Category Archives: Church History

On The Sarum Rite: Beginnings

Let me begin with a disclaimer… My area of study is, broadly, the lived interpretation of the New Testament as it appears in preaching, Christian formation, and liturgy. While I have an interest and a certain expertise in medieval liturgy, my major encounter with the sources has focused on English, pre-Conquest monastic liturgies with a special focus on the Office (and, naturally, later Anglican develo0pments). Most of the following discussion will be about the Sarum Rite/Use (we’ll tackle that “/” later) which is an English post-Conquest secular tradition, largely focused around the Mass. Thus, my tendency is to read the later sources through what I know of the earlier sources rather than the other way around.

Indeed, one of the things I’ve never fully understood about the Sarum Rite is where it came from and how it differs from the pre-Conquest missals that I’ve studied. That is, from the texts of the missals themselves (i.e., leaving aside the complicated questions of ceremonial), what emerges at Trent doesn’t seem all that different from a book like the Missal of Robert of Jumieges, the central exemplar of the Late Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Revival. Where do the differences appear that make “Sarum” distinctive from both its English precursors and its later continental parallels?

That’s precisely where Richard Pfaff starts in Chapter 10 of The Liturgy of Medieval England: A History which is entitled “Old Sarum: The beginnings of Sarum Use.” I’m not going to follow his argument closely for the sake of clarity, but here are some of the major take-aways that I found in this chapter.

First, it’s important to keep at the forefront of our minds that such a thing as the “Sarum Use” is a synthetic abstraction. We can’t imagine people all across Southern England using the same colors, ceremonial, practices, and liturgies in lock-step with one another. Economics, technology, and local circumstances make this impossible. That is, you can’t imagine that a little parish church had the same vestments, participants, and space that the cathedral at Salisbury did. A wealthy church would have more vestments and, presumably, more and newer books than a poorer one. Furthermore, churches dedicated to certain saints or containing certain relics would need different liturgies from others. Just because a Salisbury altar consecrated to a certain saint received a special liturgy wouldn’t mean that liturgy would be performed in another church without such an altar. So, what is “Sarum” is defined as a set of customs and characteristics that generally hold among a set of practices and books. And then there’s the factor of how these items change or don’t change over time which is an entirely other can of worms…

Second, (speaking of time) it’s important to recognize the effects of both time and liturgical space in attempting to wrap our heads around Sarum practice. Strictly and narrowly defined, “Sarum” refers to the books and practices of the Salisbury diocese as archetypically represented in the books and practices of the cathedral of said diocese. And that’s a moving target. In one of the main synthetic narratives of what Sarum is and isn’t is the suggestion that Sarum Use in its totality—books, rubrics, colors, vestments, what have you—was codified by one guy, Richard Poore, at one time, 1225, at one place, Salisbury Cathedral. Unfortunately, as Pfaff lays out, it doesn’t work like that; this simplistic narrative simply can’t account for the actual historical evidence.

There are some important factors in terms of time and place, however. Generally speaking, the Norman Conquest of England from 1066 on was a turning point. While Norman influence had been building in the second quarter of the eleventh century, William the Bastard brought a sea change in the way church establishment was done from the Late Anglo-Saxon ways. At the end of my period, the Benedictine Revival (970 and forward) had seen the transformation of cathedrals into monastic rather than secular foundations. So—all the clergy hanging around were monks rather than canons. With the Conquest there were literal “see” changes; diocesan centers were moved to different towns within their territory and Norman churchmen usually replaced the previous Anglo-Saxon incumbents.

(Think of state capitals on the eastern seaboard of the US—most of them are, now days—fairly minor cities within their states; population and business centers have shifted over the years. Same thing there. The centers of old Anglo-Saxon diocese didn’t meet the needs and geography of the new Norman realm so they were moved to fit the new landscape.)

Also, the Norman churchmen returned to the more normal pattern of having secular canons at cathedrals rather than monks.

Thus, the old Anglo-Saxon diocese had its cathedral at Sherborne with a monastic community. After the Conquest, the see was moved to Old Sarum around 1075 and established with canons. Then, the see was moved to its present location at Salisbury (New Sarum) in around 1225. What we consider Sarum was finalized in the new cathedral but was begun beforehand at Old Sarum.

Third, in terms of the change from the Anglo-Saxon materials into Sarum materials we can see three major influences. One is monastic. Despite the move away from Sherborne and the establishment of canons, there may be what Pfaff calls a “shadowy” monastic influence particularly in the ceremonial going by the testimony of English additions to a Old Sarum copy of the Romano-German Pontifical (the major ceremonial guide used by the early medieval church). The second is the establishment of canons themselves. A set number of priests meant something both for how many participants there could be in liturgy and how many altars the church could have. Last is the example of Leofric C. The Leofric Missal is one from my period which contains three distinctive parts, A, B, and C. A and B are earlier monastic Anglo-Saxon/Breton texts. Leofric C reflects the efforts of Leofric, Bishop of Exeter, and his updating of the book to reflect his secular situation. Something similar must have happened with the Sherborne/Old Sarum liturgies—we just have no evidence of what they started with and exactly what happened when.

What we can say is that distinctively Sarum saints and rubrics appear in the Sarum gradual from between 1200 and 1220, but the earliest surviving missal, the Crawford Missal) is from sometime around 1275 or so. Furthermore, the earliest reference to a Sarum customary also seems to predate both the foundation of Salisbury Cathedral and our oldest missal. Thus, Pfaff concludes the chapter with “this tentative, simple, and indeed obvious conclusion: that there existed a self-conscious Sarum liturgical tradition well before either the new cathedral at Salisbury was begun in 1220 or the ‘Old’ Sarum ordinal was drawn up” (Pfaff, 364).

Formation and the Ecclesia Anglicana

One of the perennial Anglo-Catholic hobbies  is constructing and maintaining an acceptable myth of origins. That is to say, if you are going to argue that there is a historical and theological validity to the use of certain catholic principles, doctrines, and ceremonies—but not others—within Anglican churches, you need to have some reason to hand that accounts for it.

One of the classic favorites is the notion of the Ecclesia Anglicana. This is the concept that English Christianity is just a bit different from Roman Catholic Christianity—always has been, always will be—and that the Anglican Churches are simply the current expression of this separate but equal way of being. As a result, adherents of this view claim a certain freedom by identifying the differences between Roman and English practice.

I’ve always quite liked this notion in a big-picture kind of way, but have had all sorts of problems with it on a historical level. It’s one thing to assert it with a side-order of nostalgic Victorian nationalism, it’s another entirely to document it in a convincing fashion in the historical and liturgical record.

It’s with this background (a love for the concept but a weighty skepticism concerning its historical realities) that I surprised myself last night while washing dishes by coming up with a potential liturgical-historical argument in favor of it…

If you’re going to argue a difference between “English” and “Roman,” liturgical and historical evidence supports an approach that sees “Western” as a super-category made up of a number of related theological and liturgical traditions one of which is “English” and one (actually several that fuse into one) which becomes dominant as “Roman.” Part of the question, then, is in the matter of definitions: what’s “English” and what’s “Roman” and how are these situated in relation to what’s “Western”?

Then, once that’s been teased out, what are the things that can be identified as granting a fundamental theological distinction between them? (Understanding liturgy in its proper place as the kinetic side of the theological coin…)

One way to crack the nut is to point to the formative aspects of the liturgy, and I’d approach it this way. The Sarum strand is identifiably and recognizably English in locale granted that its roots straddle both French and earlier English practice. When you compare Sarum sources against Continental Western texts and the materials designated “Roman” by the Council of Trent, one of the differences that you find is the Mass Gospel Lectionary. If I recall correctly (and this came to me while washing dishes, mind you, and I haven’t consulted my tomes yet), there are differences at least in Advent, Epiphany, and in post-Pentecost.

