Rewriting the Vulgate
The Renaissance republic of sacred letters traced its own ancestry to the revolutionary biblical scholarship of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The chronological parameters of the Critici sacri reflect this historical self-consciousness; the anthology, whose selections span the two centuries separating Valla from Grotius, implicitly defines a single philosophical "moment," distinct from both the allegorical methods of medieval exegesis and the deconstructive textual criticism pioneered by Spinoza and Richard Simon. Yet, on closer examination, this moment forks and fissures along several trajectories. If biblical commentaries written between 1450 and 1650 share certain features, they also betray considerable divergences. The biblical scholarship characteristic of the late Renaissance republic of letters differs in crucial respects from the philological criticism of Valla and Erasmus and, more pointedly, from the methods employed by humanistically trained Protestant theologians. A history of Renaissance exegesis must attend to both the continuities and ruptures.
Beryl Smalley's rediscovery of medieval biblical humanism makes Renaissance exegesis seem somewhat less unprecedented than was once
thought. But Renaissance exegetes, who generally did not know about this earlier humanism, defined their own project by contrasting it to medieval practice. For our purposes this sixteenth-century periodization provides the relevant starting point.
We can begin by looking at Matthew 26:13, which the Vulgate renders "Amen dico vobis, ubicunque praedicatum fuerit hoc evangelium in toto mundo, dicetur quod haec fecit in memoriam eius. " The interlinear gloss on this verse explains simply that mundus (world) means the church and eius , which can be either masculine or feminine, refers to Mary Magdalene; the citations added in the margins of the Biblia Sacra —a multi-volume Vulgate including the Gloss, postils of Nicholas of Lyra, and patristic commentaries—go on to note that the ointment Mary pours on Christ's feet signifies "bona fama " and that Christ's prophecy about Mary has been fulfilled. The allegorization is light here, just a passing tropological extension, giving the moral and connecting Mary's act to the subsequent history of the church. But a comparison between these notes and Valla's comment on the same passage sets in clear relief the break between medieval and early humanist exegesis. In his Collatio Novi Testamenti (written between 1442 and 1457 but not published until 1505, after Erasmus stumbled on the manuscript), Valla gives the Vulgate reading and then observes, "Eius in Greek is feminine. To what, then, does it refer? Certainly to the pronoun haec . Therefore it should read in memoriam suam. Quod , however, is a relative [pronoun]." Valla does not discuss the meaning of Mary's anointing but its grammar, correcting the Vulgate on the basis of the original Greek and the rules of Classical Latin.
This sort of critique points in two directions, both characteristic of early sixteenth-century biblical scholarship. On the one hand, Valla treats the New Testament as a text —a series of words governed by formal lexical and syntactic rules—not as a document supplying information about the world. The Collatio is really a critique of the Vulgate rather than a biblical commentary. It exposes the barbarisms, grammatical errors, and false idioms of the received translation. For example, Valla's note on Matthew 26:10 criticizes the Vulgate's unidiomatic quid molesti estis , remarking that "the Greek words are more properly and correctly (eleganter ) translated according to the practice of educated persons as Quid negotium exhibetis mulieri ? (that is, 'why do you accuse this woman?') as we have explained in De elegantia linguae Latinae " (6:862).
Valla's notes tend to identify "good" Latin with Classical Latin, a position that entails a fundamentally ahistorical and nonreferential approach to language—the sort of Renaissance Atticism that would later shrink into
Ciceronianism. For Valla, non-Classical Latin was both aesthetically and conceptually incorrect. Thus, in the Elegantiae he argues that Boethius's definition of the Trinity is meaningless because Boethius uses the term persona in an unclassical sense; Valla's entry under caritas simply ignores the Christian definition, explaining it as costliness (from carus ). This linguistic purism occurs less frequently in the Collatio but lurks behind various notes as a background assumption. The note on Matthew 2:4 thus attacks the Vulgate's principes sacerdotum (chief priests)—a literal translation of the Greek—since the proper Latin term would be pontifex or praesul (6:55); it does not consider the possibility that the Jewish chief priests differed from Roman pontifices . Valla's apparently historicizing claim that meaning is determined by usage always has, in fact, a neoclassical twist, since he identifies "usage" with the literary Latin of the late republican and early imperial periods. This Atticizing approach reached its climax in Castellio's Bible of 1551, which translates both testaments into excellent neo-Latin prose, but by the later sixteenth century it had been replaced by a radically different understanding of language and philological method. This new hermeneutic, as we shall see, also derived from Valla's pioneering scholarship, but from his historical argument in the Donation of Constantine rather than from his biblical exegesis.
On the other hand, Valla's emendation of the Vulgate on the basis of the Greek heralded more permanent changes insofar as it privileged learning over logic (or fasting, for that matter) in the attempt to render luminous the magnalia Dei . Valla was virtually the first Western scholar since the end of antiquity to study the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (medieval exegetes were more likely to know Hebrew than Greek), and all subsequent biblical scholarship in the Renaissance presupposes his intuition that learning dead languages is the beginning of wisdom. Even in the decade after Dort and the revenge of scholasticism, the Dutch Hebraist Amama could convince the Friesian Synod to make Greek and Hebrew requirements for all aspiring ministers. Moreover, the notion that one approaches the eternal Word by studying biblical Greek implicitly severed humanist scholarship from neoclassical aesthetics. Valla did not correct the Greek of the New Testament, as barbarous with respect to Classical Greek as the Vulgate is to Ciceronian Latin. It was as a Greek scholar rather than a Latin formalist that Valla inaugurated Renaissance biblical exegesis.
