Reviews of

Augustine’s Text of John. Patristic Citations and Latin Gospel Manuscripts (ii)

In Augustine, Cornelia Linde, H. A. G. HOUGHTON, John, NT reception history, Oxford University Press, Textual Criticism on January 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm

2011.01.01 | H. A. G. Houghton. Augustine’s Text of John. Patristic Citations and Latin Gospel Manuscripts. Oxford: OUP, 2008. (13.8×21.6), 424 p. ISBN 978-0-19-954592-6. Hardback.

Reviewed by J. Cornelia Linde, University College London.

J. Cornelia Linde signs the second review presented in the review-session dedicated to Hugh Houghton’s Augustine’s Text of John at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 2010, (session 1630).

The author’s response is available here. The other review is available here.

Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copies.

Hugh Houghton’s Augustine’s Text of John was published by Oxford University Press in 2008. The book is set out to be a preparative study for the new edition of the Vetus Latina versions of the Gospel of John. Hugh’s main aim is to collect material relevant to the early history of the text of the Latin Bible via an analysis of the quotations of John’s Gospel found in Augustine’s work.

It is a dense collection of valuable material regarding not only the text of John, but also Augustine’s general attitude to the Bible; and practices and circumstances concerning Scripture in his time. It consists of three parts, entitled ‘Augustine and the Gospels’, ‘Augustine’s Citations of John: Analysis of Selected Works’ and ‘The Gospel According to John in Augustine: A Textual Commentary’. My review will focus on part one of the book, ‘Augustine and the Gospels’.

Chapter 1, entitled ‘Augustine and the History of the Biblical Text’, starts with a brief introduction to the history of the Vetus Latina. Hugh shows by means of many illustrative passages from the works of Augustine that there was great awareness that the Latin Bible in fact consisted of various local versions.

What follows is a reconstruction of Augustine’s change in attitude towards what we now call the Vulgate, from his early well-known criticism of Jerome’s undertaking of translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew, to, in his later works, a praise of Jerome’s new translation. This development, as we will see later, was mirrored in his use of the biblical text.

The following chapter, ‘The Use of the Bible and the Production of Books in the Time of Augustine’, is an insightful and, again, well documented discussion of the production and diffusion of biblical texts in Augustine’s time, based for the most part on examples from Augustine’s writings.

Houghton points out several noteworthy facts. So, for instance, that manuscripts of Scripture were on sale on the open market, and that churches had their own copyists and secretaries, who would usually produce books to order (p. 24) by sending a scribe in situ to transcribe a text. A side aspect, yet all the same fascinating, was the description of how minutes at council proceedings were produced by stenographers, then copied and signed by the participants (p. 28). In addition, Hugh provides some insight into questions of liturgy in churches around the year 400, especially with regard to the role of the lectores, who were responsible for both their church’s scriptural books, which they usually kept at home (p. 22), and reading the lecture at mass. A point that was not addressed by Houghton is that the lectores (p. 22, n. 2) were often children and the consequences resulting from this fact for their role. Houghton does not mention their age and whether we can assume that children were entrusted with manuscripts and their safekeeping.

The beginning of chapter three, ‘Augustine’s Biblical Exposition and Citation Technique’, starts off with a review of Augustine’s first contacts with the text of the Bible. The experience was, for the most part, negative also due to his rhetorical training and the crude style of the Latin Bible. In the course of the chapter, Houghton shows how Augustine’s exposure to the Bible took place: at first, as a Manichean, with lectionary readings and in the repetition of key verses in responses and canticles (p. 46). After his conversion to Catholicism, Augustine delved into the Scriptures, and later in his career, he took an increasingly philological approach to Scripture. He collated biblical manuscripts, also in order to counter arguments by his opponents. Unfortunately, we do not know – or at least it is not mentioned – what versions the collated manuscripts contained (p. 46). Despite his collational activity, Houghton insists that the key issue for Augustine when it comes to the authority of Scripture is the approval of the Church. This notion which crops up several times throughout the book is clearly a pivotal point. Yet the question as to who and what constituted the Church, how this Church approved Scripture and which version or versions were considered authoritative is not discussed. As a consequence, a later statement (p. 75) that certain quotations deviate from ‘the canonical text’ would need further clarification. Yet what is this canonical text? I will come back to this problem later on.

