The Interpretation of Scripture in the Greek Fathers: Some Translated Texts

Updated: Dec 23, 2021


 

The Holy Scriptures lead us to God

and open the path to the knowledge of God.

St. John Chrysostom
 
When someone tries to examine Scripture in an idle, intellectual way, he creates hatred and quarrelling. Why? Because the intellectual approach to Scripture does not help us to turn and reflect on our sins, but instead makes us focus on problems and concepts related to the study of Scripture, with the result that our minds and thoughts are aroused to no real purpose.

“Knowledge” by itself does not add anything. On the contrary, it encourages the cultivation of the individual and his private sense of things; it fosters the self-sufficiency of his personal opinions, which he then seeks to justify and impose on others. This kind of approach to Scripture immediately places you in conflict with others; it opposes your will and opinion to theirs, prompting you to disagree and argue with them, and to make enemies of your brothers. Filled as I am with my own opinions about things, I am not able to receive anything from God.

The correct way is to read Scripture with simplicity and to allow God to tell us what he wants to tell us. It’s one thing to read Scripture because you want to collect information, and another thing to read it because you want to acquire its true content, that is, the Holy Spirit. This kind of knowledge is the life of God (cf. Jn 17:3); it is the entry and extension of God into our life; it is God’s descent and dwelling among us.

We can judge whether our study of Scripture is authentic based on the number of tears we shed when we study. To be sure, I can also read Scripture without shedding tears, and without a strong sense of my sins, but with the hope that God’s grace, through my reading of Scripture, will break open my hardened heart. Read Scripture, then, but don’t forget about your sins and reduce Scripture to an object of intellectual inquiry, for at that point it ceases being the word of God and you start seeing it as something human. The criterion for your study should be this: the way you read the Bible should bring peace to your heart, communion with God, love of neighbors, and the consciousness of your own sinfulness: the recognition of how unworthy and ill-prepared you are to stand before God.

Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, Mt Athos

 

Introduction


It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Sacred Scripture among the Fathers of the Church. The overwhelming majority of surviving patristic works are exegetical, that is, they are interpretations of Scripture, either in the form of homilies, treatises, or line-by-line commentaries. Many prayers and liturgical texts, such as the Eucharistic Prayer (Anaphora) of Basil the Great, which contains 200 densely interwoven biblical citations and allusions, are masterpieces of biblical interpretation. Spiritual and ascetic texts are also deeply engaged with the interpretation of Scripture and its role in Christian life. Here we can again cite Basil the Great, whose Long Rules, which constitute a foundational document of Orthodox coenobitic monasticism, are composed almost entirely of passages taken from the New Testament. There is a very real sense in which patristic “theology” as a whole is exegesis since it is disciplined and inspired reflection on the inspired words of Scripture as these relate to the human experience of salvation in the Church.


The Pappas Patristic Institute here offers students and scholars of patristic theology the following excerpts from the writings of the Greek Fathers in order to highlight the methodology and hermeneutics that govern the patristic exegesis of Scripture. The passages below highlight the principles of biblical interpretation that might otherwise be difficult to see at a glance within the detailed and sometimes lengthy expositions of biblical books written by the Church Fathers. It is hoped that by extracting the selections below, we might offer an introductory overview of the patristic and Early Christian approach to reading and understanding the sacred Scriptures.


With the exception of the first three excerpts, the following translations were prepared by Fr Maximos Constas in collaboration with his students in a seminar at Harvard Divinity School. Though many of the excerpted works have since appeared in published translations, the passages below bring together key texts from across different treatises and commentaries in an accessible, idiomatic translation.


 

I

Maximos the Confessor, Prologue to the Responses to Thalassios


The divine word is like water, for in the same way that water operates in different species of plants and vegetation and in different kinds of living things—by which I mean in human beings who drink the Word Himself (cf. John 4:14)—so too the Word is manifested in them through the virtues, in proportion to their level of knowledge and ascetic practice, like ripened fruit produced according to the quality of virtue and knowledge in each, so that the Word becomes known to others through other qualities and characteristics. For the divine word could never be circumscribed by a single individual interpretation, nor does it suffer confinement in a single meaning, on account of its natural infinity.[1]


II

Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 50


Even though the word of holy Scripture is limited according to the letter—because it is delimited chronologically according to the times of the events that were written down—it nevertheless always remains unlimited according to the spirit through the contemplation of spiritual realities.[2] And let no one who is troubled by this have any doubts, for he should know that the God who spoke through Scripture is unlimited according to nature, and those whose genuine intention is to hear and give heed to the intention of God should believe that the word spoken by God resembles God himself. For if God is the one who spoke, and if God is by nature unlimited, it is obvious that the word spoken by him is also unlimited.


