Sunday, July 15, 2012

Das Bibelwerk and Irish exegesis of the book of Joshua

Facsimile of early Irish map of the tribes of Israel
from MS BNF lat. 11561, f43v
Circa AD 750 the early Irish church produced a biblical reference work that covered the entire bible Genesis to Revelation (referred to by Bischoff as das Bibelwerk). It's purpose was to provide a teaching text of the major themes and outlines contained in the biblical canon. This handy volume proved to be popular with continental Christians and today several manuscripts in France, Germany, and the Vatican, preserve it either in whole or in part.

In the section on Joshua there is an interesting map of the Holy Land with the tribal allotments. This is the earliest extant example of the use of a biblical map as a means of understanding the biblical text, something that we take for granted today. In drawing this map the Irish author had to rely on the biblical data and extra biblical sources. This was no mean achievement without the aid of an atlas.

The map is entitled as terre repromissionis (promised land) which is drawn from Hebrews 11:9, revealing, as Thomas O'Loughlinn has pointed out, that the author is viewing Joshua through the lens of the NT. The location of Dan to the north, as opposed to where it usually appears in modern biblical maps to the west of Ephraim, is due to Dan's northern migration away from their allotted land in the west to take easier territory in the north (Judges 17-21). Another curious feature is the tongue like shape of the dead sea (mare mortuum) which is shown in a south-westerly direction. This anomaly is derived from the fact that the author had in all likely-hood never seen the dead sea portrayed on a map and the text of Joshua 15:2-3 describes the dead sea as the tongue that faces to the south.

The cities listed on the map are Jerusalem, Rama, Bethlehem and the cities of refuge. The early Irish church took a great interest in the concept of the city of refuge (de civitatibus refugii). They adapted the rules laid down in the OT and applied them to their churches, in order for a church to qualify as a city of refuge it needed a bishop, a scholar and a superior. Irish canon law set down the rights and privileges for a church that acted as a city of refuge (cathair attaig). This application of the OT city of refuge to ecclesiastical sites was unique in Europe to the early Irish church in this period.

The use of a map in the reference work on the bible shows an originality and confidence to early Irish exegesis. It was a bold attempt to present the often confusing biblical details relating to tribal inheritance into a coherent and easy to understand format. In this it paved the way for later exegetes to do the same. It also shows us the ability of Irish exegetes at this stage to move beyond a simple allegorical interpretation of the text (such as Ailerán viewing the seven Canaanite nations as the seven vices) into a more historically sensitive interpretation that sought to understand the text as it related to the history of Israel.


  1. Love the posts Anglandicus. I am an undergrad in Early Irish Studies in NUI Maynooth and am giving a presentation on geneaology in the exegisis of Mathews Gospel in das Bibelwerk next week. I am struggling for sources though any tips on info in this area?

    1. Hi Keith,
      Thanks for the feedback. I don't know of many sources that deal with the genealogy of Matthew in das Bibelwerk in any great detail. I know of these two sources that very briefly touch on the topic in passing.

      Joseph F. T. Kelly. “Das Bibelwerk: Organization and Quellenanalyse of the New Testament Section.” In Próinséas Ní Chatháin and Michael Richter, eds. Irland Und Die Christenheit: Bibelstudien Und Mission, 113-123. Stuttgart, Germany: Klett-Cotta, 1987.

      Joseph F. T. Kelly. “Hiberno-Latin Exegesis and Exegetes.” Annuale Mediaevale 21 (1981): 46-60.

      Other than that I don't know.

    2. Thanks Anglandicus, I think a late change of subject might be on the cards. Having read some of the above sources I will give a more general das Bibelwerk presentation and leave genealogy in Mathews gospel till a later date.
      Thanks again.