What makes this difference major and important is not the Mass, however—it’s the Office. The Mass Gospel Lectionary appears in the third nocturn of the Night Office and determines the patristic homily found therein. A different Mass Gospel lectionary suggests that the nocturn lessons may be different with the possible result that the Sarum-using folk were being formed by reading different patristic texts at different times and were being formed and normed differently than their “Roman” brethren. If you are trying to argue for a theological and practical difference between the Ecclesia Anglicana and the Roman Church especially defined by its Tridentine liturgy, one of the best ways to do it would be a thorough audit of the nocturn texts.

Come to think of it, I recall that in Advent, at least, the second nocturn readings don’t quite cohere either. I seem to recall a Maximus of Turin text where the Tridentine/Roman sources have the Jerome text on Isaiah quoted below. The significance there is that the Sarum source seems to be drawing on an older “Western” strand as the Maximus likely is a hold-over from Paul the Deacon, the official Night Office collection from the Carolingian period.

So—to make a sustained and historically verifiable argument for a theologically distinct Ecclesia Anglicana one possible route could be a thorough comparison of the Night Office texts between the English and Continental sources. What you’d have to find in order to make a strong case is greater coherence between Sarum, Hereford, and York sources (perhaps Hyde Abbey as well?) than what you find in Continental sources, particularly those that feed into the Tridentine Breviary. Then, if you could further isolate a difference in perspective—so, a preponderance of a particular father or set of fathers over others—between “English” and “Roman” breviaries, then I’d be willing to give more credence to the notion of a theologically distinct Ecclesia Anglicana that contains demonstrable theological and formational tendencies from its Continental counterparts.

On Eves, Vigils, and First Vespers, I

I frequently mention various liturgical things in passing and, as a correspondent has noted, it never hurts to stop and define these every once in a while. A classic case is the term “First Vesper.” So, with that in mind, here are some definitions, explanations, and applications concerning the “First Vesper” and how it both appears in and impacts liturgies in the ’79 BCP.

Some Background

The Western Church has tended to sort days into one of two categories: feasts days and regular days (aka ferial days or simply ferias [Yes, that’s not a correct Latin plural—deal with it.]). A feria is reckoned the same way a secular day is; it starts and ends at midnight. Speaking litgurically according to the old canonical hours, therefore,  ferias begin with Matins at 3:30 AM or so and end with the conclusion of Compline at around 8:30 PM. Feast days work on a slightly different axis.

Following Jewish tradition and therefore the practice of the first generations of Christians, feast days begin at sundown on the day prior to the feast and end at sundown on the day of the feast. However, sundown is easier said than scheduled. As a result, there’s a de facto “liturgical sundown.” On regular feasts—Simple feasts to use the technical term—the feast began at the Little Chapter during Vespers then would run through the end of the None Office the next day. Thus, a Simple feast is actually a little bit shorter than a full day; if back-to-back Simple feasts show up in the kalendar, it actually creates a little gap.

Example: on February 13th in 1486, the Feast of St Valentine started at Vespers with the Little Chapter. February 14th continued the feast as it  ran through Compline, Matins, Lauds, and the Little Hours up to None. At that point, the feast of St Valentine ended. Vespers began as the Vespers for Tuesday, following the psalms appointed for Tuesday. After the opening and the psalms, though, the feast of Sts. Faustinus and Jovita starts and continues through the rest of the 14th and the 15th as far as None.

This looks confusing, but makes perfect sense if you recall one basic principle: the psalms for Lauds and the Little Hours were mostly static; to cover all of the psalms in a week (RB 18.22-25), 1-108 were covered at Matins and 109-147 were covered at Vespers (roughly). If proper psalms kept being appointed for feasts there’s no way they’d make it through the last third of the psalter!

Not all feasts are equal, though; not all feasts are Simple. The more important feasts were referred to as Doubles, presumably because at some point in the Early Church a regular Office of the day was said, then an additional Office was said for the saint or feast. By the time we have extant manuscripts and descriptions of Offices, though, this was not the case. Instead, a Double were lengthened according to their importance. A Double began at the beginning of Vespers on the Day before, continued through Compline into the feast day proper and did not end after None but continued on through a second Vespers and a second Compline. Thus, a Double had two Vespers, one on the evening before the feast and one on the feast itself. (It had two Complines as well, but Vespers is a much larger, more involved, and more variable Office than Compline, so a second Compline has little practical effect on the liturgy’s celebration.

In theory, you might expect that most feasts would be Simples and that the more important feasts would be Doubles. And perhaps that how it was at one point. By the modern period, however, it was not the case. Looking at the kalendar of Pius Xth from 1920, we see that of the 296 fixed festal days of the year, 256 were Doubles of some sort; only 27 were Simples. (And it may be alleged that the psalm issue had something to do with it—the festal psalm sequence used for Vespers on Doubles tended to be a bit shorter than the ferial sequences; messing with the psalms was sometimes the intention!)

So to recap, in the West through the reforms of Pius X there were three kinds of days reckoned differently in the church:

  • ferial days ran from midnight to midnight, starting at Matins and running to the end of Compline
  • Simple feasts ran from evening to evening in a shorter sense, starting from the Little Chapter at Vespers and running until the end of the  None Office
  • Double feasts ran from evening to the next night, starting at the beginning of Vespers the evening before and running through Compline on the day of the feast

This, then, is the origin of “First Vespers.” It designates the Vespers Office that begins a Double feast to differentiate it from Vespers on the next day. Furthermore, the liturgies of these days were often different, usually having different antiphons for the psalm and Gospel canticle and having different hymns.

The thing I need to point out now, though, is the implications of having a First Vespers.

In the example under Simples, I demonstrated how the system worked when two Simples were back to back. There was no problem since one Simple ended before the next Simple began and the ferial Office filled in the slack. Consider the Double, however—the longer day means that overlap between one feast and another is entirely possible. And if you have 296 of them, well, you do the math… And then you add in all of the Sundays which are semidoubles at the least…

Suddenly, figuring out which Vespers goes with which day and should be celebrated in which way becomes a lot more difficult.

As a result, the classification of Double feasts began quite an involved matter and there grew a range—from Semidouble to Double to Greater Double to Double of the Second Class and Double of the First Class—in order to properly arrange the feasts so that everything received its due ceremony. Sets of tables clarify the relation between them so that you can calculate what happens if two feasts fall on top of one another (quite common when you suddenly merge 52 Semidouble or greater Sundays into the pre-existing 296 Doubles) or, as happened almost daily, when adjudication had to be made between whether or how you ought to celebrate two feasts at the same time within one Vespers Office.

Example: Consider March 6th. The kalendar tells us that it is the feast of Perpetua and Felicity. This feast is a Double. So, Vespers on the 5th (and the 5th is a ferial day) is the First Vespers of the Perpetua and Felicity. The feast continues onto the 6th. However, March 7th is the feast of Thomas Aquinas—also a Double—which means that its First Vespers is abut to concur with the Second Vespers of the Perpetua and Felicity. What do you do? There are three options: division, commemoration, or suppression.  In this case, since both feasts are Doubles the answer according to Tridentine rules is division: it’s the Second Vespers of Perpetua and Felicity from the opening and through the psalms until the Little Chapter. At that point (liturgical sundown), it becomes the  First Vespers of  Thomas Aquinas. Right after the collect of Thomas, though, is included a commemoration of Perpetua and Felicity which is created by bundling the Magnificat antiphon with the versicle which would have followed their hymn and concluding it with their collect.

