McKenzie - The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation

Steven L. McKenzie - The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation

Steven L. McKenzie - The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. – 1164 p.
ISBN-10:‎ 0199832269
ISBN-13:‎ 978-0199832262
This encyclopedia is a tribute to the vibrancy of the field of biblical studies and the creativity of its members. As a critical, academic enterprise, biblical studies is a relatively young discipline. A product of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it initially focused on questions of the Bible’s historical veracity and the discernment of various sources and contributing writers behind its composition (source criticism). This focus continued well into the twentieth century, abetted by the developing field of archaeology (and later sociology and anthropology) and a growing collection of inscriptional materials from the ancient world. The advent of other methods—especially form criticism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century—changed this focus slightly, but form criticism was still very much in the historical-critical paradigm, as illustrated by how readily it lent itself to tradition-historical and redaction criticism, which were hybrids of “literary” (source) and form criticisms. These remained the primary methods employed by biblical scholars into the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During these decades, though, there arose a growing unease with the limitations of these methods and their tendency to concentrate on historical questions to the neglect of literary and aesthetic ones. James Muilenburg’s 1968 Presidential Address to the Society of Biblical Literature sparked a methodological revolution in this respect as he launched a new approach—“rhetorical criticism”—that proposed exploring biblical literature qua literature. The address and the approach would have a far-reaching impact in liberating scholars to move beyond purely historical questions and to apply newer modes of literary analysis and criticism to the Bible. Shortly afterwards, canonical criticism, launched in different trajectories by James Sanders and Brevard Childs, created similar bridges between the historical and the literary paradigms.
Following upon the paths blazed by these pioneers, methods and approaches began to multiply in the later 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Driven largely by revolutions that had taken place in the fields of literary theory and philosophy, scholars started to apply a spate of experimental techniques to the Bible. These included structuralism, deconstruction, narrative criticism, reader-response theory, and poststructuralism, among others. Moreover, in what would become the most influential and most fertile new direction in biblical studies, explicitly ideological approaches began to surface in the form of feminist, socioeconomic, and ethnic (African American, Hispanic) criticisms that were often, though certainly not always, postcritical in nature. The result was tension throughout the 1980s and 1990s as older, more traditional historical-critical approaches and more recent approaches representing a paradigm shift vied for ascendancy in the field, eventually settling into a sometimes uneasy coexistence.
It would be naïve to claim that the rivalry between paradigms has dissipated across the dawn of the new millennium. Tensions certainly remain and occasionally flare. At the same time, a new spirit of mutual recognition and tentative cooperation has begun to surface, even if it has not displaced the rivalry. The new movement is coupled with and evident in a proliferation of critical approaches across the abutting paradigms and is fueled by at least three interrelated factors that all grow out of a growing appreciation of diversity. The first of these is acknowledgment of the advantages to be gained from interdisciplinary approaches and from the application to the Bible of insights gained in other fields of inquiry. Going back at least to Adolf Deissmann’s errant attempt to distinguish epistles from letters (1895), there has been an awareness that the Bible did not appear in a vacuum and that insights from fields such as Greco-Roman studies were invaluable for biblical interpretation. But there has also been a trend toward isolationism in Biblical studies and one-sidedness about its dialogue partners. The paradigm shift brings with it an eagerness to converse with many other fields of study in the humanities (e.g., literary theory and philosophy, as noted) and social sciences (anthropology, cultural studies, linguistics, psychology, etc.) especially. In addition to providing new ways of examining the biblical text, other disciplines have led more traditional approaches to the Bible to become increasingly sophisticated, with results that are sometimes radically divergent from those of a few decades past. For instance, theories about the composition of the Pentateuch (source criticism) and the Gospels (redaction criticism) are being transformed by insights gained from orality and folklore studies and from improved understandings of literary and scribal practice in the ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds. These insights are further enhanced and developed by recent approaches such as performance and mimetic criticisms. In some cases, this has shown itself in a return to older areas of interest but with a new orientation that recognizes the paradigm shift of the postmodern world. One might point to renewed interest in psychological criticism, the rise “new historicism,” and the emergence of queer theory as examples. Biblical studies is coming of age and taking its place without embarrassment or isolation as an academic discipline that intersects with, benefits from, and contributes to its peers.
