Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.08.02


D.J. Nodes, Doctrine and Exegesis in Biblical Latin Poetry. ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs, vol. 31. Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1993. Pp.133 + bibliog. and index. £20. ISBN 0905205863.


Reviewed by John Petruccione, The Catholic University of America.

In this monograph D.J. Nodes sets out to demonstrate how the epic Latin poets of the fourth and fifth centuries used their verse to expound and teach orthodox Christian theological and cosmological doctrine. N. argues that every work, regardless of how closely it may follow the bible story, must rest on some presuppositions regarding the meaning of scripture and thus of "fundamental points of doctrine" (p. 6). He, therefore, purposes to elucidate the poets' doctrine by studying their reception, rejection, or elaboration of exegetical tradition. Focusing exclusively on the narratives of creation and patriarchal history, he takes within his purview only those poems relating the events of Genesis: Proba's Cento (ca. 360), the Heptateuch of Cyprianus Gallus (early fifth c.), the Metrum in Genesim of Ps.-Hilarius (440-61), the Alethia of Marius Claudius Victor (ca. 450), the Laudes Dei of Dracontius (late fifth c.) and the De Spiritalis Historiae Gestis of Avitus (490-507). Thus the better-known practitioners of New Testament epic, including Juvencus, the founder of biblical epic and of all Christian poetry (Evangeliorum Libri IV, ca. 325), Sedulius (Paschale Carmen, ca. 470), and Arator (Historia Apostolica, 554) are excluded. N.'s selection is, however, remarkably broad, in the number of works discussed, the variety of social and cultural contexts in which they originated, and their enormous differences of style and manner of composition.

N. studies these poets as heirs to and late-antique participants in the patristic enterprise of clarifying the beliefs of Christianity in agreement with and opposition to other theological and philosophical movements of the Mediterranean world. His work is, therefore, a necessary supplement to earlier studies, including that of Michael Roberts, Biblical Epic and Rhetorical Paraphrase in Late Antiquity (1985 = vol. 16 of this same series). While showing considerable interest in their Christian ethos, Roberts' work concentrates on the authors' debt to classical rhetorical and poetic tradition; he does not consider their interest in teaching points of dogma and only occasionally refers to their use of earlier biblical exegesis. Analyzing programmatic passages from Victorius, Proba, and Avitus, N. points out (pp. 10-20) that these poets insist on their desire to instruct and on the significance and correctness of their teaching. In their handling of doctrinal themes, he perceives (pp. 129-30) a spectrum ranging from "the purely allusive" (Cyprian's Heptateuch) to the "overtly explanatory" (e.g., Victor's Alethia). Although N. fails to make this point, his decision to treat only O.T. poetry increases the controversial interest of his work, for previous scholarship has consistently emphasized that teaching and exegesis play in O.T. epic a role much less prominent than in poetry based on the N.T. (e.g., Roberts, p. 181).

To equip himself for this task, N., already the editor of an abbreviated edition of Avitus (Avitus: The Fall of Man, De Spiritalis Historiae Gestis Libri I-III, Toronto, 1985 = Toronto medieval Latin texts, vol. 16), has made himself master of the various streams of the exegesis of Genesis that had become traditional by the fourth and fifth cc. He has read not only the most important commentaries by Origen, Basil, Ambrose, and Augustine but has also searched for relevant material in theological and exegetical works not primarily concerned with Genesis. He can thus draw on many lesser as well as more influential exegetes: Theophilus of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Commodian, Novatian, and Maximus of Turin alongside of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hilary. His reading embraces medieval exegetes such as Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, and Peter Comestor, and the poet, Odo of Tournai. In addition to Christian authors, he has consulted Philo and the rabbinical tradition where these are relevant. The chronological scope and breadth of his erudition impart authority to his judgements.

N. devotes the bulk of his work to explicating the Trinitarian, Christological (ch. 2, pp. 21-73), and cosmological doctrines (ch. 3, pp. 75-127) of the biblical poets. In the first section, N. shows how the poets evinced an interest in teaching such doctrines as the transcendence of God, the activity of the Logos in creation and salvation history, the unity of the Godhead in a Trinity of persons, and the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ. To those who know anything about the development of doctrine in early Christianity, some of this chapter will seem to belabor the obvious. N.'s exposition becomes more interesting when he is able to argue that a poet has opted for one of several exegetical and doctrinal possibilities. Thus, he shows (pp. 30-31) that when Cyprianus presents (Gen. 611) the appearance of the three guests at Abraham's tent as a revelation of the Trinity, he agrees with Augustine rather than with Justin, Origen, or Novatian. When Dracontius avers (Laudes 1.584 -605) that it is the Holy Spirit who is manifest in the wind, the vitality of vegetation, and the life-breath of man and animals, he is following a pneumatology espoused by Tertullian but rejected by Augustine (pp. 53-55). Throughout this section, N. notes how the various authors treated Gen. 1.2, 26-27, and ch. 18, all key texts in patristic discussions of unity and distinction in the Godhead.

