Ascetic Interlude

Embodied Reading

Scripture reading and asceticism are intimately linked in ancient Christianity. Ancient Christians did not read the Bible to “find out what really happened” because revelation is in the text because the Scripture – and not the hypothetical what-really-happened of modern scholarship – is “inbreathed” by God for our edification. Having completed a thorough investigation on Origen’s method of exegesis Elizabeth Ann Dively Lauro makes a very plausible conjecture:

Since Christ is the very content of Scripture, a logical implication of these findings – which merits further research and consideration – is that Origen may understand Scripture’s somatic [bodily], psychic and pneumatic [spiritual which includes allegorical] senses to be equivalent to Christ’s human body, soul and spirit. This view would explain why he understands that consistent meditation upon Scripture shapes the listener into a likeness of Christ. Perhaps, for Origen then, an encounter with Scripture is not only pedagogical but also sacramental: Christ sacrifices himself wholly – indeed, as a whole burnt offering – within the pages of Scripture, and the person who  “consumes” Scripture’s teachings through the three senses consumes Christ’s body, soul and spirit.

Elizabeth Anne Dively Lauro, The Soul and Spirit of  Scripture within Origen’s Exegesis, p. 239.

This is all the more interesting for us since this implies a strong connection between the way Scripture is read and the kind of life that is lived. If spiritual (allegorical) reading can be said to a disembodied reading insofar as it ignores (or even denies) the literal sense of Scripture, it could easily be imagined that the body is spiritualized out of existence (much like the literal sense of Scripture). This would then be the soil in which erratic ascetical practices can grow and thrive. The “tunics of skin” are in fact the material body so that the bodies created in Paradise are to be allegorized as “pure spirits” (dis-incarnate souls). Only after the Fall do these pure spirits receive a body (the tunics of skin) which they will once again shed in the resurrection in order to return to being pure spirits (dis-incarnate souls). This fits well with Epiphanius’s telling us of how Origen castrated himself in his misdirected ascetic zeal.  As we will see in the angry exchange between Theophilus of Alexandria and the leaders of the Origenists such a reading could also bring monks to disfigure their bodies (so as to escape Episcopal ordination). As Dively Lauro suggested; Origen’s reading of Scripture implies a particular view of the body and soul, and a particular transformation of life.

The sort of reading that Epiphanius would prefer is literal. A solid grounding in the literal reading of Genesis (for example) prevents the reader from imagining preexistence of souls and their fall into bodies. For no such thing can be found in the opening chapters of Genesis. These ideas are foreign to Scripture and foreign to the Faith. It would be too quick to say that no allegory is possible. Jerome’s exegesis depends heavily on Origen and his spiritual reading. Yet it would seem that Epiphanius was quite comfortable with Jerome and it would probably be too much to accuse him of rejecting allegory as such. Rather the issue is focused on protology and eschatology insofar as these are derived from particular ways of reading Scripture. In other words: pre-existence and the eventual (inevitable) return to pre-existence.

In the next post we will look at Jerome’s Against Jovinian and how he interprets the passages in Genesis which mention fruitflness and multiplication and what sort of body it assumes for human beings and what sort of ascetic practice comes from this sort of reading.

Fr. Gregory Wassen


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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