The Wilderness and Early Christian Monasticism

st-antony-agains-the-demonsIn the sixth chapter of his The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie reflects on the influence of eschatology, compunction (penthos), asceticism, and the struggle against evil on the shape of the scriptural interpretation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). Highlighting monastic awareness of coming death and judgment (182-3), compunction and the power of scripture (187-91), and the dual (internal and external) nature of struggling against evil (192-5), Burton-Christie outlines the desert reading of the scriptures, remarking on the centrality of allegorical interpretation (196), the recapitulation of Jesus’ time in the desert (198), the power of the words of scripture (199), vigilance and guarding the heart (203-5), and the lack of relations (207). In light of a course devoted to the study of wilderness traditions, while Burton-Christie’s work remains intriguing, this treatment against raises questions about why early Christian monastics did not draw upon and/or develop further Israelite wilderness traditions. To my mind, the Father who asked, “Did Satan pursue them like this in the early days?” could easily have turned to Israel’s wilderness testing for some type of answer. Instead, figures such as Abraham, David, and Jesus were regularly utilized, at least according to Burton-Christie’s presentation. Although the Fathers were clearly aware of Moses—and, it seems, the language of the Pentateuch, at least exhortations to “watch yourself” (Gen. 24.6; Ex. 23.21)—these narratives were not meaningfully employed in the monastic resistance of evil. Could it be that Israel’s time in the desert was viewed more as a model of what not to do in order to avoid temptation? Perhaps. But Burton-Christie’s reflection on desert interpretations of scripture doesn’t address possible wilderness interpretations of Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

Scripture in 1 Clement: Composite Citations of the Hebrew Bible

This post is part of an ongoing series examining the function and use of scripture in the early Christian writing known as 1 Clement.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo Sistine ChapelCentral to the considerations here are the “composite citations” of the Jewish Scriptures, where Clement fused together different passages and presented them as a single citation. There are several characteristics indicative of this type of citation. First, these composites often align with the meaning rather than exact verbal structure of their sources and come from the same book of the Jewish scriptures.[1] For example, 1 Clement 32:2 combines Genesis 15:5 and 22:17, saying “Your offspring will be like the stars of heaven.”[2] Here Clement is more concerned with the promise to Abraham than with an exact replication of Genesis’s terminology. Second, these citations are often from the same source.[3] For instance, 1 Clement 26:2 reads, “You will raise me up and I will praise you, and I lay down and slept, and I arose, because you are with me.”[4] This is apparently a composite citation of Psalm 3:6 and 28:7, and possibly incorporates Psalm 22:4 and 87:11 as well.[5] In addition to the thematic similarity between these passages—God’s presence with the believer—this passage also stands as an example of Clement’s tendency to conflate passages from the same written source. Continue reading

Textual Plurality and Biblical Interpretation

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.

BibleThis article reflects upon considerations of textual plurality and biblical interpretation as found in Lucas Van Rompay’s “The Christian Syriac Tradition of Interpretation”, James Kugel’s Traditions of the Bible, and the pseudepigraphal Jubilees. In each of these works there are concerns with how biblical texts were to be understood and how communities argued these texts should be properly interpreted, though this is relatively unsurprising in an era preceding any sort of formal scriptural canon. By my reading of these perspectives, there were at least two motivations in tension with each other during this period: inexact textual plurality and the desire for exact biblical interpretation. Continue reading

Reflections on Ephrem’s Commentaries

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Though said to have written a commentary on every book of the Bible, the only authentic and extant prose commentaries of Ephrem the Syrian are those on Genesis and (part of) Exodus. These commentaries, following the more traditional “text and gloss” approach, represent a distinct departure from Ephrem’s approach in his Hymns to commentary and theology. This essay offers several reflections on these commentaries, concluding that they represent an important part of any attempted reconstruction of Ephrem’s conception of scripture and theology. Continue reading

Would Christ Have Come If Humanity Had Not Fallen?

