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The New Cambridge History of the Bible From the Beginnings to 600 Edited by James Carleton Paget, Joachim Schaper Book DOI:

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Chapter 32 - Traditions of exegesis pp. 734-751 Chapter DOI:

Cambridge University Press


Traditions of exegesis

frances m. young

It is clear that in the fourth century the so-called ‘Antiochenes’ reacted against

allegorical interpretation, criticising Origen in particular. The question is whether this suggests, as has been generally supposed, that divergent traditions

of interpretation are represented by different schools which may be named Alexandrian and Antiochene. The first part of this chapter argues that too great

a binary opposition obscures the reality of debate within common traditions,

and also creates a model that fails to encompass the exegesis not only of those

outside these supposed schools, such as the Cappadocians or the western fathers, but also of some who might be supposed to belong to one or other of them, such as Cyril of Alexandria; to treat such commentators as having a ‘hybrid’ approach is less than satisfactory. Traditions of interpretation there certainly were. Sometimes these suggest methodological differences, but more often they reflect debates about refer- ence which accumulate around specific texts. In the second part, a particular case study will illuminate the continuities and flexibilities within exegetical traditions.

Antiochene versus Alexandrian traditions?

Who were the Antiochenes?

John Chrysostom, the most prolific exegete of Antiquity, is taken to belong to this school. Otherwise the principal representatives are generally listed as Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, names also associated with the christological controversies of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. That there is a connection between their interest in the humanity of Jesus and their insistence on biblical history is one of the assumptions of much modern scholarship. 1 The danger is making them too

1 See especially Greer, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and The Captain of Our Salvation.


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like modern historico-critics who have welcomed their critique of allegory. That critique is usually thought to be first advanced in a treatise On the Witch of Endor and against Origen written by Eustathius of Antioch. 2 The many fragments of Eusebius of Emesa’s exegesis found in the catenae are often said to reflect Antiochene methods, as is a little work by one Adrianos entitled Isagoge ad sacras scripturas.

The Antiochene reaction against allegory

The scholarly literature tends to treat the Antiochenes as primarily interested in the literal meaning and in history, by contrast with the spiritualising allegory of the Alexandrians. Was this an alternative tradition? In his chapter in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ‘Theodore of Mopsuestia as representative of the Antiochene School’, Maurice Wiles begins by suggesting possible anticipation of the fourth-century Antiochenes in Paul of Samosata and Lucian. Both were associated with stress on the human nature of Christ, Paul being condemned as a heretic and Lucian being treated as the father of Arianism; but to Lucian was also attributed great biblical scholarship and text-critical importance. Wiles comments, ‘There is [in the Antiochenes] the same emphasis on the biblical text, on historical fact and on the humanity of Jesus, which we can already detect in the scanty and biased accounts of Paul and Lucian.’ 3 In other words he hints at a tradition of interpretation with this kind of emphasis. Others, however, are more sceptical: ‘in fact little that is relevant to such a judgment is known about either of them’, states R. A. Norris. 4 Some have drawn attention to another possible precursor, Theophilus of Antioch, and his literal interpretation of Genesis in the second century; and

a more general influence of contacts with Jewish rabbinical interpretation has

been suggested. 5 It is a matter of debate, then, whether anything approaching

a consistent tradition of interpretation can be claimed. Eusebius of Emesa was associated with Arianism, but also with Eusebius of Caesarea, who though

2 But see Joseph Trigg, ‘Eustathius of Antioch’s Attack on Origen’, Journal of Religion 75 (1995), 21938, for a contrary view.

3 M. Wiles, ‘Theodore of Mopsuestia as Representative of the Antiochene School’, in P. R.

Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 1: From the Beginnings to

Jerone (Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 489509, at pp. 48990.

4 ‘Antiochene Interpretation’, in R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden (eds.), A Dictionary of Biblical

Interpretation (London: SCM Press, 1990), pp. 2932. Cf. Simonetti, Biblical Interpretation, p. 59.

5 R. M. Grant, with David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 2nd edn revised and enlarged (London: SCM Press, 1984), p. 63; Simonetti, Biblical Interpretation, p. 60; Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, p. 31.


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a historian, was also a defender of Origen: so can we clearly trace distinct

traditions at all? Norris may not detect a long-standing tradition, but a similar character- isation is found – the Antiochenes ‘take pains to interpret biblical books as texts to be understood in the light both of their historical setting and of their historical reference’. 6 Similar statements occur in the standard literature: ‘The school of Antioch insisted on the historical reality of the biblical revelation.’ 7 ‘Theodore concentrated on the meaning of texts in their surrounding verses, on their historical reference and chronological significance, and on principles

of translation.’ ‘The Antiochenes differed from the other school in believ- ing the factual and historical aspect of the text to be the primary locus of interpretation.’ 8 Much of the more recent literature has been careful to gloss this with a warning that we should not project back onto the Antiochenes the concerns of modern historico-critics. Yet the impression given is still that the reaction against allegory was fundamentally a concern with the literal meaning and with historical reality. We need to take another look at what the Antiochenes actually said, and what they actually did.

