Announcing the release of Aquinas’s Commentary on Job

It is commonly said that Thomas Aquinas wrote commentaries on Scripture.  But the claim is liable to misunderstanding: in our day, biblical scholars write commentaries on Scripture while theologians write monographs about theology. [1] St. Thomas would have found this division of labor interesting in theory but odd in practice, because his job as a medieval university master was to teach theology to the most advanced students by lecturing on a book of the Bible.  He lectured on Scripture in class, wrote theological treatises at home, and did theology all the time. [2]

When St. Thomas was named lector for the priory at Orvieto, he was expected to expound a book of Scripture for the brethren. [3] He had already begun work on Book III of the Summa contra gentiles, on divine providence, so to keep his work focused he looked for a book of Scripture that would allow him to lecture on divine providence.  Where to turn?

His clue came from Maimonides, who devoted two chapters of his Guide of the Perplexed to the book of Job.  According to this venerable Jewish teacher, Job was written to explain the various opinions people hold about divine providence. [4] Literal exposition of the book of Job was rare in the Christian tradition, but St. Thomas saw this as an opportunity to fill a gap. [5] And so he set out to teach his fellow Dominicans about divine providence via the book of Job, declaring that “The whole intention of this book is directed to this: to show that human affairs are ruled by divine providence using probable arguments.”

For today’s students of St. Thomas, this was a stroke of luck.  Everyone knows that the artist flourishes under constraint:  the poet’s creativity is unlocked, not diminished, by a rigid sonnet structure; the architect’s brilliance emerges especially under the demands of an unusual terrain; the painter’s genius rises to the challenge of a fresco where ceiling and walls dictate the contours.  The same is true of a theologian.  It is one thing to compose a treatise on divine providence in the open spaces of unshackled speculative reason; it is quite another thing to teach about divine providence through respectful engagement with the complicated, pungent, and often obscure poetry of Job.

The result is one of St. Thomas’s most lyrical works, a book Jean-Pierre Torrell describes as “beautiful.” [6] The dramatic situation and the nooks and crannies of the poetry elicit insights from St. Thomas that might never have come up any other way.  For example, in the first chapter of Job, God calls Satan’s attention to Job’s outstanding life.  It is an odd scene, to say the least:  no one thinks of Satan as standing in God’s presence at all, few hope that Satan will notice them, and most would be stunned to think that God would bring them to Satan’s mind.  But the curious story prompts St. Thomas to a marvelous observation:

Consider that God not only orders the lives of the just for their own good, but he represents it for others to see.  Still those who see this example are not all influenced by it in the same way.  For the good who consider the life of the just as an example profit from the experience; whereas the wicked, if they are not corrected so that they become good by his example, revolt against the life of the just which they have observed….

The just man’s life amplifies the goodness of the good and the wickedness of the wicked at the same time, thus driving forward God’s plan.  Job’s story is not just about whether Job gets a fair shake, and my story and yours are not just about whether we get our own.  Our life—including our misfortunes—is also for the sake of others.

There are many such jewels in St. Thomas’s treatment of Job. [7] Consequently, the time has come for an English edition of this masterwork suitable for serious study.  The Aquinas Institute is happy to announce the release of our latest volume in the Opera Omnia project, a hard-cover, Latin-English edition of the Job commentary, with a translation by Brian Thomas Becket Mullady, OP, STD.  We hope this volume will serve both theologians and biblical scholars and contribute to dialogue between them.

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[1] There is the outstanding exception of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, which recruits theologians who are not biblical scholars to write commentaries on various books of Scripture.  Even here, however, the theologians enlisted have been influenced by the modern convention of the “commentary,” and what they write tends to lack the unity of intention one sees in Aquinas’ biblical expositions.

[2] A marvelously clear example of this biblical-theological unity, predating the university, is Rupert of Deutz’s treatise De honore et gloria filii hominis super Matthaeum.  It is a treatise on the Incarnation that takes as its literary form a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

[3] The lector’s role was to prepare those Dominicans who had no opportunity to attend the university for their mission of preaching and hearing confessions.  In addition to lecturing on Scripture, he was supposed to offer classes on moral issues, material which may have laid the groundwork for the Secunda Pars of St. Thomas’s Summa theologiae.  See Jean-Pierre Torrell, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work (vol 1; trans. Robert Royal; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 118-119.

[4] The Guide of the Perplexed, Book III, chapters 22-23.  A translation is available online here.  For a comparison of Maimonides and Aquinas on Job, see Martin D. Yaffe, “Providence in Medieval Aristotelianism: Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas on the Book of Job” in Hebrew Studies 20/21 (1979-1980): 62-74.

[5] An anonymous medieval letter, probably written by a Victorine monk, denies that Job has any useful literal sense.  Hugh of St. Cher allows that Job’s literal intention is to show the depths of human misery and to teach patience, but he concludes that the value of Job lies more in its practical than in its speculative teachings.  See Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), 88-89 and 301-302.  Roland of Cremona, the first Dominican master at the university of Paris, composed a literal exposition of Job about thirty years prior to that of Aquinas, but it does not appear that St. Thomas was familiar with this work.  See Torell, St. Thomas Aquinas, 57-58.

[6] See Torrell, St. Thomas Aquinas, 120.

[7] For an appreciative review of Job commentary’s contribution to St. Thomas’s teaching on providence, see Roger Nutt, “Providence, Wisdom, and the Justice of Job’s Afflictions: Considerations from Aquinas’ Literal Exposition on Job,” in the Heythrop Journal LVI (2015): 44-66.