Review: “Commentaries on Genesis 1-3: Severian of Gabala” from IVP Academic

Severian of Gabala is best known, if he is known at all, for his six sermons on Genesis 1-3.  His fame, or notoriety, is because he expounds a curious flat-earth theory in them.   This opinion, very rare among early Christian writers, is enough to stigmatise him in modern eyes, and his work has consequently received far less attention than it deserves.  As a result, his work has never been translated into English, until the work of R.F. Regtuit on a single homily in 1992[1], and, this year, the translations of Bryson Sewell.[2]

So it is a pleasant surprise to learn that a translation of these six sermons In Cosmogoniam – plus, unexpectedly of the Quomodo animum acceperit Adam – appeared inn 2010, from IVP Academic.[3]  It was translated by the late Australian scholar Robert C. Hill, who died in 2007, so this must have been one of the first volumes to be commissioned.

The physical shape of the book is tall and slim.  It shares the format of the Ancient Commentary on Scripture series exactly, being about 50% taller and wider than a Sources Chrétiennes volume, but much slimmer.  This makes sense only in the context of the ACS volumes, which were tall, wide and necessarily thick, and it is clearly intended to stand on a shelf with them.  The manufacturing details are also the same, and the print and typesetting also.

The translation of Severian is literal rather than popular, but perfectly serviceable and fulfils admirably the brief to produce a scholarly translation of service to all sections of the academic community.   The style is very literal, as most translations are today, without sacrificing readability too far.  On occasion the text does slip over the line into translationese, but these points are thankfully few and very rarely obscure the sense.

In the sermons, Severian tends to wander all over the subject, but his comments will be interesting to students of biblical studies, precisely because they are expository.  The translator compares the Antiochene approach with that of Chrysostom, from the same school; and also with the more allegorical style of Didymus the Blind.  He notes that Severian is by no means the dull literalist that he is sometimes supposed to be, resorting to typology without a qualm.

On the other hand the approach that Severian takes to Cosmology, interpreting stray phrases from the scriptures in order to build up a weird picture of the universe unlike that held by anyone else, either then or now, will endear itself to few.  Such people have always existed, of course: indeed I read today on Paleojudaica a post in which some Jewish scholars attempted to perform a geographical calculation of the size of the Garden of Eden using as a basis a rabbinical claim that “the entire world drinks from the runoff of the Garden of Eden.”  It is welcome to be able to judge the merits of the case in Severian’s own words.

The book is lacking in one respect, in that the translator does not seem to have appreciated that the reader may find it difficult to visualise the picture of the world in question.  This is surprising; and an unfortunate omission.  The English translation of Cosmas Indicopleustes (online here) thought it worthwhile to reproduce some illustrations from the manuscripts.  It would be interesting to know whether the medieval manuscripts of In Cosmogeniam are illustrated.

All the same the publisher should have included a diagram in homily 3.  Essentially Severian suggests that the world is in the shape of a tabernacle (presumably square, with a dome atop it, the sides and roof being the “firmament” of Genesis 1-3); and that the sun does not go underneath the earth, but round to the north side where it is hidden by a “wall”.  You will have to read the book to see his list of proof-texts for this!

One point will certainly strike the reader – the repeated appearance of phrases such as “pay attention please”.  The translator seems to have understood these as indicating boredom by the audience, and the reader may suppose this.  But Regtuit points out that these phrases appear elsewhere in Severian’s output and may indicate something more like “please concentrate – this bit is difficult”.   Severian was a popular preacher, and it is unlikely that sermons which nobody found interesting would be copied.  There is a paper to be written, I think, on the use of such phrases in Severian.

The homilies are printed without any divisions other than paragraphs.  The chapter numbers found in Migne are not indicated, nor the column numbers.  I do not know what the policy of IVP is, but it is unfortunate for the reader.  Readers will quite often come to read this book when following a reference in a footnote somewhere; and these are always to either the chapter or the PG column.  Indeed Hill uses the latter system himself in his introduction.  Many will ask which bit of the text is “homily 3, chapter 5”!

The footnotes are mainly biblical references, combined with comparison of Severian’s exegesis with other commentators of the period.  The sole index is an index of biblical passages.

As one of the first volumes to appear, there is a series introduction, directed mainly at institutional subscribers.  This tells us inter alia that the intention is not to produce material aimed at a particular constituency but rather to produce scholarly translations that would be useful to everyone; and quite right too.  In this case the translator was a liberal Australian Catholic, I think.  The volume is certainly not directed to IVP’s usual constituency, which does not seem to feature at all in the volume.  The general standard is certainly as good as the Fathers of the Church volumes.

