BMCR 2021.06.37

Pratum Patristicum

, Pratum Patristicum. Chrêsis. Die Methode der Kirchenväter im Umgang mit der antiken Kultur, 10. Basel: Schwabe, 2019. Pp. 470. ISBN 9783796539763 €78,00.

[The Table of contents is listed below.]

The well-known Prudentius scholar Christian Gnilka has published a collection of thirty-one elegant philological lectures and articles, of which only two have not appeared before. His articles are not for the faint of heart: they are demanding; translations are rare; and they brim with the insights of a man who has a great affection for the Latin of the author Prudentius whom he has been studying since his dissertation of 1962 and whom he chose to be his lifelong companion—the kind of choice he encourages all young philologists to make. The series title, “Chrêsis. Die Methode der Kirchenväter im Umgang mit der antiken Kultur” indicates the direction of the philological investigations—namely how the ancient patristic writers interacted with ancient culture. Most of the chapters explore this theme of χρῆσις (“right use”) in some fashion. Along with two chapters on the Roman Peter tradition, there are several studies devoted to Roman Christian archaeology.

The first contribution (Voraussetzungslose Wissenschaft? [Research without Presuppositions]), a lecture originally given at the Pontificia Università Santa Croce, Roma and later published in Annales Theologici, is a programmatic guide to the philologist’s task that is a lengthy commentary on a lecture of the Catholic Indologist Paul Hacker.[1] Pure philology is not enough, although the “philological confession is responsible for imposing results when pagans are the object of investigation” (13).[2] Gnilka asserts: “The demand to look at the ecclesiastical authors from the Catholic point of view can be broken down into different demands or presuppositions” (16). One can imagine this perspective going over well at the Pontificia Università – but perhaps less well in some other academic contexts. One consequence is: “The way the ecclesiastical thinkers, artists, and lettered individuals dealt with the culture that surrounded them is an energetic, critical, selective, purifying process; and the modern observer, if (s)he wants to grasp the results of this process correctly, must keep pace with the spiritual energy of those individuals” (16). One of the other major presuppositions Gnilka (e.g., 16, 77, 101, 119) argues for is a principle of Augustine that enables philological comprehension: nullumque bonum perfecte noscitur, quod non perfecte amatur (Augustine, De divers. quaest., qu. 35.2: “and no good is perfectly known that is not perfectly loved”).[3] Basil’s Ad adulescentes (πρὸς τοὺς νέους ὅπως ἂν ἐξ Ἑλληνικῶν ὠφελοῖντο λόγων—To the youth on how they could benefit from Greek letters) is a case in point. The humanists misread this treatise as a witness to the enlightenment of the mind – the Magna Charta of the renaissance. Eduard Norden concluded that “especially the Christian literature of the east is more enlightened [!] than that of the west” and that “the west never possessed a writing such as Basil’s” (14).[4] Gnilka argues, however, that for the church fathers such as Basil “ancient education is only a servant of religion” (14).

The second chapter on “Truth and Similarity” examines the “proof of age” argument used by the patristic writers (e.g., Moses is older than Plato and all other Greek writings, which are dependent on the Old Testament). This sort of error lasted centuries in antiquity, however, and had its roots in ancient Greece and Rome. An example is the contention that Greek wisdom derives from ancient peoples such as the Egyptians, Orientals, and Indians (31). Celsus turns the thesis on its head and argues that Moses and the prophets were dependent on Plato (39; Origen, Cels. 6.19). The argument ultimately comprised the attempt of the patristic writers to explain that the divine revelation was the only one in full possession of the truth, when there were many partial truths, similarities, partial agreements, and so forth in pre-Christian culture (55).

The fourth chapter, “Prudentius and the Approach of the Church Fathers to Ancient Culture,” focuses in Gnilka’s belief that a philologist should choose one author as their “friend and wayfaring companion” (77). One should get to know an author through lectio continua. The consequences of not loving the topic of one’s study are severe. One scholar concluded, for example, that Augustine’s Confessiones are a “monstrous black and white painting” (monströse Schwarzweißmalerei)—that is, a “monstrously simplified presentation” (77). But Augustine’s own answer to such a characterization is (Conf. 10.3.3) credunt mihi, quorum mihi aures caritas aperit (they, whose ears charity has opened to me, believe me)—which is a basic presupposition to understand the work (78). Gnilka, since the days of his dissertation, made Prudentius his Lieblingsautor and came to the conclusion that Prudentius is the only (or almost the only) author who combined: “the Christian religion; the Latin language; the living culture of antiquity; and genuine poetry” (78). The chapter illustrates these principles—including a remark that translation of poetry is almost always “fatal” (87). Nevertheless, Gnilka includes many translations of Prudentius in these pages.[5]

