The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages

By Brian Murdoch | Go to book overview

ONE

BEDEVILLING PARADISE

PERHAPS THE CLEAREST WAY of showing precisely what might be found in the augmented medieval vernacular Bible would be to examine first the relevant biblical text and then go on to show how, and how much, it has been expanded. With the first theme, however, this is not possible. The aim here is to look at aspects of the devil in Genesis, and in the biblical text there is no devil at all, for all that the association with the serpent is an expansion of Genesis just as well-known as the apple. The Lutterworth Topical Concordance to the Bible dated 1961 has, for example, as its first entry under 'Satan', a reference to Genesis 3, 4, in which he is not in fact mentioned. 1 Modern commentaries are firmlyaetiological about the snake, and yet even relatively recent writers are again uneasy about it. Herbert Ryle in the 1890s, while insisting on the reality of the serpent, was still able to 'discern the shadow of "the Prince of this World” as he stands behind the instrument of evil suggestion'; the Century Bible commentary saw the 'Tempter as an incarnation of Satan' in 1904 and does not use the word snake at all; and Edward Hasting, in the Speaker's Bible published in Edinburgh in the 1940s, adopts a thoroughly symbolic line, seeing the suggestions of evil in the sinuous movements of a snake. The spirit of Gregory the Great in the Moralia in Iob, who interpreted the serpent's prompting, his suggestio, as the beginning of sin, and indeed of Avitus, whose serpent is a sinuous-sounding pollens coluber, live on in these readings. Indeed, the pattern was visible already in the late seventeenth century, in the writings of the Protestant biblical scholar Jean Leclerc, whose comments on Genesis were 'done out of Latin' in 1696 by one Mr Brown, and who examines this 'so perplex'd and obscure a Matter' with reference to Josephus's literalism, to Philo's allegorisation (about which he is scathing, speaking of 'this Libertine way of Interpreting the Scripture which wholly depends upon the Fancy of the Interpreter'), and then to the view that the serpent was an organ of the devil, to which view he himself seems to incline, whilst not really knowing whether the devil entered or turned himself into the serpent. 2

____________________
1
Charles R. Joy, Lutterworth Topical Concordance (London: Lutterworth Press, 1961).
2
Herbert Edward Ryle, The Early Narratives of Genesis (London: Macmillan, 1892), pp. 57f; Genesis, ed. W. H. Bennett (Edinburgh: Jack, 1904), pp. 103f; Edward Hasting, The Book of Genesis (Aberdeen: Speaker's Bible, 1941), p. 32. Gregory's comments in the Moralia are in PL 75, 661, and for Avitus, see Daniel J. Nodes, Avitus, The Fall of Man (Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1985), II, 169, p. 37. A publication by the Religious Tract Society in the 1920s demands the reinterpretation of the Hebrew for 'serpent' to mean 'angel', and refers the reader to Satan's ability to turn himself into one in II Corinthians 11, 14: J. Russell Howden, The Old Paths in the Light of Modern Thought (London: Religious Tract Society n.d. [1921]),

-19-

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