BMCR 1995.02.14

Bede, On the Tabernacle

, Bede, on the tabernacle. Translated texts for historians.. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994. xxvi, 192 pages. ISBN 9780853233787. $17.95.

Holder, a professor in the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (part of the Graduate Theological Union), has specialized on Bede’s De Tabernaculo. After publishing five solid articles related to Bede’s commentary on that subject, he has now produced an excellent translation of it. The thirteen-page introduction to the work provides a succinct, informative account of Bede’s exegesis, his audience and purpose in writing, the content, composition, and sources of the De Tabernaculo, its textual history and editions. Holder then gives a clear, accurate translation of the often technical text, to which he adds critical and explanatory footnotes, many of which are not in the Latin edition from which he is working, that of Dom David Hurst in the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 119A, 1-139. Holder concludes with a bibliography and indices of biblical and patristic sources.

My remarks here are, in medieval terms, a gloss on Holder’s gloss-translation on Bede’s commentary-gloss on Exodus, chapters 24-30. A careful reading of Bede’s commentary reveals much about the tradition of biblical symbolism in the early Middle Ages, the polytypic mode of interpretation, and Bede’s mindset. In a pastoral homiletic exegesis he unfolds from different hermeneutic points the symbolic meanings for the contemporary Christian contained in the text about God’s ordering his people to construct a tent-dwelling for him in their midst.

Bede is known to most as the author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the brilliant work of history produced in 731 which earned him the title, “the father of English history.” However, as Holder points out in his introduction (p . xiii), Bede thought of himself primarily as an exegete and gave his biblical commentaries pride of place in his bibliography, at the end of the Historia Ecclesiastica. Authors can be wrong in their estimation of the relative merits of their own works, but that wasn’t Bede’s case. Far into the Middle Ages, his biblical commentaries were esteemed, copied and circulated, in company with the writings of Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory. From the ninth century Bede was considered one the Fathers of the Church and has the title, Doctor Ecclesiae.

A few of Bede’s other exegetical works have been translated. His Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles (another patristic first by Bede) was translated by David Hurst for Cistercian Studies 82 (Kalamazoo, 1985). Lawrence T. Martin translated Bede’s Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, CS 117 (1989); this is a good translation but Martin regrettably did not include Bede’s important Retractatio as he originally intended. Martin and Hurst teamed up to translate Bede’s Homilies on the Gospels, in two volumes, CS 110 (1991). We are fortunate to have those translations, but Holder has done a noteworthy service to early medieval and particularly Bedan scholarship by tackling a commentary that is more challenging, more symbolic, more extensive, and more indicative of the alterity of medieval culture than those other Bedan works. I think Martin underestimates the contemporary reader’s abilities and willingness to explore when he states “Bede’s Commentary on Acts especially recommends itself to the modern reader also because it is somewhat more accessible than his later commentaries, which are generally extremely allegorical, perhaps beyond the bounds of the taste of many today” ( On Acts, p. xviii). For those of us who delight in the mentality of the age, the commentary On the Tabernacle is more interesting, fascinating, and beautiful than even the important Commentary on Acts. It reveals the eighth century scholar at the apex of his powers, sensitive, reasonable, learned, architectonic, and judicious, deeply imbued with and better versed in the Scriptures and in the hermeneutics of Scriptural commentary, both literal and symbolic, than many exegetes then and now.

However, as Holder notes, “Little or nothing of [Bede’s] exegesis could be called speculative or constructive theology” (p. xiv). He was not an Origen or Athanasius, not a precursor of the Scholastics. He was a religious man deeply concerned about the conversion and instruction of his fellow Englishmen. (That’s really what the Historia Ecclesiastica is about too.) On the Tabernacle is pastoral, asking “What does this ancient text of the Old Testament mean for me and my salvation? It is not by accident that he cites and incorporates in this commentary so much of Gregory the Great’s instruction in pastoral theology, the Cura Pastoralis.

Martin, in his introduction to the Homilies (I.xxii), claims that in the homilies Bede “does not use the fathers primarily as authorities to strengthen his own position in matters of interpretation, which is characteristic of his use of patristic sources in his commentaries. Instead, … Bede often draws on the fathers for motifs to enrich and ornament his own words, quite freely adapting his predecessors’ work to suit his own homiletic themes and purposes.” I would contend that Bede’s mature commentaries, such as On the Tabernacle, belie that distinction, for in them Bede is also both homiletic and creative.

