Rabanus Maurus was a Benedictine monk, the archbishop of Mainz, and a theologian living during the 8th and 9th century. His comments on the text of Esther, along with those of Nicolas of Lyra, comprise the majority of the material found in the Glossa Ordinaria. Rabanus’ work can also be found in volumes 113 and 114 of the Patrologiae Latina volumes misattributed to Walahfrid Strabo.
As far as I know, his comments on Esther have not been translated in full. Some of his comments can be found in the Ancient Christian Commentary Series on Esther. As I’ve been translating the full text, though, I find that the author/editor of that commentary includes, in my opinion, the boring bits, and leaves the meat of Rabanus’ comments. I thought that I might share some of my translations here. (What is included here are the comments I find most interesting, and for the most part, are not found in the ACCS volume). I will include the Latin text below for those interested. Feel free to correct my translations; be gentle, though, I know they are deficient.
The book of Esther which the Hebrews count among the Hagiographa, contain the sacraments of Christ and the church. Esther is a type of the church which frees people from danger. Haman, who is interpreted as iniquity, has been destroyed . . . .
The capital Susa. etc. Susa is a city in Persia, which historians say was founded by the brother of Memnon, and the name of the city was taken from the name of the river Susi. There is the royal house of Cyrus, white and various colored stones, golden columns, and a roof of distinct gems. It also contained a sculpture of the sky with shining stars, and many other incredible things. There Assuerus gave a great feast of his wealth, and he celebrated with great delicacies . . . .
In the third year. At that time, that is, the when the mystery of his incarnation, and the spiritual feast of preaching, and the abundant supply of his body and blood were revealed. The first [year of his reign] was before the law, the second under the law, the third under grace.
A great banquet for all the rulers. “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who made a wedding feast for his son” (Matt 22:2). And elsewhere, “a certain man made a great feast and he had called many” (Luke 14). The history of this party displays the parade of riches and the luxury of the king. But allegorically it signifies the spiritual delicacies of Christ which he dispenses to everyone. For Christ is the richest king. Who is his wife? It is the church, which delivers the Jews, that is the confessors [Christians], from the hand of danger by prayer, and she also condemns.
For it is not necessary that if the good things signify [Christ], that the bad of certain things must also agree with Christ. For Moses signified Christ in many ways, but not in this: that he doubted at the waters of Meribah. Neither does Aaron signify Christ when he fashions the calf, nor Solomon in his stain of lust. Thus Assuerus, in this judgment, signifies Christ in the liberal banquet, just as Isaiah indicates Christ in the form of king Cyrus of Persia, about which he later adds, “I equipped you, but you did not know me” etc.
For if the kings of iniquity signify the devil by their deeds, why should the good kings not reveal Christ by their good deeds? Nebuchadnezzar commanded those who had heard the sound of the harmony and music to worship the prostrate statue. And the devil of this world, with his charm, bends the human race from an upright mind to one that follows after avarice, which is idolatry . . . .
And there was hung. The silk signifies the mortification of the flesh; the purple the blood of the martyrs; the columns of marble the stability of the teachers. Therefore, it is well said that the hangings of various colored silk and purple ropes with ivory rings are suspended on marble columns, because the beauty of the church must shine in wise meditation, and in the ascent of virtue to the mortification of the flesh and chastity with the dignity of the martyrs, and by their word and example to attain to other knowledge, in order that from this instruction and strengthening they might merit to enter into the courtyard of the garden.
And they were held up by columns of marble That is, the teachers about which it is said, “I have confirmed its columns” (Ps 74:4). From elsewhere, “Its pillars he had made of silver, the couch he made of gold” (Cant 3:10).
Upon pavement It is called emerald from its excessive greenness. Parius is a white kind of marble. For by the greenness of faith and the whiteness of chastity is the foundation of humility built. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matt 5) and “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11), and elsewhere “Learn from me, because I am meek” (Matt 11:29) etc.
Some of you might shudder when reading allegorical interpretation. You might wonder why I find these portions fascinating. I do for a couple reasons.
- First, Rabanus is aware of his hermeneutic (method of interpreting Scripture). He acknowledges that the historical significance of the feast was to display to riches and luxury of the king.
