The Joyce Hill Column
Aelred of Rievaulx
At this time of the year I usually write about some aspect of the Christmas or Epiphany story. But this means that the saints of December and January get overlooked, and that’s a pity in the case of Aelred of Rievaulx (12 January), who is generally regarded as one of the greatest of England’s medieval religious leaders and one of the most interesting and attractive. His family was connected to the community at Durham: his great-grandfather was sacristan there and his grandfather cathedral canon and treasurer until, in 1083, Bishop William required married priests to choose between their cathedral position and their wives. The grandfather chose his family, and moved to the benefice of Hexham, where his son eventually succeeded him. Aelred was born in 1100 and was probably educated at Durham, where Aelred’s father became a monk in 1138 when he was widowed. But Aelred’s family was not only a priestly one; it was also of considerable social standing, and around 1124 Aelred went to live at the court of King David I of Scotland, where he grew up with David’s two sons, and spent some time serving as steward. In 1134 he travelled to England on a mission from King David, and met with Archbishop Thurstan of York, who shared David’s interest in promoting the newly established Cistercian Order. Aelred spent a day visiting the monastery of Rievaulx, spent the night at Helmsley Castle, where he was hosted by the monastery’s founding patron, Walter l’Espec, and the next day presented himself at the gatehouse asking to be admitted as a monk. He quickly rose to be a major figure: Novice Master at Rievaulx in 1141, a representative of the Abbot on a diplomatic mission to the Pope in 1142, Abbot of Rievaulx’s new daughter-house at Revesby in 1143, and the third Abbot of Rievaulx from 1147, where he died twenty years later.
He was in regular contact with head of the Cistercian Order, Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the towering figures of Western Christendom, visiting him in France, as well as exchanging letters; he played a major role in developing the Order in England, and was sometimes called upon to resolve disputes in the wider church; he preached and advised at the English and Scottish courts, including preaching at Westminster Abbey when the body of Edward the Confessor was moved into the chapel where it now rests; and he was a prolific author (in Latin, of course), writing histories, lives of English saints, studies in moral and theological enquiry, and above all works of spiritual direction. On a personal level he was renowned for his spirituality, commitment to prayer and meditation, love of humble manual labour, and was revered for his gentleness, courtesy, and practical wisdom. Above all, he was confident in personal relationships, from which grew some of the distinctive characteristics of his writings, many of which still speak to us today. Perhaps we should see his acceptance of the conflicts and contradictions of human life as being fashioned by his own experience: an heir of Anglo-Saxons living under Norman rule, a native speaker of English daily speaking French and Latin, a descendant of generations of married priests coming of age as priests were being forbidden to marry, an English monk in a French order, an abbot bred to service in the church but trained for service in the court, and an increasingly prominent figure who had close personal ties on both sides of the Civil War which divided England in his lifetime. An interesting man indeed!
Counting in Tens
We think of Lent as lasting for forty days, a long period of penitence and self-denial in which we prepare ourselves for Easter. Originally, as I’ve explained before, the preparation for Easter was much shorter than this, but it had extended to forty days by the fourth century. This reflected Christ’s forty days of confrontation with temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, as briefly alluded to in Mark 1 v. 13 and described in some detail in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Christ’s period in the wilderness is a strong feature of our Lenten liturgy to this day, and the story inspires much of what we focus upon: inward reflection, self-denial, the combatting of temptation – all with the purpose, within the cycle of the church’s year, of sprucing ourselves up spiritually to make us ready for the celebration of Easter, with its great sense of joy and release.
When Lent first took this longer form, it began on a Sunday (what is now the first Sunday of Lent); and if you count forward from that, there are forty days until you get to Good Friday, when the Redemption begins with the Crucifixion. So, in the Latin which was the language of the Western Church before the Reformation, the Sunday that started this forty-day period was called quadragesima, ‘fortieth’ — that is, the fortieth day before the Redemption. Very soon, however, Quadragesima came to be used instead for the whole of the forty-day period, and so the Sunday itself, which was strictly the one day that was quadragesima, had to be redesignated as the First Sunday in Quadragesima (Dominica Prima in Quadragesima). Linguistically, it doesn’t really make sense. But no one was confused by it: common usage constantly changes the meaning and application of words, and that occurred in this case.