The second factor is globalization. There is much greater dialogue than ever before among biblical scholars from different parts of the world. This is largely the result of technology, which greatly facilitates communication around the globe and has brought with it greater and closer attention to the voices of people outside of Western Europe and North America, who have just as much of a stake and interest in biblical interpretation. Globalization has effected awareness of the gaps that exist between different continents and cultures when it comes to assumptions and approaches about the interpretation of biblical literature. It has also brought with it an interest in issues of global concern reflected in interpretations dealing with such topics as ecocriticism, postcolonialism, economics, and classism.
A third important factor fueling the proliferation of approaches to the Bible is the recognition of the significance of the reader’s location in the process of interpretation. To put it another way, one’s interpretation of the Bible is significantly influenced if not determined by one’s social, ethnic, and national identity. Recent scholarship has cultivated not just an awareness of interpretive location but also a positive appraisal of it as an element to be embraced rather than embarrassingly shunned or denied. The result is an ever expanding list of interpretations exploring the particular vantage point of interpreters of various nationalities, ethnic origins, genders, sexual orientations, physical states, and combinations of these. In addition, interest in how the Bible has been and is received and interpreted has spawned specific interpretive approaches in their own right. A clear, if subtle, indication of this shift is the language about interpretive approaches rather than interpretive methods. The latter term implies regimentation and consistency across practitioners, who come to the text with a checklist of “measurements” to be taken of it. The term “approach,” in contrast, acknowledges the “situatedness” of the reader and the role that context plays in the interpretive enterprise. It is more comfortable with the identity of biblical studies as a discipline in the Humanities rather than aspiring to the model of Natural-Scientific Wissenschaft. This move is not at all a diminishing of academic rigor in critical interpretation. Rather, it is another sign of biblical studies coming into its own in academe and becoming comfortable with itself—its strengths and its limitations.
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Patristic Interpretation
The Christian Bible was being interpreted before there was a Christian Bible. That is to say, before there was anything like an “official” Christian canon of Holy Scripture, certainly no sooner than the fourth century, there was a repertoire of sacred texts
that Christian teachers and bishops already considered virtually canonical (Barton 1997, pp. 1–34). At least prior to Marcion of Sinope and his apostolicon—a controversial selection and edition of authoritative Christian writings intended to supplant the Hebrew Scriptures save as a foil for the gospel—churches were preoccupied less with closing a biblical canon than with the immediate exigencies of Christian identity and self-definition. Justin Martyr’s report that in early worship services Christians heard readings from “the prophets” and the “memoirs of the Apostles” (1 Apology 67) indicates that “Scripture” at this point was the Hebrew Bible/Septuagint, whose “prophets” (Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, et al.) gave witness to the Christian dispensation, together with “Apostles” whose own gospel memoirs of Jesus laid claim to those ancient prophetic witnesses. More than fixed lists of authoritative scripture, churches needed a “past” and the connecting links between Israel’s sacred history and the advent of Christ. Probably the earliest functional “canon” was what Irenaeus and others called the “canon of truth” or “rule of faith,” an epitome of sacred revelation that set out, in variable wording, its definitive contents: the one God; divine creation of the world; the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the like (cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.1; 1.22.1; 3.4.2; Epideixis 3, 6; Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 13.1–6; On the Veiling of Virgins 1; Against Praxeas 2.1–2; Origen, On First Principles 1, Pref. 1–8; Comm. on John 32.16; Comm. on Matthew, ser. 33). This rule in turn provided a criterion for determining both what texts qualified as “New Testament” scripture and their normative relation to the “Old Testament.” As well, the rule served as a touchstone and framework for the interpretation of scriptures being authorized within Christian communities (see Kugel and Greer 1986, pp. 155–199).
