Category Archives: Patristics

PC: Is Allegory OK?

Here’s the next set of material from Psalming Christ. Now—if you thought that the previous two posts on David were building to something important about Jesus, you’re totally right! They are! But this isn’t it…  Indeed, I’m working on three different sections of the book simultaneously as the ability/energy/mood/Spirit direct.

There’s one line of thought on how reading more Scripture helps us pray the psalms better. The section I’m currently working on is how reading the prophets helps us understand the Psalms & vice versa. And yes, Ellen, this is one of the places where I’m tackling the imprecatory psalms with the suggestion that reading them in consonance with the prophetic destruction oracles can actually be a helpful thing.

There’s a second line of thought on how the psalms have been read in the voices of various biblical people, initially David and later Christ and how this is ok based on the insights of modern biblical scholarship. That’s what the previous two posts were leading to.

Then there’s a third line of thought on what modern people could or should do with the rampant allegorization that pervades patristic thought on the Scriptures generally and the Psalms in particular. As you’ve probably guessed from my title, that’s where we are today…

So—take a look, let me know what you think.


One of the biggest hurdles for modern readers of patristic biblical interpretation like Cassiodorus and Augustine is the idea of “allegorical interpretation.” Let me give you an example of what we’re talking about, then I’ll explain why I put that term in quotes and why it’s not nearly as much of a hurdle as we think it is.

Here are the opening lines of Psalm 11:

In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind. (Ps 11:1-4)

When I look at this text, I see the psalmist speaking as one with a firm trust in God. The unnamed person to whom the psalmist speaks—the “you” in the first verse—lacks the same trust as the speaker. Hence, these lines beginning with “Flee like a bird to the mountains…” are the words of someone who does not have faith that the Lord is going to right all wrongs, especially when the wicked are in power. The rest of the psalm will continue to assert trust in God’s vindication of the righteous from a Wisdom orthodoxy perspective. If you wanted, you could almost see this psalm as a counter-argument from Proverbs against Ecclesiastes.

Now, here is how Cassiodorus reads Psalm 11:1:

This [rhetorical] figure is called caenonema, the divulging of a plan; it frequently occurs when we join words with foes or allies. These words are in fact addressed to persuasive heretics who wish to utter evil to seduce innocent souls with vicious argument. So to them the faithful man says: “Since I am established on the fixed peak of religion, how is it that you seek to persuade me, saying: Get thee away to the mountain, in other words, have recourse to the wickedness of heretics, falsely claiming that Christ is where Truth is known to leave no trace?” In the divine Scriptures, mountain is ambivalent, being applied in comparison to very different things. It is often used in both good and bad senses. When it is used in a good sense, its strength and notable height are regarded; when in a bad sense, its inner stolidness and lofty pride. So the one term is aptly applied to different objects after reflection on their qualities. There are also several types of sparrow. Some take pleasure in holes in walls, while others make for dewy valleys, and others haunt scaly mountains. But here the psalmist speaks of those whose most random inclination bears them off to the loftiest region of earth. So those who in fickleness of wavering mind turn to most wicked doctrines are rightly considered similar to them.[Cassiodorus, ExplPs 1.135.]

He is taking the image of a bird winging away to the mountains, and is infusing it with theological meaning. As a modern reader, I think that Cassiodorus is over-reading the text. That is, I think that the psalmist is trying to communicate to the reader a certain feeling of escape, giving us a mental picture of a bird swooping off into the distance intended to convey either a physical or emotional distancing of the self from a difficult situation. I see Cassiodorus finding more in the text than what the psalmist intended. He uses his knowledge of rhetoric to identify this passage as a particular figure of thought, caenonema, and then moves into a discussion of the possible deeper meanings of the words “mountain” and “sparrow.”

This is precisely the kind of thing that we are talking about when we refer to “allegorical interpretation.” Over the centuries certain patterns of substitutionary reading built up (“when the text says ‘mountains’ what it really means is X; when it says ‘sparrows’ it really means Y”). By the late medieval period, knowing and understanding these patterns of substitutionary reading were considered necessary for the proper interpretation of the biblical text. This is why the Protestant Reformation insisted so strongly on the perspecuity of the text—that is, that a normal lay person can read a biblical passage and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can understand what it says without needing the layers of additional interpretation to read it rightly. The Reformers objected to the notion that the Bible had to be withheld from those who had not been trained in this extensive system of substitutionary and additional meanings. In their day it was about power, control, and who was allowed to have access to the biblical text. This is a key reason why “allegorical interpretation” gets a bad rap: it was used as a means of keeping the Word of God from the people of God.

Another key reason why both the Reformers and modern readers don’t like it is because it seems so arbitrary. Why, for instance, in the next verse of the psalm does Cassiodorus insist that: “We must interpret the bow as the divine commands which the heretic wields and orders according to his own wickedness[Cassiodorus, ExplPs 1.136.]”? Do we really have to use the word “must” here? Surely there are other ways that we can read this. Why does Cassiodorus fix upon this particular meaning to the exclusion of others?

In defense of Cassiodorus, there is a reason why he reads this psalm in this way. From his reading of the whole psalm and his theological context within the doctrinal disputes on the nature of Christ, he has decided that this psalm as a whole speaks about and against heretics who are troubling the church. Coming at it from this angle, he is going to interpret the details that he sees in ways that fit this reading.

The question that we need to ask is, what is prompting him to read this psalm in this way? Why does he believe that the psalm needs to be read in this way? And what are the limits on this kind of interpretive model? Furthermore, is there anything that we can take away from this model to assist our praying of the Psalms?

 

The first place we need to start is getting clear on terminology—specifically around allegory. As we’ve mentioned, the art of rhetoric involves quite a number of figures of speech and figures of thought. Allegory in its technical sense is simply one of these, one among many. According to the formal definition, an allegory is a statement or narrative that is intended to be read in a substitutionary way, where the actors or characters or references are intended to refer to something other than their literal referent. It’s usually a deliberate and conscious choice on the part of the author. Hence, when George Orwell sat down to write his barnyard classic Animal Farm he did so with a solid working knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union and its relationships to the rise of totalitarian powers in Europe. An uninformed reader will find a story about how the animals tried to free themselves from human control but then—slowly but surely—the leadership began acting in more and more human ways until the situation of the workers were no better under the new management than they were under the old. The story makes sense on its own. An informed reader having the allegorical key (“this story is actually about the progress of Communism in the Soviet Union”), though, will have no problem matching up certain characters with certain historical figures: Farmer Jones is Czar Nicholas II, Napoleon is Joseph Stalin, Snowball is Leon Trotsky, etc. This is intentional allegory.

Allegory in this technical sense is not foreign to the Bible itself. Allegory as a compositional technique is found in many places in the Old Testament. The image of the vineyard as a representation for Israel is used creatively by several authors in an intentionally allegorical way. The ancient Song of Moses alludes to it, concluding with this image: “[God] brought [the people] in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession” (Exodus 15:17). Psalm 80 makes explicit use of the allegory, using it in the same way as the Song of Moses:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted. (Ps 80:8-15)

The allegory is clear: Israel is the vineyard, the wild boar and other beasts are the enemies of Israel. Another classic adaptation of this image is the prophetic oracle in Isaiah 5. It starts in the same place as the Song of Moses and Psalm 80:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes. (Isa 5:1-2)

Instead of moving into lament like the psalm does, Isaiah does something unexpected and slips into the prophetic courtroom accusation mode taking on his own lips the voice of God (that is, making a propospological move himself):

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it. (Isa 5:3-6)

Psalm 80 expects God to tend the vineyard; to strengthen its wall and secure its boundaries. He is the owner and the planter, therefore it is his job to care for the vineyard and protect it. But Isaiah takes this conventional image and turns it on its head. The issue here isn’t with God/the owner—it’s with the vineyard and its crop! Isaiah finishes the oracle by both making its allegorical character exceedingly clear and clarifying the fruit:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry! (Isa 5:7)

Isaiah acknowledges his use of allegory by identifying the beloved farmer as “the Lord of hosts” and the vineyard as “the house of Israel /and the people of Judah.” The wild grapes produced by the people are “bloodshed” and “a cry”—violations of Israel’s covenant responsibilities rather than the fruit that God intends of his people, “justice” and “righteousness.”

As if that weren’t enough, a later author writing in the same tradition as Isaiah reclaims the vineyard image from God’s perspective in Isaiah 27:1-6 to speak of the future victory of God and the full restoration of Israel concluding with a mix of allegory and its interpretive key:

In days to come Jacob shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots,
and fill the whole world with fruit.

It’s not just Isaiah either in the prophetic literature. Jeremiah 12 uses this same agricultural image for Israel and the nations with regard to planting and plucking up (“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, /they have trampled down my portion, /they have made my pleasant portion /a desolate wilderness” Jer 12:10). So too does Ezekiel 19:10-14. Thus, the Old Testament itself uses allegory as a compositional tool.

Because of this fact, it’s therefore no surprise at all to see the use of allegory proper pop up in the New Testament. Indeed, knowing this allegory of the vineyard from the Song of Moses, Psalm 80, and the Prophets is essential to understanding the parable that Jesus tells in Mark 12:1-12 (and its parallels in Matthew 21:33-44 and Luke 20:9-18) that begins “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower…” (Mark 12:1). Anybody who knows Isaiah 5 will immediately recognize what’s going on here. Matthew’s telling in particular wants to be sure that the allegorical connection is made by concluding his passage with a focus on the fruits just like Isaiah 5 does: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt 21:43).

With these kinds of scriptural antecedents rolling around in our heads, then, what are we to make of the familiar passage from John 15 where Jesus begins speaking like this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…” (John 15:1-2)? Shouldn’t this address to the disciples at the Last Supper be heard as an allegory informed by Psalm 80 and Isaiah and the prophets where Jesus himself is the vine that God plants and all those connected into him are the people of God, called to bear fruit worthy of God’s kingdom?

