Curiosities: Institutio Interpretis Novi Testamenti by Ernesti (1761), Translated by Moses Stewart (1822) as The Elements of Interpretation

To accept this as a notice, one has to allow that it is severely belated. I happened upon this book today, while following a lead like a rabbit down a Google Books hole after playing in the meadows at JSTOR. (See the following link for the book in question: Ernesti, Elements of Interpretation, translated by Moses Stuart.)

Moses Stuart (graduated from Yale 1799, died in 1852) was a famous Biblical Scholar of Yale, Andover, and Harvard, and is credited by the Encyclopedia Britannica as a father of the practice of American scholarly interpretation of the Bible.

Stuart says in the preface to his translation of Ernesti, that he needed it to make it for his teaching; it “originated for the want of a text-book,” he says (page iii). He taught at the university level throughout the first half of the 19th century, training hundreds of ministers, theologians, and Biblical Scholars. Stuart was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, and other languages; in the case of the Ernesti the original is Latin. Ernesti writes in a Germanic Latin, explains Stuart, that is difficult to translate; accordingly he settles on a free method of translation and rearrangement of sentence structure that permits him even to compose additional text within the body of Ernesti’s work as needed (see page vi). To what degree that effort of interpretation makes the work more Stuart’s than Ernesti’s, I cannot say. Yet I draw your attention to the conclusion to the preface, where Stuart emits an academic sigh of the heart:

It is possible, if this endeavor to promote a knowledge of the science of interpretation should meet with approbation, it may excite an effort on my part, at some future period, to give the whole work a new form, more specially adapted to the circumstances of this country. At present, official duties are too numerous and urgent, to admit of such an effort. M. Stuart. Andover, Theological Seminary, Jan 22., 1822 (page vi).

This seems like an important document in the history of higher education and the practice of “Biblical Studies” in American universities. You see, Stuart wished he could translate Ernesti entirely, consume him, and make him his own. Yet thought he could not, or had not. But maybe he did, by bringing him to America and himself teaching from him as the text.

Stuart’s publication of his translation of Ernesti occasioned a brilliant riff and rant of a book review, nine pages on the follies of the history of interpretation of scripture, by a writer in the premier literary magazine of America, the North American Review (volume 14 issue 35, 1822, pages 391-400). This review, along with the book, ought to be required reading. The reviewer notes:

The work of Ernesti, in passing through the hands of its translator, has undergone some alterations; some things have been omitted; notes hae been added where the subject appeared to need further elucidation; and copious extracts are given from Morus, the able commentator on Ernesti, as likewise from Keil’s Elementa Hermeneutices, and Beck’s Monogrammata (page 396).

An enormous background of forgotten past worlds is out there to discover. Just reading through the reviewer’s survey of the 18th century’s critical awakening is enough to make a professor reflect on his lack of depth in the understanding of his own field. It certainly makes one consider how it is we think we know what we believe we know. So much to learn.

what do you think?

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