- Second, he places constraints on his allegorical exegesis: the virtuous elements of an individual or event can be attributed to Christ and/or his kingdom, whereas, the evil cannot be transferred. The Gospel writers do exactly this. Christ is a king like David, without the sexual immorality. Christ is a prophet like Moses, without the disobedience etc. Furthermore, Jesus claims that the Pharisees lie because their father, the Devil, is the father of lies. This connection seems to be at the heart of Rabanus’ method (though he does not say as much). Wickedness is attributed to the father of wickedness. Virtue is attributed to the Father of virtue and virtue incarnate.
- Third, there is a great deal of creativity in these interpretations. Take, for example, his interpretation of In the third year. Here we find his understanding of the economies of redemptive history: before the law, under the law, under grace. In the third year, under grace, there is the incarnation, the preaching of the Gospel, the out-poring of Christ’s body and blood. This is the feast that we, as Christians, partake in.
- Fourth, I struggle with how the book of Esther bears meaning for the Christian church. It is interesting to see how earlier commentators handled the text and applied it to their audience.
Liber Esther quē Hebr. inter hagiographa numerant, Christi et ecclesiae continet sacramenta. Esther.n.m typo ecclesiae populum liberat de periculo, et interfecto Aman qui interpretatur iniquitas . . . .
Susan civitas etc. Susan metropolis est in Perside, quam aiunt historici Memnonis fratrem constituisse, et a Susi fluvio nomen accepisse. Ibi est regia domus Cyri lapide candido et vario, columnis aureis, et laquearibus gemmisque distincta: coeli continens simulacrum stellis micantibus insignitum, et incredibilia multa. Ibi Assuerus convivium maximum divitiis, et copiosum deliciis celebravit.
Tertio igitur anno. Tempore, scilicet, istius saeculi incarnationis sua sacramentum patefecit, et spirituales epulas praedicationis, et corporis et sanguinis sui abundantissime ministravit. Primum tempus ante legem, secundum sub lege, tertium sub gratia.
Grande convivum cunctis principibus. Simile est regnum caelorum homini regi qui fecit nuptias filio suo (Matth. XXII). Et alibi Homo quidam fecit coenam magnam: et vocavit multos (Luc. XIV). Huius convivii historia, pompam divitiarum, et luxum regis ostendit: sed Christi spirituales delicias quas unicuique dispensat, allegorice significat. Christus enim est ille ditissimus rex, qui uxoris sua, id est Ecclesiae, precibus exoratus, Judaeos, id est confessores suos, de manu inimicorum liberat, atque ipsos iuste condemnat.
Neque enim necesse est, ut si aliquorum bona Christum significant, eorum quoque mala ipsi, scilicet Christo conveniant. Moyses enim in multis Christum significavit; sed non in hoc, quod ad aquas contradictionis dubitavit. Sed nec Aaron factura vituli. Sic Assuerus in isto iudicio, ut in liberali convivio Christum significat, sicut Isaias in Cyro rege Persarum Christum signat, de quo postea subjungit: “Accinxi te et non cognovisti me” (Isa. 45) etc.
Si enim reges iniqui in malefactis diabolum significant; cur non reges justi in benefactis, Christum demonstrant? Nabuchodonosor iussit populos audita symphoniarum et musicorum voce prostratos statuam adorare. Et diabolus saeculari dulcedine genus humanum inflectit a mentis rectitudine ad sequendam avaritiam quae est simulacrorum servitus.
Et pendebant Byssus mortificationem carnis significat. Purpura sanguinem martyrii. Columnae marmoreae, firmitatem doctorum. Bene ergo dicitur quod tentoria diversi coloris byssinis et purpureis funibus per circulos eburneos in columnis marmoreis suspendebantur; quia decor Ecclesiae in sapientiae meditatione et in virtutum ascensione per carnis mortificationem et castitatem cum martyrii dignitate in doctoribus debet effulgere; et ipsorum verbo et exemplo ad aliorum notitiam pervenire: ut ab his instructi et confortati, aulam paradisi mereantur introite.
Et columnis marmoreis fulciebantur Id est, doctoribus de quibus dicitur: “Ego confirmavi columnas eius” (Ps 74). Ex alibi: “Columnas fecit argenteas, reclinatorium aureum” (Cant III).
Super pavimentum Smaragdus a nimia viriditate sui sic vocatur. Parium, genus marmoris candidissimum. Per virorem enim fidei et candorem castitatis construitur fundamentum humilitatis. “Beati enim pauperes spiritu, quoniam ipsorum est regnum coelorum” (Matt 5) Et: “Qui se humiliat exaltabitur” (Luke 14:11). Et alibi: “Discite a me, quia mitis sum” (Matt 11), etc.