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What I Learned While Translating Medieval Latin Commentaries in Coffee Shops




Now, instead of poring over an ancient tome or bringing the blurry image into focus on the microfilm reader screen, I can view Latin scripture commentary on my tiny laptop. I do not know what the medieval authors whom I have been translating would make of my experience. I expect that these scholarly biblical commentators would covet the enormous treasure trove of texts so readily accessible to me. After all, most of these authors were compilers, sorters, arrangers, and distributors of massive amounts of information. They wrote reference works, concordances, and study aids. I imagine they might be chagrined to learn that when they introduced a quotation with the words, “As blessed Augustine said,” I often Googled the Latin phrase they quoted. This sometimes yielded the footnote information I needed, though search engines are not yet a substitute for familiarity with the primary sources, especially when “blessed Augustine” wasn’t really the source of that quotation!



See Also: The Book of Genesis (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2015)



By Joy A. Schroeder
Bergener Professor of Theology and Religion
Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary
October 2015


For the last five years I have spent much of my spare time in coffee shops, translating medieval Latin biblical commentaries. There, equipped with text, Latin dictionary, and coffee cup, I did the slow, meditative work of rendering medieval commentary into what I fervently hope is readable modern English. The result? Two volumes for the Bible in Medieval Tradition (BMT) commentary series published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: The Book of Genesis (recently released) and The Book of Jeremiah, soon to be completed. The purpose of the BMT series is “to place newly translated medieval scripture commentary into the hands of contemporary readers.”[1]

Twenty years ago—or even ten years ago—I might have labored monkishly in the silence of my study or a library reading room filled with reference works, the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the complete works of the Church Fathers. But now I access these resources online—and more, such as digital versions of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century printed editions of medieval sources, thanks to the Google Books™ digitization project. Although this has saved me multiple trips to rare book rooms, the experience of a barista presenting me with a hand-crafted espresso beverage is nothing like sitting at a long wooden table in a temperature-controlled reading room as a library attendant reverently places a five-hundred-year-old volume into the foam cradle in front of me. Google Books and other digital editions have also spared me from countless hours cursing at my library’s microfilm reader, a relic from the 1970s that groans with the effort of advancing the microfilm reel.

Now, instead of poring over an ancient tome or bringing the blurry image into focus on the microfilm reader screen, I can view Latin scripture commentary on my tiny laptop. I do not know what the medieval authors whom I have been translating would make of my experience. I expect that these scholarly biblical commentators would covet the enormous treasure trove of texts so readily accessible to me. After all, most of these authors were compilers, sorters, arrangers, and distributors of massive amounts of information. They wrote reference works, concordances, and study aids. I imagine they might be chagrined to learn that when they introduced a quotation with the words, “As blessed Augustine said,” I often Googled the Latin phrase they quoted. This sometimes yielded the footnote information I needed, though search engines are not yet a substitute for familiarity with the primary sources, especially when “blessed Augustine” wasn’t really the source of that quotation!

Whether reading print books, using a microfiche reader, or accessing the material digitally, my goal was the same: to gain insight into the thoughts of medieval biblical interpreters and to make their writings accessible to others. One of the challenges for those interested in reception history is the lack of translated medieval biblical commentary—especially compared to what is available from early Christian sources. This is a challenge that the BMT series seeks to address. For my Genesis volume, I selected substantial excerpts from six men and one woman (the visionary nun Hildegard of Bingen) who commented on scripture between the ninth and fifteenth centuries of the Common Era. They represent a variety of approaches to biblical interpretation, and their observations include statements that are variously insightful, quirky, reverent, whimsical, erudite, disturbing, or profound.

Andrew of St. Victor (c. 1110-1175), an Anglo-Norman cleric writing in Paris, one of the few medieval Christians with any familiarity with Hebrew, clarifies details where Jerome’s Latin translation is confusing. He also testily refutes other interpreters when he believes they are wrong, sometimes declaring that “only an idiot” would interpret the text that particular way.[2] He points out the ridiculousness of those who try to follow the Vulgate too literally—for instance, the statement in the Latin text that Rebekah’s family washed the feet of the camels of Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24:32).[3] Andrew explains that the Hebrew indicates that they washed the feet of the servant and his entourage and that it made no sense at all to wash the camels’ feet!

