‘We, who are the spiritual Israel’: thus spoke the imperious voice attributed to Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, in a massive theological treatise, the Opus Caroli, fulminating against the (as it saw them) heretical rulers of Byzantium.1 Imperious, and perhaps even proto-imperial, for within less than a decade of those words being written Charlemagne had been crowned emperor in Rome. The Opus Caroli systematically attacked the acts of the second council of Nicaea (787) as having embraced the worship of images and condemned its convenors, the Empress Irene and her son Constantine VI, as unworthy of their position, claiming that their arrogance constituted blasphemy and their practices idolatry, and that their empire was the spiritual descendant of pagan Babylon.2 Unsurprisingly, then, recent studies of the Opus Caroli (previously known as the Libri Carolini) have presented it as the ideological preparation for the transformation of the kingdom of the Franks into an empire, seeking to replace the Greek empire with the ‘new Israel’ of the Franks.3
This reading of the Opus as celebrating the ethnic election of the Franks and their status as a chosen people is widespread in scholarship; the statement ‘we, who are the spiritual Israel’ is almost universally accepted as meaning that the Franks are the new Israel.4 I know of only one explicit rejection of this interpretation, in a French doctoral thesis published in 2007.5 This article, however, argues that the Opus Caroli presents Charlemagne as the pre-eminent ruler of the Christian world, not through the election of the Franks, but through his constant attention to Christian universality and orthodoxy. In the early ninth century, the Carolingians drew increasingly on an ideology of Christian empire by associating themselves with the promotion of orthodox religion in all places and amongst all peoples;6 the Opus Caroli already encouraged such an imperial vision of Charlemagne's power in the 790s. In it the ‘spiritual Israel’ represented the community of all orthodox Christians.
That the Franks under Charlemagne and his Carolingian predecessors considered themselves a chosen people, the new Israel, was simply accepted for much of the twentieth century.7 After all, Charlemagne's grandfather Charles Martel had been compared to Joshua for defending the faith from heathens, while his father Pippin was remembered as having been anointed king of the Franks on the model of the Old Testament monarchs, and the great Charles himself was nicknamed David by his court intellectuals.8 However, in 2000 Mary Garrison published an important article arguing that the Frankish identification with Israel had been exaggerated, coming later and more slowly than traditionally thought.9 Subsequent work has questioned the old assumption that the Carolingian Franks considered themselves to be the chosen people;10 many scholars now argue that, while earlier in the eighth century the Carolingians utilized ideas of Frankish ethnic and religious superiority to strengthen their position as they seized power, Charlemagne's reign, with its vast expansion of Carolingian territories into a multi-ethnic empire, saw a shift to a rhetoric which drew on a Christian ideology and which was intended ‘to meld together and unite diverse communities’.11 The rulers of the Frankish empire saw themselves as having a special relationship with God, but increasingly grounded this in a (universal) Christian, rather than Frankish, identity. In the context of this scholarship we should nuance older ideas that the Opus Caroli asserted a Frankish identification with the new Israel.
Such interpretations of the Opus certainly sit uneasily with the recognition, now established beyond all reasonable doubt, that its author was not a Frank at all. The text as it stands was primarily the work of one man: the Spanish-born Visigoth, Theodulf, later archbishop of Orléans.12 Theodulf worked on behalf of Charlemagne, in whose voice the text speaks; the king's circle of theologians and advisers seem initially to have mapped out Theodulf's programme of writing, and his text ended up being read and approved by Charlemagne, whose comments appear as marginal glosses in the original manuscript surviving in the Vatican.13 While the impact of the Opus Caroli remains unclear, that it represented a grand politico-ideological statement arising from Carolingian elite discussion, as Thomas Noble argued, seems very likely.14 It reflected not just the genuine horror felt by devout Carolingians at what they read in the acts of the second Nicene council, but also some of the ideology of Charlemagne's regime in the years leading up to the king's imperial coronation on Christmas Day 800.
