Category Archives: Patristics

For Fear of Fundamentalists

There is a piece from Newsweek on the accuracy of Scripture that is making the rounds. I’ll not link to it here because it needs a bit of prefacing.

It’s quite inaccurate. As I commented on a Facebook link to it, “I find this a very biased article full of mischaracterizations and rhetorically augmented half-truths. And as a biblical scholar who’s focused on interpretation in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period, I do know what I’m talking about.”

But here’s the problem—there are a lot of people in our churches who don’t have the benefit of the background, education, and research that I do. Furthermore, the article positions itself within an increasingly common and dangerous rhetorical dichotomy. That is, it starts off by portraying a stereotype of malicious and fraudulent Conservative Evangelicals (who are also political opponents) as people who take Scripture literally. What follows, then, is a take-down of Scripture performed as a strategy to undercut these political enemies.  The problem is that Christians who see themselves as neither Conservatives nor Evangelicals find themselves in the position of agreeing with the article because they know they are not the sort of Christians who do what those other people do.

It’s a totally false dichotomy: don’t fall for it.

I’m not a Conservative Evangelical, myself. My primary issue with them is not the base text they use (the Scriptures) but rather bad interpretive choices that are internally inconsistent and unmoored from the historical bases of the Scriptural text and the community norms by which the Church has read and wrestled with the text through the centuries. That’s what deserves a take-down, not the Scriptures.

In the author’s opposition to Conservative Evangelicals, however, a series of half-truths and falsehoods are liberally sprinkled about in such away that non-Conservative Evangelicals who have not been taught Church History can easily be swayed by them.

I do not have to time to conduct a point-by-point refutation—which I realize is kind of a shame because it desperately needs one. What I can do, though, is offer is a few basic guiding points that must be remembered when people spout off about Church History and the Scriptures:

  • The Church is an organic body that connects from the first followers of Jesus—the disciples and apostles—to the present day. Yes, there has been some drift across the centuries, but the organic continuity here of the Church catholic and orthodox is an important touchstone through time.
  • The Church existed before “the Bible” did. It was a community formed around the experience of God-in-our-midst: the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the empowering of the community by the Spirit. Yes, they relied on the Bible—the Hebrew Scriptures typically encountered through the Greek Septuagint—but understood certain parts of that message to be superseded or clarified by what they had and were experiencing.
  • The Church produced the New Testament. Not the other way around.
  • Our methods for dating the books of the New Testament suck. Hard. There is little internal or external evidence to go on meaning that many of the dates you commonly see are well-established supposition.
    • There is external evidence putting Paul’s writings in the neighborhood of 51 AD. The slight differences between the Little Apocalypses in the Synoptic Gospels are used for dating them based on the assumption that they are not recording the actual words of Jesus but, instead, are narrating how the Roman advance on the Temple in 70 AD is going. Hence, Mark (the demonstrably earliest of the canonical Synoptics) is usually pegged at 70 (before the actual fall) and Matthew/Luke are after 70 (after the destruction).
  • However, Paul’s letters argue very strongly against the philosophical construct that anything with a High Christology (i.e., John, Hebrews) must be late and written at some point in the second century.
  • Quotations from the Apostolic Fathers—some of whom we can date internally and externally—make it far more likely that all of the books of the New Testament were written within the first century.
  •  By the year 200, there was general consensus across the Mediterranean Christian world that the Church recognized the four canonical gospels (and only these), the letters of Paul, and most of the General Epistles. Some books like Hebrews, James, Revelation, and 2-3 John would continue to be argued over into the fourth century.
  • Irenaeus, writing in the 160-70 range, who tells us that he saw Polycarp (not clear if Irenaeus learned from Polycarp or not…) whose teacher was John (i.e., Irenaeus was just one step away from the apostles) clarifies that the faith of the Church is built on three things: the canon (reading the books in church that the Church agrees on), the creed (the basic rule of faith by which and in accordance with the canon is read), and the apostolic succession (the organic continuity of teachers who know what the hell they’re talking about because they heard it from people who went back to the apostles).
    • canon: “Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the dictated utterances of the apostles, and the ministration of the law— all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [His works] to the natures and tendencies of the materials dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father— are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. II.35.4. (He was arguing against folks who thought there were multiple gods; chiefly that the OT god was an evil demiurge…)
    • creed: “The Church, though dispersed through out the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, [Ephesians 1:10] and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess [Philippians 2:10-11] to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send spiritual wickednesses, [Ephesians 6:12] and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I.10.1.
    • apostolic succession: “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer III.3.3.
  • If you bothered to read that middle one it’ll be painfully clear that the notion that Constantine “created” the idea of Jesus as God is total BS as Irenaeus was writing this 150 or so years before the first Ecumenical Council.
  • Ditto on the notion that Constantine “created” the New Testament canon. Constantine did order 50 nice copies of the Scriptures to be made, but this neither created nor closed discussion on the content and order of the New Testament canon.
  • On the “errors” in the transmission of Scripture, yes, there are lots and lots of scribal errors. But most of them are errors like substituting “me” where it ought to be “I”—i.e., minor grammatical errors. Substantive content errors, not so much. We know this, because dozens of German scholars dedicated their scholarly lives to matching up thousands of fragments and manuscripts in order to see where the differences between them all were and it is from these that we get a critical eclectic text from which our modern Bibles are translated. So, yes, many scribes messed up, but since they all don’t mess up in the same way, we can compare the hundreds of ancient witnesses and figure out what the text ought to have been.
  • Similarly while some gleefully point out that the Trinitarian addition in 1 John is a  late addition to the text and extrapolate that to say that all such Trinitarian additions must be equally late totally gloss the fact that Matthew’s ending (Matthew 28:19: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”) is thoroughly Trinitarian and is lacking in no textual witnesses.

In short, a living organic body—the Church—produced the New Testament, established agreements on how it ought to be read, and passed that knowledge along through teachers. Once the relatively disconnected Christian communities could openly talk together and gather after Constantine’s legalization of the faith, they did get together and Constantine had a vested interest in unity. However, that does not mean that he created or thought up the unity. The idea of the Trinity is found in the Scriptures; and early Christians talked about Jesus as God a long time before Constantine. Yes, the Bible was hand-copied, but that does not mean that its text—especially as reconstructed by scholars working with massive amounts of evidence—is corrupt and unreliable for the teaching and purposes of the Church.

Please—learn your Christian history and biblical basics from somewhere other than Newsweek!!

(And if you absolutely must, here’s the offending article…)

 

Tour de Cassiodorus

There were articles up at Covenant the past couple of days that I’d like to respond to (This one by the Bishop of Dallas which implicitly defines “traditionalist” in an exceedingly narrow fashion, and this one by Zach that begins by quoting me) but I must refrain for now.

I had a conversation with my publisher yesterday: the Cassiodorus books are late and he’s not happy…

So—from now until their hopefully swift completion it’ll be all Cassiodorus, all the time. I’m letting a number of things go in order to make this happen which I don’t necessarily want to do but which I have to do. If you email me, please be aware it might be a while before I get back to you…

As M and I were discuss this last night, I said I felt like I was girding myself for a marathon. After a moment’s reflection, we both knew that wasn’t it. We both run them: a marathon is a pain but it’s over in less than four hours (quite a bit less for her!). She said, “No, this is a stage race–because you need to put in sustained effort over many days.” We ended up dubbing this push the Tour de Cassiodorus.

