THE CELTIC CHURCH IN BRITAIN #4
by Leslie Hardinge (1972)
ROLE OF THE SCRIPTURES
By far the most influential book in the development of the
Celtic, was the Bible. It moulded the theology and guided the
worship of the early Christians. It suggested rules of conduct
and transformed the ancient laws of Irish and Welsh pagans into
Christian statutes. It lay at the foundation of the education of
children and youth, and sparked the genius of poets and song
writers. It provided inspiration for the scribes of history and
hagiography and affected the language of the common people,
becoming the dynamic for the production of the most beautiful
hand-written books ever made. A study of the beliefs and
practices of the Celtic Church compels the historian to consider
the role played by the Bible in their development.
Let us begin with Patrick and the Bible. One of the most
arresting characteristics of the writings of Patrick is the
number of biblical citations they contain. Besides direct
quotations there are many phrases filled with imagery borrowed
directly from the Scriptures. In the short "Confession" and the
shorter "Letter to Coroticus," N. J. White has counted three
hundred and forty examples from fortysix books of the Bible.
Because of this Patrick was styled "the man of the lasting
language, i.e., the holy Canon". There is nothing in Patrick's
works which indicates his acceptance of the teachings of church
fathers or the canons of councils. He appealed solely to the
Scriptures in support of what he believed, practised, and
propagated: "The words are not mine, but of God and the apostles
and prophets, who have never lied, which I have set forth in
Latin. He that believeth shall be saved, but he that believeth
not shall be damned. God hath spoken." This attitude, as will be
noted in the next chapter, is typical of the Celtic teacher. He
took for granted that the Bible was God's Word and could and
should be understood by all, and carefully obeyed. The "Hymn of
Secundus" eulogized Patrick's regard for the Bible as the basis
for his theology:
He finds in the sacred volume the sacred treasure ... Whose
words are seasoned with the divine oracles ... Whose seeds
are seen to be the Gospel of Christ.... He sings Hymns with
the Apocalypse, and the Psalms of God, On which also he
discourses, for the edification of the people of God;
Which Scripture he believes, in the Trinity of the sacred
name, And teaches the One substance in Three Persons.
(L.Bieler, "The Works of St. Patrick, p.64-65)
(The Trinity teaching of Patrick may not have been anywhere near
the same as the Roman church. We certainly do have three parts to
the present Godhead - the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - the
Scriptures makes this very clear, but difining the three parts is
altogether another subject, that I have expounded on this website
in various other studies - Keith Hunt)
Gildas the Briton, possibly from Bangor-on-Dee, apparently
referred to no book but the Bible in "De Excidio," which, like
Patrick's works, is replete with quotations from the Scriptures
only. His citations show a thorough grasp of its meaning, and his
use of its imagery suggests that he was completely saturated with
its language. Gildas' copy of the Scriptures appears to have been
Bede's testimony to Celtic missionaries was that they "diligently
followed whatever pure and devout customs that they learned in
the prophets, the Gospels, and the writings of the Apostles". And
of Aidan and his friends he added: "His life is in marked
contrast with the apathy of our own times, for all who
accompanied him, whether monks or lay-folk, were required to
meditate, that is, either to read the Scriptures or to learn the
Psalms. This was their daily occupation wherever they went."
Following the example of Patrick, Columba and Celtic Christians
for centuries made the Scriptures the foundation of their
studies. The Lives of the saints often vouch for the fact that
the Bible, and especially the Psalter, lay at the basis of their
teachings. St Samson, for example, was "very often immersed
(sensatus) in searching and in learning the Holy Scriptures". A
conclusion as to which biblical books were to be regarded as
canonical was evidently reached early in the story of Celtic
Christians, but it is not known when and by whom this decision
(Yes it is known and can be known, as other studies on this
website prove to you from history that the Gospel came to Britain
not many years after the death and resurrection of our Lord
Jesus. Hence as the NT formed so did the canon the the NT
Scriptures and the contact with Britain would maintain the Celtic
British church had the canon of the NT Scriptures as did the
first apostles and the apostle John who lived to near the end of
the first century AD. - Keith Hunt)
The Old-Irish glossator observed that certain unnamed heretics
had read the canon of the Old and New Testaments but had
perverted them. The Muratorian Fragment from the ancient Celtic
settlement at Bobbio, compiled about 800 from a much earlier
document, points to the interest of Celtic scholars in what were
inspired Scriptures. Jerome's list of the canonical books of the
Bible could hardly have reached Ireland before his Vulgate, which
was believed to have arrived there towards the end of the sixth
(And all of that has nothing to do with true Christianity coming
to Britain shortly after the start of the NT apostolic church.