The point I’m making here is that allegorical composition is not foreign to the Bible. To deny the legitimacy of allegory as a whole is an inaccurate reading of Scripture itself. However, what Cassiodorus and Augustine are doing goes far beyond recognizing allegorical composition. We need to make a distinction between allegorical composition which is something that a writer does, and allegorical interpretation which is something that a reader does. But here again, we have to look at the New Testament itself and how it teaches Scriptural reading.

The place where we must start to understand the role of allegorical reading in the Christian tradition is with St. Paul. Informed readers recognize that there is allegorical composition in the Bible—but Paul takes that and kicks it up several notches. In Galatians 4 he turns to the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to contrast those who live by the law and those who live by the promise. After introducing the two children (Ishmael and Isaac), he says this:

Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. (Gal 4:24-6)

Paul is doing something different than what we saw before. He has gone to a narrative text which does not contain any signals that it is allegorical in nature and asserts that there is, in fact, an allegory at work here—one that has bearing on Christian faith and practice. Nor is this the only time that he will do this.

First Corinthians 10 is an important text for understanding how Paul reads and for how he expects us to read as well. He begins the chapter by focusing his readers attention on what happened in and after the Exodus:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:1-4)

This is different from what he says in Galatians; he is not claiming that this narrative is an allegory, nor does he inform us exactly how he is reading. His use of the term “spiritual” is important though. It points to the fact that he sees a deeper theological meaning embedded within the narrative and that there are certain meanings and identifications that have to be made in order to get the fullest meaning out of the text with one central hermeneutical key: “…and the rock was Christ.”

Within this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their moral and ethical lapses. Despite the fact that they are baptized people, souls incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ, they persist in immorality that would make pagans blush. He introduces the generation of the Exodus and the pre-figurement of Baptism in the Red Sea to go on to chronicle both the ethical lapses of that generation and also the punishments that they received. He frames this material with an appeal to the utility of the scriptural text: “Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. . . . These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:6, 11). Paul is not saying that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the Exodus generation wandering in the wilderness and his Corinthian flock. Rather, he indicates that the biblical material has a bearing on and was intended to inform this present generation. These past events were written for our present instruction.

He makes this point again in a different way near the end of Romans where he explains to the Roman congregation his fundamental philosophy of reading:

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”[Ps 69:9] For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:1-6)

Paul’s emphasis is that the purpose of reading Scripture is to give hope and to constructively build up the community in Christ. That’s why we read: for the spiritual advancement of us all through the building up of the neighbor. Furthermore, whatever was written in Scripture is there in order to advance this purpose—to build up one another in love so that we may glorify God together in both our words and our works.

This, then, is the full and proper intention of the Pauline injunction in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. While the first verse of this passage is often proof-texted to make non-biblical assertions about inspiration, seeing it from this perspective helps us hear what Paul was intending:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Paul’s point is that all scripture bears a spiritual meaning and that the purpose of that spiritual meaning is to build up the community so that we are equipped to do acts of love and service. This is what the Scriptures are for and how they ought to be read: they are God’s self-revelation intended to build the Church up through an understand of how God wills us to live in love and reconciliation with one another.

At this point, let’s take a step back and summarize what we’ve been up to here. Why have we been spending so much time talking about Paul in a book about the Psalms and Jesus? What we’ve established here is that:

  1. Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers read the Psalms in an extra-literal way often referred to as “allegorical interpretation.”
  2. There is a suspicion of allegorical interpretation in the modern church.
  3. That suspicion is warranted because of the ways that substitutionary readings became a way to keep the biblical text out of the hands of the laity.
  4. However, certain texts of the Bible are demonstrably allegorical in composition.
  5. Sparked by this recognition, Paul taught allegorical or spiritual reading to the Church for a specific purpose—the upbuilding of the Church for acts of love and service.

PC: Hearing the Psalms in other Voices

Here we go again…

In this section, I’m tackling a key question about the way the Church Fathers read the Psalms. They heard them in the voice of Jesus. But can we do that? Is this an appropriate reading strategy based on what we know from modern biblical scholarship? This is the first of four sections on this topic.


Is this a legitimate way to read the Psalms? Coming from a modern perspective, grounded in the insights of the scientific study of the Scriptures, is this a means by which we can approach them?

There are a couple of angles we can use to think through this question. The first is to come at it from the perspective of the historical critical method, the method that was the centerpiece of the academic study of Scripture from the nineteenth century until the last quarter of the twentieth century. This approach privileges the idea of authorial intent—what was the  original author intending to communicate to the people they expected to be reading or hearing this material? Was the original author of any given psalm writing it with the idea that it should be heard in the voice of Jesus? The quick and simple answer to this question is no, of course not. Remember, a fundamental premise of the academic study of Scripture is that supernatural causes or authors are outside the realm of this form of research; we can’t assume or refer to supernatural knowledge on the part of the authors. Scholarship cannot make an appeal to the Holy Spirit to suggest that a psalmist of the ninth century BC was either consciously or unconsciously writing about Jesus. As a result, this form of biblical research must answer this specific question in the negative: no, the original authors did not have Jesus in mind as they wrote, nor would their original audience have thought of Jesus when they heard or read these psalms.

That having been said, even though this form of research would deny this kind of reading in its specific application, it may give it a cautious go-ahead based in its general application. Let me explain what I mean by that. Put simply, Jesus is not mentioned by name in the Psalms for obvious temporal reasons—his Incarnation occurred centuries after the last psalm was written. However, a key feature of the psalms is a studied generality. Think back to the psalms you know. Many of the lament psalms talk about the troubles that their authors were or are in. But what specifically are these troubles? Does any psalm refer to the threat of poverty because a band of Amorite raiders seized a caravan of goods coming up from Egypt that the author had spent his last shekels on? Does any psalm talk about the political danger the author is in because he knows that Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah have heard a false rumor about him and suspect him of disloyalty in the current difficulties with the Neo-Babylonians?  No—none of them do. One of the things that makes each psalm so hard to date is the lack of specificity within them. Rather, the psalms as we have received them speak in vague generalities about the trials, tribulations, and narrow escapes of the righteous. They are general enough that anyone can find themselves within their troubles. Everyone has experienced tribulations, and the laments are crafted in such a way that each of us can hear their situations through our own experiences. As a result, the psalms taken as a whole can be read as the praise and lament of the a righteous one—a righteous one who has suffered greatly yet still praises God.

Furthermore, royal figures appear frequently in the psalms. If we wanted to group the many references to kings, we would end up with three major groups: foreign kings, usually enemies of Israel;[See Psalm 2:2, 10; Psalm 48:4; Psalm 68:12, 14, 29; Psalm 72:10-11; Psalm 76:12; Psalm 89:27; Psalm 102:15; Psalm 105:14, 20, 30; Psalm 110:5; Psalm 135:10-11; Psalm 136:17-20; Psalm 138:4; Psalm 148:11; and Psalm 149:8.] Yhwh, the God of Israel who is also the true king of Israel;[See Psalm 5:2; Psalm 10:16; Psalm 24:7-10; Psalm 29:10; Psalm 44:4; Psalm 47, Psalm 48:2; Psalm 68:24; Psalm 74:12; Psalm 84:3; Psalm 93; Psalms 95-99; Psalm 145; and Psalm 149:2.] and the human king of Israel/Judah[See Psalm 2:4; Psalm 18:50; Psalm 20:9; Psalm 21:1, 7; Psalm 33:16; Psalm 45; Psalm 61:6; Psalm 72; Psalm 89; Psalm 119:46; and Psalm 144:10.]. And yet, despite all of these references in the first and third groups, only three kings are ever mentioned by name—David, Sihon of the Amorites, and Og of Bashan—and one by implication—the unnamed Pharaoh of the Exodus. There’s no Hezekiah or Joram or Manasseh or any of the other kings of Israel or Judah mentioned in the historical books. Too, the royal psalms 45, 72, and 89 speak in hyperbolic terms about the relationship between God and the king, portraying a set of expectations that seem far beyond what any human person and accomplish or achieve! These appear to portray less historical figures and more aspirational messianic figures, a future unnamed figure of the line of David who will bring peace, prosperity and security to God’s people. What would a reader of the time hear? Is this political propaganda exalting the current occupant of the throne, or an aspirational vision of who a king could be—who is, in any case, a client king of the Yhwh, the true king—that qualifies and challenges any current occupant of the throne?

As much as a scholar working within the historical method would deny that any of the psalms were written to be placed in the mouth of Jesus, it is nonetheless a true statement that the psalms were written (or edited) in such a way that they can be seen as the words of any suffering righteous person and that they refer to an aspirational messianic king of the line of David.

But the historical method is not the only approach that modern scholarship offers. In recent decades the historical method has been joined by other methods that expand our view on the text by asking different questions that complement the historical ones but open other lines of inquiry. Reader-response and reception history take seriously how readers would have heard these texts and look for evidence about how they were actually received, understood, and put into practice. These are particularly fruitful approaches for what we’re talking about. Again—these shouldn’t be seen as an either/or, either we use one approach or we use another; rather, the most edifying perspective is a both/and. There is no single right answer about what a biblical text means—there are a multitude of questions that can be asked, some questions are better than others, and taking the answers to the better questions together can help us gain clarity about what we see in the text and how we act as a result of it.

