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15.08.34, Constas, ed. and trans., Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers

The Medieval Review

15.08.34, Constas, ed. and trans., Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers

Maximos the Confessor (580-662) is universally regarded as one of the greatest theologians ever to commit his ruminations to the page East or West. He is most famous, perhaps, for his opposition to monothelitism (which held that Christ had a single will) in defense of a brand of dyothelitism rooted in Chalcedon (Christ has two natures and thus two wills), a stance that led to the mutilation of his tongue and right hand, then to his exile, and finally to his death--thus, the sobriquet, "the Confessor." In him profound spiritual insight and an astonishing command of Greek philosophy permeate a theological vision that is as compelling as it is challenging. The originality of Maximos lies in his ability to deploy his unparalleled knowledge of preceding patristic and philosophical traditions in order to engage with the pressing theological questions of his period. In many ways, then, we encounter in Maximos a recapitulation of the best of what preceded in the patristic era and a harbinger of the riches that were to follow in medieval Byzantium, on which the thought of Maximos had massive influence.

Nowhere is Maximos's theological originality more on display than in the Ambigua, "a series of elucidations of obscure (or 'ambiguous') passages in the writings of Gregory of Nazianzos, also called the Theologian--a fourth-century church father who by Maximos's day had become an unimpeachable standard of the Orthodox faith, but whose often allusive and enigmatic utterances called for explanation" (vol. 1, ix). There are actually two distinct sets of Ambigua, one "to John" composed around 628 to 630, and another "to Thomas" from around 634. In the series, however, those to Thomas are placed first (Ambigua 1-5) before those to John (Ambigua 6-71). This editorial decision originated, it appears, with Maximos himself, not with some later editor who stitched the two series together; nor was their conjunction an accident in the transmission of the text. The Ambigua to John are the fruit of conversations that Maximos had with his spiritual director, John of Kyzikos (Cyzicus). In spite of "its staggering range of theological topics--the Trinity, the Logos, the metaphysical ground of beings, the location of the universe, the nature of time, the world, the human person, the bond of matter and spirit--the Ambigua to John is unified around the experience of divinization, which Maximos characterizes as the deepest longing of the saints, the desire of human nature for assimilation to God, and the yearning of the creature to be wholly contained within the Creator" (vol. 1, xvi-xvii). The later Ambigua to Thomas, which deal exclusively with the person of the incarnate Word, are prefixed to the Ambigua to John as "a prologue to the deeper questions that follow it and a christological epitome or recapitulation of Maximos's vision of the universe presented in the Ambigua to John" (vol. 1, xxii). Accordingly, the Ambigua as a whole is a "literary, thematic, and theological unity" (vol. 1, ix).

Given the supreme importance of Ambigua for understanding not only Maximos himself but also late-antique and medieval theology in general, it is surprising that only a few bits have been translated into English (namely, Ambigua 1-5, 7, 8, 10, 41, 42, and 71). This lacuna is happily and expertly remedied by Nichols Constas, formerly a professor at Harvard Divinity School and now a monk on Mt. Athos, where he was tonsured as Fr. Maximos; he uses his secular name in these volumes "to avoid confusion and redundancy" (vol. 1, xxvii). Constas has produced the first critical edition and the first complete English translation of Maximos's Ambigua. It is nothing less than a tremendous achievement.

Hitherto the standard text had been the 1857 edition of Franz öhler that was reprinted in Migne's Patrologia Graeca 91, introducing some emendations but also (as is well-known to anyone who has worked carefully with PG) some errors. öhler's edition is in fact a transcription of a single manuscript (Gudianus graecus 39), collated with Thomas Gale's partial edition from 1681 (which included Ambigua 1-10.3 only). Constas's edition is based upon six direct manuscript witnesses ranging from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, five indirect manuscript witnesses from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries, plus two further manuscripts from the eleventh century and thirteenth or fourteenth century, respectively (see vol.1, 459; vol. 2, 339 for details). Secondary witnesses include quotations in the works of the Theophanes of Nicaea and John Kantakouzenos. Finally, Constas uses the ninth-century John Eriugena's Latin translation of the Ambigua to John, which he considers "of the highest importance for establishing the text of the Ambigua to John," not only because it is the "oldest surviving witness to the text as whole" since it predates the earliest extent Greek manuscripts, but also because Eriugena was "an extremely literal translator" (vol. 1, 458-459; vol. 2, 338-339). Accordingly, the textual base for Constas's edition is a vast improvement over öhler. In addition, Constas consulted but did not reproduce Bart Janssens's 2002 critical edition of the Ambigua to Thomas (Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca 48). In the edition, there is no apparatus at the foot of the page; rather, each volume contains an appendix called "Notes to the Text," where only the most important variants for the Ambigua to John are listed, not all of them. No variants are given for the Ambigua to Thomas; the reader is referred to Janssens's edition. Constas describes existing editions, his methods, and his witnesses in another appendix entitled "Note on the Text," which is reproduced in each volume (vol. 1, 457-462; vol. 2, 337-342)--quite a needless repetition, since who would have only one of the two volumes?