The days of Jerome and the Roman church in Britain is far from
the reality of true Christianity reaching Britain in the first
first century AD - Keith Hunt)
The Bible most popular with Christians of Celtic lands was the
Old Latin. It is called the "Itala." This version was
pre-Hieronymian, and similar to the recension known in Africa and
Gaul before 383.Patrick's New Testament citations may possibly
include two from the Vulgate, but it is probable that either
Jerome himself followed the Old Latin, or that the scribe, when
later copying Patrick's works, inadvertently inserted the version
he knew from memory. N. J. White called attention to the fact
that: "It is noteworthy that some of the readings found in St
Patrick's Latin writings suggest that he used manuscripts
emanating from south Gaul. In particular, there are several
remarkable readings common to him and the Latin translation of
Irenaeus." J. F. Kenney observed that, even though many of these
Gallican and African versions have perished, "the Irish were the
most important of the agents who have transmitted to us Old Latin
texts...." In the copy of the Pauline Epistles used by the
Wiirtzburg glossator, Colossians occurs between 2 Thessalonians
and 1 Timothy. A careful study of the sequence of the New
Testament books cited by Gildas shows that in his Bible
Colossians had this position too. This is also the case in the
New Testament in the Book of Armagh, and would seem to be
characteristic of the Scriptures used by the Celts. It is
interesting to discover that this is also a feature of the
African version employed by Augustine, Primasius, and Isidore of
(What was going on in Rome, with Patrick, and the Celtic church
by the time Rome came to Britain about 500 AD has little to do
with the centuries before. By Patrick's time and certainly after
Rome came to Britain, much truth had been lost by not only Rome
but by Celtic Christianity, and the influence of Rome after 500
AD just perverted more of Celtic Christianity - Keith Hunt)
It is very likely that the copy of the version of the Hermit of
Bethlehem was first brought to Ireland by Finnian (+ 579), who
crossed the sea with "the law", for "it was Findia that first
brought the whole Gospel to Ireland", where its arrival caused
(Ireland was not England, Wales, and Scotland where true
Christianity first came not long after the death and resurrection
of our Lord Jesus - Keith Hunt)
The desire to use the purest version of the Bible, and to make
sense of it free from all speculation, is underlined by the
comminatory legend of Maelsuthain O'Carrol, "chief doctor of the
western world in his time". He was accused of interpolating
biblical passages with his own words and theories. Michael
summoned three of Maelsuthain's pupils and announced that he
would be "sent to hell for ever for this and other sins". The
three students flew to earth in the form of doves and warned
their unfortunate master of his impending fate. Maelsuthain
repented, vowing, "I will put no sense of my own into the canons,
but such as I shall find in the divine books." This is an
illustration of Celtic expositors' constant attempts, to make the
Bible its own interpreter, without recourse to the commentaries
of others, either of the fathers of the Church or of their
(Yes some still had the courage to stand up to the Roman church -
But with the Romanizing of the Celtic Christians the Old Latin
was gradually modified with phrases from the Vulgate. Of the
Gospels a well-developed "Irish version" finally evolved, in
which are readings not found in any surviving copy of the Old
Latin. These variant "versions" point to the individuality and
eclecticism of both scribe and exegete. When compared with the
deep regard for the sanctity of the holy Scriptures shown by the
early Celtic Christians, writers after the time of the Danish
invasions placed less and less stress upon the Bible and more on
tradition, eventually appealing to the fabulous and foolish. But,
before this interest in the authority of the divine oracles had
waned, the Old-Irish glossator emphasized that "the authority of
the word of God ... is greater than the word of men"? adding: "It
is not possible to doubt God's words, i.e., to say that what the
word of God may say should not be true. It will effectively
accomplish the work to which it is put. As pure silver is used
for some purpose, so with the words of the Lord, a deed is
effected from them at once after they have been spoken." The
Scriptures were accorded paramount authority, and were listened
to as the voice of the Holy Ghost addressing his people in the
character of a king upon his throne. An admonition which grew
from this view is voiced by Cummian in his penitential: "He who
takes up any novelty outside the Scriptures, such as might lead
to heresy, shall be sent away."
Even during the twelfth century, when the views of Celtic
Christianity had all but disappeared, the Bible was remembered in
One of the noble gifts of the Holy Spirit is the Holy
Scripture, by which all ignorance is enlightened, and all
worldly affliction comforted, by which all spiritual light
is kindled, by which all debility is made strong. For it is
through the Holy Scripture that heresy and schism are
banished from the Church, and all contentions and divisions
reconciled. In it is well-tried counsel and appropriate
instruction for every degree in the Church. It is through it
the snares of demons and vices are banished from every
faithful member in the Church. For the Divine Scipture is
the mother and the benign nurse of all the faithful who
meditate and contemplate it, and who are nurtured by it,
until they are chosen children of God by its advice.
(O'Curry, "Letures" - p.376-7, from the "Lebar Brecc")
Whence did the ancient Celtic Christians receive such a
veneration for the Scriptures? It probably came with their ideas
regarding th religious life. Cassian's (+ 435) influence in
western monachism shows the pervasive effects of his Collations
and Institutions. In a conversation which Germanus had with his
friend the Abbot Nestorus, Germanus inquired as to the best way
of expelling from the mind the notions of pagan authors. The
Abbot replied in effect: "Read the sacred books with the same
zeal that you read heathen writers and your thoughts will be
pure." And so the pious Christian bent his energies to mastering
the Bible. Cassian set aside the commentators and advised his
disciples to do the same; devoting their time to prayer, fasting,
and meditation, so as to reach an understanding of the
Scriptures, promising that God would reveal to them in their
dreams the sense of the passages which they thus considered.
Cassian also stressed the need for active labour of all kinds, to
be combined with a study of the Scriptures, as the best education
for life and eternity. So there developed schools attached to his
communities. The pupils were taught to read the Bible. They
practised writing by multiplying copies of parts of the
Scriptures. With this increasing stress on biblical studies
devotion to philosophy and pagan authors, and even the
commentaries of the early church leaders, diminished. As there
were no fixed criteria of criticism or interpretation, each
preacher and teacher was a law to himself in his expounding of
Of all Celtic lands Ireland became the cradle of this movement
towards this deeper study of the Scriptures. Many came from
Britain and the Continent to sit at the feet of the great Irish
teachers. A seventeeth-century poem by a Continental scholar, B.
Moronus, published by Ussher, eloquently pictures this trend:
Now haste Sciambri from the marshy Rhine; Bohemians now
desert their cold north lands; Auvergne and Holland, too,
add to the tide. Forth from Geneva's frowning cliffs they
throng; Helvetia's youth by Rhone and Saline
Are few: the Western Isle is now their home. All these from
many lands, by many diverse paths Rivals in pious zeal, seek
Lismore's famous seat.
Finnian founded the school at Clonard which earned this great
renown, and was said on occasion to have had three thousand
students. These Irish colleges trained ministers not only for
Celtic churches but also for some adhering to the Anglo-Saxons.
