a result, there are real difficulties in construing its original meaning as well as in translating it economically into other languages. At its root was kshp, a word that occurred in Akkadian, where it always meant black magic (harmful magic), but in Hebrew the distinction between black and any other magic was not so clear, for all magic was an affront to God. In its Hebrew form, as in Exodus 22:18, it referred to women, so that it is clear that at least in this form it was a magic associated more often with women (and perhaps practiced more often by women) than the other forms of witchcraft, idolatry, and sorcery that have masculine endings. Because the nature of the crime remained obscure, however, it is not surprising that Talmudic commentators tried to distinguish actual witchcraft committed by some charm or act of sorcery and resulting in harm (and therefore punishable) from the mere pretense of witchcraft, which despite its illegality was not really punishable. Although the Jews rarely conducted mass witchcraft trials, Simeon ben Shetah of the first century B.C. is reported (in Sanhedrin 6:4) to have ordered some eighty witches executed in Ashkelon on a single day as an emergency measure. During the Middle Ages, Jewish commentary on witchcraft drifted ever further from the ideas of the Pentateuch. Medieval Hebrew literature used the words for magic (kishuf), magician (mekhashef), and witch (mekhashefah) rarely, but when used they meant the wicked in general: both sinners and Gentiles. Mekhashephah itself came to denote "cannibal" or "vampire" as well. This is of interest because the same medieval process may be observed independently among Christian commentators on this verse.


Excerpted from The Bible in the Sixteenth Century by David C. Steinmetz. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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David Steinmetz is Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of the History of Christianity at Duke University Divinity School.

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