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13.07.10, Darby, Bede and the End of Time

13.07.10, Darby, Bede and the End of Time

For over a decade now, a small contingent of scholars have been pushing through the thesis that Bede's writings were the product of a deeply innovative and even daring mind. Toppling the older view that Bede was merely a compiler and hence unremarkable for his originality, such recent scholarship has exchanged the humble monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow for a prodigious and multifaceted auctor whose work rivaled that of the great fathers who preceded him, to whose level he had aims to aspire. In the introduction to an essay collection I edited in 2006, I dubbed this the "new Bede," as a moniker for both the scholarly trend and the historical subject fashioned by it. The present monograph makes a forceful case for the validity of this paradigm in its wide-ranging and meticulous treatment of Bede's writings on time. Like Bede's exegesis, which until recently had lived under the cloud of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, his magnum opus, the writings on time form another segment of the Bedan corpus where the author's substantial achievements have yet to be fully repaid by exhaustive scholarly investigation. Darby's study does much to redress this imbalance by showing that, here too, Bede was a truly innovative and original thinker.

The study proceeds from a basic insight that, curiously, scholarship has yet to chase up in full, namely that Bede was captivated by a fascination with time--and with eschatology in particular--from the start of his career, when he wrote a commentary on Revelation and the early companion pieces De temporibus and De natura rerum, up through his mature years, when he drafted the more substantive De temporibus ratione as well as the Ecclesiastical History. As a Christian author, Bede was heir to the complex and often contradictory frameworks for the last days as set out in the Bible and, with it, a rich tradition of patristic interpretation on the theme. Darby acknowledges that while part of Bede's task here involved making eschatology comprehensible in the context of the monastic classroom, something much more radical ought to be grasped from the breadth and scope of Bede's program of scholarship. By concentrating on Bede's interests in not merely explaining but also developing, adapting and refining received ideas about the end of the world, and by additionally selecting moments in Bede's career where he is plainly correcting or rebutting misunderstandings relating to certain eschatological beliefs and issues, Darby wishes to read to Bede as "the dominant intellectual figure of his time, the Augustine of his age indeed" (12).

Darby breaks his study into eight chapters which he organizes into three thematic subheads: the world ages framework, Bede's eschatological vision, and Bede's eschatological perspective. The first of these subheads contains three chapters that explore the link between Bede's eschatological thought and chronological periodizations. The lead-off chapter, entitled "Chronology and the World Ages Scheme in De temporibus," cuts right to the chase in presenting to us a Bede unhesitant to assert his own viewpoint. Thus in Chapter 16 of De temporibus, where Bede outlines his earliest comprehensive discussion of the world-ages theme, Bede on the one hand followed Augustine by dividing universal history into six periods, yet departed from him on the other by characterizing the sixth age as aetas decrepita, not as senectus as Augustine had done. "This was a subtle but significant adaptation of the received terminology", Darby argues, which shows that "Bede, even at a very early stage in his career, was prepared to make alterations to a prominent and distinguished intellectual achievement. He was indebted to the traditional doctrines of his predecessors but it is clear that he felt no obligation to follow them in a passive or uncritical manner" (23–24). Ditto for Isidore, whose world chronicle Bede was equally quick to depart from by preferring to follow chronological data as presented in the Vulgate which he believed, following Jerome, were more accurate than those persevered in the Septuagint, which Isidore had followed. The resulting chronology Bede thus came to adopt, which revised the Incarnation of Christ to AM 3952, some 1,247 years earlier than the Septuagint chronology promulgated by Eusebius, was perceived to be radical and even heretical by some of Bede's contemporaries, a subject which Darby explores in Chapter 2. The accusation of heresy leveled at Bede in 708 by associates of Bishop Wilfrid was the occasion of Bede's Epistola ad Pleguinam, which mounts a stinging defense of the chronological framework that Bede had proposed in De temporibus. This brief tract discredits a number of eschatological traditions Bede deemed erroneous, and is especially noteworthy for its critique of Eusebius whose chronological work had long held sway in the medieval West; the letter also pans his accusers as "lewd rustics" too stupid to understand the sophistication of Bede's reasoning.