Agilbert, successor of the Roman missionary Birinus and
evangelist to the West Saxons, had fitted himself for more
proficient service by "studying the Scriptures in Ireland for
many years". Even Anglo-Saxon noblemen pursued their education in
Ireland in preparation for careers in their own church. In 664
Britain was stricken by the plague. While Ireland was also
afflicted, some regarded it as a safer place, and, arriving
there, devoted their time to "studying under various teachers in
turn. The Scots welcomed them all kindly, and, without asking for
any payment, provided them with books and instruction." And so a
love for the Scriptures was fostered and extended.
(And so while the Roman church did its dirty work of proclaiming
errors, falsehoods, man-made traditions, and claiming to be the
only true church, that founded by Peter - Keith Hunt)
It is significant that from Irish schools comes the earliest
surviving commentary produced in the British Isles, the Wurtzburg
glosses on the Epistles of St Paul. Bede's commentaries are lost;
Alcuin wrote only on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. M. L. W.
Laistner thus succinctly noted the contribution of Ireland:
The preoccupation of Irish scholars with Biblical exegesis,
which has sometimes been assumed without adequate proof, has
very recently been placed beyond doubt and shown to have
been intense and widespread ... Many of these productions
of the Irish show certain traits in common. Characteristic
phrases recur, there is a fondness for displaying erudition
by explaining the sense of words or names in Latin, Greek or
Hebrew. Above all, many stress the literal interpretation of
the Bible, a fact which to a great extent explains their
ultimate disappearance, because by the ninth century the
predominant trend in exegesis was to follow Gregory and Bede
and to lay the chief emphasis on the allegorical and moral
sense of Scripture.
(Ya Roman theology took its hold on Britain by the 9th century
and what little remained of true Christianity through the Celtic
church was fast being obliterated - Keith Hunt)
This literalistic attitude toward the Bible must never be lost
sight of in any study of Celtic Christian beliefs and practices.
While the earliest writers of the Celtic Church, Patrick, Gildas,
Adamnan, to mention three, made practically no use of
noncanonical books of Scripture, hagiographers and homilists
after the tenth century used the stories and imagery in them
freely. The Book of Enoch provided frequent inspiration: for
example, prayers were addressed to the seven archangels for each
day of the week, and reference was made to the seven heavens. But
there is no evidence that the writer has direct access to the
Apocrypha. R. E. McNally rightly summarized its role in Celtic
theology: "A careful study of the occurrence of the apocryphal
literature as source material seems to indicate that the Bible
commentators used it mainly to supply inconsequential,
imaginative details and almost never to displace the
traditionally Christian sense of Scripture."
But while the early Celtic writers quoted from neither councils
nor church fathers, during the seventh and succeeding centuries
more and more books must have reached the British Isles in the
satchels of peregrini. References from the following writers are
found in Celtic commentaries subsequent to the second half of the
eighth century, without, however, any acknowledgement of the
source being made, either to the author or to his work:
Ambrose - Commentary on St Luke and Hexaemeron.
Aquila - Commentary on the Psalms.
Augustine - City of God and De Genesi ad Litteram.
Cassian - Institutiones.
Gregory - Magna Moralia on John and Homilies on Ezekiel and the
Hilary - "Ambrosiaster", on St Paul's Epistles.
Isidore - Etymologiae and Sententiae.
Jerome - Commentaries. letters, De Viris Illustribus, and
translation of Origen.
Origen - in translation by Jerome and Rufinius.
Pelagius - Commentary on St Paul's Epistles.
Primasius - Commentary on St Paul's Epistles (?)
Prisian - Commentaries.
Symmachus - Commentary on the Psalms.
Theodore of Mopsuestia - Commentary on the Psalms
There are also allusions to the Irish commentators Mailoairmrid
and Coirbre by the glossators.
The later Celtic commentator borrowed indiscriminately. In that
gold-mine of his opinion, the Wurtzberg glosses in Old-Irish on
the Pauline Epistles, this is clearly manifest. Augustine was
quoted eleven times; Isidore five; Origen twenty-one; Hilary or
"Ambrosiaster" twenty-nine; Jerome one hundred and sixteen; while
there are one thousand three hundred and sixteen citations taken
directly from the arch-heretic Pelagius himself. Attacked by
Jerome, anathematized by the Bishop of Rome, preached against by
Germanus and Lupus, hounded from pillar to post, Pelagius was
strongly entrenched in the hearts of his own Celtic friends, who
ignored the prohibitions of councils and the proscriptions of the
fathers. His writings were used for centuries in Ireland, on
occasion, however, modified when not acceptable to the eclectic
theologians. Here is another instance of the independence of
Irish expositors, and a
(For discussion of the position of the Pelagian writings in the
Celtic Church see H. Zimmer, Pelagius in Inland, where all the
references are printed in full [pp. 40-112]. H. Williams argues
rightly that Pelagius was not held to be a heretic [if the Irish
even knew of his condemnation as such] in the Celtic Church; see
"A review of Heinrich Zimmer's Pelagius in Irland and The Celtic
Church in Britain and Ireland", ZCP iv. 3 (1903); cf. F. W.
Wasserschleben, Die irische Kanonensammiung, where the Irish
canons xviii, xix, quote Pelagius. This is further evidence that
Pelagius was regarded as valid authority by Irish Christians.
Pope-elect John (c. 640) appealed to the North Irish to give up
their allegiance to Pelagius. Some of them were evidently quoting
defiance of the opinions of the broad stream of Western
The remarkable thing, however, about all these citations from the
fathers is that not one is used for defining doctrine, or as
authority for practice. They were employed because they aptly
expressed the thought which the commentator desired. As will be
noted, statements by various fathers are placed side by side.
Occasionally as many as five different views were presented, and
the reader or homilist is left to choose the one which he thinks
The decrees of ecclesiastical councils were also treated with
caution or indifference. When the canons of the Frankish synods
were quoted against Columbanus, he met argument with argument,
and cited in response the canon of the Council of Constantinople
which recognized the liberty of "the churches of God planted in
pagan nations, [to] live by their own laws, as they have been
instructed by their fathers" More than a century later Boniface
(+ 754) complained to Pope Zachary against Irish missionaries,
certifying that their leader Clement ignored the canons of the
Church, rejected the writings of the fathers, and despised the
authority of the synods. Ussher pointed out that Alcuin (+ 804)
had noted that some Irish theologians of his day put little
weight on authority and custom "unless some reason was added to
authority". This helps to tell us why the represenatives of the
Roman mission of Augustine were surprised that the Britons
differed from them in so many respects.
