Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ailerán the Wise: Homily on the Genealogy of Jesus

A ninth century copy of Ailerán's Interpretatio 
MS CSG 433 f.686

Ailerán Sapientis, (i.e. Ailerán the wise), was a fer léigind (lector) at the famous monastic school at Clonard, Co. Meath, Ireland. He died in the terrible plague of 664. He was the author of the Interpretatio Mystica Progenitorum Domini Iesu Christi (The Mystical Interpretation of the Genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ). This homily takes the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel and interprets each name in a messianic and moral sense. For Ailerán each name signified something about Christ’s mission and also something for the Christian to emulate.

For example one ancestor of Christ was Obed. The Hebrew etymology of Obed (servant) provides Ailerán with his two-fold point,

a. Christ came not to be served but to serve, even taking on the form of a servant.
b. The Christian likewise “may serve the Lord with that servitude which is not out of fear, but with the spirit of the adoption of sons (per spiritum adoptionis filiorum seruitur Deo)”

The onomastic and patristic sources for Ailerán’s work are very impressive and give us a good insight into the resources available to early Irish monasteries. Apart from Latin sources (Jerome, Refunius, Augustine, Tertullian, Ambrose etc.) Ailerán made use of Greek material not attested in other parts of the Latin church. Breen has shown that Ailerán not only made use of Philo and Josephus in their original Greek, but also the Greek forms of the Prayer of Manasseh and Cyril of Alexandria’s Glaphyra in Genesim. Far from simply copying out Greek etymologies Ailerán displayed a sophisticated knowledge of Greek that allowed him to adapt and utilize a variety of Greek sources. Breen noted that onomastic sources “alone could not have made sense to someone who did not have a fuller knowledge of the Greek language” and that “Ailerán’s use and command of such a diverse range of Greek onomastic material extended far beyond their immediate context in this short liturgical-devotional text… The resultant picture certainly raises more questions than it answers: how the Irish, dwelling at the furthest extremity of Europe, could have obtained access to, and made use of, such a wide range of material at this early period…”

The main lessons that Ailerán wanted his students to take from his homily on Matthew 1 were the supremacy of Christ as fount of the Christian’s life and that the only way to understand Scripture was to obey Scripture. One could not say that they understood the message of Scripture if they did not live the message of Scripture.

Here is a small excerpt concerning Amon's etymology.

[Messianic Interpretation] "Amon, faithful, who says ask and it shall be given to you. And Paul says, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest. And John in the book of Revelation [says] Jesus Christ who is a faithful witness. For he is said to be faithful whose promises are always faithful, which are to be hoped for and feared.
[Moral Interpretation] In Amon, that we may be steadfast in the faith, and being faithful let us cling to the faithful Lord. For love believes and hope in all things. Faith moreover is the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things that are yet unseen. For what a man sees, why does he hope for? Faith is thus what makes us sons of Abraham, who believed in God and was considered justified by the faith; by following which pattern all our fathers before us were likewise justified. Accordingly, we live by faith and by faith are righteous, for the just man finds life through faith."


  1. Love this line:
    One could not say that they understood the message of Scripture if they did not live the message of Scripture.
    Timmis and Chester write about the "hermeneutic of obedience" and truly, right understanding of Scripture is open only to those who desire to obey it. (John 7:17)

  2. "Ailerán made use of Greek material not attested in other parts of the Latin church"

    It would be interesting to think that Ireland could host some of the missing manuscripts of the apostolic and ancient fathers.. I look forward to the day when the works of Papias or Hegesippus turn up in bog in Offaly!

  3. pretty cool that he's got justification by faith alone nailed a few centuries before luther. ;)