Hence, I’ll be going into hiding now. I am intending to post some stuff here to gauge reader reaction, but know in advance it will be patristic and psalm-y.

On John Cassian’s Method of Reading Scripture

I’m jumping around quite a bit in the Cassiodorus books as I write them… This is a section of what I believe is going to be Chapter 3. Basically, in Chapter 3, I’m going to be diving directly into Cassiodorus’s great Psalm commentary and discussing what he thought a commentary was for, our stereotypical view of allegorical interpretation  (based largely in the High Medieval period with extra fuel on the fire a la De Lubac), and then an investigation of how Cassiodorus actually read, focusing on methods from Classical Antiquity, Augustine, and John Cassian. Here’s the Cassian bit… So, yes, it starts in the middle of a larger argument that isn;t conclude here either, but I think is sufficiently robust to stand on its own as well.


John Cassian’s Conferences are a strange and wonderful collection of conversations. The story goes that John Cassian and his friend Germanus, after spending some time in a monastery in Bethlehem, took the theological equivalent of a Gap Year trek and set off to see the sites—in the Egyptian deserts. They hiked around the wastelands of Northern Egypt, meeting and interviewing the famous hermits of the desert and gaining wisdom from them about the spiritual life. Many years later—probably in the opening decades of the fifth century—after founding two monasteries around modern day Marseilles, Cassian wrote down the conversation as the Conferences and, in so doing, created the first great work on the nuts and bolts of Christian spirituality in the West.

Translating and transmitting a spirituality born of experience in the desert, rooted in the teachings of Origen, Cassian’s writings were invaluable to the emerging monastic movement in the West. Benedict praises him, and advises his monks to read Cassian (RB 73.5). As monastic reformations periodically swept through the Church in the course of the Middle Ages, John Cassian’s books in general and the Conferences in particular are cited again and again with approval.

John Cassian’s fourteenth conference portrays a conversation between Cassian, Germanus, and an old man known as Abba Nesteros which is focused on the topic of spiritual knowledge. As they delve into the topic, Abba Nesteros begins talking about the ways to interpret and understand the Scriptures. First, he separates spirituality in general into two parts. The words that he uses are the “practical” and the “theoretical,” but it’s better to say that one part is the active external part while the other is the internal meditative part. That is, the central task of the active/practical part is the control of the body and mind—built on a foundation of fasting and self-mortification—whereby one focuses on sinning less. Once that has task has been fully engaged and some progress has been made will the turn to the interior life bear fruit. This is where he gets to the Scriptures.

Abba Nesteros explains that the study of Scripture is divided into two main parts: “historical interpretation and spiritual understanding.” In making this division, he lays down the two major modes of interpreting that writers of the early medieval period will prefer. He splits the spiritual interpretations into three subcategories: tropology, allegory, and anagogy. After identifying these, he explains them a bit. The historical sense is not just about the past but includes what we would consider the literal meaning of the text. In particular, the Abba says that history pertains both to things that happened in the past and to visible things. Hence, an interpretation relating to natural science would be an historical reading in the sense of the phrase “natural history.” Allegory is the mystery that is prefigured by the historical/literal events. Said another way, allegory is the means “by which the things that the historical interpretation conceals are laid bare by a spiritual understanding and explanation.” Anagogy “mounts from spiritual mysteries to certain more sublime and sacred heavenly secrets.” This is restated a little better to clarify that it is the means “by which words are directed to the invisible and what lies in the future.” Tropology, at least, is more clear: “moral explanation pertaining to correction of life and to practical instruction.” More helpful than his definitions, though is his example where he demonstrates what these four look like in practice:

The four figures that have been mentioned converge in such a way that, if we want, one and the same Jerusalem can be understood in a fourfold manner. According to history it is the city of the Jews. According to allegory it is the church of Christ. According to anagogy it is that heavenly city of God ‘which is the mother of us all.’ According to tropology it is the soul of the human being, which under this name is frequently reproached or praised by the Lord.

While a theoretical distinction is made between these four senses, as far as early medieval writers are concerned, there are two broad sense: the historical and the spiritual. Only rarely will an early medieval author specify what kind of spiritual interpretation they are using and, in practice, the categories are very fluid. Indeed the fact that only three kinds of spiritual understanding are described seems to have more to do with scriptural prooftexts than actual practice. Abba Nesteros cites two different biblical texts, one which refers to three things, Proverbs 22:20 (”…have I not written for you [three] sayings of admonition and knowledge…”), and one that refers to four, 1 Corinthians 14:6 (”…if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching…”). In each case, you get the sense that the numbers recorded in Scripture are driving the enumeration of elements rather than the methods themselves. In practice, there are many more modes of spiritual interpretation than three, and not all of them are clearly defined or delineated. We will come back to this point a little later as we discuss how we actually see spiritual interpretation happening in Cassiodorus and other authors.

Modern readers—and especially biblical scholars looking for the history of the discipline—tend to focus in on this section of this conference. However, this is just one part of a larger argument, and it deserves to be put into the proper context. Again, this whole conference begins with the idea that first step of proper interpretatin is the purification of the body, mind, and spirit. The undisciplined who persists in their sin simply cannot read the Scriptures rightly—they don’t yet have the right frame of mind to read what is found there. As a result, after talking interpretive method, Abba Nesteros returns to hammer this point again:

Maintaining the diligence in reading that I think you have, then, make every effort to get a complete grasp of practical—that is, ethical—discipline as soon as possible. For without this the theoretical purity that we have spoken of cannot be acquired. The only people who attain to it, possessing it as a reward after the expenditure of much toil and labor, are those who have found perfection not in the words of other teachers but in the virtuousness of their own acts.

This is a key point and leads to an emphasis on doing rather than teaching. Scripture must be put into practice; any one who wishes to teach it must first demonstrate with their actions their deep grasp of its teachings. Knowing with the mind is not enough; no one should presume to teach Scripture until its truths have been—literally—embodied in their habits and actions. Abba Nesteros explains that this is essential for two reasons. First, because you cannot presume to teach what you do not know and knowledge only comes by putting it in action. Second, because putting the teaching of Scripture into action is itself a sign of the converting presence of the Holy Spirit—the true guide to right reading and interpretation: “For it is one thing to speak with ease and beauty and another to enter deeply into heavenly sayings and to contemplate profound and hidden mysteries with the most pure eye of the heart, because certainly neither human teaching nor worldly learning but only purity of mind will possess this, through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.”

Humility and the other virtues, then, are the central prerequisites to reading Scripture well. From that point, Abba Nesteros describes the proper practice of engaging Scripture. While he had talked about technical matters of interpretation in the earlier part of the dialogue, he now turns to what this looks like in day-to-day experience:

Then, once all worldly cares and preoccupations have been cast out, you must strive in every respect to give yourself assiduously and even constantly to sacred reading. Do this until continual meditation fills your mind and as it were forms it in its likeness, making it a kind of ark of the covenant . . . All of these are guarded by two cherubim—that is, by the fullness of historical and spiritual knowledge, for the cherubim are interpreted as the breadth of knowledge. . . . Hence the successive books of Holy Scripture must be diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed. This continual meditation will bestow on us double fruit. First, inasmuch as the mind’s attention in occupied with reading and with preparing to read, it cannot be taken captive in the entrapments of harmful thoughts. Then, the things that we have not been able to understand because our mind was busy at the time, things that we have gone through repeatedly and are laboring to memorize, we shall see more clearly afterward when we are free from every seductive deed and sight, and especially when we are silently meditating at night. Thus, while we are at rest and as it were immersed in the stupor of sleep, there will be revealed an understanding of hidden meanings that we did not grasp even slightly when we were awake. But as our mind is increasingly renewed by this study, the face of Scripture will also begin to be renewed, and the beauty of a more sacred understanding will somehow grow with the person who is making progress.

