Hymnography as an Avenue of Biblical Interpretation

Hymnography (Greek: ὑμνογραφία) is one of the most prolific and creative genres of Christian literature, especially Byzantine. The word hymn (ὕμνος) means a song of religious content composed for liturgical use. Christian worship included the singing of hymns from the very beginning (Matt. 26:30; Eph. 1: 3-14). The Holy Scriptures, as the most important source and content of Christian worship, inspire and permeate church hymns, many of which represent a true “mosaic of biblical words and phrases” (Lash 2008, 35). Thus, the earliest Christian hymns developed from the singing of psalms and biblical odes, and then from non-biblical refrains and antiphons, which were inserted between biblical verses (Frøyshov 2013).

Unlike the traditional approach, where the focus was on the historical and literary characteristics of hymnography, recent scholarship emphasizes its exegetical significance (Wickes 2019; Pentiuc 2021). The roots of exegetical hymnography can be found in the hymn On Pascha by Melito of Sardis (d. ca 180). Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus is retold in its first part, while in the second the significance of that narrative is presented. However, exegetical hymnography gained its real momentum in the 4th century among the Syrian-speaking Christians with Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373) and his hymns known as madrasha. The main characteristic of madrasha is that it is based on biblical texts and gives their interpretations. Somewhat later, under the influence of madrasha, but also other genres of Syrian hymnography, such as mêmrê (a metrical sermon) and soghitha (a responsory song in the form of dialogues) (Brock 1983; Brock 1989), the kontakion appeared in the Greek tradition (Maas 1910; Brock 1989). This hymnographic genre, which flourished in the 6th and 7th centuries, was a type of biblical commentary–sometimes called “sung homily”–in which the poet used dialogues and elaboration of the biblical text in order to convey the content of the Holy Scriptures to the public, i.e. the gathered congregation. The most important representative of this hymnographic genre is Romanos the Melodist (d. after 555), to whom a large number of kontakia are attributed, of which approximately sixty are authentic (Maas and Trypanis 1963).

Romanos the Melodist and Virgin Mary, Miniature from the Menologion of Basil II (ca 1000 CE).

The last great hymnographic genre, even though not the last to appear, is the kanon. Its beginnings date back to the 4th-5th centuries (Frøyshov 2013), but, thanks to several prominent hymnographers, such as Andrew of Crete (d. 740), John of Damascus (d. ca 750) and Kosmas the Melodist (d. ca 752), the kanon eventually prevailed from the 8th century as the most represented hymnographic genre in the Byzantine liturgical tradition. Based on nine biblical odes, the structure of the kanon summarizes the entire history of salvation from the passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (ode 1) to the incarnation of Christ (ode 9).

Great Byzantine hymnographers: Joseph the Hymnographer, Theophanes Graptos, Theodore the Studite, John of Damascus and Kosmas the Melodist. Nerezi (North Macedonia), north wall (1164 CE).

Hymnography is permeated with virtually all biblical readings, while hymnographers, using both previously mentioned and other genres to provide their interpretation of specific biblical verses, employ methods that overcome divisions both among biblical books and between the Old and New Testaments. Christian poets, therefore, used hymnographic forms to interpret the Holy Scriptures, but also to revive, actualize and reenact them in a certain way at liturgical gatherings (Merton 1956; Krueger, 2015). Therefore, in addition to typology and allegory as the two primary exegetical methods in hymnography, we should also mention the remarkably widespread practice of reworking, supplementing and even rewriting the Bible in liturgical hymns (Bucur 2007). Namely, instead of establishing a connection between a certain Old Testament and New Testament event or person, achieved by employing typology, or instead of searching for the spiritual reality behind an Old Testament narrative, which is characteristic of allegory, hymnographers rework and supplement biblical narratives and adapt them to specific contexts. In this process of elaborating or a kind of rewriting the biblical text, we see a rhetorical technique quite common for late antique and Byzantine hymnography, i.e. inventing speeches for biblical characters (prosopopeia or personification) or constructing dialogues between them. Such fictional speeches and dialogues have served various purposes, such as explaining silence in a text, attaching a certain theological meaning to the text, or developing the psychological profile of a particular biblical figure. Among the most illustrative examples are undoubtedly fictional dialogues between biblical protagonists that we meet in the hymnography of great feasts, such as Christmas (between the Mother of God and the Infant Jesus), Epiphany (between Christ and John the Baptist), Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (between Simeon and the Infant Jesus), etc.

