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Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος

Jn 1:1

In principio erat verbum


In principio erat sermo


Neither the eloquent and passionate words of the Apologia de In Principio Erat Sermo, nor the elaborated demonstration of the advantages of his new translation of the Gospel according to John had persuaded the opponents of Erasmus to validate his replacement of “the word” in the famous Jn 1:1 with “the conversation”. Though closer to the original Greek text, the new translation was not accepted because it challenged the traditional mindset and horizon of expectations of the Catholic community of the Quattrocento. Scandalized by such a reaction, Erasmus seethed with indignation against opponents who did not understand that the issue was above all one of interpretation of the Latin and was not a purely theological matter.

This short example sheds light on the long-standing tradition of reading the Bible and all Jewish and Christian religious and philosophical texts through the prism of Christian dogma. Curiously, the very words “word” vs “conversation” describe symbolically the nature of the tension between the one-way doctrinal reading of the Jewish and Christian texts and a more open-minded and divergent scholarly approach which provides scope for questioning and investigating the Christian heritage.

Even nowadays this tension has not entirely evaporated from Patristic research. How useful is it to the academic community to see in the writings of Christian authors not only witnesses of their faith but also a work of literature carrying with it the shreds of the historical, socio-cultural, institutional, political, rhetorical and philosophical circumstances of their time, circumstances that influenced the way these authors spoke about their faith? In other words, how productive is it to consider Christian literature as literature (sic!), which obeys certain rules of literary production, applies certain literary and rhetorical techniques and reflects the horizon of the philosophical, theological, institutional and also literary expectations of its time? These questions were placed before the participants of the International Multidisciplinary Conference entitled “Theology as a Way of Reception of Bible: Invention or Fiction of the Patristic Epoch?”. Held by the University of Aarhus on 1–4 June 2017, the meeting became the final accord of the Marie Skłodowska Curie Individual Research Project devoted to the study of the Theological Orations of Gregory Nazianzen in the intellectual context of Late Antiquity. The main goal of the conference was to encourage specialists working with different aspects of the Christian literary heritage to meet and discuss their research approaches to Christian writings, whose status in most cases can be loosely described as a cross between historical documentary and literary fiction. Papyrologists and paleographers, biblical scholars, theologians and patrologists shared their experience of investigating Christian literature qua literature and also of studying how the rules, techniques and criteria of text-writing and text-reading had eventually found an echo in the formation of Christian discourse.

This Conference in Denmark continued the discussion started in 2015 at the conference in Tours entitled “Dire Dieu ou Comment parler et écrire sur Dieu selon les Pères de l’Église”, organized by Bernard Pouderon, within the program Christophe Plantin of the Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, attached to the Université François-Rabelais de Tours. The first conference in France, which attracted twelve European scholars from different Academic Institutions, stimulated a vibrant discussion of the methodological aspects of patristic discourse and resulted in a collective volume entitled “Dire Dieu. Les principes méthodologiques de l’écriture sur Dieu en patristique” (B. Pouderon, A. Usacheva (eds.), Collection Théologie historique, Th. No 124, Les Éditions Beauchesne, 2017). The second conference in Denmark summoned sixteen scholars from Europe, the United States and Latin America. The fascinating discussion of various significant principles of Christian literary production showed that these literary principles had a considerable influence on the formation of Christian discourse. Thus, Biblical and philosophical hermeneutics, institutional factors and even the manuscript culture and textual transmission of Late Antiquity modified and shaped the way Christian thinkers wrote and thought about God.

This volume inspired by the Conference in Denmark seeks to explore examples of the discernible effects of exegetic principles, Church policies and practices, and characteristics of literary culture, on the theological ideas of Christian authors. Accordingly, the four sections of the volume survey hermeneutical, philosophical, institutional and textual aspects of the formation of Christian discourse. The first article by Bernard Pouderon opens the section devoted to the Hermeneutic Aspects of the Formation of Christian Discourse. Pouderon studies the so-called Kerygmata Petrou (Preachings of Peter) in the Clementine Homilies. In this text, various rhetorical strategies are employed for the sake of the argument. Thus, the editor of the Clementines creates in his writing an atmosphere of secrecy and esoterism. He proceeds slowly to unravel his divine knowledge to the narrow circle of the advanced adherents worthy of the honour. The intrigue shapes the whole dialogue of Peter and Simon and is resolved only at the end, where Peter condemns the esoteric doctrine of his opponent. Pouderon argues that Peter and Simon symbolise two competing “gnostic” or “esoteric” doctrines, which insist on the unique truth which each of them reveals. He associates the teaching of Simon with the tradition established by Marcion and identifies echoes of traditional Judaism in the teaching of Peter. It is remarkable that although Simon and Peter are equally sceptical towards dialectics and the power of logical argumentation, they both demonstrate remarkable rhetorical skills which help them in their discourse.

Valentina Marchetto in her contribution critically examines the wide range of patristic witnesses to the doctrine of Jovinian, which has a long tradition of a somewhat biased confessional interpretation. In order to sufficiently contextualize Jovinian’s ideas about baptism and other sacraments, and especially about marriage and celibacy, Marchetto reviews the relevant views of his contemporaries and the historical circumstances of the Jovinian debate. She concentrates particularly on a parallel analysis of the debate between Jerome and Jovinian concerned with ecclesiastic, sacramental and ascetic doctrines and revolving around John 17:20–21. The conflicting theological concepts of Jerome and Jovinian guided their contrasting interpretations of the same biblical passage. While Jerome depicted his opponent as a serious threat to orthodox ecclesiology, Marchetto points out that the main ambition of his teaching consisted in reassessing the status of monks, whose modus vivendi, he argues, had no superiority over that of married Christians.

The article of Isabelle Bochet studies Hermeneutics of the New Testament in Contra Faustum Manichaeum by Augustine. While both Augustine and his opponent intended to reveal the true interpretation of the New Testament texts, they arrived at incompatible interpretations as a result of their contrasting theologies. The practice of exegesis based on assumptions that are foreign to the text itself calls into question the validity of such biased interpretations. If we accept that the patristic technique for mastering a biblical text is simply a matter of purely doctrinal preferences, we come close to proclaiming the theological perception of the Bible a mere fiction. Consequently, the keen interest Manicheans showed in a primitive form of biblical criticism could hardly be regarded as less correct than contemporary literary criticism or Augustine’s theological interpretation. To clarify these questions, Bochet thoroughly examines the hermeneutic principles both authors applied to the New Testament. She concludes her scrutiny by demonstrating that Augustine’s interpretation has the advantage of canonic consistency because, as opposed to the Manicheans, the orthodox tradition did not deprive certain biblical texts of sacred status. Thus, in Bochet’s argumentation, the fact that orthodox authors interpreted texts which they considered sacred, while Manicheans criticized the authenticity of texts that had no special value for them, eventually resolved the hermeneutic dispute between Augustine and Faustus in favour of the bishop of Hippo.

Miriam DeCock focuses her attention on the principle of the Bible’s usefulness in the exegeses of Origen and John Chrysostom. Familiar from Plato’s Respublica and Cicero’s De Inventione, the principle of the usefulness of the text was deeply rooted in Hellenic culture. Christian authors also sought to demonstrate the benefits or usefulness of the Holy Scripture. DeCock examines the ways in which Origen and John Chrysostom argued for the usefulness of two passages from the Gospel according to John: The Cleansing of the Temple and The Woman at the Well. DeCock demonstrates that although both authors were eager to show the usefulness of the biblical text, nonetheless their methods of unearthing the proofs of this usefulness as well as the discovered benefits of the text were different. Origen insisted that one must penetrate below the surface of the biblical text to discern its ultimate usefulness, while Chrysostom was content with the literal text’s benefits. However, DeCock also shows that Origen often read non-literally, but that he turned to non-literal reading when the text presented him with some sort of exegetical or philological problem. Thus, DeCock demonstrates a principal methodological distinction between the two traditions of Christian exegesis, namely, their perception of the ways in which the biblical text could be explained as useful.

The next section of the volume, devoted to Philosophical Aspects of the Formation of Christian Discourse, is opened by Alfons Fürst and his study of the features of philosophical exegesis in Origen’s Commentary on John. Fürst scrutinizes grammatical, philological, exegetical and also philosophical aspects of Origen’s hermeneutics. He argues that a fundamental interconnection between exegesis and philosophy was an integral characteristic of Adamantius’ biblical studies, which identifies him as an adherent of the intellectual tradition of the Hellenic philosophical schools. In such a way, Origen applied technical philosophical terminology and used the prolegomena of philosophical schools in his theological discourse. Struggling with the obscurity of the biblical texts, Origen not only explicated enigmatic passages with the aid of clear passages but also used knowledge of various fields of ancient science. In the background of the concept of ἐπίνοιαι, which helped Origen to explain the different biblical names of Christ, was the theory of homonymy developed by Hellenic philologists and philosophers. Fürst emphasizes the significance of Origen’s metaphysics of freedom developed in the Commentary of John. Skeptical of the natural determinism of the human constitution, Origen placed the burden of responsibility on the human being, whose everyday choices, in the long run, become his nature. This powerful view eventually proved to be rather influential in Christian anthropology and later philosophy.

Anna Usacheva analyzes epistemological theories in Aristotle, Apostle Paul and Gregory Nazianzen. She singles out the necessity of practical and embodied contact between the subject and object of cognition as a distinctive characteristic of the Aristotelian, Pauline and Gregorian approaches to knowledge. Following Charles Taylor, Usacheva considers this tendency to re-embed thought and knowledge in its original bodily and socio-cultural context and to focus on the process of cognition instead of its result, — the key feature of the so-called contact theories of epistemology. To argue her case Usacheva investigates the notion of medium and the principle of likeness as the key components of the epistemological thoughts of Aristotle and Gregory. She demonstrates that by talking about an overlap between divine agency and human agency in 1Cor 13:12 and Gal 4:9 Paul identified a unique and superb human capacity of knowing God brought about by God himself, who established a principle of likeness between the human and divine natures and also embodied this principle in the human-divine nature of Christ. Usacheva traces this idea in the epistemological thought of Nazianzen, where it was enriched by an Aristotelian approach to knowledge, and later in Maximus the Confessor, whose interpretation of Nazianzen’s texts also has a strong Aristotelian flavour.

The article of Anders-Christian Jacobsen, which investigates catechetical exegesis of Cyril of Jerusalem, opens up a new section of the volume devoted to the Institutional Aspects of the Formation of Christian Discourse. By the way of analyzing the internal logic of Cyril’s use of the biblical quotations Jacobsen explores the nature of the pro-catechetical, catechetical and mystagogical lectures. The scholar also explains the functional differences between catechetical and mystagogical lectures, which reflect the important aspects of the Christian communal life and baptismal ritual of the fourth century. In such a way, Jacobsen demonstrates how Cyril varied in his use of inaugural reading in the mystagogical and catechetical lectures and what were the practical implications of this usage. Put in the social context of Christian baptismal and preaching practices Cyril’s catechetical lectures reveal the rationale of his exegesis. Jacobsen displays the functional and structural parallels between Cyril’s lectures and sermons. He also offers an explanation of the inaugural reading choices as well as of their function in the catechetical and mystagogical lectures.

The contribution of Samuel Fernández concerns biblical techniques for the interpretation of the Nicene Creed in Athanasius of Alexandria’s De synodis. Fernández’ investigation is devoted to what is likely the first example of the status-building interpretation of the synodical text, which we find in Athanasius’ theological exegesis of the Nicene Creed. To establish the firm authority of the Creed of the first ecumenical council, Athanasius decided to produce a point-by-point answer to the critiques of the Creed. He used the well-known techniques of biblical hermeneutics, which in many cases go back to the Apostle Paul and Origen. Fernández surveys and analyses all the counterarguments of Athanasius and traces the continuity of the biblical exegesis and also his innovative adjusting of this exegetical tradition to the needs of his theological task and new institutional context. Thus, Fernández argues that instead of giving “biblical” status to the synodical texts, Athanasius gave a special “theological” status to them. The rationale of this innovation in the development of Christian discourse is concerned with Athanasius’ attempt at analyzing the specific nature of synodical documents which, although different from the nature of the biblical texts, nonetheless also has a particular touch of divine inspiration.

Sergey Vorontsov studies the functions of the biblical text in De ecclesiastics officiis of Isidore of Seville. Active in the late sixth and early seventh century, Isidore presents a good example of status-building exegetic activity in the Western church. In order to establish the origins of the practices of the Church, Isidore used in his work a large number of biblical quotations and allusions along with plentiful citations from the writings of Early-Christian authors. Vorontsov demonstrates that Isidore went as far as to use biblical examples for pondering and re-defining the identity of the clergy with regard to his ecclesiastical thought. In such a way, Isidore approached the biblical text as a source of exempla and praecepta. Vorontsov tackles the history of these terms and shows how Isidore employed the authoritative power of the Early-Christian texts to the result that in his own writing it served three particular functions. Thus, with the help of the Christian literary legacy, De ecclesiasticis officiis explicated and legitimized the practices of the Church, contextualized and legitimized the status of the clergy, and laid down examples of moral conduct for lay Christians and for the clergy.

An article of Ivan Miroshnikov and Alexey Somov, provides a new look at Enoch and Elijah in the Apocalypse of Elijah. Miroshnikov and Somov challenge the traditional approach to the Apocalypse of Elijah, which has been commonly regarded as a patchwork of various conflicting Jewish and Christian traditions. Instead, the scholars argue that the Apocalypse represents a systematic account of the eschatological events compiled in a coherent work. They start by examining the extant textual witnesses of the Apocalypse and, whilst attesting the numerous variant readings in the manuscripts, the scholars claim the unity of the textual tradition, which renders useless the attempts of previous scholarship to dissect the text into different editorial layers in order to grasp its meaning. Miroshnikov and Somov demonstrate how the author of the Apocalypse harmonized diverse eschatological ideas in order to compose a systematic account of the end of times. In this eschatological scenario, Enoch and Elijah have to descend from heaven to the earth twice: first as witnesses against the Antichrist and then as Christ’s forerunners who have to kill the Antichrist and initiate the Parousia. Thus, yielding to the common Jewish belief in the necessary death of all who possess a physical body, the author of the Apocalypse also maintained that the return of Christ would not bring death but rather a transformation into a new transfigured substance. Seeking to reconcile these beliefs, the author wittily played with the terms “the flesh of the world” and “the flesh of the spirit” to describe the second coming of Enoch and Elijah in the new non-physical body.

Luisa Fizzarotti in her contribution tries to go beyond the text and to tackle the three lives of the three times written and two times erased palimpsest Vat. Gr. 2306 + Vat. Gr. 2061A + Crypt. A.δ.XXIII, which is one of the most remarkable examples of a bis rescriptus palimpsest. Its first level preserves one of the oldest testimonies of Strabo’s Geography probably copied in the 5th century. It also has a Greek collection of laws, De eligendis magistratibus (Vat. Gr. 2306). The mise-en-page of the Vat. Gr. 2306 written in a beautiful biblical majuscule reminds of the Codex Sinaiticus of the Bible. After a review of extant data, she confirms the potential chronological and geographical attribution of the Vat. Gr. 2306 to the 6th century and to an eastern area. The final third section of the first level of the palimpsest preserves the New Testament texts (Vat. Gr. 2061A), inscribed in the 5th–9th centuries. Around the 7th or 8th century, the different parchment leaves of the manuscript were erased and reused to copy the Nomocanon. Fizzarotti supposes that the juridical content of the first (De eligendis magistratibus) and second layer (Nomocanon) could be an important clue to investigate the provenience of the book. The De eligendis magistratibus and Strabo’s books could have been copied — or just kept — in the School of Berytus; after the earthquake many books were transferred from Berytus to Constantinople, a perfect location for the copy of the Nomocanon. She claims that this text was copied for private use, since the style of the handwriting is quite informal, and it presents some features of documentary handwriting. The third level of the palimpsest retains the Pentateuch (Vat. Gr. 2306 + Crypt. A.δ.ΧΧΙΙΙ) and Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations (Vat. Gr. 2061A) with Pseudo-Nonnus of Panopolis’ scholia. Balanced attention to the materiality, provenance and content of the texts enables Fizzarotti to tackle the history of the manuscripts and to give a good example of the textual aspects of the formation of the reading-writing criteria in Christian society.

Contemplating the artistic process, Plato in the Phaedrus 264c famously compared discourse to a living creature with its own soul and body and everything that enables and suits the embodied living being. This beautiful parallel exemplifies the motivation of this volume to compile a multifaceted picture of those various strands of the Christian literary heritage which eventually found an echo in the formation of Christian discourse. Textual aspects of the transmission of the Christian legacy reveal to us “the body” of the literary composition: the paleographic data of the manuscript, which retell the history of the reading preferences and writing criteria of Byzantine society. Institutional factors of the Christian literary production preserve an account about the contemporary socio-cultural discourses and the relevant horizons of public expectations. Philosophical and Hermeneutical strands of the literary compositions represent language, terminological apparatus and educational background of the texts. Without analysis of the philosophical and hermeneutical framework of the Christian writings, their meaning is beyond our reach. The contributors to the volume have investigated various aspects of Christian literary production and demonstrated that all these different aspects resonated in the growth and formation of the living organism of Christian discourse.

On behalf of the editorial board of the volume, I would like to express warm gratitude to the European Research Council, which provided financial support to the Marie-Curie Individual project of Anna Usacheva and Anders-Christian Jacobsen, to the University of Aarhus, which hosted the Conference in 2017, to Dr. Martin Illert, the senior aquisitions editor of the German office of Brill Publishers for his great help with publishing the volume, and also to all the contributors, who have made our collaboration an efficient and pleasant enterprise.

Christian Discourse in Late Antiquity

Hermeneutical, institutional and textual perspectives


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