It would be well at this juncture to consider the methods used by
the Celts in biblical interpretation. It took many centuries of
trial and error before Western Christianity devised techniques,
and so it is not surprising to find among the Celts several
different ways of explaining the Bible. Cassian, whose influence
has been noted, declared that the narrative of the Scripture,
usually easily understandable in its historical sense, ranked
lowest. To the questing student the allegorical meaning lay
beneath the surface, and finally, deeper still, the anagogical
significance was the richest. But among Celtic commentators there
is discernible no systematized form of exegesis.
Most often the simple historical sense alone was taken. On the
psalmist's reference to "enemies" the comment was, "These are the
Moabites, Ammonites and Idumeans". The commentator read Psalm 108
and applied it to the days of Hezekiah, noting that the "fool"
referred to Sennacherib. St Paul's prediction of the "falling
away" was taken to refer to the departure of the Empire from the
Romans. The Celtic expositor was evidently unaware that this had
already taken place when he penned his comment in the seventh or
eighth century. "Thorn in the flesh" was explained as "headaches"
In these examples, which are part of hundreds which might be
cited, what was considered to be the simple historical purport of
the text was drawn from the biblical terms.
The historical meaning was occasionally used in combination with
the allegorical. On the Apostle's allusion to the different calls
played on a trumpet, the homilist noted that this referred to
speaking, for "unless the foreign language is distinguished and
translated, no one who hears it understands". Does this comment
indicate that in parts of Ireland worship, or perhaps preaching,
was carried on in the vernacular? One more instance of the
allegorical method will suffice. On St Paul's reference to
"leaven" the glossator remarked: "As it was forbidden to put
leaven in bread at the feast of the lamb, so it is not right that
there should be any of the leaven of sin in the feast of the
Lamb, i.e. Christ" The literal meaning or story (stoir) is
contrasted with the allegorical (sens), or sometimes with the
secret or mystical significance (ruin or run).
Very rarely a threefold system of interpretation was used,
namely, the literal meaning (stoir), the mystical or allegorical
meaning (sians or sens), and the moral or tropological
significance (morolus). Sometimes a fourfold system was employed,
but this was rare. The commentator applied the narrative twice.
There was a first application to the time of the biblical writer,
and a second was made to later Hebrew history. Here is the
Old-Irish expositor's philosophy of hermeneutics:
There are four things that are necessary in the Psalms, to
wit, the first story (stoir), and the second story, the
sense (siens) and the morality (morolus). The first story
refers to David and to Solomon and to the above-mentioned
persons, to Saul, to Absalom, to the persecutors besides.
The second story to Hezekiah, to the Maccabees. The meaning
(siens) to Christ, to the earthly and the heavenly church.
The morality (morolus) to every saint.
While there existed a Western Christian fourfold method of
interpretation, this Celtic system was different, perhaps evolved
from that of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Columba was believed by his
biographer to have had a sytem somewhat akin to this:
He divided a division with figures, between the books of the
law, i.e. he divided a division with allegorizing between
the books of reading or of Lex. i.e. of the Law of each, the
Old Law and the New Testament, i.e. he used to distinguish
history (stair) and sense (sians), morality (morail) and
mystical interpretation (anogaig).
That this Celtic technique was regarded as a good one is
suggested by the poem attributed to Airbhertach (+ 1016):
Four things in the Psalms (pure counsel), the first story, the
second story (stair),
There are found in them (it is not falsehood!) noble sense
(sians) and morality (moralus),
It is with these that the first story is with Solomon.
With the persecutors of the hosts, with Saul, with Absalom. The
second story which is here declared refers to Hezekiah, to the
To the Kings (excellent the fame!), to Moses, to the Maccabees.
The meaning (siansa) of the Psalms, with their divisions, to Holy
Christ, to the Church;
The morality after that severally to every just one, blessed
The Celtic expositior was seeking a method of construing the
meaning of the Scriptures in a practical way. "The second story"
points to the application of the original biblical message to a
later generation, that is, the message of the Pentateuch, the
Books of Joshua and judges, and even the writings of 1 and 2
Samuel, point to later periods and persons, such as Hezekiah and
the people of Israel. The third stage of significance, called the
meaning (siansa) drew attention to Christ and his Church. The
fourth and final application was "to every just one". This Celtic
fourfold division, quite different from the quadriform system
which developed in the Western Church, was concerned with
pragmatic issues. How the message of the Scriptures could be
applied to the needs of the Christian was the concern of the
AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
A careful study of the glosses in the Wurtzberg commentary
demonstrates that biblical exegesis shows a great reverence for
the antiquity and authority of the Scriptures. No desire is
anywhere detectable in the Celtic expositions to formulate a
system of dogmatic theology. There is little or no curiosity or
speculation regarding obscure passages. But there is a
tranquillity, a complete absence of controversy pervading the
study of the oracles of God. The interpreter was preoccupied with
the spiritual and the practical, and sought to make this plain.
There is little evidence that Celtic theologians, as a whole, had
any great knowledge of the original languages of the Bible, but
there are indications that a few readings from the Hebrew and
Septuagint were known. The eighth-century old-Irish glossator
occasionally observed - "so far the text of the Hebrew version",
and, "this is the translation of Jerome, and he is commenting on
... the version of the Septuagint". But these readings probably
Teached Celtic scholars through the writings of commentators
after the seventh century, since, as has already been noticed, it
does not appear probable that these works would have preceded the
arrival of the Vulgate.
