Forthcoming: “Omnis piger propheta est”

I was recently asked to contribute a piece for a forthcoming Festschrift in honor of Michael E. Stone, a scholar whose work on early Jewish and Christian pseudepigrpaha and apocrypha has affected many of my own views on these subjects. I’m very pleased to be included in this collection, with a piece titled “‘Omnis piger propheta est‘: An Apocryphal Medieval Proverb.”

For my contribution, I returned to a challenge that I first dug into in graduate school–in fact, around the same time when I first encountered Michael’s ideas–but I had set it aside because I didn’t then see how the pieces fit together or what argument they made together. Returning to the project, however, and considering it specifically in light of some of the conceptual frameworks I’ve found so useful in Michael’s work, I saw the texts and argument come together. Below are a few paragraphs (without footnotes) to give a sense of the subject and the argument, as well as a summary of the rest of the article.

Bosch accidia.jpg

Detail of accidia (acedia), or Sloth, from Hieronymous Bosch’s painting The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things (c.1500)

In this article I discuss how some of [Michael’s] ideas about extra-biblical literature help to understand an instance of a medieval apocryphal proverb. Proverbs pose particularly prickly problems for positing origins, sources, analogues, and transmission histories. Part of the enigmatic character of proverbs is the problematic, elusive relationship between oral and textual backgrounds. Yet certain proverbs in the Middle Ages are demonstrably linked to learned, literate contexts—particularly those associated with Latin traditions that have obvious roots in biblical learning. In many ways, they share some of their characteristic features with biblical pseudepigrapha and apocrypha in terms that Stone has suggested, since they pose problems of “categorization and classification”; are frequently “anonymous or pseudepigraphic”; possess “an aura of antiquity and participation in a tradition of great status and authority”; often have a “biblicizing style”; demonstrate fluidity through “continually changing and restructured literary form”; involve “dynamism of transmission”; and constitute “‘clusters’ of texts” that defy text-critical assumptions about linear relationships.[1] As a way to consider these interrelated complications, I focus on one particular case in which proverbs and apocrypha converge.

I start with the Hiberno-Latin florilegium known as the Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae—the same collection that led me to Michael’s work, as it contains the Fifteen Signs in Latin. The apocryphal proverb appears as item 227 of the compilation, which reads, “Omnis piger propheta est” (“Every lazy person is a prophet”). In our own idiom, we might take this as a judgment on those who are all talk and no action. This particular saying is included within a block of verses gleaned from the biblical Book of Proverbs: items 225-26 and 228-31 quote from Proverbs 27:28, 27:2, 3:28, 18:1, 10:11, and 22:15. Unlike the items immediately surrounding it, this dictum about the lazy prophet is not from Proverbs. A likely place to find such a text is among variants of biblical verses in Vetus latina translations of the Old Testament, but Pierre Sabatier’s standard reference includes no mention of the proverb about the lazy prophet. Unfortunately, the source remains elusive. In fact, the proverb is something of an anomaly within the Collectanea, since it is one of twenty-three items for which no source or analogues have been identified, and no commentary is provided for it in the most recent edition. It would be easy to view this dictum as a mere interruption in the sequence of biblical quotations, but this justification dismisses the complexity of considering the proverb about the lazy prophet as an apocryphon.

The compiler of the Collectanea recognized the dictum as related to the genuine verses from Proverbs, with its subsequent status of authority, and this seems to have persisted in other texts. While the Collectanea is the earliest identified witness to this proverb, analogues appear in later medieval texts, some closely related to study of the biblical Book of Proverbs. These examples testify to the apocryphon’s continued status of authority alongside biblical proverbial wisdom in the Middle Ages.

A brief note on the rest of the article: I go on to trace later uses of the proverb in texts that are not reliant on the Collectanea but survive as independent witnesses to the apocryphal wisdom saying. Ultimately, a group of disparate texts, from disparate time periods, disparate locations, disparate contexts, and disparate genres demonstrate a common tradition that takes on a complex life of its own. The afterlife of the medieval proverb exhibits many of the same difficult and fascinating aspects that make the transmission of apocrypha so frustrating but intriguing to understand. In this, it becomes clear that the medieval afterlives of these types of materials offer useful ways to extend frameworks for understanding apocrypha not only in the early Jewish and Christian periods but also through the long history of Christianity.

[1] These phrases come from a number of works by Michael E. Stone, including: “Categorization and Classification of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” in Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Armenian Studies: Collected Papers (Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 1.3-13; “Pseudepigraphy Reconsidered,” Review of Rabbinic Judaism 9 (2006): 1-15; and esp. Ancient Judaism: New Visions and Views (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), passim.


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