In conclusion, it can be said that classical Byzantine biblical commentaries and hymnography are mutually complementary. Moreover, if we accept as the point of departure the fact that the liturgical space is the context in which the Holy Scriptures are listened to and interpreted, then this is already a major step towards recognizing hymnography as a privileged bearer of biblical exegesis. Finally, if we keep in mind that we no longer have systematic biblical commentaries in the Christian East since the 6th century, and especially in the post-iconoclastic period, which coincides with the flourishing of hymnography, we can claim that hymnography takes over that role to some extent. Therefore, it is impossible to fully assess the reach and value of the medieval biblical exegesis of the Orthodox East if hymnography is not taken into account.

Kosta Simic
Byzantine Postdoctoral Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)

Further Reading:

Brock, Sebastian. “Dialogue Hymns of the Syriac Churches”. Sobornost incorporating Eastern Churches Review 5:2 (1983) 35–45

______. “From Ephrem to Romanos”. In Studia Patristica 20, edited by Elizabeth A. Livingstone, 139–151. Leuven: Peeters, 1989.

Bucur, Bogdan. “Exegesis of Biblical Theophanies in Byzantine Hymnography: Rewritten Bible?”, Theological Studies 68 (2007) 92-112.

Frøyshov, Stig. ‘Byzantine Rite’, ‘Rite of Constantinople’ and ‘Rite of Jerusalem’, in The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology at:https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/ b/byzantine-rite [by subscription], 2013.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. Theology and Poetry in Early Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Grosdidier de Matons, José Grosdidier. Romanos le Mélode et les origines de la poésie religieuse à Byzance, Paris: Éditions Beauchesne, 1977.

—. “Liturgie et Hymnographie: Kontakion et Canon”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34 (1980–81) 31-43.

Hall, Stuart George. Melito of Sardis “On Pascha” and Fragments, Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Lash, Ephrem. “Biblical Interpretation in Worship”. In The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, edited by Mary Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff, 35–48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hannick, Christian. “The Theotokos in Byzantine Hymnography: Typology and Allegory”. In Images of the Mother of God. Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium, edited by Maria Vassilaki, 69-76. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

“Hymnography”. In The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. 2, edited by Alexander Kazhdan et al., 960-961. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Krueger, Derek. “Liturgical Time and Holy Land Reliquaries in Early Byzantium”. In Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond, edited by Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein, 110-131. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2015.

Maas, Paul. “Das Kontakion”. Byzantinische Zeitschrift 19 (1910) 285–306.

Maas, Paul and Trypanis, Constantine Athanasius (eds). Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica: Cantica Genuina, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Merton, Thomas. “Time and Liturgy”, Worship 31 (1956) 2-10.

Pentiuc, Eugen. Hearing the Scriptures: Liturgical Exegesis of the Old Testament in Byzantine Orthodox Hymnography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Wellesz, Egon. A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Wickes, Jeffrey. “Poetry and Hymnody”. In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation, edited by Paul Blowers and Peter Martens, 254-269. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

The Bible, or Reading the Bible? The Authority of Lay Religious Teachers in Fifteenth-Century Germany

In his 1479 printed Beichtspiegel (Mirror for Confession), lay barber and Meistersinger Han Folz of Nuremberg used rhyming verse to teach his readers about the triangle of rew, beicht, buß (contrition, confession, penance); the dangers of purgatory; and above all, the seemingly endless numerical lists of vices and virtues that so characterized fifteenth-century religious literature. [1] There was no need to limit oneself to the seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues when there were also four sins that cry to heaven (one of which is, however, the silent sin), six sins against the Holy Spirit, and nine alien sins.

By 1479, a wealthy, prominent, and educated burgher like Folz evidently had little to fear from widely disseminating orthodox religious writing in the vernacular to instruct other laity. Indeed, while he printed the original Beichtspiegel himself, the text was later printed in an anthology alongside didactic literature by clerical authors. Nevertheless, the lack of authority of office led him to ground his authority throughout the Beichtspiegel via textual citation. More specifically, via a single type of citation. Folz cites “Levitici am vierundzweinzigisten capitel” (Leviticus 24); he cites “quarto Regum quinto” (4 Kings 5); he cites “Luce sedecimo” (Luke 16). [2] Throughout the entire Beichtspiegel, almost all of his citations take the same form, and without exception they come from the same source: the Bible.

