#35—Part 1: Early Christian interpreters of the Bible and the scholars who interpret them, with Peter Martens [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. There’s a funny thing about scripture that I’ve been thinking about lately. Communities of believers look to scripture for guidance and direction, and scripture can be one of the most important things that unifies believers. At the same time, scripture can be one of the biggest causes of disagreement for the faithful. This paradox isn’t anything new. For centuries Christians have been united and divided over interpretations of scripture, so in this episode Peter Martens joins us to talk about the unifying and dividing role that scripture can play for religion.
Martens is associate professor of early Christianity. He’s also chair of the department of theological studies at St. Louis University. Martens visited Brigham Young University campus earlier in 2015 to deliver a presentation about scholarship and biblical interpretation. His paper was polished and published in the new volume of the Maxwell Institute’s journal Studies in the Bible and Antiquity.
In this interview I sit down with Martens and talk to him about the history of biblical interpretation and the scholars who study it. In the next episode you’ll be able to listen to a recording of Martens delivering that paper, or if you don’t want to wait, you can read it by going to maxwellinstitute.byu.edu where volume seven of Studies is located.
BLAIR HODGES: So in the Christian tradition scriptures played an important but sort of paradoxical role. On the one hand, the canon of scripture has formed the basis of Christian unity. Communities form around a canon, and communities create a canon. The canon contains the writings that Christians turn to for their history and doctrine and ethics and all sorts of things.
But on the other hand, scripture has also been a source of divide. It’s been divisive. It’s been at the root of schisms and excommunications over the centuries, disagreements. So the answers that one takes away from scripture really depends on the sort of questions and assumptions that a person brings to the text to begin with.
Let’s start off by talking generally about some of the differences and similarities between different groups of bible readers. Scholars, religious believers, religious scholars, secular scholars, and that sort of thing.
PETER MARTENS: That’s a great question. That’s a big question. I like this language of paradox, that the scriptures are both a place where unity emerges but also a place where you see tensions and divisiveness. The fellow that I’m going to be talking about today, Origen, was a prolific third century reader of the Bible, and even he acknowledged in the preface to his famous work On First Principles, that there were all sorts of self-professing Christians in his day who took the Bible seriously, but read it in very different ways that yielded different conclusions. He had in mind people we nowadays call the Gnostics, and he was very worried about their exegetical approach, and he wanted to set up an alternative approach. He lays down in the preface to On First Principles the church’s rule of faith, which he says is going to shape all of his interpretations and distinguish them from these other Christians whose readings he’s less comfortable with.
We see simply in early Christianity a lot of debate about how the Bible is to be read. Probably the most famous debate is the debate between the so-called Alexandrians and Antiochenes. This is a debate that emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries, where people became very uncomfortable with Origen’s allegorical approach to the Bible, and they offer what they present as a very different way of leading.
That’s just looing at a controversy within the early church. When we look at the whole sweep of the Christian interpretation of the Bible from its beginnings to today, we see all kinds of different approaches, methods, and justifications for reading the Bible. These often become sources of significant controversy.
HODGES: Now the controversy played out in this setting of kind of community. I’d like to hear a little more about what the early church looked like. For example, contemporary Latter-day Saints have a pretty set idea of what the church looks like. You have a First Presidency, a Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, they hold the keys of leadership, and they direct the church.
What did the early church look like at the time of Origen, when he was dealing with people he felt were leaving the Christian path and falling away, so to speak? What did the church look like at that time?
MARTENS: Well in terms of its administrative organization or structure, there are different administrative structures in place in the second and third centuries. We have early evidence that a group of people helped organize a church, but pretty quickly already in the early second century in the writings of Ignatius, a bishop from Antioch, we have evidence that there is emerging a structure where you have one bishop in charge of the community and then you have a group of presbyters and deacons beneath these presbyters. So this three-fold hierarchy is starting to emerge. That’s the hierarchy that eventually makes it way into the Christian churches, and shapes their administrative structure.
In terms of dealing with controversies, well there we have people like Origen who for most of us was not even ordained, he only becomes a priest two-thirds of the way through his life, but he’s still engaged in all sorts of controversies working in many ways on behalf of the bishop to deal with tensions that might be emerging in the church, or simply to educate people.
HODGES: That’s really interesting. So he wasn’t necessarily a hierarchical figure, but he was a very influential figure that hierarchy could appeal to.
MARTENS: Right. This is one of the big crises in Origen’s life, is that there seems to have been a falling out with his local bishop in Alexandria, Demetrius, that precipitated Origen’s move up the coast to Caesarea Maritima where he was then ordained. But prior to his ordination he was basically a freelance instructor.
HODGES: Do you think the ordination was in part to stave off that sort of pressure that was put on him by his local leader?
