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Bède le Vénérable - Stéphane Lebecq, Michel Perrin et Olivier Szerwiniak (dir.)
L'exegète

The feminine Christ in Bede’s biblical Commentaries

Arthur G. Holder
p. 109-118

Résumé

Dans plusieurs des commentaires exégétiques qu’il a donnés de la Bible, Bède livre des interprétations suivant lesquelles le Christ apparaît en termes féminins. Conformément à des précédents patristiques, il identifie souvent le Christ à une Dame Sagesse [Sapientia], personnifiée suivant les termes qu’on trouve dans les livres sapientiaux de l’Ancien Testament. Cette identification n’apparaît que dans les œuvres précoces de Bède, qui datent d’une période où il était particulièrement occupé à réfuter l’hérésie. Les exégètes postérieurs ont accepté les références de Bède à un Christ féminin, mais sans en reprendre l’argumentaire raisonné. Il est en tout cas vraisemblable que l’emphase de Bède sur ce thème ait contribué à influencer la dévotion de son compatriote northumbrien Alcuin à la « sainte Sagesse [Alma Sophia, ou Sapientia] ».

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 258, lines 549-52).
  • 2 For earlier patristic sources, see G. W. F. Lampe, “The Patristic Conception of Wisdom in the Light (...)

1The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14), so that in this way the Wisdom of God that consoles us as a mother may refresh us from that very same [angelic] bread and lead us through the sacraments of the incarnation to the knowledge and vision of divine splendor”1. As this passage from his commentary on the Song of Songs indicates, the Venerable Bede was no stranger to the sapiential theology in which Christ is described in feminine (often maternal) guise as Holy Wisdom. But even though this theological tradition has received considerable scholarly attention in recent years, the focus has usually been on its earlier patristic or later medieval proponents ; as a result, the role played by Bede and other early medieval authors in transmitting Wisdom theology has not been sufficiently recognized2. The purpose of this paper is to identify and analyze a number of texts in which Bede describes Christ in feminine terms, note some of the patristic sources upon which he drew, and offer a preliminary sketch of the extent of his influence on the later development of this important theological tradition. We begin with three of Bede’s works on the New Testament and then turn to passages taken from three of his Old Testament commentaries.

Commentary on the Apocalypse

  • 3 The reasons for this dating are given by M. L. W. Laistner, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts, Ithaca (...)
  • 4 G. Bonner, “Saint Bede in the Tradition of Western Apocalyptic Commentary”, Jarrow Lecture, 1966, p (...)
  • 5 CCSL 121A, p. 245, lines 45-6.

  • 6 CCSL 121A, p. 529, lines 56-60.


2The commentary on the Apocalypse, probably the earliest of all Bede’s exegetical works, was written between 703 and 7093. As Gerald Bonner has observed, “It is characterised by a dependence on earlier writers from whom, in fact, Bede reproduced considerable sections word for word”4. Both of the passages that refer to a feminine Christ are in fact derived largely from Bede’s sixth-century source Primasius. Commenting on Apoc. 1:13, where the Son of Man is described as being “girded with a golden sash across the paps [ad mamillas],” Bede follows Primasius in identifying the paps of Christ as the two testaments – presumably because they provide nourishment for the faithful5. Toward the end of the commentary, with reference to the measuring of the heavenly city in Apoc. 21:15, Bede again follows Primasius in linking 1 Cor. 1:24 with the personification of Lady Wisdom in Wisd. of Sol. 8:1 and 11:21 (Vulg.), so that it is “Christ, who is the Wisdom of God” that “reaches mightily from end to end,” “orders all things sweetly,” and distributes the gifts of grace by “disposing all things in number and measure and weight”6.

Commentary on Luke

  • 7 M. L. W. Laistner, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1943, p (...)
  • 8 Bede, In Lucam 4 (CCSL 120, p. 286, lines 2237-44) ; cf. Gregory the Great, Homiliae in euangelia 3 (...)

3Another early work, the commentary on Luke was composed between 709 and 7167. Much of Bede’s exposition is derived from patristic sources, as when he quotes verbatim from Gregory the Great to interpret the woman lighting a lamp to search for a lost coin in Lk. 15:8 as God’s wisdom taking flesh to redeem humankind8.

  • 9 Bede, In Lucam 4 (CCSL 120, p. 244, lines 545-9).

