Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
18.03.13, Kerns, trans., intro by DelCogliano, Gregory the Great

18.03.13, Kerns, trans., intro by DelCogliano, Gregory the Great

This is the second of the projected six volumes devoted to translating Gregory's massive and very influential commentary on the book of Job, which began as a series of discourses for the group of monks who accompanied him from Rome to Constantinople when he moved there, around 570, to take up the role of apocrisiarius or papal legate. When later revised, the finished product, covering the entirety of Job, would stand as one of the longest works of biblical exegesis to emerge intact from the Middle Ages. The staggering size of this commentary is surely why prospective translators have balked at it, and for this reason alone Brian Kerns deserves applause for undertaking so daunting a task. What he has produced here, as in the other volumes that have appeared to date, no doubt improves upon the at-times inscrutable, anonymous, Oxford Library of the Fathers translation (1844), hitherto the only other complete version in English. The partitioning into six English volumes is to be applauded as well since it preserves the original structure of the Latin, with its exposition organized into 35 books divided into six codices. The present volume encompasses part two in this six-part scheme, running from Book 6 to Book 10 of the Moralia, which treat Job 5:3-12:5.

The gains in intelligibility are clear from a comparison of almost any given passage in these two English versions. The opening sentences of Book 9, first in Gregory's Latin, then in the two translations, are given here.

"Peruersae mentes si semel ad studium contrarietatis eruperint, siue prauum, seu rectum quid a contradicentibus audiant, aduersis hoc responsionibus impugnant quia cum persona per contrarietatem displicet, nec recta quae protulerit placent. At contra bonorum corda quibus in odium non uenit persona, sed culpa, sic peruersa diiudicant ut recta quae dicuntur assumant. Discernendis quippe contradicentium sensibus aequissimi arbitri resident et sic male prolata respuunt, ut tamen approbent quae ex ueritate cognoscunt."

"Bad minds, if they have once broken out into the eagerness of opposition, whether what they hear from those that withstand them be right or wrong, assail it with contradictory replies; for whereas the speaker is unwelcome from being in opposition, not even what is right is welcome when he utters it. But, on the other hand, the hearts of the good, whose dislike rises not at the speaker but at the offence, in such sort pass sentence on what is amiss, as to adopt still any right things that are said. For they sit the most even umpires in deciding the sense of their opponents' words, and they so reject what is put forth amiss, that notwithstanding they set the seal upon what they recognise to be delivered in truth" (Oxford Library of the Fathers, 494).

"Once perverse people exert themselves against resolute opposition, it does not matter whether they hear their opponents utter what is correct or what is false; they will take the opposite position, because the opponents displease them merely for their opposition, and even when the opponent speak the truth, they will not accept it. As for good people, on the other hand, hatred of any person does not enter their hearts, only hatred of sin; accordingly they evaluate perversity in such a way that they accept the truth that is spoken. They are the fairest judges of the intentions of the adversaries, and their method of denying false charges allows them to accept whatever truth they recognize" (Kerns, 241).

The 1844 version is, as one might expect, archaic and stilted if not outrightly comic by today's English standards, e.g. "the most even umpires" for Gregory's aequissimi arbitri, which Kerns translates as "the fairest judges." But while the whole of Kern's translation improves upon its predecessor, one might question some of his decisions. Surely ad studium contrarietatis eruperint, which Kerns renders "exert themselves against resolute opposition," more naturally means "start ranting against a fierce contrary view." In the next sentence the words "it does not matter" do not appear in the Latin. More could have been done to emphasize the antithesis between "minds" and "hearts" --mentes...corda, a very common contrast in Gregory--which is lost when Kerns renders corda bonorum as "good people." Again, "evaluate perversity" is a rather strange way to translate peruersa diiudicant, which in plainer English means "condemn bad behavior," while in the next sentence "intentions" appears to entirely miss the sense of Gregory's discernendis.

In keeping with the other volumes of the series, this one has an introduction written by Mark DelCogliano, who has proven himself to be a very perceptive reader of Gregory's biblical exegesis, among other things with his own fine translation of one of Gregory's commentaries, also published by Cistercian Publications. Yet with the introduction to the volume as well one might raise questions--certainly not criticisms because, as just noted, DelCogliano knows his Gregory and has an admirable writing style to match his enviable knowledge of the material. The question is not about competence but about the chosen scope of the thirty pages that introduce this particular volume. These pages, entitled "On the Necessary Intermingling of the Good and the Bad," are devoted almost entirely to explaining a specific Gregorian topos, namely the mixed nature of the Church in the saeculum, where good and bad people, saints and sinners, virtues and vices, must co-exist, until they are at last definitely sorted out and separated in the life to come. DelCogliano explores this topic in very great detail, noting its prevalence and permutations across the Gregorian corpus, the stock biblical verses that underpin and occasion it, and how Gregory's treatment of it compares to that of Augustine. In all, it reads more like an essay on this one aspect of Gregory's thought than an introduction to the specificities of the given books of the Moralia that comprise this volume. To be fair, DelCogliano's interest in this topic appears to the occasioned by the fact that, in this section of commentary, Gregory has to deal more with the words of Job's three pugnacious interlocutors, Epliphaz, Bildad and Zohar, whom he associates with heretics, so that there is need to separate the false and the true which heretics are wont to mix together. Still, I would prefer to read an introduction that addresses much more broadly various specificities of Books 6-10 of Gregory's Moralia. For example, as DelCogliano notes, part two is significant because by this point Gregory's focus has turned entirely to commenting on the moral meaning of the text, having abandoned his original plan to include the literal and typical senses as well. Discussion of how this change has shaped the exegesis found in Books 6-10 would no doubt help readers ease their way into the exegetical maze that one can all too easily get lost in while trying to follow Gregory's train of thought. DelCogliano's introduction, at least to me, reads more like a journal article or book chapter--to be sure an excellent one at that!--than an introduction to a translation. Some of this, to be fair, may result from the fact that this specific volume is part of a six-volume work, and that DelCogliano must face the somewhat odd task of having to write six different introductions without repeating himself to death.

Like the other books published by Cistercian Publications, this volume is handsomely produced, but it is regrettable that annotations throughout are very sparse and no attempt at all has been made to present Gregory's use of sources, either in the footnotes or via an index at the back of the book (though an index of scriptural citations is provided). In any case, when completed, this complete translation of one of the greatest works of medieval exegesis will perforce be on the bookshelves of all students of Gregory and early medieval bible commentary.