MARTENS: It may have been something that precipitated the worry with the local leader that he was being ordained or being considered for ordination by people outside of Alexandria’s jurisdiction.
It’s a very complicated tension, and we don’t exactly know what happened. We have conflicting sources that are telling us about why Origen went up to Caesarea Maritima, but it’s clear that people had a lot of influence in the early church who were not ordained.
HODGES: When it comes to scripture, the New Testament canon was kind of being solidified around this same time. Am I right about that?
MARTENS: Broadly, yes.
HODGES: It would take a while for it to really lock down, but this is when you start having Christians talk about kind of a Christian canon of scripture.
MARTENS: For Origen there are a number of writings that are authoritative Christian documents. For instance the four Gospels, Paul’s letters, but then there are some writings whose authoritative status is not entirely clear to him. These sorts of question marks about some biblical books last well into the fourth century. It’s really in the fourth century that we start seeing bishops putting down lists. This is what’s in, and everything else is out.
But it takes even longer for there to be agreement among bishops throughout the Roman world about what actually is on the list. So there’s a real sense in which a canon is a much later development, but at the very least in Origen’s day we can say with confidence there are authoritative Christian writings.
HODGES: Okay, so we have these authoritative Christian writings, and then we have ways of reading them. So Origen is taken up in that discussion of the right way to read scripture. Scholars today talk about exegesis, interpretation.
So let’s broadly talk about what exegesis is, people that aren’t familiar with it, and how it played out for example in Origen’s context.
MARTENS: Okay, good question. So if we can talk about Origen’s exegetical project, it’s a big project. It starts with really foundational textual work. Origen was concerned to establish the correct text of his Old Testament, which would have been the Greek translation that we call the Septuagint. He produced by some estimates an addition to the Septuagint that reached forty to fifty volumes. So this is the Encyclopedia of Britannica, before there is a Britannica. It’s an enormous reference work with multiple columns designed to establish what the correct Septuagintal reading is.
HODGES: This is the Hexapla?
MARTENS: Exactly. So here you have what you might call the foundation of Origen’s exegetical project, and then building upon that, he produces three genres of interpretation. We call them the scholia, commentaries, and homilies. The homilies he only preaches once he’s ordained in Caesarea.
HODGES: That would be like a sermon.
MARTENS: A sermon. Exactly. But Origen is really the first professional Christian commentator on the Bible. He knew how the Greeks were trained to read Homer and the great Greek poets, and he basically takes these methods of interpretation over and applies them to his new classic, the Christian bible.
So you see Origen wrestling with the language of scripture, the sorts of historical events that are being narrated, but broadly speaking if I were to try to capture what this project for Origen was, it’s an attempt to draw out a scripture an edifying salvific message for his, Origen’s, audience.
So depending on the kind of book he’s reading in the Bible, he will employ multiple strategies. If you read Origen, the Old Testament scholar, he is often allegorizing passages. So for example, an allegorist will look at Noah’s ark in Genesis and say, “Well, okay, so we have Noah’s ark. But the ark is a symbol of the church. The church protected by God in a stormy tumultuous world. He’s transforming these narratives, these historical narratives, so they speak Christian doctrines, Christian morals.
HODGES: Was it important for him that they were based in an actual history? Or was he more concerned with the spiritual allegory that you could take out of that? Or was that distinction not important to him?
MARTENS: It was important to him to some extent. His later critics accused him of allegorizing because he didn’t like the historicity of nearly anything in the bible. In fact, when you read Origen’s Corpus, you realize that he affirms the historicity of nearly everything in the Bible. Where he gets nervous is with the opening chapters of Genesis. But Origen will acknowledge as a general rule that what is narrated happened, but he’s not interested in taking his readers into an historical tour of the ancient Israelites, or the Hebrews as they’re marching from Egypt to the Promised Land. He’s not interested in repeating travelogues for his audiences. He wants to preach a Christian message. So when he can use allegory to do that, he will do that.
But if you read Origen, the scholar of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, this is an Origen who rarely, if ever, uses allegory because Paul was already speaking a Christian message to Christian churches. So Origen is very comfortable reading that text, literally.
So one of the biggest misimpressions I think people have had about Origen is that he is an allegorist. My push back is to say well, he’s sometimes an allegorist. When he needs to be. But he’s also very comfortable moving in a literal mode. The key is to understand the goal. The goal is to produce out of scripture a useful message for the hearer.
HODGES: Is that the homiletical element of it? Or did that also spread into… you had mentioned he had three sort of—
MARTENS: That’s everywhere. That’s in the homilies, that’s in the commentaries, and that’s in the scholia. The difference between Origen’s homilies and commentaries, so far as I can tell, is that the homilies tend to be much more selective in what elements of a biblical passage he wants to pay attention to. It’s where he can get the most useful message the quickest way possible. His commentaries are much more detailed. It’s word-for-word, line-for-line.