In this set of statements, Abba Nesteros speaking to us through John Cassian reveals the incredible profoundity that we encounter again and again in the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: they have a remarkable grasp of the habits of the mind, displayed here in the discussion of the processing power of the subconscious mind, that seems amazingly modern—yet is centuries old. In the spiritual laboratory of the desert, these hermits and anchorites observed and taught about the power of habit and the functions of the conscious and subconscious mind in ways that would not be replicated again until the rise of psychology in the twentieth century.

The pattern, then, is clear: memorize and rehearse. Soak the soul in Scripture, and Scripture itself would transform the soul to be more like Scripture. In so doing, the soul’s perception of Scripture will be transformed and freed to perceive more and deeper meanings within Scripture.

 

Conveying Psalm Commentary?

Ok, y’all—I need your help…

As I’ve been saying, I’m working on this book on the Psalm commentary of Cassiodorus. Right now I’m wrestling with how to present the way that he structures his commentary and give readers a sense of the experience of reading his commentary. He goes about things in a very novel way (especially for an early medieval exegete!) in that he has a four-part structure that he always uses: an introduction that discusses the superscription, then a breakdown of the psalm into its divisions (often grouped by speaker), then a phrase-by-phrase analysis (which is all that most typical patristic/early medieval exegetes do), then a summary that often underscores a moral or doctrinal point.

In particular, I want to make sure that readers get a flavor of the phrase-by-phrase process, but—honestly—I think people are only going to want a limited taste of this stuff. I’m intending to do a fairly close reading/exposition of five or six psalms to convey a complete sense of what he’s doing. Right now I’m trying to gauge how in-depth to go on each one.

So, I could do this a couple of ways. The one I’m leaning towards is to take a “representative” psalm and do a really thorough breakdown of it in excruciating detail to give my readers a sense of how he does what he does. Then, when I discuss other psalms just do a summary of the main points. However, another option would be to do something like that but also to include a chart on the 5-6 psalms that show what he’s doing with each phrase and then the narrative summary.

What do you think—do the extra psalm structure charts/outlines sound like overkill or a helpful way to grasp this rather alien reading strategy to modern lay readers?

Jerome and the Two Paulas

I’m picking up where I left off with Caesaria and Radegund, but going back in time, heading to the beginning of the 5th century…


Radegund and Caesaria were part of a larger movement sweeping through the church, a movement that would shape the contours of the Western Church for several centuries. The principles of this monastic movement were forged in the deserts of the East, in Egypt and Palestine. Their communication to the Latin-speaking West begins with the great translator Jerome. Jerome is one of those teachers known as the “Church Fathers”; from this term, “Fathers” (pater in Latin) we derive the label for both the kind of theology that they did and the period in which they wrote: patristic. The patristic period is usually defined as the first five or six centuries after Christ and these writers receive special emphasis in certain church circles because they lived within the same fundamental thought-world as the very first Christians. They existed within that Greco-Roman milieu that brought the church to birth and were native inhabitants of the languages and customs in which the church arose. For centuries, then, especially since the rise of historical consciousness in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Church Fathers have held a special status because they still lived on the far side of what Lessing referred to as the great ditch of history that separates our present age from the time of Jesus, his disciples, and the first generations of the Church.

One of the questions that has arisen in recent years, though, asks the very obvious question: where were the women? If we revere the writing and thinking of the Church Fathers—where were the Church Mothers? What were they writing or thinking or doing? Despite some of our conceptions about the place of women in the Late Antique world, there were women writing works of theology and spirituality; one of them—Proba—will appear later within the circle of Cassiodorus. What we learn from Jerome and his letters, though, is that large sections of the work of the Church Fathers would never have been accomplished if it were not for the encouragement, support, and considerable financial assistance of the Church Mothers.

In particular, Jerome lived and worked in close relationship with a set of interrelated families guided by wealthy Roman matriarchs. While we have letters that Jerome wrote to popes and theologians, most of his letters were written to these women and their relations. He served them as a spiritual advisor and as a translator. Most of the biblical commentaries for which Jerome is known were either written by him or translated from Greek sources at the behest of three women in particular, Paula, Eustochium, and Marcella. Paula was the great matriarch of the XXX clan. Widowed at age ? After bearing five children, she embraced the new ascetic spirituality coming from the East, fostering it among her children and grandchildren, before embracing it wholeheartedly to the point where she moved to Bethlehem to build and then rule the women in the double monastery where Jerome would also live and work.

One of our best windows into the lives of the Church Mothers are the letters of Jerome where he described how they served God. Among his many letters, some are explicitly formational. In these works he lays out a vision for how exemplary members of the various roles within the church ought to be educated and behave. Other letters are encomia, letters of praise written to grieving family members on the death of a loved one, recounting their fame, their virtues, and their qualities. These tend to be somewhat idealized portraits—Jerome is likely exaggerating to a degree—but still provide valuable insights into how the devout women of the period lived and served. The letters that appear back-to-back with modern editions of Jerome’s letters neatly encapsulate the advice he gave and what he witnessed in the lives of the great Mothers of the Church and the emphasis that he and they placed upon the psalms. The three themes we found in Caesaria’s letter to Radegund, the centrality of the psalms, the importance of literacy, and the connection between the psalms and the gospels are found within these letters as well. The first is Letter 107, written to Laeta, the daughter-in-law of the matriarch Paula who wishes to raise her daughter (also named Paula after her grandmother) as a virgin of the church. The second is Letter 108 is his encomium of Paula upon her death, written to her grieving daughter Eustochium.

Letter 107 is a broadly directive letter giving Laeta directions in a host of areas about the best way to raise her little daughter for her role as a virgin within the church. He gives instruction on what sort of friends and maids she is to have, and what kinds of toys she is to be given to play with. In particular, Jerome is very insistent upon the importance of literacy—literacy with a clear purpose:

Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound. Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the styl[us] upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these. Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in. . . . The very words which she tries bit by bit to put together and to pronounce ought not to be chance ones, but names specially fixed upon and heaped together for the purpose, those for example of the prophets or the apostles or the list of patriarchs from Adam downwards as it is given by Matthew and Luke. In this way while her tongue will be well-trained, her memory will be likewise developed.

Jerome advises that the young Paula be taught to read and write from the earliest age, and focused upon the Scriptures. The training of the memory is important and Jerome will become even more specific about how that facility ought to be put to use: “And let it be her task daily to bring to you the flowers which she has culled from scripture. Let her learn by heart so many verses in the Greek, but let her be instructed in the Latin also.” Because the Scriptures were found in Latin and Greek, Jerome thinks it best for her to have equal command of both languages.

