Cramer’s catena on Mark translated into English!

It’s remarkable what you can find on Google books if you look.  An idle search for “catena” yesterday revealed that someone has translated the entirety of Cramer’s catena on Mark into English!  Yay!

But first, a few words about catenas!

Not everyone will know what a “catena” (the word means “chain”) is.  The term itself is modern.  It refers to medieval Greek biblical commentaries.  These are composed entirely of extracts from earlier writers, chained together by slight wording alterations at the ends.  They usually appear in the margins of Greek bibles; or, rather, the biblical text appears in a small box in the centre of the page, surrounded by a mass of small writing!  The author of each catena entry is indicated, usually using the first letter of their name or something of the kind.  This of course gives plenty of scope for misattribution!  Often the main author used is John Chrysostom.

Catenas seem to arise in the 6th century, and often incorporate very interesting material.  There can be several catenas for each book of the bible, and the relationships between them are tangled things.

In 1840 Cramer published the Greek text of catenas on all the books of the New Testament in 8 volumes.  The work was shoddy done, as John Burgon among others remarked; but it was still an achievement, and Cramer’s work can be found on Archive.org.  But … it was the Greek text only.

The man who has made this translation is a certain William Lamb, The Catena in Marcum: A Byzantine Anthology of Early Commentary on Mark, Brill 2012 (Preview here).

Lamb doesn’t try to edit the text, which is probably a wise decision.  Pages 27-45 discuss what, precisely, it is that we are looking at.

Cramer published his catena on Mark under the name of Cyril of Alexandria, because a couple of the manuscripts attributed it to him.  But Cyril is too early.  Burgon suggested the little-known Victor of Antioch; and Lamb suggests (p.33) that we probably are mistaken to suppose that the work, in anything like its current form, was the work of any one man.

There is much in this.  Burgon took the view that even a compilation must have an author.  But this is to neglect the physical form in which the catena was transmitted; as a massive collection of marginalia.  Marginalia exist in most manuscripts anyway.  But bibles are a special case.

Most printed bibles belonging to members of modern Christian Unions bore the marks of ownership – underlinings, scribbled notes in the margins, and so forth.  Ancient readers had much the same needs in this respect as modern ones.  So it seems idle to doubt that notes on the meaning of the text would not arise spontaneously in manuscript copies of the scriptures.  A copy in a monastic library might well acquire marginalia from several hands, all of it excerpted from other books in that library, and placed in the (wide) margins where they would be useful.  Over time, we may suppose, some of these bibles could acquire quite a lot of marginal items.

Would a scribe copy such marginalia?  Surely he might.  Because the marginalia were not idle scribblings, but useful commentary.  Scholia get copied, as we know.

A body of marginalia may, quite naturally, evolve into the sort of catena that we see in medieval manuscripts.  If so, then there may indeed be no original author.

Later, of course, someone may decide to compose a set of marginalia.  Such a task is well within the capabilities of medieval scholarship, after all.

It’s hard to be sure.  All this is speculative.  But it is far from impossible.

If any of this is true, however, it does point to the exceeding difficulty in editing such a “text” – because it isn’t really a text at all.  It is whatever somebody thought worth adding to a bible margin.

Lamb’s book is a great deal more than just a translation.  The translation is the item of permanent value, for scholarship ages; but the scholarship in the book is also very welcome.  Chapter 2, which surveys the scholarship and the manuscript tradition, is interesting throughout and I refer you to the online preview.

It is a book to which I wish I had access.  The price is not as bad as some; but at $163 on Amazon.com, it is still prohibitive.

I look forward to seeing bootleg PDF’s in circulation!

1 Response to “Cramer’s catena on Mark translated into English!”


  1. Roger Pearse

    Had not realised that comment was visible – sorry and fixed – but thank you very much!