16.02.30 , Amerini, ed., "In principio erat Verbum"

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Geert Lernout

The Medieval Review 16.02.30

Amerini, Fabrizio, ed. "In principio erat Verbum": Philosophy and Theology in the Commentaries on the Gospel of John (II-XIV Centuries). Archa Verbi. Yearbook for the Study of Medieval Theology, Subsidia 11. Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2014. pp. xii, 275. ISBN: 978-3-402-10226-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Geert Lernout
University of Antwerp

The fourth gospel may the last in a series of Jesus biographies, but its first verse not only gave the title to this book but it may be among the most famous of the Christian Bible, so famous that a lot of my (literature) students think that it constitutes the opening verse of the entire Bible. And in a way it does: as quite a few of the authors in this interesting volume write, the author of this text was consciously echoing the more prosaic first verse of the book of Genesis. As the book's title also indicates, the fifteen contributors for the most part concentrate on the Latin tradition in the Western church, with just the first three articles dealing with Greek biblical commentary in Greek, by authors later judged as controversial if not heretical.

It is clear from these first contributions in this chronologically ordered collection, that the earliest readers of the Fourth Gospel were aware of the differences between this text and the other three Jesus biographies by Luke, Mark and Matthew. Domenico Devoti opens the volume with a discussion of the oldest commentary by the late second century Heracleon, whose work survives only in quotations by the two Alexandrian scholars Origen and Clement, in the first case as quotations from a work that itself only survives in fragmentary form. Maybe because there is very little textual material to work with, Devoti spends a lot of time on the difference between Gnosticism and what Justin Martyr called the "Great Church." But this is an interesting introduction to what may well have been one of the first systematic interpretations of this gospel.

Domenico Pazzini then turns to our source for much of the fragments of Heracleon's writings, Origen's Commentary on the Gospel of John, with a detailed discussion of the terms logos, episteme and Sophia, as part of a discussion that is clearly based on Pazzini's earlier writings in Italian. Giovanni Salmeri then offers a few thoughts on what constitutes a literal interpretation of the bible on John's gospel by Theodore of Mopsuestia, author of a treatise Against the allegorists that has also survived only in a fragmentary form but in which the author accused Origen of adopting a pagan instead of a Christian (and literal) hermeneutic. Pazzini takes this as his starting point for a reading of Theodore's commentary on the gospel of John. Theodore's choice for the literal meaning allows him to claim that John chose the word logos and not "son" in the first verse, in opposition to an Arian interpretation that the Son of God had been engendered in a temporal framework.

In the first contribution in Italian, Franco de Capitani looks at quotations from the man he calls "l'apostolo piu amato da Gesù" in the writings of Augustine that can be dated to the period before the church father took holy orders. Meticulously and chronologically de Capitano goes through the early Augustinian oeuvre to come to the conclusion that there are relatively few citations from the fourth gospel, and those come, not surprisingly for a reformed neo-Platonist, from the gospel's prologue. In the most dense and complex contribution, Armando Bisogno continues the discussion with a comparison of the theophany of the word in the works of Augustine and Johannes Scotus Eriugena.

Alexander Andrée, editor of the Glossa on the fourth gospel, brings the story forward to the early twelfth century and the Trinitarian ideas of the School of Laon, at a time when there was no firm difference yet between theology and biblical exegesis. Andrée reminds his readers that our knowledge for this period depends on biblical glosses and sets of Sententiae that predate the later and much more systematic Summae. The glosses from Laon survive not only in the standard three column lay-out, but also in continuously written commentaries on individual bible books. The latter were probably written by Anselm of Loan, whereas the former were produced by his students. Andrée shows that this is certainly the case for the glosses on the Gospel of John, which form "a digest of the Master's teaching, which in this case is still available in a continuously written commentary" (94). Andrée bases himself on his work on the Glossa to come to the conclusion that Trinitarian implications were avoided at Laon.

Mark J. Clark nicely supplements these findings with a look at the way four twelfth-century inter-connected texts comment on the text: the Glossed John, Peter Comestor's lectures on this text, Comestor's Historia scholastica and Langton's course on the Historia. In fact in this article Clark revisits his earlier discussion of the treatment by Langston of the link between the opening verse of the fourth gospel and that of Genesis. In the meantime he has come to rethink the relationship between these different texts and especially between Langston and his master Comestor and thus also the role of these developments in the creation of a new theology at the University of Paris. These two articles represent an exciting form of historical scholarship in the making.