Initial of the book of Genesis in the Wenceslas Bible (also known as the Bible of Wenceslaus IV); Vienna, Austrian National Library, Codex 2759–64 (1389 CE).

It was not for lack of knowledge of other religious texts. Folz’s Latin was good enough for him to accomplish two different translations of the Life of Adam and Eve, and his immense corpus of surviving poetry, songs, and Carnival plays reveals an extensive familiarity with the more theoretical or theological ideas that lay beneath the “mass market” Christianity of his day. [3] Furthermore, in his medical texts, Folz shows he understands the utility of citing earlier authorities through his references to Galen, Avicenna—and Augustine. [4] In the Beichtspiegel, his decision to rely solely on the Word of God as authority was indeed a decision.

Das wort gottes could be rallying cry of the Reformation because the late Middle Ages got there first. The Bible’s position as the focus of lay arguments in favor of the early Protestant movement, we have long known, was rooted in its already-existing popularity in lay religious life, not its absence. [5] In addition to the enormous amount of [[vernacular biblical material available to lay readers]], pastoral care manuals and priests’ prefaces to Bible translations emphasized the need to make scripture accessible to the laity.

Sandra Corbellini has noted a second important emphasis in pastoral texts encouraging lay Bible use: the act of reading scripture—independent of the specific contents—as an act of peri-mystical devotion reminiscent of monastic meditatio. One of the fifteenth century’s most influential preachers, Bernardino of Siena, preached that “the more you read and study [the Bible], the more sweetness you get, the more you feel the taste of God. If you try it, you will know; otherwise not.” [6]

No matter how rhythmic Folz’s verse (not really at all) or how perfect his rhymes (very imperfect), it is undeniable that his rote lists of sins and virtues put one in the mindset of learning facts, not the prayerful devotion Bernardino suggests. However, popular teaching’s legitimization of the act of reading scripture from the act of learning from reading scripture had its parallel at the more learned level, too.

Ian Christopher Levy’s aptly named Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages shows how the theological debates of the turbulent period between 1370 and 1430 so often turned on the question of who had the authority to determine what constituted a correct—therefore authoritative—interpretation of scripture.[7] The act of correct reading, separate from the interpretation itself, was important enough to be its own flashpoint for debate and worse. The act of reading was inseparable from the determination of authority.

The opening of the Ottheinrich Bible, the earliest surviving illustrated manuscript of the New Testament in the German language, commissioned by Ludwig VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt; Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cgm 8010, p.2 (c. 1430 CE).

In that light, the specific method by which Folz cites the Bible merits attention. With the exception of a couple of places where Folz refers briefly to a Bible story to illustrate his point, all biblical references take the same full form: book and chapter. (Verses were not regularly numbered and used until far later.) His citations are purposeful citations of the Bible as a book, not just a text.

Folz, moreover, is not the only fifteenth-century German layman to seek this association. 1460s-era lay apocalyptic prophets Livin and Johannes Wirsberger of Egerland were exquisitely aware of the precariousness of their position, given the dark fears of the devil corrupting ignorant lay people into proclaiming false prophecies. Their few surviving letters feature insistent deferrals to the Church as the ultimate judge of true and false messages, but also their authority to write anyway. [8] One favorite tactic? The citation of scripture by book and chapter.

Folz and to some extent the Wirsbergers direct their readers’ attention to the Bible as a book—inseparable from directing readers’ attention to the authors’ familiarity with the Bible as a book. They seem to signal not just their religious knowledge, but the fact that they are able to access it through reading the Bible.

The possibility that religious authority could lie in the act of reading scripture raises questions about the relationship of laity and clergy, and just as importantly, public perception of “clergy” and/versus “lay” in the realm of popular, vernacular religious teaching. In an era filled with das wort gottes and significantly increasing urban literacy rates, further investigation will hopefully help illuminate intersections between contemporary religious culture, benefit of clergy, and—yes—a priesthood of quite a few additional believers.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] Hans Folz, “Beichtspiegel,” in Hans Folz: Die Reimpaarsprüche, ed. Hanns Fischer (Beck, 1961), 188-210.

[2] Folz, 195 (4 Kings 5); 202 (Leviticus 24);204 (Luke 16).

[3] See, for example, John D. Martin, “Dramatized Disputations: Late Medieval German Dramatizations of Jewish-Christian Religious Disputations, Church Policy, and Local Social Climates,” Medieval Encounters 8, no. 2–3 (2002): 209–27.