(Again the true early fact of the first century is that Greek was
known and spoken in Britain. Greek was the common language of the
Roman empire. The LXX was in print, the NT writings in Greek
would have made their way into Britain in the first century AD
when Christianity was brought to England and the Celtic people.
By the 5th,6th,7th century all this may indeed have become lost,
as the influence of the Roman church tookover the land of Britain
- Keith Hunt)
Greek and Hebrew words are sprinkled over the commentaries. The
Celt was "interested in etymology." Often, apparently with
several works before him, he selected what appealed to him from
each: "This is the etymology which Isidore says ..." He then
added, "Sergius, however, gives another sense ..." And still
farther, "Cassiodorus, however, gives another sense, to wit ..."
And then, "Ambrose, however, says ..." The glossator gave his
readers this warning on semantics: "It does not behove us to add
to the Holy
(KM, Hibernica Minora, 31 : "Question. How is their meaning
arrived at? Not difficult. There is found a Greek neuter noun,
[Greek] functio is its interpretation. It receives the Greek
Preposition 'dia,' with a sense of separating, so that it makes
[Greek], and disiunctio is its interpretation, to wit, separation
of the sense and the purport and the author and the form that are
in the psalms. 'Diapsalma' is put to separate anything that has
been joined together by misreading, The same noun also receives
the Greek preposition [Greek], which, interpreted, is 'cou,' so
that it makes [Greek] which, interpreted, is 'con', so that it
makes [Greek] which, interpreted, is 'coniunctio'. 'Sympsalma' is
put, to join together anything that has been separated by
Scriptures from without, for whenever the author lets out a word
on his mouth, there is a word in his mind that answers to it."
Sometimes the commentator was working either with a poor copy or
with a limited knowledge of Greek, as illustrated by his note on
St Paul's "labouring, i.e. making ropes". He mistook (Greek),
tents, for (Greek), ropes. That he was more intent on applying
the passage under discussion to the spiritual needs of his
hearers is demonstrated by the gloss on the Apostle's statement
in 1 Cor. 15.53: "Whether in the active or the passive it should
be done. Whether the verb induo ends in 'b' for the active, or in
'r', induor, for the passive, there is passivity on the part of
the one who submits to God." His interest in grammar is shown by
the comments on 'wicked': "i.e. to the adjective, i.e. a
substantive, i.e. a substantive is not added to them, because the
Psalms were sung in metre. The sense demands it, though the metre
does not allow the substantive to be added to the adjective.
There is a slight indication that the expositor on Ps. 30.9 had
some knowledge of the Hebrew (kdphdr) in his explanation: "he
covered up and forgave their sin, and reckoned it not as a
reproach unto him". From these illustrations, and very many more
might be added, the conclusion seems inescapable that the
Old-Irish commentators had only a limited knowledge of Greek and
Hebrew words, and that they probably gained this from the
writings of others.
(In the first centuries AD this was probably not so. Much was
lost by the time the Roman church entered Britain and certainly
thereafter - Keith Hunt)
Preaching, in harmony with the divine command, was an important
means by which the Celtic missionaries, Patrick and Columba,
Columbanus and Aidan, spread the gospel. There are scores of
allusions to preaching in the Old-Irish glosses, and even in
biblical passages in which there are not any apparent suggestions
of preaching, the Celtic homilete saw some. Illustrations might
be multiplied. It seems reasonable to suppose that these notes
represent the views of preachers, as they prepared to address
their congregations or to teach their theological students or
* "Preach" - Whether any one likes it or dislikes it, preach to
him. 2 Tim. 4.2, TP 1, 696.
"Speak we" - It is Christ we preach, 2 Cor. 2.17, TP 1, 597.
"Sentence or answer" - We had the death of Christ for a subject
of preaching. 2 Cor. 1.9, TP 1, 592.
"Grace" - The grace of teaching or preaching; for it was to
preach to all that I received this grace. Rom. 15.15, TP 1, 539.
"Keep under" - Through preaching, and not accepting pay. 1 Cor.
9.27, TP 1, 556.
That the cleric strove to make his discourse as pleasant as
possible is indicated by his ideal of preaching as "a stream of
eloquence of speaking with the grace of sweetness upon it".
The thousands of Irish glosses written between the lines of
biblical manuscripts or commentaries on books of the Bible were a
sort of midrash on the text. In his introduction to Psalm 9 the
glossator has left a record of his methodology: "It is customary,
then, in this book to say the words of the psalms, and then words
are brought in from this commentary to complete the psalms." The
fact that these twelve thousand comments are written in OldIrish
would point to preaching in the vernacular. The expositor or
preacher used these notes as reminders of the thoughts he wished
to convey when he was actually before his listeners. The comments
are, for the most part, very short, their ideas greatly
condensed. The teacher was free, then, to discourse as he
pleased. Sometimes as many as five different interpretations are
found on a single passage. The remarkable point about this is the
complete absence of anything fixed or dogmatic. There is nothing
partisan. A. W. Haddan long ago noted that "The difference
between [Ireland] and other parts of the Church, lay chiefly in
her possessing a wider and more self-grown learning, and in the
consequent boldness and independence of her speculations".
An unknown Irish teacher has left a brief treatise on what he
considered were the steps in sermon construction.t It is embedded
in a fragment of an Old-Irish work on the book of Psalms. The
homilete desired his students to concentrate on clarity above
all, and to couch his thought in short words. Topics should be
*On Ps. 68.:g the glosses are: "He is here commenting on the text
of Symmachus. Mailgaimrid cecinit: ... of the birth whereby he
was born of the Father before every element, though it is not
easy to get that out of the commentary; for as the sun is prior
to the day, and it is the day that makes clear everything, so the
birth of the Son from the Father is prior to every element; i.e.
he considers Oriens here as a name of God. He was here a
commentary on ad orientem. Mailgaimrid : ab initio, i.e. of the
generation of the Son by the Father." TP t, 285.
