GREGORY THE GREAT, Moral Reflections on the Book of Job: Volume 3 (Books 11-16), Cistercian Studies, no. 258, trans. Brian Kerns. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. 342 pp., $39.95 hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-8790-7358-9. Reviewed by Steve W. LEMKE, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, LA  70126.


            This recent translation of Gregory the Great’s lectures on the book of Job, better known as the Moralia, is a significant contribution to the history of the church. As the extremely helpful introduction by Mark DelCogliano notes, Gregory delivered these lectures in Constantinople when Pope Pelagius II sent him there as an ambassador to the imperial court of Tiberius (and later Maurice). Then serving as a deacon of the church, Gregory spoke these expositions of Job to some monks in the area and his friend Leander, Archbishop of Seville, to whom the later work was dedicated. These homilies were transcribed by stenographers. Volume III, an exposition of Job 12:6–24:20, differs significantly in format from the first volume, in which Gregory later added content to his spoken remarks, delineating the traditional threefold medieval pattern of interpretation of the literal sense, the moral sense, and the typological sense. In this volume, however, Gregory allowed the lectures to stand as he presented them, focusing on the primary interpretation (usually the moral or typological interpretation) rather than explicating each of the possible senses by which the verse could be interpreted. He used this more direct approach in this volume in order to squeeze the examination of a large section of Job (324 verses) within the size constraints of a codex. Gregory noted in the beginning of this volume (p. 5) both this rationale for the comparative brevity of his interpretation and that the wording reflected that of his lectures virtually word for word. Therefore, the somewhat fluid translation by Brian Kerns from the standard Latin edition in Corpus Christianorum accurately reflects in contemporary English the conversational tone Gregory must have had in delivering these lectures.

            Since this reviewer has greater appreciation for the plain sense or “literal” interpretation of the Antiochian school of interpretation, Gregory’s Alexandrian typological or symbolic interpretations seem artificial and fanciful. In this translation, these hermeneutical stretches are usually introduced by the phrase, “what is meant by this word but . . .?” Just to list a few of these interpolations, “wrinkles” in Job 16:9 refers to duplicity (p. 110), “cheek” in 16:11 refers to preachers (p. 114), “lips” and “teeth” in 19:20 refers to speech and the apostles respectively (p. 182), “leaden plate” and “stone” in 19:24 refers to Judeans and Gentiles respectively, and the “two women” referenced in Zech. 5:5 are taken to refer to the two principal vices of pride and vainglory (p. 188). While this hermeneutical approach sounds strange at points to contemporary readers, Gregory’s hermeneutic was consistent with most 6th century Christian scholars, reflecting the strong Platonic framework within which they interpreted Scripture. However, Gregory also many times utilized the interpretive tool of Rabbi Hillel of applying similar wording from various scriptural texts, even though these texts appear to be addressing completely different issues and settings. In his applying this technique, one must be impressed with Gregory’s profound knowledge of Scripture. He obviously did not have the advantage of a printed Bible or concordance (much less an electronic version) from which to draw these similarities in word or phrase. These linguistic connections came from his profound personal knowledge of Scripture.

            Job 12-24 includes the speeches of Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, which interpreters often discount because God later condemned their advice as erroneous (Job 42:7-9). However, Gregory argues that there is some truth even in the heretical teaching of Job’s friends because the Apostle Paul quotes one of Eliphaz’s sayings in 1 Cor. 3:19, and because it is the nature of heresy to include at least some truth to make it believable. Although the classical interpretation of Job is that this book deals with the problem of evil (particularly the question of why the righteous suffer), Gregory applies a typological interpretation to Job’s speeches, understanding them to anticipate the persecution of the church or, more ultimately of its Redeemer Jesus (p. 175).

            Gregory’s homilies reflect profound pastoral wisdom at points about the nature of morality and the church. Perhaps his typological interpretation also gave hope to the 6th century church as it struggled against the Barbarians and the Lombards from without, and heresies from within the church. Although Gregory’s work is not a good source for contemporary exegesis, it is a good resource for personal devotion as well as a better understanding of early medieval hermeneutics. Recommended.