III

Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 41 (scholion 1)


Jacob’s well (cf. Jn 4:5-15) is Scripture. The water is the knowledge that Scripture contains. The depth of the well is the meaning of the biblical enigmas, which are all but beyond one’s reach. The bucket (Jn 4:11) used for drawing out the water is learning about the Divine Word acquired through written letters, which the Lord did not require, since he is the Word himself, and he does not give this knowledge to the faithful through learning and study, but to those who are worthy he grants a measure of the ever-flowing wisdom of spiritual grace. For like the bucket, that is, ordinary learning, the soul receives but the smallest part of knowledge, letting go of the whole, which no mind can grasp; whereas the knowledge that comes from grace possesses, without study, the whole of wisdom that man can possibly contain, which bubbles forth in a variety of ways with a view towards his needs.



IV

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Prologue to the Questions on Genesis


Other studious men have claimed to clarify those passages of sacred Scripture that seem to be ambiguous. Some have done this in order to unfold the inner sense of the text; others to expose the reasons for such ambiguity, and in general to render clear that which to many seems abstruse. And you, my beloved child Hypatius, surpassing them all, have urged me to undertake this present work. It will be useful both to you and to many; and even though my body was not well disposed for such a task, I have nevertheless brought forth the product of my labor. I do not, in this regard, take courage in my own abilities, but rather in God who ordered these things to be written, because it belongs to him to show forth the meaning hidden deep within the letter. For he himself, in the holy Gospels, presented his teaching in parables, and he himself interpreted the things that were uttered enigmatically. Through him I hope to be illumined by the noetic ray of light, and thus dare to enter into the deepest reaches of the all-Holy Spirit.


Before everything else, you should know that interpreters of Scripture are not all unanimous in the aim of their questioning. Some pose questions impiously thinking that they can somehow critique sacred Scripture, arguing either that Scripture does not instruct us rightly or that it contradicts itself. Others, on the other hand, ask with a love of learning and with desire to discover that for which they seek. With the help of God, we shall silence the blasphemous mouths of the former by demonstrating both the unity (symphonia) of sacred Scripture and the excellence of its teaching. We will also provide the latter with the solution to their difficulties. For our endeavors, let us take as our beginning the beginning of creation, for such is the beginning of the divinely inspired Scripture.[3]



V

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms


I have long desired to interpret the prophecy (i.e., the Psalms) of the great David before all the other divine utterances, since those who are nourished in piety, both those living in cities and those in the countryside, despite their different manner of life, are all devoted to careful reflection on the Psalter. Not least among them are those who have embraced the ascetic life, who night and day recite the Psalter aloud, singing to the God of all and lulling to sleep the passions of the body. This happens because divine grace has mingled spiritual benefit with the pleasure of music, rendering its teaching exceedingly precious and worthy of love by human beings. This is why most people can remember either nothing at all, or only very little, from the other books of sacred Scripture. But one may often hear many people, at home or in the streets, reciting from memory the spiritual psaltery of the divine David. By means of these harmonious melodies, they subdue themselves as if by some enchanting spell, and through such delectation reap the fruits of spiritual benefit.[4]


For these reasons, then, it was my wish to interpret this prophecy (i.e., the Psalter), and to draw out the benefit hidden in its depth for the sake of the “wise merchants” (cf. Mt 13:45) so that when they are singing the psalms they will also understand the meaning of the things being sung, and thus reap a double profit. However, my desire was prevented from reaching its fulfillment by those who pressed me for interpretations of the other sacred Scriptures. Some requested an explanation of the Song of Songs, while others wanted to understand the prophecy of the “man of desires” (i.e., Daniel; cf. Dan 9:23). Others wanted an interpretation of the divine Ezekiel, while still others asked that I clarify the oracles of the Twelve Prophets, the meaning of which is shrouded in obscurity.


Since, then, the writing of these commentaries has been granted by the God of all—who enlightens the blind, reveals mysteries, grants speech to some and makes others deaf and dumb, granting sight to some and making others blind—we may now proceed to an interpretation of God’s divine words. But let us first call upon divine grace, which leads the blind (according to the prophecy) upon the way which they knew not, and along paths they knew not, equipping them for the journey, because such grace enables those who once were deaf to hear the divine utterances, and grants sight to eyes that were lost in darkness and gloom. Having done so, we may dare to interpret the prophecy.


But let no one reckon my labors superfluous because others before me have already brought forth their own interpretations. For I have examined a variety of such commentaries, and have found that, while some have surrendered themselves eagerly to allegory, others endeavored to reduce the inspired prophecy to mere historical events, as if they were addressing their interpretation to Jews rather than to those who are nourished by faith in Christ. I have therefore thought it wise to avoid the extremes both of the former and the latter: Whatever is appropriate to the interpretation of the narratives of the Old Testament should also be adapted to them even now, but we should not ascribe the prophecies about Christ, or about the Church from the Gentiles, or about the way of life of the Gospel, or the prophecies about the preaching of the apostle, to anything else, which is what the Jews love to do in their wickedness and thereby defend their own unbelief. This is because the testimony of these events is sufficient to lead those who desire it to the true interpretation, and this is why the interpretation of the prophecy is not very difficult, since consideration of the events makes the interpretation clear. Let us then studiously avoid prolixity in words and briefly set forth the benefit for those who desire it. We shall first make clear the aim of the Psalms, and then proceed to engage in their interpretation.[5] […]