In chapter three dealing with the cosmological doctrine of the epic poets, N. examines issues that will be less familiar even to patrologists: the distinction, inferred from the apparent contradiction of Gen. 1.1 by 1.2-31, between the instantaneous creation of undifferentiated matter and the gradual organization of the elements of the cosmos, the various theories as to the nature and purpose of the waters above the firmament (Gen. 1.6-7), and the speculations on the significance of the Creator's rest on the seventh day (Gen. 2.1-3). N. devotes a rather extensive essay (pp. 97-107) to the ingenuity with which Victor treated this last question (Alethia 1.171-204). This discussion, based on an article published in VigChr 42 (1988), is the most interesting in the monograph. Here N. demonstrates that the fifth-century poet did not just repeat what he had learned from earlier tradition but himself displayed considerable originality and subtlety as biblical scholar and theologian. Drawing perhaps on direct knowledge of Jewish exegesis, definitely on Augustine (e.g., De Gen. ad Litt. 6.3) and on Jerome's rendition of Genesis 2.2, Victor presented the formation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.7 as the providential activity by which God, active even on the Sabbath, "completed" what He had "created" on the first six days. Throughout this chapter N. is able to perform for those less intimately familiar with patristic exegesis the dual service of revealing the theological depth of passages that may have seemed straightforwardly narrrative or descriptive and of explicating the compressed language of others where the theological interest was apparent but its precise purport unclear.

N. has not, however, written with proportion, clarity, grace, or a concern for the convenience of his audience. The reader is likely to become as impatient as poor Alice, compelled to listen as one creature after another recites at her from the beginning to the end of her sojourn beyond the looking glass. A typical section (Parts IV-V of ch. 1) contains 244 lines of Latin quotation and translation, from both poets and prose exegetes, within just seventeen pages. And that without counting more quotations in the footnotes! Often the discussion amounts to no more than a short paragraph or a few lines sandwiched between lengthy excerpts, and what there is is the harder to follow because the lack of marginal line numbers makes it difficult to refer back from discussion to text. Since N. provides few summaries of his conclusions, the reader, having reached the end of a section, is sometimes left wondering just what he was supposed to have made of the cup of quotation seasoned by the spoonful of analysis. The last chapter entitled, "Scriptural Interpretation in Late Antiquity," does not recapitulate the preceding discussion or draw conclusions from the mass of detail. Most of this very brief section (five pages) deals with various Christian attitudes toward allegorical interpretation of scripture, a matter that would have been more appropriately addressed in the introduction. Since there are no indices of passages from scripture, poets, and prose exegetes, scholars will be less inclined to turn to this book for orientation on discrete points.

Two failures particularly diminish the scholarly perfection, if not the final cogency, of N.'s discussion. First, N. too frequently neglects to provide essential references or other information. For example, he quotes (pp. 18-89) translations of Juvencus and Sedulius without indicating book or line numbers, the critical edition, or the translation. Despite his indulgence in excessive quotation, he sometimes cites mere chapter and verse where the quotation of a couple of biblical verses would make his discussion much easier to follow (e.g., pp. 44, 66).

A far worse failing is the frequent mistranslation of Latin. Sometimes this is translationese that, though reproducing the syntax, fails to apprehend the semantic value of words and phrases; sometimes the mistake rests on a failure to construe the syntactical structure, and often enough it derives from a combination of both. For misleading translationese v., e.g., p. 116: Dracontius, Laudes Dei 1.282, describes a wild boar striking a defensive posture, "ne Massyla fames duros descendat in armos," which N. renders "lest African hunger descend upon its hard shoulders." This conceals the sense of the periphrasis, which refers to lions. For Numidia as the breeding ground, and Massylians as hunters, of these proverbially ravening beasts v., e.g, Ovid, Ars 2.183; Martial 8.55.1-2, 9.71.1; Stat., Silvae 2.5.8, and Dracontius himself 3.188-200 with Arevalo's note (PL, vol. 60) ad 189. Though vague, "la faim de la bête massylienne" offered by C. Camus in Dracontius, Oeuvres, vol. 1, Louanges de Dieu, bks. 1-2, ed. C. Moussy and C. Camus (Paris 1985), at least points in the right direction. For translationese combined with mistaken syntax, v. e.g., p. 72. Gregory the Great, Hom. in Ezech. Lib. 1, Hom. 8 (CChr.SL, vol. 142, p. 119) who, in discussing the cloud holding the rainbow that appeared after the Flood, says "Nubem ... Redemptoris carnem non inconvenienter accipimus," which N. translates "We do not accept inconveniently the flesh of the Redeemer as a cloud." whereas the passage means We are fully justified in taking the cloud to represent (i.e., as a type of) the body of the Redeemer. C. Morel provides the correct French translation in Grégoire le Grand, Homélies sur Ézechiel, vol. 1 = SC, vol. 327 (Paris 1986), p. 323.