4But there is no direct source behind Bede’s comment on Lk. 11:49, which reads : “Therefore also the Wisdom of God [sapientia Dei] said : ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute’”9. Bede notes that Jesus is here calling himself “the Wisdom of God,” as the apostle Paul also teaches in 1 Cor. 1:24. He then goes on to observe that this identification is confirmed by the parallel passage in Matt. 23:34, where the saying about sending prophets and other messengers is attributed directly to Jesus instead of having him quote personified Wisdom ; since Jesus and Wisdom say the same words, they are obviously understood to be one and the same. (It is interesting to note that this point remains a commonplace of modern biblical scholarship.)

Homilies on the Gospels

  • 10 Bede, Historia ecclesiastica 5.24, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Bede : Ecclesias (...)
  • 11 L. T. Martin, “Introduction”, in Bede the Venerable : Homilies on the Gospel, trans. L. T. Martin a (...)
  • 12 Bede, Homeliae evangelii 1.8 (CCSL 122, p. 53, lines 44-7) and 1.23 (CCSL 122, p. 168, line 258).

  • 13 Bede, Homeliae evangelii 1.19 (CCSL 122, p. 136, lines 51-61) and 1.20 (CCSL 122, p. 144, lines 93- (...)
  • 14 M. Simonetti, “Sull’Interpretazione Patristica di Proverbi 8 : 22”, in Studi Sull’Arianesimo, Rome, (...)
  • 15 Bede, Homeliae evangelii 1.5 (CCSL 122, p. 36, lines 143-5) ; cf. 1.8 (CCSL 122, p. 55, lines 108- (...)

5Bede’s Homilies on the Gospels may well be considered among his biblical commentaries ; indeed, he listed them along with the commentaries in the autobiographical account at the end of the Historia ecclesiastica10. It is impossible to date any of the individual homilies, though the collection as a whole was probably compiled some time in the 720’s11. At least five of the fifty homilies contain clear references to Christ under the figure of personified Wisdom. In two instances, the divine nature of the Second Person of the Trinity is explicated with reference to a verse from the encomium on Wisdom found in Prv. 812. In two other homilies, Bede combines 1 Cor. 1:24 with Prv. 8 – first to explain how the boy Jesus’ listening to the elders in the temple fulfilled Wisdom’s declaration that she dwells in counsel and is present among learned thoughts (Prv. 8:12), and then to show that while both Christ and Peter could be called sons of God, only Christ is the Son of God by nature, since in the person of Divine Wisdom he declared, “The Lord possessed me from the beginning of his ways, before he made anything from the beginning.” (Prv. 8:22)13. Although there is no direct source for any of these homiletical points made by Bede, it is clear that he is drawing on a rich patristic tradition in which Prv. 8, associated with both 1 Cor. 1:24 and the prologue of John’s gospel, was frequently employed in debate against Arian theologies in which the Son of God was thought to have been a creature14. Similarly, in yet another homily, Bede says that it is the Word – God’s Son, Power, and Wisdom – who speaks the hymn recorded by Ben Sira (Ecclus. 24: 5, Vulg.) in which Wisdom praises herself, saying, “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, the firstborn before all creatures”15.

Commentary on 1 Samuel

  • 16 M. L. W. Laistner, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1943, p (...)
  • 17 Bede, In primam partem Samuhelis 1 (CCSL119, p. 11, lines 27-9).

  • 18 Bede, In primam partem Samuhelis 2 (CCSL 119, p. 83, lines 651-4). Bede also quotes Prv. 9 : 1 else (...)
  • 19 P. Bright, “Proverbs”, in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. E. Ferguson, 2nd ed., New York an (...)
  • 20 Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iob 33.16.32 (CCSL 143B, p. 1701, lines 14-6).

6Turning now to Bede’s Old Testament exegesis, we come to the Commentary on 1 Samuel. Books 1-3 were completed prior to Ceolfrid’s final departure for Rome in June, 716, and the fourth book was begun several months later16. There are two references to Christ as Wisdom in this commentary, and once again both of them involve quotations from the Book of Proverbs. In the first citation, the incarnate Christ is identified as the speaker of Wisdom’s words in Prv. 8:22 : “The Lord possessed me from the beginning of his ways”17. The second quotation is from Prv. 9:1 (“Wisdom has built herself a house”), which Bede interprets as follows : “By the power of his divinity, Christ has fashioned for himself the substance of the human being that he assumed when he was going to be born of a virgin”18. This link between Wisdom’s house and Christ’s incarnate flesh is again traditional, going back to Hippolytus of Rome in the second century19. For Bede, the most likely source is the Moralia of Gregory the Great20.

