Review of John Jarick, ed., Sacred Conjectures
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

John Jarick, ed., Sacred Conjectures: The Context and Legacy of Robert Lowth and Jean Atruc (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 457; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2007).  Pp. xvii + 260.  Cloth, US$140.00.  ISBN 978-0-567-02932-4.


In April 2003, Oxford University hosted a conference to mark the 250th anniversary of the publication of two seminal works in biblical studies: Robert Lowth’s On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews and Jean Astuc’s Conjectures on Genesis, both published in 1753. The conference consisted of thirteen papers presented by scholars from several countries and disciplines. Twelve of those papers are published in the present volume (the missing paper is “Lowth and Politeness” by Alun David).

The essays are divided into two unequal parts: Part A consists of seven articles on Lowth and Part B of five essays on Astruc. John Jarick wrote the preface and the endmatter includes indices of ancient sources and modern authors.

Part A begins with “Biblical Scholarship at Oxford in the Mid-Eighteenth Century: Local Contexts for Robert Lowth’s De sacra poesi Hebreaorum” (pp. 3-24) by Cambridge historian Scott Mandelbrote. The work is difficult to read because it involves considerable historical detail and a large cast of characters involved in Church politics at Oxford. Mandelbrotte outlines Lowth’s alignment with those scholars opposed to the followers of John Hutchinson (1647-1737) and their triumph over their opponents. These political and related theological developments paved the way for Lowth’s success in his academic and clerical careers.

In “Original Poetry: Robert Lowth and Eighteenth-Century Poetics,” (pp. 25-47) Anna Cullhed draws attention to Lowth’s work as a contribution to poetics rather than biblical studies. She notes that Lowth was Professor of Poetry, not Hebrew, and that he lectures on Hebrew poetry only, not on the prose passages of Scripture. She shows how Lowth related Hebrew poetry to the classical canon. For Lowth, Hebrew poetry was “‘original’ in terms of age, and in the sense that it performs the ‘original’ function of poetry in a religious context” (p. 31).  Cullhead convincingly explains why Lowth influenced biblical studies more than poetics.   

Stephen Prickett argues that Lowth’s work is both traditional and transitional in “Robert Lowth and the Idea of Biblical Tradition” (pp. 48-61). Prickett looks especially at Lowth’s Isaiah: A New Translation (1778). Although Lowth seems “modern” in his critical and historical scholarship, he remains committed to traditional Christian ideas about biblical inspiration and allegorical and typological interpretations. Prickett draws on the OED in an attempt to show that the idea of a singular biblical or apostolic tradition shifted toward the pluralistic idea of multiple biblical traditions treasured by various communities. The argument has merit, but needs further investigation.

Christoph Bultmann explores the intriguing question of why Lowth chose to lecture on Hebrew poetry rather than classical poetry in “After Horace: Sacred Poetry at the Center of the Hebrew Bible” (pp. 62-82). As Bultmann shows in detail, Lowth might have been expected to speak about Horace, “who could be called the patron saint of English literary culture in the eighteenth century” (p. 63). Also, poetry has long been an uncomfortable element in Scripture for orthodox believers. However, improved texts of Hebrew were becoming available and discussion of natural religion often invoked Job and various psalms. Bultmann asks an interesting question and provides a partial answer.

John Rogerson seeks to remind scholars of a forgotten pioneer in biblical scholarship in his essay “Charles-François Houbigant: His Background, Work and Importance for Lowth” (pp. 83-92). The French Catholic Houbigant completed the publication of a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible with notes in 1753, but fell into obscurity in part because of his unusual ideas about the unreliability of Masoretic pointing and his peculiar alternative. Houbigant introduced many emendations. Although some were accepted and others rightly discarded, Rogerson provides several examples of places where Houbigant suggested emendations that deserve further consideration from modern exegetes (Gen 9:5; Isa 7:17; 25:7; 28:4). Lowth used Houbigant’s edition and accepted several of his emendations. Rogerson situates Lowth in his context with Houbigant and successfully argues that Houbigant’s work, at least in the passages discussed, should be taken more seriously by modern scholars.