As Bede was dying, he was translating into Old English the gospel of John, which has in its Prologue the great declaration of the Incarnation, “Et verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis.” Bede, whose Greek was quite good by the end of his life, presumably knew that “et habitavit in nobis” represented a weak translation of the Greek “ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν,” “pitched his tent among us.” This is of course a Johannine typological reference to Yahweh’s presence in the Tent, the tent of meeting, the tabernacle. Bede recognized the tent as emblematic of God’s presence in the midst of his chosen people, as the Eucharist is the Lord’s presence in the midst of the Christian (monastic) community. (Bede frequently stresses the Eucharist in his writings, especially as Viaticum, manna, in the peregrination to heaven.)

About the time he was at work on the Historia Ecclesiastica, Bede created this extensive commentary on Exodus 24-30. In it, he exploits the symbolism of each part of the tabernacle and its accouterments (as he says he will do in the Introduction to Book One, p. 1). The wonder is that Bede would be the first of the Fathers, late in patristic time as he is, to mine systematically and resolutely the historical and symbolic valences of the tabernacle for the Christian reader (p. xv).

The subject is not an easy one, both because of its archeological antiquity but also because even at the literal level the biblical text is so problematic. The parts and pieces of the tabernacle are described in detail (some of them apparently retrospective from the Temple sanctuary), but the way it fits together is not described. It’s a bit like having a do-it-yourself kit with all the parts listed but no directions about how to put it together. Modern biblical scholars are still puzzling over whether the slats were fitted next to one another or overlapping clapboard style (see R. E. Friedman’s article on Tabernacle in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6.292-300). At each stage, before probing the symbolic senses suggested, Bede tries to make sense of the description. He studies the verses, reads Josephus and Jerome, then gives what he thinks is a likely depiction of the object. At one point, 26.12-13 (p. 60), Bede suggests a practical experiment to ascertain the shape and dimensions of the tabernacle by tracing the ground plan with a piece of string. Since modern biblical scholars have been struggling with the question of the shape and dimensions of the Tabernacle for over a century, small wonder he says, ‘Here’s a try, but if someone can do better, I’d appreciate it’ (p. 62: His actual words in Holder’s translation are, “In so far as we have been able to understand them, we have taken care briefly to explain these things concerning this most difficult subject, but we are ready to learn more accurate information about these matters if anyone wishes to instruct us”).

Bede assists us in perusing the rich array of symbolic interpretation by guiding us through the chapters with structural division (e.g., pp. 45-46, the threefold meaning of the two sancutaries) and summaries (e.g., pp. 50, the four characteristics of the elect summarized in the four colors of the curtains). Most medieval commentaries proceed by a verse by verse explanation or gloss on the text; when the biblical book or chapter comes to an end, the commentary does too, just as modern commentaries, such as the Interpreter’s Bible, do. Bede proceeds this way in his early commentaries, such as those on the Apocalypse and on the Seven Catholic Epistles. But in the commentaries of his maturity he applies his creative talents as a teacher, historian, writer of narrative prose and poetry; and he skillfully organizes the narrative so that it not only comments verse by verse but also forms a satisfying, unified whole.

In this commentary on the Tabernacle, Bede begins Book I with a paragraph introduction, explaining that first he is going to describe the elements, topography, and circumstances and then speak about the figure, the symbolic meaning of the tabernacle, vessels, and utensils. After giving the historical background and significance of Moses’ contact with God on the mount and God’s command for the Israelites to make the sanctuary for his dwelling with them, Bede describes the ark and its parts (in nine chapters). In the longer Book II (thirteen chapters), he follows the chapters of Exodus about the construction of the tabernacle and its appurtenances. In book III, after a chapter on the oil for the lamp, which we might think ought to be placed more logically at then end of the preceding book, Bede takes up the vestments of the priesthood, the altar of incense, and the purificatory basin. In the captivating discussion of the meaning of the golden plate (“lamminam”) engraved with the words “holy to the Lord,” which was affixed to the highpriest’s turban, Bede compares the priest’s apotropaic plate to the protective emblem of the cross on the Christian’s forehead. Here is one of the places that Holder could have been more helpful in the notes, by at least adding to the liturgical note (note 4, p. 130) some reference to the vast patristic topos of the protective sign of the cross on the forehead and breast (e.g., in the writings of Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and the Western Fathers).

In the latter part of Book III, by noting the verses Bede omits from his commentary, we can see something of Bede’s editorial method at work. He leaves out large parts of Exodus 29 and 30, such as the offering of cattle and the besprinkling and marking of the priests with blood. Then, in the last chapter, 14, on the bronze basin, instead of just treating it verse by verse and coming to an end, Bede interweaves a synthesis and summary of the whole commentary. In a lovely reprise he talks not only of the Christian significance of the tabernacle but also the altar of holocaust (signifying “the extinction of carnal desires” p. 159), the altar of incense (representing the purity of the holy), the priesthood “of all the faithful” (p. 161, in which Bede shows he is not narrowly clerical), the high priesthood of Aaron, who prefigures Christ, and finally, all of us, because “in all humility we too belong among those descendants of whom it was said that ‘it shall be an everlasting law … throughout their generations.'”

