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Allowing the Word to speak for itself

September 23, 2011

Last March I was able to view the Biblia latina, cum postillis Nicolai de Lyra et expositionibus Guillelmi Britonis in omnes prologos S. Hieronymi et additionibus Pauli Burgensis replicisque Matthiae Doering  Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1481. Although I don’t have an image of this Bible, similar Bibles can be viewed here and here., Here is the commentary for this Bible provided by the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, U. of Toronto,

The most striking characteristic of many incunable Bibles like this one is their complicated page layout.They have been described as a tour de force of the printer’s art with the Biblical text in large print surrounded by a traditional gloss, beneath which are the Postilla or “notes’ of Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1349), followed by the objections of Paul of Burgos (a converted rabbi who took exception to Nicholas’s emphasis on Hebrew interpretation), underneath which are the criticisms of Matthias Döring (d. 1469) in Nicholas’s defence. Nicholas was one of the few Hebraists to emerge in the later Middle Ages, and in his day he was criticized for ‘judaizing’ the Scriptures. His Postilla or ‘notes’ show a thorough understanding of the Jewish exegetes, expecially Rashi (1040-1105), and it was principally through Nicholas that the Jewish interpretations of teh Old Testament were introduced to Christian theologians. Luther was expecially influenced by his commentary, prompting the coining of the Latin adage, ‘Si Lyra non lyrasset, Luther non saltasset’  meaning, ‘Had Lyra not played, Luther could not have danced.’ This Venetian imprint represents the first time the Biblia latina was printed in combination with Nicholas’s extensive reflections. While the reformers were endebted to his insights, they eventually rejected the addition of commentary to the Biblical text in favour of a page relatively unencumbered by marginalia, allowing the Word to speak for itself.

It seems that any translation is not actually allowing the Word to speak for itself, but is rather the product of preceding commentary. I used to imagine, when I was younger, that Tyndale worked from the Greek and Hebrew texts alone, although now I see how unscholarly that would have been. But last March, while in Toronto, I spent some time leafing through the Greek and Hebrew Bibles that were available to Luther and Tyndale. The reality hit me, that the Bibles were in the Greek or Hebrew, with a Latin translation, and with commentary, either by Nicholas of Lyra or Erasmus. Yet these names and their commentaries are little known to us today.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2011 11:18 am

    I think that suppressing information about medieval commentators is largely a Protestant phenomena. The classic “Rabbinic Bible” (of which some remarkable translations are being made — a reminder that I should make a post soon) includes many of the medieval commentators, as well as Aramaic translations. Even schoolchildren are taught Bible “with Rashi.”

    Similarly there are lengthy compilations of Catholic/Orthodox commentaries (of which perhaps the best known is Aquinas’s Catena Aurea.)

    Even Protestants were used to producing annotations or extensive book/chapter introductions — until King James insisted that they be largely omitted (he was offended by the anti-monarchical tone of some notes in the Geneva Bible.)

    The Hebrew is far too complicated and obscure to hope to understand it “from first principles.”

    To some extent, I think our present era is seeing a Protestant rebirth of interest in annotated and study Bibles — as the sudden explosion of volumes on the market indicates. Perhaps the next step will be to reacquaint readers with the classic medieval commentaries.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 23, 2011 9:00 pm

    I am aware of this now, but for a long time, I was did not realse what a narrow sliver of history and commentary I was exposed to. I think there has always been a healthy interest in commentary, but always a select commentary.

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