(Cross-posted at Book Garden.)
After a great many distractions, I’m resuming blogging about Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, which I previously wrote about here. (It was so uncontroversial, and all.) I just finished the third chapter, which describes how the Roman-era church read Scripture.
The Bible, as such, had not been officially compiled. But the Gospels and many of the epistles were circulated, and Christians used a Greek translation of the Torah plus some then-recent additions such as Maccabees, in what was collectively called the Septuagint.
As he did with Origen in the first chapter, Wilken defends the orthodoxy of a figure whom many today think wandered too far into Platonism: in this case, Clement of Alexandria. Clement, Wilken says, used many concepts that were familiar to Platonists, including the idea that man’s ultimate destiny is “likeness to God.” (Also an obvious forerunner to the Eastern Orthodox idea of theosis.) But, Wilken says, Clement remade the idea through use of Scripture: first through the creation story of man “made in the image and likeness of God,” then through the idea of “restoration through perfect adoption by the Son.” In contrast to Platonists, Wilken writes, “Clement says the first step on the way to this end (likeness to God) is not the cultivation of good habits or wholesome pracrtices or a good education, but deliverance from sin.”
At the same time that Clement was explaining Scripture Platonically, however, Christians were also fighting on the other flank against Gnostics and Marcionists who wanted to strip Jesus of his Jewish heritage. Then as now, many Gentiles found parts of the Jewish Scriptures very strange. In a striking echo of what happened to me a few years back, Augustine wrote that before baptism he was told to read Isaiah, but found it so incomprehensible that he put it aside for some later period when he was more enlightened. But, rather like more recent Anabaptists, early gentile Christians read the Septuagint through the prism of Jesus. Wilken writes:
For Clement the Bible was a book about Christ. It was not simply a collection of ancient and venerable oracles or an account of what happened centuries earlier, but a book about a living person, Jesus Christ, who is the divine son of God … Christ is the goal, the end of all striving, the one who alone can satisfy human longing.
Wilken also credits Irenaeus as one of the early advocates of the holistic Bible. Like Clement, he saw it as a story of humanity moving toward perfection and renewal through God’s grace, where “the whole of human history is a long process leading from infancy to maturity.” He also underscored Paul’s connection between Adam and Christ; though he did not lay out the theory of original sin exactly as it later developed, he regarded Christ as restoring what Adam had lost.
Wilken also portrays the ancients’ method of Scriptural interpretation as at variance both with literalist fundamentalists and Jesus Seminar types.
In modern times there has been something of a consensus among biblical scholars that words have only one meaning and that the task of biblical interpretation is to discover the original meaning of the words of the Bible. The church fathers, however, took it as self-evident that the words of the Bible often had multiple meanings and the plain sense did not exhaust their meaning.
This was not entirely capricious however; rather, they interpreted the words of the Septuagint through the definitive revelation of Jesus. This started way back with Paul: in 1 Cor. 10, for instance, he recasts the Exodus story of crossing the Red Sea as baptism. Similarly, the early church adopted other lines from the Septuagint that were somewhat apart from their original context. The line from Psalm 43, “Send out your light and your truth,” originally was part of a prayer for deliverance, but was turned into a liturgical segue into Scripture reading. Gregory of Nyssa tied a reference to “living water” in the Song of Songs to the “living water” that Jesus promises the Samaritan woman (and identifies himself with in John). And so on.
I’m not sure how I feel about all this. On the one hand, I like the Jesus-centric approach to Biblical interpretation; if Jesus is taken as the definitive incarnation of God, then he does color every previous revelation. On the other hand, it also smells a lot like yanking quotes out of context, particularly out of their Jewish context. When Jesus quoted and interpreted Jewish Scripture to his countrymen, he was dealing in a shared understanding of their meaning. Did his “living water” reinterpret the Song of Songs, or was he bringing up a reference to the Song of Songs that other Jews would have understood? Or some of both?
I’ve been thinking about the whole question of scriptural interpretation since John and I have been reading Revelation. I haven’t posted on it, largely because I really don’t know what to make of it. Despite the efforts of premilliennialists, I find it impossible to take literally, partly because some images are literally impossible — how does a rainbow look like an emerald? or a lamb that’s standing up look like it’s been slaughtered? But to read it as allegory or myth, I feel stranded in my own time. It’s loaded with references to the Jewish prophets and, apparently, the then-current Roman government. But I’ve also been wondering lately whether I even know how to read things as myth.
Like a lot of modern left-coast psych majors, my education in myth and symbolism owes a large debt to Carl Jung. I think Jung was onto something, but it still seems stuck in a rather reductionist approach of “this equals that.” The hero’s journey equals the transition to adulthood, the Sirens equate to seductive female power, etc. Yet this raises the question, why do people need to communicate in code like this? If the message of (say) the Garden of Eden story is “man falls short of the glory of God”, why not just say that? Human beings love stories and myths, and find them far more engaging than dry statements of facts. Is that something primitive in our brains, or is it because something is actually lost when we distill myths into messages? Is the medium part of the message?
When I mentioned this to John, he said that prophesying seemed to present the God’s-eye view of current events. So when Daniel, for instance, portrayed political actors of his day as animals or demons or whatnot, he was conveying, in an approximate human sense, how God sees and judges those people. I wonder if that strong attraction to myth that we all have is in some sense an attempt at a God’s-eye view, beyond the facts that our forebrains can perceive. That has large implications for reading Scripture, which I am only beginning to think about.