Tag Archives: Cassiodorus

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: 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: Thinking about Prayer

After the Introductory Chapter on Benedictine Spirituality and how Cassiodorus fits into it, I need to talk more specifically about prayer and about the psalms. Here’s the section on prayer. I’m building off something I originally posted over at Grow Christians so parts of this may look familiar if you read that piece.

The goal of this book is not to teach you everything you always wanted to know about the psalms—that’s a different book or different class of books. Rather than being a commentary, this is a book about a particular kind of prayer and to do that well, we need to spend some time thinking and talking about prayer.

If you are in and around religious circles for very long, you’ll inevitably hear the question: “Does prayer work?”

I have a hard time with this question. That’s not because of the answer but because the question itself is too broad. This is exactly the same as asking: “Can fish be eaten?” While the question can be answered with a straightforward yes or no answer, that answer is not likely to be helpful to the person asking! Can fish be eaten? Well, yes, generally—if it’s the right kind of fish, and has been taken from a relatively clean environment, and stored and prepared the right way. However, not all fish should be eaten. Not all preparation methods are of equal value in providing a healthy, nutritious meal. Some fish—like the little brightly colored tropical ones—spoil so quickly that they’re not worth trying to prepare. Some possess toxins of their own and others can collect toxins from the environments around them. What starts out as a very basic question cannot be safely answered with a very basic answer.

The same is true of the prayer question.

The best place to start in answering the question and thinking about prayer is to recognize that this question begins with several—usually fairly specific—assumptions. Furthermore, by starting with those assumptions, the question bypasses the central point of the activity.

Let’s unpack the assumptions in the question first, and then take a step back and figure out the right question…

When most modern people hear the word “prayer” or are asked a question like, “does prayer work,” they are considering one aspect of one kind of prayer. But there are lots of different kinds of prayer out there. One way of breaking down the principal kinds of prayer is with this list:

  • Adoration: the lifting up of the soul to God’s presence, resting in the experience of being present with God (this is usually non-verbal)
  • Praise: rejoicing in God because of the nature of God’s being; praise evoked by who God is, not because of any benefits that we might receive from God
  • Thanksgiving: rejoicing in God because of the things that God has done for us and for all creation; rejoicing in the relationship that God has chosen to initiate with creation and for the specific benefits known to us
  • Penitence: confession where we acknowledge our sin and admit specific ways in which our lives, actions, and intentions are at odds with God’s own hopes, dreams, and plans for the redemption of all creation
  • Oblation: an offering and dedication of the whole self to God
  • Intercession: offering before God the needs of others
  • Petition: offering before God our own needs

As you look down this list, you may realize that what a lot of people mean when they use the word “prayer” is a subsection of the last two kinds, intercession or petition. After considering the various kinds of prayer, we start to realize that when people ask, “does prayer work?” what they’re really asking is, “If I ask God for something—either on my behalf or on behalf of someone else—will I get it?”

In fact, if we want to be honest about it, more often than not this tendency to equate prayer with petition, moves discussions about prayer towards how to make it more effective. That is, is there something I can do to make it more likely that I’ll get the response I want? Inevitably, going down this road devolves into an attempt to bargain with God: “O God, if you’ll just do X thing for me, I promise that I’ll do Y…” This Y may involve promises to go to church more frequently or to be a better person or something of that sort; the logic here is that if we sweeten the pot with a promise, perhaps God will be more willing to give in. Here’s the problem: this becomes less an act of prayer as it becomes more an act of negotiation. The root problem is that negotiation involves leverage—where one party has something that the other wants and uses that to get what they need. Negotiating implies that we have some kind of leverage over God—but we don’t! In the grand scheme of things, whether we’re in church more makes no difference to the greatness of God. Any attempt at leverage lacks a certain honesty because it misrepresents the true nature of our relationship with God: there is nothing that God needs from us. There is no leverage that we have over God.

If our conception of prayer is focused around whether or not we receive divine benefits, then we have greatly restricted our understanding of what prayer is for and about. Let’s back up and see if we can ask the right question.

Let’s start with this: “What is prayer?” The best answer is that prayer is the communication that builds and nourishes our relationship with God. Just as there are different ways that we interact with our friends and family, there are a variety of ways of both talking and listening and experiencing the divine in prayer as well.

A few clarifying points here: first, prayer doesn’t begin a relationship with God. Christians believe that there is no need for us to start a relationship: we already have one. God is our creator, our great first-framer, who knows us intimately from before we were even born. God has already initiated the relationship with us and has even gone several steps further. In the incarnation of Christ, in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, God has already acted in our world on our behalf. In the twin interconnected movements of creation and redemption God has already established a connection with us—and even given us something to talk about!

Second, relationships grow though familiarity. You have to get to know the other person. Sometimes we get to know someone simply by recognizing that we are in their presence. An awareness of presence and a comfort in that presence is an important part of a good relationship, especially a loving relationship. However, as any shy middle-schooler can tell you, simply being in the presence of your beloved doesn’t make a relationship happen! And certainly not one with any sort of mutuality. Just because you sit behind your beloved in English class won’t make her fall in love with you… I believe that simply sitting in the presence of God as the beloved is a key part of prayer. However, just because silent presence is part of it it doesn’t mean that words aren’t important.

