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Saint Luke and his Gospel: Patristic Commentary in the Catena of Niketas

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

The Apostle and Evangelist Luke, known by tradition as a physician, a companion on the missionary journeys of St. Paul, a confidante of the Mother of God, and one of the first iconographers in the history of Christianity, has long been celebrated by the Fathers of the Church for his compassionate Gospel portrait of Jesus Christ.

Patristic commentaries on the Gospel of Luke, however, are relatively few compared to the commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and John.

  • Around 40 of Origen's homilies on Luke survive in a Latin translation by Jerome.

  • The commentary by Cyril of Alexandria survives only in a Syriac translation.

  • Chrysostom wrote a commentary on Luke, but it does not survive.

Other commentaries, by

  • Eusebios of Caesarea,

  • Apollinarios of Laodicea,

  • Theodore of Mopsuestia, and

  • Photios of Constantinople

have likewise been lost though a number of fragments survive excerpted in later Byzantine compilations, known as catenae, from the Latin word for a 'chain', since they are linked together as a series of quotations relating to individual verses of the Gospel.

Catena, Pappas Patristic Institute

The catena as a genre of Byzantine theological literature is not simply an index or collection of excerpts from patristic texts, but constitutes a new form of biblical interpretation and commentary that emerged in the fifth- and sixth-century schools and monasteries of late-antique Palestine. Catenae were a logical and in some respects necessary response to the voluminous exegetical production of the previous centuries. No single school, church, or monastery could have a library containing all the exegetical writings of the Church Fathers. Nor were these writings always easy to study or reference. The catenae, on the other hand, which were compiled under the direction of competent textual critics and theologians, proved eminently useful for study, for the preparation of sermons, and, not least, for the clarification of disputes concerning the meaning of a biblical passage and the refutation of theological heresies. For much of Byzantine and even Western medieval history, these compilations remained one of the most popular and enduring literary forms for studying the Scriptures, and its impact on the reception of patristic theology among later Byzantine and medieval writers is difficult to overstate.

St. Maximos the Confessor, Scholia, Pappas Patristic Institute

The catena in the ancient and medieval world was known by many names, most of which denote exegetical collections (ἐξηγητικαὶ ἐκλογαί) or anthologies (συλλογαὶ ἐξηγήσεων). In a typical catena, the first verse of the biblical book was cited in full, followed by a series (or 'chain') of patristic quotations, before moving on to the second verse, and so on. The individual excerpts usually cited the name of the patristic author in the genitive (often in some abbreviated form) at the beginning of the quotation and were grouped either in columns parallel to the biblical text or written on the margins of the text. They were often connected to the verse by a system of symbols, such as a small arrow, cross, or dotted obelus. Some catenae bear the name of their compiler, while many others are anonymous, such as the Palestinian Catena on Psalm 118; the Sinai Catena on Genesis and Exodus; and the Catena of the Three Fathers on Ecclesiastes, in which the “three fathers” were not the compilers but the patristic authorities whose interpretations were being cited.

Saint Luke Evangelist Apostle Pappas Patristic Institute

Among the most important of the Byzantine catenae is Niketas of Heraclea's Catena on the Gospel of Luke, which provides us with a wealth of patristic commentary that we no longer possess in any other form, including the writers mentioned above: Eusebios, Apollinarios, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Photios of Constantinople. Compiled between 1105 and 1115, the Catena of Niketas is an immense work that brings together more than three thousand quotations, many, as already noted, from works that are otherwise lost. One of the most important manuscripts of the Catena, the twelfth-century Vaticanus graecus 1611, can be viewed here for free.

In addition to preserving significant commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Niketas deals rather freely with his patristic material in the Catena, often shortening, rearranging, and adapting the cited text. This sometimes complicates the value of Niketas as a witness to patristic texts. But it has also meant that medieval authors, citing the Catena, reproduce readings that do not necessarily match the printed edition, or indeed the original text, of certain patristic writings. This seems to be the case, for example, in some excerpts extracted from John Geometres' Life of the Virgin, for which Niketas is an important witness. This is also the reason that the quotations from St. Maximos's Liber asceticus and Theological Chapters cited in Thomas Aquinas's Catena Aurea will sometimes differ from the readings given in Migne's Patrologia Graeca. In these cases Aquinas was citing St. Maximos not from an extant Latin edition of the Confessor's writings, but from the Catena of Niketas. Often, the readings are not substantively different from the original text, but they nevertheless testify to the importance of the Catena for the reception of specific ideas and patristic quotations in medieval exegesis.

Pappas Patristic Institute Niketas of Herakleia Catena
Niketas of Herakleia, Catena on the Gospel of Luke, Vat. gr. 1611, f. 214r

The value of the Catena has for many years been largely ignored by scholars and students of patristic theology. Indeed, to this day most of the catenae on the text of the Bible produced by Byzantine scholars remain unedited and hidden from view. Yet the Catena on Luke by Niketas, as a repository of the rich commentary tradition on the Gospel, remains an indispensable source of knowledge about how the Fathers read one of the most important source-texts of the Christian tradition. Gathering together an unparalleled collection of quotations and excerpts from the Church Fathers on the Gospel of Luke, the Catena of Niketas offers us not only a kaleidoscope of the patristic interpretation of Scripture, but also a treasury of insights into how the exegesis of the Fathers was received by medieval readers seeking to better understand the legacy of the holy Evangelist and his Gospel. Set forth like an apothecary's cabinet, filled with all manner of useful applications and solutions, the Catena forms part of a superbly worthy tribute to the Apostle remembered as a physician and a painter of sacred images.

Further Reading

M. Constas, "Biblical Hermeneutics," in S. Papaioannou, The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Literature (Oxford, 2021), 116-118.

A. Fourlas, Die Lukaskatene des Niketas von Herakleia, in Wort in der Zeit: Neutestamentliche Studien. Festgabe für Karl Heinrich Rengstorf zum 75. Geburtstag (Leiden, 1980), 268-74.

C. Krikonis, Συναγωγὴ Πατέρων εἰς τὸ Κατὰ Λουκᾶν Εὐαγγέλιον ὑπὸ Νικήτα Ἡρακλείας (κατὰ τὸν κώδικα Ἰβήρων 371 (Thessaloniki, 1973).

W. Lamb, "Conservation and Conversation: New Testament Catenae in Byzantium," in D. Krueger and R. Nelson, The New Testament in Byzantium (Washington, DC, 2016), 277-300.

B. Roosen, “The Works of Nicetas Heracleensis (ὁ) τοῦ Σερρῶν,” Byzantion 69 (1999): 119–144.

J. Sickenberger, Die Lukaskatene des Niketas von Herakleia (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 22.4) (Leipzig, 1902).


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