Gnilka devotes two chapters to the question of the Roman presence of Peter: “Philological material on the Roman Peter-tradition”; and “Simon Magus and the Roman Peter-tradition.” In these two chapters his primary intellectual antagonist is the philologist Otto Zwierlein who wrote two monographs on the topic and related material.[6] In the second of these two chapters, Gnilka takes up Zwierlein’s explanation of the nearly universally attested presence of Peter in Rome in ancient Christian tradition. Zwierlein argues that the inscription in Rome that Justin mentioned in his Apology, dedicated to Simoni deo sancto (Apol. 1.26.2), was ultimately the source of the ancient tradition of Peter’s Roman presence.[7] From Justin’s error, Zwierlein concludes that the misunderstanding of the inscription led to the belief that Simon Magus was in Rome, which in turn led to the belief that Peter came to Rome following the magician. This, for Zwierlein, explains the “Rome myth” (192). Gnilka effectively refutes this excessively speculative hypothesis (e.g., how could Justin’s error have led to an empire-wide error describing Peter’s presence in Rome), and I will not pursue the details of his argument.

In the chapter that reviews the philological evidence for the presence of Peter in Rome, Gnilka carefully responds to each of Zwierlein’s arguments.[8] For example, in 1 Peter 5:13 the author writes, Ἀσπάζεται ὑμᾶς ἡ ἐν Βαβυλῶνι συνεκλεκτὴ καὶ Μᾶρκος ὁ υἱός μου. Most scholars interpret “Babylon” in the phrase, “the co-elect one from Babylon,” as a code word for Rome given the evidence of the Apocalypse of John, a number of Jewish apocalyptic texts, and texts from ancient Christian authors. Zwierlein, however, believes the reference of “Babylon” is an “ontological” metaphor for the state of Christians’ being in the diaspora (167-168).[9] If this is the case, then the churches the Petrine author writes to in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (2:11: the πάροικοι and παρεπίδημοι) would have no idea who the source of the letter was, and the letter carrier would have to inform them (168). In addition, it is doubtful that the notion that Babylon = exile would be comprehensible, because in Israelite history it is associated not only with exile but also with captivity (169). The ancient church certainly understood Babylon to be Rome (170). Zwierlein lacks a real concept of tradition according to Gnilka in his (Zwierlein’s) attempt to trace the Peter-tradition back to an erroneous combination of ancient texts (187). There are limits to philology. The philologist should not imagine that important facts are preserved and disseminated only through the medium of texts (187).[10] Gnilka’s careful philological arguments successfully meet Zwierlein’s objections to the Peter-tradition in my view. Doubtless this is not the last word in this debate that has been ongoing for 150 years.

These summaries are enough to give the reader a taste of the pearls that one may find in these intriguing and well-argued chapters.[11] The Table of Contents printed below indicates the breadth of Gnilka’s erudition. The price of the volume is reasonable, and no scholar of Latin Christian antiquity will be able to ignore this work.

Table of Contents

Einleitung (7-8)

1. Voraussetzungslose Wissenschaft? (9-23)
2. Wahrheit und Ähnlichkeit (25-55)
3. Der Unbekannte Gott im vierten Buch der Civitas Dei Augustins (57-75)
4. Prudentius und der Umgang der Kirchenväter mit der antiken Kultur (77-95)
5. Die Bedeutung der Psychomachie im Gesamtwerk des Prudentius (97-117)
6. Kaiser, Rom und Reich bei Prudentius (119-132)
7. Seher und Dichter, Prophet und Bischof. Vates im christlichen Latein (133-148)
8. Philologisches zur römischen Petrustradition (149-188)

Aufsätze und Miszellen
9. Simon magus und die römische Petrustradition (189-206)
10. Dignitas (207-219)
11. Bemerkungen zu Tertullian spect. 30 (221-224)
12. Spuren antiker Vergilerklärung bei Juvencus (225-239)
13. Zur Frage der Verfasserschaft der ambrosianischen Tituli (241-280)
14. Zum Grabepigramm auf Ennodius, zu den ambrosianischen Tituli und zu vates gleich episcopus (281-290)
15. Zur Verfasserschaft des ambrosianischen Apostelhymnus (291-295)
16. Horaz und Ambrosius: Dulce est mori (297-298)
17. Die Seelentaube bei Prudentius (299-316)
18. Nota Prudentiana 317-319)
19. Versdubletten. Zu Prudentius, Peristephanon 2,514 (321-324)
20. Inscripta Christo pagina (Zu Prudentius perist. 10,1119) (325-327)
21. Prudentius und das Apsisepigramm in Alt-St. Peter (329-350)
22. Aedes Laterani (351-368)
23. Notae Paulinianae (369-372)
24. Fremdkörper im Text des Gottesstaats (373-391)
25. Weitere unechte Embleme in Augustins Civitas Dei (393-400)
26. Gehör und Gewissen. Zu Augustinus civ. 1,26 (401-403)
27. Bemerkungen zum Text der Confessionen Augustins (405-413)
28. Zu Augustinus conf. 1,17,27 (415-419)
29. Zu Augustinus conf. 5,3,4 (421-422)
30. Kritische Bemerkung zu Augustinus conf. 7,5,7 (423-426)