What the Antiochenes actually said about methodology

Allegory is a recognised trope or figure of speech recognised by anybody who engages in literary analysis. Compositional allegory, evidently arising from the intent of the author, is fine. The problem arises with allegorical interpretation where the reader arbitrarily imputes an ‘undersense’ or hyponoia to a text. This distinction seems to be one the Antiochenes were trying to make: Chrysostom (Hom. Isa. 5.3) observes that ‘everywhere in scripture there

is this law, that when it allegorises, it also gives an explanation of the allegory’;

and Adrianos 9 but briefly describes allegory among other figures of speech. Allegory was to be recognised where it was intended, but not read into everything. For many of the Antiochenes Paul’s apparent endorsement of allegory in Gal. 4.24 had to be explained. On reaching this point in his Commentary on the Minor Epistles of St Paul, Theodore turns on the allegorists: 10 ‘There are people


Norris, ‘Antiochene Interpretation’, p. 30.

7 Grant, A Short History, p. 66.


Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, introduction, pp. 33, 34.


Young, ‘The Fourth Century Reaction’; the text of Adrianos is found in PG, 98.12731312.

10 Quotations below are given in the English version of Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation, pp. 95103; the Greek text is found in H. B. Swete, Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Minor Epistles of St. Paul, vol. i (Cambridge University Press, 18802), pp. 73ff.


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Traditions of exegesis

who take great pains to twist the sense of the divine scriptures and make everything written therein serve their own ends. They dream up silly fables in their own heads and give their folly the name of allegory. They misuse the apostle’s term as a blank authorisation to abolish all meanings of the divine scripture.’ Theodore insists that the apostle does not do away with ‘history’. He suggests that similarity cannot be established if the comparison is made between things that do (or did) not in fact exist; the statement that Hagar ‘corresponds with the present Jerusalem’ implies parallel realities across time. The allegorists with their ‘spiritual interpretation’ reduce it all to ‘dreams in the night’, claiming that ‘Adam is not Adam, paradise is not paradise, the serpent not the serpent.’ They end up by undermining the whole story of salvation. So if Paul did not mean the allegory of the allegorist, what was his intention? Theodore states that what Paul wants to show is that the events surrounding Christ’s coming are greater than anything contained in the law. So he points out that there are two covenants, one through Moses and one through Christ. He explains how, under the first, righteousness came through keeping the law, but in Christ justification is given by grace. Now in speaking of Sarah and Hagar Paul indicates that one gave birth according to nature, the other by grace. ‘Paul mentions the two women in order to demonstrate by their comparison that even now the justification coming from Christ is far better than the other, because it is acquired by grace.’ So ‘Here we have the reason for the phrase, “this is said by way of allegory.” Paul used the term “allegory” as a comparison, juxtaposing events of the past and present.’ Theodore is probably dependent on Diodore for this way of interpreting the passage, for we find it discussed in the locus classicus for Antiochene discussion of allegory, the preface to a Commentary on the Psalms attributed to Diodore of Tarsus, along with the particular preface to the commentary on Ps. 118 (LXX enumeration; 119 in English Bibles). 11 Here the author insists that what the apostle means is insight into the way one narrative mirrors another, both being real and true. Allegorists ‘pretend to “improve” Scripture’, and ‘wise in their own conceit’ are ‘careless about the historical substance’. But it is alright to compare Cain and Abel with the synagogue and the church, for this method ‘neither sets aside history nor repudiates theoria¯ ’ (often translated ‘contemplation’, this is

11 Quotations below are given in the English version of Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation, pp. 8294; the Greek text is found in L. Maries` (ed.), ‘Extraits du commentaire de Diodore de Tarse sur les Psaumes. Preface´ du commentaire – prologue du Psaume CXVIII’, RSR 9 (1919), 79101; and Diodorus Tarsensis. Commentarii in Psalmos. Vol. i: Pss. I–L, ed. J.-M. Olivier, CC Series Graeca 6 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1980).


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perhaps better understood to mean ‘insight’). What is sought is a middle way that avoids the literalism of the Jews as well as the Hellenism that says one thing for another, introducing foreign matter. This would appear to be what modern scholars have termed ‘typology’, using an expression not found in ancient terminology. The author goes on to suggest that the scriptural sense of allegory is different from the ‘Greek’ sense. Greeks speak of allegory when something is understood in one way but said in another. He provides two examples:

(i) The story of Zeus turning himself into a bull and carrying Europa across the sea cannot be taken literally since a real bull could not possibly swim so far; so it must mean Europa crossed the sea in a ship with a bull as a figurehead. (ii) Zeus had intercourse with his sister Hera; this means that when ether, a fiery element, mingles with air, it produces a mixture that influences events on earth – air adjoins ether, so they are called ‘brother and sister’, but their mixture makes them ‘husband and wife’. These examples are particularly interesting since they represent the attempts of the Greeks to make sense of their ‘canon’ in relation to reality as understood by their ‘scientists’; modern parallels would be (i) providing a natural explanation for a miracle, and (ii) reconciling the creation narratives of Genesis with evolution. Ironically the allegorists apparently had more in common with modern critical approaches to scripture than their critics did. Scripture does not allegorise in this way, insists Diodore, but it does speak of theoria¯ . This is then explained as developing ‘a higher vision of other but similar events’, ‘without abrogating history’. In speaking of ‘allegory’ in Galatians, ‘Paul develops the higher theoria¯ ’ as follows:

He understands Hagar as Mount Sinai but Isaac’s mother as the free Jerusalem,

the future mother of all believers. The fact that the apostle ‘theorizes’ in this

way does not mean that he repudiates the historical account

historical account as his firm foundation, he develops his theoria¯ on top of it; he understands the underlying facts as events on a higher level.

