Auctoritas.

A couple of years ago jamessal gave me a copy of How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, by James L. Kugel, and I’ve finally gotten around to it (prompted by the fact that he’s now reading it himself); it makes an excellent companion to the Schniedewind book quoted in this post. I’m about halfway through the first chapter, “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship,” and I want to pass along this section, a nice illustration of how language and culture can interact:

To enter the world of scripture’s mysteries was thus a matter for trained professionals; only a priest or a monk schooled in the ways of fourfold interpretation, and especially in the interpretations of his predecessors, could say for sure what this or that verse meant. It would never occur to ordinary people to try their hand at interpretation—to begin with, they did not own their own Bibles, and they could not read. No, the Bible was something that ordinary people experienced in other ways. It was read aloud in public, preached about at church or in open markets; its stories were illustrated on stained glass windows and mosaic floors and the carved capitals of columns; it was recounted in poems, sung in hymns, and retold in passion plays—in these ways the Bible was everywhere, and no one escaped its influence. But its interpretation was not up for discussion; that had been decided a long time ago.

There was a word in medieval Latin for what drove this attitude toward Scripture: auctoritas. This is our word “authority,” but it had a special resonance in Latin. It was what the auctores—meaning both the “authors” and the “authorities”—had established long ago. Their wisdom—set down in the writings of the Church Fathers and later Christian teachers—could never be challenged, nor would anyone ever want to. (In fact, when, as sometimes happened, a later scholar had a new idea, he would usually seek to connect it to something that had been written by an earlier, authoritative figure—“This is what Augustine really meant when he said X or Y.”) Auctoritas was all- powerful and unquestioned: the Bible meant what the authorities had always said it meant. [...]

[Auctoritas began to be widely questioned during the Renaissance.]

One contributory factor in the breakdown of auctoritas was the rapidly spreading knowledge of the Hebrew language among Christians. Until the late Renaissance, an astonishingly small number of Christian scholars had any notion of this tongue (although they could easily have learned it from the Jews in their towns). Starting at this time, however, Christians began to learn biblical Hebrew (as well as Greek), soon aided by the availability of little primers on the language’s grammar and vocabulary, written in Latin and printed on the recently invented printing press. Throughout the Middle Ages, the great authority on Hebrew in the Christian world had been the fourth-century scholar Jerome, translator of the Hebrew Bible into Latin. His writings about the Hebrew language in general as well as about specific words were repeated unquestioningly. Now, at first tentatively and later with greater assurance, Christian scholars began to question his authority, until some finally dared utter the words, “Jerome was wrong.” Soon, everything was up for grabs. Careful scholars ought, of course, to consult the writings of their predecessors, but people no longer assumed that the proper understanding of the Bible lay in the translations and commentaries of the past. Now they could read the Bible’s words for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

Ah, the primal thrill of extricating yourself from the swaddling clothes of dependence on Authority and finding yourself able to say “Jerome was wrong”! (For Jerome, of course, substitute Lenin, your father, or whatever might be appropriate.)

Comments

  1. Unless Google Translate is older than I remember, I think Kugel writes ” the interpretations of his predecessors”.

  2. Damn, and I read that quote over twice! Thanks, fixed.

  3. J. W. Brewer says:

    I have enjoyed Kugel’s work, but this passage requires some context and qualification to be accurate. Many Christians never stopped knowing Greek. These were typically the same Christians who had never relied on Jerome in the first place. (Instead, they relied on the substantially earlier LXX translators and developed rationales for why it was neither necessary nor desirable nor even possible to second-guess their work. This avoided silly errors like thinking the world was created in 4004 B.C. when the LXX made clear it was at least 1500 years older than that.)

  4. John Cowan says:

    I just finished reading it too. Prepare for some shocks at the end.

  5. *fastens seat belt*

  6. Careful scholars ought, of course, to consult the writings of their predecessors, but people no longer assumed that the proper understanding of the Bible lay in the translations and commentaries of the past. Now they could read the Bible’s words for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

    Here we see the DIY industry really getting off the ground. Buy a hammer, dictionary and nails, and build your own belief shelter for a fraction of what a contractor would charge !

