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On the Eirobiblical

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Critical Mimesis and Ironic Resistance in
The Confessions of Nat Turner

image of Biblical Interpretation

The Bible (as it tends to do) supported both the justification of and resistance to American slavery as it was practiced in the antebellum era. Slaveholders and abolitionists alike “re-wrote” the Bible, attempting to bolster the legitimacy of their respective sides. Most scholarly treatments of these biblical interpretations discuss the myriad ways that agents (ranging from the nominally literate to the literary) deploy generally stable readings and reinscriptions of biblical passages as they apply to their contemporary circumstances. Enslaved Americans, however, tended to encounter the Bible orally/aurally as illiterate people, hearing it performed at second- or third-hand and assimilating its language and stories at considerable distance from the canonical “text.” Furthermore, most examples we possess of this language reside in contested documents narrated by the enslaved to problematic scribes. This essay explores how the enslaved wielded the inherent imprecision of their biblical language to articulate coherent, if ironic, biblical worldviews. Assessing the rhetorical and even semiotic distinctions between these two modes of biblical interpretation, I develop a category (“eirobiblical rhetoric”) that facilitates critical engagement with the instabilities that result from such rhetoric as it engages particularly with the political and social exigencies of a religiously ordered (and “justified”) system of chattel slavery. A series of close readings in the 1831 document The Confessions of Nat Turner, an exemplary text of eirobiblical rhetoric, allow for the critical application of this new rhetorical category in a way that offers an unprecedented and liberating interpretation of a troublesome and disputed text.

Affiliations: 1: University of Pittsburgh,


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