Then, in the fifth century, the practice grew up of counting fifty days before Easter, by analogy with the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. This Sunday, the fiftieth day before Easter, was called Quinquagesima Sunday, using the normal Latin word for ‘fiftieth’. This works exactly if you count from the Sunday preceding the first Sunday in Lent, and continue up to and including Easter Day, which is a precise parallel with the fifty days from Easter to Pentecost, again using inclusive counting. In the sixth century this long anticipation of Easter was taken a step further when the Sunday before Quinquagesima Sunday came to be called Sexagesima Sunday, sexagesima being Latin ‘sixtieth’, although this ‘counting in tens’ did not work very well for Sexagesima Sunday, since it was only seven days before Quinquagesima. A similar extension, by analogy, at much the same time, also named the Sunday preceding Sexagesima Sunday as Septuagesima Sunday (Latin ‘seventieth’), although this instance of ‘counting in tens’ was even more approximate than it was for Sexagesima. In the seventh century the beginning of Quadragesima (i.e. Lent proper) was brought forward a few days, to the Wednesday before Quadragesima Sunday, so as to allow for forty fasting days in Lent (since the Sundays in Lent are not fasting days). But of course this did not affect the practice of using the term Quadragesima for the whole of the period, since ‘forty’ was still the key concept; nor did it have any impact on the use of Quinquagesima, Sexagesima and Septuagesima, which continued even after the Reformation, as you will see if you look at the Book of Common Prayer – though you will look in vain for these Sunday names in Common Worship.
The Pauline Epistles
As I’ve explained in previous years, Lent was traditionally a period for teaching believers about the basics of the faith. Some of my Lent articles, picking up on this tradition, have consequently been about the various creeds. This year I’ve decided to write about the earliest books of the New Testament: the Pauline Epistles. Of course, as with all the books of the Bible, we don’t know exactly when they were written: AD dating wasn’t invented until the sixth century and didn’t begin to catch on in Western Christendom until the eighth; it wasn’t normal in a manuscript culture for works to be straightforwardly dated (e.g. by reference to the year of this or that ruler); it wasn’t common for authors to identify themselves within their manuscripts; and we can’t rely on the integrity of the texts having been maintained as they were successively copied. Fortunately the Pauline texts are epistles (Latin epistula, ‘letter’), and letters from classical times, if complete, have a standard opening identifying the sender: ‘From such-and-such to so-and-so, greeting’. Of course, this can be dressed up a bit, as with the opening of Philippians: ‘From Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all those of God’s people, incorporate in Christ Jesus, who live at Philippi, including their bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’.
Paul’s name stands in this way at the head of the thirteen New Testament books immediately following the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. This pride of place, after the accounts of Jesus’ life and the establishment of the early church, reflects the importance of this early body of Christian writing. However, the association with Paul’s name does not mean that he really wrote all of them. Before the age of printing, it was common enough for texts that were felt to be important to be confirmed in that status by being attributed to known authors of suitable standing. We should not think of this negatively, as we would do these days, but rather as a seal of approval, an accepted recognition of value. As far as the so-called Pauline Epistles are concerned, there is a division of opinion about whether Paul was the author of Colossians and II Thessalonians, and he is quite widely thought not to be the author of I and II Timothy, Titus and Ephesians, which leaves only seven epistles for which Paul’s authorship is accepted by pretty well everyone. The analysis deployed to work this out is complicated, but draws upon comparisons of language, style, theology, and so on. Dating is similarly conjectural. Here, we take into account what we know of Paul’s life, drawing upon Acts and various clues that we find in the letters themselves — what we can regard as throw away remarks, for example, which allow us to work out, with some degree of confidence, the order in which they were written. When all the evidence is assembled, the seven letters confidently ascribed to Paul can be arranged and dated as follows, although minor variations of date are arguable: I Thess c.50, Galatians c.53, I Cor. c.53-54, Philippians c.55, Philemon c.55, II Cor. c.55-56, Romans c. 57. For comparison, Mark’s gospel, as we have it, was probably written c. 65-70, with the other two synoptic gospels, which make use of Mark, coming later, and John’s gospel, which is independent of the other three, being composed probably as late as the turn of the first century.
