Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.03.46

Wilhelm Geerlings, Christian Schulze, Der Kommentar in Antike und Mittelalter. Beiträge zu seiner Erforschung. Clavis Commentatoriorum Antiquitatis et Medii Aevi 2.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. viii, 371.  ISBN 90-04-12528-0.  EUR 116.00.  

Contributors: W. Geerlings, H. Müller, K. Pollmann, W. Luppe, O. Zwierlein, U. Schindel, L. Dolezalova, G. Dorival, D. Börner-Klein, E. Hollender, I. Hadot, C. D'Ancona Costa, G. Strohmaier, K.-D. Fischer, S. Ihm, C. Schulze

Reviewed by Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, Hebrew University (Daniel.Stoekl@
Word count: 1558 words

The sixteen articles collected in this volume present a selection of lectures given by German, French, Italian and Czech scholars in colloquia of the Graduiertenkolleg on "Commentaries in Antiquity and the Middle Ages" at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany between 1996 and 2001. Casting a wide net similar to the recent excellent French collection,1 the authors study commentaries from the realms of Patristics, Classics, Jewish Studies, Arabic Philosophy, and History of Medicine and Biology. Before I turn to a discussion of the papers I would like to assess the collection as a whole.

It is questionable whether the main purpose of a collection of articles, e pluribus unum, has been achieved here. First, an introduction justifying the overall impact and the general goal of the collection of the individual contributions is absent. While a single-page foreword mentions the interdisciplinary approach, more is needed to explain to the reader (who is generally interested in one of the many philological subdisciplines represented by one to three papers) what he is gaining from looking at this or that paper on the borders of his specialization, especially if the contributions are mostly in German, a language which is, to my deep regret, becoming less commonly read.

A second instrument that might have provided some help in unifying disparate contributions, is an index. However, inaccuracies and lacuna in the four indices (papyri & manuscripts, sources, names, subjects) cast doubt on the synthesizing approach. Muslim writers, for example, appear in the index of names, but not in the index of sources. Jewish sources have not been indexed at all (with the exception of the biblical writings). The index of subjects is a motley compilation of the references given by the contributors in three different languages without an attempt to unify the references. E.g. there are entries for commentaire (133-134, 149-150) and Typologie (54) but not for their German or English equivalents, and whoever might look for typology or Kommentar has to read the whole index. The Talmudim, Targumim and tannaites appear on far more pages than those given under Talmud, Tannait and Targum.

Third, the intended audience of the book is not clear to me. The character of the papers changes from introductory to highly specialized. Fourth, the "minor" editorial work is rather uneven. While most contributions are well documented, some (Geerlings, Luppe, Schindel) are still lecture-like -- almost completely without footnotes and bibliography. One article has its bibliography at the end (Ihm), the others in the footnotes. The order of the papers (patristic, classic, general, classic, Jewish, philosophic, medical) is not completely clear to me (especially Zwierlein's general paper). The two English articles, written by non-native speakers (Dolezalova, D'Ancona Costa), have apparently not been copy-edited. The decision to include the eccentric paper by Dolezalova is questionable.

Finally, while two papers (Dorival, Zwierlein) have been cited as previously published,2 Geerlings' contribution, too, should probably have been marked as previously published in a French version.3

I will now turn to a brief discussion of the papers. The book opens with three contributions on patristic commentaries. Wilhelm Geerlings, "Die lateinisch-patristischen Kommentare" (1-14), briefly classifies Christian commentaries into Scholia, homiletic and written commentaries and discusses their indebtedness to pagan commentaries, mainly with the example of Augustine's, Enarrationes in Psalmos (pp. 1-11). The second, more interesting part of Geerlings' paper deals with the history of reception. He suggests explaining the simultaneous surge of interest in Paul and Job with relation to the great crises of the fourth century. Job's question regarding the relationship between human action and divine blessings is answered by Paul with the reference to divine grace (11-14). Hildegund Müeller's remarkable paper, "Zur Struktur des patristischen Kommentars drei Beispiele aus Augustines Enarrationes in Psalmos [sic!]" (15-31), too, deals with Augustine's Enarrationes in Psalmos. Focusing on the transitions between lemmata, she investigates the hybrid condition of the Enarrationes between written and oral commentary and casts light on the tension between the originally coherent homilies and the fragmentation caused by the division into verses in the written form. Müller suggests that our understanding of the text, the history and the meaning of Augustin's longest commentary could be deepened by reconsidering the breaks between paragraphs according to the initial homiletic Sitz im Leben. Karla Pollmann's well-written "Apocalypse Now?! -- Der Kommentar des Tyconius zur Johannesoffenbarung" (33-54) first analyses the exegetical principles of the first systematic exposition of Christian hermeneutics, the Liber regularum of the fourth-century North African exegete Tyconius (37-44). In a second step she investigates Tyconius' application of his exegetical theory in his influential commentary to the Apocalypse (44-54).

Wolfgang Luppe, "σχολία, ὑπομνήματα und ὑποθέσεις zu griechischen Dramen auf Papyri" (55-68, illustrations pp. 69-77) is a nicely illustrated overview of the material remains of the three main kinds of commentaries, Scholia (54-57), Hypomnemata (57-64) and Hypotheseis (64-68), focusing on Greek plays.4

Otto Zwierlein's paper, "'Interpretation' in Antike und Mittelalter" (79-101) is a valuable introduction to the principles and the early history of exegetical hermeneutics in the realms of jurisprudence, rhetoric, poetry, drama, philosophy and Scripture. In this paper, the interdisciplinary approach comes most to the fore (at least with regard to the Greek and Latin material).

