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Bede’s in Ezram et Neemiam :
a document in church reform ?

Scott DeGregorio
p. 97-108

Résumé

Le traité de Bède In Ezram et Neemiam est le premier et le plus achevé des commentaires qui aient été écrits au Moyen Âge sur les livres d’Ezra et de Nehémie. Qu’est-ce qui a poussé Bède à écrire un commentaire aussi développé sur ces livres de l’Ancien Testament jusqu’alors négligés ? La présente communication entend montrer que c’est leur implication dans la réforme religieuse qui a attiré Bède vers ces livres, et qu’il existe de nombreuses correspondances entre le commentaire qu’il en a donné et l’œuvre la plus explicitement réformatrice qu’il nous ait laissée – son Epistola ad Ecgberhtum episcopum. J’en conclus que, par le développement de thèmes tels que la prédication par la parole et l’exemple, la pastorale des évêques et des prêcheurs à destination des fidèles, ou encore la corruption de la vie religieuse par la sécularisation et l’avidité cléricale – tous thèmes qu’on retrouve au cœur de l’Epistola –, le traité In Ezram et Neemiam est un travail hautement réformateur, qui se singularise en tant que tel dans l’œuvre exégétique de son auteur.

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  • 1 In Ezram et Neemiam, ed. D. Hurst, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 119A, Turnhout, Brepols, 196 (...)
  • 2 In the ancient Jewish and Greek canons, our Ezra and Nehemiah comprised a single work. For a recent (...)
  • 3 M. L. W. Laistner and H. H. King, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts, Ithaca, N. Y., Cornell Universit (...)
  • 4 See ibid., p. 39-40 ; and Biblia Latina cum Glossa Ordinaria : Facsimile Reprint of the Editio Prin (...)
  • 5 The phrase patrum uestigia sequens recurs throughout Bede’s exegesis : e.g. In primam partem Samuhe (...)
  • 6 On Bede’s preference for these four Fathers, see In Lucae euangelium expositio, Prol., ed. D. Hurst (...)
  • 7 Aside from Bede’s commentary, the only other evidence of prior interest in Ezra-Nehemiah among the (...)
  • 8 A critical edition of the Collectaneum has yet to be published, but see the recent translation by D (...)
  • 9 See my “The Venerable Bede on prayer and contemplation”, Traditio, 39, 1999, p. 1-39, for discussio (...)
  • 10 Historia ecclesiastica 5.25, ed. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford, Oxford University Press, (...)

1The Venerable Bede’s In Ezram et Neemiam is the first and only complete commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah produced during the Middle Ages1. A verse-by- verse treatment of what today is known as two distinct books2 on the events surrounding the post-exilic restoration of the temple in Jerusalem, the work consists of three books, the first two covering all of Ezra, the third all of Nehemiah. It survives, according to Laistner’s Hand-List, in thirty two manuscripts, placing it third in terms of sheer numbers amidst Bede’s ten Old Testament commentaries3. Though seemingly not one of his more popular commentaries, In Ezram’s importance in the Middle Ages is still easily discerned : by the tenth century copies were to be found at Fleury, Lyon, St Gall and Monte Cassino, and when the Glossa ordinaria came to be compiled in the early twelfth century, Bede’s work would, for these biblical books, provide the entirety of the commentary4.
Bede’s decision to comment on books ignored by previous Fathers may at first seem at odds with his own self-declared role as a compiler who, to use his own words, merely “follows in the footsteps of the Fathers” – for in this case there were no footsteps to follow5. Neither Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, or Gregory – the four Fathers Bede singled out as his main models6 – or any other commentator had much to say about Ezra-Nehemiah, rendering superfluous the compiler’s task of summarizing an existing tradition of commentary7. Yet rarely was Bede ever a mere compiler in the way, say, his contemporary Isidore of Seville was. Out of the eighteen extant commentaries attributed to Bede, only one, the Collectaneum on the Pauline Epistles, and a small portion of another, Book 6 of the commentary on the Song of Songs, qualify as compilatio strictly considered8. The remaining works are more original and tend to take more sophisticated approaches to their use of sources9, far more sophisticated than Bede’s own humble portrayal of his method lets on10.

  • 11 In my “Bede’s In Ezram et Neemiam and the Reform of the Northumbrian church”, Speculum, 2004, 79, p (...)

2This is especially true of the later commentaries, and it is to this category that In Ezram belongs. In fact, I believe that this may be Bede’s latest commentary, written at the end of his career when he was busy completing the Historia ecclesiastica and was becoming increasingly engaged with matters of pastoral care and church reform as spelled out in his latest extant work, the Epistola ad Ecgberhtum episcopum, completed in November of 73411. For In Ezram reflects the reforming concerns of the Epistola more than any other commentary, marking it out as unique in Bede’s exegetical corpus.

  • 12 On this, see the remarks of Leon Wood, A survey of Israel’s history, London, Pickering & Inglis, 19 (...)
  • 13 Ez. 7-8.

  • 14 Ez. 9-10.

  • 15 Neh. 1-6.

