BMCR 2022.05.10

Receptions of the Bible in Byzantium: texts, manuscripts, and their readers

, , Receptions of the Bible in Byzantium: texts, manuscripts, and their readers. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2021. Pp. xx, 534. ISBN 9789151310176 Open Access.

Open Access
[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The purpose of this impressive volume is to provide a model for studying the Bible “within the discipline of Byzantine studies as a whole” (p. 1). The contributions are arranged into five categories.

In the first essay, under the heading “Politics of Interpretation,” Buzási argues that Julian’s biblical literalism did not entirely discount the existence of deeper truths embedded in the mythic language of Christian scriptures. The real object of Julian’s critique was the Christian claim about the uniqueness of this wisdom. Continued insistence by Christians on the exceptional character of their sacred books would require them to abandon the search for universal meaning and observe the laws and rituals required by a literal reading of the Old Testament. Blower’s essay on George of Pisidia rejects the characterization of his hexaemeral commentary as little more than an “un-theological” instrument of imperial propaganda. Even if George did press his commentary into the service of panegyric, a reader unversed in the tradition of patristic commentary would have been unable to appreciate the model of interpretive contemplation underlying George’s doxological treatment of the hexaemeron.

Engberg’s article on the Byzantine Old Testament lectionary suggests that ideological considerations may account for the later additions to the reading from Isaiah for Tuesday of the fifth week of Lent. Because the original and shorter reading was at least partially responsible for Leo V’s persecution of his iconophile adversaries, these additions were intended to weaken its value as a weapon for iconoclasts. According to Riedel, political sensitivities may also have influenced Photios’ treatment of two seemingly contradictory statements in the wisdom literature about the human condition. In Ps. 102:13-16, David likens humanity to dust and grass; by contrast, Solomon calls human beings “great” and “precious” (Prov. 20:6). Since the supposed authors of these verses were royal archetypes in Byzantium, Photios fully understood the importance of reconciling the seeming contradiction. He maintained that both passages revealed how, through the practice of spiritual discipline, human beings could remove themselves from the grass-like fragility of existence and begin the process of spiritual ascent through theosis.

The four articles under the heading “Quotations” deal with an approach to the biblical text in which passages plucked from biblical books are repurposed “in different contexts and to various ends” (p. 20). Morlet’s essay treats Christian testimonia, that is, selections of Old Testament passages arranged thematically and said to foreshadow the life of Jesus and the early Church. Eusebius would later arrange testimonia not by themes, but according to the sequence of the biblical text. While these collections were mainly tools of catechesis or anti-Jewish polemic, Byzantine authors expanded their uses into the realm of liturgy and iconography. The influence of patristic sources is evident in the use of testimonia in two Byzantine texts: the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila and an anonymous dialogue edited by J. Declerck. Archaisms in the quotations from the New Testament in the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila may also point to the use of older collections, perhaps as early as the second or third century. In his own study of the Life of Saint Basil the Younger, Ioniță notes connections with Byzantine hymnody. But the rhetoric about the eschatological judgments awaiting the Jews is far more virulent, especially in its highly tendentious reading of a passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans dealing with the fate of the people of Israel (Rom 9-11). Regrettably, animus against the Jews in the Life reinforced “theologically misplaced sentiments of anti-Judaism” in Byzantine Christianity of the tenth century (p. 138).

For Van Elverdinghe, the study of Armenian colophons offers insight into the reception of the Bible among the “less literate or semi-literate ranks of a medieval Eastern Christian society” (p. 142). Aesthetic adornments of colophons often included biblical themes in poetic form. While the interpretive methods generally adhere to exegetical norms in Armenian exegesis, the authors showed real originality in finding biblical parallels with their own experiences. Athanasopoulos’ study of Gennadios Scholarios’s Compendium of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae looks at the use of biblical citations in a very different setting. Among other things, Athanasopoulos notes that neither Scholarios’ translation nor an earlier translation of Aquinas by Demetrios Kydones consistently standardized Aquinas’s biblical citations according to the Greek biblical text known to them. Scholarios’ failure to do so could reflect both his high regard for Aquinas and his confidence that Aquinas’ Latin text of Scripture was not a variance with Orthodox doctrine.

