Cassiodorus and the Bible


The first two reproductions on this website of the stemmata of Cassiodorus replicate fairly closely what we see in the medieval manuscript copies. But one suspects that the manuscript copyists failed to reproduce some of the complex layout features of some stemmata. A case in point is a trio of stemmata which demonstrate the different selection of scriptural books comprising the old Christian bible (the so-called Vetus Latina and its Greek sources), the Vulgate of Jerome and an independent classification by Jerome's contemporary Augustine. Each of these three stemmata contains more nodes than any other stemma in the Institutiones.

Only a single Institutiones manuscript, that of Bamberg, has preserved these three stemmata in graphic form, but it has corrupted them so much that we can no longer easily see the distinguishing details of what Cassiodorus calls the tria genera divisionum, the three different mappings of the books of the Bible. We must therefore attempt for ourselves to reproduce what Cassiodorus had in mind when he first set out this material, perhaps drawing on a large cera or wax tablet while he taught this topic in the classroom. The ideal way to put ourselves in the shoes of Cassiodorus is to try to present the same content in "tree" form.

By Cassiodorus's account, the early Bible had included books which were later ruled non-canonical by the western church, had excluded epistles attributed to Peter, John and Jude, and had contained categorizations, such as the Five Books of Solomon, which were not adopted by Jerome. Augustine and Jerome, in their turn, differed with one another over their division of the Old Testament (Jerome 5:8:10, Augustine 22:22) and placement of such works as the Paralipomenon (the two books of Chronicles). The Bamberg manuscript squashes all this detail into blocks of text, making the graphic largely pointless. The third of the three stemmata, representing the makeup of the early Christian bible, is particularly corrupted, with only a single ramification into the Old and New Testament. That is obviously not what Cassiodorus intended: he clearly says that he wants to sensitize his students to the differences in classification and what they can expect to find in the various editions in the Vivarium library, while teaching the young monks that all these versions of the bible are valid expressions of the one Christian faith.

When restoring Cassidorus's subdivisions, it rapidly becomes plain that it would have been impossible to array even the names of the 44 books of the Old Testament horizontally across a wax tablet or codex page. The stemma would have become far too wide. Solutions might have included writing in abbreviations, or writing the names in very narrow columns, one syllable or even one letter to a line, or rotating the writing 90 degrees, but none of these solutions would have been very practical in an educational setting. A long papyrus scroll rolled up rightwards might have accommodated the material, but the library of Cassiodorus was composed in the main of bound books, and that was clearly the format Cassiodorus normally wrote for.

The most effective solution I could find when replicating the Augustinean stemma was to array all the terms in the fourth generation of the stemma vertically, with the fifth generation unfolding from it to the right. See the drawing. At first glance it does not resemble the manuscript at all, but I have aimed merely to represent the Bamberg manuscript in a schematic way. This can be no more than a guess about Cassiodorus's approach.

A couple of features of the stemma are striking. One is its Roman numbers, which are graphically more striking than Arabic numbers in this context (that is why I numbered the Mosaic books like this, IIIII, instead of like this, V). Arranging the Roman numbers vertically, it is very easy, for example, to total up the 22 prophetical books at a glance, with the eye running through the trio of Roman numbers, the four major prophets and the 12 minor ones, to confirm that the total is indeed 22. The other unusual feature is the placement of the Acts of the Apostles, a book commonly ordered after the Gospels, in a new position at second from the end. This was presumably a deliberate re-arrangement by the artist so he could arrange the text in the shape of the cross, with the more extensive list of Epistles forming the upright part.

We have of course no idea how Cassiodorus drew the connecting lines within his stemma. I have drawn them straight, and followed the manuscript practice by giving them all a common point of origin, but I suspect Cassiodorus probably drew freehand arcs.

This presentation comes much closer to what Cassiodorus was trying to achieve than the version in Bamberg. This arrangement would have allowed the student to gain a rough visual idea of how the Vetus, Vulgate and Augustinean approaches differed, before getting to work on memorizing the terms, exploring the bookshelves in the Vivarium library and beginning more advanced exegetical studies.

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