The Bible, Jim, but not as we know it

Last week Robert asked me to do a guest gig for his postgraduate course THEO700 Doing Theology in Context

At the moment the course is looking at the history of biblical hermeneutics. My job was to talk about the shift in Early Modern biblical interpretation towards philology (the original Biblical languages) and critical history.

From the 16th century there was a growing assumption that you couldn’t do Theology until you had a good grasp of the original Biblical languages, as well as some sense of the historical context in which the biblical texts were written.

For the earlier point of view, one has only to look at the way in which the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris spent the first half of the 16th century condemning “humanists” (i.e. literary scholars) who “presumed” that their grasp of Hebrew and Greek gave them a right to talk about Theology. In 1536 the Faculty went as far as to declare that Hebrew and Greek were unnecessary for a Theologian; Latin would do quite nicely.

Another way of describing this paradigm shift is to say that in the Middle Ages, Theology took priority over biblical philology and history. After the Middle Ages it was the other way round.

This is important to bear in mind when a text-book on early Reformation thought by Alister McGrath confidently assures us that for the Medievals: ““Christian theology [was] ultimately nothing more and nothing less than the exposition of Scripture.”

There’s a sense in which this is true, but McGrath, as ever, risks making it sound as if the Medievals were good Protestants. In fact, the Medieval reading of Scripture was shaped by an ancient and extremely complex tradition of scriptural commentary that is usually baffling to modern readers who have been trained to give priority to concerns like the meaning of the original text in its historical context.

(And lest anyone think this was peculiar to Medieval Christianity, it’s worth pointing out that, on the whole, the early Christians were not very interested in reading Scripture – i.e. the Old Testament – in Hebrew or in exegeting it with modern philological and historical tools. Again, the Greek Septuagint, together with exuberant resort to allegory, usually did quite nicely)

All this his came back to me during the weekend when I was going back through some photos I took when I was in Belgium at the end of 2013, and was trying give them captions before I uploaded them to Flickr.

Now that I’ve done a bit of background reading on them, I thought I’d reproduce these images here with a short commentary as another example for students in THEO700 (and anyone else who’s interested) of the foreign world of Medieval biblical hermeneutics.

The images below are taken from two 12th century processional crosses in the Musée du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. Both are made of wood covered in gilded copper and silver. The images are enamel inlays and they draw typological connections between the crucifixion and episodes in the Old Testament. Some of the connections are already there in Scripture; others aren’t. Unfortunately I neglected to take a picture of the complete crosses, so you’ll just have to imagine them.

The brazen serpent

On the lower vertical of the cross we have Moses standing before the bronze serpent which God commands Moses to make in Numbers 21 as a remedy for the fiery serpents He’s just sent to punish the Children of Israel. The ingrates have been whingeing about being led out into the wilderness and having only disgusting manna to eat.

The connection between the bronze serpent and the cross is made in John 3:14-15 where Jesus predicts that he will be “lifted up” like the bronze serpent, and will bring eternal life to whoever believes in him.

While this typology strays far from the literal meaning of Numbers 21, early Protestant interpreters considered it legitimate, because it was already established elsewhere in Scripture.

Blood of the Passover Lamb

Further down the lower vertical we have another scripturally sanctioned typological connection between the slaughter of the Paschal Lamb (mactatio agni) and that of the cross. But what’s interesting here is the fact that the man in the picture is not just smearing blood all over the lintels of the households (Ex 12:7), but is using it to write the letter tau or “T.”

Aaron signing the tau on the foreheads of the saved

The meaning of the letter “T” is established on the upper vertical, which shows a figure writing a “tau” on the foreheads of a group of men. The Latin similis Aaron means “like Aaron.”

It took a lot of searching before I discovered that this was connected with Ezekiel 9:4-6, where God calls to a man dressed in linen – read as Aaron the High Priest in this image – and commands him to place a “mark” (RSV; Septuagint) or “tau” (Hebrew; Vulgate) upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst [of the Temple] (Douay-Reims)… Utterly destroy old and young, maidens children and women, but upon whomsoever you shall see the Thau, kill him not, and begin ye at my sanctuary. 

The idea is a bit like that found in John 3:14-15. The letter “T” on the foreheads of the righteous foreshadows the shape of the cross, by which believers will be saved. This then seems to be read back into Exodus 12 as warrant for the image of a man smearing the paschal lamb’s blood over his doorway in the shape of a “T.”