"Wechselwirkungen zwischen Autoren-Kommentar und systematischem Lehrbuch" is the title of Ulrich Schindel's interesting contribution (103-118). He argues that the mutual influence between grammatical education and exegesis encompasses not only pagan but also Christian works. The cross-fertilization even crosses borders when classic rules of interpretation appear word-for-word in Christian commentaries (e.g. Cassiodorus) and when late-antique grammar textbooks include examples from biblical exegesis.

Lucie Dolezalova, "The Cena Cypriani or the Game of Endless Possibilities" (119-130) is an obscure paper dealing with an obscure text. The author hypothesizes records of a random game as "Vorlage" of the inconsistent and confusing Cena Cypriani (she misleadingly calls this "game theory") and even suggests rules for an otherwise unknown form of game. While the editors included it as touching "Randbereiche des Themas" (of commentaries?), I would rather classify this paper as "Randbereich der Wissenschaftlichkeit."

Three papers focus on Jewish sources. Gilles Dorival, "Exégèse juive et exégèse chrétienne" (131-150) is an excellent investigation of the parallels (and contrasts) between the Jewish and Christian exegetical principles: the Bible/Old Testament as shared foundational text, the common heritage of Hellenistic hermeneutics, the conviction that the divine word can have secret meanings and that it has inexhaustible ways to be interpreted, the possibility of putting several different exegeses side by side (aggadic Midrashim, Chains). Dorival's example is the interpretation of Psalm 21 (22). Dagmar Börner-Klein, "Rabbinische Kommentare zu Genesis 6,2-7" (151-162) is a rather superficial summary of some Jewish interpretations (mainly Genesis Rabbah, Rashi, Abraham Ibn Esra, Talmud Sanhedrin 108a-109b and Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer) of the mesmerizing story of the fallen angels. Elisabeth Hollender, "Hebräische Kommentare hebräischer liturgischer Poesie: eine Taxonomie der wichtigsten Kommentarelemente" (163-182) is a valuable introduction to the largely unknown genre of medieval Hebrew commentaries to Jewish liturgical poetry (Piyyut), a text-type still available almost exclusively in manuscripts. In a lucid way, she surveys techniques of linguistic and textual explanations, underscores the intertextuality of these commentaries with biblical and rabbinic literature, and discusses the influences on this genre from the Christian Mehrheitskultur.

Philosophical commentaries are the topic of the next two fine papers. Ilsetraut Hadot, "Der fortlaufende philosophische Kommentar" (183-199), lucidly presents continuous commentaries on philosophical works focusing on their Sitz im Leben in the instruction of a circle of students with a specific level of knowledge. She briefly discusses formal aspects, and then focuses on the syncretistic tendencies regarding the philosophical schools, the educational function of the introductions to single treatises, the gradually increasing level of difficulty as challenge for the developing student, and the act of interpretation as religious deed. Cristina D'Ancona Costa's "Commenting on Aristotle: from Late Antiquity to the Arab Aristotelianism" is a detailed (201-251!) presentation of the transmission history of commentaries to Aristotle from Alexander of Aphrodisias to Ibn Rushd (Averroes). The paper is rounded out by a list of the Greek commentaries on Aristotle's works, including those mentioned in Arabic sources (250-251).

The final four papers are concerned with medical or botanical commentaries. Gotthard Strohmaier's fine paper, "Galen als Hippokrateskommentator. Der griechische und der arabische Befund" (253-274), deals with the translation and transmission of Greek sources in the medieval Arab world, in this case Galen, in particular his commentaries on Hippocrates. Klaus-Dietrich Fischer's very solid contribution, "'Zu des Hippokrates reich gedeckter Tafel sind alle eingeladen'. Bemerkungen zu den beiden vorsalernitatischen lateinischen Aphorismenkommentaren" (275-313), focuses on Hippocrates, too, in particular on the two oldest Latin commentaries on the Aphorisms. A classification of medical commentaries into three types is the purpose of Sibylle Ihm's paper, "Untersuchungen zu einer Typologisierung medizinischer Kommentare" (315-333): scholia, expositions (continuous paraphrases and interpretations of the whole text), and "free" commentaries. Christian Schulze, "Das Bild als Kommentar - Zur Problematik von Pflanzendarstellungen in spätantiken und mittelalterlichen Handschriften" (335-348, illustrations 349-353) draws attention to the interpretational importance of illustrations in medical and botanical commentaries (and to the dangers of the depiction of the wrong species).5

In sum: A number of excellent papers, but on the whole poor editorial work, in particular for such a costly book. Without any editorial synthesis, scholars may wonder what is gained from an interdisciplinary perspective and therefore for our understanding of what is a commentary.

[[For another review of this book, by Mieczyslaw Mejor, please see BMCR 2004.03.24.]]


1.   Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé (éd.), Le commentaire entre tradition et innovation. Actes du colloque international de l'institut des traditions textuelles (Paris et Villejuif, 22-25 septembre 1999) (Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 2000).
2.   Dorival: M.-O. Goulet-Cazé (above n. 1.), pp. 169-181; Zwierlein: in: G. Funke - A. Riethmüller - O. Zwierlein, Interpretation, Abh. Akad. Mainz 6, Stuttgart 1998, pp. 31-53
3.   In M.-O. Goulet-Cazé (above n. 1.), pp. 199-211.
4.   Scholia: Ven. Marc. 474; POxy 2806, PDuke Inv 643; Hypomnemata: POxy 2812; POxy 2813; POxy 2741; Hypotheseis: POxy 4020; POxy 2455; POxy 2456.
5.   Minor errors: Misspellings: Back-cover: ausgewählt instead of ausgewält; p. 76: should be POxy 2741 (not 2841 as printed); p. 94 bibliography to Siegert not in footnote; p. 94 fn 67 contradicts the main text.

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