Joy A. Schroeder on The Book of Jeremiah (BMT)

Joy A. Schroeder is the translator and editor of the new commentary The Book of Jeremiah, part of The Bible in Medieval Tradition series.

The book of Jeremiah is edgy. The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, active circa 626–587 BCE, predicts imminent catastrophe—nightmare scenarios of warfare, slaughter, and environmental disaster. Jeremiah foresees the violence that will befall Jerusalem when the Babylonian army marches upon it from the north.  The prophet shared hopeful words as well: promises of restoration, return from exile, and a new covenant written upon the people’s hearts. Nevertheless, in a sustained reading of Jeremiah, the primary themes are judgment, violence, and terror. So what is a medieval monk, puzzling over the text more than 1400 years later, supposed to do with Jeremiah’s words? How did medieval biblical commentators, reading Jeremiah’s verses in Latin, find God’s message for their own day?

In The Book of Jeremiah, modern readers encounter the fascinating world of monks and scholars who interpreted the Bible in medieval monasteries and universities. This volume, fourth in the Bible in Medieval Tradition (BMT) series, contains substantial excerpts from biblical scholars who worked between the 800s to the 1400s. Until now, no medieval Christian commentaries on Jeremiah have been translated into English. This book gives readers access to the rich tradition of medieval engagement with scripture.

Zedekiah chained and brought before Nebuchadnezzar.

The Book of Jeremiah is commentary on the biblical text itself, and a window into the mindset of medieval men—and several women—who pondered the text. (Though no medieval women wrote commentaries on Jeremiah, the volume’s introduction provides quotations from the nun Hildegard of Bingen [1098-1179] and other women from her era who made references to the prophet and his writings.) The commentaries contain charming medieval zoological information about dragons and deadly reptilian basilisks—scientific details relevant to the Latin text Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries commented upon. (The church father Jerome had translated the Hebrew word for “jackals” as “dragons.”)

In The Book of Jeremiah, we see that commentators used a range of approaches, including historical, allegorical, and moral applications of the text, to instruct their students and provide material for preachers. These studious teachers—men like Albert the Great (ca. 1206-1280), Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274), and Denis the Carthusian (1402-1471)—knew that first they must understand what the text meant to Jeremiah and his earliest listeners before applying the moral lessons and theological teachings to their audiences. Nicholas of Lyra (ca. 1270-1349), who read biblical and rabbinic texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, engaged Jewish medieval interpretations of Jeremiah, citing and quoting from them extensively. Offering their theological perspectives, medieval Christian biblical scholars saw in the suffering, persecution, and rejection of Jeremiah a prefiguring of Christ’s own suffering. Commentators also assured preachers not to take it personally when their sermons received criticism—since the saintly Jeremiah had likewise suffered verbal abuse for preaching God’s word!

Lothar I

Despite the centuries separating the biblical world from the medieval world, the monks and friars saw the text’s relevance for their own day. When Jeremiah condemned the priests of his day, medieval commentators used it as an occasion to rebuke the scandalous lives and financial corruption of high-ranking clergymen and bishops of their own time. The sort of warfare and palace intrigue reported in the book of Jeremiah was familiar to the monk Rabanus Maurus (ca. 780-856), who had taken sides with one of the contenders in a war for succession as Holy Roman Emperor by dedicating his Exposition on the Prophet Jeremiah to Lothar I. (In the ninth century, emperors appreciated having Latin biblical commentaries read aloud to them at the royal court.)

Readers of this volume can gain new perspectives into the biblical text by learning the ways that earlier generations sought meaning in the book of Jeremiah. When we read the text through the eyes of scholarly medieval commentators, we gain a heightened awareness of biblical tragedy.

The commentators captured the pathos of the people of Jerusalem, terrified within the city walls during the Babylonian siege. They also offered words of biblical hope and encouragement for people living in turbulent times.

Nicholas of Lyra c. 1479

Together with other volumes in the BMT series, The Book of Jeremiah challenges stereotypes about medieval people’s supposed ignorance about the Bible. We learn that medieval readers treated the text with studious reverence, astutely offering critical attention to verbal details and Jeremiah’s historical context.  It is my hope that The Book of Jeremiah will not only introduce modern readers to the rich contributions of their spiritual forebears, but also will help readers to engage the text of scripture with reverence and vigor as they grapple with its meaning within their own contexts.

* * *

Joy A. Schroeder is professor of church history at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, professor of religion at Capital University, and holder of the Bergener Chair of Theology and Religion at both schools. She has written or edited numerous books, including The Book of Genesis in The Bible in Medieval Tradition series.

 

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