ABSTRACT

This study concerns the development of the literal sense in late-medieval Bible commentary, and the relationship of the literal with what commentators called the allegorical or spiritual senses. It deals with how the foremost exponent of the literal sense, Nicholas of Lyra, dealt with that relationship in his postills on the Gospel of John. The choice of John as the focus for a study of the literal sense requires explanation. Since patristic times John was differentiated from the other Gospels precisely because it seemed the least concerned with the historical events of Christ's life. However, the Gospel of John is important for our understanding of the literal sense not only for its wide prominence in the history of late-medieval theology and literature, but for the questions it posed Lyra about the nature and reach of literal interpretation. These questions led Lyra to what in modern terms would be termed a literary appreciation of John. Lyra recognized that to explain John it is necessary to deal with his account as a narrative text whose structure-its choice and sequence of episodes, its characteristic modes of dialogue and discourse-embodies the meaning of the events and words it contains. As a consequence, Lyra also recognized that a narrative interpretation of the Gospel implies a narrative interpretation of theology and its relationship to history. God, that is, structured the revelations of history much as John structured the Gospel. Just as John the evangelist selected and organized his presentation of the events of Christ's life, so too Christ selected and organized the events of his life into the meaningful sequence of history. Lyra's structural understanding of the Gospel confirmed the rhetorical structure and purpose of sacred history.