The main part of chapter 3 examines the ways in which Augustine handled the text of the Bible as an exegete. Hugh establishes in detail what constitutes a valid approach to the biblical text according to Augustine (pp. 49-50). So, for instance, the Church Father insisted on discussing passages in their context, rather than detached from the text of which they form a part. Secondly, Augustine stresses that exegesis has to take place under the aegis of the Church (50-51), described by the key term of regula sana catholica. It seems that this confines proper exegesis to similar limits as the biblical text, that is, the boundaries are defined by the Catholic Church. Yet again a definition of these boundaries is missing.

Next, Houghton identifies Augustine’s most common hermeneutical device (p. 52) as the principle scriptura sui interpres, Scripture as its own interpreter. The assumption is that the ‘best way of clarifying obscurity or ambiguity is to compare similar expressions elsewhere in the same work’. This approach relies, it seems, very much on the canonical text of the Bible, since for the comparison of passages in Scripture, surely only the approved text is acceptable. This, in turn, again raises the problem mentioned earlier that Houghton provides no definition of the authoritative text of the Latin Bible.

The author identifies two further peculiarities of Augustine’s exegesis. First, the Church Father attempted to reconcile the Gospels in De consensu evangelistarum (p. 55) by offering, at times, differing solutions, leaving the choice up to the reader, thereby involving him in a dialogue. Secondly, Houghton describes as the most straightforward form of commentary the interruption of the biblical text with brief explanations, preceded by ‘id est’ (p. 59). What struck me about this passage is that this interruption is very similar to interlinear glosses found in medieval manuscripts of all kinds. And indeed later on, in chapter 4 (p. 88) there is a reference to another passage in which a word is explained with the addition ‘id est’; here, it is explained as a gloss to an explanation of a form unknown to Augustine. It seems to me that the way the first passage at least is composed is not suitable for oral presentation, but perfectly viable for reading. Would it be possible to argue, then, that this is a form of exegesis which Augustine employed in written texts rather than spoken sermons?

Houghton then introduces two crucial concepts for which he coined the terms ‘mental text’ and ‘flattening’ to designate the way in which Augustine memorised and cited Scripture. ‘Flattening’ is the process which leads to the result of the ‘mental text’. The mental text of the Bible is defined as ‘verses quoted from memory [which] normally appear in a discrete form devoid of contextual reference or grammatical connections found in the original’. The process of arriving at this form for use out of context, which includes conscious and unconscious alteration, is called ‘flattening’, a process regularly undertaken by Augustine.

This method of quotation by flattening changes the biblical text. There is also another aspect which led to variations in the same biblical passages: Houghton argues that differences in Augustine’s quotations throughout his works can be put down to manuscripts containing different versions which he used for his preaching, a logical explanation. Yet Houghton also insists (p. 61) on the importance of the exact form of the biblical text for Augustine’s exegesis and that there is a single correct version which his audience will recognize. In combination, these points seem to put us in front of grave problems, simply because there was variance among the Old Latin versions. This  apparent contradiction might be solved by assuming different versions as the correct text for different regions. What is more, however, is the fact that Augustine’s ‘flattening’ alters the text away from an exact and well-known form. Houghton does address the question as to how we can bring the alterations of the text into agreement with the emphasis on the importance of the exact form.

Also, I would argue that the notion of a single correct version contradicts the statement (p. 67) that ‘complete accuracy was not important’. Wouldn’t we assume that accuracy is highly important for an approved religious text? And that if the exact form of a text is important for exegesis, Augustine would make an effort to stick to it? Likewise, does this not contradict the claim that (p. 77) all is treated as Scripture, regardless of its exact textual form, and is accorded the highest authority in Augustine’s argument?

There are further problems regarding Augustine’s text. Houghton mentions that it is possible that Augustine was not always responsible for the abbreviated text in a biblical citation (p. 72) – a valid concession. Should the text then still be regarded as ‘his’ text?

A further issue that is not addressed is whether an altering in a biblical quotation was deliberate or not. After giving several examples (p. 75) Houghton concludes (p. 76) that ‘At any rate, there is no indication that these alterations were made consciously; all are characteristic of the types of variation which arise when citing from memory or freely paraphrasing the passage.’ This statement throws open various questions regarding theories of memory, both ancient and modern. It would have been useful to include a discussion on how memory works, and possibly to introduce also some classical models of memorising. Without a framework, these statements seem rather based on assumptions, even if we take into consideration that Augustine himself told us that he could not remember Scripture as well as classical texts.

