The Old Testament as an allegory of Christ
The popular Bible
Bible stories retold and expanded upon in sermons, essays, devotional works, plays, songs, and poetry were the body and soul of medieval literature. There were biblical comedies, biblical romances, and biblical action-adventure stories whose swashbuckling heroes ranged far beyond the borders of scripture (Murdoch, 2003). Ordinary Christians used the term ‘Bible’ to refer to this enormous literature; the Bible European Christians knew was a mosaic of stories about Jesus, Mary, miracles, heroes, and saints. The most widely reproduced compendium was the Golden Legend, a combination of Bible paraphrase and lives of the saints filled not only with miracles, but also with those stories that Christians found especially interesting: from Adam and Eve to St. George slaying the dragon. Between 1470 and 1500 there were just 128 editions of the Bible, but at least 156, and perhaps as many as 173, of the Golden Legend alone, and it was merely the most popular of the many Bible substitutes among the incunabula (Seybolt, 1946, pp. 339–342).
One window into the way that pre-Reformation Europeans understood the Bible is through the pages of the Biblia Pauperum. Cheaply printed from woodblocks long before Guttenberg, this picture book continued to top bestseller lists in the decades after the introduction of moveable type because it encapsulated the Christian understandings shared by everyone from Pope to plowboy (Labriola & Smeltz, 1990, p. viii). A page of the Biblia Pauperum is a triptych. In the middle is an illustration of a scene of key importance, usually from the Gospels. On its left and right are two more illustrations, usually scenes from the Old Testament understood as prefiguring the central scene. Along the top and bottom are small images of saints.
At the center of one page in a Biblia Pauperum from 1470 is an illustration of the Last Supper. In the illustration on the right, manna falls from heaven, an allegory of the wafers of Holy Communion. Abraham appears on the left, dressed as a medieval knight being offered the Eucharist by a mitred bishop holding a communion chalice and wafer (Labriola & Smeltz, 1990, p. 116). The bishop in the picture is Melchizedek from the Abraham story (Genesis 14:18–19). Christian priesthood descends from Melchizedek through Jesus to supersede the Jewish priesthood of the Temple (Hebrews 7). In the Latin Eucharist, Melchizedek serves Holy Communion to Abraham. The pre-Reformation world read the characters and incidents of the Old Testament as allegories of Christ, but the social structure was imagined as a mirror of medieval life; in the fifteenth-century Middle English Metrical Paraphrase, Joshua is a ‘nobyll duke,’ Aaron an ordained ‘byschop,’ and under him are ‘prestes and dekyns in their degree’ (Livingston, 2011 [~1450]). But there are no landed aristocrats in the Hebrew Bible, no liege lords, no serfs, and, unlike the medieval Church, the biblical Temple did not own farmland.
Battle was about to be joined between a Church that explained the Bible to believers, and Reformers who urged them to read it. The impact of the new, vernacular Bibles was magnified because they were read not only by scholars, but also by merchants, soldiers, farmers, aldermen, and princes. For almost all of its new, sixteenth-century readers the Bible was accepted as the word of God. They spoke of it when they sat in their houses and when they walked by the way, when they lay down and when they rose up, and they inscribed it upon their hearts.
In his introduction to the first Bible printed in English, Tyndale advised Christians to ignore priests who warn that reading scripture ‘without an allegory’ will no more profit their souls than reading ‘a tale of Robin Hood.’ Tyndale told Christians to ‘go to and read the stories of the Bible …’ (Daniell, 1992, p. 8,11).
The rediscovery of the Bible
The rediscovery of the Bible began with Christian humanists of the Renaissance, but the Reformation changed the nature of the Bible in three key ways: (1) it elevated Bible reading to the center of lived Christian experience, giving both clergy and layfolk a radically new mandate to encounter the full text of both Testaments; (2) it qualified the practice of filtering the Old Testament through Christological allegories, enabling Christians to seek the ‘plain meaning’ even as the radical, new practice of publically reading the full text aloud and in sequence from the pulpits of parish churches made the biblical model of nationhood familiar even to the illiterate; and (3) the new translations were introduced to a population that Luther rendered desperately eager to read them.
Luther gave Christians a compelling reason to read the Bible, asserting that it could guide every human endeavour. ‘There is no book on earth written more lucidly than the Holy Scripture. Compared with all other books, it is like the sun compared with artificial light.’ Luther told Christians that they did not need a paraphrase or gloss to understand what the Bible said, ‘It is itself, in itself, its own most certain, least difficult, most obvious interpreter of all things, testing, judging and illuminating all …’ (Haile, 1976).