While for much of the 780s relations between the Byzantine empire and the Franks had been good, they soured violently at the end of that decade. That development provides the context for the savagery with which the Empress Irene and her son, the Emperor Constantine, were denied the status of true Christian rulers in the Opus Caroli.15 Moreover, in the early 790s, as Theodulf worked on countering the decisions of the Eastern council, Charlemagne moved to contest the Byzantine imperial claims that they defended orthodoxy and the universal Church. In 794 he held a church council at Frankfurt which dealt both with the question of the Eastern attitudes to images and with the adoptionist heresy which the court theologians had identified as recently emerging in Spain.16 Whether Charlemagne intended Frankfurt, which brought together ‘all the bishops of the kingdom of the Franks, or of Italy, Aquitaine and Provence’,17 to be an ecumenical council remains unclear, but that was certainly how it was remembered: as a direct rejection of Nicaea II's claims to universal jurisdiction.18 The Opus Caroli denied the Greeks any right to claim that Nicaea was an ecumenical council, and proposed a new basis upon which a council could be deemed universal, probably with preparations for Frankfurt in mind.19 It also highlighted the multi-ethnic nature of Charlemagne's empire, and his work and that of his predecessors in spreading Roman Christianity to new peoples: ‘not only the provinces of all Gaul and Germany and Italy, but even the Saxons and certain peoples of the northern region are recognized as converting to the beginnings of the true faith through us’.20 Theodulf's text should therefore be read as part of a wider move towards claiming that the Frankish empire was now the true Christian empire, successor to that which had overseen the earlier ecumenical councils, marked with the clear signs of catholic imperialism: orthodoxy and universality.21
But did being the new Israel contribute to becoming the new empire? The most recent major study of the Opus Caroli in English has no doubt about this: Noble understands Theodulf's message to be that ‘Charlemagne is like David, and the Franks are a new chosen people’;22 the ‘Franks were the direct heirs of Israel’.23 In arguing against this interpretation of the Opus, I structure my response around a new reading of the text's mention of the ‘spiritual Israel’. I maintain that the phrase does not evidence Frankish belief in their election: firstly, because there is little reason to suppose that the ‘we’ in question refers to the Franks; secondly, because the language appears in a commentary on Christian exegesis, emphasizing separation from the Old Testament and the Jewish past; and thirdly, because ‘spiritual Israel’ is a patristic term for the universal Church of all peoples.
A contrast between ‘us’ and ‘them’ appears frequently in the Opus Caroli, meaning that scholars often portray the work as presenting a sharp distinction between good Franks and bad Greeks,24 but the Franks themselves are never mentioned in the Opus Caroli. The only appearance of the word Franci comes at the very start of the work in the title given to Charlemagne: ‘by the will of God, King of the Franks, ruling Gaul, Germany and Italy, and their neighbouring provinces’.25 The Opus’s targets are occasionally referred to as ‘Greeks’ (Gręci) or ‘Easterners’ (Orientales), but Theodulf only once presented the theological debate as a contest between East and West, in his preface.26 He much preferred to associate his opponents, rather than the ‘we’ of the text, with ethnic or geographic identities.27 In doing so, he implied that the ‘church of one region’ had heretically sought ‘to anathematize the churches of the whole world’.28 Theodulf often contrasted ‘us’ with ‘them’29 (or even ‘you’30) in purely religious terms, usually referring to the incorrect Byzantines as ‘those who adore images’, on the basic principle that the Opus spoke for orthodox Christians against a group of heretics who talked ‘irrationally and most stupidly’ (restraint not being a feature of Theodulf's argumentative style).31
However, on some occasions the first person plural seems to include the Byzantines who venerate icons. Thus, when Theodulf condemned Irene and Constantine for declaring that God ‘co-reigns with us’, he picked up their ‘us’ and spoke in terms of all humans: ‘when our being is so different from God's being, and our living so different from his living, and our reigning so different from his reigning, the madness of those who . . . say that they even co-reign with God ought to be more a source of grief than amazement’.32 Theodulf moved on to the imperial use of the adjective ‘divine’ in Byzantium, which he saw as a pagan tradition; he declared: ‘We . . . who both follow Truth and were redeemed by that Truth, just as we spurn the lie of the pagan gods, we ought to spurn pagan words.’33 The phrase ‘we ought’ suggests that Theodulf was here lecturing the Byzantines on how all Christians should behave.34 Theodulf's first person plural also included we ‘who come to the faith after the Lord's incarnation’, we ‘who do not assert those things which were prophesied concerning the coming of Christ and the calling of the Gentiles to be future, but . . . believe them to be past’, and we ‘who worship the one and only God’;35 in other words, ‘we’ in the Opus Caroli often simply means Christians, particularly the Gentiles, who came to the faith only after Christ's incarnation.36
