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Did St Benedict exist?

Regulars here will realise that I regularly look at the Christian tradition through Benedictine lenses.

I realise that there have been some who have questioned the existence of St Benedict, but now I come across the work of British scholar Francis Clark The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues (Studies in the History of Christian Thought, 37) (here is a good bit of this book online) and The Gregorian Dialogues and the Origins of Benedictine Monasticism (Studies in the History of Christian Thought) (OK, at $US 684 second hand, I’m actually not going to be adding this to my personal library currently! Really??!!)

We all know there’s no contemporary reference to Benedict (supposedly c. 480–547). All we know derives from the Dialogues of Gregory. The authenticity of those Dialogues has, of course, been questioned. But Francis Clark contends Benedict’s Rule is seventh century and that the Dialogues, similarly, are a seventh century construction by a clerk in the papal archives, patching together genuine Gregorian material with other stuff. This means the Benedictine legacy stems from the early eighth century.

Here Matthew dal Santo of Trinity College, Cambridge, argues strongly for the more conservative position.

I’m certainly open to having my prejudices challenged, and there isn’t too much riding on this for me, but currently I would still be comfortable with talking about Benedict as if he is a historical person…

Furthermore, the Dialogues has never looked like a contemporary biography, and the Rule of Benedict has (hence) been more significant than its author…

What do you think? And please add any more you know about this debate…

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14 thoughts on “Did St Benedict exist?”

  1. Clark is one of those gadflies whose well-argued errors are valuable for provoking other scholars to produce better arguments for what is already widely accepted.

    I was recently in touch with another scholar looking at the question, Prof. Constant Mews. An abstract of a paper of his that, in passing, comes down in favour of the Dialogues’ authenticity is online here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304418111000157.

    My own research on early Anglo-Saxon Office liturgy leads me to consider it entirely possible that Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England with a version of the Roman Office modified to make it more agreeable to certain of the Benedictine Rule’s requirements: the evidence appears in several early Anglo-Saxon psalters (at least one of them from St. Augustine’s, Canterbury) that condense the psalm cursus of Roman Sunday Matins into two nocturns (perhaps to leave room for the monastic canticles in the third), include appendices of Office hymns (Benedict’s ambrosiana), and omit the Nunc Dimittis at Compline.

    These are all things that were very probably foreign to the “basilican” Roman Office of the period (the Nunc is oddly enough attested in a contemporary Irish source, certainly through Roman influence). So we have some evidence at least to justify our imagining that Gregory’s monks on the Coelian Hill were chanting the Office in partial imitation of the liturgical prescriptions RSB in the later sixth century. This would square with early Carolingian references to Benedict as the abbas Romensis.

    None of that means that Benedict necessarily existed. But it lends support to a contention that the Rule attributed to him existed earlier than Clark would allow.

    1. Thanks so much, Jesse. I have been blessed by visiting both Saint Gregory monastery on the Coelian Hill, and of course, Canterbury. I would consider purchasing your suggested online paper, but it is $US20 – and you are suggesting that my issue is only covered in passing? I don’t think I’d come across Clark previously? Is there an online list of his works? And critiques of his works, as you suggest? Thanks again & blessings.

      1. Check your e-mail 🙂

        I’m a relative novice to the controversy, so I’d better not offer too much advice. One more thing I will add is that that sixth-century “Rule of Paul and Stephen”, a monastic rule written in an unidentified Roman monastery, uses Benedict’s term for the Divine Office (Opus Dei). I’ll have to check Haussher’s article on Opus Dei to see if this necessarily implies Benedictine influence, or if it’s really just a Roman commonplace.

          1. Hi, Bosco. I’ve just re-read Irénée Hausherr, “Opus Dei”, Orientale christiana periodica 13 (1947), 195-218. It’s an article well worth reading if you can get access to it: erudite and beautiful.

            But for our purposes, he does indeed confirm that the Regula S. Benedicti is the first occurrence of Opus Dei with the limited meaning of “Divine Office” or synaxis. Or rather, that Benedict and Caesarius of Arles reach the same usage independently; but later use of the term depends on Benedict, not Caesarius.

            The story of how Benedict came to assign this meaning to Opus Dei unfolds through the whole tradition of monastic literature, Eastern and Western. Hausherr suggests that it is best understood to mean (as I would try to summarize it), “The work which God does in us and through us to bring the work of creation to perfection.” Benedict merely represents the endpoint of a long tradition of monastic thought that was moving towards a consensus that prayer represented the chief arena for this work of God: “If you wish to pray, you have need of God, who gives the prayer to the one who prays” (Evagrius Ponticus). Liturgical prayer in particular represents an absolute surrender of individual will to the will of God: whatever human activity the monk is engaged in must be quitted, and participation in the liturgy is governed by the abbot, who is the image of Christ, to whom altogether nothing is to be preferred.