+ "Question. What is argumentum? Not difficult. Acute mentis
inventum, 'a sharp invention of the mind', or acutum inventum, or
'a sharp invention'. There is a word arguo, that is ostendo.
Argumentum, then, ostendio 'showing'.
Question. For what use were arguments invented? Not difficult.
To set forth through stout words the sense which follows, ut
dixit Isidorus: Argumenta sunt quae causal rerum ostendunt. Ex
brevitate sermonum longum sensum habent.
to rivet attention and divisions of the theme should enable the
hearers to pursue the subject, without distracting digressions.
Diligent and acute thought was to be employed to gain new
insights. This is certainly an excellent piece of homiletic
instruction! It is endorsed by the glossator, of about the same
period, in his explication of the Pauline use of the word
"tongues": "Translating from one language into another, like
Jerome and the seventy interpreters: or, to draw forth hidden
meanings from single words, and then to preach from them
afterwards, as is the custom of preachers."
Most of the surviving sermons, however, simply consist of an
elucidation of the text of Scripture. A passage might be read
from the Gospels, or the Epistles, or the Psalms. The homilete
would then make a few germane remarks. His purpose was twofold:
firstly, he wished to convey the intent of the author of the
biblical passage; secondly, he desired to make its application
helpful in the daily lives of his hearers. An example is found in
the second of the three lives of Patrick. The speaker opened his
homily by reading, in Latin, the directive of our Lord to the
Apostles, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing ..."
On this text he expatiated as follows:
Meet is the order, teaching before baptism. For it cannot be
that the body should receive the sacrament of baptism before
the soul receives the verity of faith.
"All nations", that is, without acceptance of persons.
"Baptizing them", that is, men of the Gentiles. "In the name
of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost." "In the
name", he saith, not "in the names". Here is set forth the
Unity and Trinity of Persons. For the singularity of "name"
expresses Unity. But the diversity of appellations indicates
the Trinity. "Teaching them to observe all that I have
commanded you." An especial order: He directed the apostles
first, to teach all nations, and then to baptize them with
the sacrament of faith, and in favour of faith and baptism,
to enjoin all things that were to be heeded. And lest we
should think that the things
"Question. For what use were divisions distinguish the sense
"Question. What then is the difference between the argument and
the title? Not difficult. The arguments were invented to set
forth the sense that follows, ut diximus: Titulus to illustrate
the cause and occasion at which the psalm was sung." KM, op.
ordered were few and trifling, be added: "All that I have
commanded to you", so that they who have believed and been
baptized in the Trinity may do all that bath been enjoined.
"And lo, I am with you alway even unto the end of the
world", as if he would say, "This is your reward", and as if
he had said, "Fear not to go into the world and to be
harassed with tribulations, for my help will be present to
you therein, even to the end of life, in doing signs and
miracles." The apostles fulfilled [this], and so forth.
This is not profound exposition, but it is preaching in slow
motion. The thought, as some precious stone, is held up before
the listeners, and slowly turned around in the hands of the
speaker as he describes its various facets. There is little
movement, no rush of ideas. There is, however, a devotional study
of the implications of Scripture to aid practical piety.
J. Strachan long ago published one of the very few genuine
OldIrish homilies which have survived. It was evidently addressed
to a group of Christians as an encouragement to more joyous
adoration of God and a deeper devotion to the virtues of
Christian living. It begins with a short, direct introduction in
the form of a statement of purpose. This would be natural before
a congregation assembled for their regular service of worship.
Here is what an outline of this sermon might have looked like as
it lay on the lectern before the Celtic preacher:
Introduction: The Christian must be thankful to God.
1. It is REASONABLE to be thankful for all God's blessings.
i. Creation praises its Creator.
ii. Sinners have cause to praise their Saviour.
iii. Christians naturally praise God.
11. It is a DUTY to be thankful for all God's blessings.
i. God abides with the righteous, and expels the devil, who
dwells in the wicked world.
ii. The emancipated Christian will praise God from his heart.
111 Upon WHAT may he expect God's Blessing?
i. Upon all he possesses - animate and inanimate, for without God
life is hell, with him, heaven.
(a) What is hell like?
(b) What is heaven like?
ii. What will be the RESULT of abiding in
(a) the atmosphere of hell?
(b) the atmosphere of heaven?
Conclusion: Let all enter into a relationship with God in which
blessings - now and ever-will result.
Imagination and extempore speaking filled in the details.
The way in which the Irish preacher went about developing his
theme was simple and direct. Following his opening statement,
which was an unadorned declaration: "We give thanks to Almighty
God, Lord of heaven and of earth, for his mercy and for his
forgiveness, for his charity, and for his benefits which he has
bestowed upon us in heaven and on earth", the preacher read Ps.
145.10 in a Latin version which differed from that of Jerome.
This he immediately translated into Old-Irish for the benefit of
those of his hearers who did not understand Latin. He took up the
first idea, "All Thy works ..." and went on to demonstrate how
all creation praises the Creator. He then cited Ps. 103.22, and
translated it, developing the thought that even sinners are not
without divine blessings, and quoting what appears to be a
paraphrase of Acts 17.25, which he translated into Old-Irish.
Since God is good and distributes his benefits to righteous and
wicked alike, he is worthy of praise. There follows a list of the
attributes of God. He is eternal, omnipotent, the creator and
sustainer, the nourisher and gladdener, the illuminator, ruler,
teacher, giver of the law, and judge of the world.
His second main point demonstrated that it was a duty for the
Christian to praise God. He quoted from St Peter and then
paraphrased the apostle's words, "the man who thanks God for his
grace and benefits is a fee simple estate to the King of all".
God abides in him while the devil dwells in the ungrateful. The
speaker then underlined the latter thought by a further citation
from St Peter, and remarked that the devil possesses the
ungrateful. It is for this reason that we should "give thanks to
God for his innumerable benefits". This Latin passage is
translated, or rather paraphrased.