HODGES: What sort of comments would he be making in that word-for-word, line-for-line? You say some of it would be more allegorical, some of it would be more straightforward. What are some examples of things he would do in his commentaries in dealing with scripture? What did he intend those commentaries to do? Did he expect regular Christians to be reading them? Were they for clergy? What were they for? So kind of composition and purpose.
MARTENS: Great question. Origen wrote, I want to say he wrote around thirty books of commentary on the Gospel of John. These books would be roughly the size of a smallish paperback for us. He only got to John chapter thirteen. So he will spend an enormous amount of energy on just parsing a few words. The opening words of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the word, the word was with God.” Origen spends a lot of time. “In the beginning,” what does that mean? Are we talking about a chronological beginning or some other sort of beginning? And he will reflect on the Greek words that’s there, Arche, and run through all these different uses for the word Arche in Greek literature and language. Then he’ll settle on the reading he likes and he’ll move on to the next word. So a passage like that, which is very interesting for Origen with a speculative mindset, he digs down very carefully.
In terms of his audience, this is a great question. So Origen had a great patron. His name was Ambrose. His patron basically provided Origen with the ancient version of a publishing house, stenographers who took down Origen’s notes and published his books and then presumably circulated them. Literacy rates in the ancient world were not high. So it’s not clear how many people would have been able to read what Origen read, but his works were very quickly circulated. So certainly people with high levels of education, clergy and other Christian centers, would have been access to what he was doing.
HODGES: So his commentaries sort of focused line-by-line, and then what was the first kind? Scholia?
MARTENS: The scholia tend to be very short notes on particularly problematic or difficult issues. Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? This is a classic question that scholiasts always were worried about. Why does God clothe Adam and Eve with garments of skin? What’s that all about? Origen’s interpretation of that is an allegorical one—
HODGES: What does he say about that?
MARTENS: Adam and Eve stand for preexistence souls that are discarnate. They are not embodied. For Origen, souls after a transgression get placed into bodies. So Adam and Eve in the garden after they have sinned get clothed with garments of skins, i.e., they get put into bodies. That’s what the garments stand for. That’s a class Origenian allegory that got him into all kinds of hot water—
HODGES: Especially later on, right?
MARTENS: All kinds of trouble.
HODGES: It helped lead to him being declared heretical, right? Or at least some of his works were declared—
MARTENS: Correct. Origen was condemned at what is now regarded as the Fifth Ecumenical Council. This was a council convened by the emperor Justinian in 553. Origen is listed at the end of a long list of heretics. You have Arius, Nestorius, a bunch of other names, and then Origen is listed. The council itself does not tell us why Origen is condemned, but we get a clue when we turn the clock back a few weeks.
In the weeks immediately preceding the council, Justinian the emperor wrote an edict against Origen, listing all of the problems with Origen’s teachings. One of the problems that he fixated on was Origen’s doctrine of preexistent souls. It’s a very interesting argument that Justinian makes. He says Origen is teaching a doctrine that is foreign to the church. It is a doctrine that he got from Pythagoras, Plato, and Plotinus. Had he paid attention to the Bible with its clear teaching about the soul, he would not have been led astray. So preexistence of souls is deemed a heresy by the emperor, and Origen is therefore subject to condemnation.
Of course the reader wants to know in reading Justinian’s edict what exactly the emperor thought the Bible’s clear teaching on the origin of the soul was. Justinian never tells the reader what that is, and we know from reading early Christian reflections on the soul deep into late antiquity that authors were quite confused about what the Christian teaching on this particular matter should be. Cassiodorus, I’m thinking of him in particular, Cassiodorus writing at roughly the same time the emperor is condemning Origen for this teaching, openly admits we don’t really know as Christians what we ought to teach about this particular issue. So it’s a very debated issues, but the emperor called the question, and said nope; debate is over. This is heresy and Origen is condemned.
The scholar of Origen, I think would look at this a bit differently and say okay but was preexistence heresy in Origen’s day? Origen tells us the church hadn’t made up its mind on this issue, and so it seems to be an issue that you couldn’t be considered orthodox or heretical for. It’s a good example of how the boundaries of orthodoxy shift in the ancient world, and depending on how they shift certain authors become victimized by that.
HODGES: Even posthumously, right?
MARTENS: Especially posthumously. Origen dies in 254, this council that Justinian convened three hundred years after his death. So three hundred years after his death is when Origen is condemned.