The section entitled “Rewritten Bible” deals with writers who rework the biblical text “while keeping it firmly as their point of reference” (p. 23). In her treatment of a collection of summaries of Old Testament books known as the Synopsis of Sacred Scripture, Barone notes that its textual history falls broadly into two groups: a short and a long recension. An indirect witness to the tradition recorded in ms. London, Lambeth Palace, Sion L40.2/G11 (= S) shows some unique connections with a representative of the longer recension (Barberinianus gr. 317 = B). But the distinctive characteristics of S suggest dependence on another witness, earlier than B and lacking the latter’s textual interpolations.

The subject of Bady’s essay is a previously unedited collection of 358 verse summaries of the psalms, mostly composed in iambic trimeters. Bady describes the work as “un jeu littéraire” with didactic pretensions (p. 221). While not ruling out their attribution to Niketas Chartophylax, he does express misgivings about seeking to identify the “author” of what is essentially a “paratext.” When the collection did evolve into a self-standing work in its own right, the summaries formed a sort of literary “précipité” of various traditions: scholarly, poetic, biblical, patristic and liturgical. The appendix to Bady’s article includes an edition of the text, based on the four manuscript witnesses, along with a French translation. The subject of the last essay in this section is the Metaphrasis Psalmorum, a poetic rewriting of the Septuagint text of the Psalter in dactylic hexameters and attributed to Apollinaris of Laodicea (ca. 310-90 CE). On the basis of the visual presentation of the work in the later manuscript witnesses, Ricceri seeks to determine whether the Metaphrasis was treated as an adjunct to the Greek Psalter or as an independent work and subject of study in its own right. At the risk of oversimplification, her study makes clear that the nature of the relationship between the Psalter and the Metaphrasis was “fluid and dynamic” (p. 273).

Articles under the heading “Visual Exegesis” deal with the relationship between text and image in illuminated manuscripts. In her study of a manuscript miniature accompanying the text of Ps. 1 in the Serbian Psalter, Baudoin notes that the legend above the frame identifies “the blessed man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly” as Joseph of Arimathea. Hinted at in the Gospel according to Luke and first made explicit by the Latin church father Tertullian, the identification was popularized in Christianity of the east by texts circulating under the names of Athanasios of Alexandria and Hesychios of Jerusalem, as well as the apocryphal Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea. Baudoin suggests that the Slavonic translation of Hesychios was probably the means by which the tradition found its way into the iconography of the Serbian Psalter.

After reviewing the art-historical, paleographic and text-critical evidence, Maxwell rejects the assumed ninth-century dating of Parisinus gr. 6, a majuscule Gospel book. The headpieces and the initials could not have been created before the tenth century. Textual evidence also suggests dependence on the Gospels of Dionysios, a partial Gospel book usually assigned to the tenth century. Covering the period from their first documented appearance in the sixth century up until the thirteenth century, Yota’s article examines marginal miniatures and illustrations of gospel narrative and liturgical practice in the Byzantine tetraevangelion. In the later period, these illustrations assumed a symbolic value equal to that of the text. Although the sponsor’s personal preferences played a major role in the choice of illustration, comparison with church décor and the Byzantine liturgical cycle makes it clear that there were broader influences at play.

Smirnova’s study of the Simonov Psalter of Novgorod notes that several miniatures and accompanying explanations touch on themes of Christian instruction and enlightenment. While these adornments probably recreate miniatures from one of the lost Russian Psalters created in the eleventh century, the older models were apparently radically modified in accordance with changes in stylistic conventions during the intervening period. In particular, more expressive poses and gestures replaced the monumentality of the earlier Psalters. Bernabò’s final essay in this section examines the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy preserved in a paper codex produced in late thirteenth-century Mardin. He notes that the accompanying illuminations, mostly uncolored sketches, sometimes contradict the text. The part of the text based on the Gospel of Nicodemus also includes some interesting illustrations either unknown or sparsely attested in other copies of Nicodemus. Although the manuscript colophon identifies the copyist as a physician named Ishaq, Bernabò doubts that he created the illuminations himself, entrusting the work instead to a professional painter.

