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21.02.05 DeGregorio/Love, Bede: On First Samuel

The Medieval Review

21.02.05 DeGregorio/Love, Bede: On First Samuel


It may be a surprise to those not focused directly on early medieval England that in recent years many of the most significant developments in scholarship on Bede, a writer whose contributions one might expect to be fully plumbed since they were published in eight volumes by Johann Herwagen in 1563, have taken place in translations of items in his remarkably diverse corpus. This trend becomes even more evident if one includes books such as the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow by Christopher Grocock and I. N. Wood (2013) andBede's Latin Poetry by Michael Lapidge (2019), both beautifully produced by Oxford University Press, which offer translations alongside new editions with extensive introductions and notes. While the home of volume under review here, Translated Texts for Historians published by Liverpool University Press, might sound more humble, it has played a prominent role in these advances through its volumes which appear simultaneously as inexpensive yet high-quality paperbacks (hardback, ISBN 978-1-789-62090-0, costs £125.00). Bede: On First Samuel continues this trend and indeed rivals an earlier volume in the series, Faith Wallis's Bede: The Reckoning of Time, which transformed our understanding of his contributions to the study of the natural world. It seems Bede's project of being useful can still break new ground for those who work to the high standard he placed on himself.

As Scott DeGregorio and Rosalind Love point out in their "Introduction," in deciding to write on I Samuel, Bede set himself a difficult task because unlike other books of the Bible this one had yet to receive a commentary devoted exclusively to it. They then identify a surprising source for Bede's inspiration, books 11 to 18 of Augustine's City of God, which "turn decisively from his critique of Roman religion and philosophy in the preceding books to a genealogical account of the two cities." As they explain, "events from I Samuel hold Augustine's attention," allowing him to provide "detailed interpretations of a cluster of pivotal speeches given by characters in the story (e.g. I Sam. 2:1-10 = Hannah's canticle; I Sam. 2:27-30 = prophecy of the fall of Eli's house; I Sam. 13 = prophecy of the fall of Saul's house), each of whose words he understands as prophetic figurations of the "tremendous change that was to come in respect to the two Testaments." Their quotation of Augustine continues, "I mean that the priesthood and kingship of the Old were transformed into the priesthood and everlasting kingship of Jesus Christ in the New'" (16). The moment of this transformation is the anointment of David in I Samuel 16, which Bede placed at the beginning of his third book. His story, then, can conclude with the response to the burial of David's predecessor, Saul: "And they fasted seven days" (I Sam. 31:13).

Bede's final comment, which may serve here to provide an example of his work, also draws attention to another major advance by our translators: they have checked David Hurst's text in the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina against the Patrologia Latina, which as they explain in their introduction apparently reflects a now-lost manuscript used in a 1533 printing, and a manuscript now in Paris not used by Hurst. They list all their new readings in Appendix 1, pp. 525-28; in this case they change qui, "who," to quia, "because," identified here with italics:

"Read on the literal level, there is rightly fasting for seven days on behalf of the dead, so that they may attain rest, because after the six ages of this world in which we labour in the flesh, the seventh age is in that world, an age of rest for the souls that have put off the flesh, in which the blessed await that glorious time when they may deserve to rise again. The seventh day in the Law and the seventh or fiftieth year in which a rest from labours was given mystically foreshadow the figure of this rest and resurrection. But the Lord, who was crucified on the sixth day of the week, rested bodily in the tomb on the seventh, and rose again from the dead on the eighth, which is also the first day of the sabbath, showed the self-same example for our hope and faith by his own behaviour. But also on the allegorical level, when its faithful citizens and countrymen justifiably keep sorrow and continual grief in their hearts over the city of the Jews, who up to now observe the sabbath according to the flesh, they fast for seven days, so to speak, because their brethren and relatives still remain steadfast in error, they cannot in the least have complete joy. But when they have come to know perfectly the mystery of the eighth day, i.e. of the Lord and also of his resurrection, all of them equally by the assistance of Christ's grace will rejoice in an everlasting feast-day."

The correct reading sharpens the focus of this passage, allowing it to express more clearly a profound transformation in history which Bede, following Augustine, understood as caused by the incarnation and resurrection. It may also remind those who plan to quote this text in the future that it is now necessary to check the notes in this translation.

A more complete interpretation of Bede's closing remark would of course need to engage the DeGregorio and Love's discussion of the commentary's "Exegetical Method" (19-38), particularly their identification of a new technique which they term "impersonation exegesis" (33). Bede, they write, "does not seek merely to attach some allegorical meaning to the words spoken by these Old Testament characters, something that would hardly be remarkable in the least; instead time and again he takes their words and, preserving them as direct speech, puts them on to the lips of New Testament figures" (33). As they demonstrate in a close analysis of three passages the technique results in interpretations which are often "bizarre," "a kind of exegetical stream of consciousness, a Bedan Finnegan's Wake," which provokes them to comment, "one wonders, among other things, how he may have intended it to be received, let alone applied in some practical pastoral way" (37). Their tentative attribution of the technique to Bede's roughly contemporary interpretation of the Song of Songs, "a dramatic dialogue between a bride and a groom," but long understood in exegetical tradition "as a conversation between Christ and the Church," provides a literary explanation. A biographical one might be to recall that the commentary as written for Acca, whom, as Wallis has suggested, Bede also called David. [1] A letter addressed to him begins each book, and the fourth even describes how Acca visited Monkwearmouth-Jarrow following Ceolfrith's sudden departure in 716 to confirm Hwaetberht, also known as Eusebius, as the new leader of the monastery.

Readers of this outstanding work will discover many other strengths; genuine mistakes are few. To start with one of the latter, although the editors record Bede's many uses of Jerome's De nominibus hebraicis, the role of etymology in the commentary receives little attention (see the "Index of Sources and Allusions" which includes only three of the references), especially when compared to that devoted to number symbolism (see 26-27, and the "General Index"). In contrast, future scholars would do well to note the cautionary remarks directed at Alan Thacker's interpretation of the political events of 716 and specifically to his claim that "Bede seems to have made a covert allusion to Osred's death, or at least to the conspiracy against him in Book 2 of Samuel" (48). They write, "nowhere in On First Samuel is there an explicit reference to contemporary secular rulers, or to Osred's death, or to a conspiracy by Monkwearmouth-Jarrow monks" (48-49). Their reference, however, to Historia ecclesiastica 5.20 to support the claim that Acca became bishop of Hexham in 710 is wrong. More significant is the previous chapter, which dates the death of his predecessor, Wilfrid, to the year Cenred renounced the throne of Mercia to travel to Rome, an event recorded under 709 in the chronology at the end of the work. Their date actually rests on liturgical evidence noted by Wilhelm Levison and more recently supported by Clare Stancliffe. [2] Aside from the light it may cast on Bede's relationship to Acca, his David, and his understanding of the clergy as linked to Christ through anointment, this problem has little relevance to their study. It may nevertheless recall the profound debt we owe Bede and the translators of this immensely complicated work for their efforts to unravel history.

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Notes:

1. Faith Wallis, "Why Did Bede Write a Commentary on Revelation?" in Bede and the Future, ed. Peter Darby and Wallis (London: Routledge, 2014), 23-45, at 28-29.

2. Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford, 1946), 278-79; and Clare Stancliffe, "Dating Wilfrid's Death and Stephen's Life," in Wilfrid: Abbot, Bishop, Saint. Papers from the 1300th Anniversary Conferences, ed. N. J. Higham (Donington, Lincolnshire, 2013), 17-26.​