With the

It is this, he suggests, that the apostle calls allegory. Diodore proceeds to distinguish between allegory and figuration (tropologia) or parable (parabole¯). Tropologia turns words with an obvious meaning into an extended illustration: Israel as vine provides an example. Parables are easy to recognise because introduced with ‘like’ or ‘as’, and many instances of this are quoted. Parables may be enigmas, and ‘one would probably classify much of the material in the books of Moses as enigmas rather than allegories’. In other words Diodore is quite willing to acknowledge figures of speech, and even


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goes on to suggest that the talking serpent in Genesis is such an ‘enigma’. The devil, of course, acted through the serpent. So, in the psalm which he is about to interpret, parts are meant to be taken literally but others are figurative expressions, parables or enigmas. There is no allegory. There may be a kind of transcendent meaning: ‘In predicting future events, the prophets adapted their words both to the time in which they were speaking and to later times.’ He suggests that in the former context the words may appear hyperbolic, only to become ‘fitting and consistent at the time when the prophecies were fulfilled’. It is interesting that Adrianos devotes far more space to the figure of hyperbole than to that of allegory, and here Diodore is at pains to give examples, such as Ps. 29 fitting Hezekiah, but even more ‘all human beings when they obtain the promised resurrection’. So Ps. 118 is ‘a statement adaptable to many situations according to the grace of him who gives it power’. This is what theoria¯ is all about. So two things emerge as important. One is the proper identification of figures of speech, not treating all metaphor as an excuse for allegory; and the other is respect for the narrative coherence of the text. The concern with narrative flow had already proved crucial in Eustathius’ treatise On the Witch of Endor and against Origen; 12 both are explicit in Adrianos’ discussion of methodology. 13 Here meaning is said to be grounded in the akolouthia (sequence) of the text. Adrianos uses the analogy of a steersman – the inter- preter is blown about if not fixed on a goal. One must begin with the normal sense of words, but one gets a sure and certain outcome by paying attention to scriptural idioms – the figures, tropes and so on – and by taking the akolouthia seriously. The dianoia (mind/sense) of the words must be earthed in the order found in the body of the text and the theoria¯ must be grounded in the shape (schema¯ ) of that body, and thus the limbs and their synthesis can be discerned properly. The dianoia corresponds with the hypothesis of the wording, so that the interpretation is according to the lexis (letter/reading): examples of the application of this principle show that the prophetic meaning of a prophetic text is the ‘literal’ meaning. The Antiochenes were not modern historico-critics, even though it seems natural to translate some of this as a concern with the literal! However, they certainly were concerned about what seemed to be an undermining of the

12 PG, 18.61374; cf. Young, Biblical Exegesis, pp. 1635; and Frances Young, ‘The Rhetorical

Schools and Their Influence on Patristic Exegesis’, in Rowan Williams (ed.), The Making of Orthodoxy. Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick (Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 18299.

13 The following description is borrowed from my article, ‘The Fourth Century Reaction’.


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overarching narrative of scripture, from creation through salvation to the eschaton: salvation history should not be reduced to ‘dreams in the night’.

What the Antiochenes did

According to Theodore (in the introduction to his Commentary on John), ‘the task of the commentator [is] to comment on the words which are difficult for most people; that of the preacher however, is to reflect on words that are clear and speak about them’. In other words, exegesis is problem-oriented while preaching is pedagogic. However, a comparison between the work of John Chrysostom, the preacher, and the commentaries of Theodore and Theodoret shows that both elements are to be found in each genre, 14 any distinction being no more than a matter of emphasis. Chrysostom may well discuss translation variants and problems in the text, while largely looking for morals and ethical advice for his congregation; the commentators cover much the same ground but ideally, according to Theodore, in brief notes – that being the character of his own very spare commentaries. Some problems in the text were, after all, theological: confronted with a text that said ‘God repented’, the Antiochenes, as much as the allegorists, looked for a way round it, sometimes appealing to other translation possibilities, sometimes offering alternative explanations. 15 Adrianos is at pains to clarify the way in which God’s energeiai (activities/energies) are represented in scripture by human attributes, indicating that the wording is not to be identified with the sense:

God’s knowledge is expressed in the phrase ‘God’s eyes on us’, and God’s mercy in the suggestion that God has ears to hear. 16 In dealing with the anthropomorphisms in scripture the Antiochenes made similar moves to the allegorists without using ‘allegory’ to describe their procedure. Antiochene exegesis was generally philological and pedagogic. 17 Details of the text are attended to point by point, as they raise questions about the wording, textual variants, translation problems, special biblical word- usages or idioms, figures of speech – the methodikon practised in the schools of the ancient world. This often involved making cross-references, on the assumption that the Bible was a unity. Paraphrase would then bring out the sense of the text. They also provided explanatory notes on references to places, dates, genealogies, characters, actions and events – the historikon of the schools. They were concerned to deduce what they could about, for instance, the time of the prophet or the events of Paul’s life. They usually offered a


Amirav, Rhetoric and Tradition, p. 46.

