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Genesis in Medieval Christian Scholarship


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During the Middle Ages, Christian scholars sought to preserve the insights and teachings of the church fathers. In doing so, they also invented new forms of biblical commentary. This presentation introduces viewers to these developments. It’s intended for early-stage undergraduate students with minimal prior background in Christian studies, medieval studies, or biblical studies. Suggestions from colleagues with expertise in this field are most welcome. (A related presentation on “Genesis in Medieval Christian Creativity” is in the works.)

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Genesis in Medieval Christian Scholarship

  1. 1. Genesis inMedieval ChristianScholarshipA Very Short Introduction forBeginning Reception Historians Chris Heard Associate Professor of Religion Pepperdine University
  2. 2. 476Rome falls to the “barbarians.” The Middle Ages fade in.
  3. 3. Rome remains the “home base” for WesternROME• Christianity …
  4. 4. … but Christian learningand scholarly production occurs all over …
  5. 5. … from African locales such as Alexandria* and Hippo** … ROME•HIPPO• •ALEXANDRIA * Where Origen lived. ** Of which Augustine was bishop.
  6. 6. … northwardIRELAND BRITAIN throughout GERMANY FRANCE Western Europe. ROME• SPAIN
  7. 7. Eastern Christianity EASTERN EUROPE flourishes in Greece and eastward …GREECE ASIA MINOR PERSIA INDIA
  8. 8. EASTERN … centering especially on Constantinople. EUROPEGREECE •CONSTANTINOPLE ASIA MINOR PERSIA INDIA
  9. 9. Clergy, monks, and lay teacherspreserve patristic* approaches to biblical interpretation. * “Of or relating to the fathers”—that is, the church leaders of antiquity.
  10. 10. For Western exegetes,* anygiven Bible passage offers four “levels” of meaning: * Interpreters of the Bible.
  11. 11. 1. The historical or literal* meaning.* That is, the intended meaning. For example, interpreting the metaphorical phrase “O God, my rock” to mean that God is really a physical rock would not be considered a “literal” interpretation, because it’s not what the author intended.
  12. 12. 2. The allegorical meaning, by which the text reveals something about Christ and/or the church.
  13. 13. 3. The tropological meaning, in which the text reveals something about asoul’s relationship with God.
  14. 14. 4. The anagogical meaning, in which the text revealssomething about the end* of the world. * “End” could be understood chronologically, as in “the end of time,”or teleologically (“purpose-oriented”), as in “the ends justify the means.”
  15. 15. Littera gesta docetquid credas allegoriaquid agas tropologiaquo tendas anagogia.
  16. 16. The letter teaches events, allegory what you should believe, tropology what you should do, anagogy where you should aim.Thirteenth-century poem about the four senses of scripture. Quoted from Ocker 2009: 265.
  17. 17. Medieval interpreters seek to start with the literalsense, but not to end there.
  18. 18. By their standards, an exegesis* that stops with just the literal level is incomplete. * Systematic interpretation.
  19. 19. Medieval scholarlyinterpreters deliver theirinterpretations through:
  20. 20. 1. Homilies, that is, sermons expounding a biblical text (asdistinct from topical sermons).
  21. 21. 2. Verse-by-verse commentaries.
  22. 22. 3. Glosses, or marginalnotes in copies of the Bible.
  23. 23. 4. FAQs.** No, really. Ancient and medieval Christian scholars often wrote in question-and-answer style.
  24. 24. 610Muhammad hears a voice telling him to “Recite!” Islam is on the rise.
  25. 25. 632–661Muslims conquer lands they, Jews, and Christians all consider holy.
  26. 26. The Venerable* Bede (673–735)* “Venerable” means “deserving of respect.” It’s also a title in the Catholic church fora dead person who is considered saintly but has not actually been beatified as a saint.
  27. 27. The Venerable Bede• Monk at Jarrow and Wearmouth in Northumbria, Britain• Starts writing a commentary on Genesis around 703–709; finishes it in the 720s• More famously, finishes his History of the English Church and Peoples around 731
  28. 28. 711–718Muslims from North Africainvade and conquer Spain.
  29. 29. Christians and Muslims vie for control over Spain …… for the next seven centuries.
  30. 30. John Scotus Eurigena* (810–877)* Or “John the Scot from Ireland”
  31. 31. John Scotus Eurigena• Emigrates from Ireland to France before 845, perhaps to escape Viking raids• Teaches liberal arts and theology in the western Frankish Empire• Writes the Periphyseon (On the Divisions of Nature), seeking to interpret Genesis 1–3 scientifically
  32. 32. Peter Abelard (1079–1142)* Or “John the Scot from Ireland”
  33. 33. Peter Abelard• Studies liberal arts and theology, often getting into heated disputes with his teachers and peers• Writes works of philosophy and systematic theology• Writes a Commentary on the Creation Narrative
  34. 34. The Ordinary Gloss* (11th century)* Latin Glossa ordinaria.
  35. 35. The Ordinary Gloss• French biblical scholars compile patristic and early medieval materials into the Ordinary Gloss, an extensive marginal commentary on the Bible
