On Monastic Interpretation

A junior colleague of mine stopped me in the hall after a class we teach together and wanted to get my advice on the history of New Testament interpretation. He’s in the usual graduate seminar that surveys such things. Now, my program is such that it actually gives an entire semester to the pre-Reformation history of interp. I don’t think most other programs do this, considering such “pre-critical” readings as not useful for modern NT scholars. Anyway, he’s been assigned to present on medieval monastic interp and want to pick my brain for a bit. His first question was essentially that which any NT scholar would ask: “They’re just reading the Fathers and using that, right?”

My answer was a classic yes–but no. It took a while…

In the aftermath, I was thinking through how I would go about teaching medieval monastic exegesis to try and communicate just what was going on. Here’re some initial thoughts:

  • Give them a sense of monastic life as life within an intentional liturgical community.
    • Yes, have the students read the section in the Rule on the Offices to give them a sense of Benedict’s concept of the monastic cursus.
    • Then, have them read a corresponding section from the 10th century Regularis Concordia to show them how different and how much more complicated the monastic liturgical life was than Benedict had ever envisioned.
    • Then give them some photocopies from the Breviary to reinforce that a) all liturgy is not just your Sunday morning liturgy; b) Scripture is constantly in juxtaposition with other Scripture and with non-Scriptural texts; c) this is far more complex in practice than it sounds.
  • Give them a sense not just that the patristic authors were used but how and in what contexts
    • Remind them about manuscript production costs, then emphasize and re-emphasize that the monastics didn’t have the Patrologia Latina at hand. Or even the Ante/Post Nicene Fathers. No–Paul the Deacon’s homiliary for the Night Office & Cassiodorus on the Psalms really were the sources for 90% of what 90% of medieval monks knew of the Fathers.
    • Yes, some monks probably read the Fathers for study material but the paradigmatic encounter with them was in the liturgical setting. The sermons, homilies, or commentary extracts would be interrupted four times for responsaries thematically tying the third Nocturn back into the main biblical content of the first Nocturn as determined by the liturgical season… The main point being: their encounter with the patristic interpretation was in a far different setting than either ours or even the works’ original contexts–and that would effect how they would hear it.
    • Have them read a homily by Bede or Gregory–then have them read the corresponding “adaptation” by somebody like Aelfric. Highlight, too, that what was on the page was not necessarily what was heard…
  • Give them a sense that biblical interpretation in this setting is not fundamentally about data and information. Rather, it was about experiencing the text and its transformative potential through an elaborate and interconnected system designed for this purpose.
    • This is underscored and reinforce by how the many lectionary cycles fit together. The way (as I was saying before) the Mass Epistle shows up in the versicles & responses for the Little Hours and verses from the Mass Gospel appear as the Canticle antiphons through the week…
    • Guiding and directing a lot of this is the liturgical year. The seasons themselves are interpretations of biblical events and texts and the texts within the seasons were chosen to fit within them–but, at the same time, their actual content nuances the meaning of the seasons. Furthermore certain kinds of interpretive material either appear or disappear based on the season…

It’s complicated. And, in many ways, this is my chapter 3–to lay all of this out in a (more or less) comprehensible fashion.

One of the major themes that I see running through my pedagogical attempts is interpretation and appropriation through recontextualization. That is, yeah, they used patristic material–but in a different way from which it was intended which has the effect of altering its purpose so the same text is acting in a new way and producing a new result.

Another major theme I see is reinforcing the alien nature of the interpretive culture. This kind of interpretation is not about a guy at a desk with a book. Its about a communal experience and embodiment of the text. There’s a reason why so much of the monastic exegesis can be classified as “moral”–it’s because a major focus was not on “thinking thoughts” about the text but rather on how to put the text into practice. Maybe what we label the “moral sense” might be better labeled “the sense capable of being embodied”…


This entry was posted in Church Year, Daily Office, Damn Dissertation, Medieval Stuff, New Testament, Patristics. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Monastic Interpretation

  1. Caelius Spinator says:

    “There’s a reason why so much of the monastic exegesis can be classified as “moral”–it’s because a major focus was not on “thinking thoughts” about the text but rather on how to put the text into practice. Maybe what we label the “moral sense” might be better labeled “the sense capable of being embodied”…

    This is why I actually think this material should be one of the base models for parish preaching.

Comments are closed.