I intend in this blog and the next to offer a few quotes from Robert Hill’s READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH and to give some commentary on them. Hill is perhaps the leading translator into English of Patristic writers in the Antiochian tradition, such as Theodoret of Cyrus and John Chrysostom. I am ever grateful to him for making so many texts available in English which I would otherwise not have been able to read. I have read so many of his translations which he so richly annotates that I feel as familiar with his writings as with the Fathers themselves. Hill offers critical notes to his translations, taking the position that modern scholarship offers a standard for understanding the biblical texts against which the Fathers must be compared, and often not favorably. While I appreciate his comments and the insight they give into the Patristic writers, I must admit that I read the Fathers precisely because they are not modern scholars. I am ever intrigued with what use they make of the biblical texts a thousand years before the Reformation and the Enlightenment came to dominate and define the issues of biblical study. Their assumptions and the fact that they could insightfully read Scripture with none of the tools, concerns or information of the modern scholar make them particularly valuable to me because they help free Scripture from modern prejudices and interpretations. We are forced when reading the Patristic commentaries on Scripture to see the Word of God from a viewpoint outside the limits of our own experience.
I sometimes wonder whether Hill misses the point that the very reason the Orthodox today so love the Patristic writers is because they are not post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment. They offer us the worldview which shaped our Tradition in antiquity, and thus they offer us some glimpse into the timelessness of God’s Word. However, Hill does at one point acknowledge why Chrysostom and the Fathers are not much interested in the modern scholarly obsession with textual analysis:
“Their deep conviction of the divine inspiration of the authors of Old Testament books, prophetai, was also generally … a deterrent from scrutiny into diversity of authorship and layers of composition of these letters sent by God and delivered by Moses or David; the history in a text was of greater relevance than the history of that text.”
In other words the Fathers were more concerned with God’s revelation than they were with the mechanics and history of how God chose to deliver His message. They were in fact believers! They accepted that the Scriptures were inspired and to be read as revelation from God even though they come to us through human intermediaries and have a history of their own. All Scripture is inspired by God – it is of the Holy Spirit and thus not corrupted by who actually inscribed it. Theodoret comments regarding the fact that some Psalms may have been written by someone other than King David,
“…but I for my part have no strong view on these points: what does it matter to me whether all come from (David) or some come from them, as long as it is clear they all composed under the influence of the divine Spirit.”(p 80)
The Antiochian Fathers read the Old Testament as if
“God communicated his revelation through a process of omilia (my note – homilies! – discourses) in which could be seen a gracious gesture of sygkatabasis (my note – divine considerateness) akin to that visible in the Incarnation of the Word in the person of Jesus.” (p 85)
God speaks to humanity on our level, in ways and through people that we can understand. He does this because He loves us and wants us to understand Him. This results sometimes in later generations experiencing some confusion and even doubt about God when reading texts written for an early time and thus written more concretely; for example when God in Scriptures takes on anthropomorphic characteristics, He does this not because He is a male or a human but because that is the only way the humans long ago could relate to Him, but later generations sometimes read these early revelations too literally.
“The Scriptures, like the Incarnation, come to us as a gesture of divine considerateness, sygkatavasis—a loving gesture with nothing patronizing about it, nothing to suggest ‘condescension’ … The Incarnation, after all, does not represent a patronizing gesture on God’s part towards human beings—only love and concern.” (pp 36-37)