  7. Empowerment, as it is called nowadays, is a good marketing strategy. It makes money and reputations. I’m not saying there’s anything “wrong” with this – just pointing it out.

  8. Many historians of ideas have described how the Protestant (relative) freedom to interpret the bible contributed to modern notions of “freedom of thought”. It was not yet free-thinking, but it was a start. Out of the authoritative frying-pan, into the fire of subjectivism !

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    Further complications: 1) even substantially prior to the timeframe Kugel is talking about, theological opinion in the Latinate parts of Europe was not a static monolith. For example, the Cathars/Albigensians managed to come up with quite different conclusions than those found in the conventional wisdom, presumably in part from independent interpretation of the same texts (and probably without access to any Ur-texts behind the same Latin versions their adversaries had). That they were ultimately wiped out when subsequent dissidents a few centuries later were not seems more happenstance than anything else. 2) The heated interpretative controversies of the 16th century were primarily focused on NT passages and/or doctrines, and certainly the renewed widespread availability in Western Europe of the NT in Greek plus renewed ability of a critical mass of controversialists to read Greek and thus argue that the Vulg misconstrued it (or at least had to be interpreted differently than had traditionally been the case) was a big part of that – there were comparatively fewer controversies over OT exegesis that depended on rival claims about what the Hebrew “really meant.” If anything, the largest OT controversy was about the size and content of the canon – with (most) Protestants arguing that certain books RC’s liked to use as a source for prooftexts on certain controverted issues were non-canonical so it then conveniently didn’t really matter whether they said what they had traditionally been taken to say. Now, Kugel is an OT scholar, so that’s naturally going to be his focus, but readers need to recognize and correct for that factor.

  10. Huh? I don’t know what book you’re talking about, but it ain’t Kugel’s, which is entirely about the Hebrew Bible and thus has nothing to do with the NT. The heated interpretative controversies of the 16th century are also irrelevant, since he jumps from circa 200 CE to the 19th century.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    Well, he takes several pages to move through that sixteen-century gap and you’re quoting from the middle of that transitional section, a paragraph or so before the Reformation puts in an appearance. So the “now” in the final sentence of the block quote is referring to the 16th century or thereabouts. But it’s certainly a fair point that his treatment of that era is going to be broad-brush because it’s just by way of setting up his discussion of a later period in Western European history. (And in the endnote corresponding to the “Jerome was wrong!” passage he notes that skepticism about Jerome’s auctoritas dated back at least to the 12th century in some quarters.)

  12. Until the late Renaissance, an astonishingly small number of Christian scholars had any notion of this tongue (although they could easily have learned it from the Jews in their towns).

    The insular Christians living in ignorance and darkness whilst the friendly, door always open Jew ready to set aside his trade books for an impromptu language lesson! So much claptrap as to be beyond laughable.

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    Kugel thinks Hebrew is interesting, and is accordingly easily astonished when other people do not share his interests. It’s a common scholarly tic. During his years at Harvard, Kugel could easily have learned Khmer (no doubt thought by some a fascinating language which provides access to a fascinating culture and literary corpus) via interaction with the growing population of Cambodian emigres who had resettled in the Boston area. Did he avail himself of that opportunity?

    Now, it seems obvious to the modern scholarly mind that if you are really interested in a particular text (e.g., the OT) you really ought to want to be able to read it in the original rather than rely on translations (no doubt there are a few academics out there who have learned Danish solely in order to further their careers as Kierkegaard specialists), but that point did not necessarily seem obvious to the medieval mind. The revivalist boom in Aristotelianism in Paris and elsewhere starting circa 1200 was almost all via Latin translation and predated the revival of widespread reading knowledge of Greek among Western European intellectuals by several centuries. And the translators by whom those Latin versions of Aristotle were produced were generally not reckoned to be saints or doctors of the church with some accordingly super-special or providentially-guided level of reliability or auctoritas.