Most modern biblical readers are partial to some symbolic reading of the text and adverse to others. Thus, to accept the golden crown as symbolic of regal glory presents no problem. We’re not bothered when Bede compares the Tabernacle to transient life in this world inhabited by God’s presence, and the Temple to the perduring life with God in eternity; and most would also accept Bede’s explanation that the Tabernacle can signify God’s presence among the Israelites, and the Temple can signify God’s presence in the Christian Church. But there comes a point when the modern mind may even balk, either at the ambiguity or polysemous quality of the symbol or at the symbolic mode for specific details, such as for posts, skins, pots, tongs, forks. This is where the allegorical mode challenges our understanding. As Holder remarks in an article on “Allegory and History in Bede’s Interpretation of Sacred Architecture,” ABR 40:2 [1989], 115: “Every part of the structure (whether tabernacle of temple), every detail of ornament, every number, measurement, or point of the compass described in the biblical accounts, presented Bede with the mystery of the Church. Nor was his interest limited to the buildings themselves. The names and races of those who built each edifice, like the vestments of the priests who ministered in them, contained hidden meanings yielding much in the way of doctrinal instruction, moral exhortation, and good example for the pastors and teachers who now stand as pillars in the spiritual house of God, which is the Church.” Some major meanings are drawn from minor objects; for example, he suggests that the snuffers (Ex. 25.38) represent the snuffing of the wicks of the Old Testament prescriptions, so that they can be repaired as lamps of the gospel to give the better light of the Holy Spirit (p. 40, bottom). Frequently, to the modern mind’s consternation, Bede furnishes two or more explanations for an object (“It can mean this, or, if we like, this or this”). For Bede and his readers, this was not a problem but a bonus.

Such an understanding of symbol derives from the late antique and medieval mindset that sees the world and the objects of this world as signs, semeia, pointing to transcendental reality (Cf. Augustine’s semiology in the De Doctrina Christiana). Moreover, such a reading of reality is typical of the patristic and monastic praxis of ruminatio, the reflection on an object and regurgitation of a text to provide various “true takes” on reality. It is such a reflective, multi-faceted, polyvalent, and seemingly forced effort that creates the alterity, the difference, between our understanding of symbol and Bede’s. Where I find my medieval sympathies tried the most is in the sections where Bede plays the Augustinian numbers game, as, for instance, in his interpretation of the fifty cubits in Exodus 27.12-13, and of the fifteen cubits in Exodus 14-15 (p. 100): “Surely it is well known that fifteen, which is the sum of seven plus eight, rightly designates the joys of eternal life….” Others, with more Pythagorean instincts, may find the extended numerology delightful, but all of us can at least wonder at the intricate ingenuity of the process.

Nonetheless, Holder contends that despite some forced meanings Bede’s exegesis still provides a valid, efficacious, pastoral understanding of Scripture for the modern Christian. I concur, but Bede’s exegesis also teaches our modern mind something about the elastic potential and interpretative inexhaustibility of the biblical text, its cumulative hermeneutics, and its invitation to understand the text in a new old way.

The reviewer’s task includes calling attention to faults and corrigenda. Here my task is not onerous. I have compared the translation with the Latin throughout, and can attest that Holder has fashioned a very good translation indeed; its elegant clarity must have cost him many hours’ labor. It was carefully vetted by the late Margaret Gibson. Only very rarely, such as on the bottom of page 79 and top of page 80, is the translation confused or confusing. The only problem with the text layout is that throughout most of Book II for some strange reason the marginal reference numbers to the CCSL are off by six to twelve lines, so that, for instance, [65] on p. 72 belongs eight lines lower, and [82] on p. 91 should be ten lines further, on p. 92. The notes are spare but helpful. I would like to have seen a few more explanations for words that are confusing in translation, such as “sacrament” for Bede’s “sacramentum.” There are very few typos; in this remarkably clean text the only ones worth mentioning are in the note to the frontispiece, where the folio numbers in Codex Amiatinus should be IIv-IIIr, not IIr-IIIr (not the author’s mistake), and the intrusive “n” in the spelling of the name Conchini for Cochini on p. 140, note 1 (but spelled correctly in the well selected bibliography).

Finally, a word of praise should be voiced for the editors and presses of the series in which this translation appears. The nineteen titles so far translated are important ones for students of the late antique and early medieval periods; with ever fewer scholars capable of reading Latin easily, translations such as these make available major texts that would remain inaccessible without them. The translations in this low-priced series are generally of high quality, but Holder’s translation Bede’s On the Tabernacle establishes a highwater mark.