The Venerable Bede's manuductive hermeneutics: lame readers, apostolic teachers, and temple exegesis in his commentary on acts.
For the past thirty years, much of the scholarship concerning the Venerable Bede has rightly sought to expand his reputation beyond that of important historian of the West to a formative, if not central, figure of biblical exegesis in the Christian tradition. (1) A number of critical editions and recent translations of Bede's exegetical works have greatly aided this task of valuing Bedes contribution more holistically and, in some cases, the analysis has even reversed the tables and sought to understand Bede's historiographical contributions as secondary to his role as a faithful reader of Scripture. (2) That this project has largely been successful is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that we no longer sense the need to include the seemingly requisite apologia as an introduction for engaging Bede in this manner--a practice that almost infallibly justifies itself by citing the very few autobiographical words from the Historia Ecclesiastica in which Bede describes himself foremost as a monk who spent his entire life applying himself to the study of Scripture. What is evidently still lacking, however, is a greater appreciation for (even acknowledgment of) the rest of the sentence: "and, amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the church, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write" (Bede's Ecclesiastical v. 24, 567).
It seems, then, that the present task is to continue mining his exegetical texts themselves not only for the many ways in which they refute those who misread Bede's "unoriginality" as a lack of skill or deficient intellect, but more importantly, for the ways in which they help us appreciate better the readers of Scripture in the Christian tradition--both those who preceded Bede and who are thus to some extent indebted to his clear, faithful elucidation offered in utmost humility, and those who by merely imitating his example have already inherited a great deal. To that end, this essay focuses on Bede's Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles as a text which, perhaps better than any other of his commentaries, bridges the gap between Bede the historian and Bede the exegete. (3) Here, as with all his major works, Bede's thematic emphases and driving images clearly serve an overarching ecclesial purpose: to promote the kind of faithful teaching and reading which will preserve the unity of the body of Christ and thus continually prompt its members toward a greater knowledge and love of God.
Rather than draw attention to the rhetorical artistry or the classical literary terms that Bede employs, I have focused this study on Bede's portrayal of apostolic manuduction ("leading by the hand") (4) and his use of "temple" imagery (5) as a way to draw out some of the implications and pedagogical purposes of Bede's own hermeneutical approach. Of particular relevance is the way Bede locates Christ's teaching and the faithful imitation of that teaching by his followers as the key for properly reading not only words on a page but the Word as it is written, as Augustine says, on the vellum of history and creation (Confessions XIII.15.2). As a reader and teacher of the Sacred Scriptures in the line of Luke, Peter, Paul, and especially Jesus, Bede is clearly concerned with situating his own Northumbrian community in the body of Christ and of rightly reading itself in relation to the Holy Scriptures. What closer attention to a few key passages in Bede's commentary also makes clear, however, is that, for Bede, the right reading of Scriptures is in itself always an imitation of Christ and, in part, what it means to be one of his Apostles--the final proof of which can be measured in the degree to which the Church is faithful to its task of leading others into the heavenly kingdom or temple, which is Christ's body (John 2:20-22).
Thus Bede offers a hermeneutical principle and what we might call a pedagogical heuristic by which every exegesis, including his own, is to be assessed. Using the terms "principle" or "heuristic" only makes sense, however, if we can somehow avoid implying that Bede merely offers a "standard rubric" or "technique" which is immediately comprehensible and universally applicable apart from its embodied expression in the time-bound, contingent performance of the body of Christ in the liturgy and life of worship. For what Bede also makes clear is that, when it comes to reading the Sacred Scriptures, there can be no knowing which exists prior to or independent from doing. Like the dynamic symbiotic relationship between the four-fold levels of exegesis, or the relationship between the sign and that which it signifies, the virtues required for a faithful reading are unobtainable--indeed, unintelligible--apart from the Word made manifest in the texts of the Scriptures and the life of the Church. Or, to use Bede's own words again, the particular form of "delight" which he experiences in teaching, learning, and writing can only be apprehended in its fullness "amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the church."
Such an observation grows out of and lends significance to this essays underlying claim that, in his reading of the apostles whose acts are proof that they have correctly interpreted Gods word--i.e. they have been correctly interpreted by Christ as the Word--Bede is himself participating in and inviting his readers into the kind of reading which draws all of creation into the Heavenly Temple. (6) It would seem to follow, then, that the intended readers of his Commentary include us today as much as the novices in the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery. That this would necessarily present both a challenge and an opportunity to those who would seek to read and teach the Sacred Scriptures should not, I think, be underestimated.
Luke the Master('s) Teacher: Following Christ, Leading Readers
In the preface and first chapter of his Commentary on Acts, Bede establishes early on the central principle that will prompt and guide the remainder of his exegesis. Bede draws attention to a seemingly insignificant line in the very first verse of Acts: "Note also that [Luke] says, which Jesus did and taught from the beginning--first 'did' and then 'taught,' because Jesus establishing the pattern of a good teacher, taught nothing except those things which he did" (9). Bede's commentary here is relatively brief as he moves on with his elucidation, but as we shall see, the full significance of his statement accrues meaning as Bede makes reference again and again (often quite subtly) to this principle of a good teacher as one whose words become fully manifest in action.
One on level, it is clear that Bede is a teacher concerned with how best to equip the young novices under his tutelage at the monastery. To this end, Bede masterfully traces this pattern in the remainder of his commentary through the ways in which Peter and Paul exhibit this principle of a good teacher. But what also becomes increasingly clear is that for Bede this pattern of teaching and doing is inextricably bound to--both propaedeutic for and a consequence of--a right reading of the whole of Scriptures.
This seems particularly evident in the way Bede presents Luke as a reader and writer of the Scriptures who, "being controlled like a pen by the Holy Spirit," (4) is himself proclaiming and enacting the pattern of a good teacher. In his preface, Bede is quick to depict Luke as an expert teacher, one whose training as a physician helps us appreciate that his "rather ornate [discourse] imbued with secular eloquence" is "likewise medicine for an ailing soul" (4). (7) But for Bede, an eloquent stylist in his own right, it is also evident that Lukes authority is derived not primarily from his rhetorical artistry or academic laurels, but from his spiritual even more than his historical proximity to Christ--a proximity that is in direct correlation to the degree to which he imitates Christ in both word and deed. Thus, though he is clearly also thinking about how to train future teachers for whom the world of Scriptures would no doubt seem alien in comparison to their own not-so-distant pagan Anglo-Saxon world, for Bede, such a distance is to be broached not primarily by way of sensitive cultural and linguistic translation or appropriation, but by cultivating the practices and virtues indicative of discipleship and obedience to Christ. What his commentary on the acts of the apostles seeks to make clear, then, is that interpretive authority as a reader and teacher of Scriptures is never merely a matter of having the right words, but rather an embodiment of both word and deed in imitation of the One Triune Word in whom acting and speaking are inseparable.
To be sure, as a scholar and historian, Bede appreciates the authority conferred by a first-hand eyewitness account. But even then, as his prefatory comments suggest, the authority of such accounts is dependent on the corroboration of a community of witnesses:
Mark and Luke indeed wrote at a time when they could be judged, not only by the church of Christ, but also by those who still remained in the flesh [in carne]. For through the Lord's will it was brought about that the words and deeds of Christ were put together in a written form, not only by the apostles who saw [Christ], but also by disciples who learned [of him] by hearing, so that subsequent teachers in the church might be supplied with the confidence and authority for preaching and writing about those things which they had not seen. (5, emphasis mine)
As his gospel account suggests, Luke is himself to be counted as one of those disciples who learned of Christ "by hearing" and not seeing, though no doubt his account in Acts is very much a reflection of his first-hand experience. Similarly, the judgment and communal testimony from both apostles and unbelievers who have seen or heard of Christ lends Bede and his "subsequent teachers" in training a great deal of confidence and authority to speak about that which they have not seen. What the rest of commentary makes clear, however, is that, while important, such a direct verification of witness is ultimately insufficient, or at least can never be properly understood apart from a living faith in Christ and an active participation in the Spirit's ongoing work of edifying the church. Indeed, Bede notes in the preceding paragraph that Luke extended his Gospel account "to those things that the apostles did which he believed would avail for the building up of the faith [aedificandam fidem] of his readers and hearers." By contrast, he asserts, "All those are to be rejected who have ventured to write of the apostles' deeds and words without the faith that is needful" (5, emphasis mine).