The Paschal Lamb
In this month when we celebrate Easter, we will often hear and may well sing about Christ as the Paschal Lamb. We know what we mean by it. But it’s interesting to think about where the expression comes from, and how the idea is represented visually.
Originally the Paschal Lamb was (and of course still is, in the Jewish tradition) the lamb sacrificed and eaten at the Passover. It was at the Passover meal, according to the Gospels, that Christ instituted the Eucharist, following which he himself was sacrificed on the cross. John the Baptist hailed Jesus with the words ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (John I v. 29), and the New Testament sees Christ as the fulfilment of the Jewish Passover: ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us’ (I Corinthians 5 v.7), words which we are familiar with in the liturgy today. We associate lambs with new life, and there is the added dimension of their whiteness symbolising purity — not that sheep are always white, and certainly not in the part of the world where Jesus came from, but the associations around the Paschal Lamb are dominated by centuries of representation in Christian art where we have a pure white lamb, indicative of its innocence.
So much for the Lamb. What about Paschal? It comes from Hebrew Pesach ‘Passover’, which passed into the Greek of the New Testament as Paskha and into the Latin of Western Christendom as Pascha, where it had come to signify the celebration of those events which are what the faith is all about: the sacrifice and redemption through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, the Lamb of God. In English we call it ‘Easter’ using, as Bede tells us, the name of a pagan goddess whose rites, before the conversion, had been celebrated in the spring-time. By contrast, in those languages derived from Latin the liturgical season is known by a direct descendant of Pascha, such as French Pâques and Italian Pasqua. English borrowed the adjective paschal in the fifteenth century, not directly from Latin, but from French. It has always remained part of the specialised vocabulary of religion.
The Paschal Lamb is often represented in art as a white lamb, with one crooked leg into which nestles the staff of a small flag which flutters above it. The flag is usually a red cross on a white background. The symbolism that I’ve already commented on is clearly in evidence here, but there are other aspects alongside these. The lamb is not sacrificed, but alive: it is thus a symbol of the resurrected Christ, at the same time as it alludes to the sacrificed lamb. And the flag, with its cross, has several connotations: it represents the Cross of the Crucifixion but, without a body on it, it is at the same time the Cross of the Resurrection; the red colour symbolises the blood that was shed; and the cross on a flag suggests the triumph of the cross. For those who know their history, there is an allusion to Constantine’s vision of a cross and a voice saying ‘In this sign, conquer’, following which he adopted the cross as his symbol, won a key battle, and so set the Empire on the path towards the eventual acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of the late Roman/Byzantine Empire. This is the depth of meaning alluded to in the iconography of the Paschal Lamb, which we see throughout church art and architecture, and often at the centre point of our processional and altar crosses.
Commemorating the Ascension
Even before Christianity became a publicly acknowledged religion, the faithful in Jerusalem commemorated Jesus’ Ascension at a site near the summit of the Mount of Olives. In fact, none of the New Testament accounts names the place where the Ascension took place: Luke 24: 51 associates it with Bethany, but there is no reference to location in the other two accounts, Mark 16: 19 and Acts 1: 3. Still, Bethany is in the right general direction, and it is perhaps natural for tradition to associate the Ascension with an elevated position, one, moreover, that figures so prominently elsewhere in the gospel narratives. It seems that at first the practice of annual commemoration took place as part of the Easter celebration: Luke, after all, implies that the Ascension occurred on the evening of the Day of Resurrection. But the account in Acts places it forty days later, and this became the established annual feast-day from the fourth century onwards.
