Word Magazine January 1986 Page 7
THE ANTIOCHIAN SCHOOL OF BIBLICAL EXEGESIS
By Father Paul Tarazi
Beloved brothers and sisters in the Christ and Lord Jesus:
Besides the great names you already know about and you will hear in the Church from time to time, Antioch became known in the fourth and fifth centuries for its tradition of biblical exegesis represented in Diodor of Tarsus, the city of the Apostle Paul, his students Theodore of Mopsuestia and St. John Chrysostom, as well as later Theodoret of Cyprus. Unlike the biblical approach prevailing in Alexandria at that time and which made much use of allegory in its interpretation of Scripture, the Antiochian school stressed the primacy of historical exegesis.
Allegory tends to find different meanings in the one text, the premise being that men undergo three different stages in their seeking after God and union with Him: the lowest being the ‘physical’, then the ‘psychological’, and the highest being the ‘spiritual’. At each of these levels, the allegorists say, man is capable of a different understanding of the same text which thus offers different levels of meanings, the deepest being the ‘spiritual’. From there it was only a tiny step to saying: the text itself has three different meanings! Now the fallacy as well as danger of such an approach lies in that its premise was rooted in a philosophical system that was alien to the Bible. This system conceived of creation as being essentially evil and thus of man’s salvation as an ‘inward’ discovery, as well as growth in the knowledge of God, with whom eventually man becomes one. Consequently, history — which is interaction between man and his fellow within the setting of creation — is discredited as irrelevant. Furthermore, the text itself of the Bible becomes, as it were, at the mercy of the individual interpreter who could thus stretch it as far as his own interests dictate. In other words, the Bible becomes a mere crutch to prop our own preset ideas and preferences instead of the challenging and why not? — upsetting Word of God.
The Antiochian school reacted against such an approach and underscored the historicity of the Bible, namely that the latter consists of texts written by individuals to others at a given time of human history in the specific language as well as mindset of that time. Consequently, a given text can have only the one meaning intended by its author. One should note here that the case of double-meaning in some passages is not to be equated with two meanings; indeed: (a) the former radically differs from the latter in that it is still considered to be addressed to the same reader and not to two different kinds of readers as in the allegorical approach; (b) the exegete is to clearly prove that a given biblical author is intending the double-meaning in a given text.
If this is our tradition, if this is the way in which our forebears expressed the life-giving Faith they handed down to us, if this is what we hold most dearly, then the question is: How are we to live up to this our calling, today and in this land? Our first duty pertains to the Bible and its place in our lives. We live in a country where the Bible is held in high esteem and thus a great opportunity is offered us to witness for our faith. But how would we do that if we do not know what the Bible says? And how would we know the Bible if we do not read and study it? And how would we study it if we are not willing to dedicate hours, researching the biblical text and discussing it with our fellow Orthodox? However a caveat is in order here: we ought not do that as the large majority of the people here, namely start with a preset mind as to what the biblical message is all about by referring to a cluster of preferred passages and then proceed to read the rest of the Bible from this narrow perspective and impose on it our views. The Bible is a collection of writings amounting to well over one thousand pages that were written over a long period of time. Unless we are ready to engage in a lifelong serious study of how God has historically revealed Himself to us by researching the actual text, and be ready to question ourselves and our understanding on the basis of what it actually says. . . unless we are ready to do this out of our belief that our God is not an ever-present abstract Godhead we have at the tip of our fingers, but a living God who revealed Himself once and for all in times past in the man Jesus of Nazareth . . . unless we understand that every translation into English or any other language is already the interpretation of the translator imposed upon the reader and that the historical Bible is to be read historically, i.e. in the language and setting in which it was written and thus meant unless we are ready to humbly embark, with the help of our fellows who on our behalf have humbly undertaken the study of such, on this journey be willing to sit in groups in our local parishes and seek Jesus Himself within the pages of the Bible. . . unless the pages of our bibles have been dirtied and torn from our handling them . . . the face of Jesus as carried by the Orthodox Faith will not shine brightly and convincingly on the people of our countries, both who read and those who do not read the Scriptures, both who believe in Christ and those who do not.
Our second duty stems from taking seriously the humanity of Jesus, our Lord and God. Antioch, most expressly in the name of St. John Chrysostom, the prince of the exegetes of not only Antiochian but also catholic Orthodoxy, normative Father and teacher of not only the Antiochian but also the catholic church. . . Antioch demands from us that we uncompromisingly speak for and uphold the case of every needy, poor, suffering, captive, hungry for both bread and justice, downtrodden and especially forgotten, not only in this country but throughout the whole wide world. Let us be reminded here that the word “impossible” that might come to mind at this juncture has been erased once and for all from Christian vocabulary by the God-man Jesus. Here again, unless we seriously heed this other and essential facet of our Faith, namely our uncompromising commitment to the neighbor in need whose defender is God Himself, the divine blessings bestowed upon this country because of its people’s interest in the Bible might well turn, and sooner than we imagine, into divine wrath proclaimed by the same Bible. And then, woe to us Antiochians for we will be accounted forfeiters of the duty put on our shoulders by God Himself through centuries of living tradition. Woe and again woe to us then, for the Son of Man Himself will be our prosecutor and His accusation will be that we will have shied from witnessing Him as the philanthropos, the lover of man. Let us not imagine that we could come up with a pertinent excuse, namely that this country is Christian and that we imagined the people here would know what the Bible requests from them. Vanity of vanity is such an excuse, for it was in a Christian empire that St. John Chrysostom incessantly raised his voice exegeting the Bible teaching, and like the prophets of old castigating the oppressor while soothing the pain of the oppressed . . . and it was that same Christian empire which put to death that great Antiochian champion of God’s philanthropia, God’s love for man.
Children of Antioch:
You heard it well. Antiochian biblican exegesis, true exegesis is not a selfish manipulation of the text in order to insure a false security in a dream of ours we like to call heaven. It is rather a true seeking of the man Jesus who reveals himself to us as Almighty God on the cross, Almighty indeed because it is then, says the Apostle, that “every knee bows in heaven, on earth and under the earth, at the name of Jesus”, (Phil. 2:10). Antiochian exegesis is a true seeking of the God-man Jesus and His heaven where true eternal rest lies and it is the cross that was the only place mentioned in the gospels where the Son of Man that had no place to lay his head did finally lay it. There, on the cross, lies our security because there God reveals His heavenly face surpassing judgment and condemnation, namely in that He is the monos philanthropos, the only lover of man.
Children of Antioch:
Today, if you have heard the voice of the only lover of man, go and study the Bible, go and speak up for the bereft.
Children of Antioch:
Today, if you have heard the voice of the only lover of man, do not harden your hearts (Heb. 3:7-8). Amen.
Father Paul Tarazi is professor of Scripture at St. Vladimir Seminary in New York and the Orthodox Seminary in Balamand, Lebanon.