  • 16 See esp. Neh. 13.
  • 17 Neh. 8.

3My claim that In Ezram shares the Epistola’s reforming agenda finds immediate support in one notable fact about the biblical books on which the commentary is based : namely, that Ezra-Nehemiah is itself a narrative of reform and restoration12. After the first six chapters of Ezra, which cover the return of the first group of Jews from the Babylonian captivity and their rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, the focus moves from the task of physical reconstruction to the moral and spiritual reform of the wayward post-exilic community under the auspices Ezra and Nehemiah. First on the scene is Ezra, the priest and scribe of God’s Law, who leads back a second wave of returnees 50 years after the first group has returned and successfully rebuilt the temple13. Charged with the mission of restoring proper priestly discipline to the temple and its community, he discovers upon arrival that people and priesthood have polluted themselves through intermarriage with foreigners and must undertake to reconcile them to God through penance and separation14. Nehemiah, the hero of the second book, then emerges to continue this reforming trend. Hearing that the city walls remain in disrepair, he travels to Jerusalem, upbraids the people for their dispiritedness, and sees the project through to completion. He then turns his eye on the greedy Jewish landowners who have levied exorbitant taxes on those doing the rebuilding, overturns the taxes, and sees that the people are repaid15. After that, he has foreigners ejected from the sacred precincts, forbids mixed marriages, and re-establishes strict observance of the Sabbath16. In the midst of these reforms Ezra himself reappears to proclaim the Law to the people, his task being to lay out God’s word as a guide for the life of the purified Judean community17. In their own day, then, Ezra and Nehemiah were themselves first and foremost reformers, while the biblical story as a whole offers an exceptionally potent account of the spiritual rebuilding and moral reform of a people – a gens – and their wayward priestly leaders.

  • 18 A full account of the topic is presented in my “In Ezram and the reform of the Northumbrian church” (...)

4Now that Bede, in his reading of Ezra-Nehemiah, was not only aware of the story’s reform-oriented aspects but, beyond this, viewed them as mirroring his own preoccupations as a reformer in early eighth-century Northumbria, is detectable early on in the commentary and becomes increasingly more evident as the work progresses18. Since a full analysis of this topic would require more space than I have here, I limit myself in what follows to three reform-related strands in the commentary and shall endeavour to show how they intertwine with the more openly reformist agendas of the Epistola and the Historia ecclesiastica.

  • 19 Epistola ad Ecgberhtum episcopum § 2, ed. C. Plummer in Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, 2 vols. (...)
  • 20 Historia ecclesiastica 3.5, p. 226 : “[...] cuius doctrinam id maxime commendabat omnibus, quod non (...)

5The first of these strands is the directive to teach and preach by word and example. Readers of Bede know this to be a common theme – indeed one of the main themes – of his writings, and yet in In Ezram one finds him returning to it with a fixation unmatched elsewhere in his exegesis. One of the main complaints Bede levelled at the contemporary Northumbrian church was an ever-increasing laxity in pastoral standards. At the opening of the Epistola, he urges Ecgberht to uphold his most sacred office “by both holy living and teaching” (sacrosancta et operatione et doctrina) explaining that “[...] neither gift can be complete without the other if one who lives a good life neglects the duty of preaching, or if a bishop who teaches correctly neglects to practice right actions”19. In the Historia ecclesiastica, he draws repeated attention to the exemplary behaviour of monk- preachers like the Irish bishop Aidan, about whom he wrote : “[...] the best recommendation of his teaching to all was that he taught them no other way of life than that which he himself practiced among his fellows”, and whose life, Bede then hastened to add, “was in great contrast to our modern slothfulness”20.

  • 21 In Ezram, p. 272, lines 1240-44, 53-56 : “[...] omnimodis necesse est ut quisquis alios docere decr (...)

6Similarly, in In Ezram Bede everywhere finds occasion in the biblical text to drive home this theme of teaching by word and example. Thus the act of offering holocausts at the temple foundations in Ezra 3 :6 is taken as teaching that [...] it is necessary in every way that whoever has decided to teach others should first teach himself, and that he who aims to instruct his neighbours to fear and love God should first make himself worthy for the office of teacher by serving God more eagerly [...] so that he might not only, by the merit of good action, more copiously obtain heavenly help in preaching, but also, by the example of that same good work, more effectively move his hearers to follow the things he teaches21.

  • 22 On Ezra as typicus Christi, see In Ezram, p. 309-10, lines 858-912 and p. 336-37, lines 1957-97 ; f (...)
  • 23 In Ezram, p. 311, lines 956-57 : “[...] parauit etiam ut ipse prior hanc faciendo impleret et sic a (...)
  • 24 In Ezram, p. 314, lines 1056-57 : “Lex enim Dei in manu erat Ezrae quoniam hanc non lingua solum pr (...)
  • 25 In Ezram, p. 327, lines 1580-89 : “Vnde merito dolent sanctificationem suam abominationibus gentium (...)