While Jerome wants little Paula to memorize pieces of Scripture every day, this discovery ought to take place within a clear program for biblical knowledge. There is a specific order that Jerome believes best for encountering and understanding the many parts of Scripture:

Let her treasures be not silks or gems but manuscripts of the holy scriptures; and in these let her think less of gilding, and Babylonian parchment, and arabesque patterns, than of correctness and accurate punctuation. Let her begin by learning the psalter, and then let her gather rules of life out of the proverbs of Solomon. From the Preacher [Ecclesiastes] let her gain the habit of despising the world and its vanities. Let her follow the example set in Job of virtue and of patience. Then let her pass on to the gospels never to be laid aside when once they have been taken in hand. Let her also drink in with a willing heart the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. As soon as she has enriched the storehouse of her mind with these treasures, let her commit to memory the prophets, the heptateuch [the first seven books of the Bible], the books of Kings and of Chronicles, the rolls also of Ezra and Esther. When she has done all these she may safely read the Song of Songs but not before: for, were she to read it at the beginning, she would fail to perceive that, though it is written in fleshly words, it is a marriage song of a spiritual bridal. And not understanding this she would suffer hurt from it. Let her avoid all apocryphal writings, and if she is led to read such not by the truth of the doctrines which they contain but out of respect for the miracles contained in them; let her understand that they are not really written by those to whom they are ascribed, that many faulty elements have been introduced into them, and that it requires infinite discretion to look for gold in the midst of dirt. Cyprian’s writings let her have always in her hands. The letters of Athanasius and the treatises of Hilary she may go through without fear of stumbling. Let her take pleasure in the works and wits of all in whose books a due regard for the faith is not neglected. But if she reads the works of others let it be rather to judge them than to follow them.

This is nothing less than a full program of instruction, moving through the Scriptures and also through the most important writings of the orthodox Church Fathers. Many clergy have a worse education than that which Jerome prescribes for this little girl! Note, though, the sequence in which the Bible is studied. Jerome insists that she begin with the Psalms. After the Psalm come the wisdom literature of the Old Testament; immediately thereafter she is presented with the Gospels “never to be laid aside.” Let’s also note his intention in directing her to these books. As he mentions in connection with the prophets, he is not intend solely that she read them—he expects that large portions (if not the totality) be committed to memory.

The Psalms are the first books to be encountered, the first books to be learned. That is because they will form a central aspect of little Paula’s devotions for the rest of her life. Jerome prescribes the round of what would become the standardized Divine Office as the monastic movement matured:

She ought to rise at night to recite prayers and psalms; to sing hymns in the morning; at the third, sixth, and ninth hours to take her place in the line to do battle for Christ; and, lastly, to kindle her lamp and to offer her evening sacrifice. In these occupations let her pass the day, and when night comes let it find her still engaged in them. Let reading follow prayer with her, and prayer again succeed to reading. Time will seem short when employed on tasks so many and so varied.

All of these hours of prayer are, as the first mention intimates, sessions with the Psalms. Every day, at every point of the day, she is to pause and sing psalms to God. Not only will this habit form her in worship, it will also ensure that the psalms become a central vocabulary of both thought and praise.

If Jerome’s Letter 107 describes what he thinks the ideal monastic upbringing looks like, Letter 108 is an ideal depiction of the monastic life well lived. He describes the elder Paula’s life in glowing terms and, though no doubt exaggerating a bit, cannot be too far from the mark as he writes to her own daughter who lived with her and succeeded her as head of the women’s monastery in Bethlehem. This is a very lengthy letter not least because he gives a description of Paula’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in excruciating detail. After describing this journey, and the generosity of Paula, he describes how she ordered the double monastery that she built. Although the women were dived into three groups along class lines, they all worshiped together: “At dawn, at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, at evening, and at midnight they recited the psalter each in turn. No sister was allowed to be ignorant of the psalms, and all had every day to learn a certain portion of the holy scriptures.” The memorization that Jerome enjoined on the younger Paula is affirmed in his depiction of the elder Paula: “The holy scriptures she knew by heart, and said of the history contained in them that it was the foundation of the truth; but, though she loved even this, she still preferred to seek for the underlying spiritual meaning and made this the keystone of the spiritual building raised within her soul.” At the center of these remained the Psalms. While the memorization of Scripture in both Latin and Greek is mention in the Letter 107, both Paula and her daughter Eustochium took it one step further when it came to the Psalms. Jerome writes:

I will mention here another fact which to those who are envious may well seem incredible. While I myself beginning as a young man have with much toil and effort partially acquired the Hebrew tongue and study it now unceasingly lest if I leave it, it also may leave me; Paula, on making up her mind that she too would learn it, succeeded so well that she could chant the psalms in Hebrew and could speak the language without a trace of the pronunciation peculiar to Latin. The same accomplishment can be seen to this day in her daughter Eustochium. . .

Jerome could hardly be exaggerating here; as he was writing the letter to Eustochium herself (as well as for a larger audience), he could hardly make up the fact that she and her mother both had the psalms memorized in Hebrew!

Jerome’s letters 107 and 108 became important sources for the monastic movement in the West. The educational program and the ideal of the ascetic life that he puts forth in his directions for the younger Paula and the depiction of the life of the elder Paula were to inspire generations of Christians for centuries. It’s quite likely that these very letters gave inspiration to Caesaria and Radegund as they administered convents of their own. And, again, at the center is the constant experience of the psalms, the literacy necessary to dig the most out of them, and the connection between the psalms and the person of Jesus revealed in the gospels.

Radegund and the Psalter

I’m focusing a lot of energy right now on my Cassiodorus/Psalms book and not getting a whole lot else done… I’m hoping to post here more regularly, but at the moment, most of my thoughts are occupied in the early medieval psalter… So here’s something from that!

I’ve been pondering why non-fiction books like The Art of Fermentation and Salt: A World History can become NYT Best Sellers. It has to do with well-told stories and effective hooks.  Reflecting on this, the story that I want to tell here is about far more than a single late patristic commentary on a single book of the Bible. Thus, I’m doing some experimenting with a starting hook to draw readers is, suggesting why this topic might actually be interesting after all… Here’s a shot at it—let me know what you think!


Radegund was furious. Of this, there can be no doubt. Her husband had crossed her for the last time, and she set a plan in motion to free herself from him once and for all. Within a short time she had the two letters that she needed: the one giving her leverage and the one that confirmed her spiritual path.

Sixth-century France was a hard place to be a woman. The land was in turmoil, Franks, Burgundians, and Lombards struggled for power, and violence spilled out from Italy as the Roman Emperor in the East tired to reassert his authority over his lost lands in the West. In addition to the perennial dangers of sickness and death in childbirth, war brought increased threat of rape and violent death along with its constant companions, famine and pestilence; the Plague of Justinian, one of the first recorded worldwide pandemics, swept through the Mediterranean world in the 540’s devastating Constantinople, Italy, and ravaging Gaul. While war and its effects are always hardest upon the poor, nobility was no guarantee of safety: Radegund’s life was proof of that.

Born a Thuringian princess, her uncle betrayed and slaughtered her father and took her into his household while she was yet a small child. But her uncle’s betrayals bore bitter fruit as spurned allies, the four sons of the Frankish king Clovis, sacked Thuringia, and Radegund—now 11—was carried off, fated to be the wife of one of the victorious brothers, Chlothar. Imprisoned in a villa in the north of modern France, Radegund learned reading, writing, and religion before she was married to Chlothar as his sixth wife in the year 540 at the age of 20.