The Carolingian monk Remigius of Auxerre (c. 841 - c. 903), borrowing from early Christian sources, pondered what the world was like before earth was separated from water. He imagined that primeval creation resembled the ocean’s sandy floor or the silty water at the mouths of rivers.[4] He questioned whether maggots, and other creatures that feed on corpses and putrefying flesh, existed in the Garden of Eden before death was introduced. If so, what did they eat?[5]

When asked what happened to the food politely consumed by Abraham’s angelic visitors in Genesis 18:8, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) explained how angelic bodies process food differently than humans do.[6]

The Franciscan exegete Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270-1349) shared interesting details from Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, 1040-1105), such as the fact that Joseph pretended to use his silver cup as a tool of divination when he seated his eleven brothers in birth order, ringing the cup like a bell each time he seated one of them (Genesis 43:33; 44:5).[7]

Some odious and hateful interpretations filled me with dismay, such as an allegorical assertion by Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075 – c. 1129) regarding the raven sent out from the ark by Noah. Obviously the raven fed on the putrid carcasses of animals drowned in the flood. For Rupert, the raven represents the Jews, who are “thrown out of the assembly of the patriarchs and prophets” and now wander outdoors. “Gaping at the carcasses of the old sacrifices, they glory with empty talkativeness about the carnal lineage of their ancient fathers.”[8] As I did my work, I wondered whether such passages were better left untranslated, rejected from my anthology because of their sheer repulsiveness. However, I was compelled to include them in order to illustrate how deeply anti-Judaism was embedded in many strands of medieval Christian thought, evidenced by the ease with which such an allegorical leap could be made.

I was struck by how often the medieval interpreters were drawn to the same passages that have caught the attention of modern text critics, noticing the same seams, stylistic variations, apparent contradictions, and verbal discrepancies in the biblical text. They, too, noticed that the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 have somewhat different patterns. Aware of stylistic similarities between Genesis 1 and portions of Genesis 6–9, they observed that the great flood temporarily returned the created order to something resembling the primal chaos present in Genesis 1, which scholars now refer to as the Priestly version of the creation story. Medieval commentators noted that the names of Jacob’s family entering Egypt in Genesis 46 did not fully align with the lists found in 1 Chronicles 7–8.

Perhaps what struck me most is that what medieval commentators termed a “literal” reading of scripture is somewhat different from we now mean by literal or literalist interpretation. The medieval person reading “literally” or “according to the letter” (ad litteram) sought, among other things, to understand authorial intent and what the text meant in its historical context. This might mean that the event or dialogue did not take place precisely as reported in the Bible. Resolving a discrepancy regarding the timing of Joseph’s brothers discovering money hidden in their sacks of grain, Nicholas of Lyra said that events probably did not take place as narrated in Genesis 42:35, which reports that the brothers found the money when they arrived at home in Canaan. Rather, their discovery of money occurred during the journey from Egypt when the brothers stopped at the inn (Genesis 43:21). For the medieval person, the literal sense had the capacity for a great deal of flexibility in interpretation.[9]

My work translating and reflecting on the writings of medieval biblical commentators frequently prompts me to ponder the tasks and responsibilities of modern biblical scholars. Like our medieval counterparts, twenty-first century biblical interpreters wrestle with the meaning of ancient texts, using the best tools available to us. We, like them, can be subject to our own prejudices and limited by our blind spots. We can sometimes be testy and quarrelsome. However, I have also observed that, at their best, biblical scholars—whether medieval or modern—bring admirable diligence, careful research, creativity, and wisdom to the worthy task of scriptural interpretation.



Notes

[1] Philip D. W. Krey, Ian Christopher Levy, and Thomas Ryan, “Editors’ Preface,” in The Book of Genesis, trans. and ed. Joy A. Schroeder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), vii. Two New Testament commentaries have been published in the BMT series: The Letter to the Galatians, trans. and ed. Ian Christopher Levy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); and The Letter to the Romans, trans. and ed. Ian Christopher Levy, Philip D. W. Krey, and Thomas Ryan (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

[2] Andrew of St. Victor, Exposition on Genesis, in Schroeder, Book of Genesis, 152-53.

[3] Ibid., 159.

[4] Remigius of Auxerre, Exposition on Genesis, in Schroeder, Book of Genesis, 44.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] Hildegard of Bingen, Solutions to Thirty-Eight Questions, in Schroeder, Book of Genesis, 124.

[7] Nicholas of Lyra, Postills on Genesis, in Schroeder, Book of Genesis, 202-203.

[8] Rupert of Deutz, On the Trinity and Its Works, in Schroeder, Book of Genesis, 114.

[9] See Schroeder, Book of Genesis, 4.





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