7More striking, however, is the way Bede uses the actions of Ezra and Nehemiah themselves to underscore this all-important theme. Though both are read as figures of Christ22, they are also taken as paradigms of the good teacher whose deeds are to be emulated. Thus Bede interprets the comment at Ezra 7 :10 that Ezra “had prepared his heart to study the Law of the Lord” to mean that “[...] he would first fulfil the Law by performing it and then open his mouth to teach others”23. A little further on, in commenting on Ezra 7 :14’s claim that God’s Law was in Ezra’s hand, he emphasizes the same point, explaining that the Law was in Ezra’s hand “[...] because he not only preached it in word but fulfilled it in deed”24. The most stunning instance of such exemplarity, however, comes from Bede’s comments on Ezra 9, which takes up one of the more crucial episodes of the biblical story, namely the wilful defilement of the returnees through intermarriage with foreigners and Ezra’s subsequent efforts to purify them. In interpreting the scene, which has certain righteous leaders of the community reporting the sins of other leaders to Ezra who, as their pontifex, must use his higher priestly authority to correct them, Bede stunningly associates Ezra with a modern archiepiscopus, as if addressing Ecgberht himself, whom, as the Epistola clearly shows, Bede expected to rise up, Ezra-like, to rebuke those priests under him who had gone astray25. Bede thus concludes his exegesis of this scene by putting forth Ezra as a model for present emulation, emphatically declaring :

  • 26 In Ezram, p. 329, lines 1648-52 : “O quantum exempla pia bonos iuuant doctores. Nil omnino locutus (...)

O how much these pious examples may aid good teachers ! Ezra said nothing at all but, having merely heard of this one crime, it is written that he was turned to tears, wept, and drew the multitude of the faithful around him not by shouting in anger but by lamenting26.

  • 27 In Ezram, p. 343, lines 185-91 : “Diuersa urbis destructae loca lustrando peruagatur et singula hae (...)

8The deeds of Nehemiah, meanwhile, are interpreted as equally paradigmatic. His nightly inspection of Jerusalem’s ruined walls in Neh. 2 :11 is thus said to stand for the teacher’s examining the state of the Church and repairing “whatever in it has been defiled or destroyed by the warfare of sins”27. Later, his stern rebuke of the avarice Jews in Neh. 5 :1-4 is imbued with even more significance as Bede proclaims :

  • 28 In Ezram, p. 360, 833-37 : “Atque utinam aliquis in diebus nostris Neemias, id est consolator a dom (...)

Would that some Nehemiah [...] come in our own time and check our errors and kindle our breasts to love of the divine and strengthen our hands by turning them away from our own pleasures and toward strengthening Christ’s city28 !

9Here especially one can see that Bede’s exegetical method involves a yoking of the historical biblical account with his own contemporary narrative of reform. To be sure, this is not allegorical interpretation ; it is not Ezra’s or Nehemiah’s status as types of Christ but their literal-historical endeavours as reformers that holds Bede’s attention here. Consequently their efforts to institute reform in their own day become directives for Bede’s own, constituting a practical script, in effect, for contemporary Northumbrian teachers.

  • 29 See Historia ecclesiastica 5.23, p. 558-60, with the comments of F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (...)
  • 30 Epistola § 9, p. 413 : “Quem profecto numerum episcoporum uelim modo tua sancta paternitas, patroci (...)

10The second reforming theme to be considered is the need for more bishops, teachers, and preachers to care for the faithful. We know from the Epistola that Bede was displeased that Pope Gregory’s original plan for twelve northern bishoprics with a metropolitan at York never materialized ; instead only four northern sees existed in Bede’s day, those at York, Hexham, Lindisfarne, and Whithorn29. Writing to Ecgberht in the final months of his life, Bede thus counselled him “to seek to bring about the achieving of that number of [twelve] bishops ; so that by the abundance of office-holders the Church of Christ may be more perfectly governed in all matters that relate to the practice of holy religion”30. In interpreting the Ezra-Nehemiah story, Bede noticed a fitting opportunity to use the biblical narrative to draw attention to this seriously pressing issue. Ezra 6 :18 mentions the appointing of priests and Levites to oversee the various cultic functions within the restored temple ; aware that the sundry divisions of these functionaries offered a timely counter-point to the understaffed Northumbrian dioceses deplored in the Epistola, Bede could cite the biblical text as offering a better model :

  • 31 In Ezram, p. 303, lines 619-25 : “Et nunc quoque aedificata ac dedicata Christi ecclesia per regene (...)

And today too, when a church of Christ is built and dedicated through the regeneration of peoples who are new to the faith, it is proper that priests and Levites be established in their proper ranks and offices to supervise God’s service, so that not only may the peoples be admitted to the sacraments of the faith but also instructed by the examples and learning of those righteous ones who came to Christ before them, to do the things that are of God31.

  • 32 In Ezram, p. 277, lines 1458-63 : “Nec dubitandum est ibi statum ecclesiae prosperum sumere profect (...)

11Earlier, in remarking on the similar situation noted in Ezra 3 :8, he likewise observed that the state of the Church makes prosperous progress where not only the bishops, properly maintaining their status, regularly ordain teachers of the truth to educate the people, but also the people themselves, by diligently hearing and obeying their words, importune the teachers provided for them not to cease from speaking32.