31. “Die Welt des Löwen und des Fuchses” (427-440)

Verzeichnis der Erstpublikationen (441-442)

I. Stellen (445-470)
a. Bibel (445-448)
b. Antike Autoren (448-470)
II. Wörter, Namen, Sachen (471-478)


[1] See Wilhelm Halbfass, “An Uncommon Orientalist: Paul Hacker’s Passage to India” in: Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedanta (ed. Wilhelm Halbfass; Albany: State University of New York, 1995) 1-23.

[2] I have made use of AI below (see for Gnilka’s German, although I have modified the results.

[3] Cp. Chrysostom, Hom. in Rom. Arg. 1 (PG 69.391) Οὐδὲ γὰρ ἡμεῖς ὅσαπερ ἴσμεν, εἴπερ τινὰ ἴσμεν, δι’ εὐφυΐαν καὶ ὀξύτητα διανοίας ἐπιστάμεθα, ἀλλὰ διὰ τὸ συνεχῶς ἔχεσθαι τοῦ ἀνδρὸς, καὶ σφόδρα διακεῖσθαι περὶ αὐτόν (for we do not know what we know, if we do know anything, because of our clever nature or sharp mind, but because we continually cleave to the man, and are so extremely well disposed toward him). Trans. and comment in Margaret M. Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox 2002) 37.

[4] Eduard Norden, Die antike Kunstprosa: Vom vi. Jahrhundert v. Chr. bis in die Zeit der Renaissance (2 vols.; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1981 [3rd ed. 1915]) 2.575. Gnilka’s exclamation mark.

[5] By contrast, his chapter on “The Dove of the Soul in Prudentius,” in which he notes that the hymn to St Eulalia (Perist. 3) has been called “the most beautiful of all Prudentius’s lyric poems” (299), includes no translations.

[6] Otto Zwierlein, Petrus in Rom: Die literarischen Zeugnisse. Mit einer kritischen Edition der Martyrien des Petrus und Paulus auf neuer handschriftlicher Grundlage (Berlin: de Gruyter, 22010) and idem, Petrus und Paulus in Jerusalem und Rom: Vom neuen Testament zu den apokryphen Apostelakten (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013).

[7] Cp. CIL VI, 567 = EDR158919 Semoni / Sanco / deo Fidio / sacrum … Photograph available in the Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss Slaby.

[8] I have critiqued Zwierlein’s arguments in my: “The Tradition of Peter’s Crucifixion,” in: Talking God in Society. Multidisciplinary (Re)constructions of Ancient (Con)texts. Festschrift Peter Lampe (vol. 1; ed. Ute Eva Eisen and Heidrun E. Mader; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2021) 733–751.

[9] Cf. also Zwierlein, Petrus in Rom, 7–12, idem, Petrus und Paulus, v, 7–13, 266, Cook, “Tradition,” 739-741 (“being in a state of exile” is not an ontological notion any more than “the state of being in a garden” is). On the identification of Babylon and Rome, see also: Armin D. Baum, “‘Babylon’ als Ortsmetaphor in 1 Petr 5,13 auf dem Hintergrund der antiken Literatur und im Kontext des Briefes”, in: Petrus und Paulus in Rom: Eine interdisziplinäre Debatte (ed. Stefan Heid; Freiburg: Herder, 2011) 180–220; and Birgit van der Lans and Jan N. Bremmer, “Tacitus and the Persecution of the Christians: An Invention of Tradition?,” Eirene. Studia Graeca et Latina 53 (2017) 301–333, esp. 313.

[10] Here Gnilka could have made use of Markus Bockmuehl, The Remembered Peter: In Ancient Reception and Modern Debate (WUNT 262; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).

[11] To his chapter on “Seers and Poets, Prophet and Bishop. Vates in Christian Latin,” one should perhaps add Pantagathus (RICG 15, 95 = Actes 10, p. 351; PLRE Pantagathus 2 [ca 534, before 549]): orator magnus vates. To his chapter on “Prudentius and the Apsisepigraph and Old St Peter’s,” one should add Alastair Logan, “Who Built Old St Peter’s? the Evidence of the Inscriptions and Mosaics,” VigChr 75 (2021) 43-69.