Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.10.12, Olsen, Reading Matthew with Monks

The Medieval Review

15.10.12, Olsen, Reading Matthew with Monks

This learned and appealingly-written study began as a 2010 doctoral dissertation in the Department of New Testament of Emory University's graduate division of religion, under the direction of the eminent New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who provides a foreword. The book's background perhaps does more than its title to clarify its target audience: "those who read the biblical text with and for faith communities" and look for "alternate voices" to answer questions with which academic biblical scholarship by its nature cannot engage (239). Thus medievalists in general, and even students of medieval biblical interpretation specifically, will find themselves a bit off the central axis of the discussion: but even so, there will be much that is of interest.

The book's argument has two major components. The more encompassing of these is that medieval monastic interpreters of the Bible, when read in the appropriate context, provide valuable dialogue partners for the modern exegete; the narrower is that the appropriate context is, broadly, that of the monastic life, with its emphasis on personal formation through mimesis, and, more narrowly, within the monastic world, the context of the liturgy, which not only associates any given pericope with other texts in the lectionary but also ties it to antiphons and other brief liturgical elements which suggest lines of interpretation.

To support this compound thesis, Olsen considers the exegesis in the "early medieval monastic" and "modern American academic microculture[s]" (4) of four passages from Matthew: "a mythological narrative (Matt 4:1-11), a dominical teaching (Matt 5:1-12), a set of healing miracles (Matt 8:1-13) and a parable (Matt 25:1-13)" (23). As medieval representative he takes Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham (c. 955-c. 1010); for the modern side, he chooses four sources, each from a standard series. [1] The argument comprises an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion.

The introduction, "Hermeneutics and Reading Cultures" (1-26), positions Olsen's project in the larger contemporary discussion of reading as an activity we carry out within a community, with the corollary that we acquire, whether consciously or not, the hermeneutic of that community. Communities can improve their hermeneutical skills by conversation with each other, and while such conversations have typically been between contemporary reading cultures, Olsen wishes instead to begin a historical conversation. The community of medieval monastic readers makes an excellent conversation partner for the modern academic world because it has a "steadfast devotion to Scripture" aimed particularly at "The New Testament command to be formed into the mind of Christ" (4). Olsen goes on to position Benedictine life as one particular version of Christian culture, and to describe Ælfric and his place in the tenth century Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Revival. Ælfric's microculture qualifies as an apt conversation partner because it shows "serious engagement with the New Testament text" (8), a "genuinely different way of reading" (9), "enough...points of contact to allow conversation to occur" (10), "breadth of scope" (that is, "enough information on how the microculture engaged the biblical text to make the effort worthwhile," [10]), and an intrinsically "cross-cultural approach" (11). Recognizing that the academy has typically rejected early monastic interpretative practices, Olsen gives a brief overview of the case for taking medieval hermeneutics seriously, beginning with the classic work of Beryl Smalley and Henri de Lubac and continuing with LeClercq's The Love of Learning and the Desire for God . [2] Amongst LeClercq's successors, he focuses on William T. Flynn's Medieval Music as Medieval Exegesis, and Susan Boynton and Dianne Reilly's The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages. [3] For discussion of Ælfric in particular, he summarizes Paul Szarmach's "Ælfric as Exegete." [4] Finally, Olsen introduces the four modern conversation partners. The first two represent the academic world specifically: Luz offers "a combination of literary and historical methods," Davies and Allison a textual focus (24). The other examples are, like Ælfric's work, cross-cultural--in their case, because they "mediate the findings of the modern academic endeavor to confessionally Christian microcultures": "Hare's approach is generally literary," whereas Boring typically employs "a narrative approach as a framing device" (25).

