How the Early Fathers Teach us to Read Scripture

D.H. Williams:

Ancient-Future Faith Network member and distinguished professor D.H. Williams  recently gave an address at Wheaton College. Dan is professor of patristics and historical theology in the Department of Religion at Baylor University and specializes in Patristic Literature and Theology; History Christianity, Religions of Late Antiquity; and Sociology of Religion.


How the Early Fathers Teach us to Read Scripture

Nowadays a fervent acknowledgement has gripped conservative Protestants and our brethren in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy who openly admit that a re-engagement with the ancient legacy within our present churches is a necessity and just as much a challenge.  New forms of ecumenism have begun to emerge characterized by a surge of books about reading the Bible theologically.[1]  Retrieval theologies  have come into the academic limelight largely because of the limitations of the historical-critical methods, which have been entirely invasive in graduate programs, has left too much of a gap between the Church and the academy by failing to unite exegesis, doctrine and the life of the non-academic Christians.[2]  For a long time we have been faced with a hegemonic pretense of this “modern” approach to the study of Scripture, along with the assumption that writing biblical commentaries is almost exclusively the province of scholarly biblical exegetes.[3]

In a quest for a more flexible and capacious hermeneutic, we look to patristic forms of Biblical exegesis as uncovered in hundreds of sermons, commentaries, and theological works.  Even the most experienced researcher of patristic exegesis will admit that ancient Christianity left us with a vast ocean of texts that can elude our best attempts to comprehend them.  It is neither easy or self-evident to grasp what the early fathers have said on many subjects, but especially when it comes to the pages and pages of Biblical interpretation.  There is also a prevalent illusion among some Evangelicals that patristic writers from different centuries or geographical contexts all spoke with one voice.  The Greek Orthodox theologian George Florovsky rightly observed that while we have seen a renewed emphasis on the authority and return to the early Fathers, it must be a “creative return.”  This implies an element of self-criticism, but also that any such retrieval will be what he called, a Neopatristic synthesis.[4] In other words, the thoughtful reader of the ancients has to reassess both the problems and the answers of the Fathers in such a way that does not violate the ancient context by grabbing bits and pieces of text that will only serves to abstract them from the total perspective in which only they are meaningful and valid. But instead of a neopatristic synthesis, John Behr prefers to speak of a patristic “symphony”for hearing the different voices of the Fathers, whether it be the second or any other century. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Basil did not speak the same voice. These are different voices. And there are different voices through time. So, the point of reading the Fathers is not to synthesize all their knowledge into one definitive solution but it is like going back to the earlier scores of the symphony. You have to learn their parts in order that you are harmonized to the melody to sing your part today.[5]

Of course, the ancient writers were not purposely trying to be opaque; just the opposite, in fact.  When it came to explaining the Bible, those that wrote to provide elucidation were doing so to be understood by as many Christians as possible.  Our present quandary has more to do with the fact that a great majority of ancients did not explain the structure or the logic with which they are expounding the text.  However much we wish to retrieve the riches of patristic theology and exegesis, we cannot deny that a historical, cultural and philosophical gulf stands between us and them. And we are not happy that they do not make the kinds of distinctions that we think they ought to make.  We’d do well to respect this distance in our treatment of the primary sources, and avoid what Jarsolav Pelikan called a “tyranny of epistemology”[6] that has dominated especially Protestant hermeneutics since the Enlightenment. We often forget that the patristic interpreters stood much closer to the apostolic era and ought to mirror the writers of the NT much more closely than we do.

This being said, we are not faced with an impossible return to the past, as some have argued.[7]  As we consider reading ancient Biblical exegesis, it is not improper to ask what expectations should have; What marks some of the key differences between the way we read the Bible and how they read it?  And if a degree of retrieval—perhaps a high degree–of these sources is possible, what does that look like when it comes to understanding them?

Let me begin with some mechanics of what one encounters when reading the ancient Fathers and then we’ll look at certain strategies they used for reading Scripture:



We are not mistaken if apply the term “exegesis” to patristic interpretation before the third century as long as it is understood that the primary use of Scripture was placed in the service of anti-heretical, apologetic, devotional treatises or liturgical expression.[8]  Certainly there was no method, much less a common practice of interpreting the Bible such that it may be summed up in three or four formulas.  There was no exercise of exegesis for its own sake, as it were, (like a commentary) other than discovering how the Bible offered proof or a norm for vindicating a theological point.  A good example is Tertullian’s De oratione[9] which commented on each clause of the Lord’s Prayer for the simple reason that he was writing an essay on prayer. Writers in later centuries regard the work as a commentarium but that was not Tertullian’s intent.  Even so, there was an ongoing interest in and practice of the exposition of Scripture, as the New Testament itself bears witness in its many citation and/or interpretations of the Old.