Widow of Zarephath

Finally, from a second typological cross in the same collection, we have this image of a woman with crossed sticks from the foot of the crucifix. The Latin Sareptena refers to the Widow of Zarepath in 1 Kings 17:8-24. During the drought and famine sent by God, Elijah meets the widow who is gathering sticks. She has almost run out of food and is going home to prepare a last meal for herself and her son before they both die of starvation. But she trusts in Elijah and feeds him. Her last measure of flour and oil miraculously last until rain ends the drought. Later, when her son falls ill, Elijah raises him from the dead. The biblical text says nothing about her sticks being crossed, but on the typological cross she holds them like this as a type of the cross, which provides heavenly food and the hope of resurrection.

This is no doubt all very recondite and specialist, but I think it illustrates well the way in which patristic and medieval exegetes tend to treat the literal-historical meaning of the text as a superficial meaning. Getting stuck there is the equivalent of not being able to see that the back of the wardrobe leads into Narnia.

I’m not recommending that our students start interpreting the Bible in this way. All I wanted to demonstrate was how historically conditioned and far from “obvious” many earlier readings of Scripture are – so that when we say that past generations of Christians based all their Theology on “The Bible” we’re probably not saying very much. What we should be asking is how they read the Bible.


[1] Alister McGrath, “The Return to Scripture” in Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 121.

Birds do it

Birds perching on a sprouting vine from British Library Add MS 1885 f. 14r

I’ve been asked to write a post about Saint Valentine’s Day.

Those who asked me to do this, should have known that this was like asking Mr Scrooge to write a post about Christmas.

My reluctance is not for lack of romantic spirit, but from an inborn resistance (somewhere deep in my Presbyterian genetics) to being hustled into organised festivities – especially by card companies, florists and the media-industrial complex.

So let me proceed with my hatchet-job.

Valentine’s day very likely has as much to do with a saint called Valentine as Boxing Day has to do with Mike Tyson.

Mediaeval Christians marked their year – not as we do with financial years, civic holidays and weekends – but with festivals of the church. So, for example, in some of the mediaeval British universities like Glasgow, the first term of the university year was known until recently as the “Martinmas term” because it contained the feast day of Saint Martin (11th November), one of the four days of the year on which rents were paid.

Calling a day Saint Valentine’s day means no more than saying that there is a feast day of romantic love on the 14th of February – which also happens to be Saint Valentine’s Day.

The lack of any more intrinsic connection with Saint Valentine is evident in the fact that the most popular mediaeval collection of saints’ lives, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden legend (late 13th cent.) tells a story about a Saint Valentine that makes no mention of any deed that could be construed as romantic. Here Valentine is just a “right noble knight of God” killed by the “Emperor Claudius” in 268.

In the 17th century the Bollandists, a group of Catholic scholars seeking to defend the church against Protestant charges of superstition, took a historico-critical flamethrower to the lush jungle of mediaeval hagiography. Their multi-volume Acta sanctorum identified seven different Saint Valentines – all of whom might be the one commemorated on 14th February.

  1. Valentine the bishop martyr of Baga and Taurus (Toro?) in Spain
  2. Valentine the presbyter and martyr of Rome
  3. Valentine the bishop and martyr of Terni (Interamna) in Umbria
  4. Valentine the martyr whose head is venerated in Jumiège in France
  5. Valentine the martyr “Socuellami in Hispania” (can’t work out what the modern Spanish place name is; suggestions welcome)
  6. Valentine the martyr of the Somme and Armentières
  7. Valentine, one of 24 soldier martyrs of Africa

The Bollandists’ Valentine, presbyter of Rome, defends his faith, baptises people and heals the blind, but doesn’t do anything that could be construed as particularly romantic.

Jacopo Bassano, Saint Valentine baptising Saint Lucilla, 1575

Given time and application, one could probably comb through lives of the other Valentines in search of the vaguely eroticisable. But we probably don’t need to, because Henry Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine (1986) thinks we’re barking up the wrong tree. According to Kelly, it’s not Valentine, but Chaucer we have to blame for Valentine’s Day.

Kelly’s basic argument is that, when Chaucer spoke about Saint Valentine’s day, he was referring to yet another Valentine (number eight) whose feast day was celebrated in Genoa on 2 May.

All over Europe, the “merry month of May” was associated with the stirrings of spring and of the loins – in a way that the still wintry 14th February was not.

In his poem Parliament of Fowls Chaucer describes a dream in which he enters the Temple of Venus where all of the birds are choosing their mates for spring, and he remarks:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,

[For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose its mate] (Parliament, l. 309-310)

Kelly then argues that Chaucer’s poetical admirers spread the association between Saint Valentine and the birds (and the bees) through aristocratic courtly love poetry. Valentine’s Day filtered from there into the popular culture of Catholic and later Protestant England. The feast was well established by the 17th century.

