<<

. 3
( 52 .)



>>

branch of theology in its own right. For convenience this body of learning
will be described as ˜ethnic theology™. This choice of shorthand illumi-
nates the substance of the argument presented below “ namely, that the
study of ethnic diVerence in the early modern period was largely har-
nessed to religious questions, rather than vice versa. (On the other hand,
the Biblical notion of common origins, as we shall see, tended to empha-
sise an underlying unity “ of belief, race, language “ at the expense of
ethnic diVerences.) The term ˜ethnic theology™ was, in fact, used in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to describe pagan religion, whose
relationship to the patriarchal religion of the Old Testament was at the
heart of this discourse.’ Christianity would emerge all the stronger by the
comparison, if heathen polytheism could be shown to be but a corrupt
form of the religion of Noah. However, this issue was related to other
controversies which impinged on Biblical authority, such as how the
world had been peopled and how nations and languages were related. Far
from being peripheral topics of antiquarian interest, these subjects inter-
sected with the mainstream of Christian theology.
Early modern ethnography was a vital theatre of the defence of Scrip-
tural revelation against new currents of heterodoxy and scepticism. Many
of the most important intellectuals of early modern Europe grappled with
the problems of ethnic theology. The voyages of discovery of the late
Wfteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the subsequent expansion of
à D. C. Allen, The legend of Noah (Urbana, 1949); M. T. Hodgen, Early anthropology in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Philadelphia, 1964), esp. ch. 6; A. Grafton, New worlds,
ancient texts (Cambridge, MA, 1992).
• A. Grafton, Defenders of the text (Cambridge, MA, 1991).
’ E.g. Pierre-Daniel Huet, Demonstratio evangelica (Paris, 1679), propositio iv, caput ter-
tium, p. 56, used the expression ˜ethnicorum theologia™ to describe the religion of pagans.
12 Theological contexts

European knowledge about the histories, religions and customs of the
civilisations of Asia and America, posed a number of problems for the
Christian intelligentsia of early modern Europe, threatening both to
subvert the unquestioned authority of European standards and to under-
mine the intellectual and theological coherence of the Christian world
view and the credibility of the Bible as a historical document.“ One of the
most successful responses to the former threat was the natural jurispru-
dence of Hugo Grotius and his successors “ a resort to a skeletal conjec-
tural anthropology of natural man and a few uncontentious ethical ax-
ioms, as a way of bypassing the ingrained prejudices of the European
cultural inheritance without running into the sands of an unmitigated
scepticism.“ However, while Grotian natural jurisprudence might suYce
in the Welds of ethics, laws and manners, the threat to the authority of
Biblical revelation posed by knowledge of the extra-European world
could not be defused without recourse to ˜ethnic theology™.
Ethnic theology never developed as a discrete body of learning; it
existed rather in the interstices of other nascent disciplines, most notably
the comparative study of religion and mythology. In the Wrst instance
scholars began to collect the Xood of information on the pagan religions
of Asia and America in compendia of the world™s religions, a new genre of
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” and then to construct systems of
historical theology which accommodated the seemingly bizarre world
of paganism to the traditional framework of Christian knowledge and
belief.¦» If all mankind was, as the Bible proclaimed, descended from
Noah to whom God had revealed himself, then one could not explain
polytheistic pagan cultures as distant societies which had strayed into
error and superstition inadvertently through lack of exposure to the
Christian message. According to the logic of Mosaic history the distant
ancestors of pagan peoples must at some stage have been the bearers of
the patriarchal revelation. Of necessity, theologians constructed a history
of gentile corruption as a central aspect of the history of the peopling of
the world. Various presiding Wgures in the pantheons of gentile nations
were identiWed by defenders of Christian orthodoxy as corrupt relics of an