By all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one. And, indeed, why would it be? Chlothar had been part of the original alliance that had killed her father, and he was marrying her largely to legitimate his claim to Thuringia. While Clothar was an indifferent Christian at best, Radegund was fiercely devoted to her faith and ascetic ideals—including virginity. While Chlothar’s women bore him seven legitimate children and there were rumors of many more unacknowledged offspring, Radegund remained childless. The joke around the palace was that Chlothar’s latest wife was a nun, not a queen.

The last straw came right around the year 550. Chlothar’s men murdered the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal line: Radegund’s brother. Radegund was furious, and refused to put up with it any more. She fled the palace, triggering a set of events that she had apparently thought through beforehand and cultivated strategically as she suffered through her unhappy marriage. She wrote letters to the most influential bishops in the area—undoubtedly some of her almsgiving in the years before had predisposed them in her favor whether for pious motives or base ones—and shortly she had in hand a letter that history still possesses. She proposed the establishment of the first religious community for women in the Frankish Empire where she would live according to Rule of Caesarius of Arles. The letter, signed by a host of prelates, supported her plan. It included the most dire threats for any woman who took religious vows and then wished to forsake the community and return to the world and marriage. Conversely (and more to the point) it likewise threatened anathema and damnation to any man who would attempt to remove any of the women from the religious enclosure.

The other letter that Radegund had been looking for was the blessing of Caesaria II of Arles. Caesaria, abbess of a convent in the Visigothic city of Arles, was the successor of the the first Caesaria who had been the sister of the influential bishop and theologian Caesarius of Arles. Caesarius had written a rule of life for his sister’s community, and in this letter, Caesaria II not only sends her community’s rule to Radegund as the queen had commanded, but also gave her advice based on her experience. In commending the rule, Caesaria wrote this line which neatly captures three central themes, not just of Caesaria and Radegund’s lives and spirituality, but of the time and place that we will be considering. She wrote: “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters; let all hold the psalter in memory and, as I have said, be zealous to carry out in all things what you read in the gospel.”

The first key element here is the emphasis on the psalms. This phrasing here—“hold the psalter in memory”—could simply mean something like “don’t forget about the psalms” or “don’t forget to say the psalms,” but it doesn’t. Instead, it means “make sure that everybody has all of the psalms memorized.” Looking back over the rest of Caesaria’s letter it’s quite obvious that she was following her own advice. The letter is littered with Scripture quotations; over half of these come from one book of the Bible: the Psalms. Likewise, she wasn’t telling Radegund anything new, either. The brief “Life of Radegund” written by her friend and correspondent Venantius Fortunatus mentions the psalms early and often as a part of her spiritual life as well as her devotion to singing the “hours,” a form of liturgical prayer grounded in the recitation of the psalms. Fortunatus gives us glimpses of Radegund’s future describing how, as a child, she would organize the other children and lead them into the chapel in a procession singing the psalms. Later, she would duck out of royal banquets to attend the worship of the hours, singing psalms as she left and checking to make sure the leftovers would be given to the poor.

You can only imagine how the psalms would have spoken to Radegund and sustained her as she endured her situation, married to the man responsible for the deaths of her father, uncle (however traitorous), and brother. How many times might Psalm 94 (“O Lord God of vengeance, O God of vengeance show yourself. Rise up, O Judge of the world; give the arrogant their just desserts…”) have passed through her head as she lay in bed next to her husband.

The second key element in Caesaria’s letter was the emphasis on literacy. While the phrasing sounds a bit odd in English, “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters,” the double negatives have an emphatic sense in Latin, underscoring the importance that everyone—no matter what their origin or social station—be taught how to read. As we continue, we’ll explore the close connection between the psalms and literacy in the early medieval world. Indeed, one of the terms for being literate was to be psalteratus: knowing your psalms. In a world where literacy was not common, and where women’s literacy in particular was not prized, the insistence on making sure that women of all classes within the community are able to read is a fascinating one.

The third key element is the mention of the gospels in relation to the psalms. Modern Protestants in particular may have a number of assumptions about the early medieval church, one of which is that the Bible was rarely read and even more rarely understood. Yet Caesaria makes it plain that she expects Radegund and all of the women to be reading the gospels as their most fundamental source for instruction:

Though it be holy and good and laudable that you desire to live by the Rule, there is no greater, better, more precious nor more splendid doctrine than the reading of the gospel. See this, hold this, which our Lord and master Christ taught by words and fulfilled by example, who made so many miracles in the world that they can not be counted, and sustained so many ills from his persecutors through patience, that can scarcely be believed.

The words and examples of Jesus are central to the ideal this holy woman lifts up.

Out of all of Scripture, these two sections—the psalms and the gospels—are given special attention. Coming from a liturgical perspective this is hardly surprising because in commending these texts to Radegund, Caesaria is highlighting the two central texts of the two central forms of worship in the church of that time. The Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office) centered around the psalms; the Eucharist (or the Mass) centered around the gospels. But, coming from a spiritual perspective, Caesaria and Radegund would have both deeply believed that the two sections of Scripture were inextricably bound together: the heart and soul of Jesus was not just laid plain by the Gospels but was complemented and completed by the psalms. The Gospels made manifest his outward words and deeds; the psalms made manifest his inward thoughts and feelings. We will see exactly how this logic works as we go, but understanding and appreciating this link is crucial for grasping the medieval perspective on Jesus.

And Radegund? She got her community. In fact, her husband even donated the land the land for it. (After a friendly bishop had threatened him with excommunication if he wouldn’t come through!) Originally named the Abbey of St. Mary, you may have heard one of the songs celebrating its name change. In 567, Radegund and her abbey received a relic of the True Cross from the Byzantine Emperor. In honor of the event the name of the community was changed to the Abbey of the Holy Cross and Radegund’s friend Fortunatus wrote a hymn for the occasion, Vexilla regis prodeunt, translated in many hymnals as “The royal banners forward go.” When Radegund died in 587, she was buried in a chapel near the abbey. Soon venerated as a saint, the chapel was renamed the Church of St. Radegund and remains a parish church today in Poitiers.

Despite the hardships of her life—perhaps because of the hardships of her life—Radegund’s faith remained strong and powerful. Her life story recounts episode after episode focused on care for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the neglected. She used her power to create a safe space for herself and other women—rigorous and not without its own challenges to be sure—but a place where learning and faith and female authority would be respected for centuries to come. And her experience of the psalms lies at the center of it all.

Early Medieval Reading and the Derivative Charge

I wrote this chunk of text this morning for the Cassiodorus books. It’s a work in progress. I don’t think it’s fully decided what argument it’s tackling and I have the feeling that it might be astride two related but different topics. In any case, I thought I’d float it out here…

[rule style=”rule-shadow” ]

My middle-school aged daughter plays a literary game with her friends. One person will write a paragraph, then they will pass the paper along to the next person. They, then, write the next paragraph of the story before passing it to another. As young, undisciplined writers, each person often only brings their own ideas and preoccupations and ideas about what makes a story good or fun or funny. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long at all before the evolving story becomes quite silly! Characters appear and disappear at a whim and act with no consistent motives or plans. The attempted tale is usually a disjointed band of paragraphs whose unity is largely based in the fact that they occupy the same sheet of paper, not because of any true storyline or coherent idea.

