This is a report on a paper presented by Dr Mark Elliott as a keynote address at the 1st St Andrews Graduate Conference for Biblical and Early Christian Studies, 16th June 2011. The conference theme was “Authoritative Texts and Reception History”. The programme of the conference is available here. The conference facebook page can be found here.
Dr Elliott’s engaging paper offered a fresh and clear account of patristic reception analysis, by looking at two key New Testament texts and their interpretation over the first Christian centuries. In his view, the empirical application, rather than a purely linguistic-critical interpretation, does justice to the initial intention of the biblical authors.
He began by assessing the importance of the historical-critical studies of the Bible, as they can provide a fresh interpretation. In his words, ‘tracing networks between verses and phrases must not be done in a forced way that would by-pass the minds and understandings of the real human beings who were their authors and readers.’
Indeed, the historical criticism and reception studies may present a Scripture that speaks to today’s men and women. Unlike modern interpreters, the interest of early commentators of Scripture was its application rather than understanding. Dr Elliott emphasised the importance of recovering the early approach to reading the Scripture. The way Papias, in Eusebius’ words, valued the oral tradition and the living word is edifying. The author substantiates that ‘Scripture had and has enough life of its own without needing “tradition” to make it effective.’
Following this, Dr Elliott presented some of the recent positions on the reception of Paul, such as Margaret Mitchell’s or Wolfgang Wischmeyer’s. His paper analysed the reception of two key passages in the Pauline corpus (Ephesians 1:10b and Hebrews 2) focused on the interpretation of the early Church Fathers.
Ephesians 1:10: ‘to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’
The first example of a reception study offered by Dr Elliott deals with a veritable crux interpretum of the Pauline Epistles. He began by presenting the way ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι was translated in early Latin manuscripts, and how early Latin interpreters like Origen and Jerome understood it in the sense of restore, unlike Irenaeus’ recapitulation or gathering together. We see that Irenaeus’ understanding of the term is different from Paul’s, and, thus, more Christocentric. It appears that ‘the biblical Paul of Eph 1:10 is more cosmic’, whilst Irenaeus is more ’moral’ and ‘actualising to the extent of being hyper-Pauline’, Dr Elliott concludes.
Hebrews 2: 5-9
The recent commentaries on the passage insist on the humanity of Christ, and not his divinity. Tertullian, as Dr Elliott pointed out, used the passage to oppose the modalist patripassianism, showing that it was the Son who was exalted by the Father. Origen uses the Heb 2:9 to subordinate the Son, who, in Origen’s view, lowered himself through the Incarnation. Dr Elliott further showed that with John Chrysostom a shift can be seen. Chrysostom, in his Homilies on Hebrews, sees the Divinity of Christ as the acting force.
Concluding his paper, Dr Elliott substantiated the usefulness of the Scripture in the mind of patristic theologians, ‘bending the biblical text into a useful shape for the sake of application.’ Unfortunately, this very important feature remains insufficiently assessed by modern Reception scholarship and Dr Elliott rightfully appeals its recovery. Scripture was and still should be seen as the active voice of God, as a means of dealing with actual issues, as a key to living the Christian life.
(I would like to express my gratitude to Dr Elliott for providing me with a copy of the unpublished paper.)
Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University