BMCR 2023.09.36

The reception of John Chrysostom in early modern Europe: translating and reading a Greek Church Father from 1417 to 1624

, The reception of John Chrysostom in early modern Europe: translating and reading a Greek Church Father from 1417 to 1624. Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte, 157. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2023. Pp. xi, 334. ISBN 9783110708844



This book discusses the European reception of the Greek Church Father John Chrysostom (ca. 350-407) in the early modern period (from 1417 to 1624). It focuses on the Latin reception only, leaving translations into vernacular languages aside. The book is structured chronologically around three historical periods: from late antiquity to the Italian Renaissance (Part 2); the early sixteenth century, focusing on Erasmus and his contemporaries in Reformation Basel (Part 3); and the age of confessionalization, from Erasmus’s death to the early seventeenth century (Part 4). As the introduction states, the book aims to serve two types of readers: students of patristics and of Chrysostom in particular; and readers interested in early modern intellectual history (p. 3).

The Introduction (Part 1) is mostly practical, outlining the contents of the book, and instructing the reader how it is to be used. The General conclusion (Part 5) is almost entirely dedicated to explaining why the textual tradition of Chrysostom is still relevant for readers today: because a substantial part of Chrysostom’s works in Greek is available only in editions of early modern scholars, through Migne’s Patrologia Graeca; because more Latin translations of Chrysostom are available than translations into modern languages; because early modern translations may have been based on Greek manuscripts that have since been lost, which makes them relevant for reconstructing textual variants; and because the multiple editions of Chrysostom provide valuable historical material in their own right.

While the introduction and conclusion give the impression that the book is primarily bibliographical in nature, it also explores broader questions about the intellectual context of the many early modern translations and editions of Chrysostom’s works. This is especially true for Part 3 (on Erasmus and Reformation Basel) and Part 4 (on confessionalization). Perhaps the most interesting argument in Part 3 is that Erasmus opposed Oecolampadius, who created a Protestant edition of Chrysostom, which Erasmus and others sought to replace with a Catholic alternative. Part 4 argues that confessionalization could both suppress and stimulate scholarship on Chrysostom in the sixteenth century and that editions coloured by religious confession depended on inter-confessional collaborations.

These discussions are in themselves interesting, but they raise questions about the coherence of the book. The reader is introduced to a wide range of sources, from translations by early Italian humanists to reports of Counter-Reformation censors. These are all relevant to the book’s subject, but Chrysostom often appears to be the only connection between them. The book shies away from formulating generalities about the reception of Chrysostom in the early modern period. See, for example, this cautious comment in the General conclusion: “There can as such be no doubt that the reading and interpretation of Chrysostom in Latin at least expanded between 1417 and 1624. And although it is sometimes a more controversial term, it may also be possible to detect change within this history.” (p. 283) This is followed by a comment on translations of Chrysostom developing from free to literal over time, but no further attempt is made at painting a bigger picture.

This is a pity because the book certainly offers opportunities for tracing developments over time. One is the question of spuria, works ascribed to Chrysostom whose authorship was questioned by early modern authors. Erasmus commented on the authenticity of part of the corpus (175-180) and so did Flaminio (242) and Savile (272). However, the book does not compare their arguments and conclusions. Another promising angle would be the various uses of Chrysostom, e.g., as a stylistic example, as a source for Greek variant readings, as a polemical anti-Jewish author, and as a Pauline theologian. These issues are only touched upon in the book, and they have no place in the conclusion. The lack of an overarching narrative raises the question of why Chrysostom is chosen as a subject: what makes his reception worth studying as opposed to that of other Church Fathers?

On the other hand, readers who are familiar with Chrysostom’s works and wish to learn more about specific early modern translations and editions will find much useful information in this book. It includes a list of manuscripts of Chrysostom (291); a list of early modern editions of John Chrysostom (292-297); and an index of works by or attributed to Chrysostom (322-325). These are keyed to the Clavis Patrum Graecorum (CPG, surprisingly missing in the List of Abbreviations (XI)). The General conclusion includes a list of anonymous Latin translations in the Patrologia Graeca that can be attributed to an early modern author (286-287).

Summing up, this book will be most useful to readers who know what they are looking for – either to learn more about the reception of one of Chrysostom’s works or about a particular early modern translation or edition of Chrysostom. For these purposes, the book is an excellent source, especially since Chrysostom is not covered in the Catalogus Translationum et Commentariorum, which lists medieval and Renaissance Latin translations and commentaries. The book is perhaps less useful to readers wishing to understand how the reception of Chrysostom developed in the early modern period, or what was unique about his reception as opposed to that of other Church Fathers.