7In all of the passages examined thus far, the identification of Christ with the female figure of personified Wisdom is left undeveloped, often limited to the simple attribution to Christ of a single verse from the Book of Proverbs. In none of these passages have we found any explanation or apologia for the description of Christ as feminine, and only in the first passage in the Apocalypse commentary does Bede’s exegetical point really depend upon a specifically female characteristic (in that case, the nurturing function of breasts that produce milk). In one sense, Bede’s untroubled and uncomplicated acceptance of a feminine Christ shows how deeply this sapiential theology was embedded in the patristic tradition that he had received. Not that all of the citations we have examined are directly derived from patristic authors ; in several instances we have seen that Bede introduces traditional Wisdom material into his exegesis even when he was not following a particular source. But thus far, his treatment of the feminine Christ has been understated and largely incidental. The last two commentaries to be examined, however, offer us something quite different in this regard.

Commentary on the Song of Songs

  • 21 We know with certainty that the fourth book of Bede’s commentary on 1 Samuel was composed in the la (...)
  • 22 A. G. Holder, “The Patristic Sources of Bede’s Commentary on the Song of Songs”, Studia Patristica, (...)

8Scholars have long considered it impossible to date Bede’s commentary on the Song of Songs any more precisely than to say that it must have been written before 731 when Bede included it in the list of his works in the Historia ecclesiastica. But this significant commentary can now be assigned with considerable probability to the period not long before 71621. The most important source for Bede was the Song commentary of the fifth-century author Apponius, which he employed extensively but nonetheless selectively, and with a critical eye22.

  • 23 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 191, lines 50-1).
  • 24 1 Cor. 3:2.
  • 25 The origin of this conundrum in Greek and Latin translations of the unpointed Hebrew text of the So (...)
  • 26 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 191, line 70 – p. 192, line 82).
  • 27 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 284, lines 517-8). For a reference to the Holy Spirit (...)

9In Bede’s interpretation, the very first verse of the Song is spoken by the Old Testament Synagogue who is longing for Christ to become incarnate so that he might kiss her with the kisses of his mouth. She then goes on to say, this time directly to Christ : ‘For your breasts are better than wine’. The breasts of Christ, Bede explains, are the first principles of New Testament faith, which are better than the wine of the Old Testament law23. As he noted, this was in accordance with St Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians that he had fed them with milk, not solid food24. But if this verse is spoken by the Synagogue to Christ the bridegroom, how is it possible for a male bridegroom to have breasts25 ? Bede first explains that this apparent anomaly is no accident, but is deliberately placed here, right at the beginning of the Song, in order to show us from the start that we are dealing with a text that must be interpreted figuratively26. We ought not to be surprised, Bede says, that Christ is spoken of as having feminine body parts, for there are in fact other such passages in the Bible. He then cites four of them : the passage from the Apocalypse in which the Vulgate describes the Son of Man as ‘girded with a golden sash across the paps’(Apoc. 1:12-3) ; two verses from the sixty-sixth chapter of Isaiah, in which the Lord speaks of himself as giving birth (Is 66:9) and as being like a mother caressing her child (Is 66:13) ; and finally that passage in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says to the unbelieving city of Jerusalem : ‘How often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you would not !’ (Mt 23:37) All four of these passages seem to have been chosen because in Bede’s estimation they metaphorically refer to Christ as possessing female anatomy. Further on in the Song commentary he does not hesitate to refer to Christ the Teacher as magistra ueritas, or ‘Mistress Truth’27.

  • 28 Jerome, In Esaiam 18 (CCSL 73A, p. 780, lines 12-5).

  • 29 Apponius, In Cantica Canticorum 1, 20 (CCSL 19, p. 14, lines 299-311).


10How did Bede come to compile this particular set of testimonies in support of a feminine Christ ? Jerome cites the Matthew passage in his explication of the maternal imagery in Is. 66:13, but he makes no special apology for the feminine symbolism28. The comparison of wine to law and milk to gospel is right out of Apponius, as is the imagery of the nursing Christ. But Apponius’s explication focuses on the two breasts of Christ as symbolic representations of the two heralds of the gospel who were named John – John the Baptist who acknowledged him as the suffering Lamb of God, and John the Evangelist who proclaimed him as the Word by whom all things were made29. In Apponius there is no apology or scriptural warrant for the feminine Christ, or even any indication that it might present a problem. Bede thought that this imagery might trouble the reader, so he apparently consulted the concordance of his memory to bring forth other biblical passages using similar language.