Third, words are important, but the volume and direction matter. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where you can’t get a word in edge-wise? If the other person carries on a stream of words with nary a break, you may start to suspect that you’re less in a conversation and more in a monologue with an audience. What’s the problem with that? Well—a conversation is a relationship. And if the communication is only coming from one side, than the the relationship is not going to be well-developed and well-balanced. It’s got to be a two-way street. We have to listen as much as we talk. People who study prayer sometimes note that the forms and habits of prayer that developed in Latin-speaking Europe are very much focused on words and images. Speaking as an inheritor of that tradition, we like to do a lot of talking to God. Our challenge is to correct the balance with a bit more listening. The relationship has to be well-formed and well-rounded, and that can’t occur without just as much listening as talking. If the flow of the conversation is largely one-way—with us doing all the talking—then we’re going to have some real issues in building the relationship whether we recognize it or not.

Fourth, how does two-way communication happen? We certainly know how to talk, but what do we expect to hear back? How do we listen to and for God? Should I expect to hear the divine voice in my head? Does it mean that prayer is not working if I don’t? You may hear a voice in your head that you recognize as not your own—that has happened to me before—but it is not the usual way that I listen to God. When Christians say that the Bible is the Word of God, one of the things we mean is that the Bible is a center of God’s self-revelation. The stories of Scripture, the description of how God has acted in history the word of God proclaimed by the prophets, the observation of God’s ways and habits by the wise, all of these are means by which God communicates the divine self to us limited humans. We listen to God in the Scriptures and learn how God has acted and interacted with others in the past through their stories and writings. Certainly as Christians we believe that God’s greatest act of self-revelation is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and that in learning how he lived and loved, we come to the clearest understanding of who God was, is, and will continue to be. Sacramental Christians also believe that another center of God’s revelation is in the sacraments; God gave Baptism and Eucharist and other practices to the church to be means of grace by which we encounter and experience the loving, transforming power and presence of God. Listening happens through the sacraments as well.

So—prayer is about a communication and about building a relationship. A relationship is about two parties interacting with one another. A deep relationship is founded on principles of trust and honesty—and this is what’s hard about prayer. We have to come to know and trust God. However, the really hard part is trusting and being honest with ourselves about ourselves. Praise and thanksgiving can be a lot of fun! We like being joyful and thanking God for the wonders around us and the gifts we have received. Penitence and oblation—not so much. Recognizing our own faults and poor choices and where we have acted contrary to God’s hopes and dreams doesn’t feel good. But we cannot hope to have an honest relationship with our Creator—the One who knit us together in the secret places of the womb—if we cannot be honest with ourselves, if we try to present a false image of ourselves to God in the midst of prayer. We can’t fake our side of the conversation with the One who knows us completely. We may try to fake our way through other relationships, presenting only the best version of ourselves to the public eye, but this can’t work in our most intimate relationships. We may even succeed in fooling ourselves, but those closest to us—spouses or partners or children—will see the truth. And God knows us even more thoroughly than that.

If prayer is about building a true and truthful relationship with our Creator and Redeemer, our central practice must be the pursuit of honesty, honesty about who we see ourselves to be, but also honesty about who God is and is not. If we insist on only seeing God as the great vending machine in the sky where we put in prayers and receive our gifts, we will be disappointed—not by God as God is but by the idols that we have made in place of God, the lies that we have told ourselves about who God is without nurturing a full and truthful relationship with the One who loves us and who, in the person of Jesus, gave himself for us.

Indeed, looking at prayer from our side as a habit or a practice, it is best understood as a process of increasing honesty. We come to better understand the relationship that we have with God in large measure by becoming aware of and stripping away falsehoods, misjudgments, and lies about who we are—but also about who God is. That may sound a little harsh, but it’s not intended to be so: some of these falsehoods are ones that we have inherited from our religious traditions or our spiritual teachers—clergy, parents, or elders—others are ones that we ourselves have created in the process of trying to make sense of our place in the world. We are ignorant of some of these falsehoods; others we are subtly aware of; still others we are so aware of that we create strategies to actively ignore them or to distract ourselves from the truths they contradict. In prayer we gain a far better sense of who we are, who God is, and the true character of the relationship between us: the loving, constructive, redemptive relationship that God yearns to have with every part of creation.

What, then, does this have to do with the psalms? Just this—while the whole Scriptures can be a center of God’s self-revelation to us, Jewish and Christian teachers and saints have recognized for centuries that the psalms are especially fruitful tools for nurturing the relationship. They are models of prayer and examples for us of our words to God. They tell us of God and of the experiences of God that people have had in the past. They also function as mirrors; we can learn truthfulness in prayer by interacting with them, by noticing what things make us uncomfortable, and pondering why. And that is where we will turn next: to consider the psalms—how we see them through the piety of the ages but also through the lens of modern biblical scholarship—all with an eye to how they can improve and purify our practices of prayer.