In the early second century, the five books by Papias of Hierapolis entitled Exposition of the Lord’s Sayings,[10] may represent a kind of logia collectionis within an ordered format.  The title insinuates that some interpretation was involved but there is no certainty since almost the entire work is lost.  In like manner, among the numerous works attributed to Melito of Sardis (of the late second century)[11] there is Concerning the Birth [Generation] of Christ (de generatione Christi librum unum), which is also no longer extant and nothing is known about its purpose. An assembly sayings or interpreted sayings of Jesus was nothing new by Melito’s time.  Already in the first or early second century we see the practice in the “Two Ways” found, inter alia, in the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas. The process of choosing specific passages and linking them together topically was itself an oblique way of biblical interpretation, treating the text either quite directly (as does the Didache) or through mind-bending allegories (in Barnabas).[12]  Speaking of Barnabas, I would remiss to point out how indebted Christian exegesis of the first century and a half was to Jewish characteristics. The very first mention of the word “Scripture” pertains to what Melito will call the Old Testament and with this came formats of using midrasch, pesher and typology about which I am saying very little although they played a critical part to the commencement of a Christian means of interpretation.[13]

About the same time, but on the western side of the Mediterranean, we know from Irenaeus that Valentinian Gnostic Christians had produced “commentaries,” presumably interpretations of certain scriptural passages in keeping with the Gnostic cosmogony.[14]  In order to respond to their claims, Irenaeus acknowledged that both he and they accepted scriptural authority, so his best strategy was not wrangling over Bible passages, but showing his opponents’ inconsistency in light of the hypothesis of Scripture. That is, the texts they had framed together fell outside of the Tradition, what the Church’s had recognized to be the gist of the Bible.  It is here where Irenaeus express the “canon of truth” or rule of faith as the hermeneutical guideline for reading the Bible.  Nevertheless, his five books are filled with scriptural citations and allusions.

It is with the writings of Hippolytus in the west and Origen in the east, the two contemporaries wrote in Greek, that the first scriptural expositions, called commentaria, were produced. A great many of Hippolytus’ works, almost all from the OT, are no longer extant.  From the pen of the prolific Origen more survive, in part, because much more was written, a great many from the OT and almost all books from the NT.  Despite the eccentric brilliance and prolificacy of Origen, the writing of commentaries did not immediately catch on.  Within another century, an intense reading of individual books of the Bible became commonplace, and that not only of commentaries, but sermons that followed a similar sequence of expositing individual books.

By the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Scripture was liberally used and there are several ways in which the reader could have encountered Biblical exegesis:  sermons; commentaries; hymns (i.e., the Trinitarian canticles of Marius Victorinus; the doctrinally didactic compositions of Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose of Milan);[15] and there also comes onto the scene, Christian poetry, communicating biblical stories in metered form via Proba’s Cento,[16] and Sedulius.[17]  Poets used the elements of rhetorical paraphrase to give elegant form and diction to the scriptural narrative. One of the most moving is De lingo crucis (The Tree of the Cross)

There is a place, we believe, at the center of the world

Called Golgotha by the Jews in their native tongue.

Here was planted a tree cut from a barren stump;

A tree . . . that brought nourishment and eternal life to all the nations,

To teach them that death can die.[18]

One also discovers how central scriptural exegesis was within theological works on Christology or the Trinity, in such a way that implies there was no “Biblical Studies” in distinction from “Systematic Theology.”  Writing on the Father and Son in the mid-fourth century, every contributor commented on a battery of similar texts (like Prov. 8 or Jn 10:30) to make their arguments.  To “do” the task of theology was a series of exercises in Biblical exegesis.  Indeed, a work of patristic theology was considered suspect unless its precepts could shown to be compatible with Scripture. The same was true for creeds.  It is well-known that the Nicene Creed took forty years for general acceptance in large part because its language of “same substance” (homoousios) lacked a Biblical warrant.  All of this is to say that not until the second half of the fourth century had the use of the commentary come to permeate the written media of the ancient Christian world.[19]



Today’s reader should be aware of major differences between ancient and contemporary Christian reading of the scriptural text.  For the early church, the use of the Bible was closely intertwined with the way God in his providence had arranged the text, not only in its form, but also in meaning(s).  Whichever text was under scrutiny, the ancients were confident that something of importance would be found.  It was not a matter of reader-response based on the reader’s prior understanding or experience that led to an imported interpretation, nor was it a search for human author’s intentions (though this sometimes taken into account); it was rather that the texts in Scripture were pre-filled with meaning and simply needed to be uncovered by the reader.  The reader might find greater clarity by putting bringing several texts together, but it was more a matter that meaning was already present within the text which the spiritually-sensitive reader had to discover.

To us, such an approach may seem too subjective and it may appear that early church writers could find whatever they wanted in a text.  Undoubtedly some of this took place, especially in polemical writings.[20]  But the very process was built on an understanding that the passages had been placed in the Bible by God though human agents so that the proper meaning(s) should be found.  A reader may encounter passages that seemed contradictory or dark in their meaning, which is why the work of interpretation was a spiritual voyage of discovery, a way of exploring the mind of the transcendent as revealed through the earthly coming of Christ.  All of this was in keeping of Christ’s promise: When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (Jn 16:13)

In sum, the way the ancients read Scripture had everything to do with how they “interpreted” God.  Because God the Almighty was ultimately unfathomable without his revelation to us, it stood to read that this revelation would reflect its Maker.  Scripture could be deceptively simple in places and hard to understand in others, but it always manifested the great depths of God that the reader, once deepened by the Holy Spirit, could discern.  Since God was the primary author of the Bible, the reader could always presume that there existed a scheme or ordo within the text.  Each word and its placement in the text held a clue for determining the purpose of revelatory events or words. For this reason, in the words of Origen, “The believer who is capable of being taught by “searching out” and devoting himself to the “deep things of God” (I Cor 2:10) can receive the spiritual meaning of the words [of Scripture] and become a partaker of all the doctrines of the Spirit’s counsel.”[21]

At the same time there was elasticity as to how broadly the text could be understood and applied, especially when it came to figurative or “spiritual” exegesis. Interpretation was governed by what the church fathers called the scopos or sensus; the central meaning of the Bible. In the words of Cyril of Alexandria: “The goal of the inspired Scripture is the mystery of Christ signified to us through a myriad of different kinds of things. Some might liken it to a glittering and magnificent city, having not one image of the king, but many others, and publicly displayed in every corner of the city.”[22]  John Cassian taught that Scripture contains the mystery in the form of words, describing the works of God that are disclosed to human minds only by grace. Because God himself is mystery, we should expect to find throughout the divine text, depths and hidden realities that exceed our knowledge.

Another way to explain the Patristic mindset was to think of the Bible as not simply a source of God’s revelation.  It was the text itself—the choice, placement and tense of words—which bore divinely-held significance.  Every word of the text had meaning, and interpretation always began by looking closely at the Biblical littera. [23] Instead of looking behind the text to events to which the text refers, the ancients tended looked into the text for clues and solutions.

For example, the ancients noticed that the four gospels differed in detail, and yet this did not prompt them to look for the “true Jesus” behind the text.  We tend to read scriptural texts or commentary in order to discern the “X” outside the text that governs the meaning.  Rather, the texts themselves provided the clues for reconciling the differences. Patristic interpreters bequeathed an importance of the words themselves. “To know the words is prior to and more decisive than knowing they if they refer [to something behind or beyond the text].”[24]  This pre-critical presumption that the meaning of Scripture is in the words and not behind them is one reason why modern readers find patristic exegesis so unfathomable.

Now let us turn to consider some characteristics of the patristic interpretative task, which I suggest is best thought of as a vision for interpretation (not methods) that was generally shared.



We are trained to think of methods of interpretation such that we approach Scripture in terms of categorizes; historical, rhetorical, allegorical, etc. and then approach a particular passage accordingly.  The ancients don’t speak of methods of interpretation, but they do think of the hermeneutical task according to a vision of interpreting or understanding.  We are so accustomed to evaluate Biblical content as literary or historical data that we forget that the words of the Bible have a life that may transcend their original setting depending on the words.  A central element of the patristic vision was that Scripture was divinely ordained according to God’s purpose that the reader encounters meaning throughout the text; that is, the meaning of a text contains a depth of meanings that reflects the depths of the Divine author.  There are implications of such a vision.

Among Latin, Greek or Syriac writers, it was a working assumption that it was possible and preferable to follow the apostles’ practice of scriptural exegesis.  In fact, the ancient commentators would have been puzzled by the judgment of modern scholars who think it is not possible or even feasible for later Christians to emulate New Testament.[25]  Without question, methods of apostolic interpretation were meant to be followed as models for expounding Christ in Scripture, even if patristic writers would never claim the same degree of spiritual insight as the Apostles.  Origen wrote: “The apostle Paul, ‘teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth”, taught the Church . . . how it ought to interpret the books of the Law.”[26]  At the same time, Origen was also confident that “The Christian who is capable of being taught by “searching out” and devoting himself to the “deep things of God” (I Cor 2:10) can receive the spiritual meaning of the words [of Scripture] and become a partaker of all the doctrines of the Spirit’s counsel.”[27]



The principle that Scripture interpreted Scripture rested on the conviction that the Bible was a unified book. Christ was the interpretive key to unlock its meaning, linking the two Testaments and using typologies as the means of making these connections. If we look to the gospel of Matthew, we therefore discover that identity of David’s son (Matt 9:27; 15:22; 21:9) the passover lamb (Matt 26:26-28), the message of the prophets (Matt 23:34-37), the ancient temple (Matt 26:61), Jonah in the whale for three days (Matt 12:40), etc. all point to a larger Christological pattern that guides the reader as to what to look for. Typology linked, for example, was the remnant of ancient Israel and the Church through the Exodus and the holy family’s escape to Egypt (2:13-15), Elijah and John (11:13-14).  Turning to Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho (mid-second century), we find a writer who not only uses traditional types and images from the Old Testament Christologically, such as that of Noah’s flood and that of the promised land (Dial. 119, 8), but is prepared to identify any object or incident in the Old Testament as a prediction of the Christian dispensation. Almost any references to a stick or rod, e.g. Moses casting the stick into the waters of Marah, Aaron’s rod, the oak of Mamre, the rod and staff of Psalm 23, are indications of Christ’s cross.[28]

Because the gospels emphasize the way life Christ fulfilled the Jewish Scriptures, it was natural for later writers to follow the lead and demonstrate the abundance of figurative (or “spiritual”) interpretation should be found in the text.  But the church fathers follow no one approach of applying the figurative. A good example is the story of the two blind men who called out to Jesus in Matthew 20. Hilary of Poitiers takes them to signify the pagan nations who stemmed from Ham and Japheth,[29] whereas the crowd, which demanded they be silent, was the Jews.  Jerome acknowledges that there are several possible interpretations, but he prefers to argue that the two represent the Jews, and crowd the gentiles.[30] Augustine claims that one is the Jews and the other gentiles, and their blindness is the wall (crowd) which separates them.[31]  In each case the narrative in the gospel is used to convey spiritual truths.

Even obscure texts or apparent contradictions within the Bible offered an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in the Christian’s heart. An incongruous or improbable sequence of events was a sign that a figurative or “spiritual” interpretation was called for. Contradictions or inconsistencies were not obstacles to be overcome, but open doors by which the believer could perceive the power of God in ways not obvious to the uninitiated. By means of them, Augustine told his congregation, God wants to open the heart of “those who are prepared for them. Such texts lead us on “heart and soul, to the search.”[32]  Chromatius of Aquileia provides an instance of this hermeneutical perspective, But when you pray, go into your private room, and with closed mouth pray to your Father. What he calls the “private room” does not mean a secret place in a house. Rather, he is calling to mind that the secret things of our heart lie open to him alone. Having to pray with “closed mouth” means that we should with a mystical key close our heart from evil thoughts, and with closed lips speak to God with a pure mind. For our God listens not to the voice but to the heart that prays in faith.[33]  On these occasions, says Peter Chrysologus, the historical narrative of Scripture should always be raised to a higher meaning and the mysteries of the future should become known through figures of the present.[34]

Allegorical or typological readings, however, had certain limits when it came to exegesis. The ancient commentators give close attention to the gospels’ plain recounting of the facts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  The Beatitudes, for instance, are reckoned according to their plain wording, accepting prima facie each precept about the poor in spirit, those who mourn, etc. Most miracle stories are also treated in a straightforward way with minimal commentary.  The best example, however, is Jesus’ passion and resurrection narrative (chap. 27-28) where the Fathers’ are interested chiefly in elucidating the events as they are recorded. Leo the Great interprets Jesus’ final words on the cross about being forsaken him in very literal terms:

Jesus cried out with a great voice, Why have you forsaken me? [He said this] in order to make known to all how it was right that he neither be rescued nor protected, but that he be abandoned to the hands of savage men . . . [I]t was as much the will of the Father as it was his own will for the Lord to be given over to his passion. As a result, not only did the Father abandon him, but also the Lord even deserted himself in a certain way, not by a timorous withdrawal but by an intentional surrender.

What is seldom discussed about patristic exegesis is that typology and figurative exegesis can also be used to connect the Jesus’ words forward to events that occur in the life of the church.  The use of such interpretation was not only for relating the NT to persons or events of the past (OT).[35]  Christ’s baptism is a model for the baptism of the Christian: “He was baptized for our baptism because it was his to give; because it was a type of his death and of his resurrection. And just as he died and rose and became the first-fruits from the dead (1 Cor 15:20), so he was baptized in a sacred way for our baptism, and immediately gave it to us” (Matt 3).[36] The children that came to Jesus a type of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19);[37] Christ’s tomb becomes a new womb,[38] and the mustard seed represents Christ’s faith which grows because it is sown in all believers;[39] the sick daughter of the Canaanite woman who confessed Jesus as Lord and Son of David are the future people of the pagans who will on Christ as their Savior.[40]

Upon encountering an apparent inconsistency or anthropomorphism unworthy of God’s divine nature was an invitation to probe beneath the surface of the inspired words, that is, to penetrate the spiritual reality about which the text spoke.  In a letter of Augustine where he discusses the issue of “seeing God” (Matt 5:8), he explained that God cannot be seen and yet we are told “the pure in heart will see God.” How then does the sacred scripture say that no one has ever seen God (John 1:18), and that no one will see my face and live (Ex 33:20), and that no person has seen him nor is able to see him (1 Tim 6:16)? The text must mean that “seeing” is a form of knowledge, limited only by the lack of purity in our hearts.  For the Scriptures teach that God can be known, but not in the fulness of his divinity, his ineffable nature or essence, is beyond our comprehension. “It is one thing to see,” writes Augustine, “it is another to grasp the whole by seeing.”[41]



A central hermeneutical principle for Hilary of Poitiers was, “The Lord instructs through things as well as through words;” an oft-repeated concept throughout his commentary.  A crucial component to unlocking a text’s meaning can always be found in Christ’s own dicta (words) and facta (actions).  The alternating succession of the Lord’s words and deeds should not be regarded as mere indications of the gospel’s narrative style.  Instead, they provide the very tissue of the Gospel’s rationality.  It should be axiomatic for the reader to understand that, “The Lord teaches both by his actions (rebus) and words; in equal proportion does his word and deeds instruct the faith of our hope.”[42]  No detail about the facts presented should be bypassed as insignificant: “if we would teach that the events themselves contain in them the development of the facts in their sequence.”[43]

Patristic attention to detail had no less to do with word associations that one can find in Scripture.  Maximus of Turin associates Joseph of Arimathea’s placing Jesus body in sepulchre with Ps. 5:9 “their throat is open sepulchre,” from which Paul draws on in his sketch of the character of fallen humanity in Rom 3:12-13: “All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an sepulchre.” But Maximus concentrates on the benefits of Christ’s resurrection from the grave “there was no less glory in Joseph’s sepulchre receiving the Lord than in holy Mary’s womb begetting him.  Thus, he cites Ps. 5:9 as a figure of speech so that “Joseph placed the Lord not so much in an earthly tomb as in the sepulchre of his heart and rec’d Him for safekeeping.”[44]  The assumption is such word associations is that Scripture is a divinely unified production whose parts are meant to compliment the whole.

The last element in our expectations of ancient exegesis is that for a correct interpretation of the littera or literal exegesis, we must not at suppose that this exercise as no less a spiritual reading than the figurative.  The materiality of the written text was itself filled with divine mysteries, and even the most obvious narrative may itself also be prophetic.  For its ancient readers the literal meaning–integral to the very letter of its stories and utterances–demanded a full and careful treatment. At first sight, the task seemed an easy one, for God had spoken in order to be understood, and his human instruments, the authors of biblical texts had faithfully put the divine message into written form. Hence narratives of Genesis, the genealogies of patriarchs, the utterances of prophets, psalms and wisdom sayings, all were communicated in a clear way that the least educated can understand it. In many cases, the literal meaning of biblical statements was plain enough.  A contemporary of Ambrose of Milan observed in passing: “This [the text] can be understood from the words as read, for the story is not concealed by literary artifice.”[45] These plainer passages are no less describing works of God which immediately meant to the ancient reader that meaning is disclosed by grace.

Unlike modern scholarly exegesis practiced in academic circles, patristic exegesis only took place within the Church and was for the Church.  90% of the writers were bishops and the rest were churchmen.  If Patristic ideas of interpretation teaches us anything, it should be that we re-learn to take their context seriously.  In this setting the purpose of reading Scripture was most apparent, namely, the representation of the biblical text God’s plan of salvation in Christ.



Before we go barging into the world of the ancient Christians and look for those things we think are valuable according to our academic agenda, it is critical that we first seek to comprehend their spirituality as well as their theological ethos. Henri de Lubac urges to first listen to what the Fathers have to say, since they are the Fathers in the faith, and since they received from the church of their time the means to nourish the church our times as well.[46]  It will be impossible “to understand the Fathers if we do not share, at least to some degree, in their experience and endeavors. To understand the Fathers is more than just memorizing texts and understanding their theological arguments.”[47] It means being faithful to [their] spirit and vision. This means praying their prayers, incorporating their practices of fasting and holy days, and living out the practical applications found in their works and homilies.  In effect, as we encounter the texts of the ancient church, we must sanctify our vision that we will be able to perceive their vision of what it meant to interpret the Divine word.

[1] Theology as Retrieval:  Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church, eds., W. D. Buschart and K. D. Eilers (IVP Academic, 2015); Stephen Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Cascade, 2009); A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, eds., C.G. Bartholomew and H. A. Thomas (Baker Academic, 2016); Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed., Kevin J VanHoozer (Baker Academic, 2005).

[2] Brad East, “The Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation:  Holy Scripture, Biblical Scholarship and Historical Criticism,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 19 (2017), 30-52.

[3] Christophe Chalamet, “Divine and Human Faithfulness as a Key Theme of Barth’s Theological Revolution,” Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie 32, no. 1 (2016), 14-38.

[4]Aspects of Church History (Volume Four in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky), trans. (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing, 1975), 22.

[5] Quoted from A. Rapien, “The Difficulty in ‘Returning to the Fathers,’” The Patristic Project, Oct 1, 2017.

[6] J. Pelikan, “The Tyranny of Epistemology . . . “ Encounter 18 (1957), 53-6.

[7] S. Holmes, Listening to the Past:  The Place of Tradition in Theology (Baker Academic, 2002).

[8] J. H. Waszinck, “Tertullian’s Principles and Methods of Exegesis”, Early Christian Literature and the Classical Tradition:  Mélanges R. M. Grant (Paris:  Beauchesne, 1979), 9-31.

[9] CCSL I. 257-73. Tertullian’s interest is not on showing the consecutive meaning of the passage or how it holds together.

[10] Two small fragments have been mediated to us by their citation in Eusebius, HE III. 39.1-7,14-17  and Irenaeus, Adv. haer. V. 33,4.  The utility of the work is witnessed to by Jerome’s and Philip of Side’s familiarity with it in the fourth century and fifth centuries respectively.

[11] Jerome, De vir. illust. 24 (PL 23. 675C).

[12]  As it concerns Barnabas, Lienhard regards its production as symptomatic of a crisis in the church over the normative value of the Old Testament.  On one end of the spectrum was Marcion for whom the Hebrew Bible was taken literally and rejected.  On the other side was the Ep. of Barnabas which treated the OT in an entirely figurative manner, thus preserving it for the church while taking it away from the synagogue.  J. Lienhard, “The Books of Moses in the Early Church:  Early Christian Commentaries on the Pentateuch,” Dunwoodie Review 26 (2003), 99.

[13] The Jewish precedent which served as a model for generations of Christian exegetes was Philo of Alexandria whose treatises on the Torah, dating from the mid-first century clearly distinguished between the literal and the spiritual senses.  Philo also represented a Hellenist model of Judaism which means the ancient Christians took their cue from his use of Greek historian and philosophers.

sense of the verses

[14] Adv. haer. I.praef. 2.

[15] Brian P. Dunkle, Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford, 2016), 2.

[16] A “patchwork” poem (c. 360) in Virgilian style by Faltonia Betitia Proba.  Lines 1-322 is an account of early Genesis in hexamaters while lines 333-694 relate the NT.

[17] We see an example of such amplification in Sedulius, Carmen paschale, on the Wedding at Cana, where Sedulius adds details to the transformation of the water into wine ‘not by expanding the narrative, which is already substantial in its model, but by asserting clarifying details.

[18] Carolinne White, Early Christian Poets (Routledge, 2000), 137.

[19] This is further stimulated with the revival of Pauline studies at this time when numerous commentaries are written on Paul’s epistles.  See D. H. Williams, “Justification by Faith:  A Patristic Doctrine,” JEH 56 (2006), 649-667.

[20] One thinks (not unfairly) of Athanasius use of Scripture in his Contra Arianos I-II in which he funneled Biblical texts into the Jesus as divine category or Jesus as human to counter the exegesis of the “Ario-maniacs.”

[21] On First Principles IV.2,7 (trans. in Origen:  On First Principles, trans., G. W. Butterworth (Peter Smith, 1973), 282.

[22] In Genesim, PG 69:308c.

[23] Handbook on Patristic Exegesis, ed., C. Kannengiesser (Brill, 2006), 168.

[24] J. O’Keefe and R. Reno, Sanctified Vision:  An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Johns Hopkins University Press,2005). 13.

[25] The problems are discussed by Richard Longnecker, “Can we Reproduce the Exegesis of the New Testament? Tyndale Bulletin 21.1 (1970): 3–38, and more recently, Thomas Scheck, St. Jerome:  Commentary on Matthew (2008), 24-25.

[26] Homily 5 (on Exodus 5.1). Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, trans. R. Heine (Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 275.

[27] On First Principles IV.2,7 (Butterworth, 282).

[28] Dial. 86, 1-6.

[29] Cf. Gen. 9:20-28; descended from Ham (who was cursed by his father Noah) from whom came the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Gen 10:6), eventual enemies of Israel, and Japeth, from whom originated the “people of the coastlands” which is a phrase used in the OT for the gentiles. Abram was a descendent of Shem.

[30] Comm. Matt III. 20: 29-31

[31] Sermon 88.10, 13

[32] Sermon 60A.1.

[33] Preface to the Lord’s Prayer, CCSL 9:445-6

[34] Sermon 36; 96.

[35] Despite Wilken’s assertion, “There are some places in the New Testament where it is fitting—the parable of the sower, the tree that did not bear fruit—but it is seldom needed in dealing with the Gospels or St. Paul.” “Going Deeper into the Bible:  The Church Fathers as Interpreters,” in Evangelicals and the Early Church:  Recovery, Reform, Renewal, eds., G. Kalantzis and A. Tooley (Cascade, 2011), 20.

[36] Philoxenus of Hierapolis, Fragment 13.

[37] Hilary, On Matt. 19.3.

[38] Chrysologus, Sermon 74.3-5.

[39] Ephrem, Exposition of the Gospel 29.

[40] Hilary, On Matt. 15.4.

[41] Ep. 147.8.21. In like manner, Apollinaris of Laodicea, only the heart sees God since “That which is incorporeal is perceived by what is incorporeal.  And when the heart becomes perfected by every possible means of perfection it shall behold what is perfect” (Comm on Matthew: Fragment 12-13, MKGK 4-5).

[42] In Matt. XVII. 1.

[43] In Matt XVI.4.

[44] Sermon 39 (ACW 50. 94-5).

[45] Ambrosiaster, Quaestiones 5.1.

[46] Catholicism: A Study of Dogma in Relation to the Corporate Destiny of Mankind, trans., L. C. Sheppard (Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1950), xiii.  Webster notes that this characteristic description of ressourcement did not put a high priority on scholarly comprehensiveness but instead “gave themselves eagerly to discursive commentary on the Christian past, the goal being not so much wissenschatlich analysis as retrieveal and commendation of the largely forgotten habits of thought and spiritual practice.”  John Webster, “Ressourcement Theology and Protestantism,” in Ressourcement:  A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology, eds., G. Flynn and P. D. Murray (Oxford, 2012), 483-4.

[47] Hilarion Alfeyev, “Theological Popevki: Of the Fathers, Liturgy and Music,” in Shaping a Global Theological Mind, ed., D. C. Marks (Ashgate, 2008), 17.

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