Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Cornelius à Lapide: Flemish Catholic Exegete II

            In what follows we will focus Lapide’s most influential volumes, his four Gospel commentaries, as an example of his hermeneutical method.[1]
           The study of Lapide's exegesis is particularly interesting because it provides a window into the world of Catholic biblical studies during the so-called "Counter Reformation" period.  There are many stereotypes and caricatures of what Catholics were doing with Scripture at this point in history, but a careful examination of Lapide's work often exposes these caricatures for what they are.
 It is not known exactly when Lapide composed his gospel commentaries, except that it was certainly during his professorship in Rome (1616-37), since the introduction presupposes that his work on the Old Testament was largely complete by that time.[2]
            Lapide conceived of his gospel commentaries as a discrete literary unit within his larger collection of commentaries, and so the commentary on Matthew is preceded by several introductory essays which apply to all four Gospels. 
Lapide begins with a preface consisting of three chapters.  The first chapter is by far the longest, and is hortatory or even sermonic in form.  He praises the inestimable value of the Gospels as God’s highest self-revelation, far superior to the Old Testament, by enumerating twelve contrasts in which the Gospel (roughly, the New Testament) is superior to the Law (i.e. the Old Testament), and sprinkling his discourse liberally with quotations and anecdotes from the lives of the Fathers and the Saints designed to impress upon the reader this truth: “All of a Christian’s wisdom, virtue, perfection and happiness depends on this: that he draws upon the teaching and life of Christ as described in the gospel, meditates on it, and expresses it in his conduct.”[3]
In the second chapter of the preface, he discuss the number, order, discrepancies and agreement of the four Gospels one with another.[4]  Lapide embraces the Church’s long-standing tradition—about which he quotes Augustine—that the Gospels were composed in the same order in which they are found in the canon, with Matthew writing his Gospel first in Hebrew, which was immediately translated into Greek, and Mark summarizing and abbreviating Matthew.  He also treats of their similarities and differences, but since he deals with these issues at greater length in the Canons of Interpretation, we will analyze his approach below.
The third chapter of the preface discusses the primary and secondary sources he used in composing his commentaries, which is fascinating for the light it sheds on the linguistic and text-critical resources that were available for Catholic scholars in the seventeenth century.[5]  Lapide works primarily from the Latin of Jerome’s Vulgate and “the Greek,” but he does not specify the Greek manuscripts from which he works.  He probably had access to good copies of the Majority text from the Vatican libraries and the Jesuit’s Roman College, but he also may have had access to Vaticanus (B) itself.  In addition to the Greek and Latin, Lapide asserts that he has consulted the Syriac (Peshitta), Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Persian (Farsi) versions.  “Of all these versions I propose to make use, though in moderation, and with a grain of salt.  For they have not the authority of the Greek and Latin gospels; but they confirm, and to some extant shed light on them.”[6]  Lapide notes that his Arabic version is that printed by the Medici press in 1591.  His Persian (Farsi) manuscript dates to A.D. 1381 and was brought from Arga to Rome as a gift to the Jesuit Roman College by the Jesuit Jerome Xavier—a cousin of St. Francis Xavier.  For assistance with the Oriental languages, Lapide has employed the aid of the young priests from the Middle Eastern nations who come to Rome for education, and also his colleague Fr. Athanasius Kircher, a great seventeenth-century Orientalist.[7]
While both in Louvain and Rome, Lapide studied a wide range of commentaries, both ancient and recent.  Among the patristic commentaries he has consulted, he makes special mention of Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, Cyril, Chrysostom, Bede, Theophylactus, and Euthymius.[8]
His comments on the spate of recent commentaries sounds humorous to the twenty-first century scholar who may have thought that the explosion of secondary literature on Scripture was a recent phenomenon:
Of recent commentators the number is almost infinite.  Their superabundance makes it difficult for the reader to know which to choose … Among commentaries which are so divergent in their interpretations, you do not know which one to prefer and follow.  Many, moreover, are so wordy that not only students but even learned scholars who devote themselves entirely to sacred scripture do not have the time and leisure to read them (not to mention the intellectual strength and endurance).[9]

Among those he has consulted, Lapide mentions Alphonsus Tostatus, Cornelius Jansen, Franz Lucas, Alphonsus Salmeron, Joannes Maldonatus, Franciscus Toletus, and Sebastianus Barradius.  He also notes that the “heretics” Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Beza, and Pelican have commented on the Gospels; his knowledge of their work seems largely mediated by the Symmystes, a catena or anthology of their commentaries composed by Augustinus Marloratus (remembered in Calvin studies as one of the first to compile biblical and topical indices of the Institutes).[10]
In my next post, I will provide a summary of Lapide's 39 Canons on the Interpretation of the Gospels.
[1] Happily, Lapide’s commentaries on the Gospels have now been reprinted in an elegant and handsome form by Loreto Publications: The Great Commentary of Cornelius A Lapide (trans. T. W. Mossman; rev. M. J. Miller; 4 vols.;  Fitzwilliam, N.H.: Loreto Publications, 2008).  This edition will serve as the basis for our discussion below, especially volume 1 (hereafter Matthew I), volume 2 (hereafter Matthew II) and volume 4 (hereafter John).
[2] Lapide, Matthew I, xix.
[3] Lapide, Matthew I, xxxiii.
[4] Lapide, Matthew I, xli-xlvii.
[5] Lapide, Matthew I, xlix-lii.
[6] Lapide, Matthew I, xlix.
[7] Lapide, Matthew I, xlxix-l.
[8] Lapide, Matthew I, l.
[9] Lapide, Matthew I, l.
[10] Lapide, Matthew I, l-li.


Matthew Kennel said...

I am enjoying the posts on the history of biblical scholarship. Keep them coming :-)

John Bergsma said...

thanks, I will!