16.09.16, van Liere and Harkins, eds., Interpretation of Scripture: Practice

Main Article Content

Marshall E. Crossnoe

The Medieval Review 16.09.16

van Liere, Frans, and Franklin T. Harkins, eds. Interpretation of Scripture: Practice: A Selection of Works of Hugh, Andrew, Richard, and Leonius of St Victor, and of Robert of Melun, Peter Comestor and Maurice of Sully . Victorine Texts in Translation, 6. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. 563. ISBN: 978-2-503-55312-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Marshall E. Crossnoe
Lincoln University, Missouri

Victorine Texts in Translation (VTT), an American project born in conversations more than a decade ago, is halfway completed. Five of ten VTT volumes originally slated for publication are now available, and they are beautifully achieving their creators' goal of making "available in new annotated English translations many of [the Victorines'] most important and influential works, as well as other Victorine works that deserve to be better known." Dozens of texts by twelfth-century canons Hugh, Richard, Adam, Andrew, Achard, Walter, and Godfrey are now available in English, many for the first time. Texts by non-Victorine authors closely associated with the Victorines are also included in the VTT volumes; e. g., texts by Robert of Melun, Peter Comestor, Maurice of Sully, and Leonius of Paris. The translated texts vary by genre, but they are grouped topically. Volume 1 contains theological treatises, sentences (lecture notes), and sequences on the Holy Trinity and creation; vol. 2 contains treatises, sermons, and sequences on the cardinal Christian virtue of love; vol. 3 contains treatise prologues, biblical commentaries, and sequences on hermeneutical theory; vol. 4 has similar works on the Christian spiritual life. Vol. 5 should appear next summer, and it will contain texts on spiritual formation and mystical symbolism. Volumes dedicated to Victorine Christology (vol. 7) and Victorine sermons for the liturgical year (vol. 8) should also appear next year. Vol. 9, with texts revealing various aspects of daily life at the Parisian abbey of St Victor, is on schedule to appear in 2018, and vol. 10 on the Sacraments is well underway. The VTT volumes are handsome books with quality full-page color plates, just what we have come to expect from Brepols Publishers. Through a joint project between Brepols and New City Press, each volume is being made available in paperback a year after its appearance in cloth. The New City Press editions are intended to facilitate use by students in classrooms. Volume 1, Trinity and Creation: A Selection of Works of Hugh, Richard, and Adam of St Victor(2010), was reviewed by Philip O'Mara in The Medieval Review, as TMR 11.10.05. Vol. 2, On Love: A Selection of Works of Hugh, Adam, Achard, Richard, and Godfrey of St Victor(2011), was reviewed by Albrecht Classen as TMR 12.02.15.

Interpretation of Scripture: Practice is another high quality addition to the VTT series. It contains informative introductions to and accurate, readable translations of a rich and varied sample of Victorine biblical interpretation. The thirteen texts in vol. 6 offer an English reader direct access to Victorine ways of reading, hearing, learning, and writing about the Holy Scriptures, what VTT Managing Editor Hugh Feiss called the soil from which Victorine canons drew sustenance. The heart of vol. 6 is the extended examples of literal, historical exegesis that became a Victorine distinctive. Notes on Genesis by Hugh of St Victor shows clearly how that Victorine master shifted from person to deed to time and place when he read the Old Testament, all the while paying "attention to biblical sentence construction; recognizing passages without a literal meaning; setting unimportant details in their literary context; comparing the order of the narrative with the order of events; recognizing omissions and repetitions, having recourse to the Hebrew text and Jewish exegesis, and looking for the intention of the author" (Jan van Zwieten, "Introduction" to Hugh of St Victor's Notes on Genesis, 59). Selections from Andrew of St Victor's Commentary on Daniel show the Victorine exegete confronting "perhaps the mother of all chronological conundrums, with ambiguous historical markers at the beginning of several chapters, together with a complicated, convoluted and obscure chronology associated with the prophecy of Jeremiah..." (Frans van Liere and Mark Zier, "Intro." to Andrew of St Victor's Commentary on Daniel, 128).

But vol. 6 contains much more than historical/literal exegesis of the Bible. There are, for example, texts by non-Victorine authors that are not traditional commentaries. Robert of Melun's Questions on the Divine Page (translated into English for the first time by Franklin T. Harkins) is a striking example of the new form of biblical analysis that came to epitomize "scholasticism" at the universities during the thirteenth century. Robert was probably the first to offer bible commentary in the form of questions. His Questions--about sin, penance, the human spirit, John the Baptist, etc.--ought to be read alongside Richard of St Victor's Explanations of Several Difficulties of Scripture (trans. Hugh Feiss and Dale Coulter). Like Robert, Richard answered questions raised by literal readings, but unlike Robert, who considered his topics in academic and rather abstract ways, Richard linked the explanation of interpretive difficulties directly to the practice of virtue.

