The Prophets

The Bible in Medieval Tradition: The Book of Jeremiah
Editor: Joy A.Schroeder
ISBN: 978 0 8028 7329 3
Date: 2017
Price: £45.99
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Publisher: Eerdmans / Alban Books

Medieval commentaries, unlike patristic ones, have been rather neglected (many of them have never been translated into English), so The Bible in Medieval Tradition series is calculated to fill a gap. In the present volume, by Professor Schroeder of Columbus, Ohio, we are given lengthy quotations, newly translated, of medieval comments on different parts of the Book of Jeremiah. These passages of Jeremiah have been selected because they appear in most modern lectionaries, and the medieval comments on them are therefore likely to be of interest to preachers today, or because scholars regard them as key texts for interpreting the biblical book. The commentators chosen are Rupert of Deutz (born c.1075), Albert the Great (b.c.1206), Rabanus Maurus (b.c.783), Hugh of St Cher (b.c. 1200), Aquinas (b.c.1225), Nicholas of Lyra (b.c. 1270), and Denis the Carthusian (b.c. 1402).

Prof Schroeder prefaces her translations with a very helpful introduction in which she explains the characteristics of medieval exegesis and gives a brief life and life-setting of each of the authors that she has chosen.

This volume exemplifies what Prof Schroeder calls ‘the fascinating variety of approaches to biblical interpretation’ in the Middle Ages. Some commentators, such as Rabanus, spliced together chunks from the Fathers. A number, such as Albert and Aquinas, concentrated on the literal sense and sought (before Bibles were divided up into chapters and verses) to divide the text into sections and subsections. Nicholas of Lyra had, what was very unusual at the time, a good knowledge of Hebrew, and used it to expound the biblical text.

Prof Schroeder acknowledges that medieval exegesis, while at times positively instructive, also exemplifies how not to interpret the Bible. Etymologies were often fanciful. Medieval exegesis was often ‘anachronistic in its conflating past and present.’ Some comments are frighteningly anti-semitic. (Rupert of Deutz was a prime offender.) The least accessible feature of medieval exegesis for most readers today is its penchant for finding in the OT ‘spiritual senses’ (meanings not intended by the human writer but supposedly put there by God.) Thus most commentators saw Jeremiah as a type of Christ: like Jesus, he was sanctified in his mother’s womb (1.5), preached and suffered in Jerusalem and predicted the destruction of that city. Nicholas of Lyra took the obscure text ‘a woman will encompass a man’ (31.22) as referring to the Incarnation. Hugh of St Cher offered a sacramental interpretation of Balm in Gilead (8.21). How is one to know whether such meanings were divinely intended? Moralising interpretations are perhaps easier to defend. Take the exegesis of the carrion-eating birds of 7.33 as referring to ‘certain clerics rushing from church to church to acquire benefices’ (Hugh of St Cher). Is Hugh doing anything more here than saying, in effect, ‘Given what Jeremiah wrote for his contemporaries, what would he say to us now?’ Which surely is what all preachers do with texts written 2,000 years ago and more.    

Bernard Robinson, Newcastle

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