Special Studies

Throughout Christian history until the Enlightenment, Christian authors made particular studies of individual Old Testament books or episodes or themes. The Hexaemeron was especially attractive, at first because it was important for Christians to take a view of the differences between the Bible's account of creation and that of late antique philosophers; and later because there always remained (and still remain) important differences from the current scientific understanding. At first it was important to defend the belief that God made matter and a material world, against Gnostic teaching. It was also necessary to establish the Christian principle that God made both matter and form and created everything from nothing, against the version of the Timaeus of Plato, which imputes eternal existence to matter and form. Basil of Caesarea (c.330-79) was influential here on Ambrose of Milan, whose own sermons on the Hexaemeron were heard by the young Augustine of Hippo in Milan. Jerome also praised Basil's Hexaemeron and it was translated into Latin about 440. Augustine's own appreciation of a Genesis which had previously seemed to him to tell a crude story was greatly enhanced by hearing Ambrose. In later writings he was firm that God created all things from nothing. Isidore; Bede; Walafrid Strabo and Rabanus Maurus among the Carolingians; Thierry of Chartres; William of Conches and Honorius of Autun in the twelfth century; Robert Grosseteste in the thirteenth, all contributed to the body of Hexaemeral literature, which by the late Middle Ages had become a series of pegs upon which to hang treatises on subjects of scientific interest. (God is seen as creating light and thus the very subject of the science of optics, and so on.) Much of the newly rediscovered corpus of Aristotelian science could thus be respectably studied in the West, though not without controversy.

The Fall and its aftermath were of course central to the Christian story, and the motif of Christ as the new Adam was always significant in Christian thought (cf. Rom. 5:12-21). It became important from the second century to insist that evil was not, as the Gnostics claimed, an independent divine power, but had come into the world through the sin of Adam. That sin was increasingly seen as having wrought a permanent change in human nature. Athanasius (c.296-373) put it in terms of a fall from a state of grace, in which it was possible for man to be in God's image, to a 'natural' condition. Other Greek Fathers argued for some transmission of the damage done by sin from one generation to another; the Latin Fathers from Tertullian were increasingly clear that it constituted a mark or deficiency in all human nature since Adam, a sinfulness bred in the bone. Augustine formulated the doctrine of original sin more fully than any before him, and made the point (which remained controversial), that one of its effects was to damage the will, so that no-one can will the good at all without the aid of grace.

The figure of Satan was often shadowy in all this, because the thrust of the enquiry had to do with the alteration caused in man's relationship to God, and not with his seducer. But Anselm of Canterbury in the late eleventh century asked how it had been possible for Satan to fall, if he was an angelic spirit created to gaze on god. His answer was in terms of a desire on the part of Satan for a good which was beyond the measure of his nature. Satan was culpable in reaching for it, he argued, becuase he had not accepted the perseverance in rightness of will which God offered to all his angels. Medieval liturgical drama kept the person of Satan before the popular imagination. Milton's Satan in the seventeenth century is a psychologically altogether more sophisticated figure, but still in every way a personal Devil, working for evil in the world and for the downfall of human souls. Old Testament warrant for this view came largely from the book of Job (1:6-12; 2:1-7), and 1 Chronicles 21:1.

The book of Job as a whole was the subject of a detailed 'moral' or tropological interpretation by Gregory the Great (the Moralia), which became immensely popular throughout the Middle Ages and later. It contained a vast array of cross-matched images, theories about the significances of numbers and links with other parts of Scripture, presented with a vividness and simplicity which gave the material an appeal to readers who might have found it difficult to draw on theologically more demanding treatments.

The Psalms were always a popular subject of commentary. They lent themselves to detailed discovery of allusion and correspondence and to elaborate figurative renderings. Because they were heavily used liturgically and formed the backbone of the round of monastic offices throughout the Middle Ages, they were perhaps the most familiar texts of the Old Testament. Here Augustine's Enarrationes on the Psalms provided a key text for later Western readers and exegetes, though almost every medieval scholar who attempted scriptural commentary addressed himself to the Psalms.

The book of Ezekiel was seen as a special challenge because of its difficulty. Gregory the Great preached on it, with a strong sense of the imminence of danger from the hordes pressing upon the city even as he spoke; Peter Abelard took it as a display piece when he wanted to show that he, a newcomer to theology though a consummately skilled logician, could lecture on the Bible as well as the famous master Anselm of Laon; for Richard of St Victor a generation or so later in the middle of the twelfth century, it set a puzzle, as he tried to work out how, architecturally speaking, the design for the Temple could be made to work and produce a building which would stand up. In Isaiah, Alan of Lille focused on the six wings of the cherubim (Isa. 6:2), to produce an allegory. In these and similar ways Christian scholars and poets to the end of the Middle Ages and later found in Old Testament episodes source material for a wide range of writing and a spur to theological, philosophical and scientific investigation.

As late as Milton the classic patterns of interpretation were still strongly influential. In Books XI and XII of Paradise Lost, the archangel Michael reveals the future to Adam while Eve sleeps. First he shows him Cain murdering Abel, so that Adam learns of death. Then Adam sees groups of Cain's descendants, including sensual women who lead men astray, and Adam learns about sin. Then there are wars, Noah and the Flood, with God's promise not to destroy mankind. Book XII continues with the history of the Jews after the Flood, Nimrod, the Tower of Babel, Abraham's journey to the Promised Land, slavery in Egypt, Moses and Aaron, the Plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the wilderness, and the Ark of the Covenant. The moral is drawn that God has still a land of promise for his people. Then Michael explains the way in which salvation will come. Sin makes law necessary, although the Law cannot cure sin. There is to be a New Covenant (that is why Joshua, not Moses the Lawgiver, leads the entry into Canaan). Then the royal line of David will produce the Son, and Old Testament history and prophecy will empty out into hope fulfilled and redemption accomplished.

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