This is a report on a paper presented by Prof Lewis Ayres, Lecturer in Greek Patristics and Byzantine Studies in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, at the NT Research Seminar at the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 28th of November 2011.
An extensive written treatment of Prof Ayres’ argument was circulated in advance to the seminar members. His great and very interesting presentation emerged from his existing work on the 4th and 5th century Trinitarian controversies that shaped a certain way of reading Scripture. Prof Ayres’ aim was to identify as much as possible the origins of the classical Patristic exegesis and the significance of the ancient Grammarians in the development of the Patristic interpretative techniques. Subsequently, Prof Ayres presented seven steps of his argument:
1) Grammarians taught all the skills needed for an interpretation of Scripture. Within this there are 2 traditions of commentary: Allegorical (fairy early, on initially poetic/OT texts, and eventually on the NT text. It is not simply arbitrary, it uses grammatical practices to use justified allegory), and Anti-allegorical grammatical tradition (the plane sense of the words).
2) The historical claim that during 150-170 we first see allegorical commentaries on NT texts produced by Valentinians. In this period of 20 years, they began to produce texts. Basilides produced a work that was supposedly a commentary on some Scripture fragments in the way of the Aristotelian commentaries, a line by line commentary.
3) The first person to oppose these texts was Irenaeus. He exhibits almost all the grammatical practices that Origen used, but not in the same commentary-like way. Irenaeus shows that by using the practices and the rhetorical vocabulary, he functions in this anti-allegorical tradition. Therefore, the origin of Christian doctrinal exegesis is precisely an opposition to the Valentinians’ exegetical practices.
4) These same practices were used by Tertullian, Clement, Hippolytus, and the Alexandrians, and they also employed the same practices against the same opponents. Were they all dependent on Irenaeus? It is certainly the case with Tertullian and probably Origen. The way in which they opposed Valentinians was precisely by reading those texts in a non-allegorical manner.
5) When we think of the Christian allegory, it is paralleled within the Jewish tradition. It is a peculiar process, because Christian allegory has to develop in spite of the anti-allegorical reading of the NT employed by the second and third century Christian authors.
6) This use of grammatical practice is also an adaptation. Christians are very weary of adapting these practices. This is confirmed by the peculiar attitude of Christians towards the textual criticism; despite this, figures like Marcion, Tatian, or Apelles used literary standard text-critical techniques. The idea that the text as we have it is the text given by God (Irenaeus) was still very influential in this period.
7) This creation of Christian exegesis is fundamental to the development of the NT canon. The development in method drags the boundaries of the canon. There is a variety of questions involved here, there are some texts that seem to have been used in local context that have stopped being used.
A very engaging and lively discussion followed Prof Ayres’ inspiring presentation.
Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University