[4] Folz, “Pestregimen in Versen,” in Fischer, 412-428; “Pestregimen in Prosa,” in Fischer, 429-437.

[5] Although research on the use of the Bible in German-speaking lands has generally lagged behind studies in other regions, Anthony Gow’s work offers an excellent introduction to the medieval situation as well as briefly touching on earlier scholarly efforts: Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages,” in Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and Thomas E. Burman (Brill, 2005), 161-191.

[6] Translated in Sandra Corbellini, “Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe,” in Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars, and their Readers in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean (Brill, 2012), 24.

[7] Ian Christopher Levy, Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), xi.

[8] Frances Courtney Kneupper, The Empire at the End of Time: Identity and Reform in Late Medieval German Prophecy (Oxford, 2016), 115, translates: “Thus should you act justly in your reason and take to heart what the lords Matthew in 23, Mark 13, and Luke 21 all say.”

The Material Gospel Conference: A Brief Overview

What do Gospel books have in common with collections of medical recipes? What do practices of erasure and destruction tell us about early Christian identity? Can we tell biographies of books?

Early Christians materialized Gospel literature in diverse formats and technologies. As material objects, these instantiations of “the Gospel” participated in ritual, political, economic, and readerly contexts. Gospel books were powerful. Augustine of Hippo complains that his audiences put Gospel books under their pillows to cure toothache. Amulets attest that even short excerpts enabled users to access the protective power of the material Gospel. The Gospel codex sometimes represented Christian identity, as Gospel books were processed in liturgy and imposed on the shoulders of ordinands. In times of persecution, Gospel books might even be subject to public execution in place of Christ himself. Yet Gospel books might also be erased or destroyed for apparently more mundane reasons, as various kinds of recycling attest. As an anthological object, the multiple-Gospel codex contributed to the development of a fourfold canonical Gospel. Early Christian readers developed novel strategies to facilitate knowledge, navigation, and use of Gospel literature. In each of these contexts, the materiality of Gospel literature plays a decisive role.

To address this theme, David Lincicum and I organized a conference on The Material Gospel at Notre Dame on 31 May 2019. The conference was generously sponsored by the Medieval Institute, the Institute for the Study of the Liberal Arts, and the Department of Theology. It brought together a number of scholars of Gospel literature and material culture to discuss the Gospel as a material object in the early Christian centuries. The day-long conference involved six papers and extended discussion between speakers and audience members.

To begin the day, Clare Rothschild (Lewis University) offered a paper on “Galen’s De indolentia and the Early Christian Codex.” The codex, a book format with pages and covers, quickly became a marker of Christian practices — to such an extent that scholars have suggested that the codex format became a marker of Christian identity, perhaps even chosen because of its visual distinctiveness. Rothschild intervenes in this conversation, emphasizing that the early Christian preference for a codex format was not only about visual distinctiveness or the perceived value of the texts, but also about the utility of the codex format. Comparison with the second-century physician Galen (129–ca. 216 CE) offers one window into second-century use of the codex. Rothschild offers a close reading of a passage where Galen describes the loss of parchment codices with medical recipes and of his own medical treatises. Similar genres appear in both formats. Galen describes the codices of recipes as having enormous intellectual and pecuniary value, but one of his own treatises, written on a scroll, was even more precious. But if the codex format was neither a bibliographic marker of genre or an indication of value, then why might Galen have used it? And why might Christians have adopted this technology? Rothschild argues that the codex affords durability, accessibility, expandability, and portability. These practical possibilities make it appropriate and convenient for Galen’s collections of medical recipes. Similarly, the codex format is practical for early Christian practices of study, liturgy, and travel in ways that exceed the possibilities of the bookroll. Conversations about the early Christian adoption of the codex for Gospels and other texts must, therefore, attend to the utility of the codex.

In a paper on “Navigating the Gospel: Nonlinear Access and Practical Use,” Jeremiah Coogan (Notre Dame) expands the conversation about the materiality of early Christian Gospel reading beyond the issue of codex format. Coogan argues that technologies for finding, dividing, and referencing illuminate late ancient Gospel reading, revealing how readers use Gospel books as objects. Coogan compares the modes of access invited by Gospel books with other practical texts in classical and late antiquity. Gospel books share visual features and practical affordances of access with recipe collections (like Galen’s or Scribonius Largus’), ritual (“magical”) anthologies (like PGM IV), and agricultural handbooks (like that of Columella). Paratextual interventions facilitate and expect Gospel access in various nonlinear ways — for liturgy, for divination, for moral instruction, for study. The late ancient Gospel book as an object frequently functions more like a recipe book than a linear text (such as the Iliad). Here, as in Rothschild’s paper, the focus is on the modes of use to which Gospel books as objects are suited. At the same time, the conversation must move beyond the codex as such, since Gospel books participate in material and paratextual conventions that facilitate access but that are not native to the codex. Coogan offers enlarged frames of comparison for the physicality and use of late ancient Gospel books.