Now some people claim that some of the Psalms were not written by David, but by others. […] I myself have no opinion about this matter, for what benefit do I thereby gain if I know which Psalms were written by David and which Psalms were not? What matters is our clear understanding that all of the Psalms have been composed by the activity (energeia) of the Holy Spirit.[6]


VI

Basil of Caesarea, Prologue to the Psalter (Homily 10)


All scripture is inspired by God and useful, composed by the Spirit for this reason, namely, that each and every one of us, as if in a hospital for souls, may find the remedy for our particular condition. [After describing the utility of all the biblical books by genre, Basil notes that] the Book of Psalms has taken what is profitable from all the books of Scripture. It foretells coming events, it recalls history, it frames laws for life, it suggests what must be done, and in general it is the common treasury of good doctrine, carefully setting forth what is suitable for each one of us. The old wounds of the soul it cures completely, and to the recently wounded it brings speedy improvement; the diseased it treats, and the unharmed it preserves. On the whole, it effaces, as far as is possible, the passions, which exercise dominion over souls. And it does this with a certain orderly persuasion and sweetness.


When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did the Holy Spirit do? The Holy Spirit mingled the delight of melody with the doctrines, so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey . . . For those who are indifferent to these matters never leave the church having in mind either an apostolic or prophetic passage, yet they can be heard to chant the words of the psalms, even at home, and they spread them around the marketplace, and if perchance someone should become angry, when he begins to be soothed by the psalm, the wrath of his soul is lulled to sleep by means of the melody.[7]



VII

Proclus of Constantinople, On the Psalter (Homily 2)


The lyre of the psalms is beautiful. The lute of the Spirit is inspired by God (cf. 2 Tim 3:16). The prophetic song is both joyful and fearsome. The singing of psalms is always salvific, melodiously lulling the passions to sleep. What the pruning hook is to thorns, a psalm is to sadness. A melodic psalm sheers away despondency and cuts off sorrow at its root. It cleanses the passions and silences lamentations. It removes worldly cares, comforts the suffering, encourages sinners to piety, makes cities of the desert, and chastens those in cities. It unifies monasteries, advocates virginity, teaches gentleness, promulgates love, blesses love for the poor, prepares one for endurance, raises us to heaven, fills the church with the faithful, sanctifies priests, repels demons, foretells things to come, reveals mysteries, and proclaims the Trinity, saying, “The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Ps 109:1; cf. Mt 22:44; Heb 1:13).[8]


VIII

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Preface to the Commentary on the Book of Daniel

If it were easy for everyone to explicate the oracles of the divine prophets and to transcend the surface appearance of the letter—penetrating the depths in order to hunt for the pearl of meaning hidden therein—then perhaps one might rightly think it perverse to produce a written interpretation of them (i.e., the oracles), inasmuch as everyone could readily arrive at the prophetic mind through a superficial reading of the text. But even though we have all received the same human nature, we have not all received the same degree of spiritual knowledge, since “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the good, so that one is given the word of wisdom, another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit, and another faith, in the same Spirit” (1 Cor 12:7).[9]



IX

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Prologue to the Commentary on Ezekiel

The eyes of the body have been created by God in order to discern bodily forms and colors. When they are in good health, they discern rightly and with justice, but when they suffer from some disorder, they fail in their proper functions and greatly pervert that which is right. In some cases they do not see at all, or see one thing instead of another, not rightly discerning the nature of the things seen. The visual faculty of the soul, on the other hand, though it directs the activity (energeia) that is operative in these matters, has also received from the Creator another power, through which it distinguishes not only bodily forms and colors, along with smells and tastes, and other such qualities like these, but also discerns words and thoughts, and from among these it distinguishes pious words and thoughts from impious ones, and it knows the difference between human words and thoughts and those that are divine.


Generally speaking, according to the wise Solomon, the visual faculty of the soul “understands a parable, and an obscure saying, the sayings of the wise, and riddles” (Prov 1:6). However, it can only discern these things when it is in good order and filled with faith. But when it is shrouded by the gloom of disbelief, its range of vision is limited just like the eyes of the body, and it sees one thing instead of another, or frequently sees nothing at all, to the degree that it is dominated by passion. Certain people, having succumbed to this disease, have gone so far as to accuse the sacred Scripture, and in particular the prophetic oracles, of being completely veiled in obscurity. To these people it is likely that the divinely-inspired Paul would say: “And even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing . . . for we speak wisdom to the perfect” (cf. 1 Cor 4:3). In harmony with this are the things that our Lord and Savior said to his apostles: “Unto you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom, but unto them it has not been given” (Mk 4:11; Lk 8:10 [10]). And he went on to explain the cause of this saying: “So that they may indeed see but not perceive and hear but not understand” (Mk 4:12).