  36. 36. Long Glosses Bible ShortGlosses
  37. 37. The Ordinary GlossUnfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be aconvenient English translation of theOrdinary Gloss to Genesis currently in print.
  38. 38. 1096–1099 Christian crusaders retake Jerusalem from its Muslim occupants.This was the first of several crusades.
  39. 39. 1000–1500 Western Christians found over 75 schools and universities.Many of these will operate for over 500 years.
  40. 40. Hugh ofSt. Victor(c. 1097–1141)
  41. 41. Hugh of St. Victor• Enters the monastery of St. Victor sometime between 1114–1125• Writes a Textbook on the Study of Reading integrating liberal arts and theology• Writes commentaries on the creation story and the Noah’s ark story, as well as annotating the Pentateuch
  42. 42. Hugh of St. Victor• Incorporates Jewish learning into his Old Testament interpretations, quoting Rashi and Rashbam in his Explanatory Notes on the Pentateuch
  43. 43. PeterComestor(d. 1178)
  44. 44. Peter Comestor • Teaches at the Notre Dame cathedral school and the University of Paris • By 1175, finishes the Historia Scholastica, a paraphrase of the biblical story* • The Historia Scholastica goes on to become a standard textbook in later medieval universities* I.e., the narrative books. Proverbs, Psalms, epistles and other books that don’t fit into a storyline aren’t treated.
  45. 45. Teachers supplement the Ordinary Gloss with additional running commentary called postillae.* * Postillae is plural; the singular is postilla.
  46. 46. 1203Stephen Langton divides the Vulgate into chapters; Thomas Gallus laterdivides the chapters into paragraphs.
  47. 47. ThomasAquinas(1225–1274)
  48. 48. Thomas Aquinas• 1230: Thomas’s parents (he’s 5) send him to the monastery of Monte Cassino• 1239: Conflict between the state and the church expels Thomas from Monte Cassino; his father sends him to Naples, where he encounters Aristotle’s works, as transmitted by Muslim scholars
  49. 49. Thomas Aquinas• 1255: Thomas joins the Dominican order• Thomas studies, then teaches, in Paris; after that, alternates between Rome and Paris• Writes the Summa Theologiae,* a massive theological compilation that sometimes refers to passages in Genesis * Sometimes referred to as the Summa Theologica.
  50. 50. 1453Constantinople falls to the Ottomans, who rename it Istanbul. The Middle Ages begin to fade out.
  51. 51. 1492 Christians complete the Reconquista, expelling Muslims from Spain.In Germany, the Reformation is brewing.
  52. 52. Primary SourcesAbelard, Peter. 2011. An Exposition on the Six-Day Work. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011.Aquinas, Thomas. 1920–1942. The “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas. London: Burns, Oates, and Washburne.Bede. 2008. On Genesis. Trans. Calvin B. Kendall. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.Hugh of St. Victor. 1962. Selected Spiritual Writings. New York: Harper & Row. (Includes translations of the first and third of Hugh’s studies of the flood story.) John Scotus Eurigena. 1968–1981. Periphyseon: De Diuisione Naturae. Ed. Inglis Patric Sheldon-William and Ludwig Bieler. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.Le Mangeur, Pierre and Guiart des Moulins. 2010. The Historye of the Patriarks: With Parallel Texts of the Historia Scholastica and the Bible Historiale. Ed. Mayumi Taguchi. Heidelberg: Winter.
  53. 53. Secondary SourcesBlowers, Paul M. 2009. “Eastern Orthodox Biblical Interpretation.” Pp. 172–200. in Hauser and Watson.Hauser, Alan J. and Duane F. Watson, eds. 2009. A History of Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 2, The Medieval through the Reformation Periods. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.Mayeski, Mary A. 2009. “Early Medieval Exegesis: Gregory I to the Twelfth Century.” Pp. 86–112. in Hauser and Watson.Ocker, Christopher. 2007. “Biblical Interpretation in the Middle Ages.” Pp. 14–21 in Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters. Ed. Donald K. McKim. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.———. 2009. “Scholastic Interpretation of the Bible.” Pp. 254–279 in Hauser and Watson.Salomon, David A. 2012. An Introduction to the Glossa Ordinaria as Medieval Hypertext. Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.Smith, Lesley. 2009. The Glossa Ordinaria: The Making of a Medieval Biblical Commentary. Leiden: Brill.
  54. 54. Photo SourcesWalters Art Museum via Rambures Master (c. 1470) via Sam Segar via stock.xchngWikimedia Commons Wikimedia CommonsAndreas Tille via Wikimedia Codex Fuldensis via Wikimedia Irish banknote via WikipediaCommons Commons Sculpture by Jules Cavelier, before Gentile da Fabriano (1370–1427)Billy Alexander via stock.xchng 1853; photo by Jastrow via via Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons Latin Bible with Glossa Ordinaria Marion Schneider & ChristophPrasetyo via Wikimedia Commons produced by Adolf Rusch (1481) Aistleitner via Wikimedia via Wikimedia Commons CommonsChris Yunker via Wikimedia DWR via WikipediaCommonsNuremberg Chronicle (1493) via Illuminated Works of St. Hugh ofWikimedia Commons Victor via Wikimedia Commons