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    Kugel thinks Hebrew is interesting, and is accordingly easily astonished when other people do not share his interests. It’s a common scholarly tic. During his years at Harvard, Kugel could easily have learned Khmer (no doubt thought by some a fascinating language which provides access to a fascinating culture and literary corpus) via interaction with the growing population of Cambodian emigres who had resettled in the Boston area. Did he avail himself of that opportunity?

    Now, it seems obvious to the modern scholarly mind that if you are really interested in a particular text (e.g., the OT) you really ought to want to be able to read it in the original rather than rely on translations (no doubt there are a few academics out there who have learned Danish solely in order to further their careers as Kierkegaard specialists), but that point did not necessarily seem obvious to the medieval mind. The revivalist boom in Aristotelianism in Paris and elsewhere starting circa 1200 was almost all via Latin translation and predated the revival of widespread reading knowledge of Greek among Western European intellectuals by several centuries. And the translators by whom those Latin versions of Aristotle were produced were generally not reckoned to be saints or doctors of the church with some accordingly super-special or providentially-guided level of reliability or auctoritas.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: A few remarks about both of your points:

    Southern France at the time was not unified but in practical terms it was almost independent from the king reigning in Paris, with local nobles holding courts which welcomed artists, especially poets. Having a border on the Mediterranean it was in contact with Spain, Italy and other centres of culture, and some cities had sizable immigrant populations. Montpellier, settled some distant from the coast in order to escape pirate raids, became a flourishing, cosmopolitan city including Jews and Muslims, some of whom were learned men who contributed to the renown of the university and especially its school of medicine. No doubt anyone wishing to learn Hebrew would have found teachers versed both in the language and in the associated scholarship.

    The Cathar religion was nominally Christian but heavily influenced by manicheism, itself a product of the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. It attracted a large number of adherents, both among the nobility and the common people. It also attracted the attention not only of the Roman church, but also of the French monarchy since the region was very prosperous but little of that prosperity found its way to the king. The Cathar heresy and the crusade preached against it were the perfect excuse for the Northerners to attack the South, with disastrous results for the whole region.

  16. des von bladet says:

    Personally, I have no quarrel with Lenin’s biblical scholarship?

  17. Montpellier, settled some distant from the coast in order to escape pirate raids, became a flourishing, cosmopolitan city including Jews and Muslims, some of whom were learned men who contributed to the renown of the university and especially its school of medicine. No doubt anyone wishing to learn Hebrew would have found teachers versed both in the language and in the associated scholarship.

    All well and good, sounds reasonable enough for a high school French history textbook. The specifics of who, what, when, how and why “anyone” wishing to learn Hebrew in Montpellier in the Middle Ages could have done so allows plenty of room for doubtful historical analysis.

  18. J. W. Brewer says:

    m-l, that there were resources available in Montpelier if the Cathar leadership wished to study Hebrew does not address the separate question of whether they did so. There were (subject to highly variable political fortunes) Jews in Northern France at the same time (although the claim repeated on wikipedia that one of Louis IX’s crackdowns found no fewer than 12,000 copies of the Talmud to burn sounds like it might be a chronicler’s exaggeration), but the standard account is that the scholars of the embryonic University of Paris did not, for whatever reason, avail themselves of the Hebrew-learning opportunities that provided. Now, most accounts of Catharism suggest substantial influence from further east via the Bogomils or whatever (although I can think of reasons to be skeptical about the standard account, and the documentary record is both sparse and mostly composed by the Cathars’ enemies), so clearly whether orally or in writing some particular alternative theological perspectives were likely transmitted from a non-Romance language of origin into either Latin or a Romance vernacular somewhere along the way, but I don’t think the standard account relies on the Cathars making actual use of any version of Scripture other than the Vulgate.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Hozho: The specifics of who, what, when, how and why “anyone” wishing to learn Hebrew in Montpellier in the Middle Ages could have done so allows plenty of room for doubtful historical analysis.

    I am not a historian, and I am not in a position of trying to find out the details, but I am responding to your sarcastic description of The insular Christians living in ignorance and darkness whilst the friendly, door always open Jew ready to set aside his trade books for an impromptu language lesson!. I am talking about scholars seeking to learn from other scholars, not the average person expecting the craftsman or merchant to set aside his own work to enlighten his benighted neighbour.