Because the Valentine of 14th Feb was better known than the Valentine of 2 May, things drifted backwards a few months, and the romantic elements began to find their way into the story of a single early Roman martyr called Valentine commemorated today.

So, for example, the 18th century Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler tells us that:

To abolish the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls in honour of their goddess Februta Juno, on the 15th of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets [slips of paper; the original “Valentines”] given on this day

Even if Kelly is wrong in blaming Chaucer for Valentine’s Day, there’s not much evidence for the a romantic Valentine before the early 15th century.

Still, I must admit that I am warming to the idea of a Chaucer’s Day. Who wants to join me in sniggering at the rude bits in the Miller’s Tale? After the deluge of Valentinomania, it would feel quite cathartic.

Detail of a miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer; from Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes, England (2nd quarter of the fifteenth century), Royal 17. D. vi, f. 93v. – See more at:

Advent offering -20 December

One of the sayings attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi – “preach the Gospel everywhere; use words if necessary” – was probably never said by him (Same, by the way, with the “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” through which we groaned our way to various musical settings at primary school).

Even so, the attributed advice does accurately reflect Francis’s approach to preaching. In a recent biography of Saint Francis, Augustine Thompson observes that most of the early followers of Francis had no previous experience of preaching. Though Franciscans would become – along with Dominicans – the preaching experts of the mediaeval church, the first ones may not have been that good at it.

Or, at least, they may not have been that good at traditional preaching; Francis seems to have been a creative genius when it came to less traditional expressions of the genre. The content of his sermons may not have been particularly cerebral, but he was skilled at reaching his audience at an emotional and intuitive level.

Giotto, c1300, Saint Francis preparing the Christmas crib at Greccio,!HalfHD.jpg (Wikimedia)
Giotto, c1300, Saint Francis preparing the Christmas crib at Greccio,!HalfHD.jpg (Wikimedia)

It can’t be said of many preachers that the effect of a single sermon reaches through the centuries, but I think this can fairly be said of Francis’s sermon preached in retirement from the village of Greccio. Here’s the account from Thompson’s biography:

Greccio during that Christmas season witnessed one of the most touching and revealing incidents in Francis’s life. Two weeks or so before the feast, Francis called on a certain John of Greccio, with whom he was familiar, and had him erect a grotto modelled on Bethlehem, with straw-filled manger, ox and ass, and an image of the Child Jesus. He placed it within the church’s choir screen, near the altar. On Christmas night the townspeople gathered by torchlight to contemplate the scene. The friars sang the Vigils of the Nativity, which at that time immediately preceded Midnight Mass. Francis served as the deacon for the Mass, and, after singing the Gospel, he entered the pulpit and preached on the Nativity of the Saviour.

Overcome with emotion, Francis pronounced the words “Babe of Bethlehem” in such as way that those hearing thought they could hear the bleating of the sheep around the manger scene. He picked up the figure of the Child, held it in his arms, and presented it for the devotion of those present. John of Greccio thought he saw the previously lifeless image vivified and remade as the living Christ Child. At the end of the service, those present entered the sanctuary and took pieces of straw to keep as relics. Reports circulated that sick domestic animals recovered their health, and women in labour touched with it had easy deliveries…

The humiliation of the Son of God, who became a child in the stable amid squalor and domestic animals, was for Francis, a model of spiritual perfection. the one who had died for sin on the Cross chose to be born a weak child, subject to all. Francis wanted animals, and even inanimate creation to share in the joyful celebration of Christmas.

Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 108-109)

Historians are usually allergic to attributing great historical changes to the actions of an individual, but it’s probably not stretching the facts too far to say that Francis of Assisi was largely responsible for the creation of Christmas as we experience it now: the carols, the manger, the sentiment (and sentimentality) the lay “ownership” of the festivities.

This “affective piety” (i.e. a spirituality of the senses and emotions”) was spread by the Franciscan order to Europe and then Asia and the Americas. Its effects can be seen in everything from the sensuality of Catholic Baroque to those Pentecostal choruses, whose chord changes and simple theology are aimed at a worshipper’s heart rather than his or her head. But the aftermath of Francis’s piety can be seen above all in the tenacity of Christmas as a popular feast, despite the reserve or open disapproval voiced by Christians of a severer mind-set.