Christians in Jerusalem congregated on the Mount of Olives at a spot where they believed two marks in the rock showed where Christ stood before he was lifted up. One of these marks, taken to be that of the right foot, can still be seen there now, although the other was removed to the El Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. When Constantine’s mother, Helena, made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326-28, she accepted this as the place where Christ’s feet had last stood on this earth, and she honoured it by ordering a circular sanctuary to be erected around the rock, enhanced by porticoes and arches. Unusually, it was open to the sky, as was symbolically fitting for the site of the Ascension. We get a glimpse of the early Ascension liturgy from a Latin text written by a wealthy woman from the western part of the Roman empire who made a pilgrimage around the Holy Land in the 380s. She described how the procession of clergy and people came out from Jerusalem and entered the holy building: ‘that is, the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, and the bishops and the priests take their seat there, and likewise all the people. Lessons are read there with hymns interspersed, antiphons too are said suitable to the day and the place, also the prayers which are interspersed have likewise similar references. The passage from the Gospel is also read where it speaks of the Lord’s Ascension, also that from the Acts of the Apostles which tells of the Ascension of the Lord into heaven after His Resurrection’.
Shortly after this visit, a church was built beside the circular sanctuary. These structures were mostly destroyed in 614 when Jerusalem was captured by the Persian Shah, but fourteen years later the Christian Emperor Heraclius recaptured the city and the buildings were restored. It was this seventh century complex, still with a circular sanctuary around the footprints, that was seen by Bishop Arculf who, on his return home to Gaul, got seriously blown off course and ended up on Iona, where he described the site to Abbot Adomnan (c. 624-704), who used this and other information to write a detailed account of the Holy Places. When Adomnan then visited the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, he took a copy of this text with him, and it formed the basis for Bede’s popular study of the Holy Places written probably around 702-3. From then on, descriptions of the site commonly figured in Ascension Day sermons as a means of engaging the imagination of the faithful.
Lammas, traditionally celebrated on 1 August, is one of those observances which is in the Book of Common Prayer but not in the modern Common Worship. Since it’s a feast-day which comes out of a predominantly agricultural society, it had strong appeal throughout the Middle Ages and Tudor times, but in the light of increasing urbanisation since then, it’s easy to see why it was omitted from Common Worship. It was not, in any case, a universal Christian feast-day and it probably reflects pre-Christian practices, which could be another factor in its omission today. But since the BCP is still a foundational text for the Church of England, let’s have a look at what Lammas is, and why appears there.
The word ‘Lammas’ is a simplification of the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlæfmæsse’, literally ‘loaf-mass’. It referred to a mass when the bread for the communion was made from the first-ripe corn, with the clear intention of giving thanks for the harvest. Customarily, this act of thanksgiving was held on 1 August. The fact that the mass did not have a Latin name, but only a native Anglo-Saxon one, points to it being a Christianisation of a native practice. It is easy to see how, in a rural society with precarious food supplies, the ripening of the grain would be an occasion for annual celebration; and it is equally easy to see how, once Christianity was established, the thanksgiving would be offered to God. It was, if you like, an early form of Harvest Thanksgiving, although that, as we now know it, was instituted in the nineteenth century and focuses not on the joyous beginning of the harvest, but its completion: ‘All is safely gathered in…’.
There is a lot of evidence from our historical records that Lammas was observed throughout Anglo-Saxon England and subsequently, sometimes still retaining echoes of its pre-Christian heritage: an Anglo-Saxon book of charms caters for the practice of breaking off four pieces of the Lammas Bread and placing them in the four corners of the barn to protect the stored grain. Although Lammas was recognised and celebrated by the church in England, it was only ever a popular (as opposed to official) feast-day: it did not have a Latin name, as I’ve already noted, and it was not included in standard church calendars. Instead, what the Anglo-Saxon church calendars list for 1 August is the Feast of St Peter in Chains, which celebrates St Peter being liberated by the angel from his imprisonment by Herod (Acts 12: 1-19). In this they were in line with the rest of western Christendom. However, in the very different world of the Reformation, when the Book of Common Prayer was drawn up, saints’ days were heavily culled, amongst which was St Peter in Chains, regarded as all the more ‘Roman’ no doubt because of the link between St Peter and the papacy. Yet special days were popular among the predominantly rural common people, and so for 1 August the Church of England included the well-established and much-loved Lammas Day in the calendar as a replacement for the Roman feast-day. And so, if you look in the list of special days at the beginning of a complete edition of the BCP, you will see Lammas listed, on its own, for 1 August, complete with its specified first and second readings for Morning and Evening Prayer. It had thus become ‘official’, after many centuries of popular (though always sanctioned) observance.
