Illuminating Justice

The Ethical Imagination of the Saint John's Bible

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Jonathan Homrighausen
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , July
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this attractive, slim volume, Jonathan Homrighausen offers a stimulating account of the “ethical imagination” of the illuminations of the St. John’s Bible (hereafter SJB). Commissioned by the monks at St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University in 1998, the SJB was produced by renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson in collaboration with other artists under the direction of a Committee for Illumination and Text from the greater St. John’s Community. Completely hand-written and hand-illuminated, the SJB follows the conventions of premodern illuminated manuscripts prior to the invention of the printing press. 

Homrighausen’s Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of the Saint John's Bible has the distinction of being the first monograph written about the SJB by someone not involved in the production and oversight of the project. He possesses an intimate familiarity with the SJB, though, having worked with the Heritage Edition of the SJB housed in the Archives and Special Collections at Santa Clara University during his master’s work in the Graduate Theological Union. He has also taught its content to various ecclesial and academic groups, and frequently points readers to the other monographs and essays written on the SJB by those involved in its production and oversight. Homrighausen brings his own extensive, hands-on familiarity with the SJB together with insights from contemporary biblical scholarship, contextual theologies, modern Catholic encyclicals, and events in modern history to demonstrate the beauty and moral gravitas of its imagery. He shows that the SJB is not merely a version of the Bible but is itself a work of committed and creative moral theology. As such, it stands as a dynamic, artistic invitation to theological and ethical reflection for contemporary Christian readers.

Following an introductory chapter on hermeneutical issues that treats the plurivocal nature of scripture, intertextuality, and the dynamics of artistic persuasion, Homrighausen examines three “canonical conversations” carried out through the illuminations of the SJB (7). In each “conversation,” Homrighausen identifies and comments upon the visual or iconographic intertexts which link the illuminations of the SJB together through both Testaments. The first “conversation” concerns imagery relevant to Jewish-Christian dialogue and the inseparable relationship between the Old and New Testaments, especially in the light of Jewish-Catholic dialogue in the 20th and 21st centuries. Homrighausen weaves together that history with keen analysis of the imagery of menorahs and the Star of David. He also examines the intentional focus on the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul in the illuminations of the SJB, and the ways in which the “subtle typology [of the SJB] ... does not dominate the Old Testament illuminations” (41, italics original). 

The second iconographic conversation Homrighausen examines is the dignity of women in the iconography of the SJB. He draws together a broad reading of the resources of feminist exegesis and hermeneutics with analysis of the depictions of Eve, Deborah, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Huldah, the women of the Gospels, “Woman Wisdom,” and the woman of Revelation 12, which “symbolically unifies many of the powerful models of womanhood throughout the [SJB]” (67). The final and shortest visual conversation examines imagery of the created world in the SJB in conversation with the gains of modern ecology and the emphasis on care for creation in recent Catholic social teaching. He points readers to the scientific imagery, including DNA strands, binary code, and astronomical imagery, present in various key illuminations to show the SJB’s up-to-date concern with the reconciliation of all things—from the smallest sub-atomic realities to the heavenly spheres—in the work of God.

From start to finish, Illuminating Justice exhibits the communal and traditioned nature of Christian scriptural production and interpretation. While it, and the SJB itself, does reflect the influences and gains of premodern Christian reverence for, and use, of scripture, the wells of communal tradition it draws uponare more diverse and decidedly contemporary when considered against the backdrop of the history of premodern scriptural illumination. Homrighausen ably demonstrates how the SJB exhibits the recent theological gains of non-proselytizing dialogue with the Jewish people, feminist exegesis and hermeneutics, and the resources of contemporary scientific understandings of ecology as addressed in contemporary Catholic social teaching. As a learned and attentive docent of such themes, Homrighausen demonstrates how the SJB reflects such concerns through its beauty and how it can delicately but compellingly move its readers towards such concerns through its beautiful persuasion. 

It is hard to find fault with a monograph that accomplishes its goals so well, and I have nothing critical to say about Homrighausen’s broad research or clear writing. Illuminating Justice exhibits the youthful enthusiasm of a graduate student, but it is far from immature. It is a work of serious theological reflection which deserves a wide audience. From a theological perspective, while the SBJ performatively exhibits the fruitfulness of a ressourcement of the customs of premodern illuminated manuscripts, its theological emphases do not reflect all of the key achievements of those traditions, such as the nomina sacra. For Christian readers who receive the text as Christian scripture, the plurivocity of scripture has traditionally and fruitfully been constrained by the hermeneutical key of the rule of faith, or the conviction that the one God of Israel is reconciling all things through the work of his Son and the Holy Spirit. The text of scripture is an invitation to love and do justice, which the SJB and Homrighausen demonstrate well, but that justice is grounded in the character of the living God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:13). With help from Homrighausen, the SJB can help Christian readers of Christian scripture better understand the themes of justice present within scripture itself. But more importantly, it can point those with Christian faith towards the reconciling, just intentions of the Triune God to whom it bears witness.

Illuminating Justice is a gorgeous book, with over sixty-five images including beautiful reproductions of all the illuminations discussed by Homrighausen. It will be accessible to non-specialists, but scholars of the history of biblical manuscripts and biblical illumination and those in the theological academy interested in the key themes of the work—Jewish-Christian dialogue, feminist exegesis and hermeneutics, and care for creation—should take special note of this significant achievement. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph K. Gordon is Associate Professor of Theology at Johnson University.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Homrighausen is currently pursuing a PhD in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Duke University. He spent two years with the Heritage Edition of The Saint John's Bible while working in Archives & Special Collections at Santa Clara University. He is co-author, with J. David Pleins, of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student's Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2017).


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