The divine Scriptures are not, therefore, obscure to all, but only to those who are willfully blind. And they should consider and understand this: nothing precious is easily acquired by human beings. The depth of the ocean conceals within itself the pearl, and the shimmering shell contains a brilliant dye for the imperial purple robe. Neither do veins of gold and silver trickle up freely toward the surface of the earth, but instead are concealed deep within her womb. And in our homes, we keep the most valuable of our belongings locked up in treasure chests, sealing their doors with locks, bolts, and bars. And we are accustomed to reveal the more important of our desires not simply to everybody, but only to our truest friends. And yet the divine is infinitely more precious and greater by far than all these things, just as invisible things are greater than the visible, and as intelligible things are greater than the sensible, and as things which abide are greater than that which changes and passes away. These things are worthy of even greater safekeeping, and we should not, to quote the words of the Lord: “Cast our pearls before swine” (Mt 7:6). For things that are acquired with ease are easily despised, but those things that are acquired with great labor are exceedingly precious and beloved.


In addition to these matters, there is something else that must be pointed out. The oracles of the divine prophets contain, on the one hand, a condemnation of the transgression of the Jewish people, and offer, on the other hand, the promise of good things to the Gentiles. It was thus out of necessity that prophecy was obscured by shadows, lest the Jewish people, out of their usual jealousy, dare to scheme against strangers against whom the promises would one day be given and destroy those books in which such promises were made. And that this situation is responsible for the apparent obscurity of Scripture is attested to by the events that have since occurred. For in ancient times these matters were unclear to the Jews, in order that the memory of the blessing upon the Gentiles might be preserved in written form. But when the prediction had reached its fulfillment, and the events themselves had followed in accordance with the words of Scripture, then the sayings of the prophets became obvious and clear to all. For those who read the prophetic books interpret them based on historical events.


Let no one, therefore, and certainly no one from among those who are nourished on piety, act rashly against the Holy Spirit, censuring the Spirit’s words with the charge of obscurity. Instead, one should desire to understand the sacred words just like the divinely-inspired David and cry out with him: “Unveil mine eyes, and I shall perceive wondrous things out of your law” (Ps 118:18). For God will always answer this prayer, since he has promised to bless us with knowledge. For we too offer up the same petition to the Lord, who, according to David, “Gives wisdom to the blind” (Ps 145:8), and to those “in darkness and in gloom,” according to the blessed Isaiah (Is 20:18), so that we might dare boldly to undertake an interpretation of the divinely-inspired Ezekiel, and of the depth of the prophecy, to the extent that we are able, thereby offering unto all the pious the common benefit of what we may gather therefrom.[11]



X

Polychroniοs of Apamea, On the Obscurity of the Scriptures

The obscurity (ἀσάφεια) present in the holy Scriptures has many causes. The first is that when any language is translated into another, it loses its internal sequence and coherence. The second is that similar sounding words are mistakenly rendered in terms of their accentuation and meaning by Hebrew translators, as with the words καλος and ορος and similar such words. On the one hand, καλός, with an accent on the ultimate syllable, denotes something beautiful and noble, that is to say, something basic and necessary for the pursuit of virtue. On the other hand, κάλος, with the accent on the penultimate syllable, refers to the rope used on a boat. Again, ὅρος, with the accent on the penult, signifies either the boundary or limit of some physical thing, or a hill or some such other high place. But when accented on the ultimate, ὀρός is the whey in milk. Third in order come the Hebrew terms which could not be translated by the Greeks but were simply left as they appeared in the original Hebrew text, such as the “guard-house” (σινώχ) from the book of Jeremiah. Fourth, punctuation often generates obscurity, as with the phrase which reads: “Happy will be the inhabitants of the earth,” unless the word “happy” is followed by a comma. Fifth, difference can arise in accentuation, as with the phrase which says: “The beginning (ἀρχὴ) of wisdom is to seek wisdom,” if we accent “beginning” on the penult (ἄρχη) and render it as a verb. Sixth, many words indicate by means of only one sound their singular or plural, as with “God,” or “gods.” Seventh, a multitude of changes can occur in the person of a verb. For example, it is said to Abraham: “Now I know that you fear the Lord,” rather than, “Now you know, etc.” Eighth, they assign the gender of nouns contrarily, as when the words “moon” and “sea,” which are feminine in Greek, are rendered masculine. Ninth, they often leave something out. The line, “The mountains rose, the valleys sank down,” for example, is missing the word “like” (ὡς), so that it should read, “they rose like the mountains,” since the statement here concerns the waves, and “they descended like the valleys.” Tenth, though their books were destroyed in the captivity, some people transmitted to one another from Jerusalem into Babylon the utterances of God, so that their oppressors seized their books. Therefore, they wrote down in coded symbols such things as the foreigners were unable to comprehend, and these symbols are a further source of obscurity. This continued until Esdras lived, and he, recalling these things, passed them on in written form.[12]