The first three essays grouped together under “Technical Exegesis” deal with a form of biblical commentary known as the “catena.” Panella’s investigation of the catena of pseudo-Oikoumenios on Galatians expands and refines Staab’s earlier classification of the Pauline catena into five types. In her study of the catenae on the major prophets attributed to John Droungarios, Vianès considers the origins of the extensive excerpts from the works of Severus of Antioch. After examining the catenae on the major prophets and considering other theories about their origins, Vianès affirms Faulhaber’s conclusion that the four catenae and their prologues constitute a unity. Compiled by supporters of Severus, they may date as early as the second half of the sixth century. The subject of Vanderschelden’s essay is the catena commentary included in ms. Parisinus gr. 139, a tenth-century manuscript commonly known as the Paris Psalter. Vanderschelden’s study provides an edition, translation and analysis of the catena on Ps. 11. Among her other findings, she shows that all three Palestinian catena types are represented in the text. These include literal excerpts from the first and second Palestinian type, and paraphrases from the third type.

In the final essay in this section, Fincati’s essay analyzes textual corrections and marginal annotations in Codex Marchalianus, a Greek manuscript containing the prophetic books and dating between the sixth and eighth centuries. At the end of the twelfth century, the manuscript underwent marginal annotations by a scholiast who was also the owner of the manuscript. After examining the annotations of Hosea and the beginning of Jeremiah, Fincati proposes that the scholiast was the original author of a crude kind of catena commentary meant for personal use only. She also suggests that a single author may have been responsible for the dense annotations found in several manuscripts from the same period and composed in similar handwriting.

The categorization of essays in a volume of such wide-ranging scope was bound to be somewhat subjective. Vianès’s article on the catena of pseudo-Droungarios, for example, might just as well have found a home in “Politics of Interpretation.” And “Rewritten Bible” is a rather imprecise catch-all category, including everything from Josephus’ Antiquities (p. 23) to manuscript scholia. But measured against the overall value of the volume, this is a minor quibble. In the introduction, the editors express hope that their volume will help broaden the scope of what has traditionally been a narrowly defined and insular field of study among Byzantinists. Biblical scholars dismayed by the parochialism of their own discipline will find the collection equally useful.

Authors and titles

Gábor Buzási, “Julian the Apostate as a Biblical Literalist”
Paul M. Blowers, “George of Pisidia among the Hexaemeral Commentators”
Sysse Gudrun Engberg, “The Emperor Leo V, his Choir Master, and the Byzantine Old Testament Lectionary”
Meredith L. D. Riedel, “Photios’s Hermeneutic for Wisdom Literature in Amphilochia 9”
Sébastien Morlet, “Les Testimonia, de la fin de l’Antiquité à Byzance: remarques sur une histoire qu’il reste à écrire”
Alexandru Ioniță, “Biblical Sources and Hymnographic Parallels for Anti-Jewish  Rhetoric in the Life of Saint Basil the Younger
Emmanuel Van Elverdinghe, “‘A Child in Zion’: The Scriptural Fabric of Armenian Colophons”
Panagiotis Ch. Athanasopoulos, “The Greek and Latin Background to the Thomistic Scriptural Quotations in Gennadios Scholarios, Compendium of Summa Theologiae, Ia IIae
Francesca Prometea Barone, “Un document synoptique en marge de la Synopse de la Sainte Écriture attribuée à Jean Chrysostome: le ms. London, Lambeth Palace, Sion L40.2/G11”
Guillaume Bady, “Les vers inédits sur les Psaumes transmis sous le nom de Nicétas Chartophylax”
Rachele Ricceri, “The Byzantine Reception of the Metaphrasis Psalmorum: Paratextuality and Visual Representation”
Anne-Catherine Baudoin, “Joseph of Arimathea as the ‘Blessed Man’: Patristic, Apocryphal and Iconographic Witnesses to an Original Interpretation of Psalm 1”
Kathleen Maxwell, “Dating Middle Byzantine Gospel Books: The Gospels of Dionysios and Paris. gr. 63”
Élisabeth Yota, “Le tétraévangile byzantin: modes d’illustration et sources d’inspiration”
Engelina Smirnova, “Christian Instruction in the Miniatures of the Simonov Psalter of Novgorod (MS Moscow, Hist. Mus., Chlud. 3)”
Massimo Bernabò, “The Illuminations of the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy in the Laurentian Library, Florence”
Theodora Panella, “Re-classifying the Pseudo-Oikoumenian Catena Types for Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians”
Laurence Vianès, “Chaînes de Jean le Droungaire sur les Grands Prophètes, ou chaînes pro-sévériennes?”
Leontien Vanderschelden, “The Composition and Transmission of the Catena on Psalm 11 in the Paris Psalter”
Mariachiara Fincati, “The Exegetical Annotations from the End of the Twelfth Century in Codex Marchalianus: Jeremiah and Hosea”