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: Benedict as Incomplete

This is a continuation of the previous post for Psalming Christ

Consider intentional communities for a minute. How many of them survive—and for what length of time? How many communes formed in the 1960’s are still around? Most of them folded within years of their founding. It’s hard work to for human beings to live together in community. It’s even harder to make it work over a period of decades. Yet, Benedict’s rule has endured for centuries as a template for intentional Christian communities. It’s a template that works; it has proven successful across centuries and cultures as a means of forming Christians within them and inspiring the Christians around them.

Why this particular document? It’s certainly not because it was the only monastic rule out there. When Charlemagne appointed his top monastic advisors to look into the state of monasticism and to determine what should be the single rule under which he would unite his realm, Benedict of Aniane and Smaragdus of Saint Mihiel compiled a document containing many different rules that were in circulation at the time—but Benedict of Nursia’s was chosen out of all of these.

It’s worth comparing Benedict’s Rule to one of the other rules found in this collection. It goes by the name “The Rule of the Master.” It shares so many similarities with Benedict’s Rule, including common sentences and chapters, one of them must have copied from the other. However, the Rule of the Master goes into far greater detail than Benedict’s. It doesn’t just prescribe how to pick a prior; rather, it goes into details about how the brothers are to greet the prior when they run into him in the halls, detailing a brief liturgical script for the encounter. It doesn’t just recommend certain classes of activities for the monks when they are not in the church praying; rather, it gives explicit directions for exactly what monks at various points in their professed lives ought to be doing in the different sections of the day. Where Benedict’s Rule is lean and spare, the Rule of the Master describes and details, ending with a text that is 3 times the size of Benedict’s work. For centuries it was assumed that the Rule of the Master was an expansion of Benedict’s Rule. The great bombshell in twentieth century Benedictine studies was the realization that it worked the other way around: The Rule of the Master was the earlier text. Benedict had copied from the anonymous Master.

Benedict’s rule worked better because it was shorter—because it lacked the countless scriptings of daily events that characterize the Rule of the Master. Because it didn’t give all of the details, it could be implemented in a wider variety of places and times that those imagined by the Master. The specificity of the Rule of the Master was undoubtedly one of the reasons why it was left behind while the Rule of Benedict was adopted more broadly. Benedict’s brevity is one of the keys to his success.

But here’s the thing: while his brevity might have helped the Rule be adopted in a wide variety of contexts, his Rule is not enough. To put a finer point on it, Benedict’s Rule assumes many things that are never described or explained. For instance, Benedict goes into great detail around the singing of the psalms: he explains how many psalms should be prayed in the Offices (RB 9-13, 17), how the psalms determine how many Offices should be prayed (RB 16), which psalms should be prayed at which Offices (RB 18), he describes the intention with which the psalms should be prayed (RB 19-20), but he never gets around to telling us why the psalms should be prayed! He assumes it, he expects that his readers will accept it as self-evident. But—why?

To zero in on another core practice of the Rule, sacred reading (lectio divina) forms a central part of the monastic day (RB 48). But how is it done? Why is it done? Benedict assumes the importance of the practice, carving out significant amounts of time for it, but he never describes the goal or purpose or method he expects his monks to follow. If this activity is so central that it becomes one of the three basic practices of the monk (praying the Offices, sacred reading, and work), why does he devote so little place to explaining or exploring it?

If we flip back to that longer, more expansive Rule of the Master, we find our situation not much improved. The Master doesn’t answer any of these questions either! Instead, we have to see both of these documents as not sufficient in and of themselves. Neither of these rules contain everything that they need to contain in order to communicate the fullness of monastic life and values.

One of the ways monastic communities addressed this gap was by writing customaries—legislative documents that would help describe how the Rule of Benedict was put in place within their particular time, situation, and architectural arrangement. One well-known example of a customary is the Ordo Qualiter used by the great Abbey of Cluny and its many daughter houses. Another is the English Regularis Concordia that the monastic bishops of the 10th century Benedictine Reform wrote to establish uniform monastic practice throughout England (based, in part, on the Ordo Qualiter). However even these documents don’t get into the heart of spiritual practices of the monasteries. Yes, they prescribe additional devotions and say what the monks should be doing when, but so often they pass by the question of why and how: the questions that we are most interested in.

Rules and customaries exist within a living tradition, some of it written, but some of it oral as well, that has had to be recaptured and recompiled whenever monasticism has been restarted in places where it has ceased to exist. The English had to do this in their monastic reboot in the early 10th century after decades of viking depredations. The French Benedictines had to do it 19th and 20th centuries. While the Rule is essential, it’s is not sufficient. There is more that has to come along with it. Here’s the key point for us: if we too wish to explore the heart of Benedictine spirituality, we too must realize that there is more too it that the Rule itself does not describe.

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…