            And it is no accident that this interpretation reaches clarity in a Latin work: the Greek definite article makes it impossible, since to call the Divine Office the work of God is to imply that all other “works” are not God’s. But in Latin, with no article, one “work” can be the highest expression of the one “Work”.

            Incidentally, the article’s discussion of humility as the necessary condition for the Opus Dei had something of relevance for your recent invitation to us to comment on things we loved about our own Christian traditions: Benedict’s Eastern contemporary St. Dorotheus cautions that as soon as we find ourselves enjoying the superiorities of our own monastery, “we know that we are again in worldly pride”. And just when I thought I was making progress!

          2. This is absolutely brilliant from so many perspectives, Jesse. Thank you. I am wondering how I might be able to get hold of a scanned copy. Blessings.

          3. And now, as an afterthought, I’ve just looked at the Regula Magistri, and I find that it too uses Opus Dei to refer exclusively to the Divine Office. So if Benedict depends on the Master (as I think he does), then that’s his immediate source for the usage. Hausherr was writing when it was still almost universally accepted that the Regula Magistri was a later enlargement of the Regula S. Benedicti. Though I must note the arguments of Marilyn Dunn to the contrary, the case is very strong for the priority of the Master. So that makes this probably a “Roman” insight, rather than a specifically Benedictine one (though of course Benedict makes it his own).

  2. Having read the recommended article but nothing of Clark’s, it strikes me that the argument lies not in history but in what we ourselves find credible about human beings. If, as many post-Enlightenment folks do, we believe that a rational, level-headed person would not believe in “fairytales”, ie. miracle stories, angels, demons, that sort of thing, then when such a person has attributed to him works that express belief in “fairytales”, then one will consider such stories as spurious.

    However, I think that we have to take into account hagiography as genre and its role in the Late Antique/Early Mediaeval world. Athanasius, even if he didn’t write the Vita Antonii, approved of its circulation under his name, it seems. Theodoret of Cyrrhus wrote an entire book of some 38 saints’ lives. Jerome wrote several works of hagiography. All of these hagiographies include miracle stories.

    Hagiography is a genre of popular piety that seeks to enrich the life of the reader, strengthen his or her faith in Christ, and remind him or her that such feats of glory are possible for all believers, for the same Spirit indwells each Christian, and the same Christ works in us all. The miracle stories serve a purpose in the genre, and they are a major part of the Christian piety that rises in the fourth century with the romantic image of Egypt as the birthplace of monasticism and the Vita Antonii, a piety that lasts until Luther says that the saints’ lives are a pack of lies. A sophisticated man is always a man of his times; furthermore, a sophisticated man knows his genre, and he will write in it; finally, if one believes in a God who is capable of powerful, daring miracles through his holy ones, is it not possible that recounting such stories is not out of keeping with writing good theology?

    If someone wishes to argue that the Dialogues are a forgery, I would argue that a stylistic analysis would be more useful than trying to claim that a level-headed, sophisticated Roman aristocrat would not believe such stories; however, even this can go astray when the same author is writing in two different genres.

    Regarding dating and authorship of the Rule, I have not examined the evidence of this at all. It seems to me that a lot of people still accept Benedict’s authorship, as the editor of the 2011 edition w/translation in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library.

    1. Thanks, Matthew. Yes, the debate about authenticity of the Dialogues was not about the genre which you describe so well. It includes the stylistic analysis as you suggest. Clark’s work is the second link in this post. Blessings.

  3. Does it matter if Benedict existed at all or when? Some people choose to follow Benedict’s Rule – and that is their (valid) call. Just because the supposed writer may or may not have existed does not invalidate this rule of life in any way.

    Bosco, I’m not sure where you stand on this (feel free to delete this paragraph if you choose), but a lot of theological scholars have questioned the (human) authorship of a large number of books in the Bible – however this does not mean that they are of the opinion that these books should be removed – they recognise that God is the real author and the human name is immaterial. Does not the same apply in this case?


    1. Thanks for your comment, Dave. I agree with you that the Rule in this instance is more significant than its author and its dating. One can question whether any scholarly question “matters”. Does it matter to celebrate a feast day, etc. of a person who never existed? On balance, what I have read, even since posting, and what I have also received in private responses, appears to weigh on the side of his existence.

      I am not at all hassled by the scholarly examination of pseudepigraphy in the scriptures. Others are, including in the fear that pulling out one thread of what they base their faith on will end with the whole cloth in tatters on the floor. Blessings.

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