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Citation for Non-Allegorical Exegesis

Citation styles are based on the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Ed., and the MLA Style Manual, 2nd Ed..


Clark, Elizabeth A. . "Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church." In The Oxford Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Oct 22, 2020. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195290004/obso-9780195290004-div1-63>.


Clark, Elizabeth A. . "Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church." In The Oxford Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195290004/obso-9780195290004-div1-63 (accessed Oct 22, 2020).

Non-Allegorical Exegesis

Not all interpreters of Scripture in the early church were as devoted to allegorical exegesis as Origen and Augustine. For example, the second-century churchman Irenaeus of Lyons, who was concerned to combat fanciful interpretations of Scripture offered by Gnostic exegetes, advocated a “plainer” style of reading. Often the “anti-allegorists” are described as belonging to the “school of Antioch” and are hailed as forerunners of modern “literal” interpretation. Such a claim seems exaggerated, for even the figures who criticized the heavy use of allegorical interpretation by their contemporaries tended to explain Scripture along typological and spiritual lines, far removed from the kinds of literary and historical explication taught in classes on the Bible today at colleges and universities.

An important leader of the “anti-allegory” movement in the fourth century was Diodore of Tarsus, who apparently composed a (now lost) treatise entitled On the Difference Between Theōria and Allegory. From other writings of Diodore, we gather that he objected to the allegorists' erasure of the “plain sense” of historical accounts. By appealing to what Diodore and his colleagues called theōria, these “anti-allegorists” attempted to understand the spiritual vision that enabled the Biblical writers to penetrate the “deeper” meanings of texts and to foresee later developments of history. Diodore argued that when Paul in Galatians 4 spoke of the “allegory” of Sarah and Hagar, he was not referring to the type of exegesis practiced by Origen. Paul did not erase the status of Hagar and Sarah as real people who had lived in the past, but rather understood the two women to represent, respectively, unbelieving Jews and future Christian believers. Likewise, the events in Genesis 2 and 3 are better described under the rubric of “enigmas” than of “allegories”: the serpent, an irrational animal who cannot speak, is used by the devil. Genesis 3 is thus truly historical, but contains a deeper explanation than what immediately meets the eye in the tale of a talking snake. And in Diodore's interpretation of the Psalms, he took care to point out the historical circumstances of the particular psalm's composition, whether it referred to a threat to Israel from the Assyrians, the Babylonian exile, or other historical events.

Similar concerns are present in the exegesis of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who had been Diodore's student. Unlike most church fathers Theodore took a free hand in rejecting books from the Old Testament canon that he thought had inappropriately been placed there: out went Job and the Song of Songs, Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, and from the New Testament, the Catholic Epistles. For these and for other theological errors, he was condemned by a church council meeting in 553. Like his teacher, Theodore did not think that Paul's words in Galatians 4 gave a license for allegorical exegesis: Paul kept the historical referent of the study of Hagar and Sarah, very unlike those allegorists who can not distinguish history from “dreams in the night,” and who use Scripture to serve their own ends. The “higher” meaning of a Biblical text is not, then, to be found in allegory, but in a spiritualized and typological reading that preserves the historicity of events. As an example of the latter, Theodore lists the story of Jonah's mission to the Ninevites, which prefigures Christ's stay in the tomb, his resurrection, and his appearance to all nations.

On some points, Theodore's interpretations seem modern, for example, his view that the chronology of the Gospel of John may sometimes be preferable to that of the other three gospels. Theodore was also unusual for his time in understanding that some difficulties in the interpretation of the Old Testament were occasioned by the Septuagint's translators' misunderstanding of the Hebrew. Hebrew, in any case, he notes, is very different in structure from Greek, and some features of Hebrew writing (such as the repetition of verbs) are inappropriate to Greek syntax.

In the late patristic period we find the first reference to a fourfold model of interpretation that was to become very popular in the Middle Ages: the monastic writer John Cassian appears to have been the first to distinguish allegorical exegesis not just from literal, but also from tropological (i.e., moral) and anagogical (i.e., relating to the heavenly afterlife). In this model, “Jerusalem” means a city of the Jews (literally), the church (allegorically), the soul (tropologically), and our heavenly home (anagogically).

Last, the later fourth century saw the production of a famous Book of Rules (for exegesis) by the North African churchman, Tyconius. Tyconius thought that the entire Bible, including the Old Testament, described the church—and hence, like many other early Christian interpreters, he insisted that all details of Scripture found their relevance in contemporary Christianity.

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