Blogging Benedict: The Rule and the Bible

An immediate concern of many Protestants when they meet a text such as the Rule of St Benedict will undoubtedly be, ‘What about the Bible?’ First, as I observed in my post on the Rule of St Benedict’s last chapter, St Benedict does not believe that his little rule for beginners is the be-all and end-all of the Christian life, nor even the first or best place to look for instruction. He upholds, first and foremost, the Bible.

In fact, the Rule is saturated with the Scriptures. Benedict quotes the Bible on almost every page. Many of the rules governing the life of his monks are based directly on biblical precepts or principles. Some paragraphs include whole chains of biblical citations. Benedict is using the Bible throughout the Rule; it informs him at almost every turn.

Not only this, but he continually recommends reading the Bible and integrates it into monastic life. If you want to learn holiness, St Benedict will tell you to read your Bible. From what I can tell, the Bible is the main book read by Benedictines (and other sixth-century monks) during times of lectio. They are spending hours of every day reading and thinking about Scripture.

This emphasis on Scripture and it study will pervade the history of Benedictine monasticism in its various forms. Looking at the hand-list of Durham Cathedral Priory’s manuscripts (it is not a complete description of each manuscript’s contents so there are likely some commentaries I’ve missed), we find at least 69 manuscripts containing parts of the Bible; many of these are glossed, and an entire pandect Bible from the Middle Ages is rare; the Bible is huge when written by hand on parchment, even in minuscule hands. I also identify 33 manuscripts of commentaries and Bible reading aids; more are undoubtedly there, since I see many famous Bible commentators in the list, but I don’t have time to hunt them down.

From another approach, consider a few Benedictine types. The Venerable St Bede (672-735) is well-known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but most of his life was devoted to writing commentaries on the Bible. In the generation after Bede, Alcuin (735-804), besides working on correcting the biblical text of the Vulgate, wrote on Song of Songs and Genesis. Hrabanus Maurus (780-856) also wrote commentaries on the Bible. Or consider St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the famous Cistercian father — one of his most popular and famous works is a commentary on the Song of Songs. William of St Thierry wrote commentaries and aids to biblical interpretation.

Moreover, if you read the works of the Benedictine tradition that are not Bible commentaries, they demonstrate a strong familiarity with the Bible and are informed by biblical theology at every turn.

Besides these approaches to Scripture, Benedictines sing Psalms and have multiple Bible readings at each of the seven offices. The monastic life of the Rule is saturated in Scripture as a result. Indeed, I’ve always thought it grimly funny that in the Scottish Reformation, the Tironensians (a reforming order like Cistercians) of Arbroath were allowed to live out their last days in peace at the abbey so long as they didn’t sing the office! The office is approximately 90% Scripture if not more. The strict office of the Rule is one of the most Presbyterian things in the Middle Ages — a cappella Psalms, after all!!

So, fear not. One of the first pieces of wisdom to take from the Rule of St Benedict is: Read the Bible. Mark the Bible. Inwardly digest the Bible. Meditate on Scripture, pray Scripture, study Scripture. If you want to know the path to holiness, read Scripture.

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Even stronger evidence that you have Pseudo-Isidore in your hands

A Pseudo-Isidore Manuscript (not one I’ve seen)

Today at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, after long toil with the formerly-discussed Pseudo-Isidorian manuscript, I got my hands on another. I opened the large, hefty book, turned to the first folio of vellum parchment and smiled. My smile was not due solely to the highly-readable, fifteenth-century book hand nor the illumination in the upper left corner of the page.

There before me was his name in bold, red uncial:

ISIDORUS MERCATOR

This name — not ‘Isidorus Hispalensis’ — is the strongest evidence that you have not Isidore of Seville or any Spanish collection of canonical material but, rather, Pseudo-Isidore, the Frankish Carolingian forger/ group of forgers (about whom there is a highly readable blog by a Pseudo-Isidorian scholar).

I was happy to hold this huge book in my hands today. And happy to find Leo, Epistula JK †451. This letter is a forgery about the rights of … chorepiscopi! And sent, of all places, to all the bishops of Germania and Gaul. Hm …

Anyway, good times with forgeries today, in other words.