15 Amirav, Rhetoric and Tradition, p. 133ff.


Young, ‘The Fourth Century Reaction’. 17 Young, ‘The Rhetorical Schools’, pp. 18299.


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summary (hypothesis) of the argument or narrative at the head of each section, so bringing out the skopos (intent) of the text and avoiding piecemeal exegesis. They, like the rhetoricians, set out the ‘subject matter’ as distinct from the style or wording. It is clear that these procedures often led to debates about reference: Theodoret maintained that Paul had visited and knew the church at Colossae, though Theodore had denied this. 18 Any and all of these procedures could produce some edificatory point, doctrinal or moral. Chrysostom generates morals and doctrines from the text by asking why Jesus said or did something: so, commenting on the ‘feeding of the multitude’ (Hom. Matt. 49, on Matt. 14.19), 19 he notes that Christ looks up to heaven to prove he is of the Father, and he uses the loaves and fish rather than creating food out of nothing to stop the mouths of dualist heretics like Marcion and Manichaeus. He goes on to suggest that Christ lets the crowds become hungry and gives them only loaves and fish, equally distributed, to teach the crowd humility, temperance and charity, and to have all things in common. The fact that Christ did not wish them to become slaves of the belly allows him to develop a homily on detachment from worldly pursuits. Such moral reading of the text had its precedent also in the practice of the schools 20 – for Plato’s attack on the poets as immoral had made ‘moral criticism’ an essential part of education as the literature was read for profit, for the sake of identifying moral lessons or noting examples of good and bad conduct. This may not be like Alexandrian allegory, but it is certainly more than what we understand as ‘literal’ or ‘historical’ interpretation. This tendency to discern morals and doctrines in the text is one aspect that clearly distinguishes Antiochene exegesis from modern historico-critical interpretation, and places it firmly and properly in the context of ancient approaches to the reading of texts. In following the exegetical practices of the schools, the Antiochenes were no different from other Christian exegetes. Origen himself had paved the way as the first serious ‘professional’ commentator: he had used the same philological methods, 21 and it was the identification of figures of speech or aporiai in the text which provided him with the springboard for allegory. We find similar procedures used in East and West, Augustine’s De doctrina

18 Theodoret, Hypothesis (PG, 82.592) mentions that ‘some say’ Paul had not seen the recipients

on the basis of Col. 3.1, and advances the contrary view; Theodore makes the claim in the Argumentum of his commentary on Colossians, cf. Swete, Theodore on the Minor Epistles, p. 254. I am indebted to Paul Parvis for this observation.


Cf. Hom. Joh. 42, on John 6:115.

20 Young, Biblical Exegesis, pp. 1723.



Origenes als Philologe.


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Christiana providing a textbook for interpreters apparently unversed in the practices of the pagan schools of rhetoric. Eusebius, the Cappadocians, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose and Jerome – all the great exegetes among the fathers – understood the basic strategies of providing synonyms to bring out the mean- ing, identifying figures of speech, looking for parallel usages, explaining references and so on. In insisting that the true reference (or literal mean- ing) of a prophecy was to be found in its fulfilment, 22 the Antiochenes were no different from Eusebius of Caesarea, among others. In resisting allegory and undertaking moral interpretation, the Antiochenes were engaging in a debate with other Christian exegetes parallel to the recurrent tension (despite overlap and confluence) between practices pursued in the rhetorical schools and those used in the philosophical schools, the latter increasingly using alle- gory to discern in Homer and the classic mythologies the truths of their systems. 23 The reaction against allegory, it is true, could be taken to extremes. It is salutary to contrast the work of Theodore and Theodoret, the latter rowing back from the challenges offered by the former to traditional Christian exegesis. Theodore had compared the Song of Songs to Plato’s Symposium, suggesting that the occasion was the wedding of Solomon with the daughter of Pharaoh; he noted that God is not mentioned in the Song, and that it was read publicly neither by Jews nor by Christians. Theodoret, however, recognised its spiritual significance, and provided a reading which identified the church as the bride and Christ as the spouse, a view which finds its precedents in Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, and its parallel in the Jewish Targum, which treats the Song as an account of the relationship between God and his people. But Theodore even went beyond the question of allegory, profoundly challenging the traditional approach to prophecy. He had dismissed christological readings of the prophets, a notable example being his discussion of texts in Zechariah, 24 which, he insists, refer to Zerubbabel, pouring scorn on those who think the text keeps switching from Zerubbabel to Christ and back again. Similarly he had asserted that, despite its words being used by Christ on the cross, Ps. 22 could not be spoken prophetically in the person of Christ, because (in the LXX version) the first verse refers to his sins. He thus rigidly applied the principle that a psalm, or other whole text, had a single skopos and, finding that this excluded christological readings of many

22 R. C. Hill, ‘Antiochene Exegesis of the Prophets’, Studia Patristica 39 (2006), pp. 21931.

23 Lamberton, Homer.

24 Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, pp. 163ff.; Wiles, ‘Theodore of Mopsuestia’, provides fuller

treatment of his approach to the psalms and prophets.


