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  • Olivi and the Interpretation of Matthew in the High Middle Ages
  • Robert E. Lerner
Olivi and the Interpretation of Matthew in the High Middle Ages. By Kevin Madigan. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2003. Pp. xv, 224. $47.50 clothbound; $27.50 paperback.)

Only recently, in his fine synthetic study of medieval biblical exegesis of 1999, Gilbert Dahan observed that the biblical commentaries of the Franciscan Peter Olivi (†1298) deserved more attention. Lickety split: in short order the oeuvre is coming into place. We now have editions and studies (including some that Dahan overlooked) of Olivi's commentaries on the Song of Songs, Isaiah, Lamentations, Acts, and First Corinthians, with others announced on the Minor Prophets, Romans, and the Book of Revelation. Kevin Madigan's study of Olivi on Matthew belongs on this list even though he does not offer an edition. Doubtless an edition would be welcome, but Madigan's expert review of this very lengthy commentary can stand as a surrogate for all except those who need to ascertain a particular missing detail.

Although the Matthew commentary surely deserves attention, Madigan does well to remind us that because the work was a product of Olivi's formal duties as lector in a Franciscan convent he was obliged to adhere to a rather restricted understanding of what he was supposed to communicate. (The Matthew commentary was composed in the cloister of Montpellier between 1279 and 1281—Madigan's dating agrees with that of the estimable Olivian, Sylvain Piron.) Accordingly, Madigan does not mince words in pronouncing that "much of Olivi's Matthew commentary is derivative, and, by any measure, innocuous." In this regard a stunning proof of Olivi's non-stunning derivativeness is the author's demonstration that Olivi's commentary draws extensively on St. Thomas's chain of exegetical sentences from the Fathers, the Catena aurea. Nevertheless, Olivi, being Olivi, could not bottle up his strongly held views about poverty [End Page 311] and the calling of the Franciscan Order, and hence expressed himself on these subjects as he wished from time to time. The most breathtaking example, a diatribe against the very Thomas on whom he relied for many of his commonplaces, was already displayed by Ehrle and d'Alverny. But Madigan goes much further in locating other less fierce but still pointed expressions on controversial issues regarding the apostolic life and the role of the Order. Comparing Olivi's reading of certain obvious cruces with those of other mendicant commentators on the Gospels, Madigan succeeds in showing that Olivi was alone in clearly interjecting his commitment into his exegesis, or, as he puts it, collapsing the genres of postilla and apologia.

Madigan's other main concern is the extent of the Matthew commentary's debt to the thought of Joachim of Fiore. A specific problem arises as to whether Olivi might have drawn directly on the Abbot of Fiore's uncompleted Tractatus super Quatuor Evangelia at certain points where the two commentators treated the same passages. Here Madigan is properly cautious: he thinks that Olivi may have known and used the Tractatus, but he acknowledges a lack of proof; certainly Olivi never cites from Joachim's work verbatim, and if a few of Olivi's readings come "uncannily" close to Joachim's, that could still be because the Provençal had internalized the Calabrian's general approach. If not from the Tractatus, that general approach certainly came to Olivi from knowledge of Joachim's two most important works, the Concordia and the Expositio super Apocalypsim. Thus the larger question is whether Olivi showed himself to be as much of an extreme partisan of Joachim in the relatively early Matthew commentary as he was in his own late Revelation commentary. Madigan's conclusion is that in the earlier work the influence is pronounced but not extreme. Olivi surely appropriated Joachim's distinctive hermeneutic, allowing prophetic readings of scripture, but did so in the Matthew commentary only sparingly. Similarly, although he accepted Joachim's vision of an earthly sabbath, he only at most hinted at the Abbot's three-status scheme.

Madigan ends by noting that Olivi's distinctive exegetical traits—occasional controversialism...


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