Prophecy and Typology in Earliest Patristic Interpretation.
Patristic interpretation of the Bible thus began with a mandate, as it were, to expound the overarching narrative of salvation that tied together God’s revelation to Israel and God’s revelation in Jesus Christ to all the gentiles. The archetypal pattern in earliest Christian exegesis, already obvious within the New Testament writings themselves and in the Apostolic Fathers, was that of prophecy and fulfillment. Not only apologetic and polemical works like Justin’s Apologies and Dialogue with Trypho, Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, or Origen’s Against Celsus, but also sermons like Melito of Sardis’s On Pascha and theological treatises like Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh demonstrated how the Old Testament—Genesis and other narratives of the Torah, the prophetic books, and not least the Psalms—teemed with adumbrations of, even explicit vectors toward, the mystery of Christ (see Skarsaune 1987).
This was more than a pattern of ancient prophetic voices predicting future events that had their ultimate fulfillment or outcome (ekbasis) in Christ, such as in the pervasive appeal to Isa 9:6–7 (“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.…”) as a prophecy of divine incarnation and nativity. There were variations. One such was prosopology (“impersonated speech”), where a certain statement from the Old Testament was ascribed to God the Father or to Christ himself. Already in the New Testament, Davidic enthronement psalms were interpreted as the Father speaking honorifically to Christ at the completion of his earthly ministry (e.g. Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:33 and Heb 1:5, 5:5; Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:34 and Heb 1:13); and Christ himself was understandably accredited ultimate authorship of the lament in Psalm 22 that he uttered from the cross (Mt 27:46 and parallels). Justin details not only the Father’s routine declarations through the Prophets (e.g. Isa. 66:1) but also the Son’s foretelling of his own scourges and redemptive passion (Isa 50:6; 65:2) and even the Holy Spirit’s distinctive announcement that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isa 2:6), referring to the future mission of Christ’s apostles (1 Apology 36–53).
Not just prophetic discourse properly speaking, but also events, characters, images and symbols, and unique literary or lexical features within the ancient texts could all prophetically foreshadow or suggest future developments in the economy of salvation. All could serve as “types” (typoi; figura). And yet “typology” was not in patristic interpretation a single “method” of exegesis per se, one allegedly more respectful of historical correspondences and less subjective than allegory, though a functional distinction between typology and allegory can be useful in analyzing early Christian exegesis (cf. Young 1997, pp. 152–157, 161–185; O’Keefe 2000; O’Keefe and Reno 2005, pp. 69–113; Martens 2008). Types, after all, were hardly transparent in the biblical text. Jesus’s own claim that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14; cf. Num 21:9) appears an innocent comparison unless one explores the larger analogy between the elevation of the serpent and the elevation of Christ on the cross as representations of the giving of life, and unless one considers the rich overlapping senses of the Son’s “lifting up” in John’s Gospel.
Similarly, in the figural interpretation of the relation between the ancient Passover and the new Christian Passover (Pascha) inaugurated through Christ’s death, the second-century bishop Melito of Sardis indicates how Jesus’s passion was adumbrated not only in the events of Israel’s Passover but in vivid narrative types throughout the Hebrew Scriptures:
For indeed the law has become word,
and the old new…
and the commandment grace,
and the model (typos) reality (alêtheia),
and the lamb a Son,
and the sheep a Man,
and the Man God…
He is the Pascha of our salvation.
It is he who in many endured many things:
It is he that was in Abel murdered,
and in Isaac bound,
and in Joseph sold,
and in Jacob exiled,
and in Moses exposed,
and in the lamb slain,
and in David persecuted,
and in the prophets dishonoured.
