Reading Note:


Now that the holiday calendar has come to a close, I’m losing no time in buckling down with the books. Although a few titles in my mammoth stacks of books appeal to me more than others, I resolved this afternoon to read what fate presented, sort of. The first book that my gaze fell upon was Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea, by Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams (Belknap, 2006). I bought the book at the Cloisters this summer, and immediately read the substantial introduction and most of the first chapter (of four). Then — well, then there was the Fall, and my life was derailed by an act of reupholstery.

CTB (as I’ll abbreviate the lengthy title) attracted me as a book about books — quite literally in this case, as the authors explore the generally-known but poorly-understood association between the establishment of Christianity and the replacement of the scroll by the codex. As I’m only halfway through the book, I can’t say where the exploration is going to lead, but in the agreeable atmosphere of the Cloisters gift shop it seemed to promise a variation on a story that’s close to my heart: the appropriation of a new technology, for which mainstream society hasn’t found a use, by the exponents of a new cultural outlook. That is why I am reading CBT. I am not terribly interested in the religious aspect of the book as such — except, of course, to the extent that the authors explode the orthodox Vatican view of early Church history, which is entirely a matter of martyrs.

CBT is a diffcult book, but it is aimed at the general reader. It does not assume any detailed knowledge of the early-Christian world of the Third Century, and it conscientiously explains what only specialists might be expected to know. The writing is cogent and lucid. But the scholarship of antiquity, so familiar-seeming from the book’s cover, is actually quite alien. One of the more influential scholars of his time, Origen was, by our standards, not much of a scholar at all, but it is not his Christianity (his belief in the inpsiring Logos) that sets him apart, as one might at first think. It is, precisely, his antiquity. His intellectual formation was in line with that of his pagan contemporaries.

Origen’s bibliographic habits fit well within the philosophical culture of the book as it emerged under the Roman Empire. The contents and scope of Origen’s collection, the uses to which he put his books, the ways he read and the genres in which he chose to write, and the social matrix that supported his work, all find strong parallels among the philosophers. Origen’s library was large and varied, yet its contents were also highly specialized, omitting many works, even entire literary genres, that were central to contemporary learned culture. Origen’s literary output was diverse, but much of it was shaped by the twin philosophical imperatives of interpretation — in Origen’s case, of the Christian Scriptures — and polemic, whether against members of one’s own school or against representatives of rival traditions. Finally, we have precious documentation both for Origen’s relations with patrons and for the concrete ways that their support enabled him to obtain and, especially, to produce books. What we find both reflects, and help us fell out, the pciture pieced together from the evident for more typical philosophers.

That documentation is precious, of course, because there isn’t very much of it, and because “Origen’s library has left no physical traces for archeology to uncover.”

The foregoing passages, taken from the first chapter of CTB, are dense but not distant. Origen’s library is made to sound familiar enough. But once the discussion turns to the Hexapla, the air begins to thin. You might almost wonder if the Hexapla actually existed. The two sets of fragments that survive do not establish the existence of the scholarly project described by Eusebius, Origen’s successor at Caesarea. This was a very emplified bilingual edition of the Hebrew Bible, presented in six parallel columns. The first column gave the Hebrew text, more or less as a list, word by word. The second consisted of a transliteration in the Greek alphabet. The remaining columns offered different Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, with that of the Septuagint — the official Christian Bible in the Greek-speaking Church— in the fifth column.

Origen’s reasons for undertaking this project appear — by the time the authors draw their conclusions — to have been the very opposite of what you might expect. They seem, for the matter of that, to have been the opposite of Jerome’s. Jerome set himself up in Bethlehem in order to provide the Western Church with a respectable translation of the Hebrew Bible in Latin (the Vulgate). Origen looked through the other end of the telescope. Far from trying to establish a correct Greek testament by scrupulous examination of the Hebrew orignal, Origen seems to have been convinced that the Septuagint was a more “authentic” text than the Hebrew version (“prot0-Masoretic”) that was in use in Hellenized Jewish communities about three centures later. How could it be otherwise? As Origen wrote to Julius Africanus,

Are we  to believe that the same Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has taught all the churches of Christ, gave no thought to those bought with a price, for whom Christ died?”

Not very scholarly. This is precisely the sort of thinking that early philologists such as Lorenzo Valla would reject in the 1450s, not because of any doubts about the divinity of Scriptural inspiration, but because of familiarity with the waywardness of pen-wielding human hands.

It was very difficult to fix my attention on this material in the early evening, after a long and bustling weekend. I was distracted by the teasing approaches of a nap, briskly withdrawn whenever I was on the point of surrender. I had to re-read a great deal — or, to put it more exactly, I had to go back and actually read many pages that my eye had grazed. Why, exactly, was I reading this book?  

Why are you reading this entry?

5 Responses to “Reading Note:

  1. Nom de Plume says:

    I am reading this entry for perhaps different reasons than you are reading the book, but related nonetheless. You are a reader of many scholarly works on Biblical and religious history, and as such I value the perspective you bring to such an undertaking as CBT. That it is a difficult book, there is no doubt, and I don’t have the time, nor the rigor you describe, to read it myself. Yet, I share an overall interest in your ongoing themes, having read a smattering of Biblical history myself, and having sympathy for your underlying theme of “the appropriation of a new technology, for which mainstream society hasn’t found a use, by the exponents of a new cultural outlook.” I’m not quite sure how that applies here, but I hope you’ll continue to share as you do the heavy lifting of important reading that so many others are failing to do these days. It is a very real and, may I say precious, value you bring via these pages.

  2. TJ says:

    I am reading because the Jesuits forty plus years ago aroused in me an interest in the origins of Christianity and then in Origen, which later teachers like Reynold Borzaga managed to weave into a tapestry that unfurled right up to existentialism. So I read to understand that which might not be understood, but which is enjoyed very much thanks to your efforts.

  3. Thanks for your explanation of Origen and his work. Like many Christians, Origen views were essentially that the Hebrew Bible had no validity, and that the Septuagint was more “authentic” than the Hebrew. He is quite open about why he thought this; the Jews had killed Christ and Christians were now part of God’s plan, and therefore Jewish writings like the Hebrew Bible had no authenticity. Christians have generally sought to belittle the Hebrew Scriptures ever since then for the same reason, not for any real fault in the Hebrew Bible. Yet the Hebrew Bible has been preserved essentially intact for hundreds of years, from at least today down to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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