His third point is a discussion of the objects upon which God
bestows his benefits. He listed the blessings of nature, the sun,
rain, and ripening grains. He then moved without a pause into:
"For he who receives Christ's folk, it is Christ whom he receives
therein; as He himself says, Qui vos recipit the recipit, qui vos
spernit the spernit", which he translated into Old-Irish. In
three ways he repeated this thought without any amplification or
exegesis, which is almost completely absent from his discourse.
He then dilated on the "likeness of the kingdom of heaven and of
hell in this world". Hell he illustrated by winter and snow,
tempest, cold, age, decay, disease, and death. Heaven he pictured
by fair weather, summer, blossom, leaf, beauty, feasts, feats,
prosperity. But there was an even severer form of hell to which
sinners will be condemned on the day of doom when Christ bids
them "Depart ..." This, too, was said in Latin and Irish. The
preacher was moved by his theme into giving a terrifying
description of hell:
Its site is low, its surrounding is strong, its maw is dark,
its dwelling is sorrowful, its stench is great, its monsters
are everlasting, its surface is [rough], its soil is
unfruitful, it is a cliff to restrain, it is a prison to
keep, it is a flame to burn, it is a net to hold fast, it is
a scourge to lash, it is an edge to wound, it is night to
blind, it is smoke to stifle, it is a cross to torture, it
is a sword to punish.
There is no attempt to present a biblical view of Hades. He
allowed his imagination to carry him away. He next presented a
list of things the Christian might do to avoid hell: "Labour and
study, fasting and prayer, righteousness and mercy, faith and
charity," were his prescriptions. To those who are faithful in
all these things Christ will one day say, "Come ye blessed ..."
This statement he gave first in Latin and then in translation.
The speaker then came to his final paragraph, which was an
appeal: "One should, then, strive after the kingdom of heaven."
This was unlike the present world, which he then went on to
describe in the most lurid language:
It blinds like mist, it slays like sleep, it wounds like a
point, it destroys like an edge, it burns like fire, it
drowns like a sea, it swallows like a pit, it devours like a
monster. Not such, however, is the kingdom which the saints
and the righteous strive after. It is a fair blossom for its
great purity, it is a course of an ocean for its great
beauty, it is a heaven full of candles[?] for its exceeding
brightness, it is a flame for its beauty, it is a harp for
its melodiousness, it is a banquet for its abundance of
He finally reached his peroration which consisted of an
ascription of praise to God for his goodness and mercy to all
Blessed is he who shall reach the Kingdom where is God
Himself, a King, great, fair, powerful, strong, holy, pure,
righteous, keen, ... merciful, charitable, beneficent, old,
young, wise, noble, glorious, without beginning, without
end, without age, without decay. May we arrive at the
Kingdom of that King, may we merit it, may we inhabit it in
saecula saeculorum. Amen.
No analysis of Celtic preaching has been attempted before. If
this is typical it reveals several interesting qualities. The
portions taken from the Scriptures were either read or cited from
memory from the Old Latin version, which, as is usual, contained
texts differing from the Vulgate. The quotations in this short
homily, nine in number, form a considerable part of the
discourse, since they were cited, and then translated, and
finally paraphrased. The preacher was ready to indulge in vivid
descriptions, allowing his imagination to suggest the qualities
of heaven and hell usually supplied in the Bible, and also the
attributes and activities of God; the items upon which the
blessings of God rested and the snares of the kingdom of this
world and the wonders of the kingdom of heaven. His introduction
was brief to the point of abruptness. His conclusion consisted of
both ascription to God and appeal to his fellows. The atmosphere
of the homily is quiet, simple, meditative, sincere, and
practical. It is easy to follow. It displays no interest in
theology as such, and is purely devotional.
Besides the homily, a question-and-answer method was common with
Celtic teachers, as even a cursory perusal of the sources will
reveal. The Irish catechist, as well as the hagiographer and
compiler of annals, would often, and abruptly, ask a question, to
which the response, psychologically suggestive, was generally
"the answer is not difficult". Simple biblical tests were also
employed. An eighth-century text, found in the monastery of St
Gall, is an
*Col. 2.11, TP t, 672: "Circumcision - -Question: What is the
circumcision of Christ? The answer is not difficult: It means his
death and burial; it is these that effect a circumcision from
ALI IV, 365: "Question: What is the penalty of wounding a virgin
bishop? Answer: Three victims to be hanged from every hand that
wounded him; half the debt of wounding is paid for insulting
"example of medieval Bible study undertaken independently of the
Who died but was never born? (Adam)
Who gave but did not receive? (Eve, milk)
Who was born but did not die? (Elias and Enoch)
Who was born twice and died once? (Jonas the prophet, who
for three days and three nights prayed in the belly of the
whale. He neither saw the heavens nor touched the earth)
How many languages are there? (Seventy-two)
Who spoke with a dog? (St Peter)
Who spoke with an ass? (Balaam the prophet)
Who was the first woman to commit adultery? (Eve with the
How were the Apostles baptized? (The Saviour washed their
This series of questions might reflect "the academic method of
the day, though it may be nothing more than a parody on the
disputatio of the early medieval Bible schools". It obviously
reflects a time when precise knowledge of the facts of the Bible
was becoming blurred!
(Oh you bet the facts of the Bible were by this time becoming
blurred - truth was being overrun by error and false teachings
and ideas from the church of Rome - Keith Hunt)
But while the Celtic theologian was keenly interested in the
whole of the Scriptures, his preoccupation with the Ten
Commandments was even deeper. The earliest Christian service
included a recitation of the Decalogue. It might well be that
Pliny's statement that Christians bound themselves by an oath not
to kill or steal reflected his understanding of the meaning of
the repetition of the Ten Commandments in the Christian liturgy.
If this be granted, then "this will explain both the sudden
decision of the Jewish authorities to omit the Decalogue from
their daily service and the great prominence accorded to it in
early Christian literature" The Christianity practised by
Patrick's parents and introduced by him into Ireland was
characterized by a profound respect for the Ten Commandments.
