Ambrosiaster on the workers of miracles

The Ambrosiaster text gives a fourth century or later Latin perspective on the workers of miracles as described by St. Paul.

Paul wrote about this function in his First letter to the Corinthians (12:28).

Here is the actual Biblical citation:

“And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” (NIV)

The key-text here is the “workers of miracles” which in the Greek text is δυνάμεις and in Ambrosiaster’s text, virtutes.

Not much is known about the fourth century writers(s) later coined Ambrosiaster. This entity wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Book of I Corinthians.

When translating this text, I got stuck on virtutes. It is not qualified in the Latin and the English translations of the Latin Vulgate seemed to have no basis to render such a translation as “worker of miracles.”

The Greek too as well seems to be ambiguous.

There may be a religious tradition that allows for the English to be worded “workers of miracles”, but I am not taking the time to figure that out. This posting will remain focused simply on the contribution by Ambrosiaster writers on this text.

The most machine-like translation of both the Latin and Greek would render “worker of miracles” as “powers”. It would be an interpolation to translate it any further.

Ambrosiaster wrote:

“In the fourth position it is to be: “Then powers, then the grace of healings”. For any who can are not to be a Bishop as having in him the gift of the power of soundness of health.”(1) MPL. Vol. 17. Ad. Opera S. Ambrosii Appendix. Comment. In Epist. Ad I Cor. Col. 263

It is clear that whatever powers means, it is not directly attached to the ability to physically heal. This is gratiam curationum which is found earlier in his text.

The first clue to what Ambrosiaster believed powers to mean was at the end of the sentence, “the power of soundness and health.” This is a difficult line to translate. In the Latin it is “et habere in se donum virtutis sanitatum.”

The question here is what virtutis sanitatum really means.

Firstly virtutis is the genitive form of virtus, which Whitaker’s Words describes as “strength/power; courage/bravery; worth/manliness/virtue/character/excellence”. The type of power being referenced here is one is one who possesses a superior moral authority or a person of esteemed character.

The Latin Biblical text could have chosen viris instead which would have connoted power as a strong force that overcomes a weakness, or it could have used potentiae instead which emphasizes command authority over a health condition, but it didn’t.

Whitaker’s Words defines sanitatum from the root sanitas and it means, “sanity, reason; health.” It is addressing a mental condition. Lewis and Short believe it be a mental condition as well but add that bodily health can be included.

At this point, Ambrosiaster makes no reference between mental health and demons. He simply states that an office exists in the Church that deals with such problems.

However he does go on to make this correlation;

“Can it be all are powers?” This one is able to possess the power, to whom God gives to expel demons.”

This leads into greater questions of the early Christian doctrine of demonology and mental illness which is far beyond Ambrosiaster’s text and a study area I am not familiar with.

What one can easily conclude though: the Ambrosiaster writers do recognize a distinction between physical and mental illness in this commentary, which isn’t usually identified in other Church documents. It shows that some sections of the Church were beginning to make a clearer distinction between these two realms, and does recognize the validity of mental illness and the need for third party intervention.

His account also displayed an early Church dictum that anyone identified with this gift was not eligible for the office of Bishop. They must have felt that people with the gift of power could wield too much if in a position of authority. It was potentially a conflict-of-interest.

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

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