On the other hand, I used to play that same game with some of my English-major friends in college. One would start with a paragraph and hand it off to the next—just as in the middle-school version. But what happened next would be quite different. A new paragraph would appear, yes, but its construction would arise from the paragraph before it and would interweave themes or structures or details from the previous paragraphs grounded in a knowledge of the previous allusions and intentions and based in a familiarity with the person passing round the page. Sophisticated narratives would arise within minutes as each person brought depth, insight, and an awareness of where the other people were coming from. Not simply a game, these could be experiences of surprising intimacy as we shared our own thoughts and sought to blend our own ideas and feelings with what had gone on the page before us.

The difference between the middle school version and the college version is intentionality, sensitivity, and skill. In both cases each subsequent author is building on the work that has come before. The middle school version usually disregards what has come before or engages it in a cursory fashion—the authors are usually more interested in shaping the story according to their own ideas and desires. The college version allows the plot to unfold as it will, and skillful authors will temper their desires to put their own mark on the story by discerning where the communal plot seems to be taking it, and permitting it to flower in that direction.

Early medieval scripture interpretation is often accused of being “derivative.” That is, it is simply copying that which came before, usually the works of the Church Fathers which are conventionally defined as the writers of the first 500 years. Sometimes the last of the western Church Fathers is identified as Gregory the Great, the reforming pope who died in 604. Others reckon the final Western Father as the Venerable Bede who died around 735.

Is this a fair charge? Well—there’s derivative and then there’s derivative… Some early medieval authors were little more than copyists. And before we dismiss copyists, we’ll remember again that the work of preserving the wisdom of former times was an essential activity in a time where the only books that would survive were those that got copied in the first place!  Others were editors. Yes, they might only have copied down the words of others, but they made intelligent decisions about what material to copy and for what purpose. A skillful digest or extract can preserve the genius of an earlier authors work in far less space particularly if that writer had a tendency to ramble. Cassiodorus recognized his contemporaries Eugippius and Dionysius Exiguus in his own day as doing this kind of work. However, other early medieval interpreters had the skill and sensitivity to enter into the work of their earlier partners in reading. They communicated what they found there but also allowed the flowering of the plot line of holy Scripture that their predecessor had noticed.

Relegating early medieval interpretive work to the derivative bin is a modern judgment based on the modern condition. Merely communicating things that other people said is not necessary in our time and place. We can always go back to the original text or look it up on the Internet. There was no such luxury in the early medieval world.Communicating wise things that other people said will always have value. Identifying something profound and bringing it to the attention of others is an important work of communication. In the early medieval world, such work prevented wisdom from being lost when the destruction of written documents was a real danger. In the modern world, careful curation prevents wisdom from being drowned out in an environment of constant communication where the noise-to-signal ratio conspires to fill our ears with the static of frivolity or venality. But building intelligently off the work of our forebearers is just as essential now as it was then. In order to do this well, though, we must steep ourselves in the wisdom of our forebearers, test the wisdom against our own insight and our own repeated experiences of reading and prayer, and then allow the plot of holy Scripture to unfold and flower according to its ways, rather than attempting to force it in the direction we would have it go.

If the modern world accuses the early medieval of being derivative, the early medieval world would charge the modern with the error of novelty: that we are constantly coming up with something new simply for the sake doing something new. In our lust for the new and different, we frequently fail to take deep stock of what has come before us and to consider why some paths were taken and others avoided, which avenues will lead to human flourishing and the flourishing of our actual embodied communities rather than games that serve only for intellectual diversion. It’s the difference in attentiveness between the paragraphs of middle schoolers who can’t wait to put their own mark on a narrative rather than a more mature and substantial reflection to see where the plot is unfolding of its own accord.
When we look at early medieval writing, we have to see it against its own environment and understand the pressures that conspired against the handing on of wisdom. We must judge the works we have received with an awareness of the challenges of the time. But—more than that—studying these writings will attune us to that sensitivity of spirit that enters into the forebearers’ works and continue them rather than simply introducing novelty into the discussion for novelty’s own sake.

This is the struggle that faces us and—in truth—the task that I invite you into. As readers of the Scriptures, as interpreters in our own right, we will read better, clearer, deeper, when we learn how to do two things. First, we must learn to listen to our own voices as readers and interpreters, and trust our own abilities to hear with sensitivity the Word within the biblical text itself. We can be channels for the Holy Spirit and to fail to listen to our own interpretive voices may be an unintentional means of muffling the voice of the Spirit echoing within us. Second, we must engage the tradition we have inherited in such a way in order that our own insights will confirm, strengthen, and clarify the directions in which the plot of Scripture—the relationship between God and God’s people—is unfolding in our own places and times. Not coming up with something new for the heck of it or presenting a novel interpretation for its shock value and its ability to scandalize the faithful (a game in vogue in the twentieth-century academy), but building on the generations and generations of faithful witness before us for the enrichment of the whole Body of Christ.

Augustine and Cassiodorus as Authors

Here’s a chunk from volume 1 where I’m talking about the apparent relationship between the respective works on the psalms of Augustine and Cassiodorus and the difference between them as authors. There’s quite a bit more to be said on this topic, though…


Cassiodorus and Augustine have a fascinating literary relationship. If you take Cassiodorus at face value, then he is doing nothing but a straightforward excerpting of Augustine’s great commentary on the Psalms. He says as much in his preface. After referring to his own perplexities on first seriously encountering the psalms, he finds all of his answers in Augustine: “So mindful of my own weakness, through the grace of God’s mercy and in brief summary I turned into shallow streams the ocean of Augustine which wells from the springs of certain psalms; so I have embraced in one volume the wide range of topics which Augustine marvellously unfolded in his fifteen decades.” (ExPs Pref., 23) In an environment where extracts from Augustine’s writing were common, it would not at all be a surprise to see Cassiodorus doing just that. Indeed, in his Institutes he expressly recommends to his readers a volume by Peter of Tripoli where the African abbot has “annotated the epistles of St. Paul with examples from the short works of the blessed Augustine. He declares the secrets of his own heart with the tongue of another and he has fitted these examples so suitably to individual passages that you might think that the whole had been accomplished rather by the effort of blessed Augustine. For it is remarkable that one author has elucidated the text from another commentator in such a way that he seems to have expressed the desires of his own heart without adding a word of his own” (Institutes, 1.8.9, 129). With such praise for this style of work, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is just what Cassiodorus has done with the Psalms—but the truth is that he has done something else quite different.

While Augustine and Cassiodorus were commenting on the same material and often saying similar things, they were two very different kinds of authors. Augustine was first and foremost an orator. He was a preacher. And, sure enough, the commentary on the psalms that we have from him is a collection of sermons on individual psalms delivered and collected over the course of decades. While reading Augustine’s commentary, it’s easy to form a mental picture of his compositional style: Augustine has walked into the pulpit holding nothing but a psalter and is expounding on it line by line before an eager crowd while a scribe in the first row is feverishly scribbling down his words into a tablet for review and transcription onto parchment later in the day. Augustine doesn’t cite authorities, he doesn’t rely on a great deal of prior research—the effect is listening to a man who has been reading and pondering the Scriptures for years standing up before you speaking off the cuff, indulging in digressions, and making the connections across the canon that occur to him on this particular day. This impression is only reinforced on the occasions where Augustine’s commentary contains two or three different sermons on the same psalm. A different day brings a different message on the same text.