For Bede, this "faith that is needful" is evident early on in Luke's account. Here, as he will throughout the commentary, Bede understands Luke as an astute and faithful reader of the whole scriptures who, intimately knowing the content of the Old Testament, is consciously drawing out those moments in which the meaning of a passage of Sacred Scripture is finally fulfilled and, in a real sense, interpreted by Christ. Take for example Luke's mention of the forty days after the resurrection during which Christ was instructing his disciples (1:3). Bede's exegesis acknowledges the significance of the literal sense: "In order to build up faith in his resurrection, the Lord quite often after his passion appeared alive to his apostles; he took food, and showed them the same tangible body which he had raised up from the dead" (10). In writing the way he does, as one who builds up the faith, Luke is already implicitly participating in the work of Christ's body following His passion.
But Bede also notes the "loftier symbolism" which
signified that by his hidden presence [Jesus] would fulfill what he had promised--Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (8) Now this number [forty] designates this temporal earthly life. ... For after we have been buried in death with Christ through baptism, as though having passed over the path through the Red Sea, it is necessary for us, in this wilderness, to have the Lord's guidance. May he lead us to the heavenly kingdom and repay us with the denarius of his image. In the presence of the Holy Spirit, may he bless us as by a true jubilee rest. (10)
This passage reveals a great deal about Bedes own hermeneutical framework, not the least of which is his ability to read the whole of Scriptures in each of the parts. (9) But what is most instructive for our purposes here is the way in which his allegorical exegesis is centered on Christ as the ever-present exemplar who quite literally leads the church into the heavenly kingdom--a kingdom wherein God's infinite gift of his own image in the form of Christ on the cross stands in radical opposition to the self-serving, but eminently temporal taxation of Caesar's denarius (Mark 12:15). Indeed, as Bedes own compact, yet multilayered exegesis suggests, such a heavenly kingdom is anticipated and prefigured by the Jewish year of Jubilee in which all debts are forgiven, all slaves are freed, and all property is returned to its true owner. Thus for Luke, and by extension Bede, Christ is both signifier and the signified, the one who is both the way out of the tiresome wilderness and the place in which our weary souls can find rest. Or, as Augustine appositely says in De Doctrina Cristiana (a work Bede undoubtedly knew well), "[T]he Wisdom of God, setting out to cure men, applied Himself to cure them, being at once the Physician and the Medicine" (15).
Ascending Readers and the Spiritual Senses
That Luke has himself learned to read the whole of the Scriptures rightly is only further emphasized by the disciple's failure prior to the Ascension to properly interpret Christs kingdom. Before leaving, Jesus assures his disciples that they "will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now" (1:5). But the disciples somewhat naively ask him in response, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" (1:6). Here, Bede explains that
the disciples, who were still materially-minded [carnales], believed that, since the resurrection of Christ had been accomplished, the kingdom of Israel would come immediately.... Hence the Lord himself, making known the spiritual Israel and the heavenly kingdom which had been promised by the prophets, said, "It is not for you to know the times or dates which the Father in his power has appointed. (11-12, emphasis mine)
Much like the wandering Israelites, the "materially-minded" disciples who expected the immediate, political coming of the Kingdom of Israel needed to be further led by Christ for some time before they could understand what Christ meant by his kingdom and what it would mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit. (10) That is, they needed Christ himself to make known the spiritual Israel and heavenly kingdom prefigured in the words of the prophets. But, as Bede's commentary has already been suggesting, what Christ makes "known" is not in any way intelligible as an abstract proposition, as something which can be immediately and universally apprehended by the intellect alone. Nor is it offering a kind of Platonic ideal or form which is to be achieved through abandoning the physical senses and material world. (11) Rather, what Christ makes known is always imperfectly and mediately understood as the reader's will, in imitation of Christ's incarnate example, becomes transformed and conformed to the intent of the Divine Author whose leading through the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:42) is like that of a good shepherd (Ps. 23).
Thus for Bede, it is all the more appropriate that "When [Jesus] had vanquished the prince of darkness, our Lord and Savior led the faithful forth into a place of peace and light, and with good cause he ascended the mount of chrism to send the Holy Spirit, by whose anointing we are taught all things" (14). Having been led up and out of the darkness of their limited, overly material hermeneutics by the one who, as God-in-flesh, is himself the way and the destination, the disciples are now in a position to better understand and receive the Holy Spirit's role as a teacher who will enable them to bear witness. However, as Bede's later commentary makes clear, this is not to suggest that the apostles "have arrived" as interpreters and teachers; rather, with the Holy Spirit as their teacher and guide, their journey is just beginning.
Within the narrative Bede is tracing, it is especially significant, then, that after Christ was "lifted up before their eyes" (1:9) Luke notes that "they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount called Olivet which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath's day journey" (1:12). Again, for Bede such seemingly cursory details are rich with spiritual import. On a literal level, Bede notes that Mount Olivet could not be more than one thousand paces from Jerusalem since the law prohibited walking beyond that distance on the Sabbath. In an "allegorical sense," however, it means that
anyone who becomes worthy of an interior vision of the glory of the Lord as he ascends to the Father, and of enrichment by the promise of the Holy Spirit, here enters the city of everlasting peace by a Sabbath journey. There will be, in Isaiah's words, Sabbath after Sabbath, because, having been free of wicked works here [in this life], he will be at rest there in heavenly recompense. (14, emphasis original)
As we have seen, the Apostles Sabbath journey refers not only to Isaiah's prophesy but is prefigured for Bede in Israel's wandering in the desert, the hermeneutical implications of which are further borne out in the warning immediately following:
On the other hand, anyone who in this world, as if during the period of the six days, has neglected the working out of his salvation, showing scorn for that text of the gospel [which says], "Pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on the Sabbath," will at that time of everlasting rest be shut out from the boundaries of the blessed Jerusalem. (14, emphasis mine)
Here Bede's grammatical construction makes an explicit parallel between one who neglects "the working out of his salvation" and one who scorns "the text of the gospel" (in this case Matt. 24:20), the consequence of which is exclusion from the heavenly Jerusalem. The "blessed Jerusalem" thus signifies for Bede both an eschatological reality and a hermeneutical telos--or rather it suggests that the two are coextensive and integrally related. For the end of any scriptural reading, as with the end of human life as Bede thinks of it, is a participation in the knowledge that God has of himself. (12) And if for God knowing and being are one and the same, it follows that "wicked works" are precisely those actions which prevent us from an "interior vision" of the glory of the Lord. Indeed, such a materially or carnally minded reading of texts and the world constitutes a near-sighted rejection of the one whose incarnate example and promise of the Holy Spirit transfigures the world into his own image. The materially-minded disciples' failure, then, is not simply in misinterpreting the particular meaning(s) of the sign(s). In fact, it is a much more fundamental failure of their semiotics to understand the nature and provenance of signs in the first place--that is, of Christ as the sign for all signs, the analogy which makes all analogies possible.
But Bede makes it abundantly clear in the verses that follow and in the rest of his commentary that, having ascended to Mount Olivet with Christ and seen him raised up, the disciples are no longer in quite the same danger of failing to work out their salvation in this way. To take just one example, in his commentary on verse 1:13, Bede notes the significance of the disciples' return to an "upper room" in Jerusalem: "[Luke] designates a place in the upper [part of the house] because having already been raised up from an earthly way of life, they had mounted up to greater heights of knowledge and virtue" (15). In Bede's reading of the text, Luke is explicitly offering the disciple's own "ascension" in both knowledge and virtue as further proof that the disciples have begun to learn their lessons in so far as they imitate the good teacher who "taught nothing except those things which he did." Moreover, in conjoining knowledge and virtue so seamlessly, Bede is here setting the stage for themes he will continue to draw out in the remainder of his commentary. But Bede is also, at least implicitly, acknowledging Luke himself as a faithful reader of all Scripture who, by the very "loftiness" of his Christ-centered hermeneutic, "lifts up" and edifies the faithful through his written account of the apostles' deeds. In so doing, I have been suggesting, Bede is presenting Luke as a disciple and a reader acutely attuned to the polysemiety of the Scriptures, and thus a writer who in word and deed becomes a worthy instrument of the Holy Spirit "by whose anointing we are taught all things" (14). (13)
Indeed, Bede reads the rest of Acts as an account of how the disciples continue this process of leading people up from their overly literal "material-mindedness" and in to the heavenly kingdom--that is, of learning to read and teach the scriptures in light of Jesus' example. But as Bede takes great care to show, for the apostles and all those who would call themselves followers of Christ, reading and teaching the scriptures is ultimately an ongoing journey in which faith and virtue, like words and deeds, work hand-in-hand to build up the other. (14)
Lame Readers and Learned Teachers: The Gift of Signs and the Hermeneutical Virtues
Significantly, one of the first signs that the disciples have begun to rightly interpret the Kingdom of Heaven is their ability to speak in multiple languages to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:2-4). Bede recognizes this moment as a reversal of the "Babylonian" (Babel) pride in which the humility of the disciples reveals language itself as a gift from God: "The church's humility recovers the unity of languages which the pride of Babylon had shattered. Spiritually, however, the variety of languages signifies gifts of a variety of graces" (29). Rather than reading the confusion caused at Babel as strictly a form of punishment, Bede understands it as also a gift from the Holy Spirit because the acknowledgment of one's own inability and insufficiency for reaching Heaven is itself a requirement for attaining that Wisdom in relation to which human wisdom is but a shadow:
Truly therefore, it is not inconsistent to understand that the Holy Spirit first gave to human beings the gift of languages, by which human wisdom is both learned and taught extrinsically, so that he might thereby show how easily he can make men wise through the wisdom of God, which is within them. (29)
By reading Pentecost as both a reversal and transfiguration of the dissolution at Babel, Bede's commentary here reaffirms his commitment to reading the whole of Scripture at one moment. We can perhaps also sense the teacher in him providing an apologetic for his students who might feel alienated from the language and culture of the Scriptures and who thus might also reject the study of languages in pursuit of a supposedly higher, more spiritual calling. For Bede, what we would now probably call "academic" learning clearly plays a crucial role in his pursuit of Wisdom and is no less a working of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, as Bedes evident delight and mastery in wordplay throughout his commentary suggests, the intrinsic polyvalency of language is itself an image of the immanent, yet transcendent mystery of God's ever-unfolding revelation of Himself to his people.
But Bede's affirmation of linguistic diversity as a gift of the Holy Spirit perhaps also helps explain why Bede, throughout his entire commentary, is so intent on reminding his readers that the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples during the hours of prayer:
[The disciples] quite rightly received the Holy Spirit at the hour of prayer, so that it might be shown to readers that it is not easy to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit unless the mind is raised from material things by concentration on the things which are above. Now we read that three times a day Daniel bent his knees and prayed, and the church understands these to have been the third, sixth, and ninth hours. (31) (15)
In referring to minds being raised above the material, Bede sounds a by-now familiar note for his readers. But we should also understand his commentary as a reference to his own monastery's practice of lectio divina, a prayerful reading of the Scriptures that was intrinsically communal and liturgical. (16) In so doing, Bede reveals his fundamental assumption that the pursuits of wisdom and worship are inseparable, that they are always a part of the daily communion and prayer life of the Church, and that they begin with and find their fulfillment in the life of Christ.
Accordingly, the account of the Apostles after Pentecost is, for Bede, both the evidence that this is true and the example the Church must follow. For Peter, once too materially-minded to understand and interpret correctly the prophetic Scriptures and the words of Christ, is now a "learned teacher" who is rhetorically capable of devoting his discourse "more advantageously to the plan of salvation. And because he is speaking to those who know the law, he shows that Christ himself is the one promised by the prophets" (33). (17) However, like Luke, Peter is no mere orator or rhetorician, but rather a follower in word and deed of Christs example. In fact, in his commentary on 4:13 Bede reminds his readers that Peters lack of rhetorical training is precisely the point:
Unlettered men were sent to preach, so that the faith of those who believed would not be thought to have come about by eloquence and teaching instead of by God's power. As the apostle [Paul] says, Not in the wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ be made void. (50)
That Peter himself now understands a fuller meaning of God's power through the cross is perhaps nowhere better evidenced than in Bedes exegesis of the story of Peter healing the lame man at the entrance to the Temple (Acts 3). Peter and John make their way into the temple at the ninth hour (in itself a reminder of Christs death), but instead of merely giving the beggar alms, Peter takes the man by the hand and tells him to walk (3:7). Bede notes that "The one whom he encouraged by word he also strengthened by his right hand, because the discourse [sermo] of a teacher is less efficacious in the hearts of his hearers if it is not also recommended by the example of his own action" (44). This scene is clearly echoed again in chapter nine when Peter raises Tabitha from the dead by giving her his hand, a gesture which itself echoes Jesus' raising of Jairus' daughter in Luke 8. Bede says, "When she was touched by Peter's hand, Tabitha rose again, since there is no better way for the soul which has become weak because of its sins to regain its strength than the example of the saints" (92).
By drawing attention to these instances of physical and spiritual manuduction, Bede is clearly acknowledging Peter as a teacher in the line of Christ who "first did and then taught." Moreover, it is easy enough to also hear here an exhortation for Bede's own students to be raised up in virtue by means of the example of the saints. But there is more; Bede's concordance exegesis reads "the man who had been lame from his mother's womb" (18) as a type of Israel--the descendants of the man who limped after wrestling with an angel (Gen. 32:31)--and the earthly temple as a prefiguration of the heavenly kingdom:
The beautiful gate of the temple is the Lord. Whoever enters through him will be saved. Enfeebled Israel, being unable to walk to this gate, was brought there by the words of the law and the prophets, so that she might request help from those who were entering into the interior places of the wisdom of the faith which she was to hear. Those who place the prophecies of things to come as it were at the gate are the hearers, but Peter is the guide into the temple. (43-44, emphasis mine)
Here Bede offers not only a picture of Christ as the Way or gate into an interior relationship with the Wisdom of God but also, contra Marcionism, a remarkably condensed account of the integral relationship between the Old and New Testaments. (19) While, as Bede's own exegetical practice shows, the propaedeutic role of the law and the prophets is ignored at great peril to a rich and coherent understanding of the gospel kingdom, reading the Hebrew Scriptures as end in themselves without reference to their fulfillment in Christ is similarly crippling.
