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The Exegetical Method of Antioch

November 9, 2014

The exegetical method I was taught began with a clarification of purpose: exegesis was intended to excavate the intended meaning(s) of the original author of the text, as it would have been heard by the original audience of the text. Following the procedure given in Michael Gorman’s excellent book The Elements of Biblical Exegesis, this meant that we began with the historical and cultural context: when, and where, was it written? For what purpose? In what particular setting? This was followed by the canonical context: what were the surrounding passages? How was this passage positioned in the scriptural book, and where was this book in the scriptural canon? (Preachers or liturgists might also ask “or in the lectionary?”) Were there similar passages elsewhere?

Having situated the passage, we proceeded to a structural analysis, identifying symmetries and parallelism; which segues neatly into detailed analysis, looking at specific words and linguistic relationships, wordplay, and other literary devices (including soundplay, for those who could read the original languages) that emphasize or relate significant concepts. This is where one pulls out the concordance to look for other scriptural uses of significant words, and examines relevant contributions from other scholars. Ultimately, one pulls it all together and presents one’s resulting interpretation of the text. We were encouraged to close the paper with a reflection, a pastoral or spiritual application of the passage to the Christian life.

This method was taught to us so clearly, and produced such clear papers, that I was especially intrigued to read about a similarly clear exegetical method practiced by the Antiochene theologians such as Theodore of Mopsestua. In his paper “Search the Scriptures for they Speak of Me”: Reading Scripture with the early Fathers,” presented at an ecumenical consultation on the church fathers, Eastern Orthodox scholar John Behr draws on the work of Frances Young to outline this method, which has been associated with the historical and grammatical methods used by the rhetorical schools of Antioch.

The method begins by identifying the hypothesis, a technical term which here means the proposed subject of the text, the underlying framework which creates literary unity.

[T]he lexical level is examined next, establishing the correct punctuation and construal of sentences; attention is then paid to uestions of translation and etymology, foreign words, metaphors, and figures of speech; and finally the interpreter turns to the train of thought in the text, comparing it to other texts, which might provide further background material, from the scriptures, to set the text in its proper [scriptural] context. (Behr, 11)

In our studies, we were also introduced to the concept of a “canon within the canon,” which becomes especially relevant when two passages appear to conflict with each other. All biblical scholars have some method of resolving such conflicts, which often asserts that some books of the bible have greater weight than others: thus, these books constitute an informal and sometimes implicit “canon” within the canon of scripture. For Christians, the New Testament is generally given heavier weight than the Shared Scriptures; and within the New Testament, the gospels. Those with a more historical bent might prioritize Paul’s letters, or his undisputed letters, over the gospels, because they were written earlier; likewise they might give greater weight to the earlier gospels. Liturgically minded scholars might define the lectionary as the canon within the canon; and so forth.

It seems that the Antiochene scholars used the historical books of the Bible as their “canon within the canon”: according to John J. O’Keefe, “the narrative of the historical books completely controls and restricts the meaning of other texts” (O’Keefe, JECS 8:1 (2000), 92-94, quoted in Behr). I find this fascinating, given the significantly different Jewish and Christian ordering of the Shared Scriptures, and the fact that some books which are included under the Prophets in the Tanakh are classified as historical books in the Old Testament. Without further investigation into the relative chronology of the Antiochene exegesis and the ordering of the canons, I wouldn’t make any claims about causality (in either direction); but it certainly is suggestive.

Behr concludes that Antiochene exegesis did not ultimately survive in Christian biblical interpretation because it took history, rather than Christ, as its primary hermeneutical key; he also notes that, of course, there was not perfect consistency among all Antiochene scholars all the time. But I thought the discussion of method was interesting enough to blog about. 🙂

On a somewhat different topic, Behr also notes that Irenaeus gives an example of creating a Homeric pastiche when discussing incorrect methods of scriptural interpretation, using technical terms.

The terms Irenaeus uses are all technical terms in Hellenistic literary theory and philosophy. The term “fabrication” describes stories that are not true but seem to be so and “myth” refers to stories that are manifestly untrue.
(Behr, 5, discussing Against the Heresies, 1.8.1-9.4)

I thought this last point might interest one of my Greekier co-bloggers, who might consider engaging with Irenaeus… (hint, hint!)

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