The translator’s “introduction” is an interesting but frustrating piece of work, especially to myself, since I am in the habit of reviewing such things from the translations that I commission, and fixing some of the problems that appear.  This “introduction” does not actually introduce Severian or his works!  That’s a fairly basic failure, albeit hardly an important one.  The text is instead a rather unfocused and sometimes repetitive discourse about Severian.  It makes hard reading, even for someone as familiar with Severian and his work as myself.  Regtuit is a better model for the reader, and likewise Aubineau in his edition and translation of De centurione.  However this problem could be fixed rather easily by prefixing a couple of pages to this portion of the book, outlining what we know about Severian, his life and his work, and the reception of it by scholars.

The introduction also doesn’t explain very well just why the reader should want to spend his time reading Severian or his works; Hill writes as if he disliked his author – one can only sympathise with the task of translating someone you dislike! – and the sniping is irritating after a while.

However the persistent reader will find some useful points are made.    While Hill clearly can’t understand why anyone ever listened to Severian, he still quotes enough to make the latter’s charm quite clear.  He rightly highlights the word-pictures that Severian paints, and his flair for dramatisation, when describing biblical scenes, although Hill meanly questions whether Severian borrowed these from somewhere else, despite an utter lack of evidence for this.  We learn that it is possible that Severian delivered Quomodo animum immediately following the six sermons, during Lent in 401.   Severian’s interest in a scientific approach to the text receives mention – as does the complaint of his audience that it wasn’t theological enough!  Montfaucon’s dislike of Severian comes through – the monk was doubtless influenced by the enmity between St John Chrysostom and Severian here – and a few snippets of this are translated.  The discussion of different approaches to exegesis is interesting, but diffuse.

The defects of the introduction, and indeed the lack of reader-focused explanatory comments in the translation, are probably the result of two factors.  Firstly this was the last work by Dr Hill, who died soon afterwards.  Secondly the series editors were just beginning their task, and were probably too inexperienced or unable to exert much control over the translator.

But these criticisms are minor points, easily fixed by consulting other books on Severian.  The core of the book is a very solid, academic translation of the key works of Severian of Gabala.  IVP are to be commended on making it accessible to us all.

  1. [1] Remco F. Regtuit, Severian of Gabala: Homily on the Incarnation of Christ (CPG 4204). VU University Press, Amsterdam, 1992.
  2. [2] Published on this site: so far of De pace, and De fide et de lege natura.
  3. [3] The volume also contains a translation of book 1 of the Commentary on Genesis by the Venerable Bede, which will not be reviewed here.

8 thoughts on “Review: “Commentaries on Genesis 1-3: Severian of Gabala” from IVP Academic”

  1. One quite pleasant thing, in these homilies, is that Severian before giving many explanations that are to be considered as junks, says “I heard many of our holy fathers saying that the earth is called invisible because it was covered by waters. But many opinions may be pious, without beeing true.” (Hom 2 on Genesis, 3rd part).
    Indeed, sir, indeed !

  2. I was just reading Brant Pitre’s book Christ the Bridegroom, which talks a bit about the various things that were supposed to have exactly the same dimensions as the Tabernacle or the Ark (including contemporary Jewish wedding spaces under the chuppah, and the bride and groom’s wedding bedchamber, which was called chuppah first). So picturing the earth as yet another giant tabernacle is pretty standard; picturing it as literally so, not so much.

  3. I’m glad you found that introduction somewhat wanting. I thought it was just me. The idea of placing Severian and Bede together remains a little puzzling too, but as you say, I am grateful that this volume is available.

  4. The introduction is an utter mess which would confuse and irritate anyone. It’s kindest to suppose that the translator was too sick to reorganise his material into a logical form. But I have also encountered scholars who write and speak in this fashion, presuming that the reader already knows all about the subject and is quite happy hear a few disconnected thoughts on the subject. Such scholars are lazy, and their editors should come down very hard on them.

    Severian would be too short a book by himself – it is already a very short book. But I think it makes sense if we remember that the purpose of the series is to publish early Christian commentary on scripture. So putting two commentaries relating to the same book and chapters together makes a certain amount of sense.

  5. Flat-earth theory: not so rare, not so curious. It was shared by all the Antiochene authors (Chrysostom too), and held sway until Galilaeus, since it was the only one which could be reconciled with “the world on waters” of some ancient cosmologies and Joshua’s stopping the sun episode.

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