For much of the 20th century, early Christian exegesis was denigrated for being too allegorical and not being historical enough. Figures such as A. T. Hanson wrote about early reception of biblical materials in a Greco-Roman context in such a way that it was not merely catalogued descriptively but, at times, chided prescriptively for being other than an early antecedent of modern historical criticism. Early Christian exegetes in Antioch were sometimes isolated as more promising precursors of historical exegesis over against the purportedly more spiritual readers in Alexandria, and that dichotomy was used regularly to tell the story of the early church.
The last several decades, however, have seen a deluge of material on patristic exegesis that has sought to engage it on its own terms. Scholars such as Robert Louis Wilken, Robert C. Hill, Frances Young, and others have reoriented the field. Now studies on patristic exegesis seek to show how Alexandrian exegetes not only played key roles in shaping early orthodox (e.g., Athanasius and Cyril) but did so by exemplifying particular modes of exegesis; in other words, their doctrinal constructions cannot easily be separated from their reading habits. More recent surveys of the literature have been prepared by John O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Hans Boersma, and Craig Carter. In so doing they have often challenged the idea of the dichotomy between Antioch and Alexandria.
Hauna Ondrey’s book explores key figures from Antioch and Alexandria, seeking to show how both Theodore and Cyril read the Minor Prophets as Christian scripture. The book begins by examining the way in which both interpreters look to the category of the divine economy (oikonomia) as a structuring principle for reading any of the twelve minor prophets (chapter 1); in this context, both Theodore and Cyril are shown to read events as factual and to concern themselves with historia. Then Ondrey turns to examine how Theodore and Cyril read the twelve as prophetic words to Israel in that epoch prior to the coming of Christ (chapters 2-3). Finally, Ondrey studies the way in which each reader accounts for these texts’ impact upon the later church after the incarnation of the son (chapters 4-5). A concluding chapter draws together the strands of the argument (chapter 6).
While it has been suggested elsewhere that Theodore offers precious little by way of a distinctly Christian exegesis of the Old Testament, “a closer reading shows that (1) Theodore does affirm messianic prophecy and (2) a much fuller account can be offered of the Christian value he finds in the prophetic texts” (7). At the same time, a textured analysis of Cyril’s employment of the Old Testament prophets does far more than merely highlight the insufficiency of Israel’s religion in that epoch, as has been commonly suggested, but also takes up a more immediate role of reforming Israel’s practices in their own day (8-9).
Ondrey shows that the divide between Alexandria and Antioch is misleading (12-17, 217, 238), though it is noted that Alexandria has better claim to being a real “school” (43). Ondrey also shows that we do well not to allow a presupposition—namely, that Alexandrian exegesis matches later dominant strands of spiritual or figural exegesis—to predetermine our analysis of early Christian biblical interpretation (46, 235-36). Of capital significance is Ondrey’s analysis of the difference between pagan allegorical reading and Christian allegorical reading and how that serves as necessary backdrop to some Antiochene challenges to “allegory” as such (25-29). While there are hints that language of “christocentric exegesis” can be reductive or less than clarifying (46), the book suffers a bit from an underdeveloped consideration of precisely what was and may be classified under that heading and any necessary subheadings (e.g., messianic christocentric readings relative to incarnational christocentric readings, the kind of distinction only hinted at on 142-43). This reader hopes that Ondrey continues to examine the exegetical patterns in ways that glean from and yet are self-critical of more recent studies and surveys. We do well to examine early Christian exegetes without a general animus against premodern or non-historical-critical interpretation of the Bible, but we also (as Ondrey suggests) do well to note that even broadly employed categories such as “christocentric” or “spiritual exegesis” were not uncontested in this earlier period and that such debates cut across regions such as Alexandria and Antioch and didn’t just divide them.
Michael Allen is John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.Michael AllenDate Of Review:September 17, 2018