Q&A with Kevin Madigan

Kevin Madigan has been Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School since 2000. His specialty is high-medieval scholastic biblical exegesis and theology, which is the topic of his most recent book, Olivi and the Interpretation of Matthew in the High Middle Ages, published by the University of Notre Dame Press. HDS staff writer Wendy McDowell sat down with Madigan recently to talk about his book, his other scholarly interests, and his teaching.

What interested you in this topic, Olivi's interpretation of Matthew?

Well, I suppose there are at least two answers to that question. First of all, I was interested in the ways in which Matthew and, for that matter, each of the four canonical gospels, was being exegetically exploited in contexts very different than the one in which it was originally produced and with interpretive results which the original author often would not have recognized and which he would not have approved. I was struck and continue to be amazed at the distance, the untraversable distance I'm tempted to say, between what the text meant in the first century, or what it might have meant, and how it was received and appropriated in the much different context of the high and late Middle Ages.

Second, I was also interested not just in any interpretation of Matthew but very particularly the one that I wrote this book about, the one written by the thirteenth-century Franciscan Peter Olivi. So far as I know, he was virtually the only exegete in the thirteen centuries of commentarial history on the gospel who read the text as a prophetic text, in the sense that, read correctly, it predicted the events and apocalyptic prodigies and calamities occurring in his own day. In addition to that, his was virtually the only product of high-scholastic classroom culture to have attracted the attention of the Roman curia and, ultimately, to have been condemned by the papacy in the early fourteenth century. So that attracted my interest right away and made me want to see what in it made it dangerous, and what context made it dangerous.

What in it or what context did made it dangerous?

Basically, the context that made it dangerous was a very complicated dispute about the nature of poverty in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries within the Franciscan order. Olivi certainly agreed with the central Franciscan conviction that Christ and the apostles possessed absolutely no property individually or in common, and he expresses his agreement repeatedly in the Matthew commentary. Unfortunately for him (not to mention his fellow friars), this was a position condemned by the papacy in the early fourteenth century.

The second thing that made it dangerous was the apocalyptic content and what we might call the hermeneutic or methodological approach of the text. The apocalyptic-prophetic approach of Olivi led him to see members of the current church as forerunners of the Anti-Christ. You can imagine these are kinds of things made Olivi a persona non grata in Rome.

And finally, there was the man Olivi himself. One scholar has said he was really a man who was born to polarize opinion. He'd been in hot water with his own order and with Roman theologians even before his commentary was condemned, so almost everything he wrote came under a cloud of suspicion.

The interests of Olivi in apocalyptic themes and the gospels are familiar enough to us today, though you show that they are topics of concern for only a brief historical period in the Middle Ages. Why is that, and when did they return again to be important to church leaders and theologians?

Well, there is no century in the high and late Middle Ages in which we can't find apocalyptic interests, and there are decades when those interests are very intense, vivid, and almost ubiquitous. What I tried to show was that the conviction that the gospel of Matthew (or any gospel text) was a prophetic or apocalyptic text was an idea which, though explosive, and perhaps because it was explosive, had a very short shelf life. And once Olivi's commentary was condemned, it was an interpretive approach that had really steered onto the exit ramp of history. In a sense, his hermeneutic, if I may call it that, was never again recovered, nor did it ever again become important to church leaders and theologians. Papal condemnations have a way of chilling interest in innovative ideas.

What can we learn about biblical exegesis from Olivi and others of his era? Is there anything they used to do, that we no longer do, that you find illuminating or interesting? Is there anything they did that it's just as well we don't do anymore?

Well, one thing we learn from Olivi and, indeed, from much of "precritical" biblical exegesis is that commentary is often less a form of reading or interpretation than of rewriting. Premodern critics were not simply interested in establishing the "historical" sense of the text but in applying it in very concrete ways to contemporary ecclesial problems. The downside of that process of application, of recontextualizing, is that it led in cases to so radical a reading of the original text that the original text got lost or erased in the process, and, in effect, commentary had produced a new biblical text. It is really quite amazing what songs an ingenious commentator can make those ancient biblical notes sing, so amazing that the result is often not a new interpretation but, in effect, a new composition, a new text whose paternity the original author would have been quite reluctant to acknowledge.

So I'm glad that, by and large, we don't override the meaning of the original text so dramatically today. On the other hand, there is widespread fatigue and dissatisfaction with the sometimes dry and univocal results of the so called historical-critical method, which seem to leave the meaning of the biblical text petrified, frozen in time and thus not obviously related to contemporary problems in church and society.

So ideally, one would love to see something between critical historicizing and extravagant, unbridled medieval allegorizing, but what that might be I don't know.

There is a common perception that past religious figures (especially friars and monks) are somehow apolitical, spiritual figures, but you relate some of the power struggles around interpretation and around the religious orders engaged in it. Can you elaborate on one or two of these struggles, and how they might be the same or different than struggles around interpretation today?

Right. The thirteenth century was filled with powerful struggles within the clerical caste and between the different religious orders like the Dominicans and Franciscans. On the one, rather crass, level Dominicans and Franciscans were in competition for the same pool of talented recruits (not unlike the way in which Chicago and Harvard and are in competition for the best young historians and religious thinkers). They were also engaged in a battle with the secular clergy at the University of Paris over, again, crass temporal goodies like chairs and professorships. On a much more profound level, however, medieval Franciscans and Dominicans were interested—existentially interested, let's say—in living the Christian life to perfection and, ironically, spent a lot of venom in denouncing others as less than perfect and hubristically identifying themselves as perfect followers of the Christian way.