  • 33 In Ezram, p. 277-8, lines 1463-70 : “Sed heu pro dolor iuuat nostrorum socordiam temporum maioresqu (...)

12Were it not for the overt pronouncements of the Epistola, the topical character of passages such as these would be easy to miss. The Epistola’s discussion of the importance of ordaining more teachers for the people alerts us, I would argue, to a contemporary context for these passages from the commentary, namely Bede’s declared dissatisfaction with Northumbrian failure to institute a plan for proper pastoral provision. Indeed, as the passage continues, Bede himself is keen to invoke such a topical focus. “But the fact,” he adds, that we ponder less solicitously than we should on how bitter was the enslavement to the devil from which we have been rescued or on how great a celebration we have been called to in the heavenly Jerusalem, the mother of us all, of which we have already received a pledge in the Church of the present time – this fact, alas, compounds the folly of our times and injures both elders and laypeople, hindering the former from preaching the word, the latter from hearing it, and both groups from putting it into practice33.

13No reader of the Epistola can fail to detect a connection to remarks such as these. The same discontent with pastorate and laity at issue there is registered here, as is the same exasperated tone and disenchantment with the present, evident in the phrase the “folly of our times” (nostrorum socordiam temporum). The undercutting effect of such rhetoric lets us know that the ideals set forth in the exegetical passages are just that, evoked to castigate a present which lacks them. Evidently, a well-staffed clergy committed to teaching by word and example remained a desideratum, not an actuality in Bede’s day. Whatever other concerns may have led him to write In Ezram, the troubled state of the Northumbrian church would appear to have been among them.

14The third and final theme follows inevitably from the other two. It concerns the all-out corruption of religious life through secularisation and clerical avarice. Both these themes are hinted at throughout the Historia ecclesiastica and dealt with at length in the Epistola. The Epistola gives exasperated expression, first of all, to the then common practice of founding family minsters – that is, monasteries founded on land bequeathed in perpetuity from one family member to another and staffed by secularised relatives unconcerned with true monastic disciple. In the Epistola, Bede characterises the phenomenon this way :

  • 34 Epistola § 12, p. 415 : “At alii grauiore adhuc flagito, cum sint ipsi laici, et nullo uitae regula (...)

There are others, laymen who have no love for the monastic life nor for military service, who commit a graver crime by giving money to the kings and obtaining lands under the pretext of building monasteries, in which they can give freer reign to their libidinous tastes ; these lands they have assigned to them in hereditary right through written royal edicts, and these charters [...] they arrange to be witnessed in writing by bishops, abbots, and the most powerful laymen. Thus they have gained unjust rights over fields and villages, free from both divine and human legal obligations ; as laymen ruling over monks they serve only their own wishes34.

  • 35 Epistola § 13, p. 416 : “Sic per annos circiter triginta, hoc est, ex quo Aldfrid rex humanis rebus (...)
  • 36 In Ezram, p. 302-3, lines 597-604 : “Ordo poscebat deuotionis ut post aedificatam ac dedicatam domu (...)

15Importantly, he goes on to state that this decline in monastic life had been common since King Aldfrith’s death in 70535, so it seems reasonable to conclude that the problem had been on his mind before he wrote to Ecgberht in 734. That it was is borne out in the commentary, which in Book 2 contains an unmistakable allusion to this contemporary dilemma. Commenting on Ezra 6 :18, which speaks of instituting priests and Levites to oversee the services in the newly restored temple, Bede offers the following telling gloss on the present : “The sequence of acts to restore worship”, he writes, required that, after the building and dedication of the Lord’s house, the priests and Levites be straightaway ordained to serve in it : for there would be no point in having erected a splendid building if there were no priests inside to serve God. This should be impressed as often as possible on those who, though founding monasteries with splendid workmanship, place no teachers to exhort the people to God’s work but rather serve their own pleasures and desires there36.

16Though the comment is not developed further, the contemporary import of the remark is clear enough. Bede must have in mind here the same minster- founding thegns whom he chides in the Epistola, whose decadent ways contrast sharply with the genuine pastoral ministrations of the newly-installed temple functionaries. The allusion accordingly serves as both a comment on the present- day decline and an implied exhortation to reform.

  • 37 Epistola § 7, p. 413 : “Audimus enim, et fama est, quia multae uillae ac uiculi nostrae gentis in m (...)
  • 38 The earliest recorded instance of such a tax in Anglo-Saxon England appears in the law code of King (...)