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traditional passages, gave alternative accounts of the texts which confined them to history prior to Christ. Theodoret criticised this approach as Jewish exegesis, restoring most traditional prophetic references to Christ. His more relaxed acceptance of traditional prophecies can be observed in his treatise concerning the christological controversies, the Eranistes. He does not hesitate to use in argumentation a traditional prophecy from Gen. 49.1011, 25 and to give it the usual ‘allegorical’ interpretation. For the fact that the sceptre will not depart from Judah means it is to be read christologically, and the parousia which the nations expect must be the coming of Christ to the Gentiles; so ‘washing his own garment in wine and his own veil in the blood of the grape’ clearly refers to the Eucharist, assuming you read it in the light of ‘I am the vine’ – ‘For as we call the mystical fruit of the vine after the holy blood of the Lord, so he named the blood of the true vine the blood of the grape.’ The prophetic reference, and the riddling allegory by which it is achieved, is simply taken for granted. Even Theodore, however, accepted the principle that events of the Old Testament were ‘types’ of events in the New. The exodus prefigured salva- tion from sin through Christ; Jonah is a typos of Christ. 26 He also agreed with other Antiochenes that some statements were ‘hyperbolical’ – they referred to matters in the prophet’s own time but in such an exaggerated fashion that they pointed beyond themselves to a fuller fulfilment in Christ: Zechariah’s prophecy at 9.810 (quoted in more than one Gospel in relation to the ‘Triumphal Entry’) provoked discussion of this, and he admitted it was a case in point, despite his insistence that it is bizarre to imagine that the text in itself kept switching from Zerubbabel to Christ. The Old Testament has a shadow of what is to come in the New – indeed, Theodore seems to have had a heightened sense of this fundamental difference between Old and New and was resisting the flattening of scripture which came about when the whole of the Christian dispensation was read back into the old covenant. So, while many of the psalms had a setting in David’s lifetime, David being the unques- tioned author, others certainly had later settings, referring to Solomon, or the siege of Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah, or exile in Babylon, David being unquestionably a prophet. But apart from Pss. 2, 8, 45 and (probably) 110, 27 he

25 Frances Young, ‘Exegetical Method and Scriptural Proof. The Bible in Doctrinal Debate’,

Studia Patristica 24 (1989), pp. 291304.

26 Preface to his Commentary on Jonah; Simonetti, Biblical Interpretation, pp. 69ff., which provides

also a fuller account of Theodore’s (non-)christological interpretation of the prophets and the


27 The commentary does not extend as far as this, so this cannot be confirmed.


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located the psalms’ reference firmly in the era before the coming of Christ. Any application to Christ is ‘secondary’. The Antiochenes were not ‘a monolithic block’, 28 nor were they wholly out of line with the traditions of Christian exegesis in general. They certainly developed objections to ‘philosophical’ allegory, but they sought moral and ecclesial meanings by alternative means that were exemplary and typological, calling it theoria. Prophecy remained fundamental to their understanding of the Old Testament. So did their sense that the meaning of scripture was contained in the overarching story of the rule of faith. So in what sense, if any, can we speak of Antiochene exegesis being a different tradition?

Antiochene exegesis a different tradition?

I have argued that the Antiochenes represent debate within a common

methodological approach, and indeed that they argued among themselves.

I have also suggested that they were just as prone as the allegorists to see

the text of scripture as pointing beyond itself. Yet there is a different flavour to their interpretation, and the question is whether we can characterise this more precisely. Previously I have distinguished between the ‘ikonic exegesis’ of the Antiochenes and the ‘symbolic allegory’ of the Alexandrians. 29 Both, like ancient exegetes in general, saw the text as mimesis¯ (representation); and both sought deeper meaning, but in very different ways. Representation may be through genuine likeness, an analogy, ‘ikon’ or image; or it may be by a ‘sym- bol’, defined here as something unlike standing for something else. Antiochene theoria¯ (insight) looked for the resemblances in person or event, finding images of dogmatic truth or moral teaching in the skopos (overall intent) or narrative sequence: thus, according to John Chrysostom, Christ heals bodies as well as souls so as to stop the mouths of heretics, signifying by his care of both parts

of our being that he himself is the maker of the whole creation (Hom. Matt. 15, on Matt. 4.234); and Christ is unambitious and void of boasting, teaching on

a mountain or in a wilderness rather than in a city or forum, and instructing

us to do nothing for display, and to separate ourselves from the tumults of ordinary life (Hom. Matt. 15, on Matt. 5.12). Alexandrian allegory, on the other hand, found the clues to the skopos of the Holy Spirit in the impossibilities (aporiai) of the text, which meant it must mean something other than it says, and they decoded the words, often by spelling out the metaphorical meaning,