    I know that just because something could have happened, it did not necessarily happen, and it is true that I don’t have any proof that anyone in Montpellier outside the Jewish community ever wanted to learn Hebrew or succeeded in doing so, but consider what happened a couple of centuries later when some Christians in the West wanted to learn not just Greek but Hebrew in order to read the Scriptures in the original: who were their Hebrew teachers, if not Jewish scholars living in the same cities? And how many Christians are we talking about? Surely a very small percentage of the population, and even fewer such prople would have written about it. In addition, there have always been natural polyglots, people eager to learn whatever languages they can, just because they exist. Because of all this, I think that it is quite likely that some Christians in medieval Montpellier did learn some Hebrew. I mean “likely”, not “certain”. Perhaps some obscure historian has written a thesis on the basis of old archives, which could spread some light on this topic.

    JWB: I did not mean to link the Cathars with Hebrew scholarship: I think that the only link between the two topics is the time and place. As you say, and as far as I know, specific Catharist doctrines developed along with other religious currents at the time, influenced by non-”Abrahamic” traditions, not from interpretations of the Old Testament (which was not authorized for reading by non-clergy at the time).

  20. It was certainly possible in the 13th century for a Christian to learn some Hebrew if he really wanted to: Roger Bacon not only did so, but wrote a Hebrew grammar.

  21. J. W. Brewer says:

    This book http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/religion/judaism/hebrew-scholarship-and-medieval-world has a chapter named “The knowledge and practice of Hebrew grammar among Christian scholars in pre-expulsion England: The evidence of ‘bilingual’ Hebrew–Latin manuscripts,” which suggests that perhaps there was rather more going on in the 13th century (including possible interest in “correcting” Jerome’s work) than Kugel’s necessarily summary overview might lead the reader to think.

  22. Looks like a very interesting (if overpriced) book — thanks, J. W.!

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, TR and JWB. If this was going on in England, it was even more likely in Montpellier because of the established Jewish population there and also the proximity of Spain, where Middle Eastern culture was still flourishing in the South.

    Is it known where the “bilingual Hebrew-Latin manuscripts” in England came from?

  24. J. W. Brewer says:

    If you pull it up on google books, that is one of the chapters that (at least for me) is previewable for free.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    LH, as this interesting-looking book comes from an academic publisher it might be findable in a university library.

  26. Oh, sure, I just like complaining about high prices and low standards in university press books whenever I get the chance. (A nice person from Cambridge UP was once lured into a thread to get chastised; good times!)

  27. @JWB: Thanks for the tip on a most interesting looking book. I’ve just ordered it (but not from the cranky Cambridge website). It should nicely complement a book I’ve recently finished: Greek in Talmudic Palestine.

  28. There is lots of work being done on medieval Hebrew (and indeed other biblical) scholarship at the moment. For instance, by a colleague of mine:

    http://mediumaevum.modhist.ox.ac.uk/monographs_29.shtml

    Or Eva de Visscher’s study of Herbert of Bosham, an important early Hebraist,

    http://www.brill.com/reading-rabbis

    Then there is growing specialist scholarship on important Hebrew scholars like Nicholas of Lyra and his commentator, Paul of Burgos.

    Most of these “silly medievals, can’t think for themselves” arguments don’t stand up to much serious scrutiny. People found ways to make the arguments they wanted in all eras, though of course there were shifts in emphasis, and “auctoritas” arguments only become more subtle and refined during the 17c, rather than vanishing altogether. (In a slightly different context, see the essential work of Steven Shapin.)

    Pace J W Brewer, the OT was highly controversial in the Reformation — there is a rich and little-studied primary literature on all manner of crucial questions surrounding it. The theologians of Trent, for instance, are constantly invoking the OT to justify points of Catholic doctrine. The modern scholarship on OT biblical criticism is not yet solid enough for non-specialists (who rely on second-hand accounts) to speak with much authority on it.

  29. Fascinating stuff — thanks, Conrad!

  30. Also an article on Medieval Christian Hebraists in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, if a nearby library has it.

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