Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.36

Josef Lössl, John W. Watt (ed.), Interpreting the Bible and Aristotle in Late Antiquity: the Alexandrian Commentary Tradition between Rome and Baghdad.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2011.  Pp. 343.  ISBN 9781409410072.  $134.95.  

Reviewed by Hugh Houghton, University of Birmingham (


"What has the interpretation of the Bible to do with that of Aristotle?" is a question which the editors imagine being asked of this collection of sixteen papers originally presented at a conference in Cardiff in 2009. In the light of more than a decade of work on the nature and genre of commentary in antiquity, drawing together insights from a variety of sources, readers may approach this volume with high hopes that these traditions will prove mutually illuminating. 1 Apart from the impressive introduction, which sets the contents into a coherent narrative, there is disappointingly little explicit interaction not only between the two strands of biblical and philosophical commentary but even between individual papers concerned with the same tradition. What we have, however, is a collection of neatly complementary articles by a representative assembly of experts which serves as a useful orientation to current research on fourth-century Latin commentary on the Pauline epistles and sixth-century Syriac translations of and commentary on Aristotle, along with a handful of papers reminding us of the overlap between these and other areas of study.

The first part of the book, "Alexandria to Rome", concentrates on the biblical tradition. Alfons Fürst considers Origen as "the inventor of the Biblical commentary" (p.14). Much of his article is a response to Skeb's recent monograph on the preface in Greek biblical commentaries,2 conducted through a series of lively footnotes which occasionally erupt into the text. Nonetheless, Fürst emphasises the significance of Origen's combination of philosophical and philological approaches, inaugurating the concept of Christian scientia. The earliest Latin scriptural commentators were independent of this Alexandrian model and adopted an approach based on rhetorical analysis. Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe provides a good overview of fourth-century commentaries on Paul and their interrelationship, summarising advances in scholarship since Souter.3 Her observations about the influence of the "Marcionite" prologues are interesting: while these are of undoubted antiquity, it would be useful to consider the extent of the evidence for their inclusion in biblical manuscripts in the fourth and fifth centuries. It is also worth noting that the suggested reviser of the text of the Epistles in the Vulgate is usually identified as Rufinus the Syrian, to distinguish him from his better-known namesake.4 Marie-Pierre Bussières is less sensitive to the variety of Latin versions in antiquity, using the modern Vulgate as the yardstick for Ambrosiaster's biblical text (p.52, notes 18 and 21). She compares one chapter of Ambrosiaster's Questions on the Old and New Testament in the two recensions, deducing from the greater proportion of references to ecclesiastical hierarchy and reliance on typological exegesis that the 127-chapter version (edited by Souter) was intended for a clerical audience while the hitherto unpublished 150-chapter version was for a more general readership. A similar analysis of the differences in other chapters should provide confirmation of this. Stephen Cooper investigates Marius Victorinus' commentary technique, in particular his introduction of digressions "as part of a system of graded spiritual paideia" (p.69). Cooper observes that the reading (and commentary) of philosophical texts by pagan authors and of the Bible by Christians had a shared goal of moral improvement.

Origen's legacy was only reclaimed for Latin Christianity by Jerome. Andrew Cain offers an illuminating investigation of Jerome's references to other commentators in the preface to his Commentary on Galatians. Not only does Cain show how the four Pauline commentaries were deliberately intended as "a manoeuvre by Jerome to re-assert his spiritual and intellectual authority" (p.106) in Rome after leaving in disgrace for Bethlehem, but he also rebuffs the traditional characterisation of Jerome's commentaries as "little more than a paraphrase of Origen" (p.109) by drawing attention to the variety of patristic sources employed. Josef Lössl surveys a remarkable confrontation of Aristotle and Paul in the controversy between Julian of Eclanum and Augustine. It is not clear whether Julian read Aristotle in Greek or in translation. Nonetheless, this episode stands as a reminder of the continuing exposure of educated Latin Christians to Greek philosophy at the beginning of the fifth century. One hundred years later the situation was different, hence Boethius' project to produce a Latin version of Aristotle's Organon. Sten Ebbesen examines Boethius' translation technique, first comparing it with Marius Victorinus in the prologue of Porphyry's Isagoge and then investigating his creative renderings of Aristotle's ambiguous phrases by finding comparable Latin examples, many from Vergil.

The topic of translation sets the stage for the second part, "Alexandria to Baghdad", with five of the nine chapters focussing on Sergius of Reshaina and his translation of Greek philosophy into Syriac. Edward Watts compares the way in which the commentaries of Olympiodorus, Simplicius, Boethius and Sergius convey evidence for the context of philosophical study, ranging from the lecture hall to solitary reading. Adam McCollum and Emiliano Fiori analyse Sergius' translation technique, the former with reference to the Aristotelian De Mundo and the latter for the Corpus Dionysiacum. Both agree on the high quality of his work, noting Sergius' intelligent approach and his ability to vary his register. Daniel King investigates the creation of a Syriac logical lexicon on the basis of Sergius' rendering of specialist terminology in Aristotle. This development arose from a genuine need in Syriac philosophical circles, despite the contemporary expectation that Syriac commentaries would be read alongside the Greek text of Aristotle (cf. p.148). John Watt considers how Sergius' integration of Aristotle with the biblical interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysius created a theological cursus particularly suitable for monastic study. The continuing combination of these sources can also be seen in Syro-Arabic commentators on Aristotle such as the tenth-century Abū Bišr Mattā and his school. This is taken further by Philippe Vallat's examination of the use of Neoplatonic arguments by the Muslim Aristotelian Al-Fārābī. Despite his deliberate obscurity when handling the sensitive metaphysical questions of the day, his belief in the eternity of the world can be traced from the causal structure he adopts for the universe.

