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22.08.24 Burr, The Book of Revelation

22.08.24 Burr, The Book of Revelation

David Burr, long a student of and expert on medieval Franciscan apocalyptic, has authored the latest volume in Eerdman’s series, The Bible in Medieval Tradition, The Book of Revelation. The series editors explain in the foreword that it is their intent “to place newly-translated medieval scriptural commentary into the hands of contemporary readers” in order to “[reacquaint] the church with its rich tradition of biblical interpretation” (vii). The series aims to attract a broad audience and hopes that these volumes will not only aid academic study but will also be used in “spiritual formation, preaching, discussion groups, and individual reflection” (vii).

Burr narrows his focus on medieval commentary on the Book of Revelation to Franciscan interpretations of this text during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but he anchors the Franciscan interpretive tradition firmly within the models developed by the Church Fathers and figures such as Richard of Saint Victor and Joachim of Fiore, highlighting key scholarship, both classic works and newer contributions, on the Book of Revelation and medieval apocalyptic. This volume, then, proves useful for someone who desires a general introduction to scholarship on the Book of Revelation, from Elaine Pagels’s research on the first and second centuries of the Common Era to the classic work by Joseph Ratzinger on The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure, as well as a grounding in the more recent contributions by scholars such as Alain Boureau, Kevin Madigan, Antonio Montefusco, and Sylvain Piron, among many, many others.

Burr brings together a brief tour of the Book of Revelation within its historical context in the first and second centuries of the Common Era before moving on to the reception and interpretation of this challenging and provocative text by thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Franciscan exegetes. The historical context Burr provides in the introduction and the first two chapters enables the reader to follow the complex and creative exegetical models that Franciscans developed as they drew on the work of Richard of Saint Victor (chapter 1) in concert with the apocalyptic vision of Joachim of Fiore (chapter 2). Indeed, Joachim’s written and “visual exegesis” of scripture and its connection to Church History might be the single most important influence on subsequent Franciscan commentators (87). Though Burr addresses the early Joachite tradition in the book’s third chapter, Joachim continues to loom large throughout the rest of the volume.

In the fourth chapter, Burr introduces the Franciscan Alexander Minorita (d. 1271) another key, albeit lesser, influence on Franciscan exegesis of the Apocalypse of Saint John. These two men--Joachim and Alexander--represent examples of two different models or approaches for interpreting the Book of Revelation: recapitulative on the one hand, and progressive on the other. The recapitulative model adopted by Joachim of Fiore involved reading subsequent sets of sevens within the book as retelling the same portions of Church History from different vantage points, so that the text of Revelation seemed to circle back on itself, to return to events previously recounted. The progressive model, by contrast, dispensed with this recursive view of the text, treating it instead as something that told (and foretold) the History of the Church sequentially, beginning at the beginning, and concluding with the future at the end of time.

Burr deftly analyzes the constraints each model imposed on the commentator and his vision of the past and future. Likewise, the model adopted by a commentator affected the way he saw himself positioned within God’s plan of salvation and the way he viewed Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order in the context of that plan. How a medieval Franciscan read the Book of Revelation said a lot about how he understood history: past, current, and future events, and how they interconnected to reveal hints of God’s plan for humankind.

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Franciscans, along with their mendicant confreres, the Dominicans, dominated the faculty of Theology at the University of Paris. In chapter 5, Burr identifies a mendicant model of exegesis that emerged when these Parisian masters applied scholastic argumentation to the Book of Revelation. With its series of sevens, the Apocalypse virtually begged to be analyzed according to this architectonic style, even as the fantastic nature of the visions described within the text chafed against the formal rigidity of its structure. The Parisian masters did not adopt Augustine’s division of Church History into six periods with a seventh period that endured for eternity. Instead, these mendicant commentators divided Church History into seven periods. Then, within their recapitulative approach, most theologians argued that the first four visions in the text each corresponded to all of ecclesiastical history, whereas the last three visions addressed what was to come in the end times.

For Franciscan commentators, a reading of the Apocalypse seemed to include Francis of Assisi as a pivotal figure in one way or another. Some went so far as to identify Francis as the Angel of the Sixth Seal, found in Revelation 7:2. Earlier commentators had identified this angel with Christ himself, or somewhat bizarrely yet compellingly in the case of Alexander Minorita, with Emperor Constantine (150). Later, in the fourteenth century, Peter Auriol would adopt a progressive interpretation that also identified this angel with Emperor Constantine (361). But even when commentators placed Francis within the sixth period of church history by identifying him with this apocalyptic angel, they hesitated to place themselves in the sixth period, and thus on the cusp of the last times.

In chapters 6, 7, and 8, Burr examines the apocalyptic of Bonaventure of Bagnoregio’s Collationes in hexaemeron, Peter of John Olivi’s early biblical commentaries, and Olivi’s Lectura super apocalypsim. That both of these men identified Francis with the Angel of the Sixth Seal fits with the understanding of Francis as alter Christus that we find developed in other texts such as Bonaventure’s Legenda maior as well as in visual form in the program of frescoes and mosaics in the Upper Church of the Basilica San Francesco in Assisi, which were commissioned in 1288 by Pope Nicholas IV, the former Franciscan Minister General, Jerome of Ascoli. [1] Thus, identifying Francis of Assisi, who was believed to have received the wounds of the crucifixion on his body, with the angel of the Sixth Seal in Revelation 7:2 who bore the sign of the Living God and who had more commonly been identified with Christ, made sense within the context of the understanding of Francis as alter Christus.

For Bonaventure, Francis’s identity as alter Christus spoke to more than just the degree to which Francis had imitated Christ during his life, but also made a statement about the larger place of the Franciscan Order in Church History. For Olivi, the identification of Francis as the Angel of the Sixth Seal and as alter Christus combined with his view of the Three Advents of Christ to give a greater eschatological significance to Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order.

