Biblia Americana

Without doubt, Mather's Biblia Americana is one of his most significant untapped resources in the history and development of early American theology and biblical criticism. In this commentary on all the books of the bible, Mather gathers the best of contemporary knowledge from all disciplines and all fields of inquiry, incorporates lengthy excerpts from his European peers into his folio manuscript, and examines the impact of their findings on orthodox biblical exegesis. Like modern believers who live during a time of tremendous intellectual and religious turmoil, Mather lived during the early Enlightenment (1660s-1730s), when cosmological, scientific, and textual challenges had begun to destabilize the authority of the bible as the Word of God: the Copernican cosmology and its heliocentric universe had just begun to displace Ptolemaic geo-centrism that had governed the cosmology of Judeo-Christian believers since ancient times; Cartesianism, laying the foundation of the modern empirical sciences, had rejected the weight and authority of tradition as proof for all natural and supernatural phenomena described in the bible; the new philological, historical, and contextual criticism of the bible by Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, Richard Simon, Jean Leclerc, had defied textual accuracy, transmission, and inspiration of the bible; and the new theories about the nature of light, gravity, and atomism posed tremendous problems to literalist readings of the Mosaic creation account and required harmonization with orthodox interpretation if theologians of all stripes were to survive this age of revolutionary uncertainty. Hence Mather's predicament was not unlike that of modern believer whose faith in God and the inerrancy of the bible is buffeted from all sides: creationism vs. evolutionism; divine revelation vs. human wisdom; textual reliability vs. philological and historical criticism; patriarchal authority vs. feminist and liberation theology. Mather courageously faced these challenges head-on and invested more than 30 years of his life in devising ways to reconcile this new knowledge with the teachings of the bible.

What makes Mather's commentary so rewarding to modern scholars and believers is that he furnishes his readers with verbatim excerpts from both proponents and opponents, allows them to present their case, withholds his own opinion until the end of each excerpt, and finally-after due consideration of all evidence-harmonizes old and new in his own synthesis delivered at the end of each chapter and verse. Biblia Americana is therefore more than just another commentary on God's Word. Unlike some of the most respected commentaries of the 17th through the early 19th centuries (Henry Ainsworth, Simon Patrick, Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, John Wesley, John Gill, Adam Clarke, Thomas Coke, Joseph Benson, Joseph Sutcliffe, etc.), Mather's Biblia Americana is a record of the historical debate in the marketplace of ideas. Whereas Mather's peers are mostly interested in synthesis, Mather provides a pastiche of contemporaneous excerpts and analysis. When compared with Jonathan Edwards' Notes on Scripture, or with his Blank Bible, Biblia Americana vastly surpasses in aim, scope, and sophistication Edwards' commentary. Both in his Notes and in his Blank Bible, Edwards generally ignores the contemporary debate and delivers little more than typological and allegorical readings and hortatory comments on a range of scriptural passages. Mather, however, confronts criticism head-on.

One final point deserves to be made in this context: Mather deliberately calls his commentary Biblia Americana, a provocative title if we remember that the term "American" (until the mid-1750s) signified "Native American," rather than "American of European descent." In fact, Cotton Mather is the first European American to designate himself an "American" (1691)--something that has even escaped the Oxford English Dictionary. But what is specifically "American" about Biblia Americana? One of Mather's principal aims is to demonstrate that theologians in the English colonies of North America fully participated in the European debate. Mather corresponded with a large number of English and continental theologians--even as far as India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). His own private library and that of Harvard furnished him with up-to-date publications. More significantly, Mather incorporates in his "American" commentary specifically American subjects, later gathered in his "Curiosa Americana" epistles, submitted to the Royal Society of London, and published in small excerpts in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. In Biblia Americana Mather brings to bear on biblical exegesis his knowledge of Native American religious practices and beliefs, their origin, methods of time-keeping, Indian creation stories and accounts of the Flood, and Indian medicine; American flora and fauna, ornithology (esp. the Passenger Pigeons) and entomology; rattlesnakes, earthquakes, and volcanoes; and his collection of American fossils, experimental observations about plant hybridization, and thoughts on African slavery. (Significantly, Mather rejected the age-old belief in Noah's curse of Ham as the cause of his dark-skinned descendants in Africa, and advocated, instead, a theory of skin pigmentation and climatic influences.) In short, Cotton Mather's Biblia Americana is a unique record of American biblical scholarship and Christian exegesis that remains vital to our understanding of his place and time.