Don’t Do It Yourself: Hermeneutics for Hebrews through the Material History of Sixteenth Century Reformed Bibles

In the history of Biblical interpretation, questions of authorship have proven to be inescapable for the Epistle to the Hebrews. Because matters of authorship and apostolicity necessarily implicate canonicity and scriptural authority, Hebrews has been subject to considerable scrutiny from the early church until today. The Reformation period was no exception. Discussion of reform permeated every facet of Western Christianity in the sixteenth century, and Martin Luther particularly stoked the fire over biblical canon when the preface to his German New Testament distinguished “true and certain chief books of the New Testament” from four other books of a “different reputation.”[1] Luther complimented Hebrews as a “marvelously fine epistle,” and yet, he did not hesitate to group it with James (his “Epistle of Straw”), Jude, and Revelation in what has been described as Luther’s canon-within-a-canon. Moreover, the material formatting of Luther’s German Bible further reflected a functioning hierarchy as this group of biblical texts were separated without numbering from the rest of the Bible, thereby formatting them in the same manner as the Apocrypha, the latter of which was included in Luther’s 1534 Bible. Does Luther’s approach to Hebrews characterize the era? How did other vernacular Bibles present Hebrews to Protestant readers? This paper will explore Hebrews through the eyes of Reformed Bibles. Attention to the material history of Hebrews in early-modern French Bibles can shed further light as to how questions of canonicity, authorship, authority, and hermeneutics were answered for Bible readers during the Reformation period. Exploring the material dynamics of French Bibles can provide insight into how an internal biblical commentary was imbedded in the formatting of the text in order to set hermeneutical guidelines for the reader. In this way, considering the Bible’s material history becomes an additional avenue for studying the outworking of Reformed theology as it shaped the very presentation of the scriptural text itself for the era.