Constituting the next subsection on Bede's eschatological vision, Chapters 4 and 5 reconstruct Bede's take on the last days, the day of judgment and the eternal afterlife. The first of these chapters, "Signs, Portents and the End-time Sequence," again is quick to draw attention to the innovative character of Bede's approach to his subject. He was, we learn, the first writer to integrate an account of the last days into a computus manual, as he did in Chapter 69 of De temporum ratione, which Darby calls "an important milestone in the history of medieval eschatological thought" (96). Darby surmises on the basis of other chapters from this work that Bede was even actively engaged in conducting his own scientific research, on tidal theory among other things. In speculating on the end of time, Bede believed that sequence would commence with the conversion of the Jews, who would be converted through the preaching of Enoch and Elijah now returned, followed by the persecution of Antichrist and a test of patience for the Saints. While Bede's vision was ultimately derived from Scripture, especially Daniel and Revelation, his understanding of key passages was decisively shaped by the Augustine, Jerome and Gregory, whom again Darby finds were at once central for Bede yet not in a way that overwhelmed his own unique fusion of computus, chronology and eschatology. Turning in Chapter 5 to judgment day and the afterlife, Darby ranges over an array of sources, including commentaries, homilies, poems and letters. Most intriguing here is his discussion of the short epistolary tract De eo quod ait Isaias, in which Bede took on a question sent to him by Acca bishop of Hexham about what would happen to the damned after the day of judgment. Darby argues that the nature of the query proposed in this track reveals that confusion continued to abound about some aspects of eschatology among members of the educated elite in Northumbrian some years after the controversy of 708. Bede had to correct the bishop's understanding of Isaiah 24:22–23 with its description of the eschatological devastation of the earth, firmly opposing the idea that these verses give the devil and his fallen Angels reason to hope that they will eventually be saved, an idea first proposed by Origen. Darby reads the episode as a telling index of Bede's status as a theologian Anglo-Saxon Northumbria: " documents Bede at work as an expert in eschatology, confidently adding his own layers of interpretation to a long-standing patristic controversy. Bede's authority on such matters was evidently acknowledged and respected, not only by his peers and colleagues at Wearmouth-Jarrow, but also by his diocesan bishop at Hexham" (143).

The third and final thematic section takes up Bede's eschatological perspective, Darby's phrase to denote how Bede perceived his own era in relation to the end of the world. The three chapters of this section extend the implications of the foregoing by comparing Bede's end-time vision to that of Gregory the Great (Chapter 6), studying Bede's reaction to contemporary events in the year 716 (Cheater 7), and looking at some wider textual contexts, especially from the Ecclesiastical History (Chapter 8). Again, Darby finds some meaningful contrasts. While Bede shares much with his hero Gregory about the approaching end, all the same he does not share the eschatological immanency espoused by the pope: "Bede could agree that he was living in close proximity to the end of time, but he was not prepared to assert that there was 'no time remaining'" (163). The same conclusion is reached in Chapter 7. In 716, the death of King Osred, the departure and death of Abbot Ceolfrith, and the first adherence of Iona to the Roman Easter, all promoted Bede to speak of the approaching eschaton while still "Never quite conveying the same sense of extreme immediacy of some Gregory's writings" (185). The book's last chapter then sets about the task of relating Bede's masterwork, the Ecclesiastical History, to his eschatological thought, especially regarding the wider context of the divine plan of salvation. In this chapter, Darby helpfully charts anew the development of Bede's eschatological ideas from his early, up through the mid, and finally to the late works, of which the Ecclesiastical History is of course chief. In sum, Bede came in this last phase to think that the era of Gentile conversion was ending, now that the Anglo-Saxons had been converted. A time of horrific persecution and universal destruction was thus imminent; more locally, spiritual complacency was wracking the Northumbria church. Bede's History as well as his later exegesis, not to mention his last extant work the Letter to Bishop Ecgberht, were nothing if not attempts to recall the gens Anglorum to the true path of righteousness before the age met its final end. Again, a particular strength of Darby's study is his comparative reading of these works against each other regardless of their genre, as well as his sensitivity to historical contextualization that reclaims the vividness of each work's contemporary setting.

This is a detailed and careful study that is well worth reading. It offers a fine introduction to Bede's computistical writings, while presenting the first exhaustive treatment of a theme which clearly fascinated and compelled Bede and dictated much that he wrote. But it is also perceptive in its reading of the commentaries, homilies, histories, indeed the whole of the Bedan corpus, and successful in its treatment of Bede as a serious intellect and engaged polemicist who was deeply immersed in, or better did much to construct, the theological thought of his time.