Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in patristic exegesis or the interpretation of the Bible among the early church fathers. This emphasis has been especially prominent among the burgeoning movement concerned with the theological interpretation of Scripture. Accompanying this rising tide of interest is a growing number of fresh translations of ancient commentaries. The classic nineteenth-century edition of patristic literature, The Ante-Nicene Fathers and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, largely ignored the fathers’ exegetical works, with a few exceptions such as the homilies of Augustine and Chrysostom. As a result, these new translations are making many ancient exegetical texts available to a wider audience for the first time.
Such is the case with Robert Hill’s translation of Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Isaiah. Cyril’s commentary is one of the few full-length Isaianic commentaries from the ancient church to have survived in complete form. Previously no translation of the text into any modern language existed, making it accessible only to those with advanced training in Greek and access to theological libraries. A word about the Greek text is in order. According to Thesaurus Lingua Graeca, the work runs to over 320,000 words, and so translating it is no small task. Furthermore, no true critical edition of the text exists. The only available edition is that included in volume 70 of Patrologia Graeca (PG), the nineteenth-century series known for its lack of attention to textual critical detail. In fact, the PG text is but a reprint of the seventeenth-century edition published by Cardinal Jean Aubert in Paris. This is the Greek text that Hill used for his translation, so readers should be aware that there are undoubtedly textual critical issues that remain unknown given the absence of a modern critical edition taking into account all the manuscripts that are known at present. It should also be noted that Cyril’s commentary might be of interest to textual critics of the OT since he occasionally makes reference to variant readings in the Greek versions known to him.
Hill’s capabilities as a translator are widely recognized, as he has been described by one scholar as “today’s foremost interpreter and translator of the great biblical commentators and preachers of fourth- and fifth-century Antioch.” His translation of Cyril is smooth and very readable, no small achievement given Cyril’s penchant for rare words and his convoluted style. In the passages where I compared the English with the Greek text, I found Hill’s translation to be faithful to the original, although at times he tends towards more of a loose rendering than a word-for-word rendition. Furthermore, Hill sometimes translates key terms, such as skopos, in various ways. While skopos can carry various connotations in ancient Greek literature, it is used most often in Cyril as a technical exegetical word describing the purpose or goal of a text. As such, it would have been helpful if Hill had translated it consistently throughout the work, so that it might be obvious to the reader when the word is being used. At any rate, those who wish to use the translation for academic purposes will need to have recourse to the original text anyway.
Three features of this edition make these volumes especially useful for the reader. One is the inclusion of a brief introduction to the text and to Cyril in the first volume. Furthermore, Hill has noted in his translation where a new page starts in the Greek text by including the page numbers from the PG edition in the English text. This allows for quick and easy comparison to the Greek text, although at times I found that a page number in PG had been skipped in Hill’s translation. Moreover, each volume includes both a Scripture index, highlighting the many cross-references made by Cyril, and a general subject index. The latter is an index of Hill’s comments in the endnotes, rather than to subjects discussed by Cyril himself.
I also have three critical comments to make about this edition. The first is a minor one. The modern chapter and verse divisions of Isaiah are noted in the passages cited in the body of Hill’s text, but are not included at the top of every page. This is a minor inconvenience, as readers have to flip through the pages to find which passage in Isaiah is being discussed.
Second, Hill’s translation does not reflect the fact that Cyril’s original composition was made up of five books (biblia), some of which were divided into smaller divisions (called either logoi or tomoi). These original divisions might well have been arbitrary, but without them appearing in the English translation, it is impossible to tell what function they might have had in the original work. Highlighting them in the translation would have been useful to the reader.
Third, Hill’s preference for Antiochene exegesis (i.e., that of Diodore, Theodore, and Theodoret) is readily apparent in his endnotes, as he periodically makes disparaging or dismissive remarks about Cyril’s exegesis. He criticizes Cyril’s loquacity, his confusion regarding historical events and persons, his lack of knowledge of Hebrew, and his tendency towards theological or spiritual interpretation. Cyril might have hoped for a more sympathetic translator. Still, Hill concedes that that the commentary is “a work of dedication and balance,” and suggests that it presents a much more pastoral picture of Cyril than the ecclesiastical thug he is often made out to be. Moreover, he praises the attention Cyril gives to factual issues in the text in comparison with previous Alexandrian interpreters.
Despite these criticisms, Hill is to be commended for bringing to light this text that was previously buried in dusty old volumes of Greek and Latin. It is most unfortunate that he passed from this life before completing the entire project. Volume 3 takes one only through chapter 50 of Isaiah, meaning that the latter chapters of Isaiah, which are of especially great interest to Christian theology, are missing from this edition. Currently the publisher has no plans to commission another translator to finish the work, but it is hoped that someday someone might pick up the work where Hill left off and finish the worthy task he began.
The way forward for current research on patristic exegesis is a detailed look at specific authors and specific texts. Greater nuance is needed instead of the sweeping generalizations commonly made about early Christian interpretation of the Bible. Cyril’s Commentary on Isaiah has only barely been discussed in the secondary literature. Perhaps Hill’s translation of the text will inspire others to consider the theological and exegetical significance of the Alexandrian bishop’s Isaianic interpretation.