Don’t ask what happens if either of these days turns out to be a Sunday, because then things start getting complicated…

It’s precisely these sorts of issues that led reformers from at least the time of Wyclif to condemn what had happened to the Offices, charging that clergy had to spend far more time figuring out their breviaries than preaching the Gospel. We can see many things that Cranmer did to simplify the Offices (following in the footsteps of other reformers frequently) but this is one of the most invisible to modern Anglicans. In simplifying the kalendar he, with one stroke, removed one of the major objections to the Offices as they had been practiced at that time. By removing all antiphons and hymns, the liturgical elements to be calculated dropped dramatically; only the collects were proper to feasts. The Office became simple again—no calculations required (certainly in comparison to what it had been). However, the Office also lost the richness and depth that it had and the connections between Mass and Offices were reduced to a single point, the collect.

Where we are now and what this means for our BCP will come in another post.

Some Observations on the Dialogues of Suplicius Severus

The Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus are a fairly little-known work by one of the more obscure Western Fathers. Nevertheless, he forms an important part of the flow of information and theology of the early monastic movement from East to West. When we think Gaulish monastic father figures these days, John Cassian springs to mind; however, Sulpicius Severus played a complementary role.

More needs to be said about Sulpicius than what I will say now, but a few items must be mentioned to give a proper context for these notes.

First, while Cassian used the dialogue form for the purpose of teaching ascetical practice, spirituality, and theology, Sulpicius preferred to describe lives and events that focused upon proofs rather than techniques. That is, his works tended to be stories about Martin of Tours (his main work being the principal Life of St Martin) and other monks but while Cassian used stories to identify practices or to make an ascetic point, Sulpicius preferred tales of the miraculous to confirm the efficacy of the monastic way of life. (If I had to offer one theory as to why modern students of Christian spirituality know Cassian and not Sulpicius it would be  the modern disdain for miraculous elements that strain the bounds of credibility.  Sulpicius tends not to strain the bounds of credibility, rather he blows past them at a tremendous speed…)

Second, Sulpicius stood in conscious literary relationship with Jerome. This deserves an examination in its own right—there are some very interesting passages in the Dialogues that wrestle with Jerome as a teacher and author where Sulpicius both attempts to cast himself in direct relationship with Jerome but also attempts to supplant him literarily.  In any event, Sulpicius was very much a student of Jerome’s writings and if Sulpicius tended to the miraculous, it was a technique he learned from Jerome and his three monastic lives: the Life of Paul, the Life of Hilarion, and the first monastic novella, the Life of Malchus the Captive Monk.

In the literature from the desert there are a number of fairly common topoi that serve as miraculous confirmation of ascetic practices. These include clairvoyance, miraculous healings, ascetics appearing in dreams, vivid encounters with demons, vivid encounters with angels, supernatural feeding, ascetics exhibiting angelic properties, and honor shown to holy men by wild and vicious creatures. Jerome especially picks up the last in his two more imaginative lives, the Life of Paul and the Life of Malchus. In the Life of Paul, Antony is given directions to Paul’s cave first by a centaur (VP 7), then by a satyr (VP 8), and finally by a wolf whom he sees entering Paul’s dwelling (VP 9). During their conversation, a raven brings them bread (VP 10). Likewise, in the Life of Malchus, the centerpiece of the dramatic escape of Malchus and his chaste wife comes when they take refuge in a desert cave that turns out to be a lions’ den and their pursuers are killed by the fierce beasts but the chaste couple are left unharmed.

So—these are the literary models from which Sulpicius is drawing. The whole point of the Dialogues is similar to that of Cassian’s Conferences, namely, how can the life and piety of the Eastern monks be translated into religious life in the West? Sulpicius seeks to establish that this translation has successfully occurred in the preeminent person of Martin of Tours. Indeed, Martin has so successfully accomplished this feat that his signs and wonders surpass those of the Eastern monks.

To make his point, he casts a first-person narrative where a far-traveling friend, Postumianus, returns from a voyage East and regales Sulpicius and his companion “the Gaul” with tales of the Eastern monks. This occurs in the first book of the Dialogues; the second and third books are the rejoinder where Sulpicius, the Gaul and a host of other eyewitnesses describe tales of Martin of Tours and his mighty miracles.

Stepping back from the particulars, Sulpicius seems to be working with a particular problem of place and social location. The lure of the desert is bound up with the solitary life, the pure life. Even the Eastern monastics who lived in communities were living away from the rest of sinful humanity. How, then, could Martin have the same kind of holiness without the physical remove from society? Furthermore, one of the wonders of the Egyptian monks in these early days was their refusal to distinguish between persons based on their status. A bishop would receive the same reception as a peasant; rulers and prelates came to them in the desert. In the West, it was Martin who was traveling to see the royal and the powerful. How could these be explained without compromise?

Sulpicius begins by focusing his first book on three miraculous topoi in particular: supernatural feeding, ascetics with angelic properties and the reception of ascetics by vicious beasts. I’m going to suggest that he selects these for a very particular reason and that in doing so, he is communicating one of the theologies at the root of the early Eastern monastic movement: the return to Eden. That is, the solitary monk through the ascetic process can conditionally recover elements of the Edenic state where, like Adam, he dwells in constant communion with God, enjoys an angelic state of being, the little food he requires is supplied without toil by nature itself, and he lives in harmony with the wild beasts.

As the character Postumanius narrates his trip through Egypt, we see this theme playing out in a number of ways. Section 1.13 gives us a solitary who, through the help of an ox and a well has created a garden paradise in the desert:

There was also a garden there full of a variety of vegetables. This, too, was contrary to what might have been expected in the desert where, all things being dry and burnt up by the fierce rays of the sun produce not even the slenderest root of any plant. But the labor which in common with his ox, the monk performed, as well as his own special industry, produced such a happy state of things to the holy man; for the frequent irrigation in which he engaged imparted such a fertility to the sand that we saw the vegetables in his garden flourishing and coming to maturity in a wonderful manner. On these, then, the ox lived as well as its master; and from the abundance thus supplied, the holy man provided us also with a dinner.

Further, even the desert provides this holy man with the fruits he needs complete with a requisite vicious beast:

Then after dinner, when the evening was coming on, our host invites us to a palm-tree, the fruit of which he was accustomed to use, and which was at a distance of about two miles. For that is the only kind of tree found in the desert, and even these are rare, though they do occur. I am not sure whether this is owing to the wise foresight of former ages, or whether the soil naturally produces them. It may indeed be that God, knowing beforehand that the desert was one day to be inhabited by the saints, prepared these things for his servants. For those who settle within these solitudes live for the most part on the fruit of such trees, since no other kinds of plants thrive in these quarters. Well, when we came up to that tree to which the kindness of our host conducted us, we there met with a lion; and on seeing it, both my guide and myself began to tremble; but the holy man went up to it without delay, while we, though in great terror, followed him. As if commanded by God, the beast modestly withdrew and stood gazing at us, while our friend, the monk, plucked some fruit hanging within easy reach on the lower branches. And, on his holding out his hand filled with dates, the monster ran up to him and received them as readily as any domestic animal could have done; and having eaten them, it departed. We, beholding these things, and being still under the influence of fear, could not but perceive how great was the power of faith in his case, and how weak it was in ourselves.

The lion not only does not eat the ascetic but has returned to the vegetarian state of the garden.