  • 30 Apponius, In Cantica Canticorum 7, 25-6 (CCSL 19, p. 164, line 326 – p. 165, line 357).
  • 31 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 251, lines 268-70).
  • 32 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 258, lines 543-55).


11We have already seen that Apponius expounds the breasts of Christ as the two Johns who were heralds of the gospel, and elsewhere he says that Christian pastors are breasts when they nourish the Christian people with biblical teaching30. As for Bede, we find him explaining that the breasts of Sg. 4:5 belong this time not to the bridegroom but to the Church as bride, whose teachers are “quite aptly referred to as breasts, since they supply the milk of the life-giving word to those who are still infants in Christ”31. Later, in reference to Sg. 4:10, he goes on to develop this imagery at considerable length by showing that pastors who nourish the faithful with the milk of doctrine are thereby imitating the mothering Christ in whose ministry they share : since an infant is not able to eat bread very well, the mother in a certain manner makes the very bread she eats into flesh and feeds the infant from that bread through the lowliness of breasts and the taste of milk. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’(Jn. 1:1) ; this is the eternal food that refreshes angels because they are satisfied with the sight of his glory. And ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’(Jn. 1:14), so that in this way the Wisdom of God that consoles us as a mother may refresh us from that very same bread and lead us through the sacraments of the Incarnation to the knowledge and vision of divine splendor. But holy teachers also take the bread with which they are fed in a sublime manner and convert it into milk with which they nourish little children, so that the more exalted their contemplation of eternal joys in God, the more humbly are they at the same time taking pity on their neighbors’weakness32.

  • 33 Augustine, Tractatus in Iohannem 98.6 (CCSL 36, p. 579, lines 4-10) ; on God as both father and mot (...)

12None of this is particularly original with Bede. The image of Christ taking flesh in order to act as a mother who converts divine wisdom into more easily digestible milk is found in Augustine33, and we have already noted how Apponius spoke of the maternal function of apostles and teachers. But Bede develops the theme throughout his commentary with both enthusiasm and a pleasing elegance. In the last commentary to be examined here, Christ as personified Wisdom plays an even more central role ; indeed, this identification becomes the fundamental exegetical principle for the entire work.

Commentary on Proverbs

  • 34 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 5 (CCSL 119B, p. 49, lines 66 – 50, 75) ; cf. In Cantica Canticorum (...)
  • 35 For these biblical citations, see the index in CCSL 119B, p. 421-37.

  • 36 See the indexes of scriptural quotations in the various CCSL editions of Bede’s commentaries. In a (...)
  • 37 A. Thacker, ‘Bede’s Ideal of Reform’, in Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society : St (...)

13No date has ever been assigned to Bede’s commentary on Proverbs, except that it must have been written before 731 when Bede mentions it in the Historia ecclesiastica. However, there is some reason to think that it was written shortly after the commentary on the Song of Songs, since Bede’s comment on the words ecclesia and sinagoga in Prv. 5:14 develops a distinction between the two that he developed in the prologue to his Song commentary, where the distinction is pertinent to the context in a way that it is not especially pertinent to the Proverbs text34. Note that there are eight citations of the Song of Songs in Bede’s commentary on Proverbs, but only one citation of Proverbs in the commentary on the Song ; perhaps this indicates that the Song commentary was composed first35. In addition, citations of Proverbs are much more frequent in Bede’s earlier commentaries on Luke, the Catholic Epistles, and 1 Samuel than in the several commentaries of the 720’s, which may indicate that Bede was devoting concentrated attention to Proverbs in the period 709-16 while he was in the process of composing his commentary on that book36. If this provisional dating is correct, then it is remarkable that all of the commentaries we have examined – with the exception of the still-undated Homilies on the Gospels – appear to come from this early period in Bede’s exegetical career. A fascination with sapiential theology as a corrective against heresy may be characteristic of Bede’s early works, just as a concern for church reform appears as a recurrent theme in the later commentaries he was writing about the same time as the Historia ecclesiastica37.

  • 38 The commentary attributed to the fifth-century author Salonius (PL 53, c. 967-1012) is actually a l (...)
  • 39 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 29, line 244) ; 1, 2 (CCSL 119B, p. 34, lines 52-3 (...)
  • 40 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 25, lines 84-90) ; 1, 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 29, lines 2 (...)
  • 41 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 42, lines 159-62) ; 1, 8 (CCSL 119B, p. 61, lines (...)
  • 42 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 9 (CCSL 119B, p. 62, lines 1-4).
  • 43 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 9 (CCSL 119B, p. 63, lines 32-4).
  • 44 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 9 (CCSL 119B, p. 63, lines 51-7).
  • 45 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 9 (CCSL 119B, p. 65, lines 92-6).