The final chapter of the first part, entitled ‘Augustine as a Witness for the Text of the New Testament’, discusses the actual approach toward the text as can be derived from Augustine’s biblical citations by assessing the different types of evidence and their relationship to the textual traditions of the New Testament, with special reference to the Gospel of John (p. 78). For this purpose, Houghton distinguishes between primary and secondary quotations.

This separation between primary and secondary citations is first introduced in this chapter; primary citations are those ‘made with reference to a codex’ (p. 84). Secondary quotations are those drawn from the ‘mental text’. The majority of secondary citations do not correspond as closely to surviving biblical exemplars as the longer primary quotations (p. 87), but instead display abbreviations and other alterations characteristic of flattening. This, according to Houghton, confirms that they have been drawn from memory. Yet why this has to be the case is not explained, and once again, the reader would appreciate some engagement with theories of memory. Also, it might well be possible to flatten a passage spontaneously with a manuscript at hand. The difference between primary and secondary quotations seems to be merely that secondary citations are flattened, independent of their source, whether manuscript or memory.

One of Houghton’s most important results in part one is his observation on the biblical quotations in De trinitate. While the first book, written around 400, contains Old Latin quotations, the later books two to fifteen, composed between 411 to 422, tend to derive their quotations from the Vulgate (p. 84). The pattern (p. 87) is the same for secondary quotations, moving away from Old Latin to Vulgate. Similarly important in this context is the important observation that Augustine’s scriptural citations have for the most part been transmitted accurately (p. 99), because the many Old Latin versions in the text have not been ‘vulgatised’. But why does Augustine, in the course of about a decade, turn from rejecting the new translation to using and acknowledging it (pp. 10-11)?

The results of the chapter show Augustine as a careful collector of variant readings. Yet Houghton’s conclusion (p. 80) that the fact that Augustine often gives several Latin variants shows that his textual scholarship is limited seems doubtful: while I do not want to question this statement, we need to ask what the status of the Latin text or texts was and what Augustine’s aim was in collecting the variants. He certainly considered the Hebrew and also the Septuagint to be inspired and of equal authority. But what about the Latin? The claim that Augustine (p. 82) had a concept of a “correct version” – always assuming that we are talking about the Latin Bible – which he was prepared to cite needs confirmation. How could this be the case, if he preached from manuscripts containing differing versions? Surely, preaching from differing texts would have been objectionable. The question about the reconcilability of various versions remains unanswered, and maybe – though I am not an expert in the field – we would have to refer to ‘correct versions’ in the plural.

To come back to the other main question that crossed my mind when reading the first part of Hugh’s work: not only would a discussion of theories of memory be helpful. A separate examination of Augustine’s approach to memory might also deserve further study. For instance, (p. 31) the statement that ‘people who declaim a sermon prepared and learnt word for word in advance are unable to’ examine the topic with a variety of verbal illustrations, shows clearly how you should not memorise a text. Also, we should keep in mind that Augustine was schooled in classical rhetoric, and hence also in ways to memorise speeches. Houghton notes that Augustine applies his rhetorical training to the Bible, yet without going into further detail or mentioning the aspect of memory.

After all these incentives for discussion, let me conclude by saying that I very much enjoyed the book. Throughout part one, Houghton presents the relevant quotations in the main text in their original Latin accompanied by a clear English translation. This is a very laudable undertaking, for far too often one finds the Latin original banished in endnotes, if indeed it is given at all, or the translation containing numerous mistakes. Thankfully, none of this is the case here. The book is packed with material, well researched and presents a lot of interesting results, both for the history of the Latin Bible, its text and for the relationship between Augustine and the Bible in particular. I am well aware that not all the questions and problems I have addressed can be covered in one book, but in order to provide Hugh with sufficient material to reply to, I decided not to limit my review to the many merits of this deserving book.

© J. Cornelia Linde, 2010 [ at ]

  1. […] July 2010, (session 1630). The two reviews, signed by Cornelia Linde and Dan Batovici are available here and […]

  2. […] International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 2010, (session 1630). The second review is available here, and the author’s response […]

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