The Spiritual Pay-Off of Searching the Scriptures: The Principle of the Bible’s Usefulness in the Exegesis of Origen and Chrysostom

In: Christian Discourse in Late Antiquity
Author: Miriam DeCock

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Abstract

In this paper, I examine Origen’s and Chrysostom’s use of an exegetical principle, which was widely understood as the standard rhetorical measure of a sound textual interpretation: whether or not a given text could be deemed “useful” (χρήσῖµος) or “beneficial” (ὠφέλιµος) for the rhetorician’s or interpreter’s audience (e.g. Cicero, De Inventione 2.41,119; cf. Plato, Republic 382d). Indeed, one of the chief aims of early Christian interpreters was to render a given biblical text “useful” or “beneficial” for their audiences. From Origen’s corpus, I analyze selections from Book 4 of Peri Archon and from his Commentary on the Gospel of John. From Chrysostom’s corpus, I will examine sections of his Homilies on Genesis, and of his Homilies on the Gospel of John. For both authors we will examine their theoretical comments about Scripture’s benefits and the ways in which they go about discerning the benefits of two specific scriptural passages from the Gospel of John, namely, The Cleansing of the Temple and The Woman at the Well. We will see that while the two authors share the belief that the biblical text is inherently beneficial for members of the church due to its divine authorship, they differ with respect to where and how the text’s benefits are to be found. For Origen, the biblical text always contains benefits beyond the letter, whereas for Chrysostom, more often than not, there is more than enough benefit to be found at the level of the literal narrative. Exploring these authors’ comments about the biblical text’s usefulness allows us to observe more nuanced differences between their exegetical approaches than the simplistic allegory versus historical-literal distinction.

Christian Discourse in Late Antiquity

Hermeneutical, institutional and textual perspectives

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