Gregory the Great’s Forty Gospel Homilies: A Brief Introduction
Gregory the Great (540-604) is only one of two popes to ever receive the epithet “Great” (I’ll deal with Leo later) and he earned it through a vast amount of labor as well as godliness. Some of that labor is in written form and it has been found sufficient to the point that Gregory is one of the four original Doctors of the Latin Church (along with Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine). Perhaps best known in Anglo-Saxonist circles for his Cura Pastoralis which earned a place in Alfred’s translation project, he also left behind a multitude of letters and exegetical works, especially his works on Job, Ezekiel, and the Song of Songs. His Forty Gospel Homilies were probably preached in the early years of his pontificate at public masses (Hurst suggests 591-2).
As Evans notes in her entry on Gregory in the Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (DBI, vol 1. p. 465) Gregory’s exegesis is not especially original, rather he was a talented synthesist of earlier material, especially Augustine. Gregory, of course, would be horrified at the suggestion that he either was or ought to be original. Instead, the whole point was to pass on the teachings faithful as they had been received. Many’s the time that I’ve read through a passage in the writings of Leo or John Cassian only to stop and think, “Waitaminute…I thought Gregory said that…” only to find upon checking that he had. Indeed, given the state of Augustine’s sermons, we should be quite thankful that Gregory took the time to untangle the line of reasoning amongst all the side-references and hare chases that Augustine so effortlessly tosses out. As a synthesist, Gregory falls fully within the monastic tradition as one concerned to transmit the tradition clearly.
He’s also fully monastic in the purpose of his exegesis. Gregory can talk doctrine and is comfortable doing so, but that’s neither his strength nor his passion. Rather, he is interested in the spiritual life which, in his time and place, went hand in hand with the moral life. His sermons are very hortatory, constantly calling for amendment of life and behavior. In doing so, he also often “descends” from pure exegesis to relate a colorful story about a local figure who presents an example of some sort—either positive or negative. Furthermore, these tend to come right towards the end as he’s moving towards a final paranetic statement.
Gregory is probably best known exegetically for his use of allegory. It’s frequent and can be quite fanciful at times. Especially for those taught in modernist settings that eschew the allegorical as a departure from the “plain sense of the text”, it can get hard to swallow at times. Remember, though, that Gregory is here at play and, following the Augustinian dictum, finds nothing in allegory that is not plainly stated elsewhere in the Scriptural text. Furthermore, he’s taking 2 Tim 3:16 quite literally and is trying to find nuggets of instruction anywhere and everywhere in the text—and he’s not a bit afraid to dig for them, either.
Gregory’s sermons were well received by the tradition and were further aided by the fact that the heart of the Roman Gospel lectionary of the late 6th century was to become normative for the next thirteen or so centuries in the West. Paul the Deacon’s original homiliary contains 33 selections from Gregory. One is an excerpt from the Dialogues (Dial. 4.60), the other 32 are from the Gospel Homilies. Only 8 were excluded (4, 17, 22, 28, 33, 38, 39, 40 [which makes you wonder if PD had a defective copy lacking its end…]). Ælfric used 32 of Gregory’s homilies in his Catholic Homilies according to Godden’s commentary. Of those, Ælfric based his sermons on Gregory’s for 19 of them. (Unlike PD, he uses Gregory’s Hom 38-40)
Despite its success in the medieval period, this work has not been well received in the modern. No critical edition currently exists; we must still rely on Migne for a Latin text. Clemens points us to a critical edition I hadn’t known about: Gregorivs Magnvs, Homiliae in Evangelia cura et studio Raymond Étaix. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers 1999 (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 141). As far as English goes, there’s a translation by Dom Hurst in the Cistercian Studies series (CS 123). Hurst notes that in preparation of the English, he noted that the first 20 homilies appear to be out of liturgical order in the earliest manuscript (and Migne) whereas the last 20 follow it scrupulously. Thus, he rearranged them to a more logical sequence. Be aware of this, as it means that there are two quite different numbering systems for the lower 20; Godden refers to the PL’s numbers. I’ll have to see what the Étaix edition does with these homilies…
[Hopefully as we move through July, I’ll be posting some pieces on a few representative sermons from this collection and aim to give a further wrap-up on the whole thing towards its end. I’ll also be moving out of state them, so we’ll see how much of this happens…]