14As far as we know, Bede’s commentary on this biblical book – so important for both patristic theology and monastic formation – was the first complete verse-by-verse treatment of Proverbs by any Christian author38. His interpretation is thoroughly Christological, with the key being the direct and complete identification of Christ as the feminine figure of Wisdom39. Thus it is Christ/Wisdom who appears in flesh so that the disciples might understand parables ; who preaches openly in the streets when the apostles proclaim his resurrection ; who as the tree of life revives the church through the sacraments of his body and blood40. God the Father created the world through Christ/ Wisdom, and according to Prv. 8:22 this divine figure was with God before the beginning of time41. As in the commentary on 1 Samuel, Wisdom is said to have built herself a house when Christ assumed human form42. She provides bread and mixes her wine when Christ offers his body and blood on the altar of the eucharist43. Just as the harlot tempts the young man away from his true love Wisdom, so does the heretic shamelessly bid the believer to deny Christ44. After bemoaning the ignorance of heretics, the first book of Bede’s commentary on Proverbs concludes : “But when the sacraments of Christ are properly celebrated in the church, and the word of Christ – who is the Wisdom of God – is heard and kept, surely the angelic powers are there, feasting with the faithful in highest heaven. For ‘he gave them bread from heaven, and mortals ate the bread of angels.’” (Ps. 77:24-5, Vulg.)45

The Legacy of Bede’s feminine Christ

  • 46 For the comments of these Carolingian authors on the “breasts” of Sg. 1:1 (Vulg.) and 4:10, see : A (...)
  • 47 Glossa ordinaria pars 22 in Cantica Canticorum, ed. with English translation by Mary Dove in CCSL 1 (...)

15Although the popularity of Bede’s biblical commentaries ensured that his reiteration of patristic traditions concerning the feminine Christ would be carried on into the Middle Ages, the later commentary tradition seems to have accepted his conclusions while omitting his more explicit rationale. For example, the three Carolingian commentators on the Song of Songs made extensive use of Bede’s own commentary on that book, and all of them followed Bede in identifying the breasts of Sg. 1:1 (Vulg.) as the breasts of Christ. However, neither Alcuin nor Angelomus nor Haimo of Auxerre quoted Bede’s apologia for the feminine Christ with its biblical warrants ; nor did any of them repeat his elaborate allegory in which the Incarnate Christ is described as acting like a nursing mother who feeds the church with the bread of divinity by turning it into sacramental milk46. Even the twelfth-century Glossa ordinaria on the Song, which is heavily dependent on Bede, reduces his apologia on the femininity of Christ verse to a single sentence, saying : “He speaks of the ‘breasts’of the bridegroom, a female term, so that from the very beginning of this song he may reveal himself to be speaking figuratively”47. It is possible that authors such as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Aelred of Rievaulx were influenced somewhat by Bede when they developed their own much more elaborate treatments of Jesus as Mother, but they make no explicit mention of him in that regard.

  • 48 M. Alberi, “The ‘Mystery of the Incarnation’and Wisdom’s House (Prov. 9:1) in Alcuin’s Disputatio d (...)
  • 49 On the Alma Sophia, see lines 1507-20 of Alcuin’s poem The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. (...)
  • 50 Alcuin, The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. P. Godman, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 2- (...)
  • 51 Alcuin, The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. Peter Godman, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982, p. (...)

16If we seek the wider effects of Bede’s influence, perhaps we should look outside the commentary tradition proper to consider the prominent role that sapiential theology played in the next generation in the writings of his Northumbrian compatriot Alcuin. As Mary Alberi has shown, Alcuin was drawing on the exegetical tradition of Gregory and Bede when he interpreted Wisdom’s house in Prv. 9:1 with reference to the Incarnation, though he went beyond them both when he identified that house’s seven columns with the seven liberal arts48. We also know that Alcuin helped to supervise the construction of a church in York that was dedicated to Alma Sophia, and that he composed an order for a Mass of Holy Wisdom49. Alcuin’s poem on the saints of York begins with an invocation of “Christ divine, strength and wisdom [sapientia] of the Father Almighty” that echoes 1 Cor. 1:2450, and the epitaph he composed for himself declares that “Alcuin was my name and wisdom [sophia] always my love.” Even if he does not seem to have followed Bede in giving more explicit attention to the feminine character of Christ as Mother, Alcuin’s devotion to Holy Wisdom must surely have owed something to what he had read about her in the works of one he called “Bede the master”51.