17In addition to the secularisation of monastic institutions, the Epistola’s other main complaint regarding the current demise in religious life targets the avarice of the clergy. On this score, the vent of the Epistola reaches the peak of its fulmination as it tells of remote villages and hamlets “where a bishop has never been seen over the course of many years performing his ministry and revealing the divine grace” but which are not “immune from paying the taxes that are due to that bishop”37. Implied here is the practice in Bede’s day of an episcopal tributum or tax levied on the laity in return for pastoral care, a practice Bede equated with simony and one which he urged Ecgberht to abolish forthwith38. Once again, however, In Ezram shows that this was not a momentary concern entertained only in the Epistola, for in two instances the commentary echoes the Epistola’s outrage regarding the issue, taking its cue from the biblical narrative. At Neh. 5 :1-4, a great outcry emanates from the Jewish community as some of the wealthier brethren impose costly taxes on those working to repair Jerusalem’s city walls. Bede begins his comments on the passage with a re-statement of the historical level of meaning, and then quickly moves to develop a parallel to his own local situation :

  • 39 In Ezram, p. 359-60, lines 820-37 : “Desiderabat quidem populus murum construere ciuitatis sed magn (...)

18The people were indeed desiring to construct the city wall but were being hindered from their holy work by the greatness of the famine. Not only a scarcity of crops but also the greed of the rulers had caused this famine, since they demanded greater taxes from these people than they were able to pay. In the same way, we see that this occurs among us today. For how many are there among God’s people who willingly desire to comply with divine commands but are hindered from being able to fulfil what they desire not only by a lack of temporal means and by poverty but also by the examples of those who seem to be endowed with the garb of religion, but who exact an immense tax and weight of worldly goods from those who they claim to be in charge of while in return giving nothing for their eternal salvation either by teaching them or by providing them with examples of good living or by devoting effort to works of piety for them39 ?

19Later, in his exegesis of part of Neh. 12 :44, which reads “For Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites,” Bede returns to the theme, this time using the image of true priestly activity as occasion to admonish the present :

  • 40 In Ezram, p. 386, lines 1863-74 : “Sed uae illis sacerdotibus ac ministris sanctorum qui sumptus qu (...)

But woe to those priests and ministers of holy things who are happy to exact from the people the payment owing to their office but are not at all willing to labour for their salvation, nor to offer them any holy guidance by living uprightly, nor to sing of the pleasantness of the heavenly kingdom by delightfully preaching to them. Instead, they are shown not to open the doors of the heavenly city for them by having citizenship in heaven, but rather to shut these doors by acting perversely. People who confess and praise the Lord are by no means made happy by the works of these priest and ministers, but are pressed into affliction all the more40.

20It is hard, if not impossible, to read these as mere general reflections, given what we know from the Epistola. The knowledge that undue taxation of the laity by avaricious churchmen ranks high on the Epistola’s hit list of contemporary evils cannot but work to localize Bede’s exasperation here, placing it firmly within the horizons of the Northumbrian dilemma. Beyond this, we should note a final time the exegetical technique at work here, for it is one that has recurred in example after example : namely, Bede’s utilizing the actual events of the biblical narrative – historia rather than the allegoria – as a platform for his own reforming endeavours. To be sure, he did not neglect to expound the deeper arcana beneath the letter ; throughout in In Ezram he attends to this spiritual level of meaning with energy and insight, following the standard patristic approach to scriptural interpretation which, by this late point in his career, he had all but come to master. But he realized too that the story of reform which Ezra-Nehemiah tells was itself of supreme didactic value and timely relevance given the state of church and society in eighth-century Northumbria. Indeed, in the figure of Ezra especially, who as scribe had to teach the Law to the people and as pontifex had the authority to command and correct other priests, Bede presents a compelling symbol of episcopal authority in action, one in which contemporary Northumbrian authorities, perhaps even Ecgberht himself, might be led to discover a map, of sorts, for their own efforts to institute reform. Hence his decision to comment on these neglected Old Testament books late in his career when his mind was fixated on the task of reform is itself charged with significance, testifying to a remarkable hermeneutical sense of knowing what biblical texts best apply to his own social setting.

  • 41 P. Meyvaert, “‘In the footsteps of the fathers’ : The date of Bede’s Thirty Questions on the Book o (...)

21Although one of Bede’s more neglected works, In Ezram et Neemiam is actually one of his most original and socially-charged creations, and as such close study of it should force us to revisit and revise certain orthodoxies about what Bede is up to as a scriptural commentator. Surely the notion that he is a slavish compiler who merely follows rather than extends and redeploys past traditions would be an inadequate and unhelpful characterisation of this one commentary, if not of his commentaries generally. Also, the recent claim of one scholar that “In his allegorical commentaries it is most unusual to find Bede departing from theological generalities” and that “he rarely alludes to any recent events or personages”41 equally does not apply : for as we have seen, In Ezram deals as much with the specific ills of the Northumbrian present as with the sacred events of the Old Testament past. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the commentary’s demonstrably reformist currents and palpable ties to the Epistola ad Ecgberhtum Episcopum and the Historia ecclesiastica point both to the social investment and to the intertextuality of Bede’s later work as a whole, and in doing so underscore the need for us to approach his exegesis with the same kind of close attention to immediate and local contexts that historians have brought to bare on the histories and hagiographies, making the task one of investigating not just a given commentary’s relationship to the past, but equally its place in the present in which and for which it was written. In attempting to do just that for In Ezram, I hope to have shown that, in the case of this one commentary, biblical exegesis for Bede was not some detached monastic exercise but could be, and in fact was, just as powerful a tool as historical narrative for disseminating his reforming vision.

