Monthly Archives: October 2009

Review: Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Galatians-Philemon (Ambrosiaster)


  • Hardcover: 166 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830829040
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830829040
  • Many thanks to Adrianna Wright at InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of Commentaries on Galatians-Philemon by Ambrosiaster (ed. Gerald Bray). This volume comes out of the Ancient Christian Texts (ACT) series, an extension of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) series. IVP is letting us have our cake and eat it too. Whereas the ACCS volumes give various Patristic interpretations on books of the Bible, the ACT series is focused on one author’s interpretation of entire books. Both series have a lot of merit – ACCS allows you to get a taste, and the Ancient Christian Texts gives you a bigger meal. These texts are so important because they allow you to see the how of Patristic interpretation, not just the what.

    One of the goals of the series is to allow the text to speak for itself, something I very much appreciate. Bray is the translator and allows Ambrosiaster to remain the commentator. The footnotes are mostly for noting allusions/citations of other Biblical texts, or noting a variant reading (such as Gal 1.22). The General Introduction states: “For those who begin by assuming as normative for a commentary only the norms considered typical for modern expressions of what a commentary is, we ask: Please allow the ancient commentators to define commentarius according to their own lights.” This is a good warning against being too much of a presentist in our interpretations.

    As far as appearance: the volume is really beautiful. The text on the pages appears in two columns, with the verses from the New Testament in bold and the commentary following thereafter. The verses are numbered as modern translations do today so that one is able to look up what Ambrosiaster says on any particular verse.

    In his introduction, Gerald Bray discusses the issues with identifying Ambrosiaster. Bray notes that the name ‘Ambrosiaster’ came to be attached to certain texts in the 17th Century by Benedictine editors, whereas before these same texts had been attributed to Ambrose of Milan (xv). Augustine of Hippo quotes Ambrosiaster as ‘Hilary’, though whether he meant Hilary of Poitiers (unlikely in Bray’s estimation) or Decimus Hilarianus Hilarius, a Roman layman, is unclear (ibid).

    I will give a couple of examples of interpretations by Ambrosiaster I found interesting:

    The preface to Ambrosiaster’s commentary on Galatians shows that Paul’s letter spoke to a certain situation in his own day, namely Law-Observant Symmaachians “who trace their origin to the Pharisees” (1). Ambrosiaster’s exegesis of Galatians should be seen through this light. Ambrosiaster’s comment on Gal. 2.21 is probably the crux of his argument: “There is nothing clearer than this – if a person could have been justified by the law, Christ would not have had to die. But because the law could not grant forgiveness of sins nor prevent the second death from robbing its captives, whom it held because of sin, Christ died to achieve what the law could not do, and for this reason he did not die in vain.” This quote is also interesting in how it shows Ambrosiaster’s familiarity with the idea of Christ and the ‘harrowing of hell’, something he describes in his comment on Gal 1.4 – “The devil was willing to take him but unable to hold him, and in that way Christ was able to remove from him what he wrongfully held captive. Having looted hell, he brought his treasure of souls up to the Father…”

    Anyone interested in the ecclesiology of the 4th Century Church will be interested in Ambrosiaster’s interpretation of 1 Timothy. I found his commentary on 1 Tim 3.3 to be really interesting: “These are the marks of episcopal dignity. If someone has chosen the harder way and dedicated his body and his mind to God so as not to be joined in marriage, he will be all the worthier. Paul mentions only the weaker man here, because there was no doubt about the other kind.” (126)

    Though this series is mostly aimed at lay people involved in studying the Scriptures, I think it definitely has value for modern Biblical scholars. There is a great deal of wisdom in the ancient literature and it too often goes ignored simply by virtue of it not being accessible. Here is the answer to that problem: the ACT series. I am looking forward to the other volumes in this series.

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