BMCR 2018.07.41

Ambrosiaster’s Commentary on the Pauline Epistles: Romans. Writings from the Greco-Roman World

, , , Ambrosiaster's Commentary on the Pauline Epistles: Romans. Writings from the Greco-Roman World. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017. cxxx, 319. ISBN 9781628371956. $60.00.


This volume is the first half of a two-volume translation of an anonymous fourth-century commentary on the Pauline epistles, once ascribed to Ambrose, whose author has been known since the 16 th century under the epithet ‘Ambrosiaster’. This first volume contains a number of introductory essays and the commentary on Romans; the second volume is set to appear shortly and will contain the commentaries on the remaining Pauline epistles (excluding Hebrews, which ‘Ambrosiaster’ apparently did not comment upon). Unlike other volumes in the Society of Biblical Literature’s Writings from the Greco-Roman World series, this volume does not include a parallel Latin text, for reasons of space and, counter-intuitive though it seems, practicality. The source-text underlying this translation is the standard edition in the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) series by Heinrich Vogels.1

The first section of the introduction brings together the results of earlier inquiries into the identity, date and provenance of Ambrosiaster. It is argued that both the Quaestiones and the later versions of the Pauline commentaries date to the mid-380s, with the earliest version of the commentaries having appeared perhaps a decade earlier. The person behind the eponym ‘Ambrosiaster’ is identified as a Roman presbyter, who – following a suggestion by Lunn-Rockliffe2 – probably presided over one of the decentral churches outside the city walls, which would have made him “simultaneously an insider and an outsider to clerical culture at Rome” (p. xxix).

The following section discusses the textual tradition of Ambrosiaster’s commentary, which is notoriously complex. In his edition in the CSEL series, Vogels distinguishes between three different recensions for Romans, and two for all other epistles, all of which apparently go back to a single author. In the introduction to the volume here reviewed, Theodore S. de Bruyn has done important work in corroborating Vogels’ thesis that “Ambrosiaster first composed a commentary on Romans alone ( recensio α). He then wrote commentaries on the remaining epistles ( recensio α) and at that time revised the commentary on Romans ( recensio β) in light of his greater knowledge of the Pauline epistles and of relevant biblical passages. Finally, he revised the entire set of commentaries ( recensio γ)” (p. xli). Through a detailed analysis of the variants in the commentary on Romans 1–5, de Bruyne demonstrates that the nature of the three recensions largely fits Vogels’ hypothesis, although the nature of the so-called ‘mixed manuscripts’ remains problematic (p. lii-lv). For its methodological clarity and compelling arguments, this section truly is one of the highlights of an excellent publication.

The important issue of Ambrosiaster’s biblical text clearly was not a focus of this project, and the discussion in the third section of the introduction is correspondingly brief. Due reference is made to publications on the corpus Paulinum by researchers of the Vetus Latina Institute (Beuron), and to the Pauline Commentaries Project at the University of Birmingham.

Ambrosiaster’s exegetical methods are often cited as an example of literal, historical and rhetorical interpretation, quite unlike the allegorical methods of some of his predecessors. The author of the fourth introductory section, Stephen A. Cooper, is right not to put too much emphasis on the distinction between ‘literal’ and ‘allegorical’ exegesis. The difference between both approaches was less clear-cut than is sometimes imagined3, and at times Ambrosiaster’s interpretation would certainly be deemed allegorical by modern readers.

The remaining sections engage with Ambrosiaster’s theology; with polemical aspects of the commentary; and with Christian life at Rome, as far as it can be reconstructed from Ambrosiaster’s works. Each of these sections summarizes the findings of recent scholarship and singles out some topics of special importance. The discussion of Ambrosiaster’s views on grace, free will and justification (p. xci-xcvi) is particularly enlightening in view of the prominence of these topics in late 4 th -century theology, notably Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings.

The introduction is, according to this reviewer, the most useful starting point currently available for anyone studying Ambrosiaster’s commentaries. The arguments are presented carefully and intelligibly, with ample reference to the secondary literature. Although the individual authors attempt more than a mere status quaestionis, they do diligently point out out-dated theories or conclusions that differ from their own. The extensive bibliography lists a wealth of 20 th – and 21 st -century scholarship on Ambrosiaster.

As for the translation itself, the authors have elected to translate recensio γ, as identified in the CSEL edition. This is unsurprising, given how recensio γ is elsewhere presented as the author’s ‘final’ version of the commentary. This decision alone represents a distinct improvement over earlier translations of Ambrosiaster, where the distinction between the various recensional layers was insufficiently made.4 Variant readings associated with recensions α and β, or with so-called ‘mixed-text’ manuscripts, are translated in footnotes, unless the differences are of a stylistic nature only. This does make for rather slow reading (of the first 100 footnotes, 76 give alternative readings found in recensions α or β, or in single manuscripts), and the differences between variant readings are not always apparent from the English translation. Indeed, after only a few pages I could not suppress the urge to read the translation with one eye on the CSEL edition. Anyone who is more than superficially interested in the textual history of the commentaries will no doubt be inclined to do the same.

As far as it is licit for a non-native speaker to judge, the translation itself is fluent and idiomatic. To give only the faintest of impressions of how this volume differs from earlier translations of Ambrosiaster’s commentary, I quote the (italicized) lemma and the first lines of commentary on Romans 5:1, as translated by de Bruyn, Cooper and Hunter (p. 89):

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith, not the law, makes it possible to have peace with God. For it reconciles us to God, once the sins that had made us enemies of God have been taken away. Because the Lord Jesus is the agent of this grace, we are reconciled to God through him. Indeed, faith is greater than the law.

An earlier translation of the same passage by G.L. Bray5 reads:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith gives us peace with God, not the law, for it reconciles us to God by taking away those sins which had made us God’s enemies. And because the Lord Jesus is the minister of this grace, it is through him that we have peace with God. Faith is greater than the law.

Note that Bray’s translation harmonizes the lemma text to the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which has an indicative “we have peace with God” (reflecting the preferred reading ἔχομεν in NA 27 and NA 28) whereas in fact Ambrosiaster has the subjunctive habeamus “let us have peace with God”. As a result, the translations of the commentary section also differ: in de Bruyn, Cooper and Hunter, reconciliation with God seems to be rather more conditional than it is in Bray’s translation. Whether this more accurately represents Ambrosiaster’s two-phase approach to the process of grace, in which human cooperation is also required (cf. p. xcv-xcvi), I leave to the discretion of the reader.

In short, the authors have produced a volume of outstanding quality that is far more than ‘merely’ a translation. Once completed by the second volume of commentaries, this work will be an indispensable tool for those interested in the history of exegesis of the Pauline Epistles, as well as for specialists working on the intriguing figure of Ambrosiaster.


1. H.J. Vogels (ed.), Ambrosiastri qui dicitur commentarius in epistulas Paulinas, vol. 1: Ad Romanos (CSEL 81/1; Vienna: Hoelder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1966).

2. S. Lunn-Rockliffe, Ambrosiaster’s Political Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 80-86.

3. On this topic, one should consult the chapter on medieval hermeneutics in F. van Liere, An Introduction to the Medieval Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 110-140.

4. One example is G.L. Bray, Ambrosiaster. Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009). This translation is also based on the CSEL edition,but translates a mixture of recensio α and recensio β, giving precedence to the shorter text in most cases.

5. Bray, Ambrosiaster, p. 37.