HODGES: I presume that’s because he was still influential and there needed to be a line drawn. Is that—
MARTENS: Yes. In many ways Origen’s big problem was that Origen was successful. He had followers. Lots of followers. They often took his positions and ran in slightly different ways than Origen himself would have gone. But the people who were interested in suppressing or policing his followers decided that the best way to get at them was to get at Origen.
So Origen is repeatedly conflated with the Origenists, or his followers, even though when we read the texts and we see what Origen says on certain issues and what his followers say, we see that it’s not exactly the same thing.
HODGES: You said there was some talk about Origen having been influenced by Hellenistic ideas and Greek philosophy. So he was accused of importing those types of ideas into the Christian faith.
That seems to be kind of related to a canon issue because it seems like they’re saying here, we have these canons that makes these particular claims, and he’s bringing these alien ideas into them. How widespread was that impression of what Origen was doing? Was that something he faced during his life as well, people making that accusation?
MARTENS: Very good questions. Yes. In Origen’s own life there were people who were very worried about his knowledge of, his facility with non-Christian Greek learning. Pagan learning for short. One of the areas where this becomes quite clear is in his homilies where you can tell that he’s been interrupted in church. Someone is talking back at him, saying why are you allegorizing? This is something you got from the Pagan philosophers. And Origen stops and says, he doesn’t deny that, but he says but have you read Paul’s letters? The apostle Paul does this all the time with the Old Testament.
So you can see there’s already a nervousness in some of his congregants about what he’s doing. After Origen this becomes a standard argument against him, is that he corroded the Christian gospel with foreign teachings. It’s in fact a very standard argument made against the heretic. Whoever you want to deem a heretic, a great way to throw them under the bus is to say, “You have been contaminated by the outsider.” This gets directed against Origen all the time. Origen himself directs it against people he considers heretics.
HODGES: So he buys into the same assumption, that it’s bad to pollute—
MARTENS: Absolutely. He says this repeatedly against people we now call Gnostics, though we tend to qualify that expression, and he says the reason you guys have gone wrong is because you’re reading the philosophers. It’s just a standard, argumentative strategy. It gets turned against Origen after his death.
HODGES: I think from the standpoint of today we look back and see, and you mention Paul as an example of someone who is importing Hellenistic ideas into his presentation of the gospel, from our standpoint it’s easier to see that everyone’s contextualized. Everyone speaks from within a historical context, and so whenever you’re even dealing with scripture, you’re dealing with something that’s already couched in language and concepts that are influenced by all sorts of things.
There’s no “pure” Christianity in that sense. It’s all filtered through human perception. Did they talk about that at all at the time?
MARTENS: No. In fact, that’s something that they weren’t even talking about at the turn of the twentieth century. This Hellenization of Christianity thesis is associated with a great Protestant historian of theology, Adolf von Harnack, who had a very similar argument that we find in people like Justinian, that we have this wonderfully pure Christian gospel that grows up on its native Palestinian soil, and then this gospel leaves Palestine and walks into the wider Greco-Roman world where it is corroded, it is corrupted, and it’s especially Greek philosophy that is responsible for this. This argument, like we just said, is in the ancient world, but also people like Harnack at the beginning of the twentieth century—
HODGES: He’s a Protestant I assume, right?
MARTENS: He’s a Protestant historian who is arguing this. All kinds of scholars have bought into this. In fact, there’s a very recent book by the late Géza Vermes who documents or narrates the rise of Christology from the gospels to the council of Nicea. The basic narrative there is still the Hellenization of Christianity narrative. The Jesus of the gospels is great. And pure.
HODGES: There’s a purity there.
MARTENS: It’s pure, it’s great; it’s authoritative.
HODGES: It’s Christianity.
MARTENS: Right. What we get with Constantine in the fifteenth century and Nicene Creed is a corruption, it’s something Jesus would never have acknowledged, it’s far removed from the spirit of the gospels, and it’s a narrative of decline. I think very few scholars today are willing to buy into such simplistic narratives. As you mentioned, I think you spoke well about this, most people recognized that already in Palestine in the first century we have a deeply Hellenized context. This idea that we have Hebraic versus Hellenistic is far too simplistic, and is not a useful way, I think, of narrating early church history.
HODGES: And you can see it in the writings. This isn’t just a scholarly thesis or hypothesis. You actually see this in the words that they use, in the concepts that are used.
MARTENS: The New Testament is written in Greek. Not Hebrew. So you start with that.
HODGES: Exactly. Perfect way to put it. So it’s interesting that Origen not only faced those types of accusations, but also leveled those types of accusations, and you have disagreements going on in early Christianity and let’s talk about, now that we’ve kind of focused on Origen as a singular person, patristic exegesis in general.
