BMCR 2021.05.26

Apollinaris of Laodicea: Metaphrasis Psalmorum

, Apollinaris of Laodicea: Metaphrasis Psalmorum. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 496. ISBN 9780199599820 $155.00.

On 17 June 362, the emperor Julian issued an edict banning Christian grammarians from teaching classical literature. Bitterly received by many Christian intellectuals, the edict was taken by ancient historians as a catalyst for the production of Christian classicising poetry and, in particular, Scriptural verse paraphrase. Examples include the Greek verse paraphrases of the Scriptures by the empress Eudocia and the Paraphrase of John’s Gospel by Nonnus of Panopolis. To this eminent rollcall, scholars add a hexametric paraphrase of the Psalms, the Metaphrasis Psalmorum, a poem that retells line-by-line the Septuagint text of the Psalter in dactylic hexameters, using the poetic language and style of the epic tradition.

 This fascinating text has until recently languished in oblivion. Still read from Arthur Ludwich’s 1912 edition, the Metaphrasis has been ill-judged for its lack of originality. Paul Maas called it ‘one of the worst literary aberrations that a writer of rank has ever been guilty of’. One would never be able to guess from statements like this that the poem was transmitted in no less than 36 manuscripts between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, and enjoyed a great popularity among Byzantine literati, such as John Tzetzes and John Geometres. Since Joseph Golega’s 1960 study, Der homerische Psalter, which offered a commentary of the proem attached to the Metaphrasis and a list of linguistic parallels, little work has been done on the poem.

Faulkner’s edition of the text is a major scholarly contribution to the study of the Metaphrasis, being the first study dedicated to the poem in sixty years——and the first ever in English. With an introduction contextualising the poem, a revised edition of the Greek text, and a largely reliable translation of the whole poem, this work will become the definitive point of reference on the poem for future readers. With a section on the manuscript transmission of the Metaphrasis, which Faulkner has updated with an additional eighteen surviving manuscripts, this volume provides an accessible introduction to the issues at hand. The aims it modestly sets for itself, to facilitate and encourage future study, are more than fulfilled. It is hoped that the inclusion of the poem in the Oxford Early Christian Texts series will only help the poem reach a wider audience. My specific qualms about the book’s arguments, interpretations, and their occasional framing must be registered within this context.

The book’s major departure from the communis opinio and its most distinctive contribution to scholarship on the poem is already signalled in its very title. Conventionally thought to be the work of an anonymous poet writing in the second half of the fifth century, the Metaphrasis is attributed in some manuscripts to the bishop Apollinaris of Laodicea (c. 310-90 CE). Faulkner devotes the first and longest chapter of the introduction, ‘Authorship and Date’, to developing the thesis that the Metaphrasis is a genuine work of Apollinaris. This represents in my opinion the weakest part of the book, not least because of the peculiarity of the approach undertaken. Faulkner does not argue for Apollinarian authorship; rather, he argues against objections raised by previous scholarship. It is important to note that, were one to disprove scholars’ objections to Apollinarian authorship, the question would still not be answered decisively—unless, of course, the ancient manuscript tradition is accepted at face value. However, the manuscript attribution to Apollinaris is far from universal, and it must be noted that all evidence for the attribution comes from the tenth century onwards.

The first problem for such an attribution is the complete lack of ancient evidence. Writing almost eighty years after Julian’s edict, the Church historians Socrates and Sozomen report that Apollinaris decided to put the entirety of Scriptures into all forms of classical metre, providing Christians with suitable alternatives to the pagan classics. Nothing survives from this immense undertaking and nowhere is a hexametric paraphrase of the Psalms mentioned explicitly. As Golega remarked, Apollinaris was for the Byzantines the paraphrastic poet par excellence. It is not difficult to imagine how the attribution might have arisen.

Faulkner looks for contemporary evidence elsewhere: a passing remark in an epistle by Gregory of Nazianzus (dated around 382) is taken as indication that Gregory knew of a verse paraphrase by Apollinaris. Gregory denounces Apollinaris for composing ‘long speeches, new psalters and antiphonal songs to David’ (τὰ νέα ψαλτήρια καὶ ἀντίφθογγα τῷ Δαυὶδ, Ep. 101.73). However, the target of Gregory’s attack is not poetry but music: unlike the masculine ‘psalter’ (ψαλτήρ), which is the terminus technicus for the Scriptural Book of the Psalter, the neuter noun ‘psalters’ (ψαλτήρια) used here refers, in all extant literature, exclusively to musical instruments—a point reinforced by Gregory’s reference to the musical term ‘antiphonal’.[1] What seems to lie behind this passage is the suspicion among early Christians that the practice of setting Scriptural passages to music was largely heretical.[2] In a relevant passage, Sozomen reports that Apollinaris’ followers ‘sang ditties invented by him, besides the conventional holy odes’ (Soz. Hist. Eccl. 5.25). What better way for Gregory to seal Apollinaris’ heresy—in the wake of his condemnation by the Council of Constantinople in 381—by accusing him of a practice regarded as heretical?