I was also struck by the debate you highlight between Thomas of Aquinas and Peter Olivi around religious law. You call it of "perennial relevance." Can you explain why?

Yes. This was one of the dimensions of the commentary that made it so interesting to me. Here were two very powerful thinkers in the Middle Ages disagreeing over something so fundamental as what the Christian gospel consisted of. Olivi's debate with Thomas really centered on the content, the essence, of the Christian gospel, how to determine what it was and how to put it into effect, how to live a fully and perfectly religious life. In Olivi's mind, the gospel included a modest number of explicit dominical precepts-commandments from the mouth of Christ-which established at least some elements of the Christian life with transparent clarity and were eternally binding on us. In Olivi's mind, these were not just any words in sacred scripture. They were express commands given by the founder of the new law, the new religion. As a consequence, there was no hermeneutical finessing of explicit commands of Christ. You either obeyed them or not. But you didn't attempt to argue, as he thought Thomas did, that the commands were of only temporary relevance, or didn't mean what they so explicitly did mean, or could be read in a non-literal way.

The reason I say that this debate is of perennial relevance is because it continues to divide Christians of good faith and Christian religious communities. Indeed, it divides every major Western religious tradition I can think of. All of these communities are asking, "What's the status of revelation that was handed down in revelation 4,000 or 2,000 or, in the case of Islam, 1,300 years ago? How does our evolving context change, if at all, the ways in which we should interpret explicit religious law and command? Can the religious law be obeyed literally? Should it be? These are questions that divided two of the most powerful thinkers of the Middle Ages. They're of perennial relevance because they still split religious communities today.

Were there any concerns Olivi had that would not seem relevant to us today?

Olivi was preoccupied with the commandment given by Jesus to the apostles in Matthew 10 to carry no gold or silver, to have no money whatsoever. For most Christians today, that's a relic of the past, it's a medieval practice. Few Christians today would think of giving away all of their money. In fact, I think many people regard those commandments as impossible ideals. So that radical emphasis on complete alienation of property, calling for not only individual but corporate destitution, that we see in Olivi and other Franciscans, I don't see any obvious analogue today.

What are other projects are you involved in and how do they compare to the Olivi book?

Well, I continue to work with great interest in the ways in which the New Testament was received and used in ancient and medieval Christianity, particularly ways in which problematic texts were interpreted. I am now working on a book now that examines the ways in which ancient and medieval commentators exegetically treated the many texts in the gospels in which Jesus of Nazareth seemed all-too-human, as, for example, when he professes ignorance, or progresses in wisdom, when he experiences sorrow, fear, anger, or other indecorous passions, as when he pleas to be delivered from death and so forth. The problem with all of these texts is that they appear to be in tension with the most cherished of theological assumptions in the Middle Ages—namely that the man who experienced these passions and limitations was the Incarnate Deity, and, as we all know, deities do not change, are not ignorant, do not progress in wisdom, and do not die. So I am looking at the very sophisticated rhetorical and anthropological tools medieval commentators exploited to make the contradiction more bearable.

I've also just finished a book already with the publisher on women and ecclesiastical office in early Christianity, from 100 to 600 CE. I worked with a former colleague from Chicago; she did all the Greek texts and I did all the Latin ones, and we found literally hundreds of texts which had to do with what sorts of offices women held in ancient Christianity and how the institutional church either supported and authorized it or tried to put a stop to it. We found some really interesting things, including evidence to suggest that in the fifth century in the South of Italy women were functioning as priests. There's a papal letter in 492 that condemns it, which suggests it was happening, and there are also several tombstones whose inscriptions I translated which suggested that women priests were buried in Southern Italy and the former Yugoslavia and that part of the Adriatic world.

What about your interest in the role of the Catholic and Protestant churches during the Nazi period? How does this relate to your work on ancient and medieval exegesis?

There is a connection with the work I've done looking at German biblical scholars who either joined the Nazi party or who were very enthusiastic for National Socialism. I've studied how their context shaped the way in which they interpreted particularly the Hebrew Bible, and the ways in which they saw the Hebrew Bible as having a place or not having a place in German national life and German church life. There is a sort-of history of exegesis and continuity there in terms of how this terrifying, genocidal context influenced supposedly Christian exegetes in their work.

How does this book and your other scholarly projects relate to your classroom teaching?

I would say that one of my primary pedagogical goals is to inspire and instill in students a deep sense of historical consciousness. What I mean concretely by that in the context of my courses is that I intentionally like to present them with texts, phenomena, practices, and so forth from the ancient and medieval church that everyone agreed were Christian but which are really quite different from the ones which they're familiar with in their churches, and to show them, thus, how very different medieval Christianity is from, say, modern American Catholicism or liberal Protestantism. One question animating all my work is this: What is it that unites the 2,000-year-long Christian tradition? Is it accurate to say it's a single, continuous tradition? Or is it more accurate to argue, more provocatively, that, say, medieval Christianity was simply a different religion than is modern liberal Protestantism, that they are actually two different religions, and maybe more than two different religions? I encourage students to start asking these kinds of questions themselves. And it's a great pleasure to shepherd them along in this process and, always, to learn from them.