Similarly, section 1.14 gives us a she-wolf who eats bread from an ascetic’s hand and who apologizes in canine form when she takes two biscuits one night instead of her accustomed one. In 1.15 a lioness beseeches healing from an ascetic for her five cubs born blind. He heals them and she brings him the skin of a rare animal as a cloak as thanks. In 1.16, an ascetic new to the desert ate poisonous roots which put him in torment. Accordingly, an ibex came and taught him which roots were safe and which were dangerous.

Section 1.17 makes a deliberate connection with the two great (literary) monastic exemplars, Antony and Paul. Within this same section, connected as it were to these figures, is the preeminent Edenic anchorite:

I saw the Red Sea and the ridges of Mount Sinai, the top of which almost touches heaven, and cannot, by any human effort, be reached. An anchorite was said to live somewhere within its recesses: and I sought long and much to see him, but was unable to do so. He had for nearly fifty years been removed from all human fellowship, and used no clothes, but was covered with bristles growing on his own body, while, by Divine gift, he knew not of his own nakedness. As often as any pious men desired to visit him, making hastily for the pathless wilderness, he shunned all meeting with his kind. To one man only, about five years before my visit, he was said to have granted an interview; and I believe that man obtained the favor through the power of his faith. Amid much talk which the two had together, the recluse is said to have replied to the question why he shunned so assiduously all human beings, that the man who was frequently visited by mortals like himself, could not often be visited by angels. From this, not without reason, the report had spread, and was accepted by multitudes, that that holy man enjoyed angelic fellowship.

Like (the pre-Eve) Adam, the anchorite was entirely solitary, he held converse with angels and, like both prelapsarian humans, was naked yet not ashamed.  While Postumanius goes on to describe some marvels in a monastery, he then goes on to recount ascetics who failed. Though he continues on for several more sections, it becomes evident that the nameless ascetic of Sinai is the pinnacle of the Eastern monastic exemplars.

After Postumanius finishes, the Gaul begins to hold forth on Martin. The central thesis of the Dialogues is laid out in 1.24 thusly:

Indeed, Postumianus, replied I [Sulpicius], while I was listening attentively, all this time, to you talking about the excellences of the saints, in my secret thoughts I had my mind turned to my friend Martin, observing on the best of grounds that all those things which different individuals had done separately, were easily and entirely accomplished by that one man alone. For, although you certainly related lofty deeds, I really heard nothing from your lips (may I say it, without offense to these holy men), in which Martin was inferior to any one of them. And while I hold that the excellence of no one of these is ever to be compared with the merits of that man, still this point ought to be attended to, that it is unfair he should be compared, on the same terms, with the recluses of the desert, or even with the anchorites. For they, at freedom from every hindrance, with heaven only and the angels as witnesses, were clearly instructed to perform admirable deeds; he, on the other hand, in the midst of crowds and intercourse with human beings— among quarrelsome clerics, and among furious bishops, while he was harassed with almost daily scandals on all sides, nevertheless stood absolutely firm with unconquerable virtue against all these things, and performed such wonders as not even those accomplished of whom we have heard that they are, or at one time were, in the wilderness.

The holiness of the Eastern ascetics cannot only be matched but entirely surpassed. While their virtues and miracles were spread amongst many men, all of these virtues and miracles can be found in Martin himself. By extension, therefore, if Martin can surpass the Eastern ascetics, there is no good reason why western ascetics (especially through the intercessions of Martin) cannot thereby equal or surpass them as well.

I’ll not go through Dialogues books 2 and 3 in detail here but will make some pointed observations in regard to the foregoing section. Two items in particular seem to occupy the attention of Sulpicius. First, can the active life of a bishop be as virtuous as the monastic life? Second, Can the more active life impart virtues and benefits that the solitary life cannot?

In regard to the first, Sulpicius makes acknowledgment that the purely contemplative life is more perfect. He is, after all, an ascetic writing for ascetics. This point is made most specifically in section 2.4 in the words of the Gaul:

I have often noticed this, Sulpitius, that Martin was accustomed to say to you, that such an abundance of power was by no means granted him while he was a bishop, as he remembered to have possessed before he obtained that office. Now, if this be true, or rather since it is true, we may imagine how great those things were which, while still a monk, he accomplished, and which, without any witness, he effected apart by himself; since we have seen that, while a bishop, he performed so great wonders before the eyes of all. Many, no doubt, of his former achievements were known to the world, and could not be hid, but those are said to have been innumerable which, while he avoided boastfulness, he kept concealed and did not allow to come to the knowledge of mankind; for, inasmuch as he transcended the capabilities of mere man, in a consciousness of his own eminence, and trampling upon worldly glory, he was content simply to have heaven as a witness of his deeds. That this is true we can judge even from these things which are well known to us, and could not be hid; since e.g. before he became a bishop he restored two dead men to life, facts of which your book has treated pretty fully, but, while he was bishop, he raised up only one, a point which I am surprised you have not noticed.

Thus, Martin the monk raised two people from the dead while Martin the bishop restored only one. (This is Sulpicius’s idea of “less power” when it comes to extolling his patron!)

What I’d like to focus on, though is the second point. Martin orders around some domestic animals—a possessed cow in 2.9 (compare the possessed camel in the Life of Hilarion)—but Sulpicius makes a deliberate transfer of the “domesticating” power of ascesis.

Martin does not dwell in the deserts; he is in the cities. As a result, his power isn’t over the savage animals of the wastes but over the nobility. While desert ascetics have the power to tame creatures, Martin is given power over kings and queens. Furthermore, while the desert ascetics can only save themselves and their comrades from beasts, Martin’s effect upon the nobility has the potential for much wider social change.

The Gaul presents an extended  narrative that lays the foundation for this. First, he shows the hostility against which Martin contended:

Well, just about the time when he first became a bishop, a necessity arose for his visiting the imperial court. Valentinian, the elder, then was at the head of affairs. When he came to know that Martin was asking for things which he did not incline to grant, he ordered him to be kept from entering the doors of the palace. Besides his own unkind and haughty temper, his wife Arriana had urged him to this course, and had wholly alienated him from the holy man, so that he should not show him the regard which was due to him. (2.5)

Mere royalty, however, are no match for Martin:

Martin, accordingly, when he had once and again endeavored to procure an interview with the haughty prince, had recourse to his well-known weapons— he clothes himself in sackcloth, scatters ashes upon his person, abstains from food and drink, and gives himself, night and day, to continuous prayer. On the seventh day, an angel appeared to him, and tells him to go with confidence to the palace, for that the royal doors, although closed against him, would open of their own accord, and that the haughty spirit of the emperor would be softened. Martin, therefore, being encouraged by the address of the angel who thus appeared to him, and trusting to his assistance, went to the palace. The doors stood open, and no one opposed his entrance; so that, going in, he came at last into the presence of the king, without any one seeking to hinder him. The king, however, seeing him at a distance as he approached, and gnashing his teeth that he had been admitted, did not, by any means, condescend to rise up as Martin advanced, until fire covered the royal seat, and until the flames seized on a part of the royal person. In this way the haughty monarch is driven from his throne, and, much against his will, rises up to receive Martin. He even gave many embraces to the man whom he had formerly determined to despise, and, coming to a better frame of mind, he confessed that he perceived the exercise of Divine power; without waiting even to listen to the requests of Martin, he granted all he desired before being asked. Afterwards the king often invited the holy man both to conferences and entertainments; and, in the end, when he was about to depart, offered him many presents, which, however, the blessed man, jealously maintaining his own poverty, totally refused, as he did on all similar occasions.

But that’s not all… Section 2.6 describes in servile detail how the queen, wife of Maximus, used to serve Martin hand and foot:

[Maximus] frequently sent for Martin, received him into the palace, and treated him with honor; his whole speech with him was concerning things present, things to come, the glory of the faithful, and the immortality of the saints; while, in the meantime, the queen hung upon the lips of Martin, and not inferior to her mentioned in the Gospel, washed the feet of the holy man with tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Martin, though no woman had hitherto touched him, could not escape her assiduity, or rather her servile attentions. She did not think of the wealth of the kingdom, the dignity of the empire, the crown, or the purple; only stretched upon the ground, she could not be torn away from the feet of Martin. At last she begs of her husband (saying that both of them should constrain Martin to agree) that all other attendants should be removed from the holy man, and that she alone should wait upon him at meals.

And it goes on like that for a while. The point Sulpicius is making is that Martin has totally domesticated one of the most dangerous creature in his environment, a woman who was royalty. Some of the ascetics of the desert would not so much as look at a women (see Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, 1.4-9) let alone allow themselves to be touched by one. Sulpicius uses this opportunity for scandal to reveal Martin’s greater power than the ascetics. Not only can he be safely touched by a woman, he is able to use it for godly ends. When Postumanius expresses wonder at a woman touching Martin, the Gaul responds:

Why do you not notice, as grammarians are wont to teach us, the place, the time, and the person? For only set before your eyes the picture of one kept in the palace of the emperor importuned by prayers, constrained by the faith of the queen, and bound by the necessities of the time, to do his utmost that he might set free those shut up in prison, might restore those who had been sent into exile, and might recover goods that had been taken away—of how much importance do you think that these things should have appeared to a bishop, so as to lead him, in order to the accomplishment of them all, to abate not a little of the rigor of his general scheme of life? (2.7)

Implicit is the revelation of Martin’s greater power. Due to his power over the king and queen, he is able to have profound effects upon the actions and policy of those in government.

The theme of the domestication of beasts is set forth explicitly in the description of Martin’s dealings with a nobleman named Avtianus, described in Book 3:

You knew the too barbarous and, beyond measure, bloody ferocity of Avitianus, a former courtier. He enters the city of the Turones with a furious spirit, while rows of people, laden with chains, followed him with melancholy looks, orders various kinds of punishments to be got ready for slaying them; and to the grave amazement of the city, he arranges them for the sad work on the following day. When this became known to Martin, he set out all alone, a little before midnight, for the palace of that beast (ad praetorium bestiae). (3.4)

Martin torments Avitianus in his sleep, he awakes, finds Martin there, and sets all of his prisoners free, departing from the city. Avitianus comes up later in the book as well:

But to return to Avitianus: while at every other place, and in all other cities, he displayed marks of horrible cruelty, at Tours alone he did no harm. Yes, that beast (illa bestia), which was nourished by human blood, and by the slaughter of unfortunate creatures, showed himself meek and peaceable in the presence of the blessed man. I remember that Martin one day came to him, and having entered his private apartment, he saw a demon of marvelous size sitting behind his back. Blowing upon him from a distance (if I may, as a matter of necessity, make use of a word which is hardly Latin , Avitianus thought that he was blowing at him, and exclaimed, ‘Why, you holy man, do you treat me thus?’ But then Martin said, ‘It is not at you, but at him who, in all his terribleness, leans over your neck.’ The devil gave way, and left his familiar seat; and it is well known that, ever after that day, Avitianus was milder, whether because he now understood that he had always been doing the will of the devil sitting by him, or because the unclean spirit, driven from his seat by Martin, was deprived of the power of attacking him; while the servant was ashamed of his master, and the master did not force on his servant.

Here the topos is made explicit. The beast is tamed by the holy man.

Thus, in Sulpicius’s writings about Martin, he both envisions and responds to the role of the holy ascetic in Western culture explicitly different from the Eastern model. In the East, the monk inhabits the deserts. He is a solitary. In his solitude, he can recapture the peace of Eden. In the West, though, the holy ascetic is no less a man of prayer, but is one who acts upon the whole social structure by means of his relations at the top. Through the moderating influence of holiness upon the nobles, a “peaceable kingdom” may be achieved.

In a sense, Suplicius tries to pull off quite a number of things here, some of which should probably give us pause. Not only does he translate Eastern piety into Western culture but in doing so, he reverses the monastic approach to the Constantinian state of the Church. While the monks reacted by retreating from it, Sulpicius fully embraces it. Martin by no means holds himself apart but actively engages the machinery of the state at its highest levels, using his influence to moderate the vicious state of the State.

On Transferences and “Open Days”

There was a discussion a little earlier concerning the feasts transferred due to occurrence with Sundays or Privileged Octaves like Holy Week and Easter Week. Here’s a brief historical note which some may find of interest.

While browsing through the Ordinale Sarum for Primum E (one of the earliest possible dates for Easter) I noted the following entries:

  • After March 16th (Palm Sunday) it states: “Festa Sanctorum Edwardi, Cuthberti, et Benedicti differantur vsque ad eorum translationes” (The feasts of Sts Edward [3/18], Cuthbert [3/20], and Benedict [3/21] should be delayed until [the feast of their] their translations [which celebrate the moving of their relics and which fall respectively on 6/20, 9/4, and 7/11]). (St Joseph isn’t on March 19th in the old Sarum kalendar—he won’t show up for a while…)
  • After March 23rd (Easter Sunday) it states: “Festum Annunciationis differatur in terciam feriam post octaua Pasce.” (The Feast of the Annunciation should be delayed until Tuesday after the Octave of Easter.)

I find the first very interesting as it explains a few feasts that I’d noticed but not understood such as the Feast of the Ordination of Gregory the Great on September 3rd.  (As ordination dates for popes aren’t typically feted.) Gregory’s usual Sarum feast day is March 12th. Thus, it’s one of the days that will always fall within Lent (March 10th-21st). These unusual extras allow for a full celebration of these Lenten saints who might otherwise get suppressed altogether.

The second confirms that the English 1662 BCP’s Rule 1 on transferring bumped feasts to Tuesdays and Thursdays does seem to be a continuation of medieval practice.

Couple Brief Thoughts on Celtic Spirituality

I cleverly managed to delete my post on the Daily Office in Holy Week… That’ll be coming once I get the time to reconstruct it.

I’ve been taking part in a Lenten program that bills itself as Celtic Spirituality. I was interested in seeing what was being said. It’s pretty much what I figured it would be, contemporary Liberal Protestant with a lot of feeling and a thin veneer that occasionally references some historical materials, some of which are “Celtic” (and some aren’t—unless the Victorines are Celtic and no one bothered to inform me…).

I took the chance recently to reacquaint myself with the Celtic Spirituality volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality series. It’s hard to screw up primary sources, however how you contextualize them and how you select them is open to a certain amount of fiddling. I found the introduction interesting as it I finally “got” the agenda here; they’re looking for a non-Roman Christianity, one that hasn’t been “spoiled” by the Church Fathers and classical culture. Here are a few significant quotes:

It has perhaps been the fate of Celts and the Celtic more than any other ethnic category to engage the imaginations of other cultures and to be taken up into agendas and narratives quite removed from the social realities of the insular world during the early Middle Ages. (pg. 8 )

(Hmm. You don’t say…)

Indeed, the early Welsh were keen to stress their historical links with the old Roman civilization and with the religion that it had introduced, and it is worth noting that the very term Welsh is an early English word that means “Romanized Celt.” (pg. 21)

This is news. In the Old English that I know wealh, wealas has two interconnected meanings: foreigner and slave. Did you mean Romanized or Romanticized?

Where things start getting hard and heavy is the final section of the introduction  entitled “Toward a Celtic Spirituality.”

The reconstruction of the spirituality of medieval Christians is not an easy task. In the first place, it requires an understanding of a cultural world that was very different from our own. But it is precisely the “otherness” of early medieval Celtic Christianity that makes it attractive to us, for it seems to contain perspectives that must have originated in the religious disposition of tribal peoples virtually untouched by the classical tradition.

. . .

It may be that an ancient form of Christianity survived much longer on the western margins of Europe, where there was, for instance, a relative absence of urban centers, than it did elsewhere.

. . .

Whatever the strengths of the classical Christian perspective that became the norm in most parts of western Christendom, many in the world today have become generally skeptical of a number of its key presuppositions. [summarizing here: primacy of males, reason over imagination, absence of nature, alienation from the body] A number of the Christian texts included in the present volume offer—albeit tentatively in some instances—the outline of alternative paradigms. (pgs. 23-24)

Ok—I see in here a Rousseauean “noble savage” conceit nurtured by latent nationalism and an appeal to the primitive church over-and-against “classical” (read “Roman [Catholic]”) developments. Interesting indeed…

I was also amused by this section that introduced the saints’ lives in the volume:

This latter point [that hagiography is about depicting sanctity to a culture] is of considerable importance, since there is a marked tendency among Celtic hagiographers to signal Christian sanctity by the use of motifs that appear to belong to the iconography of an earlier and pre-Christian age or, alternatively, to that of a surviving paganism. These are magical in kind and stress the Christian saint’s access to power. The Lives of Celtic saints are notoriously amoral in that the power of the saint can often be manifest in destructive ways that sit uneasily with the ethical values of the Christian gospel. (pg. 27)

So this is a uniquely Celtic trait? So you haven’t read either the Life of Martin or the Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus? Or the monastic Lives of Jerome? Or the Lives of the Desert Fathers? Because the same exact things happen there. Or, perhaps, would you rather have us believe that we’re getting in touch with a way more cool Pre-Christian and possible pagan element than to suggest that they were borrowing stock topoi that were an expected part of the genre that they were copying from the broader Church…

Of course, perhaps Jerome was Celtic and I just hadn’t picked up on that before now.

Ok—I am being a little harsh here, I admit it. There are some helpful and important things that are drawn out in the introduction but I feel that they only mumble that which I would shout from the rooftops:

To some extent what we will find in these texts is a type of Christianity that was characteristic of the patristic period, prior to the rise of Benedictine monasticism on the Continent and the centralizing, regulating, influence of the papacy, and which survived in the Celtic margins. (pg. 12)

. . .

The Irish monks who from the sixth century traveled across the continent of Europe were following in the footsteps of ancient Irish traders, and the great monastic foundations of Southern Gaul, such as Marmoutier and Lerins, were seedbeds of monasticism that undoubtedly left their mark on the early Irish Church. (pg. 17)

. . .

The spiritual inspiration for the early Welsh Church seems to have come in the main from the monks of the Middle East through their counterparts in Southern Gaul. The Lives of the early Welsh saints are full of references and allusions to the monasticism of the desert, and the Eastern monastic ascetic ideal evidently proved a powerful role model in Wales, as it did in other Celtic lands. (pg. 22).

There we go—that’s what I’m talking about.

This ht me hardest when reading through the Welsh poem “Praise to the Trinity” which contains this epithet, “The God of Paul and Anthony.” The Paul and Anthony are Paul of Thebes and Anthony the Great and right there any notion of pristine, primitive, non-classically influenced Christianity is blown out of the water by a clear off-hand reference to the writings of Jerome and Athanasius…

Here’s the bottom line for me. If all you know about patristic Christianity is the treatises of St Augustine and all you know about medieval Christianity is Thomas’s Summa, then yes, “Celtic spirituality” can look like quite the refreshing surprise. And, given what gets taught in seminaries these days, some (many?) clergy are in this position, let alone lay people.

My perspective, though, is entirely different. I see these documents in the context of the Monastic Pipeline West which flows from Jerome and John Cassian to Sulpicius Severus and Caesarius of Arles and through Gaul to the Insular world. These Celtic writings are not discontinuous from “established Christianity” but represent a development of a particular strand of it as the West sought to assimilate and inculturate the ideals of the monastic movement. For me, they’re part and parcel of early medieval monasticism. Yes, Celtic hymns and poems are quite beautiful and astounding—especially if you’ve never heard of Paulinus of Nola or Venantius Fortunatus and have no clue about the hymnwriters and poets working contemporaneously.

Is that to say that there’s nothing distinctive about the particularly “Celtic” instantiation of early medieval monasticism? No—but what it is is more difficult to isolate and define than what it’s made out to be.

Tradition: Between Synthesis and Historicity

“Tradition” is one of the more frequently used words in Anglican debates. It gets utilized constantly on blogs like this one. Due to its use and importance we have to look at it just a bit more carefully: “Tradition” is a cipher. That is, it is not a word with a stable meaning. When writers (including me) invoke “the Christian Tradition” or even “the Anglican Tradition,” they invoke an intellectual construct consisting of what they consider to be the chief teachings, practices, and devotions through the ages. We may both say “Tradition” but what I mean by it and what you mean are inevitably different. Too often this reality remains not only unstated but uncomprehended.

That’s not to say, however, that there’s no such thing as “Tradition” or even that there’s no such body of material as “Tradition”—and that’s where things get really tricky. We have to acknowledge and agree up-front that when we church people (and anyone else who uses the term, actually) throw out the word “Tradition” what we are appealing to is very rarely actual teachings written in actual texts by actual people at actual times. Instead, we are referring to a synthesis which has, in theory, amalgamated actual teachings from actual people into a more-or-less coherent body of teaching, practice, and devotion.

This synthesis then becomes “Tradition.”

When we fight over “Tradition,” we are far more often fighting over our syntheses that we call “Tradition.”

That’s far too easy, though—let’s complicate things a bit…

In fact, most of us—especially the more invested of us—don’t just bring a synthesis to the table, we bring a metasythesis which is composed of quite a mix of interlocking and sometimes contradictory syntheses all mashed together under the solitary label of “Tradition.”

Think of it this way. When I make an appeal to “Tradition”, I’m making an appeal to my understanding of Christian teaching, practice, and devotion as filtered through and privileging insights from the Church Fathers, early medieval monasticism, the English Reformation, the Caroline Divines, and Anglo-Catholicism with a side-order of the Lutheran Confessions.

Now—every single one of those labels represents a synthesis. How I mash them all together into something even vaguely coherent is my metasynthesis.  We all do this. I’m lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to think and read a lot about this and to have an awareness that that’s what I’m up to.

Everybody has a synthesis, but most people both receive them and deploy them unconsciously or subconsciously. We acquire them from our rectors, our teachers, our liturgies, from conversations, from study, from blogs…the list goes on and on.

At this point I’ll stop working on this line and restate my central thesis to this point: When church-folk speak of “Tradition,” we refer to a usually  subconscious synthesis of the Church’s past teachings, practices, and devotions.

Turning to the syntheses and metasyntheses themselves, some are better than others. To evaluate these, I would say that the three major criteria would be:

  • how compelling a synthesis is
  • how comprehensive a synthesis is
  • how historically grounded a synthesis is

This is where we get into muddy territory. I believe that there are quite a lot of syntheses floating around out there that are quite compelling but which are severely limited in terms of their comprehensiveness and especially their historical grounding.

