The commentary in antiquity: two resources

Stephanos Matthaios, Franco Montanari, Antonios Rengakos, eds., Ancient Scholarship and Grammar: Archetypes, Concepts and Contexts. Trends in Classics Supplement 8. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011. [abbreviated below as ASG]

Franco Montanari, Lara Pagani, eds., From Scholars to Scholia: Chapters in the History of Ancient Greek Scholarship. Trends in Classics Supplment 8. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011. [abbreviated below as FSS]

In recent years, there has been a blossoming in the attention paid to the commentary and other ‘texts about texts’, together with associated discourses like grammar and the development of the ancient scholarly apparatus. These two volumes take up and explore a myriad of fascinating questions. For my purposes, I am most interested in those contributions that could be taken up in a comparative study of the commentarial genres (broadly conceived). For those with other interests, there are many fine papers, especially in ASG, on grammar more strictly defined (e.g., the provocative thesis in Jean Lallot, ‘Did the Alexandrian Gramarians have a Sense of History?’ in ASG, or the interesting essay by Lara Pagani, ‘Pioneers of Grammar. Hellenistic Scholarship and the Study of Language’ in FSS). The full Tables of Contents are viewable via the Google Books links above.

Several of the papers in these volumes offer an authoritative overview of the field, together with programmatic recommendations for further study that will repay careful study. One thinks especially of Franco Montanari, ‘Ancient Scholarship and Classical Studies’ in ASG, Montanari’s ‘Correcting a Copy, Editing a Text. Alexandrian Ekdosis and Papyri’ in FSS and Fausto Montana’s ‘The Making of Greek Scholiastic Corpora’.  Montanari situates ancient scholarship with regard to its importance for a number of features of classical studies, and contends that the process of edition undertaken by the Alexandrian philologists often required them to choose between variant texts rather than solely making conjectural emendations – and thus that they may have taken a less free stance toward the tradition than has sometimes been assumed. Montana disputes forcefully the re-dating of the Greek scholiastic corpora to Late Antiquity proposed by Nigel Wilson and others, though his insistence on positive evidence may be difficult to meet.

There are other gems in these volumes. René Nünlist (‘Aristarchus and Allegorical Interpretation’ in ASG) disputes the common supposition that Aristarchus is anti-allegorical, at least in a straightforward sense, and suggests that this owes more to the expansion of his view in Eustathius than to Aristarchus himself. John Lundon offers ‘Homeric Commentaries on Papyrus: A Survey’ in ASG, which provides a useful survey of the extant texts (most are from Oxyrhynchus and date from the 2nd century) and some of the difficulties involved in identifying a text as a commentary proper. Stephanos Matthaios provides a learned introduction to Eratosthenes in his ‘Eratosthenes of Cyrene: Readings of his ‘Grammar’ Definition’ in ASG.

This interest in the commentarial tradition is perhaps also beginning to have an impact on early Jewish and Christian studies. One thinks especially of Markus Bockmuehl’s papers, ‘The Making of Gospel Commentaries’ (2005) and ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls and Ancient Commentary’ (2009). Very recently, I see (via) that Dead Sea Discoveries has just published a thematic issue on the rise of commentary (which, however understandably, does not focus on the Christian material). There is arguably still important work left to do on the rise of the Christian commentary in particular. One can imagine a particularly fruitful research project on the trajectories of the commentary tradition in ancient Alexandria, beginning with some of philologists canvassed in these volumes, progressing through the Hellenistic Jewish authors (and Philo, above all) and passing through Clement of Alexandria to Origen in particular.

The comparative possibility of the studies in these volumes are not lost on the contributors. For example, Franco Montanari (‘Ancient Scholarship and Classical Studies’ in ASG) writes of the Derveni Papyrus:

Nevertheless, it is definitely an argument that starts out from another argument, and its religious aim is pursed by exploiting the approach and techniques characteristic of text interpretation, which thus set it in the framework of scholarship. The religious sphere suggests a parallel with Christian homilies, which present a doctrinal argument developed with varying degrees of independence starting out from interpretation of passages from the Old and New Testament. Accordingly, this suggestion can be expanded to include the biblical catenae, which consist of collections of extracts taken from different sources, including the homilies themselves, and gathered together for exegetic purposes. Note in addition that the catenae existed both in the form of independent commentaries and also as annotations in the margins of the text being commented on. There is a compelling parallel with the form-content relationship and the exchange of materials between the hypomnemata and the syngrammata found in the Homeric scholarship of the Alexandrian grammarians, as is well documented in the sources (15-16).

Let us hope that in the wake of these and similar projects, we can come to a more precise and informed understanding of the great monument to the organization and transmission of knowledge and tradition known to us as the commentary.

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