The Book of Genesis, The Bible in Medieval Tradition (Review)

Published: RTR 74, no. 3, 2015

The Book of Genesis, The Bible in Medieval Tradition

By Joy A. Schroeder, trans and ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

ISBN 9780802868459

The majority of the book is a ‘sampler’ of medieval commentaries on Genesis. That is, it presents previously unavailable translations of portions of texts by Remigius of Auxerre, Rupert of Deutz, Hildegard of Bingen, Andrew of Saint Victor, Peter Comestor, Nicholas of Lyra and Denis the Carthusian. The value of the volume speaks for itself. The singular disappointment is that whilst selections are chosen across the entirety of Genesis, there is no overlap between authors, i.e. from Remigius we have Genesis 1–3; from Rupert, Genesis 4–8; etc. Interpretations of any one passage cannot be compared.

The Introduction not only gives an overview of the individual authors and texts, but also provides an overview of the state of biblical scholarship in the medieval period. The medievals were alert to the same tensions that the Documentary Hypothesis relies on (but obviously gave different answers). They were alert to the interplay between the Spirit and the human authors of Scripture, with, for example, Anselm speaking of the text as having been ‘fertilized’ by the Spirit (p. 3). Andrew of St Victor had Moses’ account of creation coming to him through oral and written traditions.

Of the commentaries themselves, the more literally-focussed seem contemporary and familiar, but it is still interesting to see the attention to detail, but details sometimes overlooked today. There is still the expected array of well-intentioned but fanciful allegory. Particulars cannot be given here, but the seven can be categorised as follows.

Rimigius (c. 841–908) was a Carolingian scholar, who in his comments on Genesis drew on scholarship from the patristic and early medieval period, with a particular interest in historical (literal) issues. Rupert (c. 1075–1129/30) is interested in an allegorical interpretation of Genesis (with moments that may make a modern reader smile or cringe). This comes in the context of a work that seeks to outline all of salvation history, similar in scope to Augustine’s City of God. Through her visions, Hildegard briefly answers the tensions in the text (one might question the grounds for her inclusion in the volume, particularly as she is prioritised over the very early medieval commentaries of Isidore of Seville and Bede the Venerable, which would have enhanced the historical reach of the book. Is this positive discrimination?). Andrew is another worthy along with Hugh and Richard from the St Victor school in Paris. With Peter Comestor, they are concerned with the literal sense of the text. Nicholas of Lyra engages with Jewish sources, and Denis uses the allegorical method.

In other words, this is a smorgasbord, in parts profound and in other parts a curiosity. The book, as with the series, encourages the biblical interpreter to rise above parochialism. There is an extensive historical spectrum of biblical thought that existed long before modernity, that is sophisticated and stimulating, and that awaits and requires evaluation and appropriation.