If we come at this question—is it legitimate to read the psalms in the voice of Jesus or the church—from the direction of reader-response and reception history, we will discover some fascinating material to put into the mix.  The first question we will tackle is whether it is appropriate to read individual psalms as the voice of a community. We’ll take this on first because it is the easiest to answer: according to the psalms themselves, the answer is a resounding yes! Specifically, in and amongst the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), there are psalms that invite all of Israel to hear themselves in the “I” and “we” of the psalms:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side —let Israel now say—If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, When our enemies attacked us… (Psalm 124:1-2)

“Often have they attacked me from my youth” —let Israel now say—“Often have they attacked me from my youth, Yet they have not prevailed against me. (Psalm 129:1-2)

The easy slippage between the singular “I,”  plural nouns like “tents of the righteous,” and collective nouns like “Israel,” “house of Aaron,” “those who fear the Lord” in a text like Psalm 118, supports the notion that even psalms written in the singular are intended to evoke the whole community’s experience. Moving outside the Psalter, Isaiah’s servant songs function in a similar way—although they are written about an exemplary individual, internal clues show that their author intended them to refer to the whole community as well: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,/ Israel in whom I will be glorified’” (Isaiah 49:3). Thus, the psalms themselves invite their readers to investigate plurals as singulars and singulars as plurals.

Next, let’s look at the more complicated question about hearing the psalms as the voice of a particular individual. The place to start is by turning our attention to the superscriptions—those brief taglines that appear before the psalms in most translations.[It’s worth noting that some liturgical translations of the psalms—like those found in the Books of Common Prayer—leave these out.] As we discussed in our initial look at the psalms back in chapter XX, there are a couple of different kinds of superscriptions. There are those that identify the collections that were edited into the final form of the Psalter. There are others that identify tune names or are directed to the leader of the Levitical choir. Then, there are contextualizing superscriptions—superscriptions that attempt to locate certain psalms within a particular event in the life of David or another biblical figure. These are the earliest examples of prosopological interpretation of the psalms: before the canon was even closed, the psalms have been interpreted by placing them in the mouth of a specific individual expressing that person’s thoughts and feelings in the midst of a given experience. Most scholars believe that the superscriptions were not original to the psalms; they were not part of the process of composition but rather are part of the editorial work of the unknown Levites or priests who gathered these poems into collections and wove those collections together into the book that we now have. An important piece of evidence that supports this is the freedom in the Septuagint to alter and add superscriptions in ways that other parts of the biblical text are not altered.

Thirteen psalms receive historical notes in their superscriptions connecting them to events in the life of David, most of which are described in the books of Samuel; a fourteenth (Psalm 30) is unclear:

We see a lot of these historical superscriptions at the beginning of the psalter—in that initial “Book of David” collection. Even though there are many connections between these superscriptions and events listed in the biblical books as we have received them, there are enough differences to make us wonder if the editors were looking at a different version of these books. Second, the connection between the psalms and the referenced events varies in quality amongst them. For instance, the connection between David’s repentance and Psalm 51 is a great one. Liturgically speaking, Psalm 51 is considered the penitential psalm par excellence, and is eminently appropriate for this episode in David’s life. The connection between the betrayal of the Ziphites and Psalm 54 is a bit more puzzling. Despite these curiosities, these superscriptions set a pattern that would be extended both farther and deeper. Farther in the sense that David was not the only biblical figure to whom specific psalms were assigned. (I leave aside here those referring to David, Asaph and the Korahites here because these superscriptions are best seen as referring to collections rather than being prosopological connections of the sort we’re discussing here.):

The anonymous figure in Psalm 102 is interesting because it suggests a process: read the psalm, construct a emotional profile based on the content, then consider who and where in the biblical records such a person might be found. For Psalm 102 at least, the first few steps have been accomplished, but the process as a whole has not been completed.

The Septuagint, though, that translation into Greek by Egyptian Jews in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, took this idea and added to it (The bolded words in this chart shows what is in the Hebrew; the regular type is what was added in the Septuagint’s psalter):

So—what do we make of all of this?

The evidence that we see here tells us that people started interpreting the Psalms prosopologically—hearing them in the voices of particular people at particular times—early in the collecting and editing of the Psalter. They were pre-eminently tied into the life of David, but other biblical figures received attributions as well. This trend only increased as time went on. The evidence of the Septuagint shows that the editors of that tradition were comfortable doing both things: connecting more psalms with events in the life of David, and connecting them to other people and events including post-exilic people (like Haggai and Zechariah) and situations (the resettlement of Israel).

The psalms themselves invite us to hear and pray them in our voices and in the voices of biblical figures. Understanding how the early church found Jesus within them requires us to take a deep dive into David which we’ll do next.

PC: Theological Challenges in the Psalms 1

I’ve been furiously writing since I’m coming up on a deadline for Psalming Christ. I put up a section on Patreon yesterday for those who support me, but I thought I’d put this up here too, because I need some feedback. I’m tackling a touchy issue—how to address some of the theological challenges that modern Christians are bound to encounter in the psalms. Here, at the risk of offending many, I tackle what may be a favorite psalm, discuss my problems with it, then how I come to terms with praying it.

Please—let me know what you think.  Does it bother you? Does it offend you? Or, conversely, does it help you? Let me know!

(The next Liturgical Look Forward will follow later today…)


After years of negotiation, Psalm 91 and I have finally come to an arrangement. I promise to pray it faithfully when it comes around in the psalm cycle; it—in turn—has agreed to be about feelings.

The reason why this accord was necessary is because I find Psalm 91 to be one of the hard psalms in the psalter to pray. I realize that this may well be an unusual psalm to have problems with; there are no babies getting their heads bashed in (Ps 137), no calls to slay the wicked or a desire to hate with a perfect hatred (Ps 139), nor even a wish to bathe my feet in the blood of my enemies (Ps 68). No—my issue is the picture it paints of the divinely-charmed life. Consider the first several verses:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked. (Ps 91:1-8)

The picture it paints is of the blissful protection of the faithful by God, whatever may come.

I have dutifully read this psalm for years. It is one of the standard psalms for the Compline office (Night prayer) which means that I sometimes pray it several times each week. Now, I’m certain that there are people who love this psalm deeply—and I’m not trying to take that away from anyone. It is beautiful; it is comforting. Perhaps it’s due to my own issues and temperament, my own lack of absolute trust, but I take exception to the literal sense of the text: trust in God, and you will be protected from all harm. That faith in God will act as some kind of magic charm that will save you from all adversity.

In the Episcopal tradition, the psalms can be prayed through every month with set psalms assigned for morning and evening prayer of each day; Psalm 91 is appointed for use at Morning Prayer on the 18th of each month. On the night of July 17th, 2015, a White Supremacist hoping to spark a race war opened fire at a Bible study inside Mother Emanuel Baptist Church in Charlotte, murdering nine and wounding three others. The next morning, the lectionary forced me to pray Psalm 91.

I couldn’t.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation. (Ps 91:14-16)

While I respect the literal sense of the biblical text—the basic meaning of the words on the page—I do not know a way to pray this psalm in its literal sense and to believe it. Because, to take this psalm literally means one of two things: either God failed those nine people in his promise to protect them, or that they were not faithful enough, not good enough, not loving enough for God to honor that promise—and I simply refuse to believe that.

Psalm 91 is just one of a number of psalms that promise tangible, material benefits to the faithful. Some psalms promise physical safety and security to devotees who keep God’s covenants. Alternatively, other psalms request such aid and protection, often promising vows of sacrifices or praise of God in the midst of the assembly in return.

What do we do with these? How do we understand these promises and requests?

Part of the art of biblical interpretation, the work of hermeneutics, is figuring out how to hear these words for the up-building of our faith and those around us. Do we try to take these texts literally—at their word—and how do we understand the results when the hoped-for outcome does not happen?

One approach to hermeneutics uses the image of a three-legged stool: that Christian understanding of God’s ways is rooted in Scripture, tradition, and reason—and that all three are necessary. (A formulation attributed to Methodist founder John Wesley—the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—includes “experience” as a fourth part.) Sometimes this “three-legged stool” is invoked in order to discount the importance of Scripture, suggesting that if our experience doesn’t match what we read in the text, Scripture can and should be jettisoned and our own reason (or experience) should become our primary guide in the spiritual life. But that’s not what this phrase means, and is not how it was intended to be used. Rather, Scripture is always the foundation, and the other two (or three) help us as we wrestle with it: tradition (how the Church has read this text in the past) and reason (how we think through the text as informed by our own God-given mental faculties and assisted by the Holy Spirit) guiding our encounter with the Word of God.

When we read these psalms alongside the Church, we read them with and through the Christian experience of martyrdom. The nine faithful gunned down in Charlotte that dreadful night were neither the first nor the last to be killed for their faith or in its exercise. Every Christian sanctoral calendar recognizes the presence of martyrs through the centuries: those witnesses who would rather die than betray the faith. The formative years of the church in the first few centuries of its existence were scarred by persecution and death which did not hinder its growth but, paradoxically, accelerated it leading Tertullian to proclaim “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.[Paraphrase of Apology 50.13. Technically the line just says “the seed is the blood of Chistians” but the common expanded version conveys what Tertullian intended.]” Indeed, in those early days martyrdom was seen as a primary means of imitating Christ. Let’s not forget the very origins of our faith—the confession of a crucified Messiah by twelve apostles who, according to church tradition, all likewise suffered martyrdom with the exception of John who died in exile.

Speaking of Jesus himself, it’s not an accident that Psalm 91 plays a central role in the stories of his temptation as told by both Matthew and Luke (Matthew 4:1-11|Luke 4:1-13). The way I read these stories, not only is Jesus rejecting the temptations directly offered by Satan—sustenance, safety, and power—but also the literal meaning of the psalm itself. Jesus turns his back on a reading of the psalm that promises security and protection to those who align themselves with God’s will; instead he calls his followers to daily take up their cross and follow him. If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God—and Christianity insists that he is—then we cannot read the psalms in a way contrary to the experience of Jesus, the righteous sufferer.