As an academic, I’m trained to approach the emotional and intuitive with a certain caution, to think things through carefully and prefer suspending judgement to taking the affective leap that Francis wants me to. That’s no problem. Francis has his job, I have mine. But my constant delight as an historian is also to be reminded that there is another side of life that involves the curative properties of manger straw and preachers imitating sheep from from the pulpit – and that human life would be mighty arid and dreary without it.

On popes and their resignations

Cardinal Josef Ratzinger once again

“Unprecedented in modern times” “first pope in over seven hundred years,” “first pope in six hundred years” were already media clichés within hours of the news that Benedict the XVI was to resign the papal office at 8pm on 28 February 2013.

The fact that these phrases were recycled over and over yesterday doesn’t make them any less true. Benedict has made a radical decision. But it would be wrong to assume, as some of the coverage did, that his decision throws the Catholic church into some sort of theological or pastoral tailspin. It’s well recognised that Benedict XVI is a man of tradition, and anyone familiar with the rich, complex and extremely messy history of Catholic Christianity will know that (a) the church has survived far worse than this, and (b) it long ago developed fairly robust theological, legal and political procedures for dealing with failures and disruptions in the papal office.

TV news last night informed us that the last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 (hence the “600 years”). What wasn’t mentioned was that Gregory XII was only one of three rival popes vying for recognition from western Europe at the time. There was also Benedict XIII, whose power-base was in southern France and then eastern Spain, and John XXIII, who’d recently been elected pope by a group of cardinals who had defected from the courts of the existing papal rivals. The defectors’ hope was the election a new compromise papacy would encourage the existing rivals to resign. It didn’t.

The soon to be deposed “antipope” John XXIII presiding over discussions at the Council of Constance (1414-1418)

It was Gregory’s good luck that history deemed his two rivals “antipopes.” However, at the time it was anything but clear who was the real pope and who wasn’t. It took a remarkable effort of international diplomacy to convene a council of the church, which met in the Swiss Imperial city of Constance in 1414 and then cajoled, bribed and bullied the three rival popes into standing down (with mixed success; Benedict XIII refused to resign, and was accordingly excommunicated). The Council then elected Martin V as their replacement. Unfortunately this wasn’t quite the last time that western Christendom had two popes, but that’s another story.

Officially the Council of Constance ended what’s known as the ‘Western’ Schism (1378-1417), but it wasn’t the first time that the papacy had been split between rival claimants or had become a plaything in the rivalries of feuding Italian dynasties or European governments. The fact that popes haven’t resigned since the early fifteenth century to some extent reflects an institutional fear that a powerful politician, political clique or church faction could bend the pope to its will by threatening to replace him. It’s significant, for example, that even though Napoleon was able to bully, kidnap and imprison Pius VI,  the pope’s resignation wasn’t in question (though it should be added that Pius VI then obligingly died).

Pius VI’s successor Pius VII as a rather acquiescent spectator at Napoleon’s coronation

There’s still still no agreement about whether there are circumstances under which the pope can legitimately be forced to resign. For example, there was a broad consensus in the Middle Ages that a pope who fell into heresy could be forced from office. But it was never clear whose job it was to judge whether or not the pope was a heretic. It’s still not.

However, what did emerge clearly from mediaeval papal politics was an agreement that the pope could resign, if he made it clear that his decision was freely taken and unconstrained. This principle is still enshrined in the Catholic Church’s modern code of canon law.

What the Middle Ages also made clear is that the church doesn’t always need a pope there to run it. In fact, it’s not the pope’s job to “run” the church, anyway. When the Queen of New Zealand (and her other realms and territories) dies, she will immediately be succeeded by the next in line to the throne (even before they get around to crowning him). However, in the past the church has gone for weeks, months and sometimes years without a pope. Likewise, as we’ve seen, it’s sometimes had more than one pope to choose from!

The popular notion that it’s the pope’s job to have an infallible opinion about everything, and to offer what the North Koreans call “on the spot guidance” to Catholics about every aspect of their daily life is a false one. It’s arguably a creation of the celebrity papacy that has only been possible since the invention of the mass media in the 19th century. Before this the relationship between individual Catholics and the papacy was a far more distant one, and the thought that the church might manage quite nicely without the pope — at least for a while — was far more thinkable.

It’s often observed (not always fairly) that Benedict XVI doesn’t possess the “star quality” of his predecessor John Paul II. But it’s quite possible that Benedict has quite deliberately taken two steps back from the limelight in which the last pope seemed to revel. While Benedict is visibly far more frail than he was when he began his pontificate, his resignation may also be a way of drawing attention to the fact that the church is always more than the pope, who is first and foremost its servant. It was notable, too, that in resigning yesterday, he stressed that Jesus is the “supreme pastor” of the church. In the same statement, he chose not to describe himself as the “Vicar of Christ” (Christ’s representative), but instead used the much older title of “successor of Peter.” He is probably more aware than most that Peter was a particularly fallible and fragile follower of Christ.

