18 April 2014

Regnavit a ligno Deus

"The Lord has reigned from the Tree".

As Neale translates this stanza of the Vexilla Regis:

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old;
Amidst the nations, God, saith he,
Hath reigned and triumphed from the Tree.

You will not find the words from the tree [literally, wood] in any version of the psalter that reposes upon your bookshelves ... nor in any translation ... unless you are lucky and learned enough to possess a copy of the 'Psalterium Romanum': where it does occur in verse 10 of psalm 96MT/AV=95LXX/Vg. This psalter was used by many in the time of Venantius, as well as much earlier. S Justin Martyr knew the reading a ligno, and accuses the Jews of deliberately censoring these words from their text because of the embarrassing Christian resonances. Tertullian, S Cyprian, Lactantius, and S Augustine knew it, but S Jerome could not find it in a Hebrew text. Nor is it in the Septuagint, except in one single bilingual manuscript ('apo xulou') where it might have crept across from the Latin side.

Despite this, could it be original? Well, the discovery of Hebrew Biblical manuscripts much earlier than the medieval Hebrew 'Masoretic text' which Jewry treats as authentic, has shown a much greater diversity in the textual tradition than most people expected ... especially in the poetic books. (I counted some 28 occasions on which the producers of the New Vulgate adopted a reading from the Qumran Isaiah, supported by early translations, in preference to a reading from the Masoretic Text.) And it has become very obvious (not least to that admirable Methodist Margaret Barker) that elimination of 'Christian' verses did occur. If this phrase is original, it could originally have referred to the wood of the ark of the Covenant, victorious over the Philistine god Dagon. That's quite a nice piece of typology anyway, isn't it?

This, however, is not in my view the big question. Texts, before the invention of printing, were inherently unstable (look at the apparatus criticus of the OCT Homer), and this phrase, 'original' or not, is quite simply part of our Biblical tradition (just as is the story in S John of the Woman Caught in Adultery); canonised by the Fathers who were fed by it ... and by the use of Venantius' hymn throughout the Latin Christian centuries. Dom Lentini, in his first draft of the revised Breviary hymns, retained the stanza, and admirably added in a footnote "We do not dare [audemus] to suppress the strophe nor to change the line". Good for him.

However, by the time the Liturgia Horarum was published, a more radical and philistine attitude held sway; a determination to 'dare' to make the Great Tradition less visible; a hermeneutic of rupture. It is the prayer of all right-thinking people that Papa Ratzinger was successful in starting a process of turning the Philistines back. The restoration of this stanza to the Liturgy is overdue.

13 comments:

Ben said...

The Solesmes editors of the "Liber Hymnarius" of 1983 understood the difficulty, and provided a second version of the hymn with that verse restored, to be used ad libitum.

Tomas said...

This is completely off topic, but you did mention Margaret Baker. Do you have thoughts on her work in general? I've found her to be lauded in many corners but also suspect by many. Her scriptural exegesis appears astounding to me, though her Christology tends to veer and twist and turn depending on the work. Feel free to ignore this, but I couldn't miss an opportunity to ask a scholar I respect about another I scholar I am, shall we say, intrigued by.

Paul Goings said...

Father, you an your readers might find this useful. Both volumes are online.

https://archive.org/stream/bibliorumsacroru02saba#page/190/mode/2up

Patricius said...

When I was at Heythrop, one of my Church history tutors brought this verse up and postulated that it might be spurious. I thought then of the words of Eliza Doolittle: "O, wouldn't it be loverly!" So, naturally I disagreed.

Duarte Valério said...

I just stumbled on the Alleluia verse for Friday on Easter octave, which my (post-conciliar) Graduale Romanum says is taken from Psalm 95,10; and indeed it runs: «Dícite in géntibus: quia Dóminus regnávit a ligno.» (But then I went to the Missale Romanum, and found out that the verse is gone.)

rick allen said...

Father, with all due respect, the fact that the "a ligno" reading could be an earlier one has no bearing on whether it probably is.

I understand entirely your own preference that liturgical texts more closely adhere to those used by the Fathers. But surely the decision to discard what was probably an incorparated gloss is hardly evidence of "a...radical and philistine attitude." I certainly wouldn't see it as evidence of any
deliberate "hermeneutic of discontinuity." Why, after all, is discontinuity with the early Fathers more to be deplored than discontinuity with King David, or with the apostles?