That Christian identity proved important in the specific contexts in which Theodulf declared that ‘we’ are ‘the spiritual Israel’. The bishops at Nicaea II had argued that the pictures of the saints encourage Christians to imitate the saints’ way of life just as Moses had blue fringes added to the clothing of the Hebrews to remind them to obey God's commands. The Opus Caroli offered a different interpretation, explaining that Moses made the blue fringes:
. . . either in order to distinguish the people of Israel, so that [the fringes] might be a sign on clothing, just like circumcision was a sign on the body; or so that we, who are the spiritual Israel, might have a just and holy way of life as a garment, the extremities of which garment ought to be decorated with fringes, since our life ought to be instructed by the testimonies of holy Scripture.37
Two chapters later Theodulf addressed the Byzantine assertion that just as the Jews had been given the two cherubim which decorated the Ark of the Covenant, ‘so the cross and images of the saints . . . are given to us Christians to . . . adore’.38 He mocked the suggestion that ‘those who followed the shadow of the Law’ (i.e. the Hebrews) should have honoured divinely sanctioned sculptures, whereas ‘we who follow the truth, which is Christ’, would adore earthly objects made by any craftsman.39 Here, Theodulf was clearly picking up the contrast between Jews and ‘us Christians’ made in the Nicene acts in order to run with it to his rhetorical climax:
We who do not follow the death-dealing letter but the life-giving spirit, who are not the carnal but the spiritual Israel, who having scorned visible things, contemplate the invisible, we give thanks to have received from the Lord not only mysteries greater than images, which lack all mystery, but greater and more lofty signs of mysteries than those same tables [of the Law] or the two cherubim. For clearly the tables and the two cherubim provided patterns of future things, and while the Jews had the things carnally which were hidden prefigurations in typological figures of future things, we hold spiritually in truth those things which were prefigured by those models or carnal prefigurations.40
When seen in their context, these claims that ‘we’ are ‘the spiritual Israel’ therefore have much more to do with exegesis than with ethnic election. In both cases Theodulf contested the Byzantine understanding of the Old Testament, suggesting that the Nicene fathers had missed the spiritual meaning of the objects in ancient Jewish cult; the Greeks ignored the fact that the Christian fulfilment of the Jewish material lies in the spirit, and not in a continuing veneration of matter, especially since this is now without the divine imprimatur which was given to the cherubim upon Mount Sinai. Exegesis forms a major theme in the Opus Caroli, as many scholars have already noted,41 and the first two books of the work deal mostly with the council of Nicaea's second-rate understanding of Scripture. They make the point repeatedly that the Greeks failed to recognize that the Old Testament finds fulfilment in Christ's incarnation and therefore must be understood spiritually. For Theodulf, the ability to distinguish good exegesis from bad exegesis divided the Byzantines from ‘us’, clearly right-thinking Christians ‘who with God's help understand the prophecy of the Psalms spiritually’, and ‘who, following the Apostle, understand the Law to be spiritual’.42
Such a spiritual understanding of the Old Testament as prefiguring the redeeming actions of Christ and their effects on the lives of believers constituted nothing more, of course, than the approach to Scripture bequeathed to the Middle Ages by the Church Fathers. For the Fathers this Christian exegesis stood sharply apart from an imaginary ‘Jewish’ understanding of the Bible.43 Consequently, the purpose of Theodulf's explanations that the spiritual Israel ought to read Scripture spiritually was to suggest continuity, not between the Franks and Israel, but between the bishops of the second council of Nicaea and the Jews.44 Theodulf borrowed his claim that we ‘do not follow the death-dealing letter but the life-giving spirit’ from Jerome, who differentiated Christian from Jewish interpretations of the prophets with these words.45 The Opus Caroli therefore reminds the Byzantines that ‘we Christians’ should not understand things in a Jewish and earthly manner, but suggests that the Greeks were doing just that. In this context, ‘we are not the carnal, but the spiritual Israel’ asserted distance from, as much as continuity with, the Hebrew past.