These are beautifully produced volumes, each even equipped with a purple fabric bookmark bound into the headband. The Greek edition and English translation appear on facing pages, with ample margins. Since the critical apparatus for the edition and notes to the translation are relegated to appendices, the pages have a pleasing, uncluttered appearance. It seems that great care has been taken as well to insure that the Greek and English texts on facing pages actually correspond to each other. There are, however, two oddities. First, cross-references to page numbers of the Greek edition in Patrologia Graeca 91 appear exclusively in the English translation in curved braces. This is good information to have, but it seems to me that such cross-references would have made more sense in Constas's Greek text, since anyone checking PG is curious about the differences in the Greek editions. Second, scriptural citations (both words and phrases) are italicized in both the Greek text and the English translation, but references are only found only in the former, in square brackets. Any reader of the translation without sufficient skill in Greek is going to have difficulty determining the scriptural reference; it would have made things easier for such readers to place the scriptural reference in the English translation.

These quibbles aside, Constas has produced an appealing translation that is idiomatic and replete with forceful, vibrant language. He does not hesitate to add words that are not found in the Greek in cases where a more sparse literal translation might have created confusion; yet even with such additions the translation always remains true to Maximos. For example, the opening sentence of Ambigua 5.5 in Andrew Louth's 1998 translation reads (this quotation begins with a quotation from pseudo-Dionysius about Christ, which is then unpacked by Maximos): "'The one who is eternally beyond being is not less overflowing with transcendent being': for having become man he is not subject to nature, rather on the contrary he raises up nature to himself, making it another mystery, for he himself remains completely incomprehensible, and shows his own Incarnation, which has been granted a generation beyond being, to be more incomprehensible than any mystery." Constas renders the same passage in this way: "'He who eternally transcends being is no less overflowing with transcendent being,' for in becoming man He was not subjugated to human nature, but on the contrary He elevated nature to Himself, making nature itself another mystery, while He Himself remained entirely beyond comprehension, showing that His own Incarnation, which was granted a birth beyond being, was more incomprehensible than every mystery." In several instances, Constas's word choices are more lively than Louth's: "transcends being" vs. "beyond being," "subjugated" vs. "subject," and "elevated" vs. "raises up." The word "human" in "was not subjugated to human nature" is not present in the Greek, but of course Maximos means human nature. Constas is entirely justified to add the word, and it makes the passage clearer. Another addition is "nature itself" in the phrase "making nature itself another mystery." The Greek simply has a pronoun as the object of the participle "making." Louth sticks to the Greek literally while Constas helps the reader avoid potential confusion by supplying the pronoun's referent. Constas, however, could be faulted for consistently (in Ambigua 5 and elsewhere) translating the Greek word anthrōpos as "man" when it refers to what the Word became in the incarnation, rather than with the more accurate and gender-inclusive "human" or "a human." As one who himself has translated a great deal of Greek, I admit that in terms of style "human" or "a human" never seems to work as well in English as "man." So it seems that in this one case Constas has preferred stylistic vigor to scrupulous accuracy.

But this one nit does not in the end detract from what will surely be, deservedly, the standard critical edition and English translation for generations to come. Fr. Maximos of Mt. Athos has produced a meticulous scholarly work of the highest order and one worthy of his patron saint, enabling a far wider audience than previously to immerse themselves in the brilliance of one of the greatest works of one of the greatest late-antique theologians.