Since this is the grounding of the Christian tradition and experience, we have to be able to read the language of this psalm in more than literal ways. Be careful here: I’m not suggesting that we ignore the literal sense. I do believe that God helps and protects those who call on him. But I also acknowledge that that’s not always the way things work out, and that such a result should not be attributed to a lack of faith or integrity on the part of the fallen. It’s not our place to judge the fidelity of others. Rather, we need to be open to other ways to hear these texts, and understand God’s faithfulness towards us.

The way that I’ve made peace with Psalm 91 is to hear it as a description of how the experience of faith can make us feel—has made me feel. There are times in our religious experience where we feel so completely covered by the love of God that we feel as if nothing in the word can touch us, when we experience so directly Paul’s words that nothing can sever us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). I hear Psalm 91 not as a contract—believe in God and God will keep you safe—but as a description of the way that faith can make us feel—intoxicated with the love and presence of God.

PC: Biblical Scholarship, Patristic Reading, Scriptural Imagining

This is the second part of the discussion raised in the previous post


Here’s the problem: because there is a disconnect in the questions being asked, there’s going to be a disconnect in the answers that will be received. Modern communities of faith and people of faith are asking something like this: “How does this text reveal God to me?” or “What does God want me to do as a result of my reading of this text?” or “What is God’s claim on my life—beliefs, actions, thoughts and feelings—because of what I read in this verse or passage or book?”

Those are not the questions that modern biblical scholarship are asking. Rather, modern biblical scholarship asks something more like: “what did the authors and editors of this book or passage or verse think about God (or humanity or their environment, cultural or otherwise) and how did they communicate these thoughts through their writing and editing?”

I fully believe that the scientific study of the Scriptures can and should inform our understanding of the faith and how we practice it. We must listen to scholarship, even when it challenges treasured beliefs. But—we must use what scholarship tells us sensibly; we have to recognize that many of the questions we are asking as faithful believers are not going to be answered—at least not directly—in the discussions occurring within the guild of biblical scholarship. If we want to get the most out of it, we must ask modern scholarship the kinds of questions that it is designed to answer.

Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the Church Fathers are, in many ways, on our wavelength because they are asking the same kinds of questions that we are. They want to know what God is saying to them through this text.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, has compared the interpretive techniques and experiences of  patristic readers and modern biblical scholars as the difference between people who exist with in a lively city and archaeologists who excavate a dead one.

The problem with the patristic authors is that, while fully immersed in the lived experience, they failed to notice that changes caused by the shifts in time, culture, and accidents of translation had altered how the texts were read and understood. Elements from the readers’ everyday experience were too easily read back into the text: it’s not uncommon to see medieval depictions of the Last Supper as the First Eucharist where Jesus is wearing contemporary mass vestments, elevating a host over a chalice, or communing kneeling disciples just like a medieval parish priest.[1] A need to see all four gospels as non-contradictory narratives lead to some fancy contortions of the timeline for the sake of harmonization, requiring Jesus to cleanse the Temple twice—once at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-17) and at the end (Matthew 21:12-13|Mark 11:15-17|Luke 19:45-46). Equally problematic are the attempts to reconcile the two different genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-28).[2] Too, literary conventions and genre markers were lost in translation and over time; Jonah, a folktale-style short story with a theological point, and Daniel, an apocalyptic work of encouragement, were shelved as straight-forward prophetic history. In short, these readers lost the sense that there was a cultural and temporal gap between themselves and the text.

The problem with modern biblical scholars is that the engagement with the text because an investigation in an overly distant and dispassionate past. The gulf between the scholarly present and the biblical past becomes so great that only rigorous historical methodology can certify the accuracy of anything—and only things capable of historical certification are worth knowing. The search for seams in the text, layers of literary production, and establishing direct source materials can lead to the dissection of a text that, once opened and disembowled, has a difficult time functioning again as a living being.

What to do, then? What is the best direction in which to proceed?

Johnson recommends not the stark “either/or” that accepts patristic readings and rejects modern scholarly ones nor vice-versa. Instead, he recommends a “both/and” that functions by starting with a base question that both patristic piety and academic curiosity are eager to answer: “What is the world that Scripture imagines?” If the Scriptures are the written body of God’s self-revelation, what is the kind of world that Scriptures present before us—and invite us into?

Academic scholarship can help answer this question by filling in the ideas and intentions of the ancient authors. That is, scholarship can help us better understand the world that the biblical authors thought that they were communicating. With a better understanding of the religious traditions of the neighboring cultures and ancient literary conceits and signals, details that we either overlook or would normally misinterpret can pop into sudden focus and help us understanding how the biblical authors were trying to envision God, humanity, the world, and the relationship between them all.

Patristic readers can help us delve into the possibilities and potentials within the text when it is read in relation to the full arc of the Christian story. Too, they alert us to the ways that Christian habits, practices, and rituals have been seen within and influenced by readers of the biblical texts. The patristic authors—and especially the monastic authors—are focused not only on describing the world that Scripture imagines, but explaining how we can put it into action and participate within that world. Because that’s their true goal: not just imagining or comprehending a world that God desires, but inhabiting that world—acting and living and behaving within that world. This, after all, is the concept at the heart of the the fourth chapter of Benedict’s rule: The “tools of the spiritual craft” (RB 4.75) are a compilation of 74 injunctions, most taken directly from Scripture, about habits of body and mind that Benedict’s monks are expected to use “without ceasing day and night” as they toil in the workshop that is the monastery (RB 4.76,78). The goal is not just imagining what God hopes and dreams, but putting it into practice in order to draw our world closer to God’s fullest loving intentions for it.

 

[1] The 12th century French manuscript New York, Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 6v, the 15th century Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS DB 65, fol. 189v, and Fra Anglica’s “Instituion of the Eucharist” all depict these elements. For a more detailed study of these and more images see Margaret Duffy, “Corpus Christi—Last Supper vs. Institution of the Eucharist” online: http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2011/06/corpus-christi-last-supper-vs.html.

[2] Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels is one of the most comprehensive and influential attempts to explain the many differences between the four gospels without overt contradiction.

PC: Biblical Scholarship and the Spiritual Life

One of the more complex issues that I’m tackling in Psalming Christ is the gap between patristic spirituality and a modern encounter with the biblical text informed by responsible scholarship. The bottom line here is that patristic and early medieval readers had a different view of the Scriptures than we currently do; many of the agreed-upon principles on modern biblical scholarship explicitly reject patristic assumptions and methods. So—how can we gather the riches from both and apply them in a nuanced way to the spiritual challenges we face today?

That’s what I’m wrestling with here and in a few subsequent sections. I will likely have to rework this material a couple of times to get it right and to strike the proper balance between competing goods. Thus, PLEASE comment on what strikes you as being helpful and what is confusing or what questions it still leaves you with. Some lingering questions MAY already be addressed in future sections, but it really helps me as a writer to know how readers who don’t live inside my head experience this stuff.

Ok—enough setup; here’s the section…


One of the greatest gulfs between the time of Benedict and Cassiodorus and our own is the rise of modern biblical scholarship. Benedict and Cassiodorus could assume certain things that they had learned from the tradition about the Bible—assumptions that we can no longer accept so easily. As we get into the psalms themselves, let’s start with a quick look at the differences between the two and how that makes our task both more complicated and more rich.

Benedict and Cassiodorus started with the fundamental assumption that the primary author of the entire Scriptural text was the Holy Spirit. This has several important implications for reading.

First, it means that they did not posit a discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments: they were two parts of a single seamless entity. A word or phrase in one place could be seen as intentionally referring to the same word or phrase appearing anywhere else within the Bible. More than that, the use of certain words and phrases in different places was deliberate. A central task of the interpretive process was to understand how the web of meanings stretched across and throughout the all of Scripture.

Second, following the interpretive principles laid down by Origen of Alexandria and developed by the broader tradition, all of Scripture has a spiritual meaning. That is, every verse, every phrase, every word is not happenstance or accident, but is composed in order to lead you deeper into the mysteries of God and into God’s own self-revelation to you. That’s not to say that there were no errors in Scripture. Indeed—Origen and others identified quite a number of contradictions and logical problems with the literal meaning of the biblical text.[1] However, Origen contended that these apparent errors were themselves intentional: they served as signposts to the fact that a deeper spiritual truth was hidden behind the letter of the text.

Third, because of multiple layers of meaning to the text, the Bible could not be read in a simple and straight-forward way. Not all people are prepared to handle all spiritual truths. There are some truths that require a more mature spirit. As a result, the biblical text itself conceals or veils certain meanings for two key reasons—so that the unworthy will not discover them and the unready not be scandalized by them, and so that those who are ready and worthy will experience delight and the thrill of discovery when they find them. The Holy Spirit itself had hidden these meanings within the text and would guide readers to them when they were ready to receive them.

We will look at these reading practices in more detail at a later point—here it’s sufficient to name a few of these in order to illustrate some of the differences between how they perceived the Scriptures then and the way they are looked at now.

Modern biblical scholarship is rooted in the scientific study of the Scriptures. While that phrase might conjure up a rather ridiculous vision of men in white lab coats pouring out test-tubes on a Bible in an attempt to analyze it, it means something more serious than that. Biblical scholars are people who have devoted their lives to the investigation of the text of Scripture and the world—or thought-worlds—that produced it. Some of them are faithful Christians. Some are faithful Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus, or may hold no religious beliefs at all. Whether a scholar believes Christian truth-claims about the text is not the point; academic scholarship of the Bible is intended to be as objective as possible to the degree that a scholar’s research should be compelling to others whether they hold religious beliefs about the text or not.