(Sermon on Pascha 7, 69; trans. Hall 1979:5, 37)
The intelligibility of the connection between types and antitypes in Melito’s sermon rested not on natural historical correspondences but on their mutual orientation to a higher comprehending truth. Even if Melito and other early Christian apologists wanted to suggest that such correspondences were self-evident, it required the lens of the Christian rule of faith truly to make sense of them. What Melito calls the “reality” (alêtheia) seems at first sight to represent a simple hermeneutical closure, whereby the typos gives way to a superior event (antitype) within the forward advance of salvation history. More than once, Melito refers to the type being rendered obsolete or perishable by its superior antitype. And yet there can be no “fulfillment” without referring both type and antitype to a larger, overarching economy, what Origen later called the “Eternal Gospel” (On First Principles 3.6.9; 4.3.13; see de Lubac 2007, pp. 247–259). Within this scheme, the integrity of the typos, the original historical referent, was guaranteed, and its original sense, though rendered “useless,” could not be utterly evaporated since type and reality each has its “proper season” (Melito, On Pascha 37–38). But in the unfolding divine plan a type had always to yield to a horizon of new significance.
“Spiritual” Interpretation and the Negotiation of Scripture’s Literal Sense.
For Origen and other patristic devotees of the Alexandrian hermeneutical tradition, that horizon of new significance was boundless, since the mystery of Christ, the reality of realities, was infinitely polyvalent. Indeed, Origen says, the scriptures provide the primary launching-points for knowledge of divine things, but “once they have been accurately understood, we must go from them up to Jesus, that he may grant us the spring of water that leaps unto everlasting life (John 4:14)” (Comm. on John 13.5.37). The mature Christian must transcend not only the literal sense of texts but all “types, shadows, and indications” (Comm. on John 13.24.146) en route to the higher revelation intimately communicated to the soul or to the church by Christ himself—a theme Origen prolifically develops in his Commentary and Homilies on the Song of Songs. Since, however, all revelation is accommodated through the constraining features of human discourse, those features have to be relentlessly analyzed. Precisely in negotiating the “letter” (gramma; littera) of scripture, or in exploring the “thickness” or complexity of the mimetic relation between a scriptural type and its fulfilling truth, Origen and his heirs moved into the terrain of various forms of “spiritual” interpretation aimed at uncovering moral (tropological), doctrinal (allegorical), and mystical (anagogical) dimensions of biblical texts. Here, indeed, typology gave way to multiple senses, a legacy of Origen that endured in medieval exegesis (see de Lubac 2007, pp. 159–171; de Lubac 1998, 2000). In his homily on Noah’s ark (Hom. 2 in Gen.), for example, Origen works with the basic typological correspondence between the ark and the church as vessels of salvation, with Christ as the “spiritual Noah;” but he discerns in those connections all manner of symbolic and allegorical nuances as well. The dimensions and tiered decks of the ark, scaled to humans and beasts, bespeak the diversity of persons in the church and the hierarchy of ascent from immaturity to maturity in the faith. Indeed, the decks signal the different levels of spiritual interpretation, with all readers called to ascend from lower to higher insights.
Even the animal dung at the bottom of the ark had spiritual significance in Origen’s homily. Extremes like this in turn prompted his critics, particularly those associated with the fourth- and fifth-century “Antiochene school” of interpretation (Eustathius of Antioch, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrus, et al.), to assail such allegorization as extravagant and exotic, and most importantly, as ignoring or violating the literal sense of biblical texts. Drawing on disciplines of literary analysis appropriated from rhetorical and grammatical studies, these exegetes proved far more guarded about the coherence of texts in their original context and suspicious of allegedly hidden senses (see Schäublein 1974; Young, pp. 76–96, 161–185).
And yet the radical polarization between Alexandrian and Antiochene approaches, or even more dubiously between “spiritualizing” and “literalist” approaches, has often been exaggerated in studies of patristic hermeneutics. For one thing, already in the fourth century there were mediating exegetes like Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome, both of whom became prolific biblical commentators, who combined a strong focus on biblical historia with the disciplined use of allegorical exegesis. Eusebius, who in the early Constantinian age reenergized the prophetic-typological reading of the Old Testament, remained very protective of Origen’s exegetical methods. Before turning against his theological legacy, Jerome too thoroughly emulated Origen’s technical philological and grammatical analysis of the Bible and sanctioned allegory where it was invited by the texts themselves. For another thing, just as the Alexandrians like Origen, or later Cyril (fifth century), still retained genuine respect for the literal meaning (historia) of texts (see de Lubac 2007: 103–158), Antiochenes demonstrated their own resistance to literalism and openness to a broader vision (theôria) of the spiritual horizon of biblical texts. Diodore of Tarsus, who seminally influenced the Antiochene hermeneutical tradition, affirmed theôria as rooted in the purview of the scriptural authors themselves.