The Biblical Order of the Gospels
My articles about the Epistles in recent months have led to various requests for information about the Gospels: what order were they written in? when were they written? who wrote them? why are they in our bibles in the order of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? It’s difficult to answer any one of these questions without getting entangled with all of the others! Yet to answer all four questions at once needs more space than I have in one article. So I’m going to start with the question of the biblical order, and then come back to the other issues later on.
Matthew comes first because it was widely believed in early centuries — including even by the great St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) — that this was the earliest. At that time, it was also widely believed that the short Gospel of Mark, which has a lot in common with Matthew, had been written as a summary or epitome of Matthew. Hence the order of Matthew followed by Mark when the Canon of Scripture (that is, the approved books, out of the many then in circulation) came together to form our present New Testament. The mid-fourth century is the earliest precise evidence for the whole of the New Testament Canon as we know it, but the Four Gospels and the Epistles of St Paul had come to be accepted as foundational authority by about 130 and were put on the same footing as the Jewish Old Testament over a period that can roughly be bracketed by the dates 170 and 220. These formed the kernel of the New Testament, to which the other New Testament books were gradually added later.
Luke came after Matthew and Mark for two reasons: it was easy to see that it had a good deal of material in common with Matthew and Mark; and so placing it third was logical enough, given the current supposition that Matthew should come first as the earliest, with Mark next as a summary of it. John came last, as a Gospel with quite a distinct character which sets it apart. The preceding three, which obviously belonged together, are known today as the Synoptic Gospels, referring to their shared nature as summarising accounts of the life and teaching of Christ: ‘synoptic’ meaning just that — ‘summarising’ (as in ‘synopsis’, ‘summary’).
Of course, we know now, thanks to nineteenth century scholarship and its subsequent refinement, that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written; that the authors of Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source (along with other sources); and that the common ground between them comes from this textual interrelationship. John is undoubtedly distinct, and so its fourth position remains unproblematic. It can be described as a complement to the Synoptics, written to draw out Christ’s divinity and the sublime nature of his teaching and so, you might say, it needs the texts with the stronger story-line to precede it.
The order of Gospels followed by Epistles was and is a necessary order of priority: we have always needed the textual witnesses to the Christian story before we could understand the interpretative material of the Epistles and their teaching to the young church. But in chronological terms the earliest of the New Testament texts are actually those Epistles written by Paul, which were produced over several years, starting round about AD 50, as I’ve explained previously. Dating the Gospels is a quite complicated, and needs an article of its own.
The Five-Hundredth Anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses:
31 October 1517
This year marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, traditionally regarded as initiating the Reformation. It was on 31 October 1517 that this list of propositions for academic debate (the ‘theses’) was sent by Luther, along with a covering letter, to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz. More dramatically, Luther is also supposed to have nailed a copy of them to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, acting in his capacity as doctor of theology and professor at Wittenberg’s still quite new university, founded by Frederick of Saxony as recently as 1502. I use the phrase ‘supposed to have nailed’ because it is quite likely that, if he did indeed nail a copy on the church door, which was actually the normal way of announcing theses for academic debate, this was probably not done until sometime in November, and in fact may never have been done at all.
Still, it makes for a vivid scene and was often illustrated in the art promoting the Reformation. Sending a copy to the Archbishop with an accompanying letter — which certainly did happen — was perhaps too mundane a detail to convey the significance of the moment when the story of Luther’s part in the Reformation came to be told in later years. He always claimed that the theses were never meant to bring about a split within the church, but the challenge that they expressed quite quickly spiralled into a theological revolution that tore Europe apart.