The purpose of the academic study of the Bible is to examine its disparate writings within the historical, linguistic, social, and intellectual contexts where they were created and the impact they had on later readers and interpreters of the texts. That is, whether a scholar believes that God was at work in the writing or not is beside the point: the fact remains that any given section of the biblical materials is a text written down by a particular person in a particular language at a particular time in history which was then edited by other culturally-bounded people who included it within a broader set of texts that has eventually come down to us as “the Bible.” Biblical scholars study all of the various particularities that I have listed here—and more—in order to arrive at a better understanding of what the human author intended to communicate and how its various editors and readers would have received it. In short, biblical scholars approach the Scriptures as they would any other ancient work of literature that has exerted important influence on human thought and action. Just as one can analyze Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad regardless of belief in its gods and heroes, the same sort of intellectual tools and techniques can be used to analyze the Scriptures.

Generally speaking, the academic study of the Scriptures diverged from the exclusively religious study of the Scriptures around the middle of the nineteenth century in German universities. Ever since then, with increasing degrees of self-understanding, rigor, and sophistication, academic scholarship has existed apart from purely faith-based perspectives on the Scriptures. Paradoxically, despite its distancing itself from religious truth-claims, academic biblical scholarship still remains in close contact with the faith and faith communities. Many academic scholars are also seminary professors—they teach future clergy and lay leaders. Indeed, some academic scholars are themselves clergy or lay leaders in a variety of Christian churches. Some scholars focus their work towards the academic community (“the guild” as we call it), others focus it towards faith communities, and still others do both.[2]

How does modern biblical scholarship differ from patristic thinkers like Cassiodorus and Benedict?

In truth, the starting place is entirely different. The scientific study of the Scriptures begins by bracketing out any notion of supernatural agency in the composition of the text. That’s not the same as denying it—rather, divine inspiration is not something that scientific processes are able to detect, assess, or evaluate. Instead—just as a literary scholar would approach the Iliad—it begins with the indisputable truth that the books that make up the Old and New Testaments were written down by human authors within human societies, and that they were edited, transmitted, and understood in certain ways by their original communities and by the communities that inherited them. This different starting place challenges many of the assumptions held by Benedict and Cassiodorus.

First, biblical scholars do not analyze the Old and New Testaments as a seamless whole. Indeed, Hebrew Bible and New Testament/Early Christian Literature are usually separate departments in the academic world. One factor that contributed to the seamless feel experienced by Benedict and Cassiodorus was that of translation: in their bibles there was no linguistic difference between the Old and New Testaments because they had both been translated or edited by a single man (Jerome) into a single language (Latin). Every act of translation is an act of interpretation; since Jerome also believed that the Holy Spirit was the originator of both testaments, he translated in such a way to bring out the similarities and to reinforce the presence of common and interconnecting phrases. Far from experiencing the Bible this way, modern scholars encounter each book in its original language, noting the presence of older Hebraic forms more related to the Ugaritic language spoken by the neighboring Canaanites, more recent Hebrew flavored by the Akkadian of the Babylonian Exile or Aramaic of the Persian period. The New Testament, of course, was written in Koine Greek, a wide-spread trade dialect of Greek used throughout the Mediterranean region, and also shows a familiarity with the Old Testament in its Greek translation, the Septuagint. Not only are the Scriptures not read as a whole, individual books are analyzed for seams in the text that indicate where and when earlier collections of material have been brought together.[3]

That’s not to say that there aren’t literary connections or cross-references across the Testaments. There certainly are. In particular, New Testament authors took great pains to make reference to Old Testament principles, passages, and prophecies in order to demonstrate the continuity between Jesus and the promises made by God through out the Hebrew Scriptures. What makes these challenging is that some of the references are not, in fact, to the Hebrew text; by the 2nd century BCE the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt had translated their Scriptures into Greek and had included some additional books as well.[4] Because of textual divergences, misinterpretations of archaic Hebrew phrases, or other reasons, the text of this Greek translation, the Septuagint, is sometimes different in content and meaning from the Hebrew text traditions that we have inherited. Jerome, who was familiar with both the Hebrew and Septuagint texts, could simply make these differences go away in his translation. Modern scholars, on the other hand, focus on the text as it was first written which leads to the next point.

Second, where Origen, Benedict, and Cassiodorus had sought out a multiplicity of levels of meaning within the biblical text, the scientific study of Scripture has a different purpose and orientation. Classical historically-focused scholarship has centered on the principle of “authorial intent.” It asks the very specific question, what did the original human author intend to communicate to his readership when he wrote these words? In order to answer this question, scholars look at the historical situation of the text’s composition, the culture at the time as it can be best reconstructed, linguistic cues, related texts, and analogous texts from neighboring cultures. For instance, a scholar investigating Psalm 29 might look at it in relation to Canaanite hymns written in the Ugaritic language, looking for commonalities and differences in the kinds of images, meter, or turns of phrase used. This approach discards later meanings imposed back onto the text. Thus, a scholar looking at the book of Ezekiel would seek to discover what the historical Ezekiel meant by the phrase “son of man (Heb: ben-adam)” rather than assuming a connection to Jesus based on the christological title “son of man (Grk: huios tou anthropou)” found in the gospels.

Third, the emphasis on authorial intent foregrounds the literal meaning of the text. Modern scholarship rejects spiritual or allegorical interpretations unless there is something in the text that specifically indicates their presence. The kind of veiled reading performed by Benedict and Cassiodorus would be considered a form of over-reading the text by many scholars—twisting the original meaning in order to find meanings not intended by its author. For centuries, biblical scholarship, born out of Reformation arguments, rejected traditional allegorical interpretations by insisting on the perspecuity of the Scriptures. That is, Reformers and biblical scholars alike insisted that the intended meaning of the biblical text was clear and obvious; regular people could have access to the clear meaning of Scriptures apart from mediation by the Church and its clergy. The focus of scholarship was uncovering the single objective meaning of the biblical text.

It would be great if a single text had only a single objective meaning. We could find out “the right answer” once, and never have to worry about it again! Unfortunately, neither people nor texts work this way in reality. Biblical scholarship has kept step with advances in literary and linguistic theory, and in the last several decades have backed off from the notion that there is a single correct objective meaning. Newer fields and methods like reader-response and reception history have recognized that texts can have a life of their own apart from authorial intent and that communities can find legitimate meanings within texts that their authors would never have considered. In fact, it is some of these newer methods that have led scholars to take a second look at patristic and medieval reading practices that earlier generations of scholars had rejected out of hand.[5]

[[Edited to include this from the comments: Furthermore, there is an irony inherent in the academic project’s insistence on the perspecuity of the Scriptures. The academic study of the Scriptures sought to do away with the notion that a particular and specially educated class of readers—the Roman Catholic priesthood steeped in the principles of patristic, scholastic, and allegorical interpretation—were the only ones able to correctly interpret the biblical texts. Scholarship did this through its appeal to the plain sense of the text and the importance of the literal meaning grounded in authorial intent. However, the literal meaning grounded in authorial intent is not as clear or plain as it might appear to be. To do this correctly requires a specialized knowledge of the Ancient Near Eastern or competing forms of Second Temple Judaisms’ historical and intellectual contexts that prompted the writing (and editing) of the books in the first place; knowledge only found and mediated by the academic guild. Hence the irony: one body of specialized readers has been replaced by another! ]]

It’s not hard to see from this quick look why some churches and church leaders take issue with the scientific study of the Scriptures: scholarly findings can and do overturn some dearly-held traditional assumptions about both the Scriptures and the faith. An obvious case is that of authorship. Linguistic and historical clues suggest that some books of the Bible are not written by the people to whom they are attributed including parts of Isaiah (as mentioned in the note), Ecclesiastes, the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), and Daniel to name just a few. Most pertinent for our purposes, the Davidic authorship of the Psalms is denied by most scholars; we’ll dig into this a little later. If the attributions are incorrect, that casts doubt upon principles of inerrancy. Furthermore, if a work like Daniel, ostensibly written in the 6th century BCE and prophesying historical events in the future, was actually written in the 2nd century BCE and the events prophesied are in its author’s past, not future, what does that say about the reliability of the Scriptures?[6]

[[Furthermore, modern scholarship has overturned a traditional caste of privileged readers—the priesthood and its study of historical patterns of interpretation—and replaced them with a brand-new caste of privileged readers: academic scholars. And this new privileged caste exists entirely outside of the control of religious bodies. For some people and debates, this is a good thing! For others, it increases the wariness with which these techniques are viewed.]]

Thus, on one hand, when confronted by the differences between traditional beliefs and modern findings, some church communities respond by rejecting modern analytical techniques altogether or by allowing only a few carefully circumscribed methods to be used. On the other hand, some academics take an untoward delight at attacking religious beliefs and practices as a result of their research and freedom from ecclesiastical controls.

Because of these challenges to traditional belief, for many years the Roman Catholic Church was among the number of churches rejecting the academic study of Scripture, rightly noting that academic biblical scholarship had started in Protestant universities with an eye to undercutting the historic teaching of the Roman Catholic magisterium about the Scriptures. However, since Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante spiritu (1943) and Vatican II’s reiteration of its principles in the constitution Dei Verbum (1965), Roman Catholics have joined with Mainline Protestants in recognizing the importance of the scientific study of the Scriptures to the life of faith. The trick now is figuring out how this works, connecting the spirituality of the Church Fathers with the insights of modern scholarship when the two have diverging understandings of important principles.

[1] For instance, just in the first few chapters of Genesis, Origen notes that light was created several days before the sun and moon raising questions about how light exists without light sources and how days could be measured without the movement of sun and moon. Too, he wonders that an all-knowing God with no form or image could wander through a garden, crushing grass with his (formless?) feet and not know where his creatures were hiding.

[2] For example, I do both. My earlier work on Cassiodorus and the psalms, Honey of Souls, is perfectly acceptable to the guild: I do not make any faith-claims of my own or require that my readers hold any. It is neutral with regard to one’s personal belief. This book is different—I am writing it for people with a spiritual interest in seeing the psalms as Christian prayer and, thus, I write it as a Christian who prays the psalms.