XI

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Commentary on Ezekiel 11:22-25


“Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, and the wheels were beside them; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the Lord ascended from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain which was in front of the city” (Ezek 11:22-23). These things, then, having been said, the cherubim departed from the city, bearing aloft the glory of God. They stood, it says, on the mountain opposite Jerusalem, which means that they stood on the mountain called the Mount of Olives, from where our Savior ascended in the flesh. At that time, our Lord appeared in human form and manifested his two natures in one person, intimating his divine nature through the flame and indicating his human nature through the color of the pale gold. Having pronounced his sentence against Jerusalem, he departed for the Mount, and from there made his ascent into the heavens. And after his crucifixion and death, he again pronounced his sentence against Jerusalem, saying that there shall “not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mt 24:2), after which, ascending that Mount with his disciples, he ascended into heaven being borne aloft by rational and invisible powers. The things indicated by the prophet, therefore, were a type of the things to come.


Having seen these things, he said: “And the Spirit took me up, and brought me to the land of the Chaldeans, in a vision by the Spirit of God” (11:24). He was not taken there in truth, that is, he was not conveyed physically here and there, now being taken to Judea, and now to the land of the Chaldeans, since he said, “in a vision,” that is, something he beheld, and “by the Spirit of God,” instead of saying, “my mind was illuminated by the activity (energeia) of God, which gave me prophetic eyes, enabling me to see each of these things.” And clarifying this even further, he adds: “And I went up after the vision which I saw, and I spoke to those in captivity all the words of the Lord which he had shown me” (11:25). “I returned to myself,” he says, when the spiritual contemplation reached its end. “And I no longer could see those things, but only the elders who were around me, to whom I related all that I had seen and heard.” And now it is time for us to say as the Gospel says: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8), for these words are sufficient to teach us what we should know, for many elders were gathered in that place, but only the prophet Ezekiel enjoyed the spiritual vision of them. So let us then also strive to attain such “purity of heart,” and let us pray that, being delivered from every defilement, we might have the memory of God perpetually within our souls in the present life, so that we may be counted worthy to “see” God without shame on the day of his manifestation.[13]



XII

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Commentary on Ezekiel 43:8


“When they set my doorway by their doorways, and my thresholds near to their thresholds, and they made my wall as it were joining myself and them, and they profaned my holy name with their iniquities which they wrought” (Ezek 43:8). This shows that they did not respect the sanctity of the Temple, since they had put it even to secular use. This is why he says: “I destroyed them in my wrath, and in murder,” which is to say, I handed out punishment for their transgression, and I gave them over to destruction. In other places, he counsels them to abandon their former paths and their impiety and their rulers, and promises them that, if they should do so, he will dwell in their midst forever. And these promises would have been fulfilled, had they received the Lord when he came to dwell in their midst. But when they saw him, they said to one another: “This one is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance” (Mt 21:38). But he removed them from that vineyard and scattered them throughout the world. And the vineyard he gave to other tenants, with whom he shall dwell forever, receiving his fruit from them in season. Afterwards he directs the prophet to reveal the building of the Temple to the people, so that they might repent from their ways when they see how great the benefaction is and how great the hope of return. [Here follows a description of the “two altars of expiation of unequal size, one greater and one less.”] Here we must ask, if the blessed Moses, in accordance with the divine command, fashioned only one altar of expiation, why does the prophet contemplate two? I think that the smaller of the two is a type of the greater, for the Old was a type of the New Testament, and that altar a type of our altar, for Christ is our expiation, just as the Apostle Paul says: “(Christ) whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to show God’s righteousness” (Rom 3:25). The prophet also says that between the two altars are four cubits, a figure equal in number to the holy Gospels, for between the law and the good things for which we hope, the grace of the Gospels has been given to humans.[14]



XIII

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Commentary on Ezekiel 34:27-28, 31


“And they shall know that I am the Lord, when I have broken their yoke; and I shall deliver them out of the hand that enslaved them. And they shall no more be a spoil to the nations, and the wild beasts of the land shall no more devour them” (Ezek 34:27-28). As I have already said, this prophecy is double in nature, for one part of it pertains to the Jews themselves, and the other part to all human beings. For the Jews were freed from their captivity to the Babylonians, and all of us have been set free from the tyranny of the devil. The “yoke” was his way of describing their bondage in slavery, while “nations” and “wild beasts” are, in the case of the Jews, their bestial enemies, but in our case, it is the different ranks of demons which, in the manner of wild beasts, attack human beings.


