#36—Part 2: Early Christian interpreters of the Bible and the scholars who interpret them, with Peter Martens [MIPodcast]

  • There’s an old saying that goes “the essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.” Sometimes scholars bring clarity by making things less clear. This is true in most academic pursuits, but it matters especially in biblical scholarship which deals with sacred texts. Peter Martens explores the task of Bible interpreters, religious, scholarly, and scholarly-religious, in an essay that was recently published in the Maxwell Institute’s Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. The essay began as a lecture Martens delivered at Brigham Young University on March 27, 2015. This episode features the recording of that lecture along with a mostly-audible Q&A session.

    About Peter Martens

    Peter Martens is associate professor of early Christianity and chair of the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He specializes in the exegetical cultures that emerged around the Christian Bible in late antiquity. He is author of Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life. His paper “The Bible in Early Christianity: Audiences, Projects, and Agendas” is available in volume 7 of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity.
  • BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.

    There’s an old saying that goes: “The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.” Sometimes scholars bring clarity by making things less clear. This is true in most academic pursuits, but it matters especially in biblical scholarship which deals with the sacred texts of religious traditions. In the last MI Podcast episode, Peter Martens joined us to talk about how early Christians studied the bible. This episode features a recording of Peter Martens delivering his paper on The Bible in early Christianity. The paper was delivered at Brigham Young University in March of 2015, you can read a polished version of it in the Maxwell Institute’s journal: Studies in The Bible and Antiquity, Volume 7. You can check that out at here.

    Now here’s Carl Griffin of the Maxwell Institute introducing Dr. Peter Martens.

    * * *

    CARL GRIFFIN: I’m really pleased today to have Professor Peter Martens with us here from St. Louis University. I was interested to know that Peter actually started in biology before he decided to go into a far less lucrative field and go into theology, but start as an undergrad in Biology at Baylor, he took a ThM in historical theology at Dallas Theological Seminary and then took his PhD at the University of Notre Dame in Theology. And he is an assistant professor of theological studies at St. Louis University.

    He’s had a number of fellowships, has been a visiting professor at both Notre Dame and Yale Divinity School, where he tells me he taught the first two LDS students who enrolled in Yale Divinity School, and had them in a class on origin where of course he discussed pre-existence of souls and other things that are of interest to LDS people.

    His first monograph was on Origen Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, he’ll be speaking to us today on the early Christian interpretation of The Bible. He’s hard at work right now finishing his second Oxford volume on Adrian’s Introduction to the Divine Scriptures and one of the earliest handbooks to The Bible written, and it’s something that hasn’t been much studied. With that, we’ll turn the mic over to him and welcome Professor Peter Martens.

    PETER MARTENS: Thank you for that introduction and for the invitation to be here. This is my first time at Brigham Young University and my first time in Utah, I’ve only been here for twenty-four hours but it’s been very enjoyable. I envy the natural landscape.

    Can you hear me at the back? Alright, great.

    Download the PDF of the paper Dr. Martens read here.

    Question & Answer

    QUESTION: [Off mic]

    MARTENS: Should I repeat the question for the microphone?

    GRIFFIN: Sure.

    MARTENS: Okay. So the question was—I’m trying to summarize it fairly—has the emergence of textual criticism in the 20th century also informed or shaped the rise in the study of exegesis?

    So, yes. And there are a number of ways in which we see this: one of these you mentioned, that variance can’t simply be relegated to corruptions or errors. This is the old model for doing textual criticism, the old Lachmannian model where you try to construct your ideal text and beneath this ideal text are a series of corruptions. Now to be sure, there are corruptions in manuscript but variant readings emerge which reflect different concerns and emphases and we also see these variant readings not simply in biblical manuscripts but in the writings of early Christian authors on scripture.

    So this is the second facet to the question: one of the reasons we need to edit early Christian commentaries on biblical texts or homilies or introductions is because they are often witnesses to other readings that we do not yet have access to. As I was explaining to someone here today, I can’t remember who, while I have been editing Adrian’s Introduction to the Divine Scriptures I will go to the existing critical editions of the Septuagint. And I will look at Adrian’s reading and I will look at the existing critical edition and not only does Adrian print a different text than what’s in the edition, I go down to the apparatus and I model Vlach [?]. There isn’t even the variant reading in the apparatus. Our apparatuses are often not complete and so to get a better sense of the transmission history of the Bible we also need to study these early Christian commentaries on the Bible. And there are probably a few other ways in which early Christian biblical scholarship ties into modern developments, but those seem to me to be two obvious ways.

    Thank you for the question.

    QUESTION: [off mic]

    That’s a good question. So to elaborate a bit, the idea of getting back to an original Origen is almost a fool’s errand. Because most of our biographical information about Origen comes from later friends and foes and the biographies conflict with one another.

    Perhaps to qualify or clarify, what I mean by a biographical approach is to attend to the way in which the person of the interpreter is presented. That we can agree on, how this person is presented. Whether this is an ideal that is never instantiated in real life, well we can leave that question open. But we can tell from the writings of early Christians that they have very clear notions about what ideal readers need to look like. And a lot of those facets have been suppressed in the scholarship and I think in part because it is a modern instinct to try to reduce things to methods and pull out personal dimensions to inquiry.

    And so we search for the methods of Origen: let’s talk about his allegory, let’s talk about his literal exegesis. And we stop from realizing that these are approaches to texts that are embedded in a deeper life. A richer life. And that’s what I’m trying to correct. An overly mechanistic modernistic portrayal of early Christian exegesis.

    QUESTION: We mentioned that one of the exciting kind of directions that we were going in is looking at the effects of these exegesis’ on enriching culture. For you on Origen, what do you feel like are some of the biggest ways that exegesis impacted Christian culture?

    MARTENS: That’s a good question, the question is: “what is the social impact of Origen’s exegesis?”

    Now, scholars have answered that question differently. Some have approached it more cynically and said: “this is but Origen achieving power for himself.” Others have said “no, it’s about what he said it was.” What Origen does, if I can risk over-simplification, what Origen’s exegetical project aspires to do is to transform the biblical text which is sometimes recalcitrant and sometimes not, into a message that is edifying for his audience. Origen needs to pull out allegory when he’s reading historical narratives. He doesn’t want to preach to his people about stuff that’s recorded and repented to. Who needs to know a travel log of the Hebrews coming out of Egypt and moving to the promised land? Who needs to know that? Or just this is not our business. He wants to transform these narratives into something useful.

    Some texts prove very amenable, like Paul’s letters where Origen rarely if ever breaks out allegory. Another way to answer the question is to say, what happens after Origen dies? And what’s very striking is that Origen, unlike the vast majority of early Christian intellectuals that we know, had followers. He had followers and they resided in the desert of Egypt and the wilderness of Syria. They were monks. And it’s pretty clear that Origen’s work. They found a very receptive home among the monks and the wider ascetic movement that was emerging in the fourth century. And he was though to undergird their ascetic program. And so something needs to be said, and some scholars have said this, about the ascetic impacts of Origen’s work.

    GRIFFIN: Thank you very much