In the next article Abigail Ann Young, as the only one in this volume, radically breaks through the chronological framework of the volume by looking at the development of a different and more positive attitude towards Jews among Christian theologians after the Second World War. As a result Christian theologians began to read the fourth gospel in a more philosemitic manner than had been the norm until then. Young then decides to read Rupert of Deutz's commentary on John and "examine its use of the figure of Moses and the Torah[...]to see what, if any, recognition there may be in Rupert's work of the Jewish character of this gospel" (131). It cannot be much of a surprise that what is generally considered to be the most anti-Semitic of gospels can also be read against the grain. What this contribution does show is that "modern sensibilities" may not be among the proper tools to read medieval bible commentaries: this contribution is out of place in what is essentially a historical (and not a theological) study of biblical commentary.

Marta Christiani opens her discussion of Hildegard von Bingen's way of reading the prologue of the gospel with a historical look at the development of theological arguments about the relationship among the personae of the Trinity, starting with Tertullian and Origen, and quickly moving to a close reading of von Bingen's interpretation of the gospel's prologue in which she finds, in the context of the incarnation, "la più complessa e approfindita ermeneutica della corporeità che la cultura medievale abbia intrapreso" (154).

Julie Casteigt then compares the interpretations of the appearance of John the Baptist in the gospel's prologue ("Fuit homo missus a deo, cui nomen erat Iohannes") by two Benedictines, Albert the Great and Meister Eckhart: what is the role of human agency in the manifestation of the divine through the word-made-flesh? Casteigt starts with a detailed discussion of Eckhart's reading of the relevant passage in the prologue, to find that the mystic transforms mediation into immediacy and the role of the just and of justice in that process, which she had developed in an study. In the exegetical work of Albert the Great on John's gospel Casteigt finds much more stress on the role of mediation and the difference with Eckhart in their metaphysical principles necessarily leads to different and even opposite interpretations of verses 6-8 of the prologue.

Then we move to Thomas Aquinas's "university exegesis" Lectura super Iohannem in which Graziano Perillo not only limits himself to the first verse, but even there he isolates the notion of "verbum" (which later Erasmus would famously insist on translating as "Sermo"). Even during the Dominican philosopher's lifetime it was known that the philosopher's ideas about the "Verbum" had developed over time and the interpretation in the Lectura is shown to be more advanced even than that in the Summa theologiae.

The much less well known William of Altona, Aquinas's successor as master in theology in Paris produced a Postilla Super Iohannem which, Timothy Bellamah writes, concentrated on the literal sense of the gospel, which had acquired a completely new meaning under the influence of Aristotle, "not an easy preliminary but a difficult goal" in Beryl Smalley's words. Christian Rode then returns to theories about the nature of the "Verbum," comparing the exegesis of John Olivi with William of Ockham's theory of "Intellectio."

In the light of the importance of Peter Auriol's biblical commentaries which were very influential in the later middle ages, especially his Literal Compendium, William O. Duba studies a John commentary in the form of syllogisms that survives in only one manuscript. It is not clear whether Auriol was the author of this text but there seem to be links with the discussion of John's gospel in the Compendium.

Finally, Alessandro Palazzo returns to Eckhart's commentary on John's gospel with a detailed discussion of the philosophical meanings of the word "lux" in the Meister's reading of verse 4, 5 and 9 of the first chapter of the prologue. Helpfully, each of the fifteen essays are followed by a bibliography divided between primary and secondary literature ("Sources" and "Studies") and the entire volume closes with an index of names for the whole book.

Although the editor claims that these are all "substantial and original" contributions, some of the essays in English seemed to be based on work first published extensively in Italian and no explanation is given why one of the Italian contributions was translated into French and the others were left in Italian. From the opening paragraph of the very first contribution to this volume there is a problem with the translations of those articles that were written in Italian. Not that there are real linguistic mistakes, but the language tends to be awkward, the flow of the sentence is too often interrupted by interjections that could have been avoided and on occasion it is hard to make out what exactly is meant. In these circumstances it would have been preferable to have a uniformly Italian or English or French book. There are also too many typos ("the massage of salvation"), inconsistencies of spelling and other copy-editing issues for such an expensive book. The editors of a book on theology should be able to accurately cite the biblical verse that Augustine found in his bible after hearing the famous "Tolle, lege."

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