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Notes

1 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 258, lines 549-52).

2 For earlier patristic sources, see G. W. F. Lampe, “The Patristic Conception of Wisdom in the Light of Biblical and Rabbinical Research”, Studia Patristica, n ̊ 4 (Texte und Untersuchungen, n ̊ 79), Berlin, 1961, p. 60-106 ; R. L. Wilken, ed., Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, Notre Dame, Ind., University of Notre Dame, 1975 ; Letture cristiane dei Libri Sapienziali : XX Incontro di studiosi della antichità cristiana (Studia Ephemeridis “Augustinianum”, n ̊ 37), Rome, Institutum Patristicum “Augustinianum”, 1992 ; La Sagesse biblique : De l’Ancien au Nouveau Testament : Actes du XVe Congrès de l’ACFEB, ed. J. Trublet (Lectio Divina, n ̊ 160), Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1995 ; Ch. Kannengieser, “Lady Wisdom’s Final Call : The Patristic Recovery of Proverbs 8”, in Nova Doctrina Vetusque : Essays on Early Christianity in Honor of Fredric W. Schlatter, S.J., ed. D. Kries and C. Brown Tkacz (American University Studies, ser. 7, Theology and Religion, n ̊ 207), New York, Peter Lang, 1999, p. 65-77. For later medieval developments, see C. Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother : Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1982 ; B. Newman, “Some Mediaeval Theologians and the Sophia Tradition”, Downside Review, n° 108, 1990, p. 111-30. One of the few scholars to recognize the contributions made by authors between Augustine and Anselm is Ritamary Bradley in “Patristic Background of the Motherhood Similitude in Julian of Norwich”, Christian Scholar’s Review, n° 8, 1978, p. 101-13 ; unfortunately, her only citation of Bede comes from the pseudonymous commentary on Matthew (PL 92, c. 101), which is derived from Augustine’s Quaestiones euangeliorum.

3 The reasons for this dating are given by M. L. W. Laistner, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1943, p. 25. R. Gryson, the editor of the CCSL edition of this text published in 2001, states without qualification : “Le commentaire sur l’Apocalypse est la première des oeuvres scripturaires de Bède.” (CCSL 121A, p. 153).

4 G. Bonner, “Saint Bede in the Tradition of Western Apocalyptic Commentary”, Jarrow Lecture, 1966, p. 9.

5 CCSL 121A, p. 245, lines 45-6.


6 CCSL 121A, p. 529, lines 56-60.


7 M. L. W. Laistner, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1943, p. 44.


8 Bede, In Lucam 4 (CCSL 120, p. 286, lines 2237-44) ; cf. Gregory the Great, Homiliae in euangelia 34 (CCSL 141, p. 303, line 110 – p. 305, line 146).

9 Bede, In Lucam 4 (CCSL 120, p. 244, lines 545-9).

10 Bede, Historia ecclesiastica 5.24, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Bede : Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969 ; reprinted with corrections, 1991, p. 568.


11 L. T. Martin, “Introduction”, in Bede the Venerable : Homilies on the Gospel, trans. L. T. Martin and D. Hurst, Kalamazoo, Mich., Cistercian Publications, 1991, vol. 1, p. xi.


12 Bede, Homeliae evangelii 1.8 (CCSL 122, p. 53, lines 44-7) and 1.23 (CCSL 122, p. 168, line 258).


13 Bede, Homeliae evangelii 1.19 (CCSL 122, p. 136, lines 51-61) and 1.20 (CCSL 122, p. 144, lines 93-5).


14 M. Simonetti, “Sull’Interpretazione Patristica di Proverbi 8 : 22”, in Studi Sull’Arianesimo, Rome, Editrice Studium, 1965, p. 9-87 ; Ch. Kannengieser, “Lady Wisdom’s Final Call : The Patristic Recovery of Proverbs 8”, in Nova Doctrina Vetusque : Essays on Early Christianity in Honor of Fredric W. Schlatter, S.J., ed. D. Kries and C. Brown Tkacz (American University Studies, ser. 7, Theology and Religion, n ̊ 207), New York, Peter Lang, 1999, p. 65-77. The Arians of course had their own interpretations of the passage in question.

15 Bede, Homeliae evangelii 1.5 (CCSL 122, p. 36, lines 143-5) ; cf. 1.8 (CCSL 122, p. 55, lines 108- 10), where Bede’s exegesis of the Johannine prologue identifies God’s Wisdom with the invisible Light that was clothed in human form at the Incarnation.

