What is a catena?

An email recently reminded me that many people reading this will not know what a catena is.  I thought a post on this would be useful.

The word catena is Latin, and means chain.  It is used to refer to a book which is made up entirely of quotations from older writers, arranged to make a continuous text.  Usually it is a commentary on some book; first the main text is quoted, and then the opinions of older commentators in a chain underneath.

The catenas that we are concerned with are exegetical catenas; that is, catenas on the bible.  These tend to look like this:

<bible verse in large text>
Chrysostom. <quotation from some work or other by John Chrysostom, probably a sermon or commentary on this book, one or more sentences>. Eusebius. <quote from Eusebius of Caesarea>. Marcion. <quote from long dead heretic> Chrysostom. <another quote from C.> Theodore <quote from Theodore of Mopsuestia> <<and so on>>

<bible verse in large text>
Cyril. <quotation from Cyril of Alexandria>. O. <quotation from Origen>. <quotation where the author’s name has dropped out, so looks like Origen because it follows immediately after>

and so on.  The bible verses follow in the sequence in the bible. 

The actual arrangement of the text and the commentary can vary; the commentary can be in a very wide margin around a large column of central text of the bible, even above and below it sometimes; or a two column arrangement, text and commentary.  Catenas can surround a commentary, even.

The author name is the only division between the extracts.  The names of the authors are often abbreviated, or lost, which can cause a real problem, and in copying quickly leads to fragments being attributed to the preceding author.  The author names — technical term is lemmas — are often in red, which means if the rubricator didn’t do his bit, there are just gaps in the text.  (Anyone who has handled more than a manuscript or two knows that the red bits are added last, and often not at all).

I would post a real sample, but as far as I know none of the catenas have been translated into English.

What we have, then, is the biblical verse, and then a series of comments by older authorities, making up a text.  The quotations are often ‘adjusted’ at each end, in order to make the text flow.

These sorts of books were compiled during the 6th century onwards in the Greek church, using collections of sermons and commentaries on the bible by older writers.  Chrysostom is used a LOT!  But often writers are quoted whose works have perished; for, once the handy catena existed, what need of the full text?

Consequently the catenas are a gold-mine of material otherwise lost.

The term catena is modern.  The Greek terms for a catena were things like exegetikai eklogai, exegetical extracts.

Catenas can be primary or secondary.  Primary catenas are compiled from the works they quote.  Secondary catenas are compiled from other catenas.


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