Conference Notice


Virgin and child

Hei Kohikohinga Kōrero mō te Hāhi Karaitiana ki Aotearoa

Re-evaluating Christianity’s Influence in Shaping Aotearoa New Zealand c1800-c1860

27-29 November 2012

Pōwhiri, Welcome and Opening: Te Tii Marae, Waitangi, Bay of Islands, 27 November 2012

Plenary Sessions: Copthorne Hotel, Waitangi, Bay of Islands, 28-29 November 2012

For further information about the conference, please contact Alan Davidson:


Long, shiny, gleaming, steaming hair

Auckland Theology’s Movember poll coincides with news from the US that federal authorities have charged seven members of a “renegade Amish group” with, “a series of beard- and hair-cutting assaults against Amish men and women.”

What is it with hair and religion? I’m glad you asked that. Or at least I’m glad someone in class recently asked why the Protestant reformers grew big beards. Cases in point: Johannes Oecolampadius, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, plus a less impressive but nonetheless commendable effort by Jean Calvin.

Clement VII
Clement VII (r1523-1534)

Someone else in class suggested that they were doing it to differentiate themselves from shaven clergy of the traditional church.

Maybe, but the counter-examples to that theory are the reformers Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther (both clean shaven) and all of the bearded popes between Clement VII (elected 1523) and Alexander VIII (died 1691).

But, even if beards didn’t mark out some Catholic/Protestant divide, something did change in the early 16th century to make beards fashionable among the previously clean-shaven clergy.

In 1531 a scholar at the papal court, Giovanni Pierio Valeriano Bolzani felt compelled to write a tract In Favour of Priests’ Beards against those who argued that priests should be clean-shaven. I came across this work a couple of years ago, while rifling through a collection of 16th cent pamphlets in the British Library. I’ve always meant to go back and look at it, but now I don’t need to, because it’s available on Google books.

The pamphlet is interesting because it wouldn’t have been written (a) unless clergy were growing beards, and (b) someone thought it was worth getting upset about.

Bolzani recognised that, until recently, western clergy had usually been clean-shaven. But, as a good Humanist scholar and historian, he also recognised that this had not always been the case. Canon law had once required priests to have short hair and beards. At some point, and with no explanation, that ruling had changed to require both short hair and shaven faces.

Ingeniously, Bolzani suggested that his change had been introduced prior to the 10th century, arguing that if earlier popes in this period had been required to wear beard like his own pope Clement VII, Pope Joan would never have got herself elected.

Bolzani claimed that Pope Clement VII started wearing a beard as a sign of his grief after the German sack of Rome in 1527. It’s not clear whether Bolzani thought this was the beginning of the new fashion, but he did point out that it had good precedent: obviously – he thought – Jesus, John the Baptist and the apostles all had beards, too.

Bolzani didn’t speculate on why western clergy started shaving their faces, and modern commentators aren’t really sure either. In his “The Symbolic Meaning of Hair in the Middle Ages” (yes, people do research on this stuff) Robert Bartlett argues that there’s no clear evidence that hairiness or the lack of it had any stable meaning across the Middle Ages. Instead:

What mattered, it seems, was the function of hair as a marker in a system of oppositions (57)

In other words, if people on your side were hairy, then theological justifications could be found for it; if not, not. Bartlett thinks it’s possible that shaven heads and faces came in with the priestly celibacy promoted by the Gregorian reform movement: it may have distinguished the clergy from their hairy, married counterparts in the Eastern church.

Second, as Bartlett points out elsewhere in his article, long hair was often associated with effeminacy in this period. He notes that:

On Ash Wednesday 1094 Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury refused to give ashes or his blessing to those young men who ‘grew their hair like girls’ unless they had their hair cut…. (50)

If this is the case, then all-over clerical hairlessness may have been intended to represent a kind of hyper-masculinity!

According to the recent stories about the Amish hair assaults, Amish men grow their beards long “for religious reasons.” Yet we’re never told what those religious reasons are, and these alleged religious reasons sound to me suspiciously like one of those things journalists receive on hearsay but never actually investigate. I suppose that it is possible that the Amish have developed a biblical case for beardage, though I can’t imagine what it is. And even if they have an explicit religious justification, I suspect the historical origins of this fashion are just as complex and obscure as those of clerical hairiness (and otherwise) in the west.