[3] A classic example is the book of Isaiah. The first 39 chapters are largely the work of Isaiah, son of Amoz, writing in the 8th century BCE. However, from chapter 40 on, the tone, style, and language shift, and the content addresses the sitution of the Jewish Exiles in Babylon after the Edict of Cyrus in 515 BCE allowed them to return to their homeland. Most scholars see this Second Isaiah as being written in the time it addresses, the late 6th century. While not written by Isaiah, son of Amoz, it shares many of the same theological beliefs that he advocated and the two bodies of material belong together theologically and thematically. And, some scholars debate whether there’s a Third Isaiah (Isa 60-66) stuck in there too!

[4] Those additional books are referred to either as the Apocrypha or the Deutero-canonicals. Jerome was not a fan of them, believing the Hebrew texts to be the best, but the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches still read them as being part of the Bible.

[5] For the sake of full disclosure, my dissertation and first book, Reading Matthew with Monks, is based on these methods and looks at what modern scholarship can learn from early medieval monastic readers

[6] Actually in this case, it means nothing at all about the accuracy of prophecy or Scripture. Daniel is not a prophetic book trying to foretell the future, but is an apocalyptic book giving hope to the persecuted Jewish people of the 2nd century BCE by reminding them that God is in control of history, no matter how dire things look now. That’s why the Jewish Bible includes Daniel among the Writings, not the Prophets.

PC: Benedict and Cassiodorus

If you’ve been following along with the Psalming Christ snippets, then you’ll have figured out that we’re heading here. Essentially, I’ve established that Benedictine spirituality is “a thing,” but that as important, useful, and helpful as Benedict’s rule is, it’s not enough—and was never intended to be. Rather, it is part of a living and lived tradition and we need some supplementation to figure out what Benedict was intending with his regulation. Here is where I make the connection between Benedict and Cassiodorus and why understanding Cassiodorus—or at least his concepts—is important for getting at the heart of a robust Benedictine spirituality…


The only source of information that we have about the life of St. Benedict is that found in Book 2 of the Dialogues by St. Gregory the Great (d. 604). A monastic admirer of Benedict, Gregory features Benedict as an example of spiritual wisdom and grace amongst a host of vignettes of other holy men who earn less space within the treatise. While the whole of the Dialogues makes for great reading, I want to direct our attention to how Gregory starts his discussion of Benedict. Classical canons suggest that a writer describing the life of a famous individual must start with his parentage and education. As a trained rhetorician, Gregory follows this pattern, and writes this of Benedict:

“He was born into a free-man’ family in the district of Nursia and was sent to Rome to study the liberal arts. But he saw that many of the students there had fallen into vice. So, hardly had he entered the world than he recoiled from it, fearing that the worldly knowledge he had just begun to acquire would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool. He renounced study, put aside his father’s residence and fortune and, desiring to please God alone, he went in search of the monastic habit in order to live a holy life. Thus he quitted his studies, learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.”

The key things here are that Benedict turned his back on the learning that could be got at Rome and did so for a very particular reason—that he had seen it cause many students to “[fall] into vice.” As a result, he forsook Rome and its schools, going into the wilderness “learnedly ignorant” and “wisely unskilled,” a neat set of parallel phrases that Gregory as an author no doubt took delight in. I imagine Gregory also had in mind an important turn of phrase at the end of the Rule’s prologue where Benedict lays out his purpose: “Therefore we intend to establish a school (schola) for the Lord’s service” (RB Prol.45). The unlearned holy man becomes the schoolmaster of souls.

Gregory’s introductory passage accomplishes two things. First, it recalls the Life of St. Antony. In that work, penned by the learned Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 373), he too takes pains to point out that the Antony (d. 356)—regarded as the true founder of monasticism—was unlearned. Thus, Gregory portrays Benedict in the same way: untutored but in spite of that—or indeed even because of it—much wiser in the ways of God than the ways of humanity.

Second, Gregory acknowledges the existence of an important cultural gap. There was no such thing as secular learning in the Italian 6th century. All learning was pagan learning. That is, the ways that students were taught to read, write, and speak were based in the great epics of pagan Greece and Rome and attendant literature: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorpheses. There was no comparable Christian educational literature. Even the great Christian rhetoricians like Augustine and Jerome made embarrassed apologies for the Christian Scriptures—that its grammar and styling seemed rude and barbarous in comparison to its pagan counterparts, that its rhetorical faults highlighted the unlearned wisdom of its authors (pointing back to the description of Peter and John in Acts 4:13). As Christianity spread and made inroads among the learned classes, this problem came to a head. Some authors, like the North African Tertullian (d. 240), the father of Latin-language theology, famously thundered “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Other authors like Origen (d. 253) and St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), borrowed a passage of Exodus to speak of the “despoiling of the Egyptians,” arguing that if the Children of Israel could take wealth from their pagan neighbors for their own benefit, so too Christians could borrow Greco-Roman learning, strip it of its pagan character, and repurpose it for the instruction of Christian readers and thinkers.

Indeed, this educational gap was weaponized by Julian the Apostate (d. 363), the first and last Roman emperor after Constantine (d. 337) to try and restore paganism in the empire and displace Christianity. He issued an edict that all teachers had to believe what they taught. That is, those who taught higher education from the pagan epics had to be believers in them and in the gods they proclaimed, effectively barring Christians from educational roles and forcing the upper classes back into the thought-world of pagan antiquity. As Julian only remained in power for less than a year, this edict failed to have the long term effect he was looking for as it was swiftly repealed upon his death.

So—where was learning to be found for monks in the days of Benedict and beyond? As we have seen, Benedict himself was no help because none of the books he recommends assists their readers in the arts of reading itself. How should Christians read the Scriptures? What are the necessary tools for unpacking Scripture? What are the essential techniques for wringing spiritual meaning for monastics out of texts that appear to be speaking about history that happened centuries ago in an alien place and culture?

Jerome’s translations of Origen’s biblical commentaries provided a starting place but were not enough. Later monks would address this lack and the two best known would be Gregory the Great (d. 604) and the Venerable Bede (d. 725). Gregory’s Forty Gospel Homilies would become a staple of monastic libraries for centuries to come and would find their ways into sermon collections and breviaries to enrich the Church throughout the Middle Ages. Likewise, his Homilies on Ezekiel and his monumental Morals in Job would become standard works for interpreting the Old Testament. Bede would follow in his footsteps, pulling together commentaries on the New Testament Epistles, the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the Book of Revelation and parts of the Old Testament. However, sermons and commentaries alone did not suffice to teach the arts of reading. The solution to this problem penned by one of Benedict’s own 6th century Italian contemporaries, Cassiodorus.

In the first half of his life, Cassiodorus (d. 585) served the Gothic kings who ruled Italy throughout the first half of the 6th century, notably Theoderic the Great (d. 526). His family had held high positions for the previous two generations and Cassiodorus was no exception, rising to the highest civil position in the imperial bureaucracy of the West until the Eastern Emperor Justinian and his savage wars of reconquest brought an end to Gothic rule. During a time of exile in Constantinople and for the rest of his long life, Cassiodorus became a monk and—fired by the example of a school of Christian studies in the East—turned his considerable literary and intellectual talents to the creation of a Christian curriculum for educating his fellow monks.

He is best known in scholarly circles for a work called The Institutes of Divine and Human Learning which has long been considered his great contribution to keeping scholarly wisdom alive in the West. This work is divided into two books. The first is a survey of theological practice and literature—talking about the importance of Scripture, how it can be divided up, and identifying important commentaries and orthodox thinkers on each section. The second book is a crash course in the seven liberal arts: the trivium which are the initial three arts of reading (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quadrivium which are the four applied arts of mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). This work has long been considered his greatest contribution to intellectual history in the West as it passed down these seven arts to later ages, most notably through the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) who took this idea and expanded it into the first known Christian encyclopedia.

The Institutes are a great work, but—from the standpoint of the arts of reading, theology, and the spirituality of the West—lag in second place behind his most circulated and impactful work: The Explanation of the Psalms.

Benedict and the rest of the monastic movement saw the psalter as the heart of monastic spirituality. Every monastic rule devoted space to prescribing how the psalms should become a central text in monastic lives, though their singing and as models for all other forms of Christian prayer. Cassiodorus taught how to read them. He split the Gordian knot of the uncomfortable relationship between classical learning and Christian spirituality with a bold assertion: that the seeds of all seven liberal arts lay within the Psalms if one just knew how to look for them and find them. His Explanation of the Psalms in three volumes provided monastic learners with a complete road map to understanding the psalms, the arts of reading necessary to profitably interpret them, and the spiritual tools to turn the act of reading into a practice of prayer.

Because Cassiodorus’s legacy has been seen for centuries in the Institutes, Cassiodorus has long been considered a competitor of Benedict, an author advancing a more secular understanding of wisdom over and against monastic spirituality. Certainly this is the way the great monastic historian Jean Leclercq (d. 1993) saw the two—as rivals, each promoting a different aim for the unfolding of monastic life. When Cassiodorus’s key work is correctly identified as the Explanation of the Psalms rather than the Institutes, the true relationship between the two men becomes evident.

Rather than competitors, Benedict and Cassiodorus are the perfect complements to one another. Benedict provides the rules and structures that create the framework of a monastic life, a life focused on immersion in Scripture—the Psalms holding pride of place. Cassiodorus provides a invaluable guide that explains how the Psalms are read and understood from a Christian perspective with the help of the classical arts. Furthermore, he models what spiritual reading and praying look and sound like. Benedict brings the structure; Cassiodorus brings the method. Together they provide a foundation for a Scripture-shaped life in the monastic tradition.