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Notes

1 In Ezram et Neemiam, ed. D. Hurst, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 119A, Turnhout, Brepols, 1969, p. 235-392. Hereafter, the abbreviations In Ezram and CCSL will be used.


2 In the ancient Jewish and Greek canons, our Ezra and Nehemiah comprised a single work. For a recent summary of the issue, see P.-M. Bogaert, “Les livres d’Esdras et leur numération dans l’histoire du canon de la Bible Latine”, Revue Bénédictine, 110, 2000, p. 5-26.


3 M. L. W. Laistner and H. H. King, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts, Ithaca, N. Y., Cornell University Press, 1939, p. 39-41. The numbers for surviving manuscripts of the Old Testament commentaries are as follows : In canticum Habacum : 12 ; In Genesim : 13 ; In Ezram et Neemiam : 32 ; In regum librum XXX quaestiones : 44 ; De templo : 45 ; In cantica canticorum : 65 ; De tabernaculo : 68 ; In librum Tobiae : 75 ; In prouerbia Salomonis : 90.

4 See ibid., p. 39-40 ; and Biblia Latina cum Glossa Ordinaria : Facsimile Reprint of the Editio Princeps 1480/81, ed. K. Froehlich and M. T. Gibson, 4 vols., Turnhout, Brepols, 1992, 2 :261-305.

5 The phrase patrum uestigia sequens recurs throughout Bede’s exegesis : e.g. In primam partem Samuhelis, ed. D. Hurst, CCSL 119, Turnhout, Brepols, 1962, p. 10, lines 52-54 ; In Cantica Canticorum, ed. D. Hurst, CCSL 119B, Turnhout, Brepols, 1983, p. 180, lines 501-04 ; Expositio Actuum Apostolorum, ed. M. L. W. Laistner, CCSL 121, Turnhout, Brepols, 1983, p. 3, lines 9-10 ; De temporum ratione, ed. C. W. Jones, CCSL 123B, Turnhout, Brepols, 1977, p. 287, line 86.

6 On Bede’s preference for these four Fathers, see In Lucae euangelium expositio, Prol., ed. D. Hurst, CCSL 120, Turnhout, Brepols, 1960, p. 7. According to de Lubac, Bede is the first writer to group together these four, who would later receive the title of the four Latin Doctors of the Church : see H. de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale : Les quatre sens de l’Écriture, 4 vols., Paris, Aubier, 1959, 2 :26-7. The point is also discussed by B. Kaczynski, “Bede’s commentaries on Luke and Mark and the formation of the patristic canon”, in Anglo-Latin and its heritage : Essays in honour of A. G. Rigg on his 64th birthday, ed. S. Echard and G. Wieland, Turnhout, Brepols, 2001, p. 17-26.

7 Aside from Bede’s commentary, the only other evidence of prior interest in Ezra-Nehemiah among the Fathers I know of is Cassiodorus’s claim to have discovered a (now lost) “single sermon” (singulas omelias) on Ezra by Origen that Bellator, a translator at Vivarium, had rendered from Greek into Latin : see Institutiones 1.6, ed. R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1937, p. 27.

8 A critical edition of the Collectaneum has yet to be published, but see the recent translation by D. Hurst, Bede the Venerable : Excerpts from the works of Saint Augustine on the letter of the Blessed Apostle Paul, Cistercian Studies Series 143, Kalamazoo, MI, Cistercian Publications, 1999. The sixth and final book of Bede’s In Cantica (CCSL 119B, p. 359-75) is a compilation of statements on the Songs scattered throughout the various writings of Pope Gregory the Great.

9 See my “The Venerable Bede on prayer and contemplation”, Traditio, 39, 1999, p. 1-39, for discussion of Bede’s distinctive reshaping of his exegetical sources on prayer and the contemplative life ; also B. Ward, The Venerable Bede, Cistercian Studies Series169, Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications, 1998, p. 46-48.

10 Historia ecclesiastica 5.25, ed. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1969, p. 567 : “Ex quo tempore accepti presbyteratus usque ad annum aetatis meae LVIIII haec in Scripturam sanctam meae meorumque necessitati ex opusculis uenerabilium patrum breuiter adnotare, siue etiam ad formam sensus et interpretationis eorum superadicere curaui”.

11 In my “Bede’s In Ezram et Neemiam and the Reform of the Northumbrian church”, Speculum, 2004, 79, p. 1-25, I propose that the commentary was written between 730 and 734, and I refer the reader to the arguments I present there. In the context of the present article, I am concerned to highlight the strong intertextual connections between In Ezram and the Epistola. For more general treatments of the theme of reform in Bede, see 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, Basil Blackwell, 1983, p. 130-53 ; and my “‘Nostrorum socordiam temporum’ : The reforming impulse of Bede’s later exegesis”, Early Medieval Europe, 11.2, 2002, p. 107-22.

12 On this, see the remarks of Leon Wood, A survey of Israel’s history, London, Pickering & Inglis, 1970, p. 396. Cf. H. G. M. Williamson, Ezra and Nehemiah, Old Testament Guides, Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1987, p. 79.