Next, Faulkner tackles a central objection against Apollinarian authorship, namely the alleged incompatibility of the text’s theological pronouncements with Apollinarian exegesis. The Metaphrasis appears decidedly pro-Nicaean, something which is difficult to square with what is known about Apollinaris theology—admittedly from evidence provided by his critics. Faulkner rightly emphasises the partiality and one-sidedness of such evidence and attempts, in turn, to reappraise Apollinaris’ theses on Christ’s humanity and the role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. He argues that Apollinaris was ‘perfectly capable of speaking of Christ’s true human form in the context of the unity of his divinity and humanity’ (18) and that he was ‘a staunch defender of the divinity and unity of the Trinity’ (21). On the points of theological details, the discussion in this section is informative and cautious. Nevertheless, we should be careful not to equate compatibility with authorship. That Apollinaris’ theological views were arguably not contradictory with Nicene theology does not imply, let alone prove, that the Metaphrasis is his work. Many other of his contemporaries espoused theological views which were not at odds with those expounded in the poem.

It is here perhaps that one can see how the focus on the question of Apollinarian authorship obscures some wider questions about poetry and theology, which could have provided a more fruitful point of departure. If we are to scrutinise the Metaphrasis for theological views, we need above all an idea of the distinction, overlap, or interrelation between the categories of poetry and theology. Recent scholarship has been increasingly alert to how poetry provides a mode of engagement with the Scriptures different to prose, and how poetry’s place within the exegetical arena was constructed and contested.[3] Faulkner’s lack of clarity on this area gives rise to some misinterpretations: πανείκελον is translated as ‘of one substance’, but the word, meaning ‘like in all points’ is not the poetic equivalence of the theologically charged (and unmetrical) ὁμοούσιος, ‘consubstantial’. If anything, πανείκελον would be more at home in the Pneumatology of Apollinaris the heretic and not the defender of orthodox Trinitarian theology that Faulkner makes him to be.

The problems raised by the relationship between poetry and theology are also evident in the section where Faulkner reviews linguistic parallels and allusions to other works, especially Gregory’s and Nonnus’, to arrive at a more secure dating. Faulkner dismisses the existence of a direct relationship too readily, often by positing a lost common source (eg. ‘an unrelated common model is not inconceivable’ (7), ‘a lost common source is a real possibility’ (11)). Students of intertextuality and allusion might have cause to disagree with the line taken here (a remarkable instance where both the Metaphrasis and Nonnus’ Paraphrase of John’s Gospel rewrite verbatim a verse of the Psalms is given short shrift). More importantly, the focus on proving Apollinarian authorship precludes the consideration of more pressing questions: what sort of relationship obtains between the Metaphrasis and Gregory’s poetry—a question made all the more insistent, if the former is indeed the genuine work of Gregory’s adversary? What is the importance of allusions to non-Christian poems in a text that proclaims a return to the Psalms’ (Hebrew) origins?

The next section of the introduction, titled ‘Biblical paraphrase in context’, provides a general background to the genre of biblical poetry. Specifically, it presents an overview of the reasons Christians (primarily, Gregory of Nazianzus) gave for writing poetry; of the patristic idea that the Psalms are considered poetic (Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus is a conspicuous omission here—especially in light of Faulkner’s argument for a personal connection between Athanasius and Apollinaris, pp. 23-5); and of the general development of Christian poetry in late antiquity. Particularly welcome is Faulkner’s overview of Hellenistic Jewish poetry on Biblical themes, an area of overlap and cultural interaction often neglected by classicists. For a poem like the Metaphrasis which appropriates the Hebrew Bible for a Christian audience, this context is especially important and one where much work remains to be done.

The whole section is rich in information, covering some well-trodden material in the study of late antique poetry and its place in late antique culture, and those unfamiliar with the wider literary and cultural phenomena of the period will benefit much from the clarity and conciseness of the presentation. There is however little in way of articulating the specific place of the Metaphrasis in this context. We are told, for example, that the composition of original psalmody could present a ‘persuasive danger’ and that the Canon 59 of the Council of Laodicea banning ‘private Psalms’ is ‘of interest’, but how is such a prohibition linked specifically to the composition of the Metaphrasis? Similarly, Faulkner notes the fourth-century poems included in the Bodmer papyri, one of which paraphrases Psalm 101, but we get no sense of the differences between these paraphrases: how does their approach to the Psalms differ and what makes the Metaphrasis distinctive?

The third chapter of the introduction, titled, ‘Poetic Tradition, Periphrastic technique, and biblical exegesis’, offers an overview of the way the poet reuses older poetic material, responds to the Biblical text, and interacts with the exegetical tradition. Faulkner shows that the poem engages with Homer and Hellenistic poetry, as well as the exegesis of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. This is the most interesting and innovative chapter of the introduction and it is here that the author advances some highly creative interpretations on the text. The claim that the Metaphrasis relies on Origen’s Homilies on the Psalms, or the brilliant link between the ‘golden face of Dikê’ and the ‘golden light of God’s face’, help to highlight the distinctive texture of the poem. One would wish this chapter—regrettably the shortest in the whole introduction—were longer.

Students of Greek poetry and Christian theology in late antiquity stand to benefit greatly from this elegantly produced, compact and informative volume, which will henceforth be the definitive introduction to the poem and will, hopefully—as the dustjacket announces—‘act as a catalyst for future work on the paraphrase’.


[1] Faulkner downplays this very important distinction, 6n27: see LSJ and, in a Christian context, eg. Clem. Paed. 2.4.40-1.

[2] The strategy was common: Athanasius employed it against Arius, by citing his Thalia: see Contra Arianos 1.5, De Synod. 1.15.2-3, and Ephraim against Bardaisan (Contra Haer. 53.5–6); for a recent overview, see Dunkle, B.P. 2016. Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan. Oxford: 13-51.

[3] Here I am thinking particularly of the contributions in Pollman, K. & Otten, W. 2007. Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity: The Encounter between Classical and Christian Strategies of Interpretation. Leiden: Brill.