Derek A. OLSEN, Reading Matthew with Monks: Liturgical Interpretation in Anglo-Saxon England. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2015. pp. 276. $24.95 pb. ISBN 978-0814683170.
Reviewed by Jeffrey MORROW, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ 07079.


A growing body of scholarly literature has begun examining biblical interpretation in light of Scripture’s use in the liturgy. Derek Olsen’s Reading Matthew with Monks represents an important contribution to that discussion. Olsen’s work, which originated as his Emory University doctoral dissertation under the direction of New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who wrote the foreword to this volume, is also a study of medieval monastic exegesis. Finally, this volume is also a study of contemporary biblical scholarship. Olsen takes a look at the exegesis of Ælfric of Eynsham as a case study of medieval monastic biblical interpretation. His book compares and contrasts modern biblical criticism undertaken in the context of the contemporary academy with the medieval interpretation found in the monastery. Olsen points out to readers both the similarities as well as the differences between each form of biblical exegesis. One important finding is the central role the liturgy played as both a primary setting for the medieval encounter with Scripture but also as a primary guide in medieval biblical interpretation.

Olsen’s introduction, “Hermeneutics and Reading Cultures” (1-26), does a good job situating this present work within the broader context of biblical hermeneutics. He emphasize that, “Readers do not exist in isolation; reading is a communal activity. No matter how alone we may seem to be when we sit down with a text, we read embedded within cultures and micro-cultures that shape our assumptions, methods, and models of reading and interpreting” (2). He proceeds to place Ælfric in is medieval Benedictine monastic cultural milieu. Ælfric emerges as a seismic figure, “the greatest Christian educator of his age” (7), and the author of the earliest English introduction to the Bible. Olsen writes that, “If the monastic bishops attempted to restore English culture by promoting rigorous monastic practice, Ælfric sought to restore it by giving the clergy, both monastic and secular, access to comprehensive catechetical texts in their native language in order for them to more perfectly nurture their congregants” (7). Olsen points out how, for monks, the goal of their monastic life was to live the Scriptures. From here, Olsen builds upon the important work of Beryl Smalley (Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages), Henri de Lubac (Exégèse médiévale), and Jean Leclercq (The Love of Learning and the Desire for God). He concludes the introduction by explaining his selection of modern biblical critical interlocutors: Ulrich Luz, W.D. Davies and Dale Allison, Douglas Hare, and Eugene Boring. Part of his selection was determined by the texts from Ælfric Olsen decided to use, namely, those dealing with Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew proves a felicitous choice not only because it was the most common Gospel utilized in patristic commentary and references, but also because it was the primary Gospel found in the liturgies of the period.

Building especially on the work of Leclercq Olsen’s first chapter, “How Monastic Living Shaped Reading” (27-74), describes monastic life and how that life provided an interpretive context for reading Scripture. The concept of mimesis, which Olsen aptly defines as “formation through imitation” (28), plays an important role in this initial chapter. He explains how, for the medieval monks, Saints were not simply exemplars to follow; rather, the entire goal of monastic life was to become a Saint. Through living out the community rule, monks struggled to acquire the requisite virtues exemplified in Scripture and in the lives of the Saints, so as to become participants in the very life of Christ, becoming other Christs, as it were. Turning to monastic interpretation, Olsen points out that they naturally employed a canonical approach, reading various portions of Scripture in light of other portions of Scripture from disparate parts of the canon. This is because they saw Scripture as a unified whole, a view strengthened by the juxtaposition of texts (Old and New Testaments) in the liturgy. Olsen then compares and contrasts these contexts with that of modern critical scholars, emphasizing the often unrecognized commonalities, e.g.: “They are both communities that take engagement with the New Testament text seriously; both use mimesis as central formative practices; and both participate in critical conversations” (74).

In Olsen’s second chapter, “How Monastic Praying Shaped Reading” (75-118), he focuses especially upon the role of the liturgy in monastic biblical interpretation. “The liturgy,” he writes, “is the great engine of monastic culture….Indeed, the liturgy provided both the normative locus for the encounter with Scripture and also its interpretation” (76). The monastic liturgical practices upon which Olsen focuses are the Divine Office, Mass, and the monastic Chapter. Olsen stressed the importance of education, and its liturgical character, as well as the ways in which the liturgical seasons affected monastic life and exegesis. He selects the Christmas season as a prime case in point.

Olsen’s third chapter, “The Temptation and the Beatitudes” (119-179), compares and contrasts Ælfric’s interpretations of the Matthean temptation narrative and Beatitudes with the modern scholars he has selected. One section I found most interesting here was in Olsen’s discussion of Ælfric’s understanding of the typological connection between Adam and Jesus. Olsen explains:

Ælfric’s typology goes beyond the level of typology. He does not simply argue that Jesus is an antitype of Adam, succeeding where Adam failed. Rather he presents Jesus’ replaying the temptations of Adam as fundamentally redemptive. Adam’s narrative is not just a shadow whose meaning is found and fulfilled in Christ. It was, rather, for Ælfric, a literal event with palpable consequences. Christ’s conquest of the devil is not only an idea coming to fruition but also a redemptive act in and of itself on the literal level….in Ælfric’s worldview, Adam, Eve, Satan, Jesus, and the monks are all equally real people participating in the grand drama of fall and redemption (149).

Chapter 4, “Two Healings and the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens” (181-238), continues this comparison between medieval and modern with healing accounts and the parable of the wise and foolish maidens. Again, it is the liturgy—including the antiphons—that help provide an interpretive framework for the monks. Olsen’s conclusion, “Bringing Early Medieval Voices into the Conversation” (239-246), summarizes his findings, confirming the central role of monastic liturgy for monastic Scriptural interpretation. It is also here that Olsen culls lessons we can learn about biblical hermeneutics from monastic exegesis, as he showed with the example of Ælfric.

Olsen’s work represents an impressive study of monastic exegesis that is relevant to contemporary discussions concerning biblical interpretation. Overall, the book has very few minor errors, as when Olsen identifies Mark Sebanc as the translator of the English editions of de Lubac’s Exégèse médiévale (12 n. 13)—Sebanc only translated the first volume, the others were translated by Edward Macierowski. Such minor infelicities notwithstanding, this is an important volume that confirms the important place of liturgical biblical interpretation in the history of Christian exegesis. This is more than a study of Ælfric’s work on the Bible, and thus of monastic biblical interpretation; this is a salient contribution to biblical hermeneutics.