I think a lot of Latter-day Saints probably aren’t familiar with this element of Christian history. We tend to start telling our story around the 1830s with Joseph Smith, so let’s talk more about the broader context that Origen was in, and what patristic means, what patristic exegesis is.
MARTENS: Okay. So two words that might be unfamiliar to many of our listeners. Patristic is an adjective that is increasingly falling out of use. We talk about the field of patristics, and that’s meant to study the early church fathers.
HODGES: Who were they?
MARTENS: Depends on who you’re talking to. You have tighter definitions of fathers as authoritative figures in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, such as Augustine or Jerome, or John Chrysostom and the Cappadocians. Then you have looser definitions of the fathers, which can basically include anyone who had anything interesting to say.
For a number of reasons people have become increasingly uncomfortable with the designation of patristics and so now we speak increasingly of early Christian studies. It’s basically a way of saying we’re interested in not only the social, the cultural, the intellectual worlds of Christians in late antiquity.
When we talk about the interpretation of the Bible of early Christians, well then we’re talking about a very narrow subset of very highly educated, invariably men, many of whom had achieved clerical status but some who hadn’t, who were interested in studying the Bible. We see all kinds of bible-oriented scholarship in early Christianity. We already mentioned a few of these. Homilies. Sermons on the Bible. Commentaries on the Bible. People write introductions to the Bible. Short little manuals that they can distribute to would-be readers that help them go through the biblical text reading for themselves. There are reference works produced for the Bible.
So there’s a whole apparatus that emerges around helping people understand the Bible.
HODGES: So the old myth of the clergy trying to control the Bible and keep everyone out, that’s not kind of fair to the stage at that time. Or was there an elitism there?
MARTENS: There’s always elements of truth to these things. We have two basic issues here that prevent the Bible from operating in the ancient world the way it often operates in our world, where many Christian homes will have copies of bibles, we can presume literacy, in the ancient world we cannot presume that people have copies of bibles in their homes. We know that some people do, but it’s very costly to produce a bible. This is before the era of computers, before Xerox machines. Bibles are produced by scribes.
MARTENS: Letter-by-letter by hand. It’s a very expensive undertaking. So very few bibles are in circulation, so you cannot assume that a church would even have had a complete copy of what it considered a bible. They might have had two or three gospels, they might have had Paul’s letters, but they might not have had all of their Old Testament. Bibles are not transmitted in one bound codex. There are very exceptions. Deluxe editions are, but most bibles are produced in multiple codices.
So you have expense and production of bibles, and you have limited literacy rates, which mean that by definition most Christians don’t have direct, personal access to the Bible. Where do they have access to the Bible? In church, where the preacher will preach on the text. That’s where they’ll hear the Bible.
HODGES: And they would also see these introductions and things that were being written by the early church fathers, and other people you’ve talked about, so those writings are sort of meant to influence culture, not from the ground up but sort of the middle area of church leaders and things like that, where that could trickle down, the knowledge could trickle down.
MARTENS: Exactly. These are highly educated people writing for other highly educated people.
HODGES: And they weren’t unified. They had a variety of—
MARTENS: Oh yeah. What counts as an introduction to the Bible in the ancient world is really fascinating because from a modern scholarly perspective we have very clear ideas about what goes into a book called an introduction to the New Testament. We have expectations that the author will talk about authorship, dates, literary genres, historical contexts, maybe write an outline of the book in question.
In the ancient world you have all sorts of books that function as introductions, but they do very different things from one another. There isn’t this emerging notion of a real genre. That itself has not been studied very closely. I’m attentive to this problem because I’m editing an introduction to the divine scriptures by a fifth century author called Adrian. His introduction looks very different from, say, Augustine’s introduction to the Bible, De doctrina Christiana. I think that in itself is worth reflecting on. Why do these introductions look so different from one another? What does that say about early Christian diversity? Are they perhaps more diverse amongst themselves in their approach to the biblical text than we are with our very fixed notions of what constitutes an introduction? Open questions.
HODGES: That’s fascinating. What kinds of differences would there be? What concerns would they have? I think the most broad question you can ask when you approach those introductions is you can see what concerned them, because that’s what they addressed. You talked about what a modern introductory text would include, and all those elements are there in the ones I’ve read, what sort of elements would you expect in these older iterations?
MARTENS: Okay. So the text I’m working on, Adrian’s Introduction to the Divine Scriptures is focused on a very particular problem. Literary peculiarities in the Bible that would cause a fifth century reader to stumble. So for instance, why do the Psalms speak about God having hands? Or eyes? Why are there all these tropes in the Bible, but not clearly announced?