Or, On the Value of Speculative Theology

Medieval UniversityA common criticism of medieval Christianity theology centers on the practice of speculative theology, the asking of seemingly obscure questions which have little bearing (or none at all) upon the vicissitudes of human life or Christian faith. Perhaps the most common example of this are stories about medieval theologians sitting around and discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.[1] What possible value could the answer to such a question have, we wonder? Of course, there exists no evidence suggesting that this particular topic was ever discussed in the medieval world—in fact, the claim seems to be a modern fabrication intended to dismiss the medieval worldview.[2] But the basic criticism persists: why were medieval Christians so enraptured with fine details and endless clarifications on seemingly speculative questions? Continue reading

Ephrem’s “Hymns on Paradise”

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity. Given the length of Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise and the number of reflection-worthy aspects of his thought demonstrated in these hymns, this essay offers several general reflections on Ephrem’s concepts of Paradise (historic and cosmic), the limiting of investigation, proper interpretation, and order.

Garden of EdenEphrem’s Hymns on Paradise are a truly beautiful collection of the Syrian poet’s reflections upon the Genesis 2-3 narrative and reality of Paradise. More than any other collection of hymns we have considered to this point, the Hymns on Paradise develop Ephrem’s thought on a single (albeit lengthy) passage of Scripture, namely the account of Adam and Eve in Paradise. This is not to say that Ephrem does not incorporate other Scriptural passages and motifs, for he certainly does—the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and story of King Uzziah being perhaps the most notable. Yet by-and-large these hymns focus on Genesis, and it will be interesting in the weeks to come to compare his poetic recasting of this narrative with his prosaic Commentary on Genesis. Continue reading

A Brief Introduction to Ephrem the Syrian

“The greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.” — Robert Murray

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Over the next several weeks, Pursuing Veritas will be running a series on reflections on the theology and hymns of St. Ephrem of Nisibis (often called Ephrem the Syrian). Before launching into these discussions of Ephrem’s theological mind and literary genius, however, I felt it prudent to offer a brief historical introduction to Ephrem. There are two primary reasons for this: first, because while some Christians may have heard Ephrem’s name associated with early Christianity before, few actually know much about the fourth century poet. And second, Ephrem’s context—ancient Syria—is somewhat different than the typical “Greco-Roman” culture that may be safely assumed for engaging most other early Christian writers. Continue reading

Reflections on the Institute for Creation Research

Institute for Creation ResearchThe topic of “Creation versus Evolution,” at least in many circles, often elicits a good deal of debate, many times in rather a heated manner. The point of this post is not to provoke strong emotions in anyone, but only to offer a few thoughts about the Institute for Creation Research, an outspoken advocate of scientific “Creationism.” The integration of faith and reason in science has been an important consideration for many American Protestant Christians over the past 120 years. In the early 1900’s, intellectual change on a number of levels was sweeping across America, especially in relation to biological science. In 1925, the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN made Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (first published in 1859) and brought a creation/evolution dichotomy to the forefront of American culture. Over the next few decades, the increasingly divided American Church responded to an increasingly secular scientific culture in a variety of ways. Many of the more “liberal” denominations acclimated to the changes in the philosophy of science, while many “conservative” denominations either fought against such changes or (more often) merely abandoned serious scientific inquiry altogether. By the 1970’s, the divide on creation and evolution was nearly complete, a divide that has directly impacted the nature of American Christianity on a variety of topics (scientific, theological, ethical, and political) since. Continue reading

Book Review: The Genesis of the Dead (Casberg)

Genesis of the Dead (Casberg)As a PhD student, I read a lot. I read for work, school, and fun—hundreds, sometimes thousands of pages each week. Very rarely, however, do I encounter a book that is uproariously funny. Even rarer are books which are simultaneously hilarious and theologically sound. C. T. Casberg’s Genesis of the Dead: A Zombie Comedy of Biblical Proportions, however, fits this bill perfectly. Continue reading