Other passages where mistranslation was particularly striking include Avitus: De Spirit. Hist. Gest., 5.709-12 (N. 56-57), 3.384-86 (73) and Contra Arrianos 20, 21 (ed. R. Peiper, MGH AA, 6.2) In Christo ... mediator (68); Dracontius: De Laud. Dei 1.287 (116) and 2.60-62 (48-49); Gregory the Great: Hom. in Ezech. Lib. 1, Hom. 8 (ed. M. Andriaen, CChr.SL, vol. 142, p. 119) Et post Mediatoris ... ad propitiationem ponitur (71-72); Proba: Cento Virgil., 1.62-63 (80) and 1.99-101 (81-82); Victor, Alethia, 1.7-8 (42), prec. 57-58, (92-93), 1.48 (94), and 1.183 (97). Since good translations were often available -- N. himself cites Camus and Moussy's Dracontius, Clark and Hatch's Proba, and Hovingh's Victor -- many such errors were easily avoidable.

There are several points of fact in which N.'s discussion is wrong, misleading, or inadequate. He twice (p. 26 and n. 17, p. 84) refers to the substitutions for the text of the Vetus Latinus introduced by Cyprianus Gallus into his rendition of Genesis. The reference in his bibliography to the work of W. Hass (Studien zum Heptateuchdichter Cyprian mit Beiträgen zu den vorhieronymianischen Heptateuchübersetzungen, Berlin, 1912) may suggest that N. is aware of the difficulty in establishing the pre-Vulgate forms of the biblical text, but he nowhere acknowledges the complexity of these issues or tells the reader which text of the V.L. he is using. He ought to have provided at least a brief discussion such as that offered by Roberts (ib., pp. 93-94). For a more ambitious treatment, he might have followed the example of J.-L. Charlet, Prudence et la Bible, Recherches Augustiniennes 18, 1983 (esp. pp. 8-40), a work absent from his bibliography. N. never refers to the indispensable Beuron edition of the V.L. texts of Genesis produced by B. Fischer (Die Reste der Altlateinischen Bibel, vol. 2, Freiburg, 1951-54), where one would expect him to have found many references to relevant patristic exegesis. Second, without referring to the considerable controversy on the question, N. dates Commodian to the mid-fourth century. J. Martin, Commodian's editor in the CChr.SL (vol. 128), the text N. quotes, favors (pp. x-xiii) a date a century earlier. Finally, N. twice (n. 1, p. 22 and n. 10, p. 78) reports that Jerome and Pope Gelasius criticized Proba's Cento. One should note that neither the so-called Decretum Gelasianum nor Jerome mentions Proba by name. Jerome's criticisms of Proba (Ep. 57.3, not Ep. 130 wrongly cited by N.) are, at most, very indirect and do not impugn the orthodoxy of the Cento. The criticism of the Decretum is obvious and direct, but according to E. von Dobschütz who edited the Decretum Gelasianum (TU 38.4), this document is not Gelasian, not a decree, not papal (v. esp., pp. 343-44, 352).

The book is accurately printed. I noticed only a few typographical errors: p. 63, n.100: deliniation; p. 119, n.76: Testamentis; p. 143, in ref. to Staat: von, in ref. to Wehrli: europaïschen and mittelälterliche(r). On p. 100, the numbers 178-83 are a false reference. Should it be "188-93"?

Despite its defects, this work will be useful to classicists, patrologists, and medievalists as well as to anyone, specialist or non-specialist, interested in the Latin literature of Late Antiquity. The specialist will miss indices of scriptural passages, poetic works, and patristic prose texts; the non-specialist will be puzzled or misled by the mistranslations; both specialist and non-specialist will miss more frequent summaries of important conclusions and may very well find the reading of this book to be an unpleasant labor. Nonetheless, in addition to many illuminating remarks on individual passages, N.'s work shows how a wide-ranging knowledge of the Bible and the traditions of exegesis may help unearth the many layers of meaning in these exceedingly complex, though often apparently simple narratives, constructed, after all, by poets whose culture was scriptural and theological as well as classical.