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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Nature of Authority

Fundamental to the approach of the late patristic and medieval period to the study of scripture was a respect for its authority. Auctoritas could be used in various ways, to refer to the individual author who was himself an ‘authority’, to refer to the text which was being cited as authoritative, or to the nature of the weight an opinion carried.

There were three ‘levels’ of authority in medieval thinking. Scripture came indisputably first and highest. Then came auctores who were Christians, and especially those now (though not in the earlier Middle Ages) referred to as the Fathers. Last came secular authorities, such as Cicero and Aristotle. Contradiction between authorities on different levels could normally simply be resolved in favour of the higher.

There was also a sense that the antiqui outweighed the moderni, being closer to the source. The high Middle Ages saw a debate on the question where the boundary lay between such ancient authorities and those who carried less weight because they were recent, and it was argued that merely being dead placed an authority in the first class. In twelfth-century compilations of authorities surviving in some of the English cathedral libraries and elsewhere, it is striking that Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Hugh of St Victor appear alongside Augustine and Gregory the Great as though they were of equal standing. But this pattern does not persist and the same ‘latter-day Fathers’ persisted without noticeable additions to their number in the later Middle Ages.

The key idea perhaps is that which later twelfth-century teachers ascribed to Bernard of Chartres. He is alleged to have described the scholars of his own day as dwarfs standing on the shoulders of the giants of old. It was possible for the dwarfs to see further than the giants. But there was no question whose was the greater stature.

This attitude of awed respect mutated by the end of the Middle Ages to the realization that an earlier author was ‘only a man’, and that a later scholar's opinion might be as good as his. But that in its turn depended upon the consideration that even the greatest Christian authors must differ from the author of scripture in that they were merely human. And here we come to the question of the divine inspiration of scripture.

It was taken for granted by all students of scripture in the Middle Ages that the text of the Bible was literally and directly inspired. The picture of an evangelist sitting writing with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove with its beak in his ear is an iconographical commonplace.

Nevertheless, there was discussion in the later Middle Ages of the exact role of the human authors of scripture and some toying with the possibility that they had not always heard accurately what the Holy Spirit was saying to them. The puzzle of a prophet saying ‘I am not a prophet’ (propheta non sum) threw up sharply the question whether the human authors of scripture had not perhaps made at least some human, and therefore fallible, contribution.

Then there was the question of the status of the translation from which, in practice, all medieval commentators of the west were working. Jerome's Vulgate became the standard text from the fifth century until the sixteenth, when its accuracy was seriously questioned by textual critics working from the manuscripts for the first time. In fact not all their criticisms were well-founded because in some instances the Byzantine manuscripts they were using were less reliable than the sources Jerome had had before him.

Jerome himself was unequivocal that he was not inspired. The translation he provided was his own, not God's provision of a Latin text. Nevertheless the habit of close analysis and commentary led to the Vulgate text's being treated throughout the Middle Ages as though God himself were indeed the author of every word. Much ink was used, for example, in discussing the opening of the book of Job: vir unus, because the unus is a grammatical oddity; it was argued that God does nothing by chance, and if he says that there was ‘one man’ not ‘a man’ in the land of Uz he must do so for a reason.

Jerome uses the word interpres to describe himself as a translator, but that is of course the same word as one would have to use for an interpreter. That is a reminder that translation is also interpretation. The selection of one word rather than another can alter the reader's understanding significantly. That is very apparent in the early sixteenth-century English renderings which were sensitive to what then seemed undesirable connotations of such words as ‘church’ (for which ‘congregation’ might be substituted) and the mare's nest of difficulties which surrounded ‘bishop’, ‘priest’, ‘minister’.

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