15.04.15, Wallis, trans. and ed., Bede: Commentary on Revelation

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Paul Hilliard

The Medieval Review 15.04.15

Wallis, Faith, trans. and ed.. Bede: Commentary on Revelation. Translated Texts for Historians. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013. Pp. xv, 343. ISBN: 9781846318450 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Paul Hilliard
University of Saint Mary of the Lake

Faith Wallis has once again set a very high standard for learned translations, with introduction and notes, by her translation of Bede's Commentary on Revelation. This volume is truly magisterial in almost every sense of the word: authoritative, professional, and very accessible to students and non-specialists. The work is another welcome translation in the Translated Texts for Historians series, with robust notes and a stimulating introduction by a leading Bede scholar. The wide-ranging erudition of the volume is abundantly clear in the very full footnotes throughout the text. As she did in her previous translations, Wallis once again demonstrates her great ability as a teacher, by making accessible, without losing nuance, some truly complex material, especially the intersection between the developing biblical commentary tradition and the competing visions of Christian time and its fulfillment.

The Venerable Bede (d. 735), monk, priest, and scholar from the northern reaches of what would eventually be known as England, was one of the most prolific and authoritative biblical scholars of the early middle ages. Often considered the last of the Church Fathers, Bede's biblical exegesis ranged across the whole spectrum of Christian scripture from Genesis to Revelation. What Wallis has given students is not only a translation of Bede's first sustained work of scriptural exegesis, but also the tools necessary to place the work in a very rich context. The Commentary on Revelation has been long neglected by scholars, often dismissed as merely derivative. With her introduction, Wallis makes a compelling case for why this text is worthy of close study. This places her scholarly effort squarely in the context of the recent interest in medieval perceptions of the end of time, especially Bede's, and the deepening appreciation of the sophistication of early medieval biblical commentaries. Wallis herself has been a leading voice for some time in both of these scholarly contexts.

In her ninety-page introduction to the text, Wallis sets out to convince the reader of the merits of reading this text and to equip the reader to do so fruitfully. In section one she summarizes the previous four hundred years of Latin exegesis on the Book of Revelation, paying close attention to the question of whether or not the biblical text was to be treated in a literal or an allegorical sense and the role of the Antichrist in the end of times. In the next section she addresses Bede's method of composition and the sources for the commentary, including the artistic program at the monastery of Wearmouth and other possible visible representations of Revelation. Throughout this section, although often in the footnotes, her observations about Bede's sources are greatly strengthened by her willingness to discuss the manuscript witness to near contemporary survivals of the texts. Section three is probably the most contentious part of her work, if only for the simple fact that it makes an argument concerning the date of composition. While scholars are generally agreed that this commentary is early in Bede's corpus, as he mentions its completion in the preface to his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, how much before 710 AD is not entirely clear. Wallis puts forward a very plausible suggestion that the work was composed closer to 701 AD than 710 AD. To get to this date she first identifies the major issue Bede mentions in the Acts commentary as his being accused of heresy. Then she swiftly but carefully lays out the issues over apocalyptic expectation. Finally, after pointing to the importance that the year 701 might have had in speculating about the end of the world in conjunction with the tradition of the age of the world, she is able to propose her suggestion. In section four she treats the style, structure, and method of the work. The thematic divisions Bede used to understand Revelation were highly complex and Wallis does an excellent job, not only in this section but also in the notes following, of demonstrating to the reader how Bede's system organized the images and events of the biblical text. Likewise Wallis shows how Bede's understanding of the Tyconian rules for interpreting scripture was derived from not only Augustine, but also from Tyconius directly, while at the same time she demonstrates how these rules worked in the commentary itself. She then rounds out the section by discussing two important themes: Bede's efforts to simultaneous provide a timeline for the end of times while undercutting efforts with his allegorical interpretations to read the signs of the time as portents of the end and the importance of the role of the teachers, a theme very important in studies of Bede's later works. In the final section of the introduction Wallis gives a brief sketch of the manuscript, print, and translation history of the text, including a useful chart indicating the other Bedan texts that traveled with the commentary on Revelation in the manuscript tradition.