“ R. Popkin, ˜Polytheism, deism and Newton™, in J. Force and Popkin, Essays on the context,
nature and inXuence of Isaac Newton™s theology (Dordrecht, 1990), p. 27; M. Ryan, ˜Assimi-
lating new worlds in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries™, Comparative Studies in
Society and History 23 (1981), 519“38.
“ R. Tuck, ˜The modern theory of natural law™, in A. Pagden (ed.), The languages of political
theory in early modern Europe (Cambridge, 1987).
” Hodgen, Early anthropology, pp. 168“72, 203; Grafton, New worlds, ancient texts, ch. 3; F.
Manuel, The eighteenth century confronts the gods (Cambridge, MA, 1959), pp. 6“7; R.
Popkin, ˜The crisis of polytheism and the answers of Vossius, Cudworth and Newton™, in
Force and Popkin, Essays on Newton™s theology, p. 9. See e.g. Alexander Ross, Pansebeia: or,
a view of all religions in the world (London, 1653).
¦» Hodgen, Early anthropology, pp. 262, 266“8; Popkin, ˜Crisis of polytheism™, p. 9.
Prologue: the Mosaic foundations 13

original memory of the patriarch Noah.¦¦ The embryonic science of
comparative mythology “ whose ˜comparative™ method was predicated
upon diVusionist assumptions “ had as its central task the unmasking of
the traces of Biblical history which lay beneath the legends and cults of
pagan cultures.¦  The practice of deciphering the Noachic survivals that
lay beneath the surface of pagan cultures was often yoked to euhemerism,
a critical method of deconstructing alien theogonies. Euhemerism was a
reductive technique which enabled Christian scholars to expose as mere
historical Wgures the deities of the pagan world. By conjecturing that
heathen gods originated in the posthumous deiWcation of founding fa-
thers, statesmen and generals, scholars undermined the numinous auth-
ority of non-Christian religions. Although itself a product of pagan phil-
osophy, the brainchild of the ancient philosopher Euhemerus of Messina
in the fourth century BC, euhemerism was eagerly adopted by theolo-
gians shouldering the burden of a sceptical crisis.¦À Alternatively, Chris-
tian Platonists, who believed that humanity™s inner reason partook of the
divine logos, sought traces in other religions of a universal ancient mono-
theism, a consensus gentium largely concealed by the corrupting accretions
of various local cultural forms.¦Ã There were, of course, limits to the scope
for genuine comparative study. Scripture was fenced oV from direct
comparison; the histories of other cultures could be compared to expose
falsehood and drive out myths, whereas comparisons with Hebraic his-
tory were designed only to reinforce the validity of the Old Testament.
As scholars attempted to reconcile the religious diversity of the pagan
world with the truths of Christianity, comparative religion became hope-
lessly entangled with Biblical ethnology. The study of ethnicity, or ˜gentil-
ism™,¦• was, in large part, a matter of accounting for the existence of pagan

¦¦ Rossi, Dark abyss, p. 153; P. Burke, Vico (Oxford, 1985), p. 44.
¦  L. Poliakov, Le mythe aryen (1971: new edn, Brussels, 1987), p. 162; Rossi, Dark abyss, p.
153.
¦À There are useful discussions of euhemerism in A. B. Ferguson, Utter antiquity: perceptions
of prehistory in renaissance England (Durham, NC, 1993); Burke, Vico, p. 43; Manuel,
Eighteenth century confronts the gods, esp. ch. 3.
¦Ã D. P. Walker, The ancient theology (London, 1972); P. Harrison, ˜Religion™ and the religions
in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1990), ch. 2.
¦• Ethnicity was connected by etymology and usage to discussions of paganism. Note the
link between gens and gentile. Not only did the Jesuit ethnographer, Joseph Fran§ois
LaWtau, Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains, comparees aux moeurs des premiers temps (2 vols.,
´ ´
Paris, 1724), use the term ˜la Gentilite™, I, p. 117, to describe the pagan world, but his
´
usage of expressions for nation and people carried the same freight, as in his argument, I,
p. 109, for ˜le temoignage des peuples et des nations™ to the truths of Christianity, where
´
the silent epithet ˜pagan™ is understood; Ryan, ˜Assimilating new worlds™; Herbert of
Cherbury, The antient religion of the gentiles (London, 1705 edn); John Aubrey, Remaines of
Gentilisme and Judaisme (ed. J. Britten, London, 1881); Theophilus Gale, The court of the
Gentiles (2 vols., Oxford, 1669“70). For the centrality of the gentile“gentes relationship in
the work of Vico, see M. Lilla, G. B. Vico: the making of an anti-modern (Cambridge, MA,
1993), pp. 93 n., 167“8.
14 Theological contexts