Indeed, Bede's entire interpretation of post-ascension Acts centers on the way in which Peter (and later Paul) is leading the feeble-minded to reinterpret everything, including their laws and rites, in the light of the gospel of Christ in whose name the lame are healed and who is himself the gateway to the Heavenly Temple. Quoting from the book of Hebrews, Bede explains
The ancient tabernacle "indeed had ritual ordinances and a sanctuary, though an earthly one," embellished with gold and silver, but the blood of the gospel more precious than the metals of the law, springs forth because that people, who had been lying enfeebled in mind before the golden doorpost, was saved in the name of him was crucified and [so now] enters the temple of the heavenly kingdom. (44)
And later, in his commentary on 4:22, Bede will again reinforce this image of feeble readers by pointing to the temple leader's own admission that the lame beggar was over forty years old, a sign that reminds us of "the people of Israel [who] not only despised the manna and sought the base things of Egypt for the forty years in the desert, but even in the land of promise they continued always to limp along with the rites of idols together with those of the Lord" (51).
As Bede suggested earlier, the disciples know full well how easy it is to limp along in the desert of their limited interpretations of Christ's kingdom. And like the road Christ took back to Jerusalem and to the Cross, they know full well that their mission to help their audiences re-read themselves and their world in light of Christ will not be easy. Accordingly, in the face of violent accusations from the Pharisees and the supposed "teachers" of the temple who are "grieved" that the Apostles are preaching Jesus' resurrection, Peter responds by re-reading Ps. 118:22 as a prefiguration of Christ: "This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone" (4:11). Significantly, Peters reply is itself an imitation of Jesus' own quotation of the Psalm (Matt. 21:42; Mk. 12:10; Lk. 20:17), and not surprisingly, Bede's subsequent commentary characterizes it as an indictment of the earthly temple builders' failure to read rightly:
The Jews alone were daily reading the law and the prophets for the building up of the people. As they were building, they came to the cornerstone, which embraces two walls--that is, they found in the prophetic scriptures that Christ, who would bring together in himself two peoples, was to come in the flesh. And, because they preferred to remain in one wall, that is, to be saved alone, they rejected the stone which was not one-sided, but two-sided. (49-50).
Bede then interprets Luke's record of Peter's quotation as saying that Christ is the cornerstone between the Jews and the Gentiles, between the Old Testament and the New Testament, "so that from two testaments and two peoples there might rise up a building of one and the same faith" (50). Within the greater context, this passage suggests again that Peter and the Apostles will lead both the people of Israel and the Gentiles into the Temple by teaching them to read Christ as both the gateway to the Heavenly Jerusalem and the cornerstone of all of Scripture. And, of course, Bede's ecumenical acknowledgment of the Jewish leaders' and the apostles' common intent to "build up" God's people is loaded with ecclesial and theological implications.
Of particular interest, then, is Bede's commentary on the Apostle Phillip's encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading the book of Isaiah on his way home from Jerusalem (Acts 8:27). For Bede, even the road leading south from Jerusalem has Christological significance:
Allegorically this designates the people of the gentiles, who were once separated from the worship of God [Dei cultura], uncultivated [excultam] by the preaching of the prophets. The road which went down to this same place from Jerusalem and opened the fountain of salvation is the Lord Jesus Christ, who said, I am the way, the truth and the life. From the Jerusalem above he "came down" [descendit] to our infirmities, and with the water of baptism he made white the blackness of our guilty condition. (81)
Like the Jewish people wandering in the desert, the disciples prior to the ascension, and the temple leaders, it is precisely this spiritual conception of Christ as the destination and way out from our infirmities that the Eunuch does not yet understand--despite being "called a man because of his virtue and integrity of mind, and not undeservedly, for he devoted his study solely to the scriptures, and he did not stop reading them even when he was on the road" (82). Notably, Bedes interpretation here radically redefines (especially for his time) what it really means to be a man (vir) (20) in light of a virtuous reader who "showed so much love in [his] religion that, leaving behind a queens court, he came from the farthest regions of the world to the Lord's temple" (82). The eunuch, certainly not a lame reader, is well on his way, and yet, as he himself acknowledges, he cannot understand the Scriptures unless someone "guides" him (8:31). In an instance of spiritual manuduction, then, Philip (who was himself led by the Spirit [8:29]) leads the Eunuch into and through the spiritual Temple gates by bringing "the obscurities of prophecy into the light" (84) and by baptizing him. Quoting Jerome, Bede remarks, "while [the eunuch] sought the interpretation of something that he was reading, he found Christ whom he was seeking.... [H]e found the church's font there in the desert, rather than in the golden temple of the synagogue" (82).
Besides radically re-interpreting and re-orienting the meaning of Solomon's temple to Christ as the font of Church, what these instances of manuduction also suggest is that entrance to the Heavenly Temple is not at all a matter of simply knowing the right things. Nor is it a matter of being forcefully dragged along by the Apostles. Rather, as Bede comments in the scene where Peter heals the lame beggar, it is "an excellent order of perfection that he who had been lying down first rose an[d] then set out on the way of virtues and thus entered the gates of the kingdom with the apostles" (44, emphasis mine). Similarly, Bede's commentary on the raising of Tabitha or Dorcas, a name which he believes signifies the "souls exalted by the practice of virtues although contemptible in the eyes of men," further emphasizes this point: "A most perfect order in her rising from her death, that she would first open the eyes of her mind, and then, upon recognizing Peter's voice, that
she would sit up and receive the light of her discretion, which she had lost, and that she would live according to the teaching of those who had come to her aid" (93). In such an account of excellence and perfection, what is both required for and a result of re-reading the Scriptures in a way that is not one-sided or too materially-minded is an ascension in both knowledge and virtue. That this has already been prefigured and modeled by the Apostles Sabbath journey and ascent to the upper room upon returning to Jerusalem from Christ's ascension, only further underscores the fact for Bede that the only truly coherent interpretation of the Scriptures is the saintly life. (21)
Thus, Bede again makes it absolutely clear that a virtuous reader can only go so far on his or her own. Moreover, Bede's emphasis on the example of the saints certainly serves as a reply to those who might criticize Bede for being so dependent on Augustine or Jerome, for not being "original" enough in his readings. (22) Indeed, in more than one way it indirectly justifies an extensive quotation from Pope Gregory in his commentary on chapter 10:1 where Bede is able to emphatically declare--perhaps against those who would read as Pelagius does (23)--that "One does not attain faith by virtues, but rather one attains virtues by faith." As the middle chapters of Acts vividly illustrate, the life of Cornelius the centurion presented the early Christians with a challenge to their notions of Christ's kingdom: how was it that he, an uncircumcised Gentile who (much like Bede's contemporaries) did not grow up reading the Jewish Law could be a "devout man who feared God" (10:2)? The answer, for Bede as for Gregory, is that he
knew God as the creator of all things, but did not know the all-powerful Son had become flesh. He had faith, this man whose prayers and almsdeeds were able to please [God] and by his good deeds he earned the right to know God perfectly and to believe in the mystery of the incarnation of his Only-begotten, so that he might approach the sacrament of baptism. Therefore, through faith he came to works, yet through works he was strengthened in faith. (95)
Like the Eunuch, Cornelius' virtuous life and devotion suggests he understands a good deal more than some of the teachers of the temple. And yet, this too is insufficient; what his good deeds and prayers lead to is a command from an angel that he send for Peter: "the order was given for the summoning of the teacher of salvation, a sign was clearly given that by his almsdeeds and prayers he should seek full knowledge of his salvation from the Lord" (96).
But, as Luke's account shows, before Peter can willingly and effectively be Cornelius' teacher, his own hermeneutic framework needs some further adjustment. While praying on the roof or "upper part" of his house, Peter receives a vision of a sheet filled with "unclean" animals of all sorts descending from heaven. A voice commands Peter to "Get up, kill and eat" (10:13). Three times Peter refuses, and each time he is told, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (10:15). Peter's profanation of what God has called clean is yet again a misreading of Christ's kingdom and a failure to understand the full implications of Christ as the cornerstone. Thus, Bede interprets the command that Peter receives during his vision of the unclean animals as saying,
Arise to make ready to preach the gospel. Kill in the gentiles what they had been, and make [them] what you are; for whoever eats food lying outside of himself turns it into his own body. Therefore [the voice] taught that the nations, which had formerly lain outside through their lack of belief, would, once their former life had been put to death, be incorporated within the society of the church. (98)
Among many other things, Bede's interpretation of Peter's vision obviously echoes the imagery he has been using of the Apostles leading those outside into and through the Temple gates. Somewhat more subtly, this passage also invokes an image of the Eucharist, the sacrament whereby those who take in the body of Christ themselves become identified as the body of Christ. (24) Thus, it is no coincidence for Bede that Peter must first descend since "the church should not only watch for the Lord by climbing to the heights, but, returning to the active life ... she should preach this same Lord to all the lowliest and to those still situated outside ... [who are] nevertheless knocking ... at the door of obedience" (100). Lest his readers misconstrue his exhortations for upright living as a kind of metaphysical escapism or gnostic rejection of the finite, Bede reminds them that their mission, like their message, must be actively embodied in both word and deed. (25)
This note is further underscored when, in obedience and a fuller recognition of the meaning of his vision, Peter must again physically raise someone up--for Cornelius, an ideal student of the Word, had bowed before Peter "as a pupil to meet his teacher, and full of zeal with pure heart, attentive ears, and eager desire" (100). But Peter responds to Cornelius using the same command he himself has just been given: "Arise, I myself am also a man" (10:26). In a way that is somewhat different from the previous scenes, then, Peter becomes equal with this man--not leading him from above, but rather accompanying him on his journey. Though no doubt Peter is still in a sense the teacher to Cornelius and all those gathered in his home, this difference confirms that Peter has also learned his own lesson well: in the light of Christ who brought together "in himself two peoples," no longer can the sacred and profane, or the clean and unclean, be differentiated through external works alone. And crucially, Peter only learns this lesson by means of that which and those whom he once considered beneath him.
In chapter 15, when the disciples have once again "gone up to Jerusalem" (15:2) to debate an issue with tremendous exegetical implications, it is precisely this principle that Peter extols as he seeks to help the Apostles come to a decision concerning circumcision: "And God, who knoweth the hearts, gave testimony, giving unto them the Holy Ghost, as well as to us: And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith." (15:8-9, Douay-Rheims). Of great hermeneutical significance for Bede (and Augustine whom he quotes) is the implication from Peters speech that "the grace of the Lord Jesus" was made known even to those Jews who bore "yoke of the old law." This confidence that Gods grace made "even the just men of old to live" prompts Bede to conclude that "Therefore, on account of the diversity for the times the sacramental signs could be diverse, though nevertheless reverting most harmoniously to the unity of the same faith" (130). Bede's observation clearly resonates with the Spirits gift of many languages in Pentecost, and, unlike the Pharisees or those who read one side of the Scriptures, Bede thus avoids positing an idolatry of the sign. But he is only able to do so, within the whole of his Commentary, because he has already begun to understand the uncircumscribability, boundless generosity, and co-inherence of the Triune-One to whom the signs point.
Furthermore, this assumption concerning the harmonious diversity of signs is contiguous with assumptions regarding the polyvalency of the sign itself. In Acts 15:16 Peters recalibration of "them and us" prompts James to reinterpret the prophecy from Amos 9:11 which says, "After these things I shall return and build up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and the ruins thereof I will rebuild. And I will set it up" (Douay-Rheims). Following Peter and James' lead, Bede comments, "The tabernacle of David signifies a trace of the law, which was corrupted and torn to pieces by the betrayals [traditionibus] of the Pharisees." (26) Through Christ, however, "that is, his appearance in the flesh, it was built up by God with spiritual grace, so that not only the Jews, but also all the gentile nations would seek after his name" (130). In a very real sense, therefore, Bedes understanding of Christ as the fulfillment of the law is also of Christ as the interpreter of the law who fully makes sense of the Scriptures and the role of the Church. As what is truly "natural" is made known in the supernatural, and the spiritual revealed by means of the material, Christ teaches both Jews and Gentiles what is required for the "building up" of his people; by his own example "in the flesh," Christ reveals himself in word and deed as the cornerstone of both text and cosmos.
Tent-Making, Temple-Leading: The Apostle Paul and Bede's Legacy
As the narrative of Acts switches its focus toward the Apostle Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, Bede makes a great effort to draw out the continuity between Peters work and Paul's "marvelous deeds" (118). For example, it is no coincidence for Bede that soon after he has been commissioned, Paul also heals a crippled man (14:8):
Just as that lame man whom Peter and John cured at the door of the temple prefigured the salvation of the Jews, so too this sick Lycaonian prefigured the people of the gentiles, who were for a long time remote from the religion of the law and the temple, but who were brought in by the preaching of the apostle Paul, who said, They [Peter, James, and John] gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the gentiles, but they to the circumcised. (125, emphasis mine)
Like Peter, Paul's faithful preaching also brings those on the outside in to the temple. Moreover, Bede's deft incorporation of Paul's statement in Gal. 2:9 brilliantly underscores the apostolic chain which now extends from Christ to the Lycaoanian man by means of an outstretched "right hand of fellowship." The implication within the whole of the story is that, as "members" of Christ's Church, Peter, Paul and all those who would do likewise, quite literally become the extension of Christ's body in both word and deed.
Bede also notices that in the first instance the man asked for money, but in this one he is healed because of his faith (126), a further affirmation that virtue is preceded by faith. This is, in fact, the message that Paul preaches at the beginning of chapter seventeen to the Jewish leaders who, according to Bede, "were so lacking in faith that, although they could not deny that the suffering and resurrection of the Christ were present in the scriptures,
entirely denied that these things pertained to Jesus" (141). As with the temple leaders who chose the one-sided cornerstone, or the Centurion and Eunuch who had virtue but lacked certain knowledge, Bede notes that they only have, as it were, half of their exegesis: "And therefore Paul not only preached the mysteries of the christ, but he also taught that these mysteries were accomplished in Christ Jesus" (141).
Likewise, Paul's ensuing speech to the Athenians is a masterful presentation of this same message, though he employs a very different method and subject. Paul is invited to speak at the Areopagus by Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who, according to Bede, followed the "stupidity" of their teachers, for the former sought happiness "solely in virtue of the mind" while the latter sought "pleasure of the body alone" (141). By contrast, Paul's sacramental message that a "human being subsists in soul and body" offers a much-needed corrective, and we can sense the rhetorician and teacher in Bede appreciating that "the order of the apostle's argument deserves careful examination" (142). As a skilled preacher and teacher in the line of Peter, Paul knows exactly what his audience needs:
To those who did not receive the faith of the prophets he spoke not with the testimony of Moses or Isaiah, or of any of the prophets, but with the testimony of their own authors. He recited a verse from Aratus, and from the falsehoods of those to whom they could not object, he confirmed his own truths. Surely it is the mark of great knowledge to give fellow servants their fare at the proper time, and to take into account the particular individuals who are one's listeners. (144, emphasis mine)
Paul has evidently taken to heart Peter's vision concerning the profanation of that which is "unclean," and thus, he not only interprets Scripture well, he reads the "pagan" texts better than the pagans themselves. In much the same way Augustine does in On Christian Doctrine, Bede seems to value this insight as a fundamental pedagogical and hermeneutical principle. (27) Moreover, he seems to be suggesting that such skillful reading and teaching, wherein one pays careful attention not only to the texts but "the particular individuals" who are one's listeners, is the mark of one who reads simultaneously in the light of and in imitation of Christ.
It is no wonder, then, that in his commentary in chapter eighteen Bede draws special attention to Paul's trade as a tent-maker. Because Paul and his companions are like "exiles in the land, and wanderers, they built tents [tentoria] for themselves to use on their journey" (149). On the literal level, this is consonant with concerns Bede expresses a few chapters later about the practical contributions of a teacher: "That is, not only that devotion to teaching is necessary amid oppression and tears, but also that manual labor is demanded so that none of the weak may be burdened" (163). On a "mystical" level, however, the tents [tabernaculum] suggest that "just as Peter by fishing draws us out of the waves of the world by nets of faith, so also Paul, by erecting shady coverings of protection, defends us by his word and deeds from the rain of [our] faults, from the fierce heat of temptations, and from the winds of the snare" (149). In other words, as a preacher, author and interpreter of Scripture, and most importantly, a follower of Christ in word and deed, Paul's own example provides the readers with a small, temporary tabernacle in which the faithful Christians virtues can be preserved and perfected as he or she journeys on towards the heavenly Tabernacle.
Thus, for Bede, what ultimately bears the weight of pedagogical persuasion in the case of Peter, Paul and Luke is not their rhetorical eloquence nor remarkable intellectual capacity, but rather the way in which these are put into the service of extending the life of Christ by the work of their own hands. And it is here, finally, where we can begin to more fully appreciate the fact that in his primer for his own students on The Figures of Rhetoric (undated but almost certainly written after his Acts commentary), Bede offers "the temple" itself as the example par excellence of the four-fold senses of Scripture:
in the literal sense [the temple indicates] the house which Solomon built; allegorically, it is the Lord's body, of which Christ said: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up," or his Church, to whom the apostle Paul said: "For the temple of the Lord is holy, which you are"; tropologically, it is each of the faithful, to whom the Apostle said: "Know you not, that your bodies are the temple of the holy spirit, who is in you?"; anagogically, it is the joys of the heavenly mansion, for which the Psalmist sighed, when he said: "Blessed are they that dwell in your house, O Lord; they shall praise you for ever and ever." (The Art 2.12, 207)
In light of Bede's own richly-woven exegetical tapestry, wherein meaning deepens with the return of each image and widens with the incorporation of new resonances, the point is not so much that the temple represents a convenient image for his hermeneutical method. Nor is it even that it offers further evidence of Bede practicing what he teaches--though it certainly does. The point is, rather, that Bede's hermeneutic derives entirely from his
reading of Scripture from within the living tradition, the communion of the Saints which has been "handed over" to him. As a particularly fecund image of what it means to dwell in and be indwelt by God--on earth, in our bodies, in the presence of the saints, and in the riches of heaven--the Temple is thus not primarily a trope or rhetorical figura, but a way or a lens for seeing all of reality. And that lens, as the figure itself reveals in the transfiguration, is Christ--both what Bede sees and how he sees.
In his Commentary on the Acts Bede thus offers not so much a lesson in how to read the Scriptures, as one in how to be read by them. It should also by now be evident that if we can say Bede's interpretation is coherent, it is only because he himself has modeled it and as a teacher and exegete has led his own readers along a journey, a journey in which Christ is both the way and the destination. In reading Christ as the cornerstone of both text and cosmos, in seeing both the material world and the literal level of a text ultimately fulfilled in and transfigured by Christ, in praying with and being taught by the Holy Spirit as he reads, in being led by the teachings and examples of the saints even as he leads his own students and readers, Bede is offering a fully fleshed-out lesson in imitation of the "good teacher, [who] taught nothing except those things which he did" (9). And, in so far that this way of reading points toward and constitutes membership in the heavenly kingdom, Bede's manuductive hermeneutics is richly suggestive of the Eucharistic Host; by reaching out his hand to his readers in word and deed throughout his commentary, Bede both proclaims and extends the Temple which is--and the people who are--Christ's body.
Duke's Initiative in Theology and Arts at the Duke Divinity School
Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. F. J. Sheed and ed. Michael Foley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006.
--. On Christian Doctrine. Trans D. W. Robertson, Jr. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1958.
Bede, The Venerable. Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Trans. Lawrence Martin. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1989.
--. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford, England: Clarendon P, 1969.
--. On the Tabernacle. Trans. Arthur Holder. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1994.
--. On the Temple. Trans. Sean Connolly. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1995.
--. The Art of Poetry and Rhetoric. Trans. Calvin Kendall. Bibliotheca Germanica Series Nova v. II. Germany: AQ-Verlag, 1991.
Browne, G.F. The Venerable Bede: His Life and Writings. London: SPCK, 1919.
De Gregorio, Scott, ed. Innovation and Tradition in the Venerable Bede. West Virginia: WVUP, 2006.
--. The Cambridge Companion to Bede. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP, 2010.
--. "The Venerable Bede on Prayer and Contemplation." Traditio. 54 (1999) 1-39.
Fodor, James. "The Beauty of the Word Re-membered: Scripture Reading as a Cognitive/Aesthetic Practice." in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. Eds. Daniel Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin. Illinois: InterVarsity P, 2006.
Holder, Arthur "Allegory and History in Bede's Interpretation of Sacred Architecture." American Benedictine Review. 40 (1989) 115-131.
--. "The Venerable Bede on the Mysteries of Our Salvation." American Benedictine Review. 42 (1991) 140-62.
Laistner, M.L.W. Expositio Actuum Apostolorum et Retractado. Mediaeval Academy of America Series. Cambridge, Mass: George Banta Publishing Co., 1939.
Leclerq, Jean. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. New York: Fordham UP, 1961.
Martin, Lawrence. "Bede's Structural Use of Wordplay as a Way to Truth." In From Cloister to Classroom: Monastic and Scholastic Approaches to Truth. Ed. Rozanne Elder. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1986. 27-46.
NOTES (1) Benedicta Ward's chapter on "Bede and the Bible" (41-87) in her classic The Venerable Bede (1990) is particularly useful as an overview of Bede's exegetical scope and method. It serves as a welcome revision of a similar chapter in G. F. Browne's The Venerable Bede: His Life and Writings (1919) titled "The Commentaries and Homilies of Bede" (231-55). Among the most frequently quoted essays on this topic are two chapters that appear in Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede, ed. by Gerald Bonner (London: SPCK1976); Paul Meyvaert's "Bede the Scholar" (41-69) and Roger Ray's "Bede, the Exegete, and Historian" (125-40). Meyvaert's essay largely attempts to restore Bede's "scholarly" credentials and addresses questions of "originality" and Bede's belief in miracles, while Ray's essay makes the convincing case for Bede's Historia as an outworking of Bede's exegetical concerns. Ray's essay "What Do We Know About Bede's Commentaries" is again an overview of scholarship on Bede's exegesis with a strong emphasis on pointing out its deficiencies and the need for a more sustained effort on the part of scholars to explicate Bede's commentaries. Bernard Robinsons essay on "The Venerable Bede as Exegete" makes no pretense to being anything other than an informative overview of the scholarship concerning Bede's exegesis. Lawrence Martin's two essays "The Two Worlds in Bede's Homilies: The Biblical Event and the Listener's Experience" and "Bede's Structural Use of Wordplay" both focus on Bede's pedagogy and rhetorical artistry. The latter is largely a more sustained focus on much of the material that appears in the footnotes throughout his translation of Bede's Commentary on Acts. Likewise, Arthur Holder offers two especially helpful studies on Bede's De Tabernaculo and De Templo entitled "Allegory and History in Bede's Interpretation of Sacred Architecture" and "The Venerable Bede on the Mysteries of Salvation." Holder's approach to Bede's exegesis is largely thematic, and it is especially useful for Bede's commentaries which are themselves focused on a particular subject. See also Scott Degregorio's footnote 2 in "The Venerable Bede on Prayer and Contemplation" (Traditio 54, 1999; 1-39) for a more comprehensive list of critical interest in Bede as exegete.