Ground Zero here is the Vincentian Canon: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” As Caelius noted in highly memorable and quotable fashion, this canon fails through irony; its original purpose was to discredit the writings of Augustine on grace, claiming that they were a novelty. In essence, this canon is a one-sentence synthesis stating that what the Roman Catholic Church teaches now is what it has always taught, no more, no less. Very compelling for its clarity and its simplicity. In terms of historicity and confirmability—it works far better as a rallying cry than an effective synthesis. Indeed, if one were to attempt to utilize this synthesis in practice, where would you begin?

I truly love Thomas Ken’s words but see in them a similar problem: “I am dying in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West; and, more particularly, in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from both Papal and Protestant innovation, and adheres to the Doctrine of the Cross.” Again, a classic rallying cry—but historically speaking, what texts, what liturgies do we appeal to? If we ask the simple question, “How does one fast in Lent?” this Tradition can not and does not give us one clear answer; instead it gives us a range. If we’re looking for a single answer, this synthesis cannot give it to us. We must choose amongst the available options on the basis of other criteria, other syntheses. Furthermore, this construal of Tradition hacks off how many centuries (i.e., nothing after the “disunion”)? One must assume that it picks up again at the establishment of the mentioned “Church of England” but when and where—especially given Ken’s own rocky relationship with his church?

Without going into specifics, I think that it is fair to say that most of the current Anglican culture warriors are operating with syntheses that may well be compelling but that fail on the criteria of both comprehensiveness and historicity. Of these last two, I place a heavy emphasis on the second. A synthesis that cannot be verified by reference to particular documents from particular times falls more into the realm of politically malleable myth than authentic expression of the historic Christian faith.

So, to summarize and restate: A good synthesis must be compelling, comprehensive, and be built on fact. Statements about what Christians have believed in the past must be rooted in documents, liturgies, and actual evidence. We have to be honest about what’s there, what’s not, and the degree to which other considerations govern our choices.

Too, attention to actual fact reminds us of the importance of comprehensiveness. Specifically, I’ve read too much history and too much theology to say that the Tradition is truly univocal on many things. Because of comprehensiveness, I recognize that my synthesis cannot be hegemonic. That is, I recognize that I have sub-selected strands within the Tradition that I think best proclaim the Gospel to me and my people at this time. I recognize that there are other strands within the Tradition that are not only different from but that disagree with other strands—including mine. (I.e., some Reformation, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox strands simply do not play well with one another; some strands of monastic and Scholastic don’t play well; Gaulish monasticism and St Augustine; etc ad nauseum…)

At the end of the day, very few people will do the work of creating a synthesis or metasynthesis for how they understand and embody the Christian Tradition.

And that’s perfectly fine.

What’s crucial, though, for thinkers and leaders in the Church, is that we have an awareness of what syntheses are out there, how they collide and clash with one another, and how they rank in terms of being compelling, comprehensive, and historically-grounded. I believe that part of the task of Church historians is the creation of effective syntheses that start with historical fact and theological truth that are compelling for our clergy and congregations. I’d suggest that this is the real value and power of a work like Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality—not that it teaches everything anyone needs to know but that it presents a clear, compelling, and factually grounded synthesis of how the Church has taught and lived.

And we need more like it.

And Speaking of Anglo-Catholicism

…had I the time and money, I’d send a proposal off to this conference:

CFP: DeBartolo Conference on Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Studies: “Medievalizing Britain” (2/8/10; 4/2/10)

. . .

British culture in the four nations (England, Scotland, Wales,
Ireland) was transformed during the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, as medieval themes and archaic features emerged in poetry,  novels, ballad-collecting, non-fiction prose, painting, and  photography. Works such as Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Alfred Tennyson’s poems, John Ruskin’s criticism, the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings, and Roger Fenton’s photographic images signal a preoccupation with the medieval past that spans two centuries. This conference looks beyond traditional periodizations and disciplinary divisions in order to trace broader patterns and forge new connections on the topic of medievalizing Britain.

Naturally, religion isn’t on the list, however, classic Ritualism and Anglo-Catholicism fit completely within this wider movement.

Apocrypha and Psuedepigrapha for Medievalists

Laying Out the Territory

A medievalist comrade has put up a reading plan to get better acquainted with the Biblical Apocrypha and Psuedepigrapha, and asked for comments. As a Medievalist with a PhD in New Testament this question is right up my alley. Here are a few thoughts…

First off, definitions. Recall for a moment that the bulk of our Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Generally speaking, we tend to agree that the biblical books were put down in writing in the period between the 8th and the 3rd centuries BC with some material (whether oral or written) going back as far as the 10th century, and a few pieces perhaps older still. After the Exile to Babylon (587-515), the main language of most of the people was Aramaic and we see traces of this in Daniel where the bulk of the book is actually in Aramaic.

Because of the destructions, scatterings, persecutions, etc. a fair number of Jewish folks no longer lived in the Holy Land. Those who lived outside tended to speak the same language as everyone else in “the civilized world”, i.e., Greek. Thus it’s no surprise that the educated community in the intellectual capital of Alexandria translated their Scriptures into Greek, various parts at various points, in and around the 2nd century BC. And this is where our story really starts: apocrypha is the term generally used to describe the books that appear in the Septuagint (LXX), but not the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament.

The pseudepigrapha is the term used to describe religious writings from this same general period (3rd century BC to—oh, say—the 5th century AD) that present themselves under the name of a figure from biblical history.   Daniel is the only such book in the OT Canon; there are arguments over whether some of the NT Epistles are pseudepigraphal as well, particularly Jude and 2nd Peter.

A related but different term is apocalyptic; this refers not to a distinct body of literature but to an attitude or theological stance that tends to use a grand style of rhetoric with quite a lot of mythic, poetic, and allusive (sometimes elusive) language to communicate theological thoughts and themes, generally to a people who perceive themselves to be in persecution. This kind of rhetoric is quite common in the pseudepigrapha.

Conventionally, we scholar types tend to talk about “OT Pseudepigrapha” and “NT Pseudepigrapha”. The first refers to books purporting to be by OT people and events, the second about NT people and events. This isn’t always a helpful division, though, especially when trying to grapple with the popular religion of the first centuries BC and AD. I’d rather we discuss whether texts are Jewish or Christian Pseudepigrapha and the short answer is that most of what has survived is either Christian or has been Christianized. Thus, it tends to teach us far more about early Christianity (a gentile phenomenon after the first couple of generations) than about 2nd Temple Judaism—1 Enoch being the major exception. [“Second Temple Judaism” is a technical term describing the competing and conflicting bodies of belief that grew out of “Hebrew/Israelite religion” in the period between the Exile and the Fall of Herod’s Temple (AD 70)]

Ok—now we can actually turn to the question at hand… I’ll begin by identifying some major collections of literature, then talk about them in relation to the task at hand. Looking at Brandon’s reading list, it does fall fairly naturally into groups based on the four primary source collections he has identified and one he identified earlier but didn’t include in the primary source section:

  • OT Apocrypha
  • OT psuedepigrapha (OTP)
  • NT pseudepigrapha (NTP)
  • the Gnostic materials from Nag Hammadi (NH)
  • the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS)

All of these are fascinating documents. I have, at one point or another, read through these. But before we look at each one, a fundamental question that must be wrestled with is that of purpose. Why are we looking at these? Is it because they’re inherently interesting and cool (which they are…)? Or is it to gain a solid foundation in the extra-biblical religious literature that formed early Christianity and shaped medieval discussions and understandings of religion?

