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Collections of excerpts from the writings of Biblical commentators, especially the Fathers and early ecclesiastical writers

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Catenae (Lat. catena, a chain), collections of excerpts from the writings of Biblical commentators, especially the Fathers and early ecclesiastical writers, strung together like the links of a chain, and in this way exhibiting a continuous and connected interpretation of a given text of Scripture. It has been well said that they are exegetical anthologies. These fragments of patristic commentaries are not only quite valuable for the literal sense of Scripture, since their text frequently represents the evidence of very ancient (now lost) manuscripts; they are also serviceable to the theologian (dogmatic and mystical), to the ecclesiastical historian, and to the patrologist, for they often exhibit the only remains of important patristic writings (see Mai, Pitra; cf. Holl, Fragmente vornikanischer Kirchenvater, Leipzig, 1899). With the disappearance of the great Scriptural theologians investigators, and commentators of the fourth and fifth centuries, there arose a class of Scriptural compilers, comparable to Boethius and Isidore of Seville in the provinces of philosophy, church history, arid general culture. The very antiquity of the patristic commentators, so close to the origin of the Sacred Books, and the supreme value set by Catholic theology on the unanimous consent of the Fathers in the exposition of Scripture, naturally led, in an age of theological decadence, to such compilations. The earliest Greek catena is ascribed to Procopius of Gaza, in the first part of the sixth century, but Ehrhardt (see Krumbacher, 211) points to Eusebius of Caesarea (d. about 340) as the pioneer in this branch of Scriptural exegesis. Between the seventh and the tenth centuries appear Andreas Presbyter and Johannes Drungarios as compilers of catenae to various Books of Scripture, and towards the end of the eleventh century Nicetas of Seise, perhaps the best representative of Byzantine scholarship in this respect. Both before and after, however, the makers of catenae were numerous in the Greek Orient, mostly anonymous, and offering no other indication of their personality than the manuscripts of their excerpts. Similar compilations were also made in the Syriac and Coptic Churches (Wright, de Lagarde, Martin, in Krumbacher, 216).

In the West, Primasius of Adrurnetum in Africa (sixth century) compiled the first catena from Latin commentators. He was imitated by Rhabanus Maurus (d. 865), Paschasius Radbertus, and Walafrid Strabo, later by Remigius of Auxerre (d. 900), and by Lanfranc of Canterbury (d. 1089). The Western catenae, it must be noted, have not the importance attached to the Greek compilations. The most famous of the medieval Latin compilations of this kind is that of St. Thomas Aquinas,” generally known as the “Catena Aurea” (Golden Catena) and containing excerpts from some eighty Greek and Latin commentators on the Gospels (ed. J. Nicolai, Paris, 1869, 3 vols.). Since the sixteenth century much industry has been expended in collecting, collating, and editing these exegetical remains of the early Christian Fathers, fully one-half of whose commentaries, Faulhaber asserts (see bibliography), have reached us in this way. Among the modern editors of Greek catenae much credit is due to the Jesuit Bartholomew Cordier, who published (1628-47) important collections of Greek patristic commentaries on St. John and St. Luke and, in conjunction with his confrere Possin, on St. Matthew; the latter scholar edited also (1673) similar collections of patristic excerpts on St. Mark and Job. The voluminous catenae known as Biblia Magna (Paris, 1643) and Biblia Maxima (Paris, 1660), edited by J. de la Haye, were followed by the nine volumes of well-known “Critici Sacri, sive clarissimorum virorum annotationes atque tractatus in biblia” (edited by Pearson, London, 1660; Amsterdam, 1695-1701), containing selections, not only from Catholic but also from Protestant commentators. An important modern collection of the Greek catenae on the New Testament is that of J. A. Cramer (Oxford, 1638-44). See also the twenty-eight volumes of the Migne commentary in his “Scripturae sacrae cursus completus” (Paris, 1840-45).

Similar collections of Greek patristic utterances were constructed for dogmatic purposes. They were used at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, at the Fifth General Council in 533, also apropos of Iconoclasm in the Seventh General Council in 787; and among the Greeks such compilations, like the exegetical eaten, did not cease until late in the Middle Ages. The oldest of these dogmatic compilations, attributed to the latter part of the seventh century, is the “Antiquorum Patrum doctrina de Verbi incarnatione” (edited by Cardinal Mai in Scriptor. Vet. nova collectio, Rome, 1833, VII, i, 1-73; cf. Loofs, Leontius von Byzanz Leipzig, 1887). Finally, in response to homiletic and practical needs, there appeared, previous to the tenth century, a number of collections of moral sentences and paraenetic fragments, partly from Scripture and partly from the more famous ecclesiastical writers; sometimes one writer (e.g. Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, especially St. John Chrysostom whom all the catenae-makers pillage freely) furnishes the material. Such collections are not so numerous as the Scriptural or even the dogmatic catenae. They seem all to depend on an ancient Christian “Florilegium” of the sixth century, that treated, in three books, of God, Man, the Virtues and Vices, and was known, as ta hiera (Sacred Things). Ere long its material was recast in strict alphabetical order; took the name of ta hiera parall?la, “Sacra Parallela” (because in the third book a virtue and a vice had been regularly opposed to one another); and was attributed widely to the great Greek theologian of the eighth century, St. John Damascene (Migne, P.G., XCV, 1040-1586; XCVI, 9-544), whose authorship has lately been defended with much learning (against Loofs, Wendland, and Cohn) by K. Holl in the above-mentioned “Fragmente vornikanischer Kirchenvater” (Leipzig, 1899), though the Damascene probably based his work on the “Capita theologica” of Maximus Confessor. The text of these ancient compilations is often in a dubious state, the authors of most of them are unknown, and many are still unedited; one of the principal difficulties in their use is the uncertainty concerning the correctness of the names to which the excerpts are attributed. The carelessness of copyists, the use of “sigla”, contractions for proper names, and the frequency of transcription, led naturally to much confusion. For the Byzantine collections of ethical sentences and proverbs (Stobaeus, Maximus Confessor, Antonius Melissa, Johannes Georgides, Macarius, Michael Apostolios) partly from Christian and partly from pagan sources, see Krumbacher, 600-4, also A. Elter, De Gnomologiorum Graecorum historic atque origin (Bonn, 1893).


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