As for the translation itself, the reader would do well to pay close attention to the last section of the introduction, for here Wallis reveals that she is doing much more with her presentation of the text than translation alone. Often Bede did not reproduce the entirety of the line on which he was commenting, but Wallis has filled in the gaps for us, while making sure the text is clearly indicated. Wallis also indicates that while making use of Gryson's excellent edition (CCSL 121A), she has chosen to give readers a more traditional source apparatus and has italicized direct quotations from the sources. Also, she is not merely a transmitter of Gryson's judgments, but enters fully into dialogue with him concerning the sources and these moments of dialogue are very plainly indicated in her notes throughout the text. The result of this process is a robust source apparatus presented in a more traditional format, drawing on the abilities of two very able scholars. This facet alone makes this text a necessary supplement to the critical edition itself. These are just two prime examples of how Wallis has made her presentation of the text more than a mere translation, but a highly sophisticated tool for analyzing Bede's commentary.

The notes accompanying the text provide detailed comment not just on Bede's use of sources, but also about points of clarity and various themes highlighted in the introduction. If one were to categorize the overall orientation of Wallis' comments, it would be that her perspective is developmental. Her notes show very clearly where Bede was developing the commentary tradition of Revelation, such as his use of Tyconius, and she frequently indicates passages which demonstrate ideas that would change or receive greater emphasis in Bede's later writings, such as his attitude toward heresy. As for the translation of the Latin, it seems best to echo the high accolades from Michael Lapidge on the back of the volume as 'accurate and animated.'

It is difficult to find fault in this text, beyond the occasional quibble over words which are notoriously difficult to translate anyway. It is surprising, however, that with all the rich context Wallis has provided for the text she spends very little time discussing the dedicatee of the text, Eusebius/Hwaetberht, Bede's fellow monk and future abbot. While Wallis situates the text very well in the broader intellectual environment of Anglo-Saxon England and Ireland, some additional attention to Bede's own monastic environment seems merited. For example, Wallis is surely correct to see the commentary as a response to the atmosphere of apocalyptic expectation that she has well documented. However, this need not be the only motivation for the composition. One wonders if another motivation for the commentary may also have been much simpler, in that the walls of St. Peter's were adorned with paintings about Revelation, of which Bede's fellow monks, like Eusebius/Hwaetberht, desired a deeper explanation. While looking at depictions of Revelation, day in and day out, might have fostered apocalyptic expectation, it might have simply led to a desire for clarity. In pointing out this slight oversight in the her introduction, one almost feels like a child complaining that there is no cherry on top of an ice cream sundae.

Once again scholars and students alike will be further indebted to Faith Wallis' admirable abilities as a translator, but more importantly as someone who has, with the Translated Texts for Historians series, consistently created volumes that both teach and inspire readers to further study. Students will find her introduction and notes to be sure aids for a deeper level of study of text. Scholars of Bede, Tyconius, or apocalyptic thought will find her text to be welcome and useful supplement to Gryson's edition and will find much to ponder in her decisions about sources and thematic parallels. If Wallis' goal was to save Bede's commentary on Revelation from obscurity and to make a compelling case that the text is worthy of deeper and fuller attention, then she has done everything humanly possible to succeed on this front. The field of Bedan studies has been greatly deepened and revitalized over the past twenty years thanks to translations like the one under review. Bede is no longer a man of one text, the Historia Ecclesiastica, but there has also grown an awareness that Bede developed and changed his ideas over time, a perspective very much on display in Wallis' text. If senior scholars would like to see revitalization and deepening of their fields, they would do well to imitate Faith Wallis's work.

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Paul Hilliard

University of Saint Mary of the Lake