Modern scholar James O’Donnell in his biography of Augustine contrasts the African preacher with Jerome: “[Augustine] did [interpretation] as a performer, not a scholar. The pulpit and its extemporaneity offered the focus for his biblical interpretation. While his contemporary Jerome was dictating volume after volume of careful biblical commentary in his study, sometimes following Greek authorities and sometimes simply translating them, Augustine the exegete shied away from that practice as time went by. He only turned his hand to writing formal Scriptural commentary a half-dozen times, and only once as a bishop, and never used an authoritative source or sources” (O’Donnell, Augustine, 133).

Cassiodorus, on the other hand, was a completely different kind of author. If Augustine was an orator, Cassiodorus was a composer. His writing shows clear, logical, organized composition both at the level of the individual psalm and across his work as a whole. His work on the psalms is not a collection of individually gathered elements. Rather, it is planned whole, carefully charted out, logically structured, with consistently executed internal logic and cross-references. Cassiodorus was not standing in a pulpit by any stretch; he was sitting at a desk with several open volumes before him—Augustine’s commentary, yes, but also reference works by Jerome, possibly the sermons of Hilary, and several wax tablets of his own notes. Some of these bore notes on the specific psalm at hand, others related to the work as a whole identifying groupings of psalms categorized by theme, topic, and theological import so that after the treatment of each psalm, its placement in the group could be identified and the other members in the group cross-referenced.

Staging the Psalms

Here is another chunk for volume 2; the beginning portion refers to a discussion of Cassiodorus’s reading, pointing out that one of his strategies for interpreting the Psalms is drawn from the interpretation of classical drama. In this section, I’m picking up this notion and discussing how modern people can tap into this idea as a reading strategy for the psalms as well.


Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers ask us to listen for voices when we read the psalms. I can see several different ways in which this practice can enrich our engagement with the psalms.

First, at the most basic level, we need to be attentive to voices and the change of voice that occurs on the purely grammatical level. As we read each line of the psalms, one of the automatic questions that goes through your mind should be “who is speaking here? Is it the voice of an individual or of a group? To whom are they speaking? Are they speaking directly to God or are they speaking to the congregation around them?”

One way to visualize this is to follow Cassiodorus’s lead and to think of the roles in classical drama. In a Greek tragedy, there were a few major characters and a chorus. The chorus would usually make general comments, react to what was happening on stage, and fill in the audience about important action that had happened off the stage. The characters, then, would either interact with one another or would sometimes speak directly to the chorus. If we were to cast in our minds the classical dramatic production of a psalm, we can imagine there are always at least three major characters: the Psalmist, the Congregation, and God. The Psalmist or perhaps more properly The Voice of the Psalmist is the character who most often uses “I.” At this point, we’re not going to worry about the identity of this “I” (we’ll get into that in a second…). The Congregation is the chorus of fellow believers; frequently they get referred to as “you (plural)” but sometimes speak as “us” or “we” or even “I” as well. I chose the term “Congregation” because of the frequency with which this phrase appears in the psalms themselves. Two Hebrew terms can be translated as “congregation” or “assembly”—qahal and (adah; together they show up 17 times in the Psalms referring to a religious assembly with which the Psalmist interacts or to whom the Psalmist speaks. The Congregation is a chorus part and is almost always favorably inclined towards the Psalmist. (I hedge that because sometimes the Congregation seems to be portrayed as neutral rather than friendly as in some of the Psalms of Abandonment.) God is, of course, God. I imagine God always being on stage whether the Psalmist is speaking directly to God or not. Sometimes the Psalmist does speak to God, sometimes not—but God is always there listening nonetheless. Now—some psalms will indicate some additional characters. We can have an Anxious Chorus as in the opening of Psalm 11 or even a Bad Chorus as in Psalm 109. There is even the Betraying Friend in Psalm 41 (although whether he receives a speaking part or is simply referred to depends on how you stage it in your head!)

As you read through the psalm, consider: which lines are connected with which speaker? What does the grammar tell you about who is speaking to whom? While this may sound complicated, it’s not as hard as it sounds, particularly if you pay attention to the pronouns.

If you remember back to grammar class, we analyze pronouns in terms of person and number:

Singular Plural
First Person I/my/me We/our/us
Second Person You/your You/your
Third Person He/She/It/his/her/its/him They/their/them

We can see how this works when we take the first line of the familiar Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Clearly we are dealing here with the voice of the Psalmist. We know this because we see the use of “my” and “I”. But to whom is this “I” speaking? We have not been introduced to a major cast of characters yet so we can assume three: the Psalmist, God (aka “the Lord”) and the ever-present Congregation chorus. Since the Psalmist refers to God in the third person (that is, “the Lord”, not “you” or “O God”), then it is safe to assume that in this line the Psalmist is speaking to the Congregation.

We can move through a more fulsome example with the relatively brief Psalm 108. Again, we imagine our three main characters on stage. The Psalmist begins with direct address to God: “My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed; I will sing and make melody” The use of “My” and “I” clarifies for us that this is the Psalmist’s voice. The use of the vocative—direct address—in “O God” lets us know to whom the Psalmist is speaking. The Psalmist continues through verse 6. I assign these lines to the Psalmist rather than the Congregation because we see some intimate and inward thoughts more appropriate to an individual than a group. Then, verse 7 begins “God spoke from his holy place and said…” Perhaps we can see this as a line from the chorus as the Psalmist recedes and God steps to center stage? Then, from verse 7b through verse 9, we hear the voice of God. God speaks in “I” language and declares his victories over the inhabitants of the lands around Israel.

The crux of the psalm is verse 10: “Who will lead me into the strong city? Who will bring me into Edom?”

Who speaks this line? (Remembering that quotation marks are modern editorial decisions and not original to the psalms!) Is this a continuation of God’s address? In Ancient Near East battles, images of the gods were carried as military standards: is this line the voice of God asking who will bear his image or the Ark of the Covenant representing him into Edom? Or, conversely, is this either the Psalmist or the Chorus replying in response to God’s preceding boast of power? That is, if God is so victorious over the other nations, is God going to give assistance right here and right now in the present crisis?

If we hold off on making a decision and move on to the next verse, we see that question does become more pointed: “Have you not cast us off, O God? You no longer go out, O God with our armies.” There is direct address to God again with the vocative “O God” and “You”; however, the shift from a singular to the plural makes me think that the Chorus has come in—or perhaps even better the Psalmist and the Chorus singing together. Given that the question in verse 10 continues and becomes more pointed in verse 11, we can place verse 10 in the mouth of whomever we decide speaks verse 11. Verse 12 continues the address to God from the group, and then the final verse 13 moves from addressing God to addressing a listening audience, shifting references to God from the second person to the third person: “With God we will do valiant deeds, and he shall tread our enemies under foot.” The language of “God” and “he” clarifies that the Chorus is now speaking about God rather than to God, and this final declaration of hope serves as a challenge expressed as an answer to the question posed in verse 10.