“You are my sheep,” he says, “even the sheep of my flock” (34:31). He showed that these words pertain not only to Israel, but to the whole of human nature, by adding the phrase: “You are human beings, and I am the Lord thy God, says the Lord Adonai.” For you have been delivered from acting like animals, inasmuch as you have acquired the mentality that is proper to your human nature. “And I shall be your God and Lord, and I bestow all providence and care upon you.” This, then, is the meaning of the prophecy. And I am not at all surprised that the Jews, as usual, do not understand it. But I am amazed that some Christians dare to ascribe the whole of this passage to Zerubbabel, not realizing that the greater part of it does not at all accord with the things that happened to him.[15]



XIV

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Preface to the Commentary on the Song of Songs


The exegesis of the sacred Scriptures requires a soul greatly purified and free from every stain. It also requires a mind that has sprouted wings, capable of seeing divine things, and bold enough to search out the deepest reaches of the Spirit. Also needed is a tongue fit for serving the mind and able to interpret accurately the mind’s contemplation. As for me, however, my soul is burdened with the weight of many sins, and my mind is deeply submerged in concerns for the affairs for which I am responsible. Thus, my mind is rather middling, and creeps along low to the ground, not being able to clearly see the divine utterances. As if all this wasn’t enough, my speech is even more enfeebled and dawdling than my mind. But since, my beloved friend, you have requested that I interpret the book called the Song of Songs, and render clear and plain the meaning of what it says enigmatically and mystically, I have dared to undertake that which is quite beyond my powers—and at a time, as I have said, when I am burdened with a thousand cares related to matters urban, rural, military, political, and ecclesiastical. But I make bold and dive headlong into the depth of the ocean and dare to submerge myself in the depth of the text, so that I might offer you the pearl of meaning. For my efforts, I place no oil within my lamp, the earthly light of which helps us to discover that for which we are searching. Instead, I avail myself of prayer and supplication, which must be used by all those who desire to understand the meaning of the divine utterances of Scripture. The blessed David taught this to us when he said: “Unveil my eyes, and I shall perceive wondrous things out of your law” (Ps 118:18). Having been taught this, I call upon the assistance of divine grace, so that it might show me the meaning of this book.


There are certain people who cast aspersions upon this book, saying that they cannot believe it to be at all spiritual, weaving together various myths that are not fitting even for women who have gone mad, claiming that the wise Solomon composed this book only with reference to himself and to the daughter of the Pharaoh. There are others who are hold similar views but imagine that the bride is actually Abishag the Shunamite, and not the Pharaoh’s daughter. These, though, have a somewhat more purified sense of things, and describe the work as a “regal treatise,” saying that the bride represents the people, while the bridegroom represents the king. It seems therefore necessary, before beginning my interpretation, first to refute this false and harmful view, and afterwards to establish the purpose of the text. Toward this end, we must turn to the blessed Fathers, who had greater wisdom and were more spiritual than those mentioned above, and who decreed that this book be placed among the sacred Scriptures, having determined that it was spiritual, and showing that it was fitting for the Church. Because it has been counted as sacred Scripture, it is not the case, as some have maintained, that it is concerned with debauchery and the love of pleasure.


Indeed, why should we invoke the authority of the Fathers on this question when we are able to call upon the testimony of the Holy Spirit itself? [Theodoret here describes the destruction of the Scriptures under Manasseh and during the Babylonian captivity.] But when the people were recalled from exile, the blessed Esdras—a man of great virtue and filled with the all-Holy Spirit, as the events themselves make manifest—wrote down those Scriptures that were necessary for our salvation. And of these not only the writings of Moses, but also the history of Joshua, Judges, and Kings, along with the narrative of the noble Job, and the sacred hymnody of David, which is the joy of the Church, and the sixteen prophets, and the works of the wise Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. How then, dear sirs, can the Song of Songs contain the meaning which you say it does, when Esdras wrote it down, not from a written copy, but being filled with the Holy Spirit, in order to provide all human beings with spiritual benefit in written form? For descriptions of debauchery are not of the Holy Spirit but rather of the opposing spirit, “For the fruit of the Spirit,” according to the blessed Paul, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22). If then, “self-control” is a “fruit of the Holy Spirit,” then self-indulgence is obviously the fruit of the opposing spirit, and yet you say that this very self-indulgence is the theme of the Song of Songs! Do you see where such blasphemy leads you? Your foolish ideas about this book lead you to oppose the all-Holy Spirit, for, as we said, this book having been destroyed, it was restored by Esdras, who was filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Based on this knowledge, the blessed Fathers placed this book among the sacred Scriptures, and many of the ancients commented on it. And even those who did not write commentaries on it, nevertheless made abundant use of such commentaries in order to beautify their own works.


