Secrets of heaven: allegory, Jews, the European Enlightenment and the case of Emanuel Swedenborg
Esterson, Rebecca Kline
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This project argues for the persistence of biblical allegory in eighteenth-century Christian thought, contrary to the narrative of allegory’s demise, found, for instance, in the work of Peter Harrison and Hans Frei. I demonstrate that two factors in particular, the scientific revolution and Christian discourse about Jewish interpretation, shaped the content and quality of allegorical interpretations of the Bible in this century. Using the case of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), natural philosopher and biblical commentator, the dissertation will consider how allegory functioned amidst epistemological shifts brought on by new naturalistic and mechanistic explanations of the universe, and amidst tides of anti-Judaism and Christian Kabbalah. This project is divided into three parts, which examine the context, content, and reception of Swedenborg’s multi-volume biblical commentary, Arcana coelestia. Part one lays contextual groundwork with a brief comparative look to the commentaries of other eighteenth-century figures, both Jewish and Christian. I survey the discourse about allegory, science, and religious identity in the commentaries of William Whiston, Johan Kemper, Moses Mendelssohn, and Menaḥem Naḥum. Part two contains a close reading of Swedenborg’s interpretation of Genesis 3, revealing a bias against the two communities of interpreters he believes incapable of accessing the full depths of biblical wisdom: scientists, or the learned skeptics of natural philosophy, and the Jews. Using Harold Bloom’s concept of the “anxiety of influence” I point to resemblances in Swedenborg’s own hermeneutic to interpretive methods deemed, by either himself or those around him, to be Jewish, kabbalistic, or naturalistic. Part three examines Swedenborg’s reception, revealing a double ambivalence to Swedenborg and to allegory among figures as diverse as Immanuel Kant, John Wesley, Friedrich Oetinger, William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These men had in common a fascination with Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondences, but also harbored deep reservations that manifested in moments of harsh criticism and even ridicule. Despite such protestations, those interested in Swedenborg often produce reformulations of biblical allegory in their own terms. This is, therefore, a study of the relationship between texts and contexts, and the persistence of allegory even in an age that was supposedly hostile to it.