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  • The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament ed. by Michael Livingston
  • Kimberly Fonzo
The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. Edited by Michael Livingston. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2011. Pp. vi + 702. $40.

The TEAMS Middle English Texts Series’ Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament is a valuable aid for students studying Biblical translation or popular medieval theological literature. The previous edition of this monumental late fourteenth-century northern English work was completed through the joint efforts of Herbert Kalén, who edited the first 500 twelve-line stanzas in 1923, and Urban Ohlander, who edited the following 302 stanzas in 1955. Russell Peck also reprinted portions of the Paraphrase in his Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse (1991). Since the publication of these editions, the Paraphrase’s importance has been greatly magnified by Richard Beadle’s discovery that the work was a source for [End Page 397] the York play of Abraham and Isaac and not, as Kalén had suspected, the other way around. Despite this evidence of its significance and influence, the Paraphrase has failed to generate much critical attention. As Michael Livingston notes, “A complete bibliography of essays to date that take the Paraphrase as their primary subject might run to as few as three items” (p. 1). Livingston attributes this paucity of Paraphrase scholarship to Kalén and Ohlander’s Introduction and explanatory notes, which, although exhaustive in their philological evidence, provide minimal insight into the work’s cultural contexts. The Introduction and notes of Livingston’s edition are therefore decidedly historicist in approach, situating the Paraphrase within broader issues of scriptural canonicity and translation.

Livingston’s Introduction begins by providing a wide-ranging yet easy-to-follow narrative of the origins of the Biblical canon in an effort to challenge modern students’ perceptions of the Bible as “a static text” (p. 8). Detailing the church fathers’ debates over which books should be included in the New Testament, Livingston includes a variety of examples, such as Eusebius’s rejection of the Apocalypse, to convey how flexible Biblical content once was (p. 9). Livingston illustrates how, even after the canon was relatively closed and agreed upon, perceptions of textual authenticity shifted over time, depending upon political and social factors. For instance, he explains how Jewish scholars once collected and translated Hebrew scriptures into the Greek Septuagint only to reject these translations as “unoriginal” after they were co-opted by the early Christian church to comprise the Old Testament (pp. 10–11). Highlighting the contradictions of perceived textual legitimacy in matters of scriptural translation, Livingston notes how, for the English, “Jerome’s Vulgate had, in effect, replaced the various older texts of the Scriptures: their original was the Latin” (p. 24). The fact that a translation, the Vulgate, could acquire the status of the original Biblical text reveals just how culturally determined scriptural authenticity is. Ranging beyond literal linguistic translation and into issues of stylistic adaptation, Livingston makes the case that Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, a narrative reorganization and amplification of the Bible, achieved its own form of canonicity after the Fourth Lateran Council approved it in 1215 (p. 19).

The latter part of the Introduction examines the Paraphrase within this complex history of relatively defined “original” and “translated” scripture. Livingston argues that, as an English adaptation of the Historia Scholastica, the Paraphrase is almost but not quite a Biblical translation in the tradition of the contemporaneous Wycliffite Bible. While both the Paraphrase author and Wycliff’s followers set out to make the sacred word available to the public, Livingston points out that Wycliffites would have objected to the Paraphrase’s reliance upon Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, since its narrative embellishments violated Wycliff’s own standards of scriptural orthodoxy and originality. Through a series of close readings, Livingston establishes the Paraphrase as a simultaneously reformist and orthodox work, progressive in its perspectives on public Biblical education and women’s spiritual roles (an observation first made by Russell Peck), but conservative in its continual inclusion of ecclesiastical terms. Livingston employs several illustrative examples...


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pp. 397-400
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