Burr rounds out the volume in chapters 9 and 10 with the commentaries of two Franciscans who wrote around the same time that Olivi’s commentary was garnering such hostile attention from the Franciscan Order and Pope John XXII. Petrus Aurioli became the Franciscan Regent Master of Theology at the University of Paris in 1318. He served in this capacity for two years, at which point John XXII appointed him Bishop of Aix-en-Provence. Pierre most likely composed his Revelation commentary between 1319-1320 as part of a larger work on the literal sense of scripture. In the commentary, Auriol returned to the progressive analytical framework that Alexander Minorita had employed in his Apocalypse commentary. Burr notes that Pierre seems to have studiously avoided any pseudo-Joachite sources in his work. Indeed, Pierre must have been acutely aware of challenges confronting the Franciscan Order internally as well as externally, something that likely contributed to his interpretive approach and to the way he incorporated Francis of Assisi into his commentary. Like Olivi, Auriol considered Francis and the mendicants as a source of renewal within the church. However, unlike Olivi, who asserted the corruption of the institutional church, Auriol’s commentary reads as a “triumphalist tribute” to it (361).

If Auriol’s commentary was triumphalist, focusing only on challenges to the Church posed by external enemies, that of his slightly older contemporary Nicholas of Lyra adopted a more realistic tone, in which “‘the heroes and villains of history become harder to identify’” (371). Nicholas served as the Franciscan Regent Master of Theology at Paris between 1308 and 1309, and later became the Provincial Minister of France in 1319 and Provincial Minister of Burgundy in 1325. Nicholas likely completed his Apocalypse Commentary c. 1329, but it was part of a commentary on all of scripture that he began in 1322 and finished in 1332 or 1333. Like Peter Auriol and Alexander Minorita before him, Nicholas of Lyra analyzed the Book of Revelation as a continuous historical narrative, but he stopped with chapter 17 and treated what followed as depicting what would happen in the present and future. The tenor of his commentary differed starkly from that of Alexander--and even of Peter.

Unlike Alexander, who had no such points of reference, Nicholas’s historical perspective and experience of the Franciscan Order included decades of bitter struggles within the Order and with its relations with the papacy. That historical perspective and experience also comes through in Nicholas’s more nuanced view of the Crusades and Islam. Just as a privileged reading of the Franciscan Order hardly seemed possible after the first quarter of the fourteenth century, so Nicholas’s historically-informed contemporary understanding of Islam and Islamic states did not fit into a reading of the Apocalypse in which Christians were the clear victors.

In the final chapter, Burr reflects on the starting and ending points he adopted in the volume. The most thorough effort to understand the Book of Revelation within the medieval biblical tradition would begin with Old Testament and Intertestamental literature in addition to other early apocalyptic texts, but Burr chose not to replicate work already done by other scholars, including that of Richard Bauckham in Climax of Prophecy. Burr is also aware that ending with Peter Auriol and Nicholas of Lyra risks creating the impression that once these two exegetes returned to the progressive framework for interpreting the Apocalypse, the recapitulative approach lay abandoned by contemporary and future commentators. Nevertheless, this ending point is worth the risk in Burr’s estimation because it facilitates reflection on the historical nature of these medieval Franciscan Apocalypse commentaries: each of these Franciscan exegetes sought to understand the meaning of Revelation in human history, including their own times. As a late medieval figure known for his biblical scholarship, Nicholas of Lyra is a good stopping point. In his continuous reading of Revelation, Lyra sought to identify the events to which each section of the text referred, but when he performed this task, unlike other commentators, Nicholas drew on his deep historical knowledge. Burr notes that the tone of the commentary fits both with the events of the fourteenth century as well as with Nicholas’s extensive administrative experience within the Franciscan Order. These factors perhaps make Nicholas of Lyra seem more contemporary or accessible to twenty-first-century readers. By contrast, Peter of John Olivi provides a reminder that despite his radical view of history, his approach to the Apocalypse was in keeping with the way thirteenth-century commentators approached this challenging text.

This volume makes available for the first time in English translation excerpts from numerous medieval Apocalypse commentaries and other commentaries related to the interpretation of the Revelation of Saint John. These include passages from Richard of Saint Victor and Joachim of Fiore; Alexander Minorita’s commentary; a series of Parisian commentaries, including one that some have attributed to Bonaventure; Bonaventure’s Collationes in hexaemeron; Olivi’s Isaiah and Apocalypse commentaries; and commentaries by Peter Auriol and Nicholas of Lyra. Biblical references within the excerpts have been noted.

Unlike other authors in The Bible in the Middle Ages series who covered the ninth through the fourteenth centuries in their respective volumes, Burr has focused primarily on the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and within that time span, more specifically on the Franciscan interpretive tradition. The scope of this volume is admittedly narrower than volumes 1-4, but the trade-off is a thorough introduction to the key Apocalypse commentaries that influenced Franciscan exegetes as well as to the Franciscan authors themselves. With his deep knowledge of the development of the Franciscan tradition, Burr connects the friar-commentators’ exegetical approaches to and subsequent interpretation of the text to pressures that they face--within and outside of the Franciscan Order--in their own times.

This volume will prove useful for scholars of all ages who desire an overview of medieval commentaries on the Book of Revelation as well as for those interested in medieval Franciscan thought. Burr makes accessible representative and key portions of medieval exegesis on the Apocalypse for those who might not have access to the Latin sources, making the volume useful for courses or discussion groups on such topics as historical exegesis of the Book of Revelation, medieval apocalyptic, and Franciscan thought.



1. Donal Cooper and Janet Robson, The Making of Assisi: The Pope, the Franciscans, and the Painting of the Basilica, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 3.