Luther himself continued to understand the Old Testament as Christological narrative:
Christians inspired by the Reformation to read or hear the Bible found a ‘developed model’ (Hastings, 1997, p. 18) of nationhood, beginning with an expansive description of a world arranged into ‘kindreds, tongues, lands, and nations’ [Tyndale  Genesis 10:20 (Daniell, 1992)]. This association of nations with kin, language, and territory is part of a biblical discourse that reflects many of the desiderata identified by later scholars as characteristic of nations. The biblical world is imagined as composed of rightfully sovereign and equal nations. God Put the borders of the nations (Tyndale Deuteronomy 32:8), and generally played an active role in human history, allotting territories to specific peoples, giving, for example, ‘mount Seir unto Esau to possess,’ and ‘Ar unto the children of Loth to possess’ [Tyndale  Deuteronomy 2:5, 9 (Daniell, 1992)].
Within this world of nations, the Bible tells the particular story of the children of Israel, presented as a family that traces its ancestry to Abraham. The biblical Israel is not, however, a tribe; it is a community that unites contending tribes into covenants of mutual commitment and that has both the capacity to absorb a ‘mixed multitude’ of non-kin and to protect the rights of resident aliens (Exodus 12:38). It also possesses egalitarian aspects not usually associated with pre-modern political communities but evocative of modern civic nationalism: there is no hereditary aristocracy, the priesthood and temple own no land, the land is divided among smallholders, and elaborate provision is made for the support of the poor (Berman, 2008). Several aspects of the Bible appear to prefigure modern nationalism, including rituals in which every farmer recites the national history when carrying his first fruits to the national temple, and the mandate to study Israel’s history and law and teach them to one’s children (Deuteronomy 26:1–11; 11:19). Furthermore, the right of the people of Israel to assemble as a body – or to be represented by elders – with authority to take actions including entering a covenant, renewing a covenant, instituting a monarchy against the advice of God (1 Samuel 8), and placing Josiah on the throne (2 Kings 21:24) deploy fundamental assumptions of nationalism, a political doctrine which may be defined as the idea that ‘There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character,’ and that because it has a right to preserve its ‘interests and values,’ this nation has a right to attain ‘political sovereignty’ (Breuilly, 1993/1982, p. 2).
The Hebrew Bible uses the words ‘am’ and ‘goy’ with the overlapping meanings that English gives to ‘people’ and ‘nation.’ Jerome usually translated both ‘am’ and ‘goy’ as ‘gens,’ but sometimes as ‘natio’ or ‘populo’ (Psalm 106/7:4; Isaiah 1:4). For the Greek ‘ethnos’ Jerome used natio. Where Jerome wrote, ‘cognationes et linguas et regiones in gentibus’ (Genesis 10:31), Tyndale wrote, ‘kindreds, languages, countries and nations.’ Working from Jerome’s Vulgate, the Wycliffe translators (1380s) rendered gentibus variously as folks or nations. Luther, working from the Hebrew, wrote, ‘eschlechtern, Sprachen, Ländern und Leuten.’ The Dutch used ‘volken,’ the Swedes and Danes, ‘folk.’ Older English options, ‘genge’ (Latin gens) and ‘lēode’ (German leuten), had fallen from use by Tyndale’s day, and yet, the translation choices among leuten, volken, volk, folk, people or nation are of less importance than the idea of cultural and political unity that these words represent in the Bible. I argue that it was this new story of the people of Israel as a political nation – the biblical model of nationhood – that brought mass nationalism to Europe.
Brueilly and others argue that although religious identity can be mobilized to support a political goal, it is not sufficiently structural and programmatic in nature to generate nationalism that ‘appeals to people in terms of their rights and their own identities rather than in terms of their shared beliefs’ (Breuilly, 1993/1982, p. 79–80). This idea, widely held among students of nationalism, injects the idea of religion as separable from the political, social, and intellectual life of a community into a time before ‘religion’ had been invented as a conceptual category (Nongbri, 2013). Demanding that post-Enlightenment concepts of the political and the religious be separated does more to obscure than to elucidate the motivations of sixteenth-century actors who would have been not only puzzled, but also appalled by the idea that what we call religion either could or ought to be separated from government and law. By misunderstanding the intellectual world of the sixteenth century, Brueilly misunderstands the power that sixteenth-century Protestant movements drew from the highly programmatic biblical model of nationhood (Grosby, 2002; Hastings, 1997; Roshwald, 2006; Wright, 2009), a model of national identity that lays claim to specific, actionable rights. Among these are the right to national self-determination, the right of all members to stand as equals before the law, and the right to require that the ruler or king also be subject to the law. These and other rights were embedded in the narrative of the Hebrew nation, persecuted by Pharaoh, miraculously liberated, entering into a covenant with God, accepting a law code, settling in the Promised Land, and choosing a king, a story that had been largely lost in the pre-Reformation understanding of the Old Testament as the story of Christ. Each Protestant New Israel became heir not only to the covenant, but was the direct heir to the history of biblical Israel.
