Review: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50

 

Mark Sheridan (ed). Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament II: Genesis 12-50.  Downers Grove: IVP, 2002.  Pp. xl + 392.  Hardcover. $32.00.  ISBN: 978-0-8308-1472-5

 

 

Some may not be familiar with the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series published by IVP; there are volumes out covering nearly every book in the OT and NT.  The goal of this series is stated as follows:

“The Ancient Christian commentary on Scripture has as its goal the revitalization of Christian teaching based on classical Christian exegesis, the intensified study of Scripture by lay persons who wish to think with the early church about the canonical text, and the stimulation of Christian historical, biblical, theological and pastoral scholars toward further inquiry into scriptural interpretation by ancient Christian writers” (xi).

I must say, this series does a very fine job of meeting this stated goal.  As a biblical scholar, I often find myself enmeshed in the history of interpretation on a given passage.  Seldom, though, do I go back so far as to deal with (in what is a horribly erroneous designation) so-called ‘precritical’ exegesis.  When I have, however, I have been struck by how wonderfully enriching and beautiful much of this exegesis is.  Thomas Oden, the general editor for the series, describes the work as a “Christian Talmud” (xii).  This is a very fine parallel to draw, and a great image to use.  While the ACCS is by no means exhaustive in the ancient commentators treated, it does provide a very fine snapshot into the methods and interpretations of Scripture by some of the most seminal thinkers in Christian history.  If there were such a thing as a Christian Talmud, this series is as close as we get.

For the uninitiated reader, there is a brief section on how to use this commentary that will prove helpful.  Each section is broