Poetry and Commentary in the Medieval School of Rheims: Reading Virgil, Reading David

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Contribution to Book

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The Jewish and Christian Bibles and the Qur’an enjoyed - each within its own faith community - an elevated status that guided interpreters to develop unique tools for their analysis, distinct from those applied to secular literature. The special characteristic features of early Bible interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, predicated on the assumptions about the Bible’s plethora of recondite meanings (outlined in Chapter 1) and the notion of the “inimitability” of the Qur’an (discussed in Chapter 3), would seem to place these scriptures outside the bounds of human literary classification. Yet eventually schools of scriptural interpretation emerged that conspicuously drew upon the “language arts” of grammar and rhetoric developed for the analysis of secular language and literature. The current chapter treats a Christian version of this movement in the medieval cathedral school of Rheims, where it led to new ways of confirming that the Bible’s christological “mystical” sense converges with the intentions of its ancient Hebrew prophetic authors. [Ed.] In Latin Christianity, Jerome (d. 420) appears to be the first author of any influence to advance an understanding of the Psalter as a collection of lyric poems. Throughout his writings, and especially in his commentaries on prophetic books, Jerome refers to the Psalms as “composed in a lyric fashion,” or, more simply, he states that “David sang a lyric song.” The phrase Jerome uses to describe the Psalms, lyricum carmen, is found elsewhere in his writings applied to the works of Pindar and Horace, while, in his Letter 22 to Eustochium, Jerome equates, at least formally, the Psalter and Horace’s odes: “What has Horace to do with the Psalter? Virgil with the Gospels? Cicero with Paul?” Jerome compares, generically speaking, like with like: what need has a Christian for a pagan rhetorician, when he has the writings of the Christian rhetorician, Paul, or why would he read the poetry of Horace, filled as it is with accounts of false gods, when he has the poetry of David? Even as he denigrates the content of classical poetry, therefore, Jerome indicates that it may be compared with biblical literature, and he thus introduces the possibility that the techniques used in the interpretation of former - that is, the techniques of the grammatical curriculum - could be employed in the exposition of the latter.

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Mordechai Z. Cohen & Adele Berlin


Cambridge University Press


Cambridge, England



Publication Information

Interpreting Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Overlapping Inquiries