13 Ez. 7-8.


14 Ez. 9-10.


15 Neh. 1-6.


16 See esp. Neh. 13.

17 Neh. 8.

18 A full account of the topic is presented in my “In Ezram and the reform of the Northumbrian church” (cited above, n. 11).

19 Epistola ad Ecgberhtum episcopum § 2, ed. C. Plummer in Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, 2 vols., 1896, repr. as one volume, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1946, p. 406 : “Neutra enim haec uirtus sine altera rite potest impleri ; si aut is, qui bene uiuit, docendi officium negligit, aut recte docens antistes rectam exercere operationem contemnit”. Hereafter cited as Epistola.

20 Historia ecclesiastica 3.5, p. 226 : “[...] cuius doctrinam id maxime commendabat omnibus, quod non aliter quam uiuebat cum suis ipse docebat... In tantum autem uita illius a nostri temporis segnitia distabat [...]”.

21 In Ezram, p. 272, lines 1240-44, 53-56 : “[...] omnimodis necesse est ut quisquis alios docere decreuerit prius se ipsum doceat, qui proximos ad timorem uel ad amorem Dei instituere intendit primo se ipsum instantius Deo seruiendo dignum doctoris officio reddat [...] ut et merito bonae actionis supernum copiosius in praedicando obtineat auxilium et exemplo eiusdem boni operis suos auditores ad ea quae docet efficacius sequenda prouocet”. All translations from In Ezram are my own, and are taken from my forthcoming annotated translation, Bede : On Ezra-Nehemiah, Translated Texts for Historians, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press.

22 On Ezra as typicus Christi, see In Ezram, p. 309-10, lines 858-912 and p. 336-37, lines 1957-97 ; for Nehemiah, see p. 339, lines 5-17, 28-32.

23 In Ezram, p. 311, lines 956-57 : “[...] parauit etiam ut ipse prior hanc faciendo impleret et sic ad alios docendos os aperiret”.

24 In Ezram, p. 314, lines 1056-57 : “Lex enim Dei in manu erat Ezrae quoniam hanc non lingua solum praedicabat sed et actu implebat”.

25 In Ezram, p. 327, lines 1580-89 : “Vnde merito dolent sanctificationem suam abominationibus gentium esse coinquinatam et quod grauius est principes etiam a quibus corrigi debuerant primos errasse fatentur notandumque diligenter atque in exemplo operis trahendum quod ea quae principes peccauerunt et plebem sibi commissam peccare fecerunt aeque principes alii qui sanius subponebant corrigere satagunt ; uerum quia per se ipsos nequeunt referunt ad pontificem, id est archiepiscopum, suam causam cuius auctoritate flagitium tam graue tam multifidum tam diutinum expietur”. My emphasis. See my “In Ezram and the reform of the Northumbrian church” (cited above, n. 11), for detailed treatment of the contemporary implications of Bede’s view of Ezra as pontifex.

26 In Ezram, p. 329, lines 1648-52 : “O quantum exempla pia bonos iuuant doctores. Nil omnino locutus Ezras sed solo audito scelere in lacrimas et ploratus esse conuersus scribitur et turbam ad se fidelium non uociferando sed maerendo traxisse”.

27 In Ezram, p. 343, lines 185-91 : “Diuersa urbis destructae loca lustrando peruagatur et singula haec quomodo debeant reparari sollicita mente perscrutatur. Sic et doctorum est spiritalium saepius noctu surgere ac sollerti indagine statum sanctae ecclesiae quiescentibus ceteris inspicere ut uigilanter inquirant qualiter ea quae uitiorum bellis in illa sordidata siue deiecta sunt castigando emendent et erigant”.

28 In Ezram, p. 360, 833-37 : “Atque utinam aliquis in diebus nostris Neemias, id est consolator a domino, adueniens nostros compescat errores, nostra ad amorem diuinum praecordia accendat, nostras a propriis uoluptatibus ad constituendam Christi ciuitatem manus auertens confortet”.

29 See Historia ecclesiastica 5.23, p. 558-60, with the comments of F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 108-9.

30 Epistola § 9, p. 413 : “Quem profecto numerum episcoporum uelim modo tua sancta paternitas, patrocinante praesidio piissimi ac Deo dilecti regis praefati, sollerter implere contendat, quantinus, abundante numero magistrorum, perfectius ecclesia Christi in his, quae ad cultum sacrae religionis pertinent, instituatur”.

31 In Ezram, p. 303, lines 619-25 : “Et nunc quoque aedificata ac dedicata Christi ecclesia per regenerationem nouorum ad fidem populorum statui decet sacerdotes ac leuitas in ordinibus et uicibus suis qui sint super opera Dei ut non solum sacramentis fidei initientur populi sed et exemplis atque eruditione praecedentium in Christo iustorum ad agenda ea quae Dei sunt instituantur [...]”.

