Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.60

Gianfranco Agosti (ed.), Nonno di Panopoli. Parafrasi del Vangelo di Sant Giovanni. Canto Quinto.   Firenze:  Università degli Studi di Firenze, Dipartimento di Scienze dell' Antichità Giorgio Pasquali, 2003.  Pp. 559.  ISBN 88-89051-08-6.  €40.00.  

Reviewed by Angel Ruiz, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain (
Word count: 1066 words

This edition, translation, and commentary of the fifth book of the Paraphrase of St. John, based upon the doctoral dissertation by Agosti (Florence 1995), was throroughly revised during a stay in the Center for Hellenic Studies and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, with a systematical bibliographical update until 1999, and some later entries. It belongs to the project for a new edition, commentary and Italian translation of the Paraphrasis by Nonnus of Panopolis, under the direction of Enrico Livrea,1 an important enterprise because the last edition is Scheindler's 1881 text2 and there are no modern translations available.

Together with Francis Vian's almost completed project on the Dionysiaca,3 this new edition is helping to completely transform the critical views on the poems by Nonnus. Until some years ago, he was considered an epigonal and scholarly poet, but these editions show him to be an author of poetry inserted in the cultural milieu of his time, with a certain degree of originality, and creativity in terms of Kontrasimitation. This is particularly important in the case of the Paraphrase, increasingly reevaluated as the most ideologically elaborated work by Nonnus, with close connections with the pagan and Christian literature of his times. In this process, Agosti's edition with its deep and throrough analysis will constitute a major milestone.

The first part of the book, after a prologue and long bibliography (pp. 11-32), is an ample introduction (pp. 37-239) that aims to show the complex ideological and literary stratification of the poem, Nonnus' exegetical effort in the study of the original text, and, above all, the meaning for a fifth century public of a paraphrase in hexameters of St. John's Gospel. He also analyzes the paraphrasing technique, style, language, metre (a very long and detailed study), the manuscript tradition and the Vorlage: the Gospel text that Nonnus most probably used.

Above all, he centers on the episode of the healing of the paraplegic in the pool of Bethesda (92 pages for 56 verses, against 16 pages for the other 126 verses). Agosti studies it from several points of view, to show that Nonnus' description of the pool is constructed in a metaphorical scheme to represent heaven, the new Jerusalem. He uses contemporary iconographical parallels (such as presenting paradise as a palace with columns or as a town). This has consequences in the way one has to understand several palace descriptions in the Dionysiaca, another proof of the need to study both works together. Agosti believes in Nonnus' undoubted authorship of both poems, the temporal priority of the Paraphrase and that Nonnus was always a Christian, as were other poets of both pagan and Christian poems. Nonnus makes for an interesting parallel with many Renaissance authors.

The analysis of this episode is in the end exegetical and liturgical. Many Church Fathers interpreted the miracle in a typological sense as baptism, something corroborated by the reading of this passage in the baptismal liturgy.4 Agosti shows instances of this interpretation in Roman poets (Paulinus of Nola, Prudentius and Venantius Fortunatus), and also through the testimonies of healing rituals in pools (as is the case of Saint Thecla temple in Seleucia), and the tales of healings of paraplegics in hagiographic literature as well some pagan tales (Asclepius, Isis). Apart from this analysis (which constitutes the core of his approach), he studies narrative mechanisms and his models in the epic and philosophic tradition, both pagan and Christian but above all the latter.

With all these perspectives, Agosti proposes to define the genre of the poem as versified exegesis rather than paraphrase. The six adjectives of the chapter of St. John increase to 226 in Nonnus and can be explained by the practices of late antique Greek baroque poetry, but it would be better to understand them in the context of Nonnus' interest in interpreting the text with his poetical and theological knowledge. There are just three epitheta ornantia, and the majority of the adjectives are exegetical, narrative, and ornamental, almost all taken from Homer and Hesiod (usually transformed by the Kontrasimitation); other are Christian (particularly from St. Gregory of Nazianzus), and some come from non-epic poetry. There are also some created by Nonnus himself. In a parallel process, some evangelical terms become epicized (for instance John 5, 6 ὑγιὴς γενέσθαι becomes Nonnus 5, 18 ἀσκηθὴς ἔμμεναι); there are amplifications (Jn 5, 7 ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἔχω is rendered by Nonnus 5, 21-22 νουσοκόμοιο φιλοστόργοιο χατίζω -- οὐ γὰρ ἔχω τινὰ φῶτα διάκτορον), periphrases (Jn 5, 21 νεκρούς: Nonnus 5, 80 ἀκινέτων δέμας ἀνθρώπων), and also transpositions and substitutions of verbal tenses.

The rest of chapter 5 (dealing with the prosecution of Jesus by the Jews because of the miracle, the question about their power to judge and the credibility of Jesus and the testimony of God) is studied in a less detailed way, because Nonnos is more literal and there are no decisive points to debate, although some interesting issues appear later, such as the influence of St. Cyril of Alexandria on some questions discussed by Nonnus.

Of particular interest is the discussion of the poem's possible readership. Obviously readers had to understand the different levels of interpretation and the numerous allusions of the text. Against the opinion held by Livrea of a public of cultivated Alexandrian pagans, who had the Dionysiaca as a propedeutic text, and the idea of Vian and Chuvin, who thought of a mixed cultivated public, Agosti proposes that for the Paraphrasis one has to think of a Christian cultivated audience, who remained open to pagan culture (and that can be the cause for an hexametrical poem and for the choice of the Fourth Gospel), in a mixed society in matters of religion but conscious of belonging to the Hellenic paideia.

The text with critical apparatus and the translation with the text of the Vorlage (pp. 244-261) are followed by a very ample commentary (pp. 265-549), with a great deal of detail, that proceeds almost word by word. However, sometimes there is a certain overlapping between introduction and commentary that could have been avoided.

The volume ends with an Index of Greek terms discussed in the Commentary (551-556) and another of notabilia (557-558). The impressive richnesses of the book could have been augmented with an Index of authors and passages mentioned. This would have helped readers recognize the huge amount of material that Agosti has used for this excellent edition and commentary.


1.   So far published: Nonno di Panopoli. Parafrasi del Vangelo di S. Giovanni. Canto I, intr., testo crit., trad. e comm. a cura di C. de Stefani, Bologna: Pàtron, 2002; Canto B (E. Livrea, Bologna: Dehonianae, 2000); Canto XVIII (E. Livrea, Napoli: D'Auria, 1989; reviewed in BMCR 1992); Canto XX (D. Accorinti, Pisa: Scuola Normale Superiore, 1996). Agosti mentions several volumes in print or about to be published.
2.   Augustinus Scheindler, Nonni Panopolitani Paraphrasis S. Evangelii Ioannei. Edidit A. S. Accedit S. Evangelii textus et index verborum, Lipsiae: Teubner, 1881.
3.   Francis Vian (ed.), Nonnos de Panopolis. Les Dionysiaques, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1976-2003. It will consist of 18 volumes: four volumes are still to be published (XI-XII and XV-XVI, comprising chs. 33-36 and 41-46). One can also mention Nonno de Panopolis. Le Dionisiache. A cura di Dario del Corno; traduzione di Maria Maletta; note di Francesco Tissoni, Milano: Adelphi, 1997-1999 (2 volumes, canti I-XXIV).
4.   A good example is comm. on v. 8, pp. 299-301.

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