Catena (Biblical commentary)

A catena (from Latin "catena", a chain) is a collection of excerpts from the writings of Biblical commentators, especially the Church Fathers and early ecclesiastical writers, strung together like the links of a chain. A catena exhibits a continuous and connected interpretation of a given text of Scripture, as a kind of anthology of exegesis.

Their texts frequently represent evidence of very ancient (now lost) manuscripts; they also often exhibit the only remains of certain patristic writings (cf. Holl, Fragmente vornikänischer Kirchenväter, Leipzig, 1899).


With the disappearance of the Scriptural theologians, investigators, and commentators of the fourth and fifth centuries, there arose a class of Scriptural compilers. The earliest Greek catena is ascribed to Procopius of Gaza, in the first part of the sixth century, but Ehrhardt (see Krumbacher, 211) points to Eusebius of Cæsarea (d. about 340) as the pioneer in this branch of exegesis. Between the seventh and the tenth centuries appear Andreas Presbyter and Johannes Drungario as compilers of catenæ to various Books of Scripture, and towards the end of the eleventh century Nicetas of Serræ, representative of Byzantine scholarship in this respect. Both before and after, however, the makers of catenæ were numerous in the Greek Orient, mostly anonymous, and offering no other indication of their personality than the manuscripts of their excerpts. Similar compilations were also made in the Syriac and Coptic Churches (Wright, de Lagarde, Martin, in Krumbacher, 216).

In the West, Primasius of Adrumentum in Africa (sixth century) compiled the first catena from Latin commentators. He was imitated by Rhabanus Maurus (d. 865), Paschasius Radbertus, and Walafrid Strabo, later by Remigius of Auxerre (d. 900), and by Lanfranc of Canterbury (d. 1089). The Western catenæ have had less importance attached to them. The most famous of the medieval Latin compilations of this kind is that of Thomas Aquinas, generally known as the "Catena Aurea" (Golden Catena) and containing excerpts from some eighty Greek and Latin commentators on the Gospels (ed. J. Nicolai, Paris, 1869, 3 vols.).

Since the sixteenth century effort has been expended in collecting, collating, and editing these exegetical remains of the early Christian Fathers, fully one-half of whose commentaries, Faulhaber asserts (see bibliography), have reached us in this way. Among the modern editors of Greek catenæ was the Jesuit Balthasar Cordier, who published (1628-47) collections of Greek patristic commentaries on St. John and St. Luke and, in conjunction with his confrère Possin, on St. Matthew; the latter scholar edited also (1673) similar collections of patristic excerpts on St. Mark and Job. The voluminous catenæ known as "Biblia Magna" (Paris, 1643) and "Biblia Maxima" (Paris, 1660), edited by J. de la Haye, were followed by the nine volumes of well-known "Critici Sacri, sive clarissimorum virorum annotationes atque tractatus in biblia" (edited by Pearson, London, 1660; Amsterdam, 1695-1701), containing selections, not only from Catholic but also from Protestant commentators. An important modern collection of the Greek catenæ on the New Testament is that of J. A. Cramer (Oxford, 1638-44). See also the twenty-eight volumes of the Migne commentary in his "Scripturæ sacræ cursus completus" (Paris, 1840-45).

Similar collections of Greek patristic utterances were constructed for dogmatic purposes. They were used at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, at the Fifth General Council in 533, also apropos of Iconoclasm in the Seventh General Council in 787; and among the Greeks such compilations, like the exegetical catenæ, did not cease until late in the Middle Ages. The oldest of these dogmatic compilations, attributed to the latter part of the seventh century, is the "Antiquorum Patrum doctrina de Verbi incarnatione" (edited by Cardinal Mai in Scriptor. Vet. nova collectio, Rome, 1833, VII, i, 1-73; cf. Loofs, Leontius von Byzanz, Leipzig, 1887). Finally, in response to homiletic and practical needs, there appeared, previous to the tenth century, a number of collections of moral sentences and parænetic fragments, partly from Scripture and partly from the more famous ecclesiastical writers; sometimes one writer (e.g. Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, especially John Chrysostom whom all the catenæ-makers pillage freely) furnishes the material. Such collections are not so numerous as the Scriptural or even the dogmatic catenæ. They seem all to depend on an ancient Christian "Florilegium" of the sixth century, that treated, in three books, of God, Man, the Virtues and Vices, and was known as tà 'iepá (Sacred Things). Before long its material was recast in strict alphabetical order; took the name of tà 'iepá parállela, "Sacra Parallela" (because in the third book a virtue and a vice had been regularly opposed to one another); and was attributed widely to John Damascene (Migne, P. G., XCV, 1040-1586; XCVI, 9-544), whose authority has lately been defended with much learning (against Loofs, Wendland, and Cohn) by K. Holl in the above-mentioned "Fragmente vornikänischer Kirchenväter" (Leipzig, 1899), though the Damascene probably based his work on the "Capita theologica" of Maximus Confessor. The text of these ancient compilations is often in a dubious state, and the authors of most of them are unknown; one of the principal difficulties in their use is the uncertainty concerning the correctness of the names to which the excerpts are attributed. The carelessness of copyists, the use of "sigla", contractions for proper names, and the frequency of transcription, led naturally to much confusion.


For the Byzantine collections of ethical sentences and proverbs (Stobæus, Maximus Confessor, Antonius Melissa, Johannes Georgides, Macarius, Michael Apostolios) partly from Christian and partly from pagan sources, see Krumbacher, 600-4, also A. Elter, De Gnomologiorum Græcorum historii atque origine (Bonn, 1893).

*Ehrhardt, in Krumbacher, Gesch. d. byzantinischen Literatur (2nd ed., Munich, 1897), 106- 18-bibliography and manuscript indications.
*Ittig, De Catenis et bibliothecis (Leipzig, 1707)
*Fabricius, Bibliotheca Græca, VIII, 639-700.
*A very full list of catenæ is given in Adolf Harnack, Gesch. d. altchristlich. Literatur (Leipzig, 1893), I, 835-42.
*For the catenæ manuscripts in the Vatican, see Pitra, Analecta Sacra, II, 350, 359, 405, and Faulhaber, Die Proheten-Catenen nach den römischen Handschriften (Freiburg, 1899); Catholic University Bulletin (Washington, D. C., 1899), V, 368; (1900), VI, 94.

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