The School of Antioch

Biblical Theology and the Church in Syria

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Vahan S. Hovhanessian
Bible in the Christian Orthodox Tradition
  • New York, NY: 
    Peter Lang Publishing
    , February
     136 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The School of Antioch: Biblical Theology and the Church in Syria is a collection of essays on a much needed topic in theological and church historical studies: the lesser-known history of the Church of the East. The book almost exclusively focuses on the theology of the Bible, rather than “biblical theology” in its more normal sense, and examines the Eastern Church on that issue. The prime strength in this volume is the fact that it intertwines this lesser-known history, represented by figures like Theodore of Mopsuestia and Ephrem the Syrian, with figures more familiar to Western readers, like John Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrus. In doing so the volume helps the reader understand the connection between what is normally called “the Antiochene hermeneutic” and the hermeneutic of the Syrian church more generally. Though not stated in the volume explicitly, it is clear from the evidence presented in the various articles that “the Antiochene hermeneutic” is actually a misnomer for “the Syrian hermeneutic.” Thus Ephrem the Syrian or Theodore of Mopsuestia have an equal claim to the anti-Alexandrian hermeneutical tradition normally known to Western readers solely through the method of John Chrysostom. For that alone this volume is to be recommended (though for the steep price of $75 with only 84 pages of content, I would recommend accessing it through a library rather than purchasing it).

Each essay in the volume introduces a Syrian writer (or two Syrian writers, in Perhai’s article) and his exegetical methods, except for the second article, which concerns the manuscript cache of a relatively unknown Eastern Christian library. Most of the articles in the volume are excellent and serve as valuable introductions to their various subjects to scholars and informed ecclesiastics alike. They are without fail lucid and readable (except in the necessarily more technical sections), present clear and compelling conclusions, and are thick with references for further study.

One article that calls for special comment is “Exegesis for John Chrysostom: Preaching and Teaching the Bible” by Paul Nadim Tarazi. The thesis of this article is three-fold: (1) The Bible is clearly understandable to all morally upright readers; therefore (2) theology (except apparently in its simplest forms) is a sinful flight from the clear commands of Scripture; in which (3) God is ultimately and best pictured as the great cosmic judge issuing a lucid set of commands. Tarazi claims that his method has the capacity to “bring an end to the tension extant in all Christian traditions between theologians and students of the church fathers, on the one hand, and biblical scholars, on the other hand” (5), but this is misleading. The article does not resolve the tension by creating a new, wiser synthesis; Tarazi in the essay subsumes biblical scholarship under theology (albeit of a very anti-speculative type). One of the redeeming elements of his argument, though, is that the article highlights the reservations the Syrian church fathers typically had regarding speculative theology. The Syrian modus operandi was generally ambivalent to the ethereally philosophical arguments of the ancient Christian West, and was much more inclined to practical, devotional, and historical exegesis and reflection. Though Tarazi overstates his case, which seems untenable both theologically and as a reading of the Syrian Fathers, Tarazi does highlight the restrained nature of Syrian theological reflection.

As stated above, the rest of the volume is excellent and is highly recommended. Among the most important and memorable articles are Michael Azar’s “John Chrysostom and the Johannine Jews” and “Theōria as a Hermeneutical Term in the Commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrus” by Richard J. Perhai. Not only are these perhaps the most interesting and informative articles in the book, but they adhere most clearly to the programmatic questions of the volume: “Is there really a unified approach to biblical exegesis that we can properly call an Antiochian ‘school’? If so, who comprises this ‘school’ and what does it look like, hermeneutically and exegetically?” (2) Together these two essays provide a compelling set of answers to the questions. The thesis which arises from the articles (and is, in my view, correct) is that there was indeed an “Antiochene school,” a tradition which had a reasonably consistent hermeneutical/exegetical method, and that this school was not “Antiochene” per se, but rather consisted of the greater lights of the broader Syrian church. Likewise, this Syrian/Antiochene tradition does indeed seem to have been an ancient precursor to the historical-critical method, though this idea is falling out of fashion now and some of the authors of the articles rightly register hesitations about calling the Syrian hermeneutic “proto-historical-critical” (cf. Bradley Nassif, quoting Brevard Childs, on [1]; Michael Azar [45]). Nevertheless, the evidence which arises out of the essays in question point towards what one might call a “historical-pastoral” hermeneutic of the Syrian exegetical tradition. This is most evident in Azar’s examination of “the Jews” in John Chrysostom’s commentary on John, but holds true for Theodore of Mopsuestia as well. In brief, the Syrian exegetical mode was a mutually interpretive interchange between the historical meaning of the text and the interpreter’s own community’s needs, creating a meaning which attempted to faithfully bridge the text’s concerns with the contemporary situation’s needs. This Syrian/Antiochene hermeneutic is interesting in its own right, as an exegetical tradition eventually marginalized by its Alexandrian rival, but also holds promise in the present postmodern (some would say, “post-historical-critical”) era.

Those interested in hermeneutics (biblical or otherwise), biblical reception history, or first-millennium church history would all benefit from reading this volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gerhard Stübben is a graduate student in Biblical Studies and Languages at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vahan S. Hovhanessian holds a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Fordham University. He is currently the chairman of the Bible in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions unit of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and an Honourary Research Fellow at Cardiff University, United Kingdom. He has published books, chapters in books, and many articles in Arabic, Armenian, and English in the fields of biblical and early Church studies. He is an ordained Bishop in the Armenian Orthodox Church tradition and the Primate of the Armenian Church of the United Kingdom and Ireland.


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