The Venerable Bede's Manuductive Hermeneutics: Lame Readers, Apostolic Teachers, and Temple Exegesis in His Commentary on Acts

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Abstract: This essay examines Bede's portrayal of an Apostle as one who imitates Christ's example of a "good teacher" by leading others by the hand, physically and spiritually, toward a better interpretation of their texts and their world. Central to the development of this exegesis is his recurring focus on the ascent with Christ in both knowledge and virtue, the journey to and from the heavenly Jerusalem, and the Temple as a richly layered image of Christ's body. In so far that Bede's commentary itself "builds up" the life of faith and leads its own readers into a deeper understanding of Christ's body and the heavenly kingdom, Bede is himself modeling the pattern of a good teacher.

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For the past thirty years, much of the scholarship concerning the Venerable Bede has rightly sought to expand his reputation beyond that of important historian of the West to a formative, if not central, figure of biblical exegesis in the Christian tradition. (1) A number of critical editions and recent translations of Bede's exegetical works have greatly aided this task of valuing Bedes contribution more holistically and, in some cases, the analysis has even reversed the tables and sought to understand Bede's historiographical contributions as secondary to his role as a faithful reader of Scripture. (2) That this project has largely been successful is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that we no longer sense the need to include the seemingly requisite apologia as an introduction for engaging Bede in this manner--a practice that almost infallibly justifies itself by citing the very few autobiographical words from the Historia Ecclesiastica in which Bede describes himself foremost as a monk who spent his entire life applying himself to the study of Scripture. What is evidently still lacking, however, is a greater appreciation for (even acknowledgment of) the rest of the sentence: "and, amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the church, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write" (Bede's Ecclesiastical v. 24, 567).

It seems, then, that the present task is to continue mining his exegetical texts themselves not only for the many ways in which they refute those who misread Bede's "unoriginality" as a lack of skill or deficient intellect, but more importantly, for the ways in which they help us appreciate better the readers of Scripture in the Christian tradition--both those who preceded Bede and who are thus to some extent indebted to his clear, faithful elucidation offered in utmost humility, and those who by merely imitating his example have already inherited a great deal. To that end, this essay focuses on Bede's Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles as a text which, perhaps better than any other of his commentaries, bridges the gap between Bede the historian and Bede the exegete. (3) Here, as with all his major works, Bede's thematic emphases and driving images clearly serve an overarching ecclesial purpose: to promote the kind of faithful teaching and reading which will preserve the unity of the body of Christ and thus continually prompt its members toward a greater knowledge and love of God.

Rather than draw attention to the rhetorical artistry or the classical literary terms that Bede employs, I have focused this study on Bede's portrayal of apostolic manuduction ("leading by the hand") (4) and his use of "temple" imagery (5) as a way to draw out some of the implications and pedagogical purposes of Bede's own hermeneutical approach. Of particular relevance is the way Bede locates Christ's teaching and the faithful imitation of that teaching by his followers as the key for properly reading not only words on a page but the Word as it is written, as Augustine says, on the vellum of history and creation (Confessions XIII.15.2). As a reader and teacher of the Sacred Scriptures in the line of Luke, Peter, Paul, and especially Jesus, Bede is clearly concerned with situating his own Northumbrian community in the body of Christ and of rightly reading itself in relation to the Holy Scriptures. …