32 In Ezram, p. 277, lines 1458-63 : “Nec dubitandum est ibi statum ecclesiae prosperum sumere profectum ubi et praesules suum gradum rite custodientes populo magistros ueritatis a quibus erudiatur regulariter ordinant et ipse populus datos sibi magistros ne a dicendo cessent diligenter audiendo ac dictis eorum obtemperando compellunt”.

33 In Ezram, p. 277-8, lines 1463-70 : “Sed heu pro dolor iuuat nostrorum socordiam temporum maioresque simul et minores laedit hos a praedicando uerbum illos ab audiendo utrosque a faciendo praepediens quod minus sollicite pensamus uel quanta acerbitas daemonicae captiuitatis de qua eruti sumus uel quanta sit sollemnitas ad quam uocati sumus supernae Hierusalem matris omnium nostrum cuius in praesenti ecclesia iam pignus accepimus”.

34 Epistola § 12, p. 415 : “At alii grauiore adhuc flagito, cum sint ipsi laici, et nullo uitae regularis uel usu exerciti, uel amore praediti, data regibus pecunia, emunt sibi sub praetextu construendorum monasteriorum territoria in quibus suae liberius uacent libidini, et haec insuper in ius sibi haereditarium regalibus editicis faciunt ascribi, ipsas quoque litteras priuilegiorum suorum [...] pontificum, abbatum, et postestatum seculi obtinent subscriptione confirmari. Sicque usurpatis sibi agellulis siue uicis, liberi exinde a diuino simul et humano seruitio, suis tantum inibi desideriis, laici monachis imperantes, deseruiunt”.

35 Epistola § 13, p. 416 : “Sic per annos circiter triginta, hoc est, ex quo Aldfrid rex humanis rebus ablatus est prouincia nostra uesano illo errore dementata est [...]”.

36 In Ezram, p. 302-3, lines 597-604 : “Ordo poscebat deuotionis ut post aedificatam ac dedicatam domum domini mox sacerdotes ac leuitae qui in ea ministrarent ordinarentur ne sine causa domus erecta fulgeret si deessent qui intus Deo seruirent. Quod saepius inculcandum eis qui monasteria magnifico opere construentes nequaquam in his statuunt doctores qui ad opera Dei populum cohortentur sed suis potius inibi uoluptatibus ac desideriis seruiunt”.

37 Epistola § 7, p. 413 : “Audimus enim, et fama est, quia multae uillae ac uiculi nostrae gentis in montibus sint inaccessis ac saltibus dumosis positi, ubi nunquam multis transeuntibus annis sit uisus antistes, qui ibidem aliquid ministerii aut gratiae caelestis exhibuerit ; quorum tamen ne unus quidem a tributis antistiti reddendis esse possit immunis”.

38 The earliest recorded instance of such a tax in Anglo-Saxon England appears in the law code of King Ine of Wessex (d. 726), which made such payments obligatory : see F. L. Attenborough, ed. and trans., The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1922, p. 36, 56. Bede supplies our only evidence that such payments also took place in early eighth-century Northumbria.

39 In Ezram, p. 359-60, lines 820-37 : “Desiderabat quidem populus murum construere ciuitatis sed magnitudine famis ab opera sancta praepediebatur. Quam uidelicet famem non solum penuria frugum sed et principum auaritia fecerat cum ab eodem populo maiora quam reddere poterat tributa exigerent. Quod apud nos cotidie eodem ordine fieri uidemus. Quanti enim sunt in populo Dei qui diuinis libenter cupiunt obtemperare mandatis sed ne possint implere quod cupiunt et inopia rerum temporalium ac paupertate et exemplis retardantur eorum qui habitu religionis uidentur esse praediti cum ipsi ab eis quibus praeesse uidentur et immensum rerum saecularium pondus ac uectigal exigunt et nihil eorum saluti perpetuae uel docendo uel exempla uiuendi praebendo uel opera pietatis impendendo conferunt”.

40 In Ezram, p. 386, lines 1863-74 : “Sed uae illis sacerdotibus ac ministris sanctorum qui sumptus quidem suo gradui debitos sumere a populo delectantur sed nil pro eiusdem populi student salute laborare non aliquid sacri ducatus ei recte uiuendo praebere non de suauitate regni caelestis ei quippiam dulce praedicando canere sed nec ianuas ei supernae ciuitatis aperire municipatum in caelis habendo uerum potius occludere peruerse agendo probantur in quorum operibus nequaquam confitens siue laudans dominum populus laetari sed multo magis cogitur affligi”.

41 P. Meyvaert, “‘In the footsteps of the fathers’ : The date of Bede’s Thirty Questions on the Book of Kings to Nothelm’, in The limits of ancient Christianity : Essays on late antique thought and culture in honour of R. A. Markus”, ed. W. E. Klingshirn and M. Vessey, Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan Press, 1997, p. 267-86.

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Scott DeGregorio, « Bede’s in Ezram et Neemiam :
a document in church reform ? », 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. 97-108.

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Scott DeGregorio, « Bede’s in Ezram et Neemiam :
a document in church reform ? », 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 18 août 2017. URL : http://hleno.revues.org/318

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Scott DeGregorio

University of Michigan-Dearborn

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