No matter how differently modern interpreters assess the subject matter of the Bible, or its religious significance, there exists a united front among them. [To the modern interpreter] the Bible is important in light of its capacity to refer to some “x”, i.e. what really happened, or certain timeless truths. To our surprise, these views about the Bible’s meaning were not held by premodern readers.
Premodern readers assumed that events depicted in the Bible actually occurred as described, but surprisingly little of their interpretation depended on this assumption. They simply did not ask: “What is the event or truth to which the Bible refers?” For them, the text was woven into the fabric of truth by virtue of being scripture.
As Irenaeus affirmed, “the scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His spirit.” For Irenaeus and for the patristic tradition in general, the Bible was not a perfect historical record. Scripture was, for them, the orienting, luminous center of a highly varied and complex reality, shaped by divine providence. It was true not by virtue of successfully or accurately representing any one event or part of this divinely ordained reality. Rather, the truth rested in the scripture’s power to illuminate and disclose the order and pattern of all things.
The fathers differ from modern readers, not in any particular assumption about a verse or episode, or in any specific method, but in their overall assumptions. Modern readers assume that the Bible means by accurately referring to an “x”, whether event, mode of consciousness, or theological truth. For the fathers, the Bible is the array of words, sentences, laws, images, episodes, and narratives that does not acquire meaning because of its connection to an “x”; it confers meaning because it is divine revelation. Scripture is ordained by God to edify, and that power of edification is intrinsic to scripture.
The image of direction illuminates the difference we discovered in the fathers. Ancient readers of scripture moved within, across, and through the text, exploring its orienting, unifying potency. Modern readers of scripture move in the reverse direction, adopting techniques that lead out of what seems a confusing, inaccurate, and contradictory text and into a realm of history or theological ideas. [The fathers] did not ask, “What gives meaning to the story of Moses’ ascent of
Mount Sinai?” They assumed the
authority of the dual accounts in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and they sought to
order their interpretations accordingly. Instead of looking behind the text to
the events, they looked into the text for clues and solutions. The precritical
presumption that the meaning of scripture is in the words and not behind them explains
why modern readers find patristic exegesis so unfathomable.
AN INTRODUCTION TO EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE
John J O’Keefe and R R