The Project

Our editorial project concerns a document of colonial American hermeneutics that has long resisted comprehensive analysis: Cotton Mather's massive commentary "Biblia Americana" (6 ms. vols. in folio, MHS). Encyclopedic in scope, Mather's commentary represents his greatest achievement as an American theologian before Jonathan Edwards and reveals the depth and breadth of his humanistic scholarship. Writing biblical commentaries in English was certainly nothing new at the time: Simon Patrick's Commentary upon the Historical Books of the Bible (1693-1727), Matthew Poole's Annotations upon the Holy Bible (1693) and Matthew Henry's Exposition of the Old and New Testaments (1708-10) are three contemporaneous works in English that still enjoy great popularity today. As his correspondence with Matthew Henry and others demonstrates, Mather realized that he would not be able to compete with his peers in the London publishing market unless his own work employed a different approach to the standard fair of orthodox commentaries.

In fact, even a cursory comparison between Mather's commentary and those of his peers reveals major differences in conceptualization, approach, and presentation of material. While both Henry and Poole follow the time-honored precedent of (1) Summary of chapter, (2) Reprint of each verse, (3) Analysis, commentary, and cross-references to related biblical passages, Mather's methodology abandons the traditional chapter summaries and reprinting of each verse. Instead, he devises (1) rhetorical questions for each annotation; (2) assumes a skeptical reader who would pounce on apparent contradictions in textual transmission, translation, and interpretation; (3) provides analyses and citations from opposing camps of the hermeneutical debate; (4) aims at reconciling new critical methods and scientific discoveries with conservative receptions of the bible. In these respects, Biblia Americana reveals some of the same approaches found in Pierre Bayle's encyclopedic Dictionnaire historique et critique (1695-97, 1702). What makes Mather's approach so rewarding--even to neophytes--is that he supplies his interpretations with a vast array of citations from the Church Fathers, medieval and post-Reformation theologians, from Rabbinic literature, ancient history, classical and modern philosophy, philology, and from the natural sciences of his day. By and large, his annotations turn into independent essays that go far beyond the immediate concerns of the biblical verse under discussion. Indeed, Mather more than lives up to his old adage that to be "entertaining," all useful scholarship should be "stuck with as many Jewels, as the Gown of a Russian Embassador" (Manuductio ad Ministerium [1726], 44).