What are the lessons my tired mind can give you, drawn from the deep well of faked wisdom that is Pseudo-Isidore? Here are two:

1. This ms contains 56 letters attributed to Leo. Only one of them, the letter universis Germaniarum et Galliarum regionum episcopis is definitively a forgery. There is debate about at least one other letter in there. The lesson? Pseudo-Isidore, although we know compiled by a forger, is like the church. The tares and the wheat exist side by side. Therefore, when we get our hands on this influential canonical collection, we should not reject it out of hand. For the holy can be found even in the work edited by a known sinner (forger, that is).

2. Church history is messy. So is the church today. This letter about chorepiscopi was forged to help protect the rights of bishops who were being used as pawns in secular politics. True, some of them were also moving the pieces of the Carolingian chess board. This is the danger of mixing your politics and your religion. As argued by Augustine in City of God (I think; if I’m wrong, it’s ’cause I should go to bed), we should wish to have Christian rulers who seek justice, but the clergy shouldn’t seek to be the rulers themselves. If Hincmar and friends had kept these sorts of things in mind, or if Lothar and brothers hadn’t tried manipulating the church into doing what they wanted, perhaps Pseudo-Isidore would never have existed.

But I’m glad for Pseudo-Isidore. It is one of the moments when things come together. All sorts of authentic material relating to canon law is brought together in Pseudo-Isidore and then expanded and copied and recopied for centuries. This is a good thing.

Codex Vaticanus and Me

Page from the 19th-century photo-facsimile of Vaticanus

I am currently engaged in the first semester of a year-long Master of Theology, ‘Theology in History’ at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity (hereafter known as ‘New College’).  In the year 2000, New College purchased a facsimile of Codex VaticanusVaticanus may well be the oldest manuscript of the Greek Bible we have (from the 300s).  If it isn’t, Codex Sinaiticus is.

I had the opportunity of sitting in a glass room at New College’s library (well within sight of the librarians, I can assure you) and perusing this 6000-dollar volume.

It is a beautiful book.  The pages are heavyweight paper with an exact image of what Vaticanus itself, off in the Vatican looks like (not on vellum — 365 goats for the original are enough, thank you very much).  The pages are all funny sizes and shapes.  They have the holes in the pages where the real codex has its holes.  The decorations are reproduced in full colour.  The rubber stamps from the Vatican Library are clearly visible on the opening pages.

It is a thing of beauty.

Most of Vaticanus is written in uncials — big, block letters that are fairly square in shape and quite easy to read.  You can take a look at the late 19th-century photo-facsimile here (it is much less awesome than the new facsimile).  The first bit and last bit of this old book went missing at some point, so in the fifteenth century someone recopied the missing bits.  Those bits are harder to read, written out in minuscules — tiny, flowy script that runs together and is beautiful yet illegible to the untrained eye.  I deciphered ‘In the beginning, made’ from Genesis 1 before giving up.  No doubt the next word was ‘theos‘.

The beginning of each book has a non-iconic decoration at the top of the column and the first letter written large and in colour.  This makes reading easier, since both uncials and minuscules leave no breaks between words and lack serious punctuation.  The result is large, rectangular columns of text.  Very geometric.

Of course, the Psalms are verse.  Rather than three columns of uncials, you get two.  And they have indentations and uneven lines.  I liked the look of the Psalms in Vaticanus.

Scattered throughout this massive book are scholia, marginal writings by scribes.  They are mostly in minuscule, and there is a page in Proverbs where the margins are entirely filled with text, including the gap between the columns.  I didn’t notice this fact during my own perusal but only later when our professor brought the facsimile to class.  I wonder if that page is Proverbs 8 …

One scholion was comprised of several brief lines of uncial text that got gradually smaller until coming to a point, sort of like the blade of a dagger.

People tend to use these beautiful old books as sources for disembodied texts such as the New Testament, the Septuagint, the ancient classics.  Yet a look at Vaticanus makes you realise that these manuscripts are pieces of material culture.  They are remnants of an age long-past, held together sometimes by sheer force of will (in the case of the sixth-century Codex Alexandrinus in the British Library, divided into four parts, so not even sheer force of will kept that one together).

They are lovely.  They are pieces of art.  They exhibit very fine craftsmanship.

These days, palaeography and textual criticism are starting to look a bit more attractive to me …