16 M. L. W. Laistner, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1943, p. 65.

17 Bede, In primam partem Samuhelis 1 (CCSL119, p. 11, lines 27-9).


18 Bede, In primam partem Samuhelis 2 (CCSL 119, p. 83, lines 651-4). Bede also quotes Prv. 9 : 1 elsewhere in this commentary (CCSL 119, p. 23, lines 510-1), but without explicitly identifying Christ as the speaker.


19 P. Bright, “Proverbs”, in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. E. Ferguson, 2nd ed., New York and London, Garland Publishing, 1998, p. 956. See M. Richard, “Les fragments du Commentaire de S. Hippolyte sur les Proverbes de Salomon”, Muséon, n ̊ 78, 1965, p. 257-90 ; n ̊ 79, 1966, p. 61-94 ; n ̊ 80, 1967, p. 327-64.

20 Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iob 33.16.32 (CCSL 143B, p. 1701, lines 14-6).

21 We know with certainty that the fourth book of Bede’s commentary on 1 Samuel was composed in the latter half of 716, or perhaps the first part of the next year, because Bede therein alludes to Ceolfrith’s departure for Rome as a recent event (CCSL 119. p. 212, lines 14- 20). In his comment in that same book on 1 Sam. 25:43 (CCSL 119. p. 241, line 1256 – p. 242, line 1264), Bede cites two verses from the Song of Songs that in his understanding speak of Christ as the Church’s brother. First he interprets Sg. 4 :9 (“You have wounded my heart, my sister, my bride”) as the Lord’s affirmation that he shares one and the same human nature with his sister the Church. Then Bede quotes Sg. 8:1 (“Who will give you to me as my brother sucking my mother’s breasts, so that I may find you outside and kiss you ?”), which he explains as being spoken by the Church in the persona of the faithful people of old (that is, the Synagogue) who were eagerly awaiting the incarnation of Christ. Both of these verses are interpreted in similar fashion in the Song commentary, but at considerably greater length. The importation of these complex interpretations into the commentary on 1 Samuel indicates that Bede had already developed them in the course of writing his commentary on the Song, which must therefore have been completed by 716.

22 A. G. Holder, “The Patristic Sources of Bede’s Commentary on the Song of Songs”, Studia Patristica, n° 34, 2001, p. 370-75.

23 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 191, lines 50-1).

24 1 Cor. 3:2.

25 The origin of this conundrum in Greek and Latin translations of the unpointed Hebrew text of the Song, along with an overview of patristic and early medieval interpretation, is to be found in G. Joy Ritson, “Eros, Allegory and Spirituality : The Development of Heavenly Bridegroom Imagery in the Western Christian Church from Origen to Gregory the Great”, 2 vols. (Ph.D. dissertation, Graduate Theological Union, 1997).

26 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 191, line 70 – p. 192, line 82).

27 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 284, lines 517-8). For a reference to the Holy Spirit as also possessing feminine characteristics, see In Cantica Canticorum 4 (CCSL 119B, p. 310, lines 434-7).

28 Jerome, In Esaiam 18 (CCSL 73A, p. 780, lines 12-5).


29 Apponius, In Cantica Canticorum 1, 20 (CCSL 19, p. 14, lines 299-311).


30 Apponius, In Cantica Canticorum 7, 25-6 (CCSL 19, p. 164, line 326 – p. 165, line 357).

31 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 251, lines 268-70).

32 Bede, In Cantica Canticorum 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 258, lines 543-55).


33 Augustine, Tractatus in Iohannem 98.6 (CCSL 36, p. 579, lines 4-10) ; on God as both father and mother to the faithful, see Enarrationes in Psalmos 26, 18 (CCSL 38, p. 164, lines 2-5).


34 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 5 (CCSL 119B, p. 49, lines 66 – 50, 75) ; cf. In Cantica Canticorum 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 190, lines 8-14). For the latter passage as a correction to an interpretation by Apponius, see Arthur G. Holder, “The Patristic Sources of Bede’s Commentary on the Song of Songs”, Studia Patristica, n° 34, 2001, p. 373.


35 For these biblical citations, see the index in CCSL 119B, p. 421-37.


36 See the indexes of scriptural quotations in the various CCSL editions of Bede’s commentaries. In a personal communication, Scott DeGregorio has called attention to a passage in Bede’s commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah (CCSL 119A, p. 347, lines 335-40) that duplicates his comment on Prv. 18:19 in his commentary on Proverbs (CCSL 119B, p. 98, lines 65-70). Since only the last portion of the comment is pertinent in the context of the Ezra passage, it appears that the Proverbs commentary is the earlier of the two works.

