Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Text and Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Here’s more from Richard Muller, with some scintillating and not-well-known commentary from John Bugay:

The issue of text and interpretation was further complicated by the many popular Bibles of the Middle Ages, both Latin and vernacular, prose and verse, and by the interrelationship of Scripture, tradition, and legend with the medieval identification of the literal meaning of the text and the temporal sojourn of the people of God as historia.

Note that even the most famous Medieval writer, Thomas Aquinas, blended very much “legend” with his theology and philosophy. For example, the “global influence of Dionysius on the metaphysic of Aquinas”, according to Francis O’Rourke, “extends to such central questions as the very nature of existence, the hierarchy of beings, the nature of God, and the theory of creation” (O’Rourke, “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphyics of Aquinas”, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, © 1992, 2005, pg xvi).

This is even though Aquinas (and others of his era) mistakenly thought that the fifth-century writer “Pseudo-Dionysius” was actually the companion of Paul from Acts 17.

Similarly, Aquinas’s Contra errors Graecorum, written in 1263, (commissioned by the Curia for Pope Urban IV), relied very heavily on the Symmachan forgeries, the forged “Donation of Constantine”, and the “Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals”.

You don’t find many loose copies of that major work of Aquinas lying around – a testimony to Rome’s tidiness in the face of its own profound embarrassments.

Works like the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais and the Speculum humanae salvationis of Ludolph of Saxony functioned as biblical paraphrases that mediated the sacred history of the Scriptures together with legendary additions and augmentations, some of which, in the case of the latter work, come from ancient secular history, and virtually all of which serve the underlying hermeneutical purpose of manifesting the movement through history from obscurely promised salvation under the Old Testament to clearly offered redemption under the New.

The typological interpretation of the entirety of history by means of the New Testament fulfillment is not only characteristic of these works and others of their type, it is also the basis, by way of these popular Bibles, of much of the art of the Middle Ages.

This gradual accommodation of the text to its interpretation and the “corruption” of the text through scribal errors did not pass unnoticed during the scholastic era. Virtually at the same point that the Paris text, the Glossa ordinaria, and Lombard’s Sententia became standard components of a highly organized and interrelated program of theological study, the text of the Vulgate itself became the subject of debate.

Even in the twelfth century a few theologians had raised questions about the relationship of the Vulgate to the Hebrew Old Testament: at the beginning of the century (1109), Stephen Harding, abbot of Citeaux, had excised, with the help of a convert from Judaism, passages in the Vulgate not found in the original Hebrew.

Similar efforts characterize the work of another Cistercian of the twelfth century, Nicholas Manjacoria. Nicholas had studied Hebrew and worked to remove additions that had been made to the text of the Vulgate. He specifically singled out for criticism the idea that the most elaborate version of a text was the best, and he spelled out his approach to the text at length in a treatise, the Libellus de corruptione et correptione Psalmorum (ca. 1145). Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141) had also noted textual corruptions in the Vulgate.

In the thirteenth century, particularly in the great teaching orders, there was a concerted effort to disentangle text and gloss and even to correct the text on the basis of the Hebrew and Greek originals.

Thus, Hugh of St. Cher tested the text of the Vulgate against Jerome’s commentaries, several pre-Carolingian codices, and the Hebrew text.

So extensive was this effort that Hugh and his associates produced a supplement to the gloss—in effect, “a new apparatus to the whole Bible.”

On the one hand, Hugh superintended the production of a massive concordance organized alphabetically; on the other, he developed a new set of postils or annotations on the entire Bible in which he emphasized parallels between texts and stressed, as did his contemporaries Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, the priority of the literal sense as the basis for the examination of the other three senses of Scripture.

The thirteenth century was, moreover, responsible for the standardization of the text and its chapter divisions in the so-called Paris text, begun by Stephen Langton and carried forward in the corrections of Hugh of St. Cher and in the adept edition of William de la Mare, who knew both Hebrew and Greek.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation Of Theology (2nd ed., pp. 33–35). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

I’ve been publishing selections from Richard Muller’s Volume 2, dealing with the doctrine of Scripture through the Middle Ages, here at Triablogue, at the following links:

Richard Muller, “Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics”, Volume 2: Scripture, September 25, 2014

“Scripture interprets Scripture” through the centuries, October 2, 2014

The Medieval Biblical Canon Revisited, October 3, 2014

How Scripture and Tradition Became Conflated in the Middle Ages, October 13, 2014


  1. It looks Trent was wrong in suggesting that the Vulgate is the only authentic bible that needs no correction. However i don't think Trent's decree is no longer relevant considering that Rome since Vatican 2 has released corrected versions of the Vulgate and no longer deems it as the only authentic version of the bible.

    1. Trent was not only wrong, it was ridiculous, in its pronouncements on the Vulgate. Whatever Vatican II may have done, it does not undo the ridiculous nature of Trent.

  2. I understand, but is that decree from Trent still relevant to today's Roman Catholic Church and modern day Roman Catholics. in light of the developments post Vatican 2?

    1. They would just as well forget what they formerly said, if they could get away with it. Roman scholars have ways of re-shaping what their doctrines say:

      “Essential to a critical interpretation of church documents is the realization that the Roman Catholic Church does not change her official stance in a blunt way. Past statements are not rejected but are requoted with praise and then reinterpreted at the same time” (Raymond E. Brown, “The Critical Meaning of the Bible,” New York, NY: Paulist Press ©1981, Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur, pg 18 fn 41).