And it was not only Eusebius of Palestine (i.e., of Caesarea), and Origen the Egyptian, and Cyprian of Carthage (whose brow was plaited with the crown of martyrdom), along with many of their predecessors, who were close to the apostles, but also many who have since followed them in the churches, who knew this book to be spiritual. Of these I note Basil the Great, who interpreted the beginning of the Book of Proverbs, as did his brother Gregory (of Nyssa), and Diodore (of Tarsus) that noble defender of the faith, and John (Chrysostom), who to this very day waters the world with the streams of his teaching, and many more besides. But here I must cease in order not to prolong my discourse. But let us consider whether it would right to disregard the testimony of so many and such venerable persons, spurning the all-Holy Spirit itself, in order to follow our own opinions, failing to be persuaded by the one who said, “The thoughts of mortal men are miserable, and our conceptions are uncertain” (Wis 9:14), nor by the blessed Paul who, speaking about men such as these gentlemen, said, “They became futile in their thinking, and their senseless heart was darkened” (Rom 1:21). And this is why we cry out together with the blessed Peter, “It is better to obey God than men” (Acts 4:19). And we too say to them: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and what we have heard through the Spirit” (Acts 4:20). But in order that we not listen only to ourselves, and that we may pass over those who have been misled, let us consider what was the cause of their wound, and let us seek to offer them a potent cure from out of sacred Scripture.


It seems to me that they, upon reading this book, and upon encountering in it such things as perfumes and kisses, thighs and bellies, navels and cheeks, and fair eyes, and lilies, and apples, and nard, and spices and myrrh and such things as these, were unaware of the peculiarities of sacred Scripture, and so had no desire to move past and advance beyond the veil of the letter, and to enter within by means of the Spirit, and to behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled face. Instead, they understood these things carnally, and thus fell into blasphemy. They should have known that in the Old Testament Scripture says many things by means of figures and signifies different things through different names. For example, when it speaks of “the Babylonian,” it calls him neither by his proper name nor by his common human nature, for it called him neither “Nebuchadnezzar” nor a “human being,” but instead named him “a great eagle with large wings, spreading them out very far, with many claws, who aims to enter Lebanon, and he took the choice branches of the cedar and plucked the tender shoots” (Ezek 18:3). Now, no one has ever understood “eagle” here to mean an actual “eagle,” or the region of Lebanon by the word “Lebanon,” nor a mere cedar by “cedar.” But by the word “eagle” they understood the king, since the eagle is a regal bird. By “large wings” they understood the expanse of his kingdom, and by “many claws” the multitudes of his armies. His “aim” indicates his intention to do what he did, spurred on by divine command. “Lebanon” here means Jerusalem, which is a forest thick with spiritual gifts. The tender shoots of the cedar are the delicate youths who are yet nursing but are distinguished by their rank. And texts like this are read in this manner, not only by those being nourished in piety, but also by the Jewish people, who usually understand the Scriptures in a more obtuse and carnal way. [Here, Theodoret provides further illustrations from Zach 2:1-2.] And what would be the point in mentioning all the things that sacred Scripture says in figures? Let us put them aside for now, and note that in the Old Testament, God speaks of the Jewish nation as a woman, making use of different names for the parts of the body, which names Solomon also made use of when he wrote about this bride. [Here Theodoret provides a lengthy example from Ezek 16:2-14, 31-34].


Seeing that the Jewish people are spoken of in the Old Testament collectively as a woman, what defense can they offer who revile the Song of Songs, and who recklessly understand it with such impudence? When, in this work, we read of breasts, and navels, and knees, and hands, and nostrils, and ears, and physical beauty, and love, and of embraces and couplings, and of similar things, all of them said by God of all, we understand none of it in the way that we read it, neither are we tempted by the “letter which kills.” But by entering within the letter, we search out the mind of the Spirit, and being illuminated by the Spirit we understand the things of the Spirit in a spiritual way. And when we hear God saying to Jerusalem: “Your father is an Amorite, and your mother is a Hittite” (Ezek. 16:3), we understand, not a physical relationship, but one of the will, which we understand according to the rule of allegory. [Theodoret offers further examples in which various parts of the body and other mundane images mentioned in Scripture have an obvious, metaphorical sense]. And why is it necessary to go through all the things that the God of all said through the prophets? The things mentioned above are sufficient to teach us that it is necessary to understand the sacred Scriptures, not only by attending to the letter, but by also unfolding its inner sense.


Let us therefore understand the Song of Songs in this way and let us abandon false and harmful opinions about it, and, following the holy Fathers, let us understand one bride conversing with one bridegroom, and let us learn from the holy apostles who is the bridegroom and who is the bride. For Paul teaches us the answer to this when he says, “I have espoused you as a pure virgin to one husband, Christ” (2 Cor 11:2) [This is followed by an extended discussion on Christ the Bridegroom.] It should also be noted that we have been taught that there are three writings that have been written by Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Of these, Proverbs offers ethical benefit to those who desire it. Ecclesiastes interprets the nature of visible things and teaches us about the futility of the present life, so that we might learn how all things in the present are subject to death, and consequently despise them and desire the future things which last forever. The Song of Songs teaches the mystical coupling of the bride and the bridegroom, so that the entire Solomonic trilogy is a sort of ladder having three rungs, the ethical, the physiological, and the mystical. Anyone wishing to approach it in piety must first be purified in mind by means of good works. Afterwards, one must reflect on the futility of the present life, and the perishability of all those things considered to be delightful. After this, one takes wing and desires the bridegroom, who has promised us good things that will last forever. This is why Solomon’s work has been organized in a threefold manner, so that proceeding by stages we might reach perfection.