So my author creates a long list of tropes, defines them, and illustrates them. He attempts to explain how God is being spoken of in the Psalms. He makes all sorts of literary observations, or lexical observations. The Greek word for spirit, “pneuma,” he said it’s used five or six different ways. So he basically offers you a dictionary entry. So this is an example of one introduction to the Bible.
HODGES: It seems like a lot of tools, and helps to get over obstacles even more than just a straight up introduction.
MARTENS: Right. It would be… in terms of our books that introduce people to the Bible, my author is doing a combination of grammar and lexicon.
HODGES: Just to help people along.
MARTENS: Just to help people along.
HODGES: So that’s his type of—
MARTENS: Yeah. So I think he’s probably writing to a, he could be writing to a younger audience, to people who are learning how to read. He wants them to learn how to read by reading the Psalms and this is his notes for helping people come to terms with the language of scripture. There are other introductions to the Bible that summarize the contents of biblical books. It’s a very different approach. He’s like, in Genesis here’s what’s happening, in the opening chapter this is discussed, then we have—
HODGES: It’s like a CliffsNotes version.
MARTENS: CliffsNotes version. Then you have other people who take maybe a more speculative approach and say okay, what is the fundamental message of scripture to its readers? And you have what looks like a summary of Christian teaching.
HODGES: Like catechistic type?
MARTENS: A very catechistic type. This is the message of scripture, and this is what you need to find when you’re reading the text. So I’m thinking here of Junilus’s handbook on the bible that he wrote in the sixth century. Then you have other people who focus more on methods or techniques of reading. All of these things are presented to readers as ways to get into the Bible.
HODGES: Did you have any that tried to do what the modern introductions do and combine elements of each of those things? Because it sounds like what you just described are just elements that now we expect to see a discussion of each of those things in an introductory text. Was there anybody who was trying to take a more holistic view of that? Or was that still centuries away?
MARTENS: No. There’s nothing that would really approach in one volume what a modern introduction to the New Testament or the Old Testament would look like. There’s nothing that approaches that.
HODGES: So we’ve kind of talked a little bit about the patristic environment, early Christian studies now is kind of the preferred academic way of talking about that, we’ve talked about Origen.
This leads us into the next part of the interview. When people today approach early Christian texts, like the one that you’re editing. It’s hard not to compare them to the sort of things that we encounter today.
HODGES: So I would look at that text as a very interesting piece of historical data, but if I really wanted an introduction to the New Testament I would grab the one that I bought from Oxford University Press or something because it kind of speaks more to the concerns I have today.
So just from a regular reader like me, from my standpoint, I try to find the tool that’s going to get the job done quickly. When it comes to the academy there’s also been, you point out, a reluctance to engage with patristic writings. There came a point in time when those works were seen as out of date and as almost useless.
MARTENS: Yes. I would say that in the last fifty years, I tend to think of World War II marking a watershed on this topic, that there arose really for the first time in the modern era a really strong interest in the way in which the Bible was read in the pre-modern world. There was a very strong prejudice against pre-modern biblical interpretation throughout a lot of the modern era. There are a lot of reasons why patristic or medieval exegesis started to get studied after World War II.
I think that there would still be a strong reluctance among professional biblical scholars to say yes, let’s look at how someone like an Origen or a John Chrysostom, or an Augustine read the Bible and let’s use that as a starting point for the way in which we will discuss the text. There would still be a strong resistance to this.
At the same time, I think that the average participant in the society of biblical literature meetings would not be nearly as allergic to patristic biblical interpretation as people might have been a hundred years ago. I think there is an awareness that the study of the reception history of the bible at the very least can enrich or supplement traditional scholarly ways of reading.
So today at the Society of Biblical Literature, you will see a number of units that are devoted to studying the history of interpretation. You would not have seen that half a century ago. I think one of the really interesting markers for this shift in the field are the two major reference works on the Bible. So the previous reference work on the Bible was the Anchor Bible Dictionary. There was almost no attention paid to the reception history of the Bible prior to the modern era in that reference work. The new reference work for the Bible, which is in the process of coming out, and it will be the standard reference work for decades to come, and it’s called The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. It’s deliberately integrating reception history into biblical studies. So there’s an openness to this today that there has not been in the past.
People study early Christian exegesis with a variety of agendas. There are some who do go back to the early church fathers and say this is how it needs to be done, what we like about this is we see people who are theologians who can integrate the Bible into their visions. We want to use this as a model for how we do theology, or how we preach.
There are others, like myself, who are historians of Christianity who want to put the history of exegesis on the map because it’s a really important part of the late antique Christian experience. Then you have biblical scholars who like reception history for how it supplements what they do. There are a number of stakeholders, I would say, in this recovery of interest of patristic biblical exegesis.