Within Lowth’s book on poetry, Markus Witte looks specifically at Lowth’s treatment of Job in “Die literarische Gattung des Buches Hiob: Robert Lowth und seine Erben” (pp. 93-123).  He focuses particularly on discussions of the form of the book (especially as drama) and its implications for interpretation from Lowth to the present, including the famous problem of the relation between the prose frame of the poetic dialogue. Although the essay focuses on Lowth and his legacy, it also provides thoughtful consideration of how tradition-historical questions influence the interpretation of the book. 

One of the gems of the collection is Wilfred G. E. Watson’s “The Study of Hebrew Poetry Past–Present–Future” (pp. 124-54). Since other essays in the collection focus on Lowth, Watson examines scholarship on Hebrew poetry since Lowth, especially the latter part of the twentieth century. This article provides an excellent survey of recent and current work. Watson’s survey combines breadth and depth. His summaries are accurate, balanced, and fair-minded. Anyone working on Hebrew poetry today will want to consult this review of the field.

In “Jean Astruc: Physician as Biblical Scholar” (pp. 157-73) Rudolf Smend reviews Astruc’s life and medical work. Astruc was known as a great teacher of medicine for his clear and elegant presentations with attention to proper order and method. Smend next shows how Astruc brought these qualities to his work on Genesis and highlights the apologetic aim of the work (to defend Mosaic authorship of the Pentatuech).

Pierre Gibert looks at the predecessors of Astruc in “De l’intuition à l’évidence: la multiplicité documentaire dans la Genèse chez H. B. Witter et Jean Astruc” (pp. 174-89). Gibert notes the several scholars prior to Astruc who suggested that the Pentateuch was a composite work. Witte represents for Gibert “l’intuition” for suggesting two originally separate creation accounts in Genesis in 1711. Astruc’s work then represents “l’évidence” by arguing for multiple sources in a systematic way.  

In “Jean Astruc and Source Criticism in the Book of Genesis” (pp. 190-203), Jan Christian Getz places Astruc in discussion with Benno Jacob (1862-1945). Jacob opposed source criticism, although he did not defend Mosaic authorship. Jacob’s work has undergone a renaissance among German scholars critical of diachronic analysis. Getz outlines the work of Astruc and Jacob and evaluates their positions. His article is a brief and clear defense of source-critical methods pioneered by Astruc. However, he notes that scholars no longer devalue the redactors in favor of the sources, but have drawn on synchronic analysis to see how redactors practiced inner-biblical exegesis. He thereby shows how diachronic and synchronic approaches complement on another.  

In “The Memoires of Moses and the Genesis of Method in Biblical Criticism: Astruc’s contribution” (pp.204-219) Aulikki Nahkola highlights the methodology of Astruc’s biblical work. Although others had previously noted inconsistencies in Genesis, Astruc identified why they were there and showed a method for distinguishing sources. Although Astruc intended his work as a defense of Mosaic authorship, his deployment of a secular method gave rise to the higher criticism which made the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch a “pre-critical” position.

Otto Kaiser explores Astruc’s influence in “An Heir of Astruc in a Remote German University: Hermann Hupfeld and the ‘New Documentary Hypothesis’” (pp.220-48). Hupfeld has been regarded as a dead end in source critical work because he argued that the sequence of documents was PEJ rather than JEP. Kaiser tells the biography of Hupfeld who was the first at the Philipps-University at Marburg to use the method pioneered by Astruc and developed by Eichorn. He uses Hupfeld’s life and work to illustrate how the adjustment to reading the Bible critically was not easy for some pioneers of modern methods. Hupfeld was a pietist who felt the tension between faith and reason and eventually modified his ideas about biblical inspiration to read Scripture historically and critically.

David A. Bosworth
Barry University