(2) In 1982 Roger Ray claimed that, "The situation has scarcely been better for the study of the methods and contents of [Bede's] exegetical works" ("What do we know?" 6). Since then much has changed. Beside Martin's translation (1988) of Laistner's critical edition of Bede's Expositio Actum Apostolorum, Cistercian Publications in Kalamazoo, MI also published Dom David Hurst's translation of Bede's Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles (1985). Liverpool University Press has put out three relatively new translations: Bede: On the Tabernacle (trans. Arthur Holder, 1994); Bede: On the Temple (trans. Sean Connolly, 1995); and Bede: A Biblical Miscellany (trans. Trent Foley and Arthur Holder, 1999). For a more comprehensive overview of developments in Bede scholarship see DeGregorio's introduction "On The New Bede" (esp. footnote on page 4) in Innovation and Tradition in the Writings of the Venerable Bede.
(3) Throughout this essay, I will be primarily quoting from Martin's translation of Bede's Commentary. In a few places have I had to consult Laistner's 1939 critical edition for the original Latin. Unless otherwise indicated, I quote the Scriptures as they appear in Martins translation of the Commentary and in most cases it should be clear whether I am referring to Bede's commentary or the biblical passage itself. Whenever I have suspected the possibility of confusion, I have included the chapter and verse citation in parentheses (2:1). For biblical texts other than the book of Acts, I always include the title of the book (Amos 1:9). In citing Martin's own footnotes or his introduction, I have used the page numbers as they appear in the 1989 edition.
(4) Though he doesn't refer to Bede or his work directly, Peter Candler's work on Theology, Rhetoric, and Manuduction is an indispensable guide in seeking to better understand how both reading and writing practices are formed by the Church's liturgy. His portrayal of medieval hermeneutics as employing a "grammar of participation" rather than one of "representation," that is, as offering an itinerary for rather than a map of the soul's journey toward Wisdom is especially helpful. Such a distinction not only draws attention to the chasm that exists between Bede's and our own, often radically-individualistic assumptions about what a text is and does; it affords us a language to continue reimagining the work of theological reading as not merely the impartation or apprehension of information, but rather as a fully-embodied "activity" which both makes possible and is made possible by the "soul's return to God in the company of faith" (Candler 167). In ways that are absolutely critical, though difficult to acknowledge, my reading of Bede's commentary is deeply indebted to Candler's excellent work.
(5) As one of his earliest and most influential exegetical works, Bede's Commentary on Acts (c. 709-716) is especially significant to broader Bede scholarship as evidence of an early, abiding interest in contemplating the Old Testament tabernacle and temple as prefigurations of the body of Christ (an interest Bede will develop in much greater detail in his later commentaries on De Tabernaculo (c. 721-725) and De Templo (c. 725-731). See especially Holder on "Allegory and History in Bede's Interpretation of Sacred Architecture." In his chapter on "Bede and the Old Testament," DeGregorio offers a concise but useful description of how these texts fit within the larger Bede corpus (Companion 136).
(6) Central to my own argument is the particular way Bede's commentary gradually develops and unfolds for its readers. In order to convey this more faithfully--to, as it were, give my own readers a taste of the "journey" Bede invites his readers into--I have organized my argument primarily as a chronological progression through Bede's work. Though certainly a poor substitute for reading the text firsthand, this seems the best way to convey Bede's masterful integration and continual recapitulation of the central images and concerns which prompt his exegesis.
(7) Bede takes up this theme again in his commentary on the first verse of Acts. He acknowledges Luke as a physician in more than a purely literal sense and interprets the name of Theophilus as an indication that the real audience for Luke's account is "anyone who is a lover of God," or "beloved of God" (regardless of whether the name refers to an actual person). Bede thus establishes the love of God or, more accurately, knowing oneself as loved by God, as the first condition for which the reader in reading Luke's account of the apostles "might find health for his soul" (9). Moreover, Bede's emphasis here is consistent with his effort throughout his writings to help his own audience--only a couple generations removed from complete Anglo-Saxon paganism--understand themselves as being actually addressed by a narrative from a context which was alien to them in crucial ways.
(8) Mt. 28:20
(9) Several commentators, following Jean Leclerq's wonderful study of monastic culture The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, refer to this as Bedes "concordance exegesis." In his introduction to the Commentary, Martin explains that "The primary source of Bedes interpretation of Acts is the rest of the Bible itself, as will be evident from the index of sources printed at the end of this translation" (xxix). See also his footnote 3 to chapter 3 (48).
(10) Luke's account in Acts is thus a continuation of his account in the Gospel wherein the disciples argue among themselves as to who will be the greatest in Jesus' kingdom, even as Christ foretells his own death (Lk. 22:24). Bede further emphasizes the disciples' misprision in his paraphrase of Christ's response in Acts 1:8: "When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, it certainly will not be to bring the kingdom of Israel, or the kingdom of God to Israel, as you think, but rather it will be to furnish you the power to bear witness concerning me" (12). Not only did the disciples think wrongly concerning the timing of the kingdom and their own roles in it, they greatly underestimated its scope: "the fame of the Gospel must spread not only through this city, Jerusalem, but also to the bounds of Judaea, and from there on to the neighboring people of Samaria, and finally throughout the farthest borders of the world" (12). As Bede shows over the course of his exegesis, this is an ongoing lesson in interpreting the Scriptures that the apostles themselves will wrestle with throughout the book of Acts.
(11) Despite repeated references to "transcending" the material, what the whole of Bede's work makes clear is that a Gnostic metaphysics is inimical to Bede's fundamental insistence on Christ as the word made deed and, therefore, to his assumptions concerning the capacity for the material world or literal level of the text to point to a deeper spiritual significance.
(12) Candler's eloquent argument further spells out some significant implications of this for pedagogy and hermeneutics: "Insofar as God's knowledge is one with his being, to participate in God's self-knowledge is at the same time to participate in his being. Thus to grow in knowledge is to grow in being, to come to be more truly. [... T]he teacher "imitates" God, whose prerogative alone is to cause knowledge. If texts can be said to teach, then, the reading of them must share in this same mimetic participation in divine knowledge" (4). In light of this, it seems Martin's explanation does not go nearly far enough: "Monastic exegesis is a kind of literary criticism which aims both to explain the sacred text and to move the reader, to produce appreciation and delight as well as understanding" ("Bede's Structural" 27). The "understanding" Bede hopes to share with his readers is both dependent on and striving for an imitation of God.
(13) For further comparison, see Bede's commentary on 2:1 wherein the Holy Spirit's arrival at Pentecost signifies both the means and end of the Church's mission--a new beginning and a prefiguration of the final consummation:
"And when the days of Pentecost were drawing to a close they were all together in the same place," that is, in the upper room to which they had gone up, as has been described. Now whoever desires to be filled with the Holy Spirit must transcend the abode of the flesh [carnis domicilium] by contemplation of the mind. For just as the forty days during which the Lord kept company with his disciples after the resurrection designate the church of this present pilgrim-state as it rises with Christ, so also the fiftieth day, upon which the Holy Spirit was received, appropriately represents the perfection of the blessed rest in which the temporal labor of the church will be rewarded by an eternal denarius. (27)
Here, Bede's exegesis brings together a number of familiar themes and prompts several observations. For one, his designation of the "pilgrim-state" further concretizes the link he seeks to make between the universal church, the disciples who journeyed with Christ, and the Israelites who wandered in the desert. These are all God's chosen people and their similar stories each, in their own way, tell the story of a God who draws and leads his people back to Himself by dwelling with them.
In the passages immediately following, Bede further develops this link. He notes how the Jewish Pentecost or Shavuot which the Jews celebrated fifty days after the killing of the paschal lamb to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai prefigures the Pentecost which Christians celebrate fifty days after Easter Sunday to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit (28). In the same way that the latter celebration offers a reinterpretation of the former, the final eschatological Pentecost both is prefigured by and renders intelligible these "signs" which precede it.