Proto-Reformation and Czech nationhood
Several decades before the advent of printing, the teachings of Jan Hus created a short-lived Czech nationalism by inspiring men to read the Bible in Czech and spread its teaching by means the Reformation would employ: symbolic acts, drama, sermons, and songs that formed ‘new solidarities’ (Pettegree, 2005), invigorated by Emperor Sigismund’s heavy-handed suppression of Bible-reading and execution of Hus in 1415. Within months, Czech noblemen committed themselves to mutual defence and, at the Czech Diet of 1419, demanded that all legal proceedings be in Czech (not Latin or German); that no church or secular offices be given to Germans; that no town councils include German members; and that church singing and Bible readings be in Czech (Šmahel, 1969/1970, p. 213). Hussites did not merely enact a programme very like modern nationalism, they theorized it, providing a response to Breuilly’s (2005b, p. 80) query, ‘If (medieval) nations mattered, why did political thinkers not write about them.’ In 1409, Jerome of Prague began to speak of a ‘nacio bohemica’ defined as a collective of individual Czechs who, as a community, were possessed of rights (Šmahel, 1969/1970, p. 179).
Congregation and nation
Luther taught the duty of Christians to submit to the law. But by the 1520s Calvin, Beza, Osiander, Bucer, and other theologians worried that submission would end in the burning of Protestants and began to argue that the Christians have a duty to obey legal rulers described in Romans 13, but that magistrates share with supreme magistrates a primary duty to support and maintain true religion. If a prince attempts to exterminate true religion, inferior magistrates have a right, although not a duty, to resist even to the extent of overthrowing an anointed king by force of arms. By the 1550s Huguenot scholars argued that in the extreme case of an ungodly prince the body of the people can uphold God’s law by deposing a government (Skinner, 1978, p. 240).
In Lutheran lands, the Reformation was largely top-down; princes converted, subjects followed, bishops became answerable to princes as heads of national churches, and the hierarchical authority of Apostolic Succession was maintained. Elsewhere, Christians began to perceive in the biblical discourse of covenant and congregation a mandate for authority to reside not in the authorized hierarchy of bishops and priests, but in congregations.
The Septuagint uses two different words to translate the Hebrew word brit, syntheke, an almost exact translation of the Hebrew brit (covenant, agreement, treaty, pact), and diatheke (testament, a legal will); the maker of a testament does not require the consent of the beneficiaries, whereas two parties must agree to a covenant. Jerome carried the practice of using different terms for the Hebrew brit (covenant) forward, as did Tyndale who used, ‘bond,’ ‘appointment,’ and ‘testament,’ in his 1530 Pentateuch. But by the time Tyndale translated Genesis again in 1534, he used covenant to translate brit every time it appears (Daniell, 1992, p. xxiii). He also translated diatheke as covenant in many New Testament passages where Jerome used testamentum. English translations followed Tyndale; there are 280 covenants in the King James Bible, Old and New. The political consequence of using covenant was to bring to the idea of brit as a pact between two parties to the fore, and, with it, the idea of the children of Israel as a people with the right to assemble and act politically.
Scotland, a covenanted nation
The Reformation came to Scotland in the 1540s and 1550s with vernacular Bibles, an increase in book production, public psalm singing in English and Scots, scurrilous anti-Catholic ballads, and private meetings in which layfolk studied the Bible, held prayers in Scots, served communion in both kinds, and baptized one another (Goodare, 1994; Ryrie, 2006). But that is only half of the story. The position of Scotland and its great barons with their private armies was precarious. Individually and collectively, the barons wanted to retain power, but they could only do so by ceding sovereignty to England to ward off French control, or by becoming a French dependency to avoid becoming an English one. Meanwhile, the Hapsburgs were poised to intervene.