What is more, to patristic exegetes Scripture’s “literal” meaning in its own right proved hardly to be monolithic, let alone straightforward. Not only were there linguistic, syntactical, and rhetorical issues in its determination, there was the sheer foreignness and obscurity of much of what Scripture recounted, especially the Old Testament (see Kannengiesser 2004, 1:167–205; Young, pp. 187–189). Underlying all these considerations, however, was the issue of God’s own intention (skopos) in and for the text. As Charles Kannengiesser rightly observes, “a first principle of the literal meaning of the Bible, underscored again and again in patristic exegesis is that the biblical ‘letter’…had its own status, originating from a divine source in a supernatural way; therefore it admitted no neutral reading devoid of the appropriate kind of religious faith. For the exegetes of the early church the correct interpretation of the littera was in itself a spiritual exercise, because for them the materiality of the written text itself was filled with divine mysteries” (Kannengiesser 2004, 1:168). In other words, the literal meaning had to do not just with the original author’s intention or with historical context, but with its ultimate theological meaning for the church, in which case it invariably intersected with “spiritual” interpretation. The literal meaning was not frozen in the past but alive and well in the Christian community (see Williams 1991).
Theological Interpretation of the Bible and the Shaping of Christian Doctrine.
The “literal” or “plain” sense of Scripture was from the outset central to expounding Christian doctrine. A case in point was doctrine concerning divine creation. Some gnostic interpreters employed the creation story in Genesis 1 to develop myths of a demented creator of the material world working in opposition to the divine First Principle, while Marcion ignored this story altogether since it was irrelevant to his gospel of the benevolent “alien” God revealed solely through Jesus and the apostles. Most pagan critics, meanwhile, scoffed at any cosmogony that claimed a chronological “beginning” of the world or that something could be created “from nothing” (ex nihilo). From the second century on, patristic interpreters scrambled to explain the “literal” meaning of the phrase “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1) and of the details of the six-day creation account. Theophilus of Antioch, Origen, and later Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, and Augustine opted to interpret the true “beginning” (archê; principium) as Christ himself, through whom God created all things (cf. John 1:3, 10; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2). Eventually, Basil and others stressed the chronological “beginning” of the world as well, especially to protect the pure eternity of the Creator from pagan claims of the coeternity of matter. The christological and chronological readings of Genesis 1:1 were not, however, considered mutually exclusive. Together they represented the pliability of the “literal” sense which could accommodate both.
Augustine pioneered a virtual science of the literal sense in his various commentaries on Genesis. He makes clear from the outset of his Commentary on the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) that the sensus litteralis is complex, not simple, especially in the case of an event like creation, which was historically incomparable and admitted of different phases and of intelligible and sensible dimensions. Not only were there anthropomorphisms to be overcome in explaining how God “spoke” creation into being (Gen 1:3ff .), how he “rested” from his labor (2:2), or how he “walked about” in the garden (3:8), but there were also physical and metaphysical issues concerning creation ex nihilo and the stuff out of which spiritual and material creatures respectively were made. As well, a literal interpretation, to be theologically responsible, had to address the role of the entire Trinity in the creative act, as, for example, in explaining Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make humanity in our image and likeness”) as the shared counsel of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Literal interpretation elucidated the ways that the Christian gospel of new creation, and even moral instruction for the Christian life, were already nascent in the original Genesis creation story. Augustine treated these and other themes in exploring the literal sense. His ultimate concern in literal interpretation of Genesis 1–3 was less the apologetic task of establishing the fact of divine creation of the world than the pastoral and catechetical concern to explicate its full significance for Christian understanding of the ways of the Creator and Redeemer of the world.
