Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.9


Ronald E. Heine, Gregory of Nyssa's Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms. Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. 221. $55.00. ISBN 0-19-826763-0.


Reviewed by Raymond Van Dam, History, University of Michigan, rvandam@umich.edu.

The most important contributions to the boom in the study of late antiquity during the past few decades have come from social and cultural historians. Both ancient and medieval historians have contributed to the new editions, translations, commentaries, prosopographies, biographies, and thematic and methodological studies that have done so much to expand our understanding of and interest in this transitional period of Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies. Yet some topics have not been integrated very well into this reinvigoration of late antique studies, of which perhaps the most conspicuous is the study of theology and doctrine. Long before ancient historians, classicists, medievalists, and Byzantinists moved in their heavy equipment to stripmine the period, patristics scholars, church historians, and intellectual historians had been quietly prospecting among the theological treatises of the early Church Fathers. Until the middle of this century the great historians of late antiquity were often church historians with backgrounds in theology and philosophy. Hans Lietzmann, for instance, published both a wonderful history of the early church and a seminal study of the theological treatises of Apollinaris of Laodicea. Modern historians still approvingly cite (although sometimes unwittingly so) Adolf von Harnack's ideas about the social impact of early Christianity in his The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. In addition to being one of the best historians of the early Roman empire, however, Harnack also wrote one of the finest histories of early Christian doctrines, "superseded but never surpassed," as Jaroslav Pelikan described it.

Few modern historians seem to care about his, or others', histories of Christian doctrines; nor do they seem to spend much time reading theological treatises. A. H. M. Jones, one of the immortals in the pantheon of modern historians of late antiquity, certainly relied upon the Church Fathers in the writing of his The Later Roman Empire. Yet even the indefatigable Jones soon concluded that he could not skim through all the volumes of the Patrologiae, and so he abandoned the reading of theological treatises, biblical commentaries, and finally even sermons: "There are a few grains of wheat in these, but the quantity of chaff (from my point of view) is overwhelming." It is most unlikely that Jones ever read Gregory of Nyssa's On the Inscriptions of the Psalms.

Ronald Heine's translation now makes Gregory's treatise readily accessible to modern scholars. This is an excellent translation for which Heine provides a fine introduction and helpful notes. Gregory's exegetical treatises are notoriously difficult to date, but after rehearsing some of the similarities in ideas among his treatises Heine accepts the conclusion that Gregory composed this treatise about the Psalms during his formal exile from his see of Nyssa between 376 and 378. In this treatise Gregory analyzed not the Psalms themselves, but rather the inscriptions, the brief headings or titles, that often provided information about the authorship or historical circumstances of each Psalm. Gregory's acceptance of the trustworthiness of these headings is itself an extension of his notion of akolouthia, the idea that the "sequence" or "succession" of stages leading to blessedness as described in the Psalms corresponded to the actual sequential progress of people's attainment of redemption, salvation, and even likeness to God. "The goal of the virtuous life is blessedness; well does the divine scripture of the Psalter point the way to this for us through a skilful and natural sequence in teaching" (1.5, 7). Much of Heine's introduction discusses the philosophical and theological background and context for Gregory's analysis. One of the strongest influences on Gregory's exegesis was, not surprisingly, the writings of Origen, including his own commentaries on the Psalms. Origen himself had soaked up various philosophical approaches, and however much negative criticism his doctrines may have eventually received, his importance as a conduit between Greek philosophy and Christian theology is undeniable. Another important influence was the Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus, whose emphasis on determining the single aim or objective of an entire literary work led Gregory to stress the soteriological meaning of the Psalms and their role in the attainment of blessedness. Hence, not only was his objective in this treatise "a blending of Platonic and Biblical traditions" (p. 50), so was his hermeneutics as he interpreted the Psalms using various philosophical traditions. Heine is also very successful at demonstrating the subsequent development of Gregory's thought about the stages of the spiritual life, in particular as he reacted to the growing censure of Origen's doctrines that began to appear soon after the composition of this treatise about the Psalms.

Despite the increasing availability of modern translations of theological treatises such as this one, interaction between scholars of theology and social historians will still not be easy. Both sides are at fault, historians for minimizing intellectual and doctrinal history, patristics scholars for indulging in discussions of theology that essentially ignore specific circumstances, times, and places. To bridge this gap several strategies are possible. One is to highlight the information in these theological treatises that social historians might find useful. Not only did Gregory draw upon sophisticated traditions of philosophical exegesis, he also used analogies that came directly from the customary life of Greek cities. Even as he was thinking big thoughts about Christian blessedness, Gregory was apparently also attending wrestling matches (2.15, 197) and watching stone-cutters carve inscriptions and sculpt monuments (2.134, 247). Another strategy is to stress the wider significance of biblical and ecclesiastical texts. The Psalms were not just fodder for sophisticated thinkers like Gregory to chew up into their own ideas about salvation and redemption, they were also the basis for ceremonial aspects of ordinary life among his parishioners. Gregory himself conceded that people sang Psalms at banquets and weddings (1.17); and it is unlikely that on those occasions they were thinking of their ultimate blessedness.

The first strategy suggests that there are more of A. H. M. Jones' "grains of wheat" to be gleaned from these treatises, the second that biblical texts had social and cultural dimensions that directly affected everyday life. Both suggestions are admittedly obvious proposals; they are also essentially stopgap measures. Far more useful would be an outright reinterpretation of theology and doctrines as another of the "cultural systems" defined by Clifford Geertz. Like ideology, kinship, language, medicine, and religion in general, theology too was a way of defining, and creating, individual identities and social experiences. Even as Gregory discussed in somewhat abstract terms the importance of the Psalms for achieving blessedness, he was talking indirectly, but still specifically, about himself, others, his relationships with them, and their shared community. At this level of symbolic meanings social history and the history of doctrines overlap and even coalesce; and at that level historians and patristics scholars obviously have much to share with each other.