HODGES: That’s Peter Martens. He’s assistant professor of theological studies at St. Louis University. He specializes in the exegetical cultures that emerged around the Christian bible in late antiquity. He’s the author of Origen and Scripture. It’s a book from Oxford University Press. He’s also currently completing an edition and translation of Adrian’s Introduction to the Divine Scriptures. He’s also the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation, which is still being edited, right?
MARTENS: It is still being edited, yes.
HODGES: You mentioned something about a hundred years ago about the attitudes. Let’s rewind there and talk about that, because it’s kind of easy to look at that attitude as being too quaint or being too close-minded, but at the same time if I’m going to study astronomy today, I want an up to date textbook. I’m not going to go look at that sort of stuff.
So let’s talk about the attitude that one particular scholar that you bring up had toward those patristic readings of scripture and why they weren’t very interested in them.
MARTENS: Alright. So I’m going to read here for you and your audience a quote from Fredric Farrar. This is his Bampton Lectures that he delivered at the University of Oxford in 1885. So well over one hundred years ago.
He writes, “The task before us is in some respects a melancholy one. We shall pass in swift review many centuries of exegesis and shall be compelled to see that they were, in the main, centuries during which the interpretation of scripture has been dominated by unproven theories and overladen by untenable results. Exegesis has often darkened the true meaning of scripture, not evolved or elucidated it, and this is no mere assertion. If we test its truth by the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest, we shall see that as a matter of fact the vast mass of what it is past for scriptural interpretation is no longer deemed tenable, and has now been condemned and rejected by the wider knowledge and deeper insight of mankind.”
Now Farrar continues, and he calls to mind recent developments in archeology history in comparative religion, and concludes that these disciplines “have resulted in the indefinite limitation, if not the complete abandonment of the principles which prevailed for many hundreds of years in the exegesis of scripture, and in the consignment to oblivion for every purpose, except that of curiosity, of the special meanings assigned by these methods to book after book and verse after verse of the sacred writings, and so,” Farrar concludes, “the history of interpretation of the Bible was, to a large extent, a history of errors.”
HODGES: So he’s basically saying—
MARTENS: Isn’t that wonderful?
HODGES: Yeah, what’s really interesting is he’s importing cultural ideas. He’s getting cache out of Darwin.
MARTENS: Right. Right. This has become, I think, one of the stock metaphors for narrating the whole sweep of the history of Christian biblical interpretation. That we have basically a pre-modern era out of which a modern professional scholarly approach has emerged, has evolved, and the idea is, I think, quite clear. It’s implied in an evolutionary metaphor that what we have now is superior to what has gone before. We’ve put it in the rear view mirror. There’s no need to look back.
HODGES: That’s a curiosity now.
MARTENS: It’s a curiosity.
HODGES: It’s a fossil you might be interested in.
MARTENS: Right. But no other need to go back and look at the stuff. The evolutionary metaphor is very powerful, but it insinuates a lot and could be contested.
For example, it insinuates that there is very little continuity between pre-modern and modern biblical exegesis. I would argue that’s not true. I would argue that there are, in fact, a lot of continuities. We can look at any number of ancient writings and see very similar concerns to those we would find in modern textbooks, grammars, lexica. The evolutionary narrative suppresses that. It also suppresses the fact that ancient authors often anticipated modern moves and deliberately did not go there.
So to come back to Origen, when he reads about the Hebrews wandering from one station to another station in the wilderness as they are moving from Egypt to the Promised Land, he stops and he turns to his audience and says, “Really?” Okay, I’m paraphrasing. “Really? Are we going to narrate a travelogue in church? Is this why the text has been written? Is this why it’s been preserved for us? So that we can go through and note that they went from one place to another place to another place? Is it our task to do an archeological investigation into this?” He says no. This is not why the text was written. It’s written for our benefit, and then Origen puts on his allegorical cap and reworks the text. Well this is precisely what the modern reader would balk at. The modern reader wants to put texts in their contexts.
HODGES: We want the history.
MARTENS: Right. So the evolutionary narrative often suggests that whatever they were doing back there, they weren’t even conscious of what moderns were doing. They could not even anticipate it. In fact, there are anticipations and there are clear rejections. So this is much more of a principle debate that runs throughout the history of exegesis.
HODGES: It wasn’t on critical thought, it was deliberate decisions about how to use the text.
MARTENS: Absolutely. I would say there’s another thing that could be… we could push back on the evolutionary narrative in another way. It’s one thing to say that modern exegetical strategies are different from pre-modern ones, or that these differed in a number of important ways. That’s one thing. It’s a very different thing to say that they are superior.
HODGES: Let’s unpack that a little bit more. What are some of those differences again? And I think Farrar touched on a few of them, but what are a few of those differences, and then we’ll make that distinction that you draw.