The theologically literal sense also proved crucial for expounding trinitarian and christological doctrine in the early church. The Arian controversy of the fourth century showcased debate over the literal meaning of a number of key texts in which both Arian and pro-Nicene theologians laid heavy stakes. For instance, with a text like Colossians 1:15, which designates Christ (the Son) as “firstborn of creation,” Arians took its plain sense to be that the Son of God was himself a created being, albeit the most exalted of creatures or even the agent of divine creation. Athanasius and the Cappadocians brought other considerations into play in order to argue exactly the opposite. Athanasius takes his cue from the larger flow of the passage. How, logically, could the one “in whom” and “through whom” all things were created (Col. 1:16) and “in whom all things hold together” (1:17) be a creature himself? Athanasius takes as self-evident “that neither for himself as a creature, nor as sharing in the same essence with all creation, has he been dubbed ‘firstborn’ of it, but because the Logos, when at the beginning he formed creatures, condescended to created things to enable them to come into existence” (Orations against the Arians 2.64). The other option—and here we see the pliability of the literal sense—was to interpret “firstborn of all creation” in reference to the Son’s incarnation, his created humanity, which was the archetypal model for all human beings (cf. Athanasius, Orations against the Arians 2.61–4; Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 1.573; 3.2.45–57; Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 8.50; Theodore of Mopsuestia, Comm. in Col. 1.15). The context of Colossians 1:15–20 could accommodate this meaning as well, since Christ is also called “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18), just as in Romans 8:29 he is the “firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
Proverbs 8:22 —”God created me the beginning of his ways, for the sake of his works”—commanded attention because both Arian and pro-Nicene interpreters took it literally (and prosopologically) as an utterance of the Logos himself, qua Wisdom. Arians predictably assumed that the Logos here attested his own creaturely status, but Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and others considered such a reading simplistic and superficial. Some referenced the follow-up in Proverbs 8:24–25, where Wisdom says that the Creator “begets me” (present tense) before having created the earth, as an affirmation of the “eternal generation” of the Son (Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Definition 26; Orations against the Arians 2.80; Hilary, On the Trinity 12.37). Several writers famously referred Proverbs 8:22 to the incarnate Son’s created humanity (Marcellus of Ancyra, Fragments 26–9; Athanasius, Orations against the Arians 2.44–82; Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 2.110–113; Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 30.2; Ambrose, On the Faith 1.15.96). Pro-Nicenes consistently beheld a pattern within Scripture interweaving theologia (the mystery of the Trinity) and oikonomia, the historical outworking of the Trinity’s salvific initiatives.
On the whole, patristic theological interpretation of Scripture operated not according to a strict regimen of “senses” of Scripture but by a larger “deductive” reasoning and by “reading strategies” designed to understand the whole of Scripture in relation to its overarching divine intentionality, or skopos (Young, pp. 40, 117, 200, 247, 299). A true master of this strategic approach was Cyril of Alexandria, especially in his Commentary on John, where each pericope of the ministry of Jesus is treated as a tableau of the mysterious divine economy. For example, in the miracle at Cana (John 2:1–11), Cyril, true to his exegetical habit, integrates literal and spiritual interpretation. The miracle is, at one level, a straightforward demonstration of the Son of God’s power to transform a material that he had already created. But its context within a nuptial celebration signals the mystery of the Bridegroom (the Son) uniting himself with the bride (human nature) so as to renew and resurrect it (as the miracle happened on “the third day”) (Comm. on John 2; see Margerie 1993, Vol. 1, pp. 241–270).
Scriptural Interpretation and Religious Devotion.
