Exegesis of the Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages

  • E. Ann Matter


The last book of Christian Scripture, with its vivid imagery and sweeping promises of the triumph of the faithful over the persecutions of Antichrist, has always captured the imagination of Christians.1 Some contemporary groups fully expect to see the Last Days soon, and they offer exacting interpretations of the clues hidden in the last book of the New Testament for how this could happen. Sometimes these interpretations take the form of fiction.2 This is a long tradition. In fact, the Apocalypse was among the first biblical texts to be systematically explicated in Latin, even as it was one of the last to be accepted into the canon of the New Testament and given a liturgical role.3


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  1. 1.
    This essay is adapted from E. Ann Matter, “The Apocalypse in Early Medieval Exegesis,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Richard K. Emmerson and Barnard McGinn (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 38–50.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See the series begun with Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995). There are now five books in the series, each carefully based on a reading of the Apocalypse.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On the debates over the canonicity and use of the text, see Bernard McGinn, “Early Apocalypticism: The Ongoing Debate,” in The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature: Patterns, Antecedents and Repercussions, ed. C. A. Patrides and Joseph Wittreich (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp. 3–72; and McGinn, “Introduction: John’s Apocalypse and the Apocalyptic Mentality,” in Emmerson and McGinn, pp. 3–19, and C. S. C. Williams, “The History of the Text and Canon of the New Testament to Jerome,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible Volume 2: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation, ed. G. W. H. Lampe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 50–53.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    François Paschoud, “La doctrine chrétienne et l’idéologie impériale romaine,” in L’Apocalypse de Jean: Traditions exégétiques et iconographiques: IIIe–XIIIe siècles, ed. Yves Christe (Geneva: Droz, 1979), pp. 31–72.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See G. W. H. Lampe, “The Exposition and Exegesis of Scripture to Gregory the Great,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 2, pp. 155–183; Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970), pp. 1–36.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Marjorie Reeves, “The Development of Apocalyptic Thought: Medieval Attitudes,” in The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature: Patterns, Antecedents and Repercussions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 40.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    For Tyconius, see The Book of Rules of Tyconius, ed. F. C. Burkitt. (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967); William S. Babcock, ed. and trans., Tyconius: The Book of Rules (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989); Traugott Hahn, Tyconius-Studien: Ein Beitrag zur Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte des Vierten Jahrhunderts (Dorpat: H. Laapkmann, 1902); and Kenneth B. Steinhauser, The Apocalypse Commentary of Tyconius: A History of its Reception and Influence (New York: P. Lang, 1987).Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Charles Kannengiesser and Pamela Bright, A Conflict of Christian Hermeneutics in Roman Africa: Tyconius and Augustine, ed. Wilhelm Wuellner (Berkeley, CA: Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, 1989).Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    The Turin Fragments of Tyconius’ Commentary on Revelation, ed. Francesco Lo Bue and G. G. Willis (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1978).Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Sancti Beati a Liebana Commentarius in Apocalypsin, ed. A. Romero-Pose. Scriptores Graeci et Latini Consilio Academico Lynceorum Editi (Rome: Typis Officinae Polygraphica, 1985) 2 vols.; Beati in Apocalipsim libri XII, ed. H. A. Sanders (Rome: American Academy in Rome, 1930).Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    For overview of Justinian’s renovation and its aftermath, see W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), pp. 828–856; and Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 119–127. Herrin says Primasius and Primosus of Catrthage “had adopted Justinian’s policy in order to further their clerical careers,” p. 123.Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    The development of biblical chapter and verse in general was a local process that eventually became standardized in thirteenth-century Paris, see Smalley, The Study of the Bible, pp. 222–224, and Samuel Berger, De l’histoire de la Vulgate in France (Paris: Fischbacher, 1887), p. 11. The 48-chapter Latin Apocalypse is found in at least three manuscripts; cf. Johannes Haussleiter, “Die lateiniscen Apokalypse der alten afrikanischen Kirche,” in Forschungen zur Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons und der altkirchlichen Literatur, ed. Theodor Zahn (Erlangen: A. Deichen, 1891), vol. 4, pp. 197–199.Google Scholar
  13. 28.
    M. Ferotin, Apringius de béja: Commentaire de l’Apocalypse écrit sous Theudis, Roi des Wisigoths, 531–48 (Paris: A. Picard, 1900).Google Scholar
  14. 31.
    Berthold Altaner suggests his much in Theologische Revue 4 (1942): 119–120.Google Scholar
  15. 32.
    James J. O’Donnell distinguishes between two types of commentary in Cassiodorus (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 224–226, the complexiones or sequential commentary like this one, and the breves Cassiodorus. O’Donnell also claims that Cassiodorus’s Apocalypse work is “resolutely literal,” with “virtually no allegorical interpretation,” p. 227. This is certainly open to discussion, especially depending on what one might consider to be a “literal” interpretation of the Apocalypse.Google Scholar