Practices of reading and access are embedded in larger discourses. In his paper on “The Gospel Read, Sliced, and Burned: The Material Gospel and the Construction of Christian Identity,” Chris Keith (St. Mary’s Twickenham) argues that the use of the Gospel as a material object becomes part of early Christian identity. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Jan Assman , Keith argues that the early Christian book functioned as a material locus of memory and tradition. Far from being secondary or peripheral, textual objects become part of the visualization of literary memory. Practices of Gospel reading shape Christian understandings of the Gospel book as object. Christians read Gospel books in ways that are strikingly similar to how Jewish communities read Scriptures. However, there is a conceptual replacement of Torah with “Gospel” in (some) early Christian reading practices. Through practices of public reading, the book becomes a cult object. As a result, early Christians think in decidedly literal (and yet metaphorical) terms about textual change. Early Christians imagined Marcion of Sinope’s textual editing as gnawing, slicing amputation. Textual change is construed as an assault upon physical objects themselves. Finally, the centrality of the Christian book as object becomes a key issue in persecution under the Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century. In seeking to destroy the Christian book, Rome attests its central significance as material object. For Eusebius, to destroy either churches or material texts is an attack upon Christianity. The construction of Christian identity is about what one does with the material Gospel.

Practices of book destruction, however, are not always violent or polemical. In her paper on “Erasing the Gospels: Insights from the Sinai Syriac Gospel Palimpsest,” Angela Zautcke (Notre Dame) analyzes the palimpsesting (erasing and rewriting) of late ancient Gospel books. Focusing on Syriac manuscripts, especially those held at St Catherine’s Monastery (Sinai, Egypt) and the British Library (many also from Sinai). Zautcke focuses on the potential role of erasure as intentional destruction, and concludes that there is no evidence to suggest that obsolete textual traditions like the Old Syriac Gospels were more likely to be palimpsested than other kinds of texts. Rather, parchment Gospel books often circulated for some four centuries before being recycled for other texts. The preponderance of palimpsested texts in the extant monastery collections have various scriptural texts (not always Gospels) as the undertext, reflecting the predominance of these texts in the existing collections available for palimpsesting. Zautcke demonstrates the need for further study of palimpsesting in material and social histories of early Christian texts, but concludes that the destruction of Gospel books by erasure is part of the life- cycle of the Gospel as object. The medium often continues past the text itself.

Returning to the issues of codex and roll, Sofía Torallas Tovar (University of Chicago) discussed the opposite case in a paper on “Resisting the Codex: Christian Rolls in Late Antiquity.” While modern scholarly imaginations associate early Christian book culture with the emergence of the codex, Torallas Tovar demonstrates that scrolls continue to function in a range of contexts. While the codex becomes a standard format for some kinds of Christian literature, the media ecology of Christian texts also includes the continued use of scrolls — for episcopal letters, for texts like Didache and Jubilees, and for day-to-day letters and documents. Both the codex and the roll belong in a wider landscape of late ancient Christian material texts.

Finally, Matthew Larsen (Princeton) offered a paper on “Codex Bobiensis: A Real-and-Imagined Biography of One Gospel Manuscript.” Applying a model of “real-and-imagined” history from the work of Heather Blair, Larsen narrated the biography of the Latin Gospel manuscript known as Codex Bobiensis (Turin National University Library, G.VII.15), from its production in Roman North Africa to its current dismembered state in Turin. This manuscript offers an unusual — and often ignored — Gospel text and an even more unusual hybridized epitomized form, combining Mark and Matthew. It takes its common name from Bobbio Abbey, where it was preserved in part because of a remembered association with the Irish missionary Columbanus (ca. 540–615 CE). The story of this object ends (for now) in Turin, where the manuscript exists as a collection of dismounted folios. Larsen’s paper offers new lenses with which to examine the continued and changing materiality of Gospel texts as objects.

Jeremiah Coogan, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame