Reviews of

The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1–3 in Irenaeus of Lyons

In Brill, Eric Covington, Genesis, Irenaeus of Lyons, Patristic exegesis, Patristics, Reception history, Stephen O. PRESLEY on January 13, 2016 at 11:15 am


2016.01.02 | Stephen O. Presley. The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1–3 in Irenaeus of Lyons (The Bible in Ancient Christianity; Leiden: Brill, 2015). Hardback. 267 pages + 34 pages bibliography & indices.

Review by Eric Covington, University of St Andrews.

Many thanks to Brill Publishers for providing a MyBook paperback inspection copy.

In The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1–3 in Irenaeus of Lyons, Stephen O. Presley examines every reference to Gen 1–3 in Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies, abbreviated hereafter as Haer.) to demonstrate how Irenaeus interprets Genesis’ protological narratives within an intertextual network spanning the entire biblical canon.
Presley argues that Irenaeus’ intertextual exegesis is an outworking of his particular view of scriptural consonance informed by his doctrine of revelation and creation.

Presley works systematically through each of Irenaeus’ references to Gen 1–3 following the structure and order of Haer. After the book’s introduction, Chapter 2 focuses on Haer. 1 where Irenaeus recounts the theological and cosmological framework of competing “Gnostic” groups including the Valentinians, Marcosians, Saturnius, the Encratites, Tatian, and the Ophites. Presley highlights various reading strategies these groups used in their own exegesis of Gen 1–3.  Apart from the use of gematria, which Irenaeus rejects as overly allegorical (cf. p. 244), these same reading strategies are characteristic of Irenaeus’ exegesis of Gen 1–3. What distinguishes Irenaeus’ intertextual reading of Gen 1–3 from that of these opposing groups, according to Presley, is not specific reading strategies but “the nature of the different textual networks that each creates” (p. 48).

According to Presley, Irenaeus critiques the exegetical methodology of the Gnostic groups as a disregard for the appropriate order of the scriptures. Irenaeus offers an illustration whereby he compares scripture to assorted tiles of a mosaic depicting a king. The Valentinian use of scripture, Irenaeus suggests, is like rearranging the tiles of a mosaic to make a fox or a dog rather than a king as they were intended (p. 23). Though the groups may be working with the appropriate pieces, their order is incorrect and results in a distorted depiction of the final intended picture. Because Irenaeus’ primary concern is the demonstration of the continuity of God’s divine activity from creation to incarnation, Presley argues, he constructively reads the creation accounts of Gen 1–3 in continuity with the rest of the scriptural witness (p. 88–89). In so doing, Irenaeus conceives of a single, unified history of salvation that links Gen 1–3, the other writings of the Old Testament, and the New Testament together as reflected in the apostolic tradition (p. 109).

Throughout his analysis, Presley argues that Irenaeus’ goal remains unifying the two testaments under the administration of one God and Father (p. 144).  Presley’s most extensive chapter examines Haer. 5, which “provides the most consistent and extensive set of intertextual relationships formed with Gen 1–3 than any of the previous books” (sic, p. 172). Throughout this chapter, Presley focuses on the ways in which Irenaeus uses the Genesis accounts to argue for the importance of the physical creation in God’s redemptive plan, including the necessity of the physical resurrection.

In particular, he identifies how Irenaeus uses an extended Adam/Christ typology largely through an intertextual reading of Gen 1–3 with 1 Cor 15 and other texts and how Irenaeus’ hermeneutic of scriptural consonance results in a network of texts that exist in symbiotic relationships. Irenaeus consistently uses Gen 1–3 to interpret other scriptural passages while also using a variety of other scripture to interpret Gen 1–3 (p. 233).  Within this section, there is a particularly beneficial discussion (pp. 218–223) of how Irenaeus interprets the difficulty of God’s pronouncement of death as the consequence of eating from the tree in Gen 2:16–17 within his hermeneutic of scriptural consonance.

Presley incorporates a large amount of data as he covers all five books of Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses in detail.  He provides a comprehensive account of references and allusions to Gen 1–3, and a helpful appendix (pp. 263–267) charts the location and the related intertexts of each reference to these chapters in Haer. As a result of this systematic and comprehensive method, Presley’s work must walk a fine line between an overview of Haer. and a close reading of the ways in which Gen 1–3 are integrated into Irenaeus’ broader reading of scripture. Some sections are more successful than others in maintaining this focus. Not every reference to Gen 1–3 in Adversus Haereses appears to be equally conducive for demonstrating Irenaeus’ exegetical and hermeneutical method, and what is gained in the comprehensive examination of every reference can occasionally read as a sort of summary of Irenaeus’ doctrinal positions. Yet overall, it is a convincing argument for the importance of Gen 1–3 in Irenaeus’ reading of scripture.

Presley’s work offers several helpful insights. He effectively demonstrates how Irenaeus sees a coherent unity in the works of scripture based on his reading of Gen 1–3. So, for example, Presley highlights how Irenaeus interprets the text of Jesus’ first miracle in John 2 with allusions to the creation accounts of flora and water in Gen 1:1, 1:11, 1:9, and 2:6 “in order to reveal Christ’s identity as the Creator in Gen 1–2” (p. 92). Elsewhere, Presley similarly demonstrates Irenaeus’ exegetical connection between the Garden of Eden and the early Christian church.  He concludes that for Irenaeus, “The nature of the Garden of Eden prefigures the church, which becomes the manifestation of paradise in the present age” (p. 213).  Presley’s analysis in these sections is particularly beneficial for understanding the way in which Gen 1–3 operated within Irenaeus’ thought and reading of scripture.

There are, however, an unfortunate number of typographical errors throughout the book.  The prevalence of minor errors (e.g., on p. 86: “[…], and God creating my [sic] means of the Word in John 1:3” or on p. 61: “This type of reading resembles the type of prosopological reading that Irenaeus’ uses [sic] in the remaining books.”) and more significant ones (e.g., on p. 57: “The anthropological texts in Genesis, as well as the imagery of human formation are also mined for the ways their numeric representation. [sic]” or on p. 147: “Here again, Irenaeus utilizes a logical general-to-particular corresponds these texts is the language and concept of ‘all things’ (omnia). [sic]”) unfortunately detracts from reading facility and the clarity of the argument in areas. There also appear to be some references that have not been fully updated (e.g., p. 29 n. 97 lists an article by Bingham in Christology and Hermeneutics of Hebrews [eds. Jon Laansma and Daniel Trier] as “forthcoming,” though it has in fact been published in Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews in 2012 by T&T Clark in the LNTS series).

Notwithstanding these errors, there are several valuable areas in which Presley’s work may have continuing implications for Irenaean studies. Ultimately, Presley demonstrates in The Intertextual Reception of Gen 1–3 in Irenaeus of Lyons that the protological narratives of Gen 1–3 are integral for Irenaeus’ reading of the entire bible. The book demonstrates both the intertextual nature of Irenaeus’ interpretation of Gen 1–3 and also the way in which Gen 1–3 affected Irenaeus’ interpretation of the rest of scripture. This is an important aspect of the early apologist’s disagreements with other Gnostic groups that saw some distinction between the God of creation in Gen 1–3 and the God of Jesus Christ. Irenaeus, as Presley explains, continually refers to Gen 1–3 in his reading of the biblical scriptures because these narratives are central to Irenaeus’ understanding of the entire scope of God’s activity in the world. Where others saw division, Irenaeus sees unity, and his method of reading the Bible reflects an intertextual reading where the narratives of Gen 1–3 are united with all other areas of scripture into a single, coherent story of God’s activity that stretches from creation to recapitulation.

Eric Covington
University of St Andrews
ec82 [ at ]

  1. […] RBECS review: Eric Covington (St Andrews) on The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Irenaeus of Lyons, by […]

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