The Magnificat: Cento, Psalm Or Imitatio? -- By: Robert Simons

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 60:1 (NA 2009)
Article: The Magnificat: Cento, Psalm Or Imitatio?
Author: Robert Simons

The Magnificat: Cento, Psalm Or Imitatio?1

Robert Simons


Scholars have long noted the prominence of LXX words and themes in the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55). Various attempts have been made to explain this prominence. Some have suggested that the Magnificat is a sort of cento, others that it is modelled upon the OT Psalms. This study will propose that it is an example of what was known in the Graeco- Roman rhetorical tradition as speech in character (προσωποποιΐα) employing the technique of imitatio, and will show that many details in the text of the hymn seem to support this hypothesis.

1. Is The Magnificat A Cento?

Fitzmyer states, ‘The heavy dependence on the Greek OT makes it evident that it [the Magnificat] is a cento-like composition, a mosaic of OT expressions drawn from the LXX.’2 Brown agrees that ‘the Magnificat is almost a cento or mosaic,’ confirming later, ‘like the Magnificat, the Benedictus is a mosaic or cento of OT and intertestamental phrases and ideas’.3 Dirk Schinkel makes the claim that ‘the style device called “cento” since the time of Aristophanes

accounts for the form of composition of the Magnificat and is able to elucidate the unusual linguistic-formal structure of the text by Luke.’4

In order to properly evaluate these claims, it is necessary to explore what exactly is meant by a cento. The dictionary definitions of this Latin word are a ‘patchwork’, or a ‘curtain or covering made of old garments’.5 The literary use of the word is defined as ‘a poem constructed according to strict metrical rules from a work of classical poetry, which reinterprets its subject playfully or as a parody’.6 However, Bright cautions that the cento is not an inherently parodic exercise, and is often used to treat serious subjects.7 In essence, whoever aspired to create a cento had to patch together lines or partial lines from the work of a single author (frequently Virgil or Homer) in order to create a new poem about a different subject.

Bright analysed sixteen examples of the Latin cento composed from verses in Virgil to see to what extent the...

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