A Brief Introduction to the Medieval Bible

For a long time, scholarship concerning the Bible of the medieval Christians has been dominated by pro-Enlightenment characterizations. Access to the Bible is believed to have been restricted to the clerics, the only ones that could read the Latin (that is, until Luther first put the Bible into the language of the people). Alongside this myth that the clergy monopolized Bible access, is the idea that medieval theologians contributed little to the study of scripture.  It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment that digging towards the “true” and “original” meaning of the text got serious. The real Bible was recovered in the Renaissance, with its emphasis on the Greek and Hebrew. To all of this anti-medieval sentiment, I want to offer a sound rebuke. My aim in writing an introduction to the medieval Bible is to present a more positive assessment of biblical scholarship in the medieval period. The study concentrates on four main areas: 1.) the history of the Bible as a material object, 2.) the history of the Bible as a written text, and its transmission by repeated copying and medieval efforts to exact a “correct” version, 3.) the history of the interpretation of the text, which has often been dismissed as pale and irrelevant in the wake of the Reformation, and 4.) the diffusion of biblical ideas and its influence in the broader culture.

Our first consideration is the Bible as a physical object. For most of the middle ages the Bible was rarely ever one book; One scholar considers it more of a “sacred library.” Near the end of the Middle Ages though, bibles began to look more as we conceive them today–a composite single volume contained under one cover. In fact, the idea of the Bible as a single book–quite an important concept for the Reformers–originated during the Middle Ages. The formation of the biblical canon was also beginning to solidify during the Middle Ages. Some readers might be surprised at this, that the discussion of which books would be considered scripture was not settled at the beginning of the medieval period. But the disagreement is represented by the emergence of two canons at the end of the Middle Ages, one with the Apocrypha and one without. In addition to the debated Apocryphal (deutero-canonical) books, the medieval Christians were also engaging with a large body of “para-biblical” literature. This included “Gospels” narrating the early childhood of Jesus, or the life of Mary. Some, including the author of the Da Vinci Code, have wanted to see these books as a suppressed expression of an alternative Christianity that medieval church leadership was eager to eradicate. Though these extra-canonical texts were not held up as highly as scripture, they were often enjoyed as popular devotional reading, and the medieval clerics didn’t discourage their parishioners from reading them. The diversity of the biblical canon in the Middle Ages suggests the idea that the formation of the Bible was conspiratorial or authoritarian (as Bart Ehrman has famously argued) is far from accurate. There was a broad consensus certainly, but the sixteenth century saw a less tolerance on what counts as canon than ever previously.

Another important aspect of studying the Bible in the medieval Church is to examine the evolution of the text of the canonical Bible in the Middle Ages. “Handwritten and hand-copied, and constantly being reformatted to meet the new demands of the time, the text of the medieval Bible was far from fixed.” Human copiers inevitably lead to certain mistakes, which lead to corrections and improvements. The objective, which seems to have always been the case for Christian biblical scholarship, is to have the text accurately reflect its “original” version.

No study could be taken seriously without discussion of the interpretation of the biblical text. Medieval hermeneutics were more interested in allegorical and spiritual readings of the Bible than modern interpreters. Narratives were often taken to reflect relevant spiritual truths about God and themselves. However, the idea that the most common approach to understanding scripture in the Middle Ages was to search for allegorical meaning has been overstated. This is unsurprising, as many of the scholars who have established this notion are not themselves biblical scholars or even Christians, but secular historians. The secular historian tends to see efforts to find Christ in the Old Testament (which was quite common in the Middle Ages) as a quest for allegory, when in reality this is a widely practiced and accepted approach to the meaning of scripture even today. A medieval exegete for example would have been more interested in the parallels between Jonah’s days in the belly of the whale and Christ’s days in the tombFar from remedial importance, studying scripture is a priority for the medievals, as is evidenced by its centrality to medieval university curriculum. More than other forms of evidence, there is an abundant body of literature to see how the Bible was being taught in medieval education–as it was undoubtedly the most important school book. While historical criticism was not the primary mode of exegesis, the medieval Christians often arrive at similar conclusions about texts as we do today. And while its correctness is contested, we must at least find it remarkable how relentless the medievals were in attempting to read the biblical narrative Christocentrically.

The Bible in the medieval community is an emerging field amongst scholars who study the society of the Middle Ages. Who was reading the Bible, and how did one become acquainted with the Bible in a context where many could not read? This affords us the chance to mention the numerous vernacular translations that existed in the Middle Ages and their dissemination amongst people of varying classes. Combatting the idea that access to the Bible was restricted also requires challenging modern notions of literacy in the Middle Ages. The research is fresh, but it seems that at the very least, enlightenment historians have exaggerated the matter. It is true that the Bible was not read as often by medieval Christians as it is today–books were hard to come by and reading was a less common skill. But one should not assume that it was therefore less known. A spectator at a medieval mystery play or listeners to a medieval sermon could acquire biblical proficiency in ways comparable to a reader of the text. The medieval Bible’s role in public worship and personal devotion turns out to be not unlike the modern Christian practices. Church services had sermons and scripture readings, and meditation on the Bible and imagining oneself as part of the narrative was common spiritual practice. The Middle Ages also saw the Bible transmitted into the medieval imagination in art and literature. Church decoration and theatrical production were an important way for the laity to be involved.

Implications:

First, we have to admit that the sixteenth century marked a watershed in the history of the Bible. The printing press altered notions of what made something a “text.” Renaissance scholars no longer studied the Greek and Hebrew to correct the Latin, but to arrive at the “original.” The Reformation challenged the authority of the clerics to hold an exclusive right to interpret the Bible and denied many of the extra-canonical traditions of the medieval Christians, which were sometimes given more importance than is healthy. However, the innovations of the Reformation, while trying to make the meaning of the Bible clearer, may have obscured other things. One such consequence has been the history of the formation of the biblical text. This “lost history” of the Bible, when considered ahistorically, leads to the propagation of myths like the ones being seen in recent pop-fiction. A good understanding of the medieval Bible will help to dispel such absurdities. There’s also the residual effect the extra-canonical books have on the Christian understanding of the books still part of the Bible, even today. Christ’s descent into hell, images of fallen angels, and even the display of certain animals in Nativity scenes are all quite popular today, but each has medieval biblical origins. Even more fundamentally to the Reformation and modern Christianity, it is clear based on emerging work that the notion of the Bible as a single book, and the traditions of lay Bible reading and personal devotion have deep roots in medieval practice.

As one who has interest in the exegesis of scripture, the practice of medieval interpretation was counter-intuitive. I have been trained to reconstruct an author’s historical-cultural context in order to arrive at the intended meaning. This method was not alien to the medieval Christians, and might even become the dominant approach in the late Middle Ages. However, the medieval exegetes were more interested in allegorical and moral interpretations. Seeing the medieval Christians approach to scripture and their own explanations for this approach has forced me to critically examine my own practice.

Though medieval biblical scholarship does not look identical to our modern or even sixteenth century versions, it was a time that bore much fruit. While the text was in some ways limited, the dissemination of the Bible into the wider culture did occur in other creative ways, and perhaps was even more well known to the medieval Christians than it is to many Christians today. Access to read text does not always determine knowledge of that text, and therefore restriction and limitation to read does not always determine ignorance. Much of the medieval Christian practice related to the Bible remains an important part of our practice today.

 

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