It seems to me that the wise Solomon was taught to write such things by his father, the great prophet David. He certainly must have heard him singing, “The queen stood at your right hand, in garments of gold and covered with pearls,” and “Hear, O daughter, and see, and incline your ear, and forget your people, and the house of your father, and the king shall greatly desire your beauty, for he is your Lord” (Ps 42) Again, this book is not given to adolescents to read, or to those who are still immature, but only to those who are fully grown, and who are able to understand hidden things, and to know what the words mean spiritually.


Let us now proceed to the interpretation of the text. And let not my readers accuse me of theft, if they should discover that I have woven into my commentary something from the Fathers, for I admit that I have learned much from them in terms of the various principles necessary for clarification. This, however, is not theft, but rather our family inheritance. And alongside their own views, I have added some things of my own, paraphrasing some of the former on account of the length, and, in other cases, developing further what was lacking. Taken together, I believe that my work is not unworthy of the attention of my readers. Wherefore I ask that those who reap the fruit of my labors without contributing any work themselves, offer prayers for me in place of their own collaboration. If, however, my interpretation does not seem to be accurate, you are free to take up the work of interpretation, and thus teach me about what is lacking.[16]


 

[1] This and the following two excerpts have been adapted from Maximos Constas, Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, The Fathers of the Church 136 (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018).

[2] Scripture is limited in its literal and historical sense, but is unlimited in its spiritual, symbolic, and anagogical senses.

[3] The Greek text can be found in PG 80:76; in one manuscript it bears the title: “On Difficulties in Holy Scripture” (see PG 80:75). Theodoret compiled a lengthy compendium of Questions on the Octateuch (John F. Petruccione and Robert C. Hill, Theodoret of Cyrus: The Questions on the Octateuch, 2 vols [Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2007]), and another called Questions on Kings and the Paralipomena. Both works were written after 453 and are dedicated to a certain Hypatius (who was possibly Theodoret’s chorepiscopus; cf. Theodoret, letter 113), who was apparently the source of the questions.

[4] For the Greek text, see PG 80:858-56. This work is a continuous exposition of the entire Psalter, and may have been written between 441 and 449; cf. Robert C. Hill, Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Psalms 1-72 (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2000).


[5] For these themes, Theodoret is indebted to Basil of Caesarea, Prologue to the Psalter, the relevant section of which is cited below.


[6] PG 80:861.


[7] This translation has been adapted from Agnes Clare Way, Saint Basil. Exegetic Homilies (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 151-53.


[8] This homily is otherwise unconcerned with the exegesis of the Psalter; the Greek text and translation are available in Nicholas [Maximos] Constas, Proclus of Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 165.


[9] The Greek text can be found in PG 81:1256-57; cf. Robert C. Hill, Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on Daniel (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006). This work is a continuous commentary on the Book of Daniel. Theodoret elsewhere tells us that this was his first commentary on a prophetic book.


[10] The passages from Mark and Luke continue with: “But for those outside everything is in parables.”

[11] For the Greek text, see PG 81:808-12. Cf. Robert C. Hill, Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Prophets, vol. 2, Commentary on the Prophet Ezekiel (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007). Compare the remarks of Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs: “And there is another practice too that we have received from them (i.e., the Jews), namely, that all the Scriptures should be delivered to students by teachers and wise men, while at the same time the four that they call deuteroseis – that is to say, the beginning of Genesis, in which the creation of the world is described; the first chapters of Ezekiel, which tell about the cherubim; the end of the same, which contains the building of the Temple; and this book of the Song of Songs – should be reserved for study till the last” (trans. R. P. Lawson, Origen, The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, Ancient Christian Writers 28 [New York: Newman Press, 1957], 23).


[12] Polychronios, bishop of Apamea in Syria, was the brother of Theodore of Mopsuestia. The fragment translated above survives in Photius, Amphilochia 152; see Nicholas [Maximos] Constas, “Word and Image in Byzantine Iconoclasm: The Biblical Exegesis of Photius of Constantinople,” in The Contentious Triangle: Church, State, and University. A Festschrift in Honor of Professor George Huntston Williams, ed. Rodney L. Petersen and Calvin Augustine Pater (Kirksville: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999), 97-109.


[13] PG 81:901C-904.


[14] PG 81:1229C-1232.


[15] PG 81:1164D-1165; 1168B.


[16] PG 81:28-48; cf. Robert C. Hill, Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Song of Songs (Brisbane: Center for Christian Studies, Australian Catholic University, 2001). This continuous commentary on the Song of Songs is Theodoret’s earliest exegetical work, in which he is critical of Theodore of Mopsuestia, whose own reductive interpretation of the Song of Songs is rejected by Theodoret in the section translated above.