MARTENS: Okay. I think I’m going to probably oversimplify, but I don’t think I’m far off when I say that the mantra of a dominant modern exegetical culture is context. You put a text in its literary, and in particular its historical context. Who was the author? For whom was the author writing? What conventions was the author using?
HODGES: What did it mean to the people who were receiving the text?
MARTENS: Precisely. The metaphor here is archeological work. Let’s dig through the layers of history, let’s unearth what’s there, and then let’s try to reconstruct what was in this past world and reconstruct it in a way that really shows how it’s in many ways quite different from our own world. It’s a way of reading that puts distance between the contemporary reader and the ancient text. This, I think, captures a lot of the modern approach to the Bible. The word “context” is used in countless subtitles, abstracts, and opening paragraphs of books. It’s everywhere.
HODGES: It’s everywhere, yeah.
MARTENS: This runs really one hundred and eighty degrees, it runs in a diametrically opposed way to the pre-modern allegorical impulse, which basically decontextualizes. Okay, the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, great. But what does it mean for us? What does it teach us? So Origen will read passages from the Pentateuch and say, well this is about the spiritual life of the contemporary Christian in Alexandria or Caesarea. This is not a way of reading that distances the text from its audience. It pulls the text into his own world. It’s a transformative model of reading, not an archeological one. This is probably the biggest difference between the modern exegetical enterprise and the ancient one.
So to the question of superiority. It’s a normative judgment. I think, personally, I’m resistant to these large and rather simplistic sweeping narratives of the history of biblical interpretation that pick easy winners and losers. I prefer to think in terms of exegetical cultures and that what happens as we work our way through history is that priorities shift. Priorities migrate. Different goals emerge. And around these goals for reading different cultures emerge. It’s not about who’s better or who’s worse, but about what are these various strategies for reading? Where are they similar? Where are they different?
I think this is a more helpful way of thinking about the entire history of exegesis.
HODGES: Do you think this is where a distinction could be drawn between people in the academy who study the Bible and want it to be strictly academic, and by that I mean they want to remove themselves from any religious or spiritual takeaways from the text, versus scholars who want to bridge that gap, versus some religious people who want to completely ignore scholarship and just say we don’t want to have anything to do with it, we have the true meaning of scripture in common sense. It seems like this is kind of where that debate is happening, what you’re describing.
MARTENS: I think with the emergence of this modern exegetical culture comes the question of how do these texts still function as a living document for a community of faith? That’s never a question that emerges in the ancient world because they are in the business of transforming ancient texts for their modern hearers. So this question that you just raised, they aren’t raising. They solved it.
HODGES: That’s our problem.
MARTENS: It’s our problem because we contextualize texts, so for instance you want to talk about a text that was written three hundred years before Christianity emerges. If you contextualize that text, how was it clear that it’s speaking a message to Christians when it was written three hundred years before Christians even came into existence? So how do you deal with this problem? It’s an extremely complicated problem, and they discuss it repeatedly at the Society of Biblical Literature, and people get very heated about it.
It’s quite clear that there are self-professing Christians who have very serious academic credentials, who work according to the conventions of the field and produce their research, and see no tension. It’s also clear that there are people who have the same credentials who might be self-professing Christians, but who don’t introduce any of that into their work. Then there are people who have, again, the same credentials who are quite hostile to religious belief. They all rub shoulders at the annual meeting for biblical scholars. If someone has come up with a clear way of answering this question and maybe even of posing the question, I don’t know of it. There’s clearly an issue about how people read texts that are authoritative religious documents for them. How do they read these and interact with academic scholarship? Can they accept everything they read in academic scholarship, or only parts? How do they want to navigate that? I don’t have an answer for you on that.
HODGES: Is it accurate to say that there are different ways of answering it in the academy in the field right now and that people are doing their work from a variety of different ways of answering it?
MARTENS: Absolutely. I think that’s fair.
HODGES: I think some people get the impression that it’s either or. You’re either scholarly and they use “secular” as the word that’s a little frightening, this idea that it excludes religious belief, or you’re religious and devotional. To the contrary, there are people working in the field who there’s a spectrum of approaches.
MARTENS: That is certainly fair. We should at the very least say that, that we have people for whom religion and scholarship are in no way incompatible, and there are lots of those people out there. There are people who also work off of an old modernist paradigm that religion and scholarship are incompatible. I would say actually that latter group is more a minority. My read on it.
HODGES: Seems encouraging.
MARTENS: I think so.
HODGES: That’s Peter Martens. He’s assistant professor of theological studies at St. Louis University. Dr. Martens, thank you so much for joining me today.
MARTENS: Blair, thank you very much for the invitation. I enjoyed our conversation.
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