Chapters one and two, "How Monastic Living Shaped Reading" (27-74) and "How Monastic Praying Shaped Reading" (75-118), serve to introduce the modern reader to the medieval monastic world. The first falls into three somewhat loosely linked sections. Building on Leclercq's analysis, Olsen begins by examining this microculture as "mimetic, literary and liturgical" (27). Ælfric's "Sermon on the Memory of the Saints," which discusses Christ and the saints as examples for the monk to follow, provides an entry into the first topic, expanded with discussion of John Cassian and St. Benedict. This mimesis itself, Olsen points out, has a literary element, being inspired not only by the scriptures but also by the saints' lives read in Chapter and the Night Office. Despite the "monastic" chapter title, Olsen goes on to discuss both the medieval and modern literary cultures. Beyond technical differences (e.g., chapter and verse divisions, printed texts, and computer research vs. the slow reading and memorization of lectio divina), they differ in "their hermeneutical framework and their basic approaches toward the New Testament compositions" (38-39). Ælfric's hermeneutical assumption, rooted in Augustine's De catechizandis rudibus and the creeds, is that the scriptures present "a great eschatological epic" to be read with the tools of literary analysis (44). A detailed consideration of Ælfric's Letter to Sigeward, "the earliest surviving English-language introduction to the Bible" (45), shows a three-part "framework" for interpretation: a kerygmatic concern with "worship, faith and obedience" (45), an eschatological sense of history, and a focus on catechetical aims rather than the biblical text (48). Thus Ælfric is more concerned to introduce his reader to Matthew as "an exemplum of a committed preacher and teacher" than to the text of his gospel (52). Among the moderns, Luz and Davies and Allison are directly involved in continuing "the critical conversation concerning the scientific study of the New Testament," whereas Boring and Hare hold a mediating position between "the scholarly and the (broadly construed) pastoral" (52). Olsen concludes the chapter by returning to medieval culture to situate Ælfric's Catholic Homilies within the larger homiliary tradition. He comments that whereas the "modern critical conversation [aimed] to move the conversation forward," the aim of the medieval "was not motion but stasis," i.e. the transmission of tradition (62), and he ends with a survey of four centuries of medieval homily collections from Gregory the Great through Bede, Paul the Deacon, Smaragdus, and Haymo of Auxerre to Ælfric himself.

Olsen's second chapter unpacks Leclercq's conclusion that "in the liturgy, love of learning and the desire for God find perfect reconciliation" for a modern reader (76, citing Leclerq 251). An eleven-page section explains the liturgical services of the monastic day, another of about the same length discusses "monastic education as formation for liturgy," and the last part examines, in some detail, four ways in which the liturgy interprets scripture--discursively, by exegetical comments in hymns, collects, proper prefaces, sermons, and the like; selectively, whether by designating single verses for reading at Lauds or whole pericopes for the lectionary of the Mass; repetitively, as in Matthew's version of the Our Father or Luke's canticles; and most of all by "pregnant juxtaposition," in which, by putting texts side by side, even without explanation, the liturgy "implies that they belong together" (102).

The third and fourth chapters--"The Temptation and the Beatitudes" (119-179) and "Two Healings and the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens" (180-238)--make up the heart of the book. The mechanism here could not be more straightforward: Olsen introduces the text, using the Eusebian canons in order to point up gospel parallels "without reference to modern interpretive arguments" (120). He then sketches the interpretations of his four modern sources before presenting a reading of Ælfric's sermon and "examin[ing] the liturgical context from which the sermon comes" (120). Finally, he "attempt[s] to synthesize the conversation" in order to address the "central question": "What insights can modern readers of the New Testament gain from the text of Matthew by engaging early medieval monastic readers on their own terms?" (120-121). Thus, for example, modern critics have debated whether to read the Beatitudes as ethical prescriptions or eschatological prophecies. Olsen's modern sources answer "both," but in fact foreground the eschatological. The patristic and early medieval tradition privileges the ethical, but the very fact that Ælfric treats the passage in the context of All Saints' Day points to the way his interpretative tradition actually holds the two readings in tension, for "sanctity [...] was not about pious moralism but about the manifestation of eschatological power" (178). Such power was displayed preeminently in the healing of the sick at the intercession of the saints, and indeed a responsory for All Saints'--the sort of text which the liturgy would juxtapose with the Gospel passage--refers specifically to such healing (179). Thus the modern reader can see in the medieval tradition a way in which the eschatological meaning lies "in the enacting of the text, not just in its reading. [...] Eschatology follows from the ethical" (179).

In the conclusion, "Bringing Early Medieval Voices into the Conversation" (239-246), Olsen asserts that Ælfric and other medieval interpreters are valuable "whenever modern readers seek to understand the potential for moral, spiritual, or formative meanings within the text" (240). Such readers should bear in mind that the medieval encounter with scripture had the liturgy as its "paradigmatic context" and aimed ultimately at "the attainment of sanctity" (241). The monastic interpreters serve to remind us, alongside the modern commitment to read the scriptures no differently from any other ancient text, that "the New Testament writings are self-consciously religious texts" and thus that questions about their moral and spiritual applicability are "entirely legitimate" (243). Moreover, the whole tradition of medieval exegesis underscores a "commitment to multivalence" which "enables the spirit of exegetical play" within the boundaries of liturgical practice and spiritual edification (243). As something of an envoi, Olsen offers three observations about early medieval readers which he thinks valuable for modern ones: first, the fact that "scriptural interpretation normatively occurred in the midst of the community at prayer" (244); second, that "liturgy and Scripture were perceived to be part of a continuum" (245); and third, the "full scope" of biblical interpretation reached beyond the production of commentaries and homilies to composition of "embellishments of the liturgy" and, ultimately, to conversion of life" (246).

A medievalist--particularly one with a specialization in biblical interpretation or liturgy--would probably want to skim rather quickly over much of the material Olsen provides for the guidance of his target audience (but even then, his overviews can serve as useful reminders, and would be valuable for the non-specialist) and focus on his readings of Ælfric in the liturgical context. These contain a number of rewarding observations. For example, Ælfric asserts that Satan quotes Vulg. Ps. 90: 11-12 ("he has given his angels charge over you") out of context in Matthew 4:5, because the words refer to holy men rather than to Christ. The psalm text itself offers no particular reason for Ælfric's interpretation, but Olsen argues convincingly that its invariable use at compline, its many citations in the propers for the First Sunday in Lent, and the daily use of some verses throughout the Lenten season would all predispose Ælfric and his monastic audience to see the "you" of the psalm not as Christ but rather as persons like themselves engaged in the special struggle of those forty days (131-132, 137-141).

The text of the book is generally quite clean, though a very few infelicities have slipped past the editor, such as "subordinant clause" for the more standard "subordinate" (167) or "goal...are suggested" for "goal is" (242). None of these seem to rise above the level of minor distractions.

It seems to me, as both a student of Bede's biblical interpretation and a preacher, that Olsen's overall claim is reasonable enough: it feels at some points as though it is argued at more length than necessary, but, objectively, that could reflect its roots in the dissertation, and, subjectively, having from time to time quoted Bede in a sermon, I am clearly not the sort of person for whom Olsen's position would be a hard sell. A contemporary biblical reader trained solely in the modern academic microculture may need more convincing than I, but this well-presented book makes a very persuasive argument for welcoming medieval voices to our present-day conversation.



1. From Hermeneia, Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Continental Commentary, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss; Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew and Matthew 21-28, both translated by James E. Crouch (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, 2001, 2005); from the International Critical Commentary, W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 3 vols., ICC 26 (London/New York: T & T Clark, 2004); from Interpretation, Douglas Hare, Matthew (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); and from The New Interpreter's Bible, M. Eugene Boring, "Matthew," in Matthew-Mark (vol. 8), ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 87-506.

2. Jean LeClercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, trans. Catherine Misrahi (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982).

3. William T. Flynn, Medieval Music as Medieval Exegesis (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1999); Susan Boynton and Dianne Reilly, eds., The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

4. Paul Szarmach, "Ælfric as Exegete: Approaches and Examples in the Study of the Sermones Catholici," in Hermeneutics and Medieval Culture, ed. H. Damico and P. Gallacher (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), 237-247.