The editors of the "Bible in Medieval Translation Series" by Eerdmans and Joy A. Schroeder have very ambitious plans for this fine volume. Their goal is to "reacquaint the Church with its rich history of biblical interpretation" (i) by making available in English examples of obscure, but noteworthy, medieval biblical commentaries. In this instance, they intend to deliver an historical commentary on Genesis that appeals to modern academics, pastors, seminary students, and church goers in order to provide scholarly insight, preaching and Bible study resources, as well as opportunities for individual reflection and spiritual formation. Schroeder translates, edits, and gathers seven impressive medieval exegetes from the Carolingian period down to the Reformation into a valuable and engaging work in order to accomplish this task. In the end, however, the work will appeal best to people who are more acquainted with medieval religious studies and modern biblical scholarly interpretive methodologies.
Schroeder presents commentary excerpts that cover the entire book of Genesis. These well-chosen selections often are only found here in English translation and thus are naturally less familiar to English readers. As a result, they are welcome additions that broaden an audience for these normally hard to find authors. The clever organization of the volume, which Schroeder calls a "sampler" (6), covers the following material. Remigius of Auxerre (d. 908), the Carolingian Benedictine, summarizes patristic and early medieval approaches to Genesis 1-3. Genesis 4-8, covered by Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129), also Benedictine, emphasizes allegorical interpretations that connect Genesis stories to the New Testament, church traditions and theology. Breaking the pattern of moving straight through Genesis is one of the most fascinating and also the shortest section, written by Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), the Benedictine mystic, who deals with challenging questions about Genesis from monks. Genesis 9-30 by Andrew of St. Victor (d. 1175), an Augustinian Canon of Paris, along with Genesis 31-41 by Peter Comestor (d. 1178), chair of theology at the cathedral school of Notre Dame, concentrate on a literal-historical methodology. Genesis 42-46 by Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1349), a Franciscan, highlights the literal sense and draws upon Jewish sources. Finally, Genesis 47-50 by Denis the Carthusian (d. 1471), "offers literal-historical and 'mystical' (allegorical and moral) comments" collating the "scholarship of patristic and medieval authors...while adding his own unique and lively contributions" (7).
All this makes for a vigorous and sophisticated commentary in part thanks to Schroeder's helpful introduction, which sets up the translations nicely by providing valuable historical context and insight. The introduction does, however, assume some background knowledge concerning medieval religious history. Schroeder's success in offering a readable and engaging translation of these edifying authors, however, also leaves the reader wanting more. It is no fault of Schroeder's that the frustration in this commentary involves wondering what each of these diverse ancient writers might have done with other parts of Genesis. Perhaps this is nowhere more acute than in the four-page section on Hildegard of Bingen, who never wrote a commentary on Genesis, but who responded to questions by those seeking her wisdom on puzzling biblical texts. For example, she muses about the visitation of three angels to Abraham and their meal together, suggesting that angels "eat as humans do, but their food vanishes like the dew that continually falls upon the grain but instantly dissolves with the heat of the sun"(124). Or when asked about why some take oaths by placing their hands under Abraham's "thigh," she simply says that the choice to swear on Abraham's genitals in particular is meant to simply point from his wound (that is his circumcision) to Christ, who will one day be born as his offspring to save humanity (125). Other texts range from Rupert of Deutz's numerical musings about the great ages of people in genealogies to the Nicholas of Lyra's engaging and humorous moral interpretation of a famine in Genesis 43 that suggests to him that his students have a famine of wisdom and that they need to find a way to nurture their deep hungers within their souls so that they might advance in their studies (201).
While the seven authors are well chosen and certainly some of the best the tradition has to offer, it is important to note that the selections, which are intended to give a cross section of exegesis concerning Genesis over five centuries, include four commentaries from the twelfth century. This not only suggests the renaissance of work done during that period, but also a bit of imbalance in period representation, since there are no commentaries from the thirteenth century, probably because those authors are more well known. Likewise, the first three are all Benedictine. Nevertheless, the selections are chosen carefully and reflect a fine breadth of medieval exegesis.
What audiences beyond those who are trained in medieval religious history and thought, or modern biblical exegesis, will be able to take away from this book is harder to say. Schroeder hints at this when she says, "The twenty-first century reader familiar with historical criticism will notice that medieval commentators found the very same seams, stylistic variations, repetitions, verbal discrepancies, and apparent contradictions that caught the attention of modern text critics" (2). Likewise, she readily notes how medieval commentators all used varying degrees of the so-called four-fold senses of scripture, namely, the literal, allegorical/spiritual, moral/tropological, and eschatological/anagogical methods of interpretation. But at the same time, she has to qualify in a lengthy footnote that the medieval and modern views of the literal interpretation of scripture are quite different, correctly implying that medieval authors are at times more sophisticated than some modern literalists (4). All this requires a certain sophistication on the part of the reader.
Schroeder thankfully allows all of these authors to speak with their own voices, warts and all. Although some sections are troubling, Schroeder has left what she calls the "offensive texts" intact. For example, even though Andrew of St. Victor and Nicholas of Lyra at times quote Jewish commentators, they also provide what Schroeder calls "offensive, unflattering allegories" that portray the Jews and Judaism in a demeaning light. Schroeder admits that she was tempted to pick less problematic passages, but in the end decided that intellectual honesty demanded that she make available these segments which reveal the "anti-Jewish interpretation that was ubiquitous among Christians in Western Europe" (19).
Schroeder's work in some ways actually becomes an extension of the medieval tradition that she examines. Schroeder gives her readers the ability to examine the complicated sagacity of these mysterious scriptures by means of glosses that she has gleaned from the best exegetes of the past. In so doing, she allows Remigius of Auxerre to caution early on in his discussion that at times the more graphic readings in Genesis might actually arouse impressionable youths to inappropriate appraisals, passions, and choices especially, "if they have not first gained a measure of understanding about the profound mysteries" of the book. As a result, warns Remigius, "their minds might start lurking in the inferior teachings" (42). Schroeder hopes that her chosen voices calling out from the ages will help scholars and others find some measure of wisdom in Genesis. Indeed, it appears that first book of the Bible is an intriguing testing ground for biblical interpretation because of the numerous challenging passages involved within its pages. It certainly demands a clever and deft hand to negotiate these troubling texts and Schroeder is up to the task.