peoples in a world populated by nations whose founding patriarchs had
been exposed, prior to the dispersal, to the truths of the religion of Noah.
Paganism could not simply be explained away by the fact that the peoples
of Asia and America had not been known to medieval Christendom.
Rather, why had these peoples forgotten the truths of the Noachic mono-
theism of the immediate post-Diluvian period? Ethnology involved the
study of the non-Hebraic peoples who had succumbed to false gods.
Unlike nineteenth-century anthropology, it was not conWned to the study
of the ˜other™. For the European lineage of Japhet was prominent among
the gentile nations, and the theogonies of Greece and Rome were among
the pagan deviations from monotheism which had to be explained.
The European encounter with the indigenous peoples of America
engaged the attention of the foremost scholars in Christendom, Grotius
included. So long as geographers were under the misapprehension that
America was a part of Asia, or at least close to its shores, there was no
theological problem about the ethnic origins of the inhabitants of the New
World. However, as it became clear that America was a distinct conti-
nent, the existence of a populated New World propagated doubts about
the universality of the Noachian Deluge.¦’ Scholars began to tackle the
thorny problem of explaining the post-Diluvian origins of the American
peoples, and the relationship of these nations to the stock of Noah. The
early modern literature of Americana embraced a wide variety of disci-
plines, and evolved as it digressed from the critical theme of Noachic
origins; however, throughout the period ˜extra-theological considerations
“ geography, ethnology, and faunal distribution “ operated within limits
imposed by theology™.¦“ A wide variety of imaginative solutions emerged
in answer to the riddle of American origins. The notion that Noah had
developed the arts of navigation while on the Ark enabled some scholars
to posit maritime interpretations of the peopling of America by trans-
atlantic routes. The seafaring Carthaginians were a common feature of
this line of thinking, as were references to Plato™s Atlantis. Alternative
strategies included the identiWcation with America of Scriptural refer-
ences to voyages to the land of Ophir mentioned in I Kings and II
Chronicles, and, eventually, the development of the notion that the
Indians were the ten lost tribes of Israel mentioned in the apocryphal
book of Esdras.¦“ A minority tradition attributed the peopling of America
to a legendary twelfth-century Welsh prince named Madoc, whose claim
was still capable of inspiring patriotic Welsh exploration and ethno-


¦’ L. E. Huddleston, Origins of the American Indians: European concepts, 1492“1729 (Austin,
TX, 1967), p. 9; Rossi, Dark abyss, p. 30. ¦“ Huddleston, American Indians, p. 12.
¦“ Ibid., pp. 17, 20, 25, 28, 30, 40“3, 65“7.
Prologue: the Mosaic foundations 15