This strategy of mentally staging the psalm as a classical drama in your head is a helpful means of helping you pay attention to the variety of voices and the shift of voices within the psalms. I like to think of this as an initial stage of reading. Once we have accomplished this staging, Cassiodorus will invite us to imagine who the various characters might be: Is the Psalmist David? Is it Christ? Could it be the personified Church? We’ll turn to this next…

Christological Controversy and the Psalms

I’ve been doing a lot of work on my books on Cassiodorus and the psalms. So far, most of my effort has gone into the first volume. The first volume is a more-or-less straightforward historical and exegetical description of what Cassiodorus does when he reads the psalms and transmits the patristic tradition to his readers. The second volume is the “where do we go from here?” book that tries to explain what the Cassiodoran perspective (and the perspective of the rest of the Church Fathers) has to do with us and our spirituality. Here’s a snippet from the second book. To set this in context a little, I’m writing these books in a non-linear fashion, that is, they’re outlined, but I’m not starting with chapter 1 of the first and writing to the end, then starting chapter 1 of the second and so on. Rather, since I know the big picture, I’m writing chunks and fitting them into place, and will smooth over the cracks later in the process.

This was a chunk that popped into my head last night as we were driving home from NYC after dropping the older daughter off at Joffrey for a week of ballet camp.

For readers familiar with my discussions of Trinitarian theology, some of this stuff will likely seem familiar. However, it’s still important especially in relation to the psalms.


Cassiodorus spends quite lot of time finding theological concepts in the psalms, particularly things relating to Trinitarian theology and Chalcedonian Christology. Indeed, modern readers may find it odd the amount of time that he spends harping on these issues. Our first thought may be to wonder why he would work so hard to find find doctrine in the Scriptures—why go to this effort? One reason is because he would not have seen “doctrine” as being something separate and distinct from “biblical interpretation.” For those used to the modern university or the way that seminaries divide up subjects, there is a great gulf between the study of the Scriptures and instruction in theology or doctrine. In the world of the Church Fathers, however, the two topics were intimately related to one another: doctrine flowed from Scripture and doctrine was identified in Scripture even if the connections being drawn seem strained to us.

Trinitarian and christological theology shows up so frequently in Cassiodorus’s psalm commentary for a couple of reasons. One of the great controversies of his time revolved around the way that God the Father and God the Son related to one another and what kind of being Jesus was. While an ecumenical council held at Chalcedon had defined the orthodox Church’s understanding of the matter, the rival Arian position was still quite common within and—more importantly—outside of the empire. The main difference here was whether Jesus was God or whether Jesus was a creature. The position of Chalcedon insisted that Jesus was both fully God and, at the same time, fully human. The Arian position argued that while Jesus was the first and greatest of all of God’s creations, he was just that—a creature (albeit a really important creature!). To sort out why this matters and why it matters for the psalms, we need to dip into this debate for a minute, going through the theological to the real heart of the matter—the pastoral difference.

For too many people, theology is a bad word. It conjures up notions of doctrines and rules, and tortured intellectual arguments about things that no one can really ultimately prove on this side of heaven. Theology is seen as something abstract and speculative. But it shouldn’t be… Good theology, important theology, matters because it has practical implications: it helps us understand how we correctly live out our lives. Real theology is connected to real life. Trinitarian theology in particular gets a bad rap, usually because it is taught as a system of ideas without reference or recourse to why and how it matters for us.

Here’s a key point around which you need to orient everything about Trinitarian theology and its various christological controversies: The doctrine of the Trinity and the Natures of Christ didn’t grow out of theological speculation. That is, a bunch of old guys didn’t sit themselves down together and just make this stuff up (and that is one of dominant images we have thanks to Dan Brown novels and other misinformed media…). Indeed, if people had sat down and thought all of this up it would make a whole lot more sense and be much easier to understand! Rather—and this is the key—Trinitarian theology grew out of the attempt to wrap words around Christian spiritual experience. The first followers of Jesus, as proper Jewish believers and God-fearing Gentile converts, would have known the Sh’ma, the Jewish creed, and recited it three times a day: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). So they knew there was only one God, the God they knew revealed in the Scriptures as the God of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth. However, based on their experiences of resurrection power, they believed that Jesus was somehow God too. Furthermore, their charismatic experiences of the Spirit’s inspiration led them to confess that the Holy Spirit was also tied up in this God thing as well! If, as Scripture said, there was only one God, how could they explain what they were feeling and experiencing? The theology, then, grew out of the attempt to wrap words around this experiential phenomenon in a way that people could agree on.

Generally speaking, the approach that gained favor is the one that lived best, that is, directed people to lead their lives in the manner most consistent with Scripture and the example of Jesus, was the definition that came out of the four great councils of the Church and that favored holding up the mystery of God’s inter-relation rather than settling for a more philosophically plausible approach. Thus, they upheld the idea that God is one Being that is made up of three distinct but inter-related and equal Persons and that Jesus is, at the same time, fully human and fully divine. Most of the various Trinitarian and Christological errors arise when somebody comes up with a scheme to try and make this formula make more sense.

So why does any of this matter? Why would the Chalcedonian solution make more sense and live better than the Arian answer? The reason is simply this: Does God—the grand omnipotent Creator of the Universe—know what it feels like to be you? The Arian position says “no.” This position which makes Jesus the oldest and greatest of God’s creations draws a line of divinity between Jesus and God. The best that God has to go on, then, is to imagine what it would be like to us. The Chalcedonian formula on the other hand—that Jesus is fully God and simultaneously fully human—answers: “yes.” God does know what it means and feels like to be human. He knows it from the inside. He knows exactly what you are going through when you feel happy or sad or betrayed or angry—because he’s felt it too. In the person of Jesus, God has felt every human emotion and lived through a great swathe of human experiences including (let’s not forget) being betrayed, imprisoned, and executed. God doesn’t have to imagine anything here: he’s felt it. God knows what it feels like to die. And, furthermore, God knows exactly what it feels like to lose a child.

This is what gets lost in the Arian formulation: the intimate knowledge of just what it’s like to be us and to really know from the inside what it is to be one of us.

Now, I came of age in the eighties and early nineties, and every time I go through this theological logic, I hear a Joan Osborne song floating through my head… The lyrics go, in part, like this:

“What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

Just tryin’ to make his way home
Like back up to heaven all alone
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome”

Here’s the thing—whether she knew it or not, Joan (and the songwriter, Eric Bazilian) created the perfect song to explain the heart of Chalcedonian orthodoxy against the Arian position! Because the Chalcedonian definition believes that they’re right on: God does know what it feels like to be one of us! The theology that they reject—of a distant sterile God divorced from the nitty-gritty of human experience—is simultaneously the doctrine that Cassiodorus, the Church Fathers, and the church councils rejected as well.

Now, at this point, it must feel like we’ve gone pretty far afield from the psalms. But that’s actually not the case at all—we’re just looping around to them from the back side. Instead, the upholding of the Chalcedonian definition is at the heart of how Cassiodorus and the Fathers read and understand the psalms. Remember what Athanasius wrote about the whole expanse of human emotion being revealed in the psalms? This is where we see it: if we read the psalms in and through the mouth of Jesus, this is where we hear and feel the whole span of human emotion uttered from divine lips, where we see God incarnate expressing everything from the pain to the joy we feel. This is God at home in the feelings we know.

The pastoral implication, then, of Trinitarian theology and this means of reading the psalms is the assurance that God knows exactly what it feels like to be us and that, in the psalms, we hear his own divine expression of what it feels like to be human.