Antinomianism and anti-Semitism had not succeeded in banishing
the Decalogue from Britain. In his comment on the word "teachers"
the Old-Irish glossator observed: "That they might be engaged in
framing laws with kings". This was an allusion to the tradition
that the Brehon code of Ireland was revised under the direction
of Patrick. The introduction of the Senchus Mor contains a
prophecy of an early Irish sage which underlines the point of
view of Celtic Christians that the Decalogue was part of what
they regarded as their code of conduct:
They had foretold that the bright word of blessing would
come, i.e. the law of the letter; for it was the Holy Spirit
that spoke and prophesied through the mouths of the just men
who were formerly in the island of Erin, as he had
prophesied through the mouths of the chief prophets and
noble fathers in the patriarchal law; for the law of nature
had prevailed where the written law did not reach.
This introduction also contained the delightful statement that
Patrick was helped by Dubhthach Mac ua Lugair, who put "a thread
of poetry around" the laws. It would be a joy to the student of
all legal enactments were a Patrick to insist that in every
legislative assembly a poet do the same! The Brehon laws, at
least in their Christian aspects, were based on the Decalogue and
other parts of the Mosaic legislation, for the tradition is
What did not clash with the Word of God in the written law
and in the New Testament, and with the consciences of the
believers, was confirmed in the laws of the Brehons by
Patrick and by the ecclesiastics and the chieftains of Erin;
for the law of nature had been quite right, except the
faith, and its obligations and the harmony of the church and
the people. And this is the Senchus Mor.
Another clue to the pervasive influence of the Bible on the
OldIrish legislation is the echo of St Paul's declaration that
"the scripture hath concluded all under sin", and "now we know
that what things so-ever the law saith, it saith to them who are
under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world
may become guilty before God," which lie behind this explanation
in the Senchus Mor:
For all the world was at an equality, i.e. for all the world
was at an equality of ignorance or injustice until the great
"cas" of the seniors came to be established, i.e. "hand for
a hand, foot for a foot"; or, each person's right was
according to his might.
This synthesis, of the old Brehon Laws and the regulations of
the Old Testament, throws light on the practices of the ancient
Irish Christians, and hence of the Celtic Church. It probably
goes back for its inspiration to the old law book, Liber ex Lege
Moisi. Whereever Patrick established a church he was believed to
have left a copy of "the books of the Law and the Books of the
Gospel". The Liber ex Lege Moisi is the only work surviving from
Celtic sources which answers to the description, "books of the
Law". Each of the four extant manuscripts of this work has an
Irish provenance. The earliest has been dated about 800, and had
apparently been copied from an earlier manuscript. It commences
with the Decalogue and contains selections from the Books of
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which are filled
with citations from the Old Latin. Its interest lies not only in
the texts it contains, but also in the parts of the Mosaic
legislation it omits. In the Corpus Christi College Ms. 279 it
forms part of the Canones Hibernenses, which end with the
The people of Israel ought to have been ruled by the Ten
Commandments of the law, since for the sake of these God
smote the Egyptians with the ten plagues; therefore are
there ten commandments; while there are precepts in the law
which God did not command, but (for example) Jethro the
kinsman of Moses told Moses to choose seventy leading men
who would judge the people with Moses; and this is the
judgment, that if we find judgments of the heathen good,
which good Nature teaches them, and it is not displeasing to
God, let us keep them.
Not only were Patrick and the framers of the Senchus Mor
interested in the Decalogue, Brigit was also "a keeper of God's
commandments", and Columba was likewise credited with teaching
"the books of the Law completely", for "Christ's law they used to
chant, with mysteries they used to search it out, with their host
no heedlessness was found". As Fournier long ago pointed out,
this little book apparently played an important part in the
framing of the laws of Ina, and hence of those of Alfred the
Great and later legislators.
The significance of the Liber ex Lege Moisi has been overlooked
in studies of Celtic beliefs and practices. Not only were laws
modified by it, but also theological concepts and many practices
show direct dependence upon its regulations. The following pages
will demonstrate this relationship.
The Celtic Church cherished a deep love of the Bible, and from
the Epistles of St Paul developed their theology. The Psalms were
used in worship, and were the inspiration of poets and preachers.
Without the influence of the views of church fathers Celtic
theologians set about discovering what the Scriptures meant.
Their tenets and practices, based on this understanding, show the
eclecticism and pragmatism of exegete and layman. The legislation
of Moses pervaded social, economic, and legal relationships to an
extent seldom seen in the history of other branches of the
Unlike the theologians of Roman Christianity who appealed more
and more to the teachings of Church and councils, Celtic teachers
stressed the Bible. The role of the Scriptures in Celtic
Christianity was indeed a vital one, so much so that no thorough
study of the beliefs and practices of the Christians of Celtic
lands is possible without bearing this fact in mind.
To be continued
We have seen how important the Scriptures were to the Celtic
church people. It was even more so in the first centuries AD
before the Roman church arrived in Britain. We still see the
stregth of Scripture for the Celtic people even during the 5th,
6th, 7th, century AD when the Roman church had arrived. But as
the prophecy of the book of Revelation gave "all nations have
become drunk on the wine of her fornication [spiritual]" and "she
is drunken with the blood of the saints" - so indeed the history
of the church of Rome and the world has become exactly what
Revelation said she would become. The church of Rome has shed the
blood of the saints, and she has made all nations spiritually
fornicate with her false teachings and false customs and wrong
traditions, i.e. the first of January is observed by nearly every
nation on earth; the Christ-mass season is in one way or another
being observed by more and more nations of the earth.
As Jesus said "Thy [God's] word is truth" (John 17:17) and as He
also said, finding that truth will make you free.
You need to keep your nose and eyes in the Bible. You can know
what the canon of the Old and New Testament books are. It is all
in detail explained to you in studies on this website.
By the study of the Scriptures you can know the truth of God from
all the errors of mankind. Then you can know the way to salvation
and the Kingdom of God.