  16. 33.
    Germain Morin, “Le commentaire homilétique de S. Césaire surl’Apocalypse,” Revue Bénédictine 45 (1933): 43–61.Google Scholar
  17. 34.
    The “index fontium” to the edition of Romero Pose shows that Beatus also quotes from Irenaeus, Augustine, Ambrose, Fulgentius, Gregory of Elvira, Gregory the Great and Isidore of Seville. See also Mateo Del Alamo, “Los Commentarios de Beato al Apocalipsis y Elipando,” Miscellanea Giovanni ercati, vol. 2, Studi e Testi 122 (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1946), pp. 16–33.Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    John Williams, The Illustrated Beatus: A Corpus of the Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse, 3 vol. (London: Harvey Miller, 1994–1998). See also John Williams, “Purpose and Imagery in the Apocalypse Commentary of Beatus of Liebana,” in Emmerson and McGinn, The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, 218–233, and Wilhelm Neuss, Die Apokalypse des hl. Johannes in der altspanischen und altchristlichen Bibel-Illustration, 2 vols. (Münster: Aschendorff, 1931).Google Scholar
  19. 36.
    John Williams, “The Beatus commentaries and Spanish Bible Illustration,” in Actas del Simposio para el estudio de los codices del “Commentario al Apocalipsis” de Beato de Liébana (Madrid: Joyas Bibliográficas, 1978–1980), pp. 201–219.Google Scholar
  20. 37.
    On this point in general, see E. Ann Matter, The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), pp. 101–106.Google Scholar
  21. 43.
    John Cassian, Collationes, ed. E. Pichery, SC 54; for the four senses p. 190. For a discussion of the senses, see Smalley, Study of the Bible, p. 28, and Henri de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale: Les quatre sens de l’Écriture, 4 vol. (Paris: Aubier, 1959–1964).Google Scholar
  22. 45.
    For a discussion, see Gerald Bonner, Saint Bede in the Tradition of Western Apocalypse Commentary (New Castle upon Tyne: J & P Bealls, 1966).Google Scholar
  23. 52.
    The text is known in one manuscript copy, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek MS Clm 13581 (c. 9, Sankt Emmeram, Regensburg), pp. 3–31. See also E. Ann Matter, “Alcuin’s Question-and-Answer Texts,” Rivista di storia della filosofia 4 (1990): 645–656.Google Scholar
  24. 55.
    Paris, BN lat. 12302, identified by W. Neuss in 1912, see John Contreni, “Haimo of Auxerre’s Commentary on Ezechiel,” in L’École carolingienne d’Auxerre de Murthethach à Remi, 830–908, ed. Dominique Iogna-Prat, Colette Jeudy, and Guy Lobrichon (Paris: Beauschesne, 1989), pp. 229–242. Contreni says: “The Ezechiel commentary also textifies to Haimos penchant for combining interpretations from different sources,” p. 233.Google Scholar
  25. 56.
    Grazia Lo Menzo Rapisarda, ed., Incerti Auctoris: Commentarius in Apocalypsin (Catania: Centro di Studi Sull’Antico Cristianesimo Università Catania, 1967).Google Scholar
  26. 57.
    Joseph T. Kelly, “Early Medieval Evidence for Twelve Homilies by Origen on the Apocalypse,” Vigiliae Christianae 39 (1985): 273–279. In my opinion, Kelly does not prove his case.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 59.
    A list of manuscripts and descriptions can be found in Derk Visser, Apocalypse as Utopian Expectation (800–1500): The Apocalypse Commentary of Berengaudus of Ferrières and the Relationship Between Exegesis, Liturgy and Iconography (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), pp. 200–213.Google Scholar
  28. 60.
    Visser’s argument that this particular interpretation must be behind the iconography of the Ghent altarpiece is harder to follow. For a contesting view, see Guy Lobrichon, “Conserver, réformer, transformer le monde? Les manipulations de l’Apocalypse au Moyen Âge central,” in The Role of the Book in Medieval Culture ed. Peter Ganz (Turnhout: Brepols, 1986) vol. 2, pp. 75–94, and “L’Ordre de ce temps et les désordres de la fin: apocalypse et société du ixe à la fin du Xie siècle,” in Werner Verbeke et al., eds., The Use and Abuse of Medieval Eschatology (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1988), pp. 221–241.Google Scholar
  29. 61.
    Bernard McGinn, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994); Richard Kenneth Emmerson, Antichrist in the Middle Ages: A Study of Medieval Apocalypticism, Art and Literature (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  30. 62.
    L. J. Lietaert Peerbolte, The Antecedents of Antichrist: A Traditio-historical Study of the Earliest Christian Views on Eschatological Opponents (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996).Google Scholar
  31. 63.
    Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel, trans. Gleason L. Archer Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977); Jay Braverman, Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel: A Study of Comparative Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1978). For Haimo on 2 Thessalonians, PL 117: 765–784. See also Second Thessalonians: Two Early Medieval Apocalyptic Commentaries: Haimo of Auxerre, “Expositio in epistolam II ad Thessalonicensis,” Thietland of Einsiedeln, “In Epistolam II ad Thessalonicensis”, ed. Stephen R. Cartwright and Kevin L. Hughes, TEAMS Commentary Series (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001).Google Scholar
  32. 64.
    CCCM 45, pp. 20–30, trans. Bernard McGinn, Apocalyptic Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 81–96.Google Scholar
  33. 65.
    Biblia latina cumglossa ordinaria: facsimile reprint of editio princep of Adolph Rusch of Strassburg 1480/81, ed. Karlfried Froehlich and Margaret T. Gibson (Turnholt: Brepols, 1992); Rupert of Deutz, In Apocalypsim PL 169:825–1214.Google Scholar

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© Michael Frassetto, ed. 2002

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  • E. Ann Matter

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