graphic speculation in the later eighteenth century.¦” However, in north-
ern Europe the most widely accepted version of the peopling of America
was based on the notion of a land bridge or short crossing from the icy
wastes of northern Eurasia undertaken by post-Diluvian Scythians. The
Spanish Jesuit Jose de Acosta (1540“1600) was perhaps the most cel-
´
ebrated champion of this thesis. »
The principal alternative to the Acostan thesis was the argument by
Grotius in De origine gentium Americanarum (1643) that America had
been colonised by the Viking seafarers of northern Europe. As a servant,
by this stage of his career, of the Swedish monarchy, Grotius defended
not only the legitimacy of Scripture history, but also the claim of Sweden
to establish colonies in the New World. Philological researches appeared
to reinforce these conjectures, with Grotius comparing the suYxes of
Norse toponyms, such as Iceland and Greenland, with those of Amerin-
dian placenames, such as Tenochtitlan and Cuatlan. The Grotian thesis
did not displace the Acostan version of the peopling of America as the
standard defence of sacred history; indeed, it was in fact immediately
challenged by Jan De Laet, a fellow Dutchman, whose argument against
the Norse thesis was continued by Georg Horn (1620“70), a German
based at the University of Leiden, who in Arca Noae (1666) argued for the
mixed origins of the indigenous American population in various waves of
Phoenician, Chinese and Scythian migration. The Grotius“De Laet con-
troversy was an argument about the relative plausibility of the Grotian
and Acostan accounts of American ethnology, not about the unitarian
origins of mankind. However, this dispute was a sideshow compared to
the fundamental challenge posed to the authority of the Bible by the
French theologian Isaac La Peyrere (1596“1676), whose work Grotius
`
had read in manuscript and to which his treatise was, in part, a proleptic
response. ¦
The debate over the theological consequences of the New World
became much more fraught from the middle of the seventeenth century
when La Peyrere in Prae-Adamitae (1655) launched one of the most
`
controversial exegetical revisions of the early modern era,   which ap-
peared to Wnd a Scriptural basis for mankind™s plural origins and a limited
¦” G. A. Williams, Madoc: the legend of the Welsh discovery of America (Oxford, 1987);
Huddleston, American Indians, p. 57.
 » A. Pagden, The fall of natural man (1982: Cambridge revised pbk edn, 1986), pp. 193“5.
 ¦ Grafton, New worlds, ancient texts, pp. 210“12, 234“5; Grafton, Defenders of the text,
p. 206.
   R. Popkin, Isaac La Peyrere (1596“1676) (Leiden, 1987); Popkin, The history of scepticism
`
(1960: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979 edn), ch. 11; Grafton, Defenders of the text, ch. 8.
La Peyrere made an immediate impact in England: see the translations A theological
`
system upon that presupposition that men were before Adam (London, 1655) and Men before
Adam (London, 1656).
16 Theological contexts

Deluge. La Peyrere built his revolutionary thesis for polygenesis from a
`
diYcult passage of Scripture “ Romans 5, verses 12“14:
As by one man sin entered into the world, and by sin, death: so likewise death had
power over all men, because in him all men sinned. For till the time of the law sin
was in the world, but sin was not imputed, when the law was not. But death
reigned from Adam into Moses, even upon those who had not sinned according to
the similitude of the transgression of Adam, who is the type of the future.
La Peyrere argued that the law had come into the world with Adam, and
`
that at this stage sin, which was already in existence, took on moral
signiWcance. By contrast, if the law had come into force only with Moses,
then there would be no fall of man with Adam. From this chink in the
logical and theological cohesiveness of revelation La Peyrere constructed
`
the argument that there had been men before Adam. In order to account
for the continued existence of these peoples, he also rejected the univer-
sality of the Flood. Consequently, Genesis, which appeared to provide a
history of the Jewish nation and its neighbours only, was too narrow a
platform upon which to construct the universal history of mankind. À
The matter of ethnic theology ignited one of the largest heresy hunts of
the age. Within eleven years of the Wrst edition of Prae-Adamitae at least
seventeen works had been published with the speciWc aim of demolishing
La Peyrere™s thesis. Ã The great heresiarch himself abjured the Pre-
`
adamite heresy, but with some reluctance; he conceded the authority of
the papacy in such matters, but did not acknowledge any intellectual
deWciencies in his own scholarship. • Despite this renunciation, the cri-
tique of Pre-adamitism had brought into being a scholarly industry which
continued to operate until at least the 1730s. ’ In part this may have been
because of the wider inXuence of La Peyrere™s ideas, which contributed to
`
a related tradition of scepticism about the scope of the Bible as a hand-
book of knowledge, whether of metaphysics or of universal history. This
sceptical line was continued by La Peyrere™s friend and biographer, the
`
Oratorian priest, Father Richard Simon (1638“1712) and by the ren-
egade Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632“77). Simon™s Histoire
critique du Vieux Testament (1678) analysed the formation of the text of
the Bible, and argued, in an idiom which foreshadowed the higher criti-
cism of the nineteenth century, that one could not construct an accurate
chronology or genealogy from the Bible. Spinoza argued in his Tractatus
theologico-politicus (1670) that the Bible was essentially the history of the

<<

. 3
( 52 .)



>>