28 Simonetti, Biblical Interpretation, p. 68.

29 Young, Biblical Exegesis, pp. 21012 and elsewhere.


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or by cross-referencing other passages from across the Bible as a whole. Studies of the rediscovered commentaries of Didymus the Blind, the Alexan- drian exegete most nearly contemporary with the Antiochenes, indicate the way in which his exegesis seems to develop a systematic code of biblical meanings of words, and to see the scriptural text as referring constantly to two different levels, the ordinary earthly realm and the spiritual world. 30 By contrast the Antiochenes trace a single providential outworking of God’s phi- lanthropia in the whole biblical narrative from the beginning of the creation to the end of time. But if that is a key description of how these ‘traditions’ differ, then Cyril of Alexandria is the exception that proves the rule – fall and redemption, played out over and over again in the stories of Abraham and the exodus, are the theme of his work on the Pentateuch, 31 and this Alexandrian’s typological reading is much nearer to the Antiochenes and Ephrem the Syrian than it is to the allegory of Origen and Didymus. It is not easy, then, to specify how the supposed two schools represent different traditions. Furthermore, it is clear that there was interaction. Both points are well illustrated in a detailed study of John Chrysostom’s treatment of Noah and the flood. 32 In some specifics there does seem to be a difference in reading, for example: Chrysostom begins with the story of the sons of God having intercourse with the daughters of men, challenging the exegesis that the sons of God were fallen angels, identifying them with the human descendants of Seth, and attributing to this act the great wickedness which caused the flood. The tradition of identifying a human reference can be traced back to Julius Africanus, and is found in Eusebius of Emesa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Gennadius. By contrast the ‘Alexandrians’, Philo, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea and Didymus, all argued that the sons of God were angels, demons or souls. In such detailed verse by verse examination of how Chrysostom’s treatment compares with that of other exegetes, such divergences can sometimes be attributed to a difference between ‘Antiochene’ and ‘Alexandrian’ traditions. Yet the counter cases are also there: even in this example, Cyril of Alexandria rejects the ‘Alexandrian’ reading and follows the reading that identifies the sons of God as the descendants of Seth; and there are ‘numerous examples of exegetical common ground between Didymus and Chrysostom’, 33 and even some connections with Origen. The witch of Endor

30 W. A. Bienert, Allegoria und Anagoge bei Didymos dem Blinden von Alexandria (Berlin: De

Gruyter, 1972); J. Tigcheler, Didyme l’Aveugle et l’exeg´ ese` allegorique,´ son commentaire sur Zacharie (Nijmegen: Dekker & Van de Vegt, 1977).


On Worship in Spirit and in Truth, PG, 68. 32 Amirav, Rhetoric and Tradition.


Amirav, Rhetoric and Tradition, p. 230.


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occasioned another dispute which does not neatly divide along the supposed ‘school’ lines: Justin, Origen, Ambrose and Augustine thought Samuel did appear to Saul; Tertullian, Eustathius, Ephrem, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius Ponticus, Jerome and Ambrosiaster argued that a demon appeared in his guise. John Chrysostom and Theodoret left the question open. 34 So to sum up: it seems very unlikely that there were different independent traditions as such; rather there was debate and interaction. The group we call Antiochenes objected to allegory as practised by Origen and his followers. They were anxious that allegory undermined salvation history, and tended to imply a ‘docetic’ attitude towards the materiality of creation. Theodore challenged more aspects of the common tradition, partly on methodological grounds, having a firm commitment to the single skopos of a text, partly on theological grounds, having a strong eschatological view of two eras. Historicity or literalism did not primarily inform their approach – like other Antiochenes, Theodore never questioned the idea that the literal meaning of prophecy is its fulfilment, he agreed that some prophecies were hyperbolic and so transcended their immediate reference, and he accepted typology.

A case study of patristic exegetical traditions – wrestling Jacob

Irrespective of whether we can trace schools with differing traditions, tradi- tions of exegesis there certainly were. 35 The christological reading of the Old Testament was deeply traditional, carrying a strong dispensational flavour as well as providing exemplary typology, so facilitating the process whereby the church read itself into the text and generated moral and spiritual outcomes. The deep continuity and yet variegation of such exegetical traditions can be illustrated by taking one case study, the story of wrestling Jacob. The earliest and most common patristic use of this tale is to list it as one

of the Old Testament ‘theophanies’ or revelations of the pre-existent Logos.

A whole series was traditionally identified, the most well known being the

story of Abraham entertaining angels unawares (Gen. 18). Referring to this

example, Eusebius of Caesarea continues (Hist. eccl. 1.2):

34 Trigg, ‘Eustathius’ Attack’, pp. 2223, quoting K. A. D. Smedlik, ‘The Witch of Endor. 1

Samuel 28 in Rabbinic and Christian Exegesis till 800 AD’, VC 33 (1977), 16079.

35 The material in this case study is published also in Frances Young, Brokenness and Blessing.

Towards a Biblical Spirituality (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007).


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Traditions of exegesis

To Him, too, when He later appeared to Jacob in a man’s shape, Holy Scripture again refers as God – when he said to Jacob: ‘No longer shall your name be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name; for you have prevailed with God.’ Then too: ‘Jacob called the name of that place ‘The Form of God,’ saying: ‘For I saw God face to face, and my life was spared.’