If it’s the former—have at it! If it’s the latter, a certain amount of judicious pruning of the list is in order. There’s a lot of great stuff here—but it’s a lot of stuff!

Ranking them in the order of importance for medievalists and those with an interest in Church History they would look like this:

  • OT Apocrypha
  • NT pseudepigrapha
  • OT psuedepigrapha
  • the Gnostic materials from Nag Hammadi
  • the Dead Sea Scrolls

I love the Dead Sea Scrolls, but, generally speaking, wrestling with them will provide a whole lot of work with very little pay-off for those interested in Christianity. The Dead Sea Scrolls are—for the most part—the literary leavings of a particular sect within Second Temple Judaism. They were a priestly group who were all about wresting control of the temple away from the current top dogs (i.e., the Sadducees) and doing liturgy right! (heh—sound familiar?) Students of the New Testament find these writings instructive because they give us an intimate look at a community that was parallel to the early Jesus movement and that gives us a better sense of the milieu from which Jesus and the Jesus movement came. That is, here we have an apocalyptic reform movement that understands itself and the historical events within which it is involved through the lens of scriptural prophecy. So—knowing these texts are key for understanding what the fringes of Second Temple Judaism were like, but as a completely different group with completely different aims, don’t teach us anything directly about early Christianity. [And here I’m making an artificial though useful distinction between the “Jesus movement” and “early Christianity/the early Church” as the first is a movement within Second Temple Judaism while the second is predominately a gentile movement outside of Second Temple Judaism.]

The Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi are, again, a really cool set of texts. Very diverse texts, they represent a fairly broad snapshot of Gnostic documents circulating in 3rd century Egypt. Many of the major schools are represented (as far as we can tell) and, as a result, they can’t necessarily be seen as a coherent body of documents that were ever intended to be believed together.  Actually defining who and what the gnostics were is tricky and has occasioned no little argument since people started arguing about this stuff. Suffice it to say, the gnosticism of the Nag Hammadi codices is a movement outside of Christian orthodoxy as defined by canon, creed, and apostolic succession that draws on biblical writings, Neoplatonic philosophy, and other sources to construct a theological system where the divine soul must be freed from the evils of a material creation.

Gnosticism is important for Church history more for what it produced than what it was. Gnosticism was the most important force that acted both externally—most visible through the Manichees—and internally—most visibly in the Marcionites—on the Church that required it to express definitions and self-understandings about what made a community or certain expressions of belief distinctively and identifiably Christian.

Much of our early literature against heresies and heretics was spawned by various forms of gnostics and the need to explain how their beliefs were a distortion of the Christian understanding that 1) creation is of a good and loving God and that 2) Jesus is God who willingly entered into and clothed himself in creation by taking on our human nature.

So, gnostics and the Nag Hammadi stuff is important, but more for their effect on the Church Fathers than for their own content. That having been said, gnostic movements popped up in medieval Europe in groups like the Bogomils and the Cathars but, as far as I know, they were led in that direction more from seeds in the canonical writings and in creation-denigrating forms of Christian asceticism than from surviving gnostic documents.

As far as the Psuedepigrapha goes, again, this a wildly diverse set of writings enclosed within rather arbitrary covers. Again, as I said above, these can be grouped broadly in Jewish and Christian writings. Within the Charlesworth volumes—which are the single best collection of the OTP—the chief representatives of Jewish material would be 1 Enoch in vol 1 and the Fragments in vol 2. If you want to do serious work on these texts, though, Stone’s edition of 1 Enoch is far superior and Holladay’s texts on the Fragments of Hellenistic Jewish Authors is more complete and comprehensive (full disclosure—I indexed Holladay’s index for the Aristoboulos volume).

As far as Christian pseudepigrapha, the most important material is the narrative material. Things like the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Adam directly informed medieval understandings of the prophets and patriarchs. The Gospel of Nicodemus and related documents are essential reading for anyone with pretensions to Christian medievalism. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles circulated for centuries and sections of these were enshrined in The Golden Legend, popular preaching, and martyrologies. The Apocalypses of Paul and Thomas are represented in Old English; the Protoevangelium of James as read in and through the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is essential for understanding medieval speculation and thought around the Blessed Virgin Mary, and most art around the BVM that references her childhood is entirely incomprehensible without it.

The least sexy of the above collections is truly the most important, though. The OT Apocrypha was not apocrypha to most patristic and medieval Christians—it was Bible. In particular Sirach/Ecclesiasticus was one of the preeminent wisdom books used by theologians and it figures heavily in medieval understandings of conduct and the sacraments (especially almsgiving and its relation to both penance and forgiveness). Wisdom of Solomon is another biggie for the same reason. You cannot be a credible (liturgical) medievalist if you cannot recognize the Additions to Daniel at a glance. Daily Office-praying Anglicans have a big leg up here as we’re used to seeing them in the context in which the medievals saw and heard them: these would be the Song of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men which are canticles 2/13 and 1/12 respectively.The narratives of Tobit, Susanna, Judith, and the Maccabees are clearly important as well.


The place where I would start is with a new work that will help you locate Christianity within the main strains of Jewish and Greco-Roman thought, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity by Luke Timothy Johnson. I’ve promised a review of this but it hasn’t been written yet… One of the great achievements of this book is showing where the communities of both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices fall in terms of how they understood religion and religious practices in relation to emerging Christianity.

This will give you both a foundation and a very helpful conceptual framework rooted in a host of primary sources. Next, go to the texts.

Start with the Apocrypha. If you haven’t purchased a decent academic study Bible in a while, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NRSV with Apocrypha) is probably the best one out there and is the one I’d recommend. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to glance at your Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate as you go…

For secondary literature on the Apocrypha, I’d stick with just one book, Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. This hits the wisdom portions that are most crucial.

The bulk of your time in this investigation needs to be in the NTP. Hennecke is good and a classic; I use J. K. Elliott’s The Apocryphal New Testament. The Acts and the Gospels deserve the bulk of your time. Seriously. As you finish each act, go to the respective section in the Golden Legend and see how much derives from these apocryphal materials. Or, when you finish the Mary material, get your hands on the Heiland and see how much of it comes directly from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

As far as secondary sources go, I don’t know much good stuff on these… Johnson talks about these acts a certain amount in Among the Gentiles; this would probably be the best place to read through the essays in Powell & Scragg’s Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England.

Then move to the OTP. 1 Enoch is just an all-around great read; Jubilees and the Sibylinne Oracles are also important for getting a sense of this literature. Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs is good for the moral dimension of the psuedepigrapha.

My standard introduction to this material would be John J. Collin’s Apocalyptic Imagination. I haven’t read VanderKam & Adler’s The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity but knowing VanderKam, it’ll be terrific and well worth your time.

As for the others—read what you’d like as time allows, but I’d really focus on the first three categories before moving there.


I just have to say this… One of the reasons why this stuff is cool and attractive is because it’s outside the boundaries: it’s what Christians weren’t suppose to read. It gives you some great anti-authoritarian cred to read and know this stuff. But—honestly—most people who are interested in Early Christianity (and Christianity in general) would be far better served by actually reading all of the Old Testament and knowing the Canonical Scriptures before moving outside the canon. Similarly, while the Nag Hammadi stuff can be a great head trip, its not nearly as useful as knowing the homilies of Leo, Gregory and Bede.

Don’t read the outside stuff at the expense of knowing thoroughly the inside stuff: the Scriptures and the Doctors of the Church.