Biblical Commentary and Translation in Later Medieval England
Experiments in Interpretation
- ISBN: 9781108486644
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: April 2020
By opening his study with Richard Rolle's glosses on the Psalms, Andrew Kraebel sets a clear tone for the rest of his book Biblical Commentary and Translation in Later Medieval England: Experiments in Interpretation. Kraebel looks at late medieval English commentary-translations of the Bible as simultaneously scholastic and experimental, and he ends with a claim that the continuity between medieval and Reformation literary traditions should be traced back to the pioneering efforts of Rolle (186). He argues that "commentary-translations" (a term he uses to resist the dichotomy between scholastic commentary and vernacular translation; 7-9) "serve as a site of intellectual and interpretive creativity and experimentation" (3). In other words, commentary-translations are experimental literature that allow exegetes to interact with past voices, to test out innovative ways of reading, to incorporate newer hermeneutical theories, to contribute to the interpretive tradition they inherited, to develop vernacular translations or glosses, to blend the devotional and the academic, and to highlight different senses of Scripture, which they believe to be multifaceted and inexhaustible.
In chapter 1, Kraebel first goes over the attempts of medieval theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyre, to formulate overarching hermeneutical principles about the literal sense of the entirety of Scripture, as opposed to interpretive traditions specific to individual books of the Bible (21-28). He then surveys three English exegetes on the Psalms—Thomas Waleys (d. 1349), Nicholas Trevet (d. 1334), and Henry Cossey (d. 1336). For Waleys, the literal sense of the Psalms is the Christological sense, and this represents an older, pre-Thomistic approach to the Psalms as an individual book. Trevet, on the other hand, prefers the recent Thomistic approach and dismisses earlier exegeses as non-literal. For him, the psalmist wrote about his own experiences. Cossey, who "insisted on innovating from within the tradition" (49), tried to refine earlier Christological readings in light of newer Thomistic theories, and this resulted in the notion that the psalmist's prophetic insight and authorial inspiration coincide (41-42).
In chapter 2 Kraebel examines Wyclif's postilla on the entire Bible, a scholastic project which Wyclif continued to revise throughout his life. Despite his view that the written text of the biblical codex is of the lowest importance (compared to Christ, the “Book of Life”), Wyclif takes the task of biblical commentary seriously. In what Kraebel calls "hermeneutic eclecticism," Wyclif relies selectively on different sources, methods, or approaches in his commentary, but he maintains a general sense that the Psalms are Christological (57, 64-65).
Chapter 3 zeroes in on Richard Rolle, the hermit whose commentary on the Psalms (both in Latin and, later, in vernacular English) blends mysticism and scholastic exegesis. Rolle adapts scholastic discourse on the Psalms so that he could exegete the Psalms as "divinely inspired descriptions of the ideal religious life" within the scholastic framework (94). As a contemplative who has enjoyed supernatural ecstasy, Rolle presents himself as the ideal speaker of the Psalms, and his own mystical experiences are borne out by the text. By translating Scripture into English and then supplying it with expositions, Rolle pioneers the format of commentary-translation and creates something that is at once devotional and academic (104-107).
In chapter 4, Kraebel investigates an unstudied manuscript on Matthew, likely of Durham origin (145-46), which experimentally "[blurs] literalism into tropology" using the commentary-translation format (136). For example, on Matthew 26:2, it explains the terms pascha (Passover) and azyme (Festival of Unleavened Bread) (cf. Luke 22:1) in order to make a point about Christian moral living after Christ's paschal crucifixion (139). Likewise, on the Latin term quemdam ("some man") in Matthew 26:18, the commentary exploits the thorny issue of Christ's words vs. the Gospel writer's formulation in order to make a tropological claim about the readers' welcoming of Christ (142). All of these chapters help substantiate his argument that medieval English commentary-translations are dynamic, experimental, academic, and innovative, and they allow exegetes to grapple with different sets of interpretive premises or concerns.
In so arguing, Kraebel helpfully challenges a number of assumptions, including the caricature of medieval Latin glosses as a way for clerical commentators to dogmatically impose the meaning upon the biblical text, thus shutting down further discussions, or the Reformation-era idea that medieval commentators such as Wyclif rejected scholasticism, thereby paving the way for later Protestant reformers (5-6, 19, 187). Rather, he points out, medieval exegetes were interested in "extending earlier exegetical undertakings, opening the biblical text to new interpretive possibilities without foreclosing others" (6), and their commentary-translations, rather than abandoning scholasticism, very much partook in the larger scholastic discourse (6-7). This is a topic Kraebel returns to in his epilogue "John Bale's Dilemma," wherein he gives a thoughtful account of the reception of medieval commentary-translations during the English Reformation, particularly the division Bale creates between commentaries and vernacular translation, showing partiality towards the latter, and this sets him up to pit translation against commentaries, and by extension, Protestant biblicism against scholasticism (19, 184).
Kraebel's treatment of the kinds of exegetical issues or priorities at play in medieval English biblical scholarship is meticulous and generally easy to follow. However, some issues can be raised. For instance, concerning his presentation, since he discusses so many kinds of "literal sense" (prophetic, historical, divine, Jesus vs. Gospel authors' intent) throughout the book, it would be worthwhile to give an overview of the different ways to understand the literal sense from the outset, instead of introducing them piecemeal as they come up. This would help readers easily compare and contrast them. Secondly, he makes occasional references to medieval exegetes' recourses to Jewish interpretations (for example, Rashi) in order to uncover the literal sense of the biblical text. How did Jewish sources shape these English exegetes' understandings of the literal sense, especially when medieval Jewish interpreters also worked with divergent understandings of the senses of Scripture, as, to give one example, the disagreement between Rashi and Rashbam on the peshat (the "literal sense") shows?
Still, these minor problems do not compromise the usefulness of this book, which supplies further reason that biblical scholars must take reception history seriously. Much of this discussion on medieval English commentary-translations resonates with the debates about "academic vs. ecclesial," "critical vs. pre-critical," or "historical vs. confessional" engagements with Scripture in the field of biblical studies. As someone in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament studies, I have benefited greatly from this book and am even more convinced of the need for an interdisciplinary approach to biblical studies.
Tyng-Guang Chu is a PhD student at Duke University.Tyng-Guang ChuDate Of Review:October 31, 2023