England, a chosen people
In 1580 John Lyly wrote that that God loved England like ‘a new Israel,’ the English were ‘his chosen and peculiar people’ (Lyly, 1916/1580, p. 434). England and the other sixteenth-century New Israels regarded themselves as heirs to the covenant between God and Israel, entitled to regard the history of ancient Israel as their own. Regan (1996) argues that since Calvinists understood the international Reformed church as the new Israel, they cannot have seen a particular nation-state as a new Israel. But the entry of Christians into personal covenants with God, the entry of the church into the new covenant, and the idea of a particular Protestant nation understanding itself as God’s elect were non-contradictory events. The same individual could experience personal salvation, enter the covenant of all believers, and belong to England, the chosen nation. In the image of theologian Jacobus Revius, the true church was the Bride of Christ, but the Dutch Republic was ‘the abode of the Bride’ (Groenhuis, 1981, p. 124). God could chose England and also choose Scotland, as Rev. John Dury told the English Parliament, God is ‘more interested in you, and in Scotland, than in any Nation whatsoever’ (Guibbory, 2010, p. 112). Chosenness was a powerful tool for binding people into a sense of mutual commitment because it entails both special favour and special obligation, ‘You are God’s own people to whom the Lord has come so close, and whom He has elected to his own in a special way and of whom he therefore reasonably expects more than of the rest.’ Just as God could choose a people and set it as a light unto the nations – like a candle set on a candlestick – so too could God ‘transfer his candlestick’ away from a nation that failed to meet its covenantal obligations (Groenhuis, 1981, p. 123, 125).
The question of whether the causal relationship between Bible-reading Protestantism and English national identity was negligible (Armitage, 2000; Norbrook, 1999) or central (Collinson, 1988; Green, 2000; Guibbory, 2010; Haller, 1963; Hill, 1993) has been much discussed, as has the question of when England became a nation. Greenfeld (1992) opens her discussion on May 16, 1532, the day Henry VIII boldly separated the Church of England from Rome, declaring, in the 1534 Act of Supremacy, that he was, ‘The only supreme head in earth of the Church of England,’ and that he wore an ‘imperial crown,’ not a royal crown notionally in thrall to an emperor. In separating the Church of England, Henry enacted the idea that ‘the nation must be as independent as possible’ (Breuilly, 1993/1982, p. 2). He then used language as a tool of monarchy, ordering that ‘the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria,’ and catechism should henceforth be taught in English so that children would be ‘brought up in the knowledge of their faith, duty and obedience …’ to ‘God’ and ‘their prince.’ He placed a copy of his Great Bible in every parish church, where all services were suddenly conducted in English. In yet another unprecedented extension of state power, beginning in 1538, he required every parish to record all births, marriages, and burials. Rex argues persuasively that Henry’s goal was not to create an English nation, but rather to inculcate ‘duty and obedience’ to his royal self (Rex, 1996). But there is a sense in which Henry asked for a divorce and begat a nation.
He also begat a son, who, in 1549, replaced the varied Latin service books used in England’s several dioceses with the Book of Common Prayer, read by a Church of England minister every morning in every parish in the land; Rosendale argues that the Book of Common Prayer was foundational to English identity (Rosendale, 2007). The Bible passages read in Catholic mass were brief, non-consecutive, and in Latin. The Church of England read the Bible aloud, in English, in sequence, and in its entirety; every respectable person in England, literate or not, heard every word of the Bible on annual and triennial cycles. But the discourse of nationhood not only emerged from the Bible as it was read aloud, and discussed in sermons; it was heard, memorized, and recited in the words of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer which assumes that the world is composed of ‘nations.’ With the exception of Mary’s five-year reign, everyone who grew up in England from 1549 on learned much of that book by heart, and, with it, the understanding that the world is naturally divided into nations, ‘That it may please thee to geve all nacions unitie, peace, and concorde’ (Cummings, 2011 , p. 43), ‘That thy waye be known upon yearth, they saving health emong all nacions … Oh leate the nacions rejoyce and bee glad, for thou shalt judge the folke righteously and governe the nacions upon yearth’ (Psalm 49).
National churches, national languages, national identities
The new languages standardized by national Bibles and prayer books helped establish borders between peoples, even where, as between Denmark and Sweden, the new border divided Lutherans who spoke recently crafted, closely related languages.
Gustav Vasa, the founder of the Kingdom of Sweden in 1523, seized the biblical model of Sweden as a new Israel entered into a covenant with God as a heaven-sent tool for consolidating power (Ihalainen 146, 150). He created the Lutheran Church of Sweden in 1523, confiscated Church lands, and created a Swedish literary language, publishing a Church of Sweden New Testament (1526), a complete Bible (1541), and a national prayer book (Lausten, 1995). Vasa fits the model of nationalism as political identity constructed by the state for its own purposes put forward by Hobsbawm (1983) and Gellner (1983). Denmark is different mainly because Christian III’s sincere Lutheran convictions preceded his use of Protestantism and nationalism as political tools (Grell, 1995).
The Dutch nation is a testimony to the speed with which the Bible created new nations ex nihilo. The Bible provided a unifying narrative and a discourse of nationhood that enabled a disparate array of fiefdoms and towns that had no sense of commonality in 1500, to mount a desperately fought but successful war to defend ‘Israel our Fatherland’ (Groenhuis, 1981, p. 127) from the Hapsburg empire and establish an effective, independent nation-state.