Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cummian's Commentary on Mark

A ninth century copy of
Cummian's Commentary
from the Irish monastery of s. Gall,
MS CSG 127

An Irishman, Cummian Fota from Co. Galway, wrote the earliest surviving commentary on Mark’s Gospel. He composed it in Latin around the year 610 and it became the most important commentary on Mark in the western church for the next 1000 years. Copies of it survive in nearly 100 manuscripts scattered all over Europe. A copy in Turin library is heavily glossed in old Irish, showing us the importance of the commentary to Irish exegetes.

Cummian’s commentary was later erroneously attributed to Jerome (which is a beautiful irony since Jerome once quipped his heretical foes were too ‘full of Irish porridge’!). The Latin speaking church, far from viewing this work as Irish porridge, incorporated it into the standard medieval reference work the Glossa Ordinaria and Aquinas cited from it in his Catena Aurea.

The commentary deals with all twelve chapters of Mark and its main themes are Christ, the virtuous Christian life, the unity of the church and asceticism. The exegetical method draws deeply from the Alexandrian allegorical school, and Patristic sources.

Clare Stancliff questioned Cummian’s authorship on internal grounds but Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and Maura Walsh have defended it, (if your interested see Maura Walsh and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Cummian's Letter De Controversia Paschali, Toronto: PIMS, 1988). Several of the commentary's features point to an Irish author, for example;
-       Use of the tres linguae sacrae
-       Descriptions of Jesus and the disciples in a currach on the sea of Galilee (puppis mortius pellibus)
-       Descriptions of the authors home land as ‘a western nation, wild and untamed’
-       Interest in the correct Easter computus
-       The Celtic inverted Eucharistic formula
-       The Cross-Vigil method of prayer (crux-vigilia)
The late German scholar Bernhard Bischoff also pointed out that a manuscript in Angers, France (not a copy of the commentary) records that a new commentary on Mark was written by one Comiano, whom he argued was our Cummian (nouellum auctorem in Marcum nomine Comiano, Angers, Bibl. munic., 44). Angers library also contains what is generally seen as the best copy of Cummian’s commentary (ms 275).

There are so many great passages in this little commentary, here is a sampling from chapter 14, the trial of Jesus;

“Peter follows from a distance. Here is a man with two minds, inconstant in all his ways (cf. James1.8). Fear draws back but love draws forward. …some said we heard this man saying I will destroy this temple. It is the custom for heretics to extract an imperfect representation from the truth. He did not say what they claim, but a similar expression about the temple of his own body which after three days he reawakened. … The High Priest standing interrogates Jesus but he remained silent…The silence of Christ absolves the excuses of Adam…[Christ is declared guilty] This was so that by his guilt he might remove our guilt; that by the blindfold on his face he might take the blindfold from our hearts; that by receiving the spits, he might wash the face of our soul, that by the blows, by which he was struck on the head, he might heal the head of the human race, which is Adam… The high Priests stirred up the crowds so that they would ask for Barabbas and so that they might crucify Jesus. Here we have the two goats. One is termed ἀποπομπαίος meaning ‘the scapegoat’ (cf. Lev. 16). He is set free with the sin of the people and sent into the desert of hell. The other goat is slain like a lamb for the sins of those who have been set free. The Lord’s portion is always slaughtered. The portion of the devil, who is their master, is cast out, without restriction, into the infernal regions.”


  1. Late 4th Century Fathers must have really had a hatred for Irish porridge. Didn't Augustine describe Pelagius as a Scotus porridge eater as well?

    1. Kevin! My fellow IFES veteran!

      Augustine certainly had a major disliking for Pelagius but stayed clear of attacking him of Irish porridge. It was our hyper-sensitive cave dwelling Jerome who ranted against someone who had the gall to criticize his commentary on Ephesians. He blasted his unnamed foe as, 'a most stupid man, weighed down with Irish Porridge (Scottorum pultibus). Scholars have surmised that his unnamed critic was either Pelagius or Caelestius. The quote is from Jerome's Prologue to his commentary on Jeremiah.

  2. What a beautiful commentary on the work of Christ for us:-)

  3. Shane - This is beautiful. His comments on Christ's arrest and trial really stirred me.
    "that by the blindfold on his face he might take the blindfold from our hearts; that by receiving the spits, he might wash the face of our soul, that by the blows, by which he was struck on the head, he might heal the head of the human race"

    It reminds me of something John Calvin wrote about the same event:
    This insolence was turned by the providence of God to a very different purpose; for the face of Christ, dishonoured by spitting and blows, has restored to us that image which had been disfigured, and almost effaced, by sin.

    1. thanks Mike! I love to see such a continuity of expression between the ages as Christians express their wonder at the work of XC!

  4. Is there a translation into English somewhere of the whole commentary or other writings of Cummian? Thanks.

  5. The English translation is found in The First Commentary on Mark: An Annotated Translation. Translated by Michael Cahill. Oxford University Press, 1998

    The critical Latin text (with background issues) is found in:
    Expositio Evangeli Secundum Marcum, Volume 82 of Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina. Edited by Michael Cahill Tipographi Brepols, 1997

    Some scholarly articles defending Cummian’s authorship:

    Maura Walsh. “Some remarks on Cummian’s Paschal Letter and the commentary on Mark ascribed to Cummian.” In Bibelstudien und Mission (1987), pp. 216–229.

    Martin McNamara, “The Irish Tradition of Biblical Exegesis,” in Iohannes Scottus Eriugena: the Bible and Hermeneutics, edited by Gerd Van Riel, Carlos Steel, and James McEvoy (Leuven: Coronet Books, 1996)

    Dáibhí O’Cróinín, “Bischoff’s Wendepunkte Fifty Years On,” Revue Bénédictine 110.3-4 (2000): 212-213.

    Pádraig Ó Néill, “Romani influences on seventh-century Hiberno-Latin Literature,” in Irland und Europa, the Early Church, edited by Próinséas Ní Chatháin and Richter, Michael (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1984)

    David Howlett, “Seven Studies in Seventh-Century Texts,” Peritia 10 (1996)

    Martin McNamara, “The Inverted Eucharistic Formula Conversio Corporis Christi in Panem et Sanguinis in Vinum: The Exegetical and Liturgical Background in Irish Usage,” Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C 87 (1987)

    Donnchadh Ó Corráin, “What Happened Ireland’s Medieval Manuscripts?” Peritia 22-23 (2011-12)