History reveals that this is the way the relationship worked. When we compare the numbers of copies of the various manuscripts that have survived to the present day, when we hunt through the booklists of ancient monastic libraries, we find the confirmation that we are after. Judging by manuscripts, the Institutes made hardly a ripple in the early medieval world. Only XX copies of the Institutes survive. This is doubtless due in large measure to Isidore taking up the theme and running with it. He incorporated whole sections cribbed directly from the Institutes in his Etymologies and thereby made the Institutes redundant in the face of his much larger work.

The Explanation of the Psalms, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Its nearest competitor, St. Augustine of Hippo’s Narrations on the Psalms survive in sixty-six medieval copies; almost twice that many editions of all or part of Cassiodorus’s Explanations survive! In addition to these 106 copies of the Explanations, material from the Explanations became a standard feature of the Carolingian glossed psalters. These books, used for both study and prayer, contained the psalms written in large letters in the middle of the page with explanations drawn from Cassiodorus, Jerome, Augustine, and other teachers written in small letters between the lines and around the margins of the page.  These glossed psalters were one of the teaching tools by which young monastics who were in the process of memorizing their psalms would learn to read and, as they grew more advanced, how to analyze and interpret the Scriptures.

Looking back at the editions of Cassiodorus’s Explanations that scholars can firmly date, almost half were written in either the 9th century or the 12th century. These spikes represent the 9th century Carolingian reform and the 12th century Monastic Reformation. The generations that renewed monastic vitality identified and copied Cassiodorus’s Explanations as a companion to a renewed focus on Benedict’s Rule and the principles at the heart of Western monasticism. When those reforming monks looked back, they identified Cassiodorus as a central resource for monastic learning.

So—what about us? As we stand at our own point in history, as many of us are drawn to the world of monastic spirituality, its rhythms and habits and patterns, is there something that Cassiodorus can teach us? However, we must approach him with a certain caution in mind. We live in a different time. Literacy and the arts of reading are deeply embedded within our societies. Our outlook on prayer is different from earlier periods. Modern biblical studies, drawing upon technological, archaeological, and theoretical advances, is vastly different in our day than those of Benedict and Cassiodorus. Many things they thought were true we now know to be false; many beliefs they treasured, we question. Nevertheless, the medieval world understood Cassiodorus and his teachings on the psalms to be an essential compliment to Benedict’s world. Does Cassiodorus still have something to teach us about reading and praying the psalms with renewed eyes and hearts?

PC: The Tradition and its Supplements

If Benedict’s Rule was not enough in itself—if it was not designed to be a self-sufficient document—then what else was needed? What supplied what it lacked? The answer is two-fold. First, it was supplemented by lived experience. Senior monastics passed on their wisdom to juniors. This was not by accident or happenstance; it was designed into the way monastic living was structured and was an intentional process cultivated by monastic rules. However, there were also other written sources that served as important supplements to the rules of life like Benedict’s. Identifying these gives us a better sense of what the monastic tradition looked and lived like.

Lived experience is fantastic and is clearly the best way for knowledge to percolate through a system: not only do you hear the wise words of the elders (just as you might read them in a text), but you get to see them in action. As a junior monastic, you’d receive teachings, but then observe how your elder lived these out, how they related to one another, what parts they took more seriously, embodied more fully, what habits and patterns shaped their being and—conversely—what teachings they held more lightly, de-emphasized in practice, or honored more in the breech than the practice.

The problem with lived experience is continuity. Yes, Benedict’s rule has been ordering the shape of western monastic experience for 1500 years—but rarely has this ordering been continuous. Very few—if any—western monasteries have existed from the time of Benedict down to our own day in unbroken continuity. When the continuity is broken, whatever lived experience hasn’t been captured in written form in one way or another is lost. An important part of the history of western monasticism is the history of monastic reform and refoundation. Monasticism of a Benedictine flavor has died out many times in many places and has had to be re-established either from earnest people working off written sources or by transplanting practices and customs from other places where it had endured.

This aspect of monastic history should be very important to us. Many modern seekers who are drawn to monastic wisdom and spirituality find ourselves in a similar position: there is something about Benedict’s rule that draws at our hearts and spirits. We are attracted to what we read and find—but where do we go from there? Just as in days gone-by we have two options: find a monastic community from which to learn or seek out the sources that give us a fuller sense of monastic wisdom and practice. By far the best option is not to do one or the other, but to embrace them both—to connect with a monastic community and to uncover the texts that will lead us into the fundamentals of monastic practice.

Benedict’s rule is an exemplar of one aspect of a living tradition. The Rule was not supposed to capture everything that could possibly be said about how monastics, lived, worked, and prayed. Instead, it lays down fundamental rules for how community life is to be ordered and structured and to communicate how those patterns have been chosen. It emphasizes the vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life, and puts in place practical systems to enable those virtues to flourish. Benedict himself does not pretend that his rule is the be-all and end-all of monastic wisdom. He ends his rule with these directions:

“The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings of monastic life. But for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator?” (RB 73.1-4)

And now Benedict gets down to brass tacks…

“Then, besides the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives, there is also the rule of our holy father Basil. For observant and obedient monks, all these are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues” (RB 73.5-6).

He is referring here to three distinct books and a collection of materials. The Conferences and Institutes are books written by John Cassian (d. 435), one of the great transmitters of monastic wisdom from the Egyptian deserts to the Latin-speaking West. The Institutes is the smaller of the two works. The first four chapters are a kind of a brief rule, explaining what Egyptian monks wore, how they ordered their services, and how they ordered their common life; the last eight chapters are a spiritual treatise on the eight principal vices and the virtues by which they are overcome. These chapters are both theological and practical—by means of stories and advice, Cassian explains the sins, their symptoms, and the habits by which their opposing virtues are cultivated to defeat them.

The Conferences is a treasure-house of monastic wisdom. It contains a set of twenty-four wide-ranging interviews with monastic elders conducted by John Cassian and his companion Germanus in the Egyptian deserts a few decades before. In giving them written form, Cassian has filtered them through the practice, experience, and wisdom of the intervening years between when he heard them in the 390’s and when he wrote them for publication between 426 and 429.

The rule written by Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) does offer directions about the practicalities of monastic life, but places it within a broader structure of theory. His work begins with a discussion of love of God and of neighbor and proceeds into the fundamentals of the ascetical life from there. Composed in question and answer fashion, it address matters of monastic life and practice. Basil’s Small Asceticon, the version translated into Latin by Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 411) and circulated in the West, does not discuss broader questions of how or why monks sing the Psalms and do sacred reading. While it offers advice on how many Scripture passages are put into practice within the ascetic life, it does not deal with interpretation in more specific detail.

Benedict’s reference to “Lives” is not very specific but refers to a general set of documents that circulated under this title. Virtually all of these collections begin with Athanasius’s Life of St Antony, Jerome’s Life of Paul, Life of Epiphanius, Life of Malchus, and then contain sayings, lives, or histories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt and Syria.

On one hand, these documents get us a big step closer to monastic spiritual practice: they show us vignettes of how ideal monks lived, worked, and prayed. We can gain a sense of how Athanasius understood Antony to be using the psalms through his Life; single verses will be repeated over and over again as a focal point for meditation like a mantra as Athanasius describes the hardships Antony endures. On the other hand, these too, don’t give us the level of insight we’d like into how the Psalms and Scriptures were prayed.

PC: Starting with Benedict

Here’s the first chunk of Psalming Christ. If I’m trying to make the argument that modern readers should consider the use of a sixth century commentary to enhance their spiritual lives, I’ve got to make the case up front. I’m connecting it into my own way of getting into the topic: an appeal to a Benedictine-infused spirit…


When I was in my late twenties, my wife, a friend, and I squeezed into my pickup truck and headed out on a weekend road trip. Where to—a concert or a festival? Actually, no. Although we did (and still do) like to go to those things, our destination was rather different. This was a four-plus hour road trip from Columbus, Ohio to the Abbey of Gethsemani: the Cistercian monastery outside of Louisville, Kentucky where—among others—Thomas Merton had lived and written. We stayed in the guest quarters, attended the round of daily prayer offices, read in the library, and hiked in the fields around the abbey. We attended mass each day, but observed rather than receiving because we none of us were Roman Catholics. At that time we were two Lutherans and an Episcopalian (all three of us are Episcopal now) and yet there we were. We were drawn to a place and a feeling and an experience that our theological traditions had, during the Reformation, denounced as an aberration of Christian life and practice. Nor were we alone, either: among the several visitors were others from a number of Christian bodies and even some agnostics seeking for something deeper.

What would cause otherwise normal Protestant young adults to seek out a place that our Protestant traditions had reviled?

For me it was part of a spiritual journey that I had been on for several years. As a young Lutheran college student I had encountered Kathleen Norris’s Dakota and Cloister Walk. A Presbyterian coming back to faith, her meditations on the spirituality she had discovered in the high plains of the Dakotas struck a deep chord within me. Her encounters with Benedictine monks, their spirituality, and the endless round of psalms and canticles with which they construct their life inspired me with a vision of the faith unlike anything I had known before. A college-intensive led by a fierce and formidable Benedictine nun from the Twin Cities didn’t satisfy my hunger, only whetting my appetite to learn more. And, as a final-year seminarian feeling restless and ill-at-ease in my Lutheran tradition, my future was decided when, in the undercroft of a small Episcopal church, I heard the rector explain that the psalm-centered rhythms of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer were the heritage of the Benedictine spiritual system granted to the whole church—not just a special subset within it. To steal John Wesley’s famous phrase, my heart was strangely warmed and I knew not only that I had found my spiritual home but also why: these rhythms answered that deep call I had heard for years.