Modern standards of academic interpretation, whereby critical exegesis of the Bible needs to be strictly segregated from use of the sacred texts in devotional and liturgical settings, could not be more foreign to the conventions of patristic hermeneutics. We need look no further than the two most influential hermeneutical treatises of the early church, Origen’s On First Principles (Book 4), and Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. Origen’s principles (archai) of interpretation have more to do with the whole economy of biblical revelation than with exegetical methods per se (see Daley 1998). The Holy Spirit, he avers, has providentially disposed all of scripture, including its difficulties and obstacles (skandala), to advance souls toward higher spiritual truth (On First Principles 4.2.7–4.3.15). Augustine, in his scrupulous analysis of the nature of biblical language, distinguishes between scriptural “signs” (signa)—both straightforward and ambiguous signs—and the realities (res) to which they refer, and insists that the ultimate res of all scripture is the mystery of the Trinity, which can be approached and “enjoyed” only by those who are being purified, maturing in their journey of faith, and exercising the love of God and neighbor (On Christian Doctrine 1.5.5–1.40.44; see Markus 1996). Like Origen, Augustine maintains that the Holy Spirit has designed scripture to motivate and satisfy spiritual hunger (On Christian Doctrine 2.6.8). For both authors, the Bible is a book of enigmas and mysteries embedded in the texts to goad the lazy and reward the diligent.
Patristic devotion to the Psalms—the book on which we have the most abundant commentary in the early church—is an extraordinary demonstration of the crucial religious and liturgical function of scripture. Not only did the psalter become the hymnbook of churches and monasteries, it was also a work of spiritual consolation and of vicarious repentance, confession, and worship (cf. Athanasius, To Marcellinus; Augustine, Confessions; John Cassian, Conference 10; see Daley 2003). Within the psalms, doctrine and spirituality were already thoroughly fused. Read in a christocentric key, the psalter was a rich testament to the economy of salvation and a guide to Christians’ spiritual and ecclesial formation. Gregory of Nyssa explored how individual psalms, and the overall ordering of all the psalms, reflected a “sequence” (akolouthia) drawing the interpreter/singer onward and upward, in the trajectory of the divine skopos of cultivating virtue (On the Titles of the Psalms 2.11, 14). Augustine, in his Explanations of the Psalms, treated many of the psalms as witnesses to the “whole Christ” (totus Christus), that is, the deep solidarity between Christ and his church through the storms and stresses of its earthly pilgrimage.
Patristic interpreters discovered spiritual riches in texts often ignored or marginalized in later Christian tradition. The Song of Songs enjoyed a prolific afterlife in the early church and well into the Middle Ages. Commentators like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa set an example for their medieval counterparts (e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry) of reading the Song as an allegory dramatizing the “erotic” love between Christ (the Bridegroom) and his bride (the soul, or corporately the church). The eroticism of this ode, amplifying the elusiveness of the Bridegroom and enflaming of the bride, needed not scandalize the pious once erôs was redefined in its true mystical idiom as the deep-seated desire of the soul/church for union with God. Indeed, the Song was in many respects an allegory of the process of interpretation itself, a relentless chasing after the elusive Logos hiding behind every word of the biblical text. From a different scriptural genre, Ecclesiastes, with its sober musings on the vanity of human existence, was reimagined by Gregory of Nyssa (Homilies on Ecclesiastes) and the monastic exegete Evagrius Ponticus (Scholia on Ecclesiastes) as a deep insight into the paradox wherewith the monotonous cycles of nature and human striving prove to be the medium whereby the Creator providentially converts the creature to the deeper beauty and salvific order of things. Both Gregory and Evagrius, moreover, prosopologically interpret the Ecclesiast, or “Preacher,” as Christ himself, the very Wisdom of God.