The reference to the spiritual Israel was not, therefore, to the Franks as a chosen people, but simply to Christians, all of whom, both Franks and Greeks, ought to read the Bible spiritually. The phrase ‘spiritual Israel’ appears frequently in patristic and early medieval theology, almost always referring to the Christian people throughout the world. Jerome differentiated the carnal from the spiritual Israel to make the kind of Pauline point which underpins Theodulf's use of the terms in relation to matter versus spirit.46 Bede (d. 735) emphasized Christian universality; the phrase ‘spiritual Israel’ could refer to ‘the Christian people’, ‘the Catholic, that is universal, Church’ or simply the people ‘who will be saved in Christ from all the nations of the earth’.47 The clearest patristic use of the phrase comes in Augustine's De doctrina christiana, where he explained that in the Bible the species could sometimes refer to the genus, that is that a scriptural mention of a single city, nation or human could signify all cities, nations or humanity.48 One must differentiate between those occasions when the species represents the genus and those when it does not, that is, between the passages in which Scripture is speaking of the spiritual Israel and those which refer to the carnal:
Thus, the spiritual Israel consists, not of one nation, but of all the nations which were promised to the fathers in their seed, which is Christ. This spiritual Israel, therefore, is distinguished from the carnal Israel which is of one nation, by novelty of grace, not by nobility of homeland, in mind, not in nation.49
Theodulf knew his Augustine well and De doctrina christiana has been identified as an important source for the Opus Caroli.50 Augustine's affirmation that members of the spiritual Israel are not distinguished by ethnic descent even finds an echo in a hymn written by Theodulf for Palm Sunday, in which the Christian boys processing compare themselves to the Jews who gathered on the original Palm Sunday: ‘The glory of noble blood made them Hebrews; / behold, the godly crossing over makes us Hebrews.’51 The patristic meaning of the phrase ‘spiritual Israel’ matches the significance of its uses in the Opus Caroli as explored above. This is unsurprising, considering the depth of Theodulf's patristic knowledge displayed throughout the treatise.
‘Spiritual Israel’, thus, does not claim for the Franks the status of the chosen people as the successors of Old Testament Israel. Indeed, such an interpretation of Theodulf's words hardly makes sense when ‘we’ appears in many contexts in the Opus but never refers explicitly to the Frankish people, when the phrase has a long patristic history, certainly known to Theodulf, in which it signified the universal Christian people, and when it appears in the context of discussions concerning correct Christian exegesis which emphasize the difference, and not the sameness, of the old and new dispensations. Through a case-study analysis of this one phrase we can, therefore, question the reading of the Opus Caroli as presenting the Franks as a chosen people. Instead, the Carolingians grounded their claims to superiority over the Byzantines in the universal Christian standards which the Greeks had failed to meet. The Opus Caroli does slip into a kind of Western parochialism on occasion, in its clear preference for evidence from the Latin Fathers and its emphasis on the special status of the Roman Church (without any acknowledgement that the papacy's support for the doctrines of Nicaea II established their orthodoxy).52 Nonetheless, my analysis reveals the importance of universalism to the assault on Byzantine legitimacy at Charlemagne's court in the early 790s.53
This makes sense against the background of wider changes in the politicized use of identity in the Carolingian world, and Theodulf's work may be best understood as part of the shift within Carolingian ideology from a close identification with the Frankish gens towards universalizing claims to Christian empire, claims which are echoed in other theological arguments emerging from Charlemagne's circle in the early 790s. When the Frankish bishops rebuked their Spanish colleagues for embracing adoptionism, they presented themselves as ‘all the bishops of Germany, Gaul and Aquitaine’ speaking with the ‘entire clergy of the Catholic peace’ to defend the universal Church from the errors of peripheral Christians;54 the contemporaneous Carolingian assault on Byzantine error rested upon the same ideological foundations. The 794 Council of Frankfurt showed Charlemagne as he wished to be seen: defending ‘everywhere’ and ‘in all things . . . the orthodox faith, both handed down by apostolic teachers and preserved by the universal Church’.55 Charlemagne was not an ecumenist, pushing a neutral Christian identity. Such claims to care for the universal Church were just as self-interested and self-important as claims to be the new Israel would have been – but they were different claims.
Theodulf in the Opus Caroli, with hyperbolic literalism, revealed how the Greeks had lost sight of the universal Church. The acts of Nicaea II anathematized anyone who ‘does not instruct the entire people beloved by Christ to adore images’, revealing that the Byzantines had forgotten that the Christian people was a vast group spread throughout the whole world, and that it was therefore impossible for any one person to instruct all Christians in their entirety.56 ‘Almost the entire world is filled with Christ's people’, Theodulf declared, in words which received Charlemagne's enthusiastic approbation when the Opus Caroli was read out at court. His approval is noted in the margin of the manuscript preserved in the Vatican.57 The Franks presented themselves as deserving the leadership of the Christian empire, but they did not need to be the chosen people or a new Israel for that; they just needed to speak up for all those things the Eastern emperors had forgotten: the orthodox faith, correct interpretation of Scripture and the universal Church.