Erasmus's Annotationes , first published in 1516 and successively revised until the fifth edition of 1535, borrows liberally from Valla (Erasmus's entries often begin by restating, without attribution, Valla's observations on the same passage). Like Valla, Erasmus was attempting to produce an
accurate Latin version of the New Testament in place of the solecisms and mistranslations of the Vulgate. But Erasmus was less of a neoclassicist than his predecessor; the Annotationes bears the same relation to Valla's commentaries as the former's De copia does to Valla's Elegantiae . Where Valla generally treats the correct Classical usage of single words, focusing on questions of vocabulary and syntax, Erasmus tends to explore nuance and idiom, handling longer discursive units as well as individual words and emphasizing expressivity over correctness.
In Erasmus, a basically rhetorical understanding of language takes the place of medieval allegoresis. When Christ tells his already sleeping disciples to "sleep and rest" (Matt. 26:45), Erasmus thus remarks that although Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, and Jerome explain the passage allegorically, "with all due respect to others' opinions, it is possible that Christ is being somewhat ironic" (6:867). Verbal nuance functions rhetorically; it specifies the tonal shades of social interactions and relationships. For example, although the beginning of Erasmus's note on Matthew 26:13 follows Valla closely, it then continues: "furthermore does not simply signify memory but a token of affection or a memorial (monumentum ) that one leaves behind with a friend to remind him of the giver . Hence it might not badly be translated as a memorial of her (in monumentum ipsius )" (6:864). Erasmus's sense of the nuance of the Greek, of the precise social register of meaning, is apparent in his distinction between a simple remembering and the symbolic "remembrance" denoting and sustaining intimacy (one thinks of Donne's "bracelet of bright hair"). At Matthew 5:47 he explains that salutaveritis ("if you salute" in the Authorized Version) signifies "not simply 'to greet' someone but 'to greet them with a kiss and embrace,' which was formerly customary for friends to do, not only among the Jews but also among the Greeks and Romans" (6:136–37). As before, Erasmus regards the meaning of a word as inseparable from its rhetorical occasions; language points to social praxis, not theological subtleties.
But the Annotationes is also theological, particularly in the later editions, which supplement the basically philological notes of the 1516 text with patristic, polemical, and ethical commentary. The notes on the fifth chapter of Matthew, for example, attack the characteristic enemies of the Erasmian philosophia Christi : monks, warmongering bishops, scholastic ignorance, false allegorization. In large part, the freshness of the Annotationes stems from Erasmus's application of rhetorical and philological method to theological questions. Erasmus's philological notes often have an explicit theological bearing. The most controversial entries in the Anno -
tationes —those on the Johannine comma, the correct translation of logos , and the subordination of Christ to God in the Pauline Epistles—all use philological argument to clarify and problematize doctrine.
Similarly, Erasmus's attempts to identify the original audience and occasion behind biblical utterances and his focus on the intention (voluntas ) of the speaker as opposed to literal sense of his statement (scriptum ) rely on essentially rhetorical procedures. In Erasmus's commentaries, these procedures serve, as they do in Classical rhetoric, to distinguish the universally valid thesis implicit in a passage from the historical contingencies informing it (what in rhetoric is called the hypothesis ). In a long note on 1 Corinthians 7:39, for example, Erasmus argues that Saint Paul did not forbid remarriage after divorce in all cases: he was addressing a Jewish audience concerning the Jewish practice of allowing divorce for relatively minor marital disputes where reconciliation was still possible (7:1031–34). Had he taken account of more serious conjugal disasters, Erasmus concludes, "perhaps the Apostle would have responded differently, according to the circumstances of the case, and relaxed somewhat from the rigor of his earlier advice; he would, I think, have interpreted his own writings more humanely (civilius ) for us than we ourselves interpret them" (7:1032–33). This passage analyzes the historical context in order to differentiate culturally specific injunctions from the theological "sense" of Paul's teaching on marriage, the same "sense" informing all of Scripture: namely, "Christian charity" or "equity" (7:1025, 1034). Erasmus, that is, distinguishes the historical from the universal in order to bracket the former as no longer pertinent; the whole point of his rhetorical method is to isolate the unchanging, general principles that should govern a Christian understanding of divorce from the parasitic tangles of historical detritus that medieval literalism often mistook for the main trunk.
Erasmus's philological and rhetorical procedures were, of course, seminal; as an exegete, he was a forerunner both of liberal theologians like Castellio, Hooker, and Milton and of such humanistically trained Reformers as Calvin, Zwingli, and Beza—although the Erasmian philosophia Christi is more concerned with mores than dogma. But the main lines of late Renaissance biblical scholarship , while clearly indebted to Erasmus, advanced in a different direction.