This is the line taken over and over again: already in the second century, Justin (Dial. 58) speaks of the angel who appears to Jacob as Christ, listing this story with many others from the Jewish scriptures where the Lord appears. Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures 12.16), Hilary of Poitiers (De Trinitate 4.31, 12.46; De synodis 49), Leo the Great (Epistle 31) and the Apostolic Constitutions (5.20) follow suit in the fourth and fifth centuries. It was a classic topos for proving the pre-existence of the Son of God, in which features like the wrestling were just ignored. The wrestling was taken up in exemplary readings. Clement of Alexandria draws on this story in the Paidagogos (1.7). God appears as Jacob’s instructor or trainer, wrestles with him and anoints him against evil. The face of God that he saw was the Logos by whom God is manifested, that is, the pre-existent Word which would be incarnate in Jesus. The Word acts as a trainer for the athlete of God, giving him practice for contending against the powers of evil. Clement’s successor, Origen, gives it a slightly different twist (On First Principles 3.2.5): human nature is limited and powerless in the struggle against evil powers, so the angel wrestled with Jacob, not in the sense of against him, but rather alongside him. The angel is there to help Jacob in the struggle against evil, wrestling against the principalities and powers that Paul says we have to contend with. This is a spiritual fight, wrestling to endure sufferings, to avoid being provoked into fierce anger, excessive sorrow, the depths of despair or complaint against God. All this leads Origen into a discussion of the story of Job. So the wrestling becomes a ‘type’ of human spiritual struggles, through which we receive God’s blessing. In his great work, The Preparation for the Gospel, Eusebius introduces another way of turning the story into something useful for the spiritual life: ‘Israel had formerly borne the name of “Jacob”, but instead of “Jacob” God bestows upon him the name “Israel”, transforming the active and practical man into the contemplative’ (P. E. 9.6.) This idea depends upon etymological interpretation of the two names: Israel has a double name, because he was called Jacob when


on behalf of religion’, the name meaning ‘a man in training, an athlete’;

in practical habits and modes of life, and experiencing troubles


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but when afterwards he receives the rewards of victory

in the enjoyment of the blessings of contemplation, then his name also is

changed by the God who communes with him, who both vouchsafes to him a vision of God, and bestows by his new name the rewards of diviner gifts and

Israel indicates ‘the man who beholds and contemplates’: since

the very name when translated means ‘a man beholding God.’ 36

and is already


Gregory of Nazianzus takes this approach a bit further. The theme of his Second Theological Oration is the transcendence of God, the God who is beyond our comprehension. During the discussion he mentions glimmerings of this in scripture, including Jacob wrestling with God in human form. Gregory is not at all clear what this wrestling means, but he notes that Jacob bore on his body the marks of the wrestling and this signifies the defeat of the created nature. Gregory acknowledges Jacob’s reward in the name change to ‘Israel’, but the climax of what he says is this: ‘Neither he, nor any of his descendants in the twelve tribes who made up the children of Israel, could boast that he comprehended the whole nature or the pure sight of God.’ For Gregory the story is about the human struggle to know God, and its ultimate failure. It is only because God accommodates the divine self to our human level, through the inevitably limited human language of scripture, and above all by accepting the constraints of incarnation, that we have any chance of knowing anything at all about God. Exemplary readings may touch on the moral struggle: Jerome sees Jacob as strengthened by God in his struggle for virtue (Dial. Pel. 3.8), and the limp signifies that after this struggle with God his thigh shrank, he had no children and achieved chastity (Ep. 22.11), a clear example of the kind of twisting of the text for ascetic meaning that Elizabeth Clark has traced in Reading Renunciation. Augustine, on the other hand, thinks the wrestling is to hold on to Christ, which means the struggle to love one’s enemy – for if you love your enemy, you do indeed hold Christ (S. 5.6). Hilary of Poitiers (De Trinitate 5.1920) makes Jacob an example to us to help us in the struggle against the poisonous hissings of the serpent of unbelief. Jacob prevails in wrestling with one who seems a human being, but he eventually perceives it is God, receives God’s blessing and with this vision of faith becomes Israel. Hilary hastens to explain that the weakness and humanity of the supposed man with whom he struggled is no bar to his being God. This is a ‘type’ anticipating truths taught by the apostles. He turns next to the story of Jacob’s ladder, identifying the ladder as Christ, as the Gospel

36 P. E. 7.8.


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of John had done. The incarnation is what gives sense to these stories, and Jacob becomes the type of a believer who responds to this human revelation of God. This example shows how christological readings that go beyond the simple ‘theophanic’ reference with which we began could grow out of the exemplary. Ambrose provides another example. Characteristically he treats Jacob in an exemplary way: in the De officiis he is described as a model of wisdom, who saw God face to face and won a blessing, as well as an example of fortitude in striving with God (1.120). In a sermon (Jacob and the Happy Life) which specifically traces the lessons to be learned from Jacob’s life, 37 he suggests that ‘to wrestle with God is to enter on the struggle for virtue, to contend with one who is stronger and to become a better imitator of God than others are’. But, he continues, it was ‘because Jacob’s faith and devotion were unconquerable’ that

the Lord revealed his hidden mysteries to him by touching the side of his thigh. For it was by descent from him that the Lord Jesus was to be born of a virgin, and Jesus would be neither unlike nor unequal to God. The numbness in the side of Jacob’s thigh foreshadowed the cross of Christ who would bring

salvation to all men by spreading the forgiveness of sins throughout the whole

world and would give resurrection to the departed by the numbness his own body.


The sun rising on ‘holy Jacob’ signifies ‘the saving cross of the Lord [which] shone brightly on his lineage’; while ‘the Sun of Justice rises on the man who recognises God, because He is Himself the Everlasting Light’. Generally speaking, as here, the stranger is taken to be the ‘type’ of Christ, Jacob standing for the believer; but Ambrose also took another approach entirely – both here and in De officiis (1.120), he suggests we should imitate the type of Christ in Jacob, linking the paralysing of the thigh with the passion, the cross which achieved the future fellowship of human beings with the angels, of which the ladder at Bethel was a sign. Heaven is open to virtue, so we should follow the patriarchs, he concludes. Augustine, reverting to the identification of Christ with the angel, provides another way of linking the story with the passion (Civ. Dei 16.39): the fact that Jacob prevailed over the angel represents the passion of Christ, depicting Christ as the ‘willing loser’, who though he allows himself to be overcome and crucified, is yet the victor over the powers of evil. This comment is intertwined among the usual points,

37 Ambrose, Seven Exegetical Sermons, trans. M. McHugh, Fathers of the Church 65 (Washington,

DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1972); see especially 2.7.30.


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giving them another dimension: Jacob receives a blessing from the angel he defeated, implying that Christ blesses the human race which slew him; and, as the name he is given means ‘seeing God’, so he receives in anticipation the vision of God which is the reward for the saints at the end of the world. This way of reading off truths from aspects of the narrative is reminiscent of the kind of thing we have seen in John Chrysostom and associated with the Antiochenes; clearly it was not simply a feature of their approach. It is also clear now how typological and christological readings easily encouraged the kind of allegory which linked meanings in the various details of the narrative. Unlocking the text meant turning the key and finding the whole mystery unveiled. Such interpretation also encouraged dispensational reading, such as that of Augustine, who identifies Esau with the Jews and Jacob/Israel with the church. Augustine’s pair of sermons on Jacob (5.4 and 5) dwells on the way the younger supersedes the elder: the law was given to the Jews, but the law promises the kingdom, and so the blessing is taken from Esau and given to Jacob. Esau’s hairiness is a sign of his sins; but the hair on Jacob’s shoulders belongs to another – so the church, like Christ, bears the sins of others. This general perspective is reinforced by the interpretation of many details in the story. ‘Behold it is morning, let me go’ is expounded by reference to the risen Christ telling Mary not to touch him, and Paul’s statement about no longer knowing Christ according to the flesh: so the church finds spiritual illumination by contrast with the darkness of night and carnality, the light of truth and wisdom. But then we find a surprising twist, and a reminder that Augustine was speaking in the context of the Donatist controversy. Jacob, who represents the church, is not just blessed but limps. There are Christians who live badly, and the touch of the Lord’s hand strikes as well as giving life. Wheat and tares grow together until the final judgement. Conversely, in the City of God, Jacob represents the Jewish people: the limp, and its outworking in the food taboo, seemed to justify the suggestion that they were disabled by their failure to accept Christ. Augustine (Civ. Dei 16.39) 38 speaks of Jacob as blessed and lame, blessed in those descendants who believed in Christ, crippled in respect of those who did not believe. He quotes from the Psalms:

‘they limped away from their paths’ (LXX Ps. 18.45), referring it to the majority of Jews. Christians thus become the true descendants of Israel, that is, the one who saw the face of God in human form. To turn from this to John Chrysostom is to find another way of approach. None of the exegetical comments reviewed so far have come from

38 Cf. Ambrose, Jacob and the Happy Life 2.7.31.


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commentaries on Genesis as such. There is but one extended treatment in context, that of John Chrysostom. Here the story is related to the whole issue of Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. The incident is a demonstration of God’s philanthropia¯ (a favourite theme for Chrysostom); for it shows how God allowed Jacob to wrestle with what is right in the form of a man, so that he would learn not to go to that fateful meeting with bad feelings. Jacob must choose fearfulness, and not meet his brother in a spirit of contest. The stranger tries to leave because he recognises Jacob’s righteousness, but Jacob demands a blessing, the story demonstrating Jacob’s faith in asking to know who his assailant is. Thus Chrysostom works through the narrative line by line, often by implication drawing out morals applicable to the Christian pilgrimage of faith. The climax of the homily is a celebration of reconciliation and of God’s love in the incarnation, of which this story provides a ‘type’. The manner of working through the elements in the story has a different flavour, yet the moral struggle is not unlike that described by Origen and others, similar motifs recur, and in particular its exemplary force is clearly paramount. So our case study reveals something of the differing character of Antiochene readings of narrative. But it also shows how the classic accounts of early Christian exegesis, by focusing on methodology rather than traditions of identifying the reference, fail to give a rich and nuanced description of what was going on.


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