At the heart of it all was Luther’s developing theology of salvation, which he had been pondering for some years, particularly through his study, since 1515, of the Epistle to the Romans. The surviving lecture notes from his courses on Romans, and also on the Psalms (on which he began lecturing in 1513), show his growing conviction that Christians are justified by faith, that all righteousness comes from God, and that it is Scripture that reveals all we need to know about our faith. Within this lay a fundamental challenge to the church’s claim to have the authority to mediate between man and God and it posed some profound questions about many established religious practices, including the saying of prayers and masses to influence what happened to the dead in Purgatory, not to mention the doctrine of Purgatory itself.
What brought matters to a head was a sale of indulgences, backed by Pope Leo X, to raise money to complete the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther was not alone in thinking that such a ‘sale’ of divine grace (money in return for being let off years in Purgatory) was a vulgar commercialisation needing urgent reform. But in his case it played into his radical insights on the theology of salvation, and so he drew up the now-famous list of ninety-five theses covering the whole range of issues he was grappling with, and sent them to Albrecht, who happened to be his own Archbishop.
Although Luther’s status meant that he was fully entitled to initiate public academic debate — and indeed had done so in the prescribed way on earlier occasions — powerful churchmen responded in a heavy-handed way to this particular set of theses, and each side then pushed the other into increasingly entrenched positions. Luther became more and more of a rebel, and so the Reformation took hold, whatever his real motives may have been on that fateful October day five hundred years ago.
The First Complete Printed Bible in English
As I explained in last month’s article, 2017 is the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s ninety-five theses, traditionally seen as the starting-point of the Reformation. One of the Reformation’s fundamental features was the printing of bibles in the language of the people, so that anyone who could read could study Scripture for themselves, and anyone who could not do so would nevertheless be able to hear the word of God directly, if someone read it to them — neither of which was possible when the standard bible was in Latin translation, as it had been throughout the Middle Ages. So I thought that this month, when we are still in the anniversary year, I would write about the circumstances under which Miles Coverdale produced the first complete printed bible in English.
Coverdale was ordained in 1514 and joined the Augustinian friars in Cambridge, where he was greatly influenced by the prior, Richard Barnes, who was an enthusiast for reform. His extreme position led to his being summoned before Wolsey in 1526, when Coverdale was one of Barnes’ supporters. But Coverdale, himself known for preaching against confession and images, took refuge abroad immediately afterwards, and there, residing mostly in Antwerp, he produced the first complete English bible. This was printed in 1535. Some of the text was translated from the Latin bible (the Vulgate), but he also drew on the German bible recently produced by Martin Luther, and incorporated the books that William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) had already translated into English during his exile in continental Europe. The Tyndale books were the New Testament, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers) and the Book of Jonah. Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms, based on Luther’s version and the Latin Vulgate, is the version of the psalms that was later incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer, which is why the wording of the BCP psalms differs from what we find in the King James Bible (the Authorised Version) of 1611.
Following his 1535 edition, Coverdale was much involved with several other English bibles preceding the Authorised Version: notably Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible. Matthew’s Bible (1537) was substantially Coverdale’s 1535 text, but with revisions and notes, ‘Thomas Matthew’ being an alias for the editor, John Rogers. It was dedicated to Henry VIII, who licensed it for general reading. More significant was the Great Bible. This was produced by Coverdale on the basis of Matthew’s Bible and was the edition that Thomas Cromwell ordered in September 1538 to be set up in every parish church, although it was not actually issued until 1539. The Geneva Bible (New Testament, 1557; complete Bible, 1559/60) was produced by a group scholars in Geneva, including Coverdale when he was resident there during part of his third exile. It was the first English edition to divide the text into numbered verses. As its place of origin might suggest, it had a strongly Calvinistic flavour.
Coverdale was briefly in England in 1539/40 but was back on the continent, as a married pastor, 1540-48. He was Bishop of Exeter 1548-53, almost the whole of Edward VI’s reign, when a more Calvinist regime prevailed, but he went into exile for a third time in the reign of Mary (1553-58), when Catholicism was re-established. When he returned in 1559, he assisted at the consecration of Archbishop Matthew Parker, Elizabeth I’s great Archbishop, and for the rest of his life was a leader of the Puritan party. He died in 1568, aged 80.