It concerns me when what appears an innocuous act of conservative and responsible textual emmendation is thought to conceal more sinister motives.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dom Lentini's first instinct ... that the phrase was so venerable that it was presumptuous to remove it ... was sound. I certainly don't argue adding the words to modern psalters. I just disapprove of emending them out of Venantius so as to create a univocal and exclusive model of the interaction between biblical text and patristic or liturgical texts.

Figulus said...

Fr Hunwicke is right. It is irrelevant whether the phrase is original to the Hebrew or not. It is certainly original to the hymn, and also to the Psalterium Romanum. It therefore belongs in the Breviary and in the missal; to remove it is far from conservative and far from responsible.

rick allen said...

There seems to be some confusion here--which I may share--whether we are talking about the psalm or the hymn.

Ben is correct that the Liber Hymnarius from Solesmes--the closest thing there is to an "official" hymnal for the Liturgia Horarum--contains both versions of the hymn. The Liturgia Horarum does not, but then, given its length, it's difficult to imagine how it could possibly accomodate historic variations.

One problem with the appeal to tradition is that there are various traditions with something like a hymn text. The version chosen for inclusion has a venerable history. And though I agree that, given different versions, one should lean toward the original, there can be exceptions. Who among us, for instance, really wants to sing, at Christmas, "Hark! How all the welkin rings"?

Stan Metheny said...

The _Liber Hymnarius_ indeed has the versions of _Vexilla Regis_ and the _Pange Lingua_ of St Thomas for Corpus Christi as found in the '_veterem editionen vaticanam_' alongside the versions found in the _Liturgia Horarum_. Per two of the monks who worked with Dom Cardine, however, that is because the words and the melodies and their texts in the former editions were so widely known and loved. It was a 'practical' matter and it was not done to retain 'a ligno' as Lentini references in his footnote 5 or a desire to retain the strophe in which it appears.

bendunlap said...

Rick Allen, what other versions of Vexilla Regis do you have in mind? Both of the principal pre-1970 versions -- monastic and Roman -- have the strophe that ends "regnavit a ligno Deus".

To my knowledge these are not variant readings, but simply the original text (monastic) and the classicized version produced by Pope Urban VIII (Roman).

The 1970 Liturgia Horarum adopted the monastic text, as it did with many breviary hymns, but in this case it simply dropped the entire strophe in question.

Is there some other pre-1970 version of Vexilla Regis that also omits that strophe?

rick allen said...

"Is there some other pre-1970 version of Vexilla Regis that also omits that strophe?"

Not that I know of. I was guilty of over-speculating. From what I have seen of the history of the hymn text, there was the original, then the grandual displacement of certain verses by others (but not the fourth), and then the re-writing of certain lines to conform to Counter-Reformation ideas of how proper Latin should be written.

If it were up to me, I don't know that I would have monkeyed with the original. But I try to understand that others can come to different judgments in perfect good faith.

I have no earthly way of knowing why the verse was omitted in 1970, but I'm not going to automatically impute bad motives for it. My best guess would be that it was omitted because it makes an incorrect assertion referencing a historic controversy with Judaism in which the Christian controversialists were making an unfair charge.

Might that have been an over-reaction? Maybe. But look at it this way. If I am in charge of an edition of, say, St. Justin Martyr's works, of course I won't delete his claims about Jewish distortion of the scripture. But if I am somehow in charge of choosing which passages from St. Justin are to be used the Office of Readings, I'm certainly not going to import that sort of thing into the liturgy of the hours.

Understand, I think liturgy is a fascinating subject. I am an entire amateur, and I have learned a lot here at this blog. But at the same time, as a Catholic layman, I am ultimately more interested in praying the liturgy than having it conformed to one or another school's particular taste or conception of tradition. Continual tinkering is bad, from whatever side of the house it comes from.

And on this particular question, I suppose what I'd most like to see, now that the subject has been brought up, is less speculation about why the change was made, and, instead, some actual, express rationale for it. Doesn't it seem likely that, someplace, an explanation exists? And wouldn't it be far better to consider and evaluate that than speculate as to motives or competence?

Chesterton famously observed that a reformer should never tear down a wall until he learns why it was put up in the first place. That observatons holds as much, I think, for reformers of reform as for reformers.

Froben said...

"ornata Regis purpura..."

Is this a reference to the older Roman shade of purple, closer to scarlet, that would have resembled blood?