Do not be surprised by what you hear, that we ought to be fed by the lamb and to become food of the lamb, since if you remember, you read something similar: we 'put on Christ,' but nonetheless we are Christ's clothing. Therefore, presently we should become unleavened bread and be purged from all old leaven if we want to be found worthy and acceptable for that future celebration" (Richard of St Victor, Explanations, 267-8).

Leonius of Paris participated in the scholarly life at the abbey of St Victor at the end of the twelfth century (he died just after 1201). He was a prolific poet, and his best-known work is the Historie veteris testamenti, a versification of the first eight books of the Old Testament. His Book of Ruth is "a typical example of the poet's working methods and distinct interest in historical exegesis. Thus Leonius's rendition of the story follows closely the biblical narrative" (Greti Dinkova-Bruun, "Intro." to her trans. of The Book of Ruth, 480). Peter Comestor's Historia scholastica is a running commentary on the entire historical sequence of scripture, so it is similar to traditional bible commentary of the period. But van Liere's translation of chapter 47 of the Historia scholastica highlights the way Peter embraced the Victorine concern with the details of biblical chronology. Chap. 47 addresses apparent contradictions between the regnal years of the kings of Judah and Israel, and thus can be read alongside Richard of St Victor's On the Concordance of the Times of the Kings Co-ruling over Judah and Israel (also trans. by van Liere). In this work Richard also grappled with thorny chronological challenges posed by the reigns of kings Jeroboam, Nadab, Ahab, Jehoram, Jehu, etc., as presented in 1 and 2 Kings.

Other texts in vol. 6 are not bible commentaries per se, but they too illustrate the Victorines' expertise with history. A text by Hugh of St Victor called On the Three Most Important Circumstances of Deeds, that is, Persons, Places and Times (trans. Grover A. Zinn) is the preface to his Chronicon, which was a handbook to help students at the Victorine abbey employ distinctions as a means of better understanding and remembering Holy Scripture. In the preface, Master Hugh offered his "sons" memory tips and examples of how those tips might be used when learning the Psalms. The preface is thus primarily about method, so it would not have been out of place in VTT 3, the volume on theory. Richard of St Victor's On Emmanuel (intro. and trans. by van Liere) is the longest text translated in vol. 6--79 pages, excluding endnotes. Though it contains long passages of commentary, On Emmanuel was intended as a polemical treatise, a "violent invective" against Richard's co-religionist Andrew of St Victor. In his own commentary on the book of Isaiah, Andrew presented Jewish understandings of 7:14, "Behold a virgin with child will bear a son, and she shall call his name Emmanuel." Andrew did not offer the classic Christian belief that Isaiah's words foretold the birth of Christ, and Richard was incensed. How could Andrew "give the crown of victory in this debate to the Jews?" Did he not know that it was "pastorally dangerous not to offer any kind response to the Jewish arguments?" "'One should not dig a well without covering it with a lid, reducing the risk that others might fall into it and drown,' Richard said, citing Exodus 21:33-34" (van Liere, "Intro." to On Emmanuel, 35). As the first English translation of De Emmanueleto appear, this lesser-known text will likely be a needed introduction to many readers of this lesser-known Victorine conflict.

The Victorines did not ignore or disparage the allegorical and moral meanings of scripture. Far from it. So vol. 6 also contains striking examples of Victorine "mystical" interpretation, albeit again not all of them in the form of traditional bible commentaries. Richard of St Victor's He Calls to Me from Seir (229-258) is not exactly a letter and not quite a sermon. It is twenty pages of dense, repetitive, sometimes strained but always erudite explication of allthe meanings of two verses of Isaiah 21. Select examples of Victorine sermon material vividly illustrate Victorine spiritual exegesis, specifically allegorical interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A section of Richard's Book of Notes entitled On the Man who Went Down from Jerusalem to Jericho (II.12.5) catalogs the deeper, non-literal meanings of the parable: Jerusalem is heavenly contemplation, the robbers are demons, the man's wounds are evil inclinations, the Levite and priest are the ancient fathers. The Good Samaritan is of course Christ, but the donkey is the flesh, the oil is gentle consolation, the stable is the Church, and the two coins are the knowledge of the Old and New Testaments. The Book of Notes was probably Richard's most popular work, for it is available today in 236 manuscripts, the most copies of any of Richard's works that survives (Feiss, "Intro.," 450). Richard's Sermon 79: On the Day of Pentecost and Maurice of Sully's Sermon 35: For the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost elaborate on the various symbols of the parable, following the rather stylized and schematic exegetical tradition that was already ancient during the twelfth century. Maurice of Sully retired as a regular canon to the abbey of St Victor at the end of his life.

Interpretation of Scripture: Practice pairs nicely with Interpretation of Scripture: Theory. Together, both volumes present Victorine hermeneutical theory put into exegetical practice. Reading them is like taking a mini-course in twelfth-century biblical interpretation as conceived of and practiced by members of one of the exemplary Christian communities of that period. And today's leading students of that community are the ones offering the course. It is highly recommended.

Article Details