That’s just my experience. Over the years I have heard many similar stories. I have discovered a wealth of literature for Christians who aren’t vowed to religious life, lay and clergy alike, who are drawn to the ancient rhythms of Benedictine spirituality. Certainly many are Roman Catholics, but some are mainline Protestants and non-denominational Christians, and some are even seekers who would rather not restrict themselves by any religious labels. All of us have found meaning and depth in monastic patterns even though we make our homes outside of monasteries and abbeys.

St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 543?) never intended to start a movement. He just wanted to live a Christian life. Trying to find his way through the tumultuous Italian 6th century—subject to three different invasions, a disastrous plague, and at least one major regional famine—he fled city life to become a hermit in the wilderness. Drawing a following, he reluctantly became the leader of a group of monks and founded monasteries at Subiaco and later Mount Cassino. His wisdom comes down to us in the Rule of Benedict, a brief—but important!—document that lays out the spiritual and practical principles to guide his monks into living the Christian life. His intention, of course, was to provide instructions for full-time renunciants: people who had turned their backs on secular society and who intend to live out an arduous life of prayer and service without hindrance of family or children. For hundreds of years, this was the way it worked.

His Rule spread beyond Italy, was used in combination with other monastic rules to ground the practices of hundreds of monasteries, until it was adopted as the official monastic rule of the 9th century Carolingian Empire in modern-day France and Germany. His rule became the de facto Rule across Europe for centuries, and many of the towering figures in the 12th century Monastic Reformation shook up the system and founded new orders—like the Cistercians—to get back to the core principles that Benedict had elaborated. After the upheavals of revolutions and wars that accompanied the start of modernity in Europe, Benedict’s Rule was again identified as a vital source for Christian living and a wave of monasteries were begun or refounded in Europe. These spread to America as Roman Catholic immigrants brought their faith to the New World. By the late 19th century even Anglican Christians were founding monastic institutions that either used adaptations of Benedict’s Rule or had rules of their own that partook of Benedict’s spirit.

But—Benedict’s spirit did not simply find a home within monasteries, with cloistered professed religious who had no contact with the world outside their walls. Monasteries were places of pilgrimage and spiritual vitality within medieval communities. For many centuries, monastic priests were the local clergy, and taught the laity the spirituality they knew. Until the rise of the mendicant orders (the Franciscans, Dominicans, and their kin) the spirituality taught to nobles and commons alike was Benedictine in spirit and focused on the psalms. In Handbook for William, a book of advice dictated by the 8th century Frankish noblewoman Dhuoda to her son, she spends time focusing on his spiritual responsibilities and includes part of a treatise attributed to Alcuin on the importance of praying the psalms. Nobles would commission beautifully written and lavishly illustrated psalters for their daily prayers in imitation of monastic patterns; as centuries wore on, these would morph into the Books of Hours where Offices of the Blessed Virgin, Passion, and the Holy Spirit (among others) taken from monastic models would nourish the spirituality of the literate.

Even the illiterate knew of the the monastic patterns even if they could not participate within them. Early in its development, the fifty beads of the rosary were prayed through three times with an “Our Father” on each; praying 150 prayers allowed the illiterate to imitate the monastic recitation of the 150 psalms even if they did not have access to the words of the psalms.

Even while the Protestant Reformers railed against the theology of monasticism, they did not reject its spirituality entirely. In the early days of the Reformation, the Church of England made the conscious decision to retain daily Morning and Evening Prayer, and Thomas Cranmer’s introduction to the first Book of Common Prayer explicitly appeals to early medieval monastic models several times.

While monastic vocations fell off sharply after the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council (1962-5), a spirituality recalling the principles of monastic life is alive and well. In recent years Christians of all stripes have discovered monastic patterned prayer in some version or other of the Daily Office. Sacred reading, Benedict’s lectio divina, is practiced and taught in and beyond Roman Catholic circles.

So—what does all of that have to do with a book on the psalms? You should be getting a few hints by this point… The psalms are the center of classic monastic spirituality. The spiritual habits borrowed from monastic models like praying the Offices and doing lectio divina are aided tremendously by a solid knowledge of the psalms—and also understanding how monastics were taught to encounter the psalms.

You may have an attraction to the monastic way of life, whether formal or informal. Formally, many monastic houses have oblate programs. Oblates are laity who live and work, and have families in the world but who are bound through love and prayer to a monastic house and return there often for spiritual renewal. Even if this is not your cup of tea—or too complicated or burdensome in an already over-scheduled life—an informal appreciation of monastic models can be nurtured by occasional visits to monasteries, reading books (like this one), and actually practicing the practices found therein.

On the other hand, you may be like my mother-in-law. Growing up in Catholic schools in 1950s and ‘60s New Jersey, she has a reflexive dislike of nuns. As far as she’s concerned they are the mean people with rulers who whacked you if you ever strayed out of line. If you can relate or simply don’t have any attraction to monasticism at all, don’t worry—I’m not going to try to make you like them. We’ll keep talking about monks because we need to explore these practices in their original context, but I’ll not force you to try and become one. What I do want to do is to introduce you to a way of experiencing the psalms borne out of a millennium of monastic experience. Hundreds of thousands of our ancestors in the faith have used these patterns to enrich their lives of prayer—and I believe they still have important lessons to teach us today.

The Still-Being-Written Book

As Michelle mentioned below, there is an Amazon seller who is helpfully offering a used version of my book Psalming Christ: Learning to Pray the Psalms with Cassiodorus. Personally, I’m a little skeptical about this offer. The chief reason is because I have yet to finish writing it… Kinda hard to sell a used copy of something that doesn’t exist yet!

This is the “so what” book that follows up the historical study of Cassiodorus. The key thing I’m fussing with is this: how do educated laypeople, familiar with the tenets of modern biblical criticism, go to somebody like Cassiodorus (or even Augustine) and use patristic work on the psalms profitably to aid the modern spiritual life?

Work is progressing on it, and I think I’m about at the point to begin releasing sections of it on the blog to test out. It’s good for me to see how people who don;t live inside my head or household react to what I’m trying to get across.

One thing I’ve already determined is that the title may need a tweak; the second part perhaps should read “Learning to Pray the Psalms with Cassiodorus and Benedict” or maybe even “Praying the Psalms with Cassiodorus and Benedict.” That’s because the more I work with Cassiodorus and his reception history, the more convinced I am that his psalm commentary fits hand-in-glove with Benedict’s rule. I’m not suggesting that they knew each other or anything, but that the two works complement each other perfectly and that the circulation of Cassiodorus’s Explanation of the Psalms appears to demonstrate this.  What I will say is that, despite his genius in so many other areas, Leclercq made an error in painting Benedict and Cassiodorus as oppositional figures. In Love of Learning and Desire for God (which you really should read if you haven’t), Leclercq positions the two as he does reading Benedict’s Rule as being opposed to the spirit of Cassiodorus’s Institutions. He, like so many others, read the wrong book by Cassiodorus and incorrectly identified the Institutions as being more important than the Psalm commentary.  The manuscript distributions in early medieval Europe clarify to true state of things…

In any case, look for modern prayerful engagement with patristic psalm exegesis to be showing up here over the next few months mixed in with other stuff that’s floating around in my head.

The Forthcoming Book

Another thing that has been occupying my time is the Cassiodorus book projects. I’ve shared a certain amount of that here but not tons. A couple of dedicated readers of the blog helped me plow through the manuscript and tighten it up a bit, but then we entered the waiting phase when the publisher does their magic with what I sent in. Well—that time is almost up!

I received an email from the publicist yesterday that the new book is back from the printer and will be distributed shortly; Amazon is saying that it will be released on December 15th.

So—the forthcoming book is entitled Honey of Souls: Cassiodorus and the Interpretation of the Psalms in the Early Medieval West. Here’s what the blurb says:

The Honey of Souls is the first full-length study of the Explanation of the Psalms by Cassiodorus. While the Explanation became a seminal document for the monastic movement in the West and was eagerly read and widely quoted for centuries, it has languished in relative obscurity in the modern period. Derek Olsen explores Cassiodorus and his strategies for reading as a window into a spirituality of the psalms that defined early Western biblical interpretation.

While Cassiodorus and his writings were my main target, I found out fairly soon on that I couldn’t talk about him properly without backing up quite a bit and talking about the psalms, their place in Late Antiquity, and how literacy, technology, and the spread of the faith interacted with one another. As a result, this is a much more wide-ranging book than the title alone might indicate. I talk about why the psalms came to be so important, how they factored into the monastic movement and monastic education, and then wander through how a variety of interpreters from Origen to Hilary to Athanasius to Augustine talked about them.

Another thing that I focused on was materiality and physicality. We tend to think of Scripture and hermeneutics in abstract intellectual terms. I emphasize here the material nature of not just books and their tangibility but the process of scholarship as well. In fact, I make the case that one of the classically disputed points about Cassiodorus’s commentary—how it relates to Augustine’s sermon series on the psalms—is best solved by considering the conditions under which Cassiodorus encountered Augustine’s work and borrowed from it. In short, I suggest that he never owned the whole thing and, as a result, worked off notes taken down in dictation as a library copy was being read…

Unlike Reading Matthew with Monks which is an adaptation of my dissertation, this book was designed from the ground up to be a book for interested lay people or introductory college/seminary level. Although the content digs into some academic material, I don’t think of it as an academic book. In tone and readability, it’s designed for regular people. So—if you have an interest in the Psalms and how Christians have prayed them through the centuries, I urge you to take a look!

 

All that having been said, you would not be wrong if you noticed that I said “projects” up above. This book is part 1. This is the historical look at Cassiodorus suitable either for readers of faith or for readers of no faith at all. It’s a non-confessional historical study. Part 2 takes the next step and asks what modern practicing Christians can learn from Cassiodorus about praying the Psalms. That’s the one I’m working on now…