The three remaining papers treat topics from related fields. Dirk Krausmüller looks at how the exclusive concentration on Aristotle in Chalcedonian authors of the sixth-century resulted in "the disintegration of the late antique theological discourse" of his title. A "background of terminological slippage" (p.161) meant that οὐσία and ὑπόστασις could be interpreted in both a narrow and a broad sense leading to problems for the articulation of Christian doctrine. Based on the Syriac text of Porphyry used by Probus, Sebastian Brock demonstrates how a fifth- century date is unsustainable for this commentator. Instead, the latter half of the sixth century seems most likely, giving rise to the tantalising suggestion that he may be identified with the theologian Probus who accompanied Peter of Kallinikos, Patriarch of Antioch, to Alexandria in 581/2. Henri Hugonnard-Roche shows how the unpublished Peri Hermeneias of Paul the Persian, extant in a Syriac translation possibly made by the seventh-century Severus Sebokht, derives its text of Aristotle not just from the tradition of Ammonius but also Greek scholia, resulting in similarities with Boethius' version.

The volume is well-produced and well-presented, furnished with bibliographies of primary and secondary sources (combining all the references of the individual chapters) and indexes of passages cited, names and subjects. Translations are provided of most original language quotations and Syriac is given in transliteration. It seems strange that the index of passages cited usually refers to the footnote in which the reference is given rather than the page on which the text is quoted. Typographical errors are very few indeed, although there is an amusing description of Nestorianism as "l'École de Nisible" (p.207). More distracting is the use of two different italic fonts on the same page in chapters 3, 6, 9, 11 and 12, extending to two roman typefaces on pp. 190, 192, 196 and 201. Something unusual is also happening with certain Greek diacritics on pages 50-51 and there is an incomplete internal reference on page 236.

Reading this collection as a whole prompts a number of questions for further research, drawing together differing strands from the various articles. For example, building on the observations of Fürst, Cooper and Bussières, what might we learn from examining commentaries written by the same author on different subjects? What effect does multilingualism have on exegetical writing and how may this be traced (cf. Cain, Brock, Watts, King, Watt)? How do different commentators accord authority, both to their subject text and to other sources on which they are dependent? Lunn-Rockliffe and Hugonnard-Roche draw attention to the potential influence of prefaces and scholia present in ancient codices: other paratextual features such as section titles or indexes also provide an interpretative framework, which reaches an apogee in biblical catena manuscripts.5 It would be interesting if parallels could be found to Fiori's observation that Sergius of Reshaina rejects Neoplatonic alterations to the biblical text and replaces Septuagint quotations with the text of the Peshitta (p.189, p.193). The biggest issue is that of translation technique, including the way in which interpretation or comment is introduced as part of the process and the impact of the source on the destination language (e.g. Ebbesen, McCollum, Fiori, King). A comparative approach considering translations of the same text in different languages or the same work by different translators, taking into account the chronological developments in translation style mentioned by several contributors, could be fascinating.6

It is to be hoped that such questions will be taken up by the contributors and other participants at the conference being spurred on to collaborative work, by the Cardiff project on the Latin and Syriac Commentary Tradition behind this collection, and by readers of this volume hereby encouraged not to restrict themselves to the one or two chapters pertaining to their immediate interest.


1.   Earlier publications in this area include Glenn W. Most (ed.), Commentaries – Kommentare. Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 1999; W. Geerlings and C. Schultze (eds.), Der Kommentar in Antike und Mittelalter. Beiträge zu seiner Erforschung. Leiden: Brill, 2002; P. Adamson, H. Baltussen and M. W. F. Stone (eds.), Philosophy, Science and Exegesis in Greek, Arabic and Latin Commentaries, London: BICS, 2004.
2.   M. Skeb, Exegese und Lebensform. Die Proömien der antiken griechischen Bibelkommentare. (Clavis Commentariorum Antiquitatis et Medii Aevi 5). Leiden: Brill, 2007.
3.   Alexander Souter, The Earliest Latin Commentaries on the Epistles of St Paul. Oxford: University Press, 1927.
4.   See, for example, Bonifatius Fischer, "Das neue Testament in lateinischer Sprache" in K. Aland (ed.), Die alten Übersetzungen des neuen Testaments, die Kirchenväterzitate und Lektionare. ANTF 5. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1972, 1-92, at 49 and 74. However, the relationship between the two Rufini is a matter of debate (e.g. Walter Dunphy in Sacris Erudiri 39 (2000), 37-53) and it may be best at present simply to observe that Vulgate version of the rest of the New Testament was produced by an unknown reviser around the beginning of the fifth century following Jerome's work on the Gospels.
5.   The manuscripts of Bede's commentaries are of particular interest for the way in which sources are identified: see M. M. Gorman, "Source Marks and Chapter Divisions in Bede's Commentary on Luke", Revue Bénédictine 112 (2002), 246-75.
6.   e.g. McCollum on p.169, Fiori on p.182, Watt on p.248. Ebbesen's claim that the hyper-literal approach of Boethius "is much more faithful to the original than is Victorinus" (p.125) would benefit from being set in a similar context of changing expectations of translation. To the bibliography on Syriac translation technique may be added P. J. Williams, Early Syriac Translation Technique and the Textual Criticism of the Greek Gospels. (Texts and Studies 3.2). Piscataway: Gorgias, 2004.

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