‘Three pounds and fifteen shillings; the inconsiderable salary of Judas’: seventeenth-century exegesis, cultural historiography and Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica
This essay explores how early modern ideas of law and custom, focusing intensely on the Bible, became increasingly aware of the shifting meaning of biblical law codes over Old and New Testament time and the meanings encoded in biblical actions. It traces the emergence of the idea over the course of the early modern era that right interpretation of the Bible demanded a significant historical sensibility. This exegetical imperative took on particular significance in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, in response to a proliferation of non-learned interpretation. Distinguishing this from later forms of historical criticism, the essay traces how the scriptures became in turn, a site for a cultural historicism that endowed the early modern Bible with a generative ability to produce copious commentary on the most insignificant curiosa, from the legal basis of biblical conduct to the cultural meanings of plants and natural history in the Bible. Looking primarily at Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) and its extensive engagement with biblical curiosa, the essay contextualizes Browne's scriptural exegesis within the work of contemporary legal-scriptural theorists including John Selden, Thomas Fuller and Henry Hammond.