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C h a p t e r 5 Scriptural Distinctions Reading Between the Lines The infinite rippling of commentary is agitated from within by the dream of masked repetition. —­ Michel Foucault Commentary and Difference In Jerome’s notorious quarrel with Rufinus at the beginning of the fifth century , spanning theological and social networks from Rome to Bethlehem, the churlish monk had occasion to define the nature of commentary:1 For what qualities do commentaries possess? They explicate another’s words (alterius dicto); they lay out in plain speech what was obscurely written; they disclose the opinions of many people, and they say: “Some explicate this passage in this way, others interpret it in that way”; they strive to establish their own meaning and understanding by these witnesses for this reason: so that the sensible reader, when he reads diverse explanations (diversas explanationes), he learns which of the many are acceptable or unacceptable, so he may judge which is trustworthy. And so, like a good money-­ changer (trapezita), he may reject the money of counterfeit coinage. Should the one who has placed the interpretations (expositiones) of so many persons into a single work which he is explicating be held liable (reus) for the diverse interpretations (diversae interpretationes ) and the meanings which contradict themselves?2 120 Chapter 5 In defending himself against accusations of heresy and hypocrisy, Jerome articulates the contradictory and incongruous structures of early Christian commentary .3 By “clarifying” the plain speech of the Bible, commentaries highlight the Bible’s obscurity; they collate meanings “which contradict themselves” in order to arrive at singular truths.4 They are, at base, peculiar texts of paradox. Early Christians believed that Scripture conveyed a single, unified skopos (“point of view”), but that it did so through disjointed and abstruse means.5 Augustine, who marveled at the means by which a transcendent God reached out to a broken human race, saw the infinite variety of Scriptures. “How much in so few words (quam multa de paucis verbis)!” he remarked in his Confessions ,6 and later in his treatise On Christian Doctrine, “For how much more generously and generatively (largius et uberius) in the Divine Words could the Divinity have been provided, than that the same words may be understood in multiple ways, which are approved by other no less divine examples?”7 The narrow, unchangeable words of the Christian Bible practically vibrated with possibility, but by the same token generated a great deal of “semiotic anxiety.”8 How were Christians to elicit singular truth from God’s “generative” scriptural bounty? Commentaries both ameliorated and highlighted this anxiety.9 In commentary writing, the critical distance between “text” and “meaning” is glossed over but cannot be completely effaced. Ostensibly, meaning is anchored by the text: God’s scriptural truth acts as surety against the wobbly and tendentious opinions of a fallible humanity.10 But the very operations of commentary undermine this surety: “claiming merely to repeat the original text, commentary presents itself as a repetition of ‘sameness,’ when in fact it operates differently,” as Elizabeth Clark reminds us.11 In this different repetition of sameness we see not the failure but the power of commentary writing to craft Christian identity. Commentary writing confronted and channeled the multiplicity of scriptural meanings, so that even the “contradictory meanings” of Jews and heretics might be made to speak in an orthodox Christian voice. That Christian culture should produce polyphonous commentaries in order to arrive at singular interpretations of Scripture will not surprise students of the late Roman world, which was itself a site of surprising and confounding juxtapositions.12 The physical space of the empire was, as we have seen, a never-­ quite-­ coherent collection of provincial “others,” whose difference was both distinguished from and incorporated into Romanitas.13 “Roman religion” in the imperial period likewise constituted a bewildering overlap of “foreign” and “native” cults, imported into and exported out of the Scriptural Distinctions 121 city of Rome.14 Even Roman culture—­ in its aesthetic and poetic and literary forms—­ routinely and creatively juxtaposed diverse and variegated fragments: a “jeweled style,” as Michael Roberts dubbed it; “a subjective disassembly and reconstitution,” in the words of Catherine Chin: a cultural style that dis-­and rearticulated fragments to create the present from the past, the “native” from the “alien.”15 As a genre, commentary is particularly suited to the recombinatory aesthetics of late Roman culture.16 In commentary writing all manner of elements are brought together and reconstituted in order to form...


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