This chain of reference, moreover, mirrors Bede's assumption regarding the historical and spiritual levels of exegesis. The historical event serves a critical function as a prefiguration for things to come, but the sign itself only attains a fullness of meaning or, indeed is rendered fully intelligible in light of the consummation of all things. Such a symbiotic conception of meaning and levels of interpretation further serves to qualify what Bede intends in saying that the "abode of the flesh" must be "transcended" by contemplation of the mind.
(14) See here Holder's essay "The Venerable Bede on the Mysteries of our Salvation," especially the sections on "Progress Through Definite Stages" (150-54) and "Active Labor in Pursuit of Eternal Rest" (159-62). Moreover, Candler's chapter on "Itineraries; or Theology as Manuduction" (41-51) and James Fodor's essay on "The Beauty of the Word Re-Membered" reveal a real affinity between Bede's and Bonaventure's projects. I take their uncanny resonance, despite the 400 years and many nations separating them, as lending credence to Bede's humble assumption that his work both grows out of and offers nothing more than the teachings of the Church.
(15) For more examples, see Bede's commentary on 3:1 and 10:30
(16) In his prefatory remarks to the translation, Martin notes that, "For Bede, immersion in the Latin of the scriptures and the fathers came through daily participation in the divine office and through lectio divina." Candler's argument takes this much further and shows how for someone like Bede, lectio divina would completely shape not only how a text was read, but the very assumptions about what a text was in the first place (see especially 7-8).
(17) At the end of his commentary on this passage, Bede somewhat uncharacteristically includes a preview of the material in Acts that he has not yet dealt with: "In the history of Cornelius the Centurion and in the sermon given by the apostle Paul at Athens, you will be shown the sort of introduction which the apostles used in preaching among the gentiles." That Bede is himself a teacher of potential preachers who find themselves in a similar situation preaching among the gentiles is clearly palpable.
(18) Bede will later significantly reemploy the metaphor of the womb and apply it to the life of the early believers who, "as though born from the womb of one and the same mother, the church, they all rejoiced in one and the same love of brotherhood" (4:32). If the lame beggar represents an Israel that is lame from birth and always sitting at the temple gates, this new Church represents a New Israel whose common womb, Christ, brings all people, including seventh-century Northumbrians into its fold.
(19) The theology of Bishop Marcion of Sinope (c. 85-c. 160) was condemned in 144 as heresy for, among other things, proposing a radical discontinuity between the God of the Jewish Scriptures and the God presented in the Gospels. Marcion's canon therefore dismissed not only the books of the Old Testament, but many New Testament references as well. Though there is some debate among scholars and the Christian traditions as to the scope of Marcion's own rejection of orthodox teaching, it is certainly relevant to the argument I offer here that the implications of Marcionism inevitably tended toward Gnosticism. As Bede's commentary implies throughout, the division of the Testaments is contiguous with the division between the material and the immaterial, in so far that each rejects Christ as the cornerstone; heresy thus fundamentally constitutes a disunity of text, nature, and the Church. See also note 23 below.
(20) Lawrence Martins footnote to this passage in his translation of Bede's Commentary, is helpful here, as in many other places, for understanding the tremendous joy and wisdom Bede finds in playing with the etymologies and the multiple meanings of words as a way of uncovering and explaining deeper truths.
(21) It seems altogether fitting to acknowledge here that this particular phrasing (and my argument in general) is a direct result of my own teacher, David Lyle Jeffrey, leading me as I read through this text.
(22) Ray makes it clear that Bede's exegetical method was a conscious imitation of the examples he saw in Scripture with an explicitly pastoral purpose: "This devotion to the Fathers was not scholarly deference, personal reticence, or monastic humility. It was programmatic. Bede set himself the task of appropriating patristic exegesis to a Saxon church which needed to be gently drawn into the Christian mainstream. It was a task that required pastoral synthesis, not original analysis; straightforward verse-by-verse commentaries, not complex discursive tracts" ("What do we know?" 12).
(23) It is instructive that in his elucidation of a passage concerning the Sadducees, Bede mentions that "In Greek the word for sect (heresis) takes its name from the word for choice, because everyone chooses for himself what he thinks should be followed, scorning what others have said" (5:17). Thus, according to Bede and perhaps in anticipation of sola scriptura, the heretic is (in exegetical terms) one who reads for himself and on his own. In 10:11a, the passage about Peters vision of a great linen sheet descending, Bede describes the heretic as a moth, who tries to eat away at the cloth that is the Lord's robe, but like the soldiers at the foot of the cross does not ever succeed in tearing it apart.
(24) We should also note in passing here that this imagery of feeding is related to Bede's understanding of the symbolism of Dorcas, a name which refers to the deer, an animal with split hooves that chews its cud, that is "ruminating in continual mediation on the word of God."
(25) Bede masterfully reinforces this in his commentary of the scene in Acts 20 where Paul preaches late into the night while a slumbering young man named Eutychus falls out the window to his death below: "And [this passage serves] to warn the spiritual teacher that, if he is ever attracted by the sweetness of the resurrection and the joys of the life to come, and he arouses his listeners to the heights of virtue, and if in lengthy discussion he touches upon any enigmas of the scriptures, he should very soon, for the sake of weak listeners, shed light on those same [enigmas] just as the apostle did." As Martin notes, here Bede plays especially on this idea of a movement downward in his interpretation of the Greek meaning of Eutychus as "fortunate" (164). For Bede, the name is fitting for "a person who, through the loving help [condescensionem] of a preacher, has returned to the heights of virtue" (160). What Martin does not indicate, however, is that in descending to lay his own body over the youth's, Paul is quite literally imitating the One whom Bede earlier has said "came down [descendit] to our infirmities" from the "Jerusalem above" (81). Cf. Phil 2:8, Heb. 2:9.
(26) In his translator's note on this verse, Martin observes, "The only other use of this word in his Commentary on Acts is in the comment on Acts 1:18a, where, quoting Gregory the Great, Bede refers to the sin of Judas as a guilty act of betrayal' (traditionis crimen). Doubtless Bede intended a play upon the double-meaning of tradition, the 'traditions' of the Pharisees, that is, are to be regarded as 'betrayals' of the law, just as Judas' act was a betrayal of Christ" (133). Both Martin's point and my own argument concerning Bede's sensitivity to the multivalency of language can be strengthened, however, by the observation that central to both meanings of tradition is the literal image of "handing-over." While there certainly can be a "tradition" that constitutes a betrayal of Christ, Bede's larger project suggests that one who hands over the tradition of Christ's example (as Bede himself does in quoting Gregory) is leading God's people by the hand into the heavenly kingdom. Bede's "play" with words is thus no mere rhetorical flourish, but the very means by which he leads his own readers by the hand into the tradition of reading the Scriptures as he does.
(27) See especially section XL, the section concerning "Egyptian Gold," and XVIII, where Augustine famously says, "Every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord's" (54).
--. "The Two Worlds in Bede's Homilies: The Biblical Event and the Listeners Experience." In De Ore Domini: Preacher and Word in the Middle Ages, Eds. Thomas L. Amos, Eugene A. Green and Beverly Mayne Kienzle. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1989. 27-40.
Meyvaert, Paul "Bede the Scholar." In Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede, ed. Gerald Bonner. London: SPCK, 1976. 41-69.
Ray, Roger. "What do we know about Bede's Commentaries?" Recherches de Theologie Ancienne et Medievale. 49 (1982) 5-20.
--. "Bede, the Exegete, and Historian." Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede. Ed. Gerald Bonner. London: SPCK, 1976. 125-40.
Robinson, Bernard. "The Venerable Bede as Exegete." Downside Review 112 (1994) 201-26.
Ward, Benedicta. The Venerable Bede. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1990.
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|Author:||Train, Daniel M.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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