Numerous patristic interpreters wittingly or unwittingly perpetuated Origen’s axiom that all of scripture, even its seemingly most repulsive elements, carried spiritual utility or “benefit” (ōpheleia). In early monastic tradition, with its combination of fierce pragmatism and contemplative devotion in the use of the Bible, the elder sages, even those resistant to Origen’s kinds of interpretive techniques, thoroughly embraced the idea that scripture was an inexhaustible resource of wisdom on the ascetical and spiritual life (see Burton-Christie 1993). In the West, Ambrose of Milan appropriated Origenian hermeneutics in his strongly pastorally-oriented commentary on biblical texts in his homilies and exegetical treatises. He reinforced Origen’s conception of three dimensions of biblical wisdom—the “natural,” “moral,” and “mystical” (otherwise called “rational”)—respectively coordinated with Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Songs in the Wisdom literature and Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus in the Pentateuch (Comm. on Twelve Psalms 36.1–2; Comm. on Luke, Prol.; cf. Origen, Comm. on Song of Songs, Prol. 3.1, 6). These were not strictly segregated because the various aspects of divine wisdom embedded in biblical texts were all organically interconnected and mutually edifying.
In addition, Ambrose carried forward the longstanding exempla tradition, identifying and amplifying biblical saints as worthy objects of moral and spiritual imitation, whether the audience be clergy, as in his On the Duties of Ministers, or catechumens and others, as in his treatises on the Patriarchs (On Abraham, On Isaac and the Soul, On Jacob and the Happy Life, On the Patriarchs, and On Joseph). Literal, moral, and allegorical exegesis all functioned in these works to construct profiles of the individual patriarchs as models of Christian virtues. This same exempla tradition also thrived in Christian hagiography, where the literary icons of martyrs and monastic saints were often fashioned as reminiscences of heroic biblical figures or of Jesus himself in the Gospels (e.g. the Life of Daniel the Stylite). Indeed, hagiography became a crucial literary medium through which the early church was able to dramatize its own life as both a mimesis and continuation of the sacred biblical history, bolstering Christians’ confidence that God was still in contemporary times raising up extraordinary exemplars of allegiance to the Christian gospel who were also mediators of supernatural healing grace.
So far as biblical interpretation and religious devotion were concerned, the Syriac Fathers developed a distinctive tradition on Christianity’s eastern frontier. Especially Ephrem, but also a cadre of later exegetes under his sway, including, in the sixth century, the great Syro-Byzantine hymnist Romanos the Melodist and the prolific preacher Jacob of Serug, plumbed the latent beauty and mythopoeic power of biblical texts (see Brock 2006). In his prose Commentary on Genesis, for example, Ephrem proved he could undertake disciplined analysis of the literal sense of the creation story, including its physical and metaphysical difficulties, but in his Hymns on Paradise, he broke through to the rich tapestry of symbols, images, and metaphors in the opening chapters of Genesis. In contemplating “Paradise” itself, Ephrem spiritually envisioned, not a mere terrestrial garden, but a grand mountain of primordial and eschatological significance, a haven of the righteous defying the constraints of space and time (Ephrem 1990).
Though much diversity prevailed in patristic hermeneutics, certain principles remained fairly axiomatic in both East and West. First is the conviction of the internal unity and harmony (symphonia) of the Bible, discernible solely through careful attention to the letter and to hidden meanings, and through assiduous inter-scriptural interpretation. As Origen states succinctly, all the sacred writings are “one Word that consists of abundant ideas, each of which is part of the whole Word” (Comm. on John 5.5). Second, the divine Word is semantically inexhaustible and polyvalent, with any text admitting of multiple legitimate meanings, allowing for the possibility of fresh insight, an ever “fuller sense” (sensus plenior). Exegesis must accordingly adapt to the texts’ sophistication and pliability. Third, the church is the primary hermeneutical matrix, since interpretation functions foremost to shape Christian identity, doctrinal consistency, liturgical and sacramental practices, and ethics. Finally, scripture is sacramental communication, a medium of the presence of Christ the Logos, in which case interpretation itself demands the abiding presence and aid of the Holy Spirit.
[See also Allegory and Allegorical Interpretation; Canon of the Bible; Catholic Biblical Interpretation; Eastern Orthodox Interpretation; Exegesis; Theological Interpretation; and Translation Techniques, subentry Ancient Versions.]
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Paul M. Blowers


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