37 A. Thacker, ‘Bede’s Ideal of Reform’, in Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society : Studies Presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, ed. P. Wormald, et al., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 130 ; S. DeGregorio, “‘Nostrorum socordiam temporum’ : The Reforming Impulse of Bede’s Later Exegesis”, forthcoming in Early Medieval Europe.

38 The commentary attributed to the fifth-century author Salonius (PL 53, c. 967-1012) is actually a late eleventh or early twelfth century work that incorporates portions of Bede’s commentary. See V. I. J. Flint, “The True Author of the Salonii Commentarii in Parabolas Salomonis et in Ecclesiasten”, Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale, n° 37, 1970, p. 174-86.

39 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 29, line 244) ; 1, 2 (CCSL 119B, p. 34, lines 52-3).

40 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 25, lines 84-90) ; 1, 1 (CCSL 119B, p. 29, lines 243-59) ; 1, 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 42, lines 154-8).

41 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 3 (CCSL 119B, p. 42, lines 159-62) ; 1, 8 (CCSL 119B, p. 61, lines 79-92).

42 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 9 (CCSL 119B, p. 62, lines 1-4).

43 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 9 (CCSL 119B, p. 63, lines 32-4).

44 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 9 (CCSL 119B, p. 63, lines 51-7).

45 Bede, In Proverbia Salomonis 1, 9 (CCSL 119B, p. 65, lines 92-6).

46 For the comments of these Carolingian authors on the “breasts” of Sg. 1:1 (Vulg.) and 4:10, see : Alcuin, Compendium in Canticum Canticorum (PL 100, c. 642C, 652C) ; Angelomus of Luxeuil, Enarrationes in Cantica Canticorum (PL 115, c. 563B-566A, 610A) ; Haimo of Auxerre, Commentarium in Cantica Canticorum (PL 117, c. 295B, 320D-321B).

47 Glossa ordinaria pars 22 in Cantica Canticorum, ed. with English translation by Mary Dove in CCSL 170, p. 84-5.

48 M. Alberi, “The ‘Mystery of the Incarnation’and Wisdom’s House (Prov. 9:1) in Alcuin’s Disputatio de vera philosophia”, Journal of Theological Studies, new series, n° 48, 1997, p. 505-16.

49 On the Alma Sophia, see lines 1507-20 of Alcuin’s poem The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. P. Godman, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 118-21 ; R. Morris, “Alcuin, York, and the Alma Sophia”, in The Anglo-Saxon Church : Papers on History, Architecture, and Archaeology in Honour of Dr H. M. Taylor, ed. L. A. S. Butler and R. K. Morris, Council for British Archaeology, Research Report, n° 60, 1986, p. 80-9 ; C. Norton, “The Anglo-Saxon Cathedral at York and the Topography of the Anglian City”, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, n° 151, 1998, p. 3, 14-5. The Mass of Holy Wisdom can be found in PL 101, c. 450D-451B.

50 Alcuin, The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. P. Godman, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 2-3, line 1.

51 Alcuin, The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York, ed. Peter Godman, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 124-5, line 1547. Another indication of Northumbrian devotion to Holy Wisdom is the portable altar found in Acca’s tomb at Hexham, which according to Symeon of Durham was inscribed with the words ALMÆ TRINITATI, AGIÆ SOPHIÆ, SANCTÆ MARIÆ ; see Richard N. Bailey, “The Anglo-Saxon Metalwork from Hexham”, in Saint Wilfrid at Hexham, ed. D. P. Kirby, Newcastle upon Tyne, Oriel Press, 1974, p. 141.

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Arthur G. Holder, « The feminine Christ in Bede’s biblical Commentaries », in Stéphane Lebecq, Michel Perrin et Olivier Szerwiniak (dir.), Bède le Vénérable, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (« Histoire et littérature de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest », no 34), 2005, p. 109-118.

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Arthur G. Holder, « The feminine Christ in Bede’s biblical Commentaries », in Stéphane Lebecq, Michel Perrin et Olivier Szerwiniak (dir.), Bède le Vénérable, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (« Histoire et littérature de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest », no 34), 2005 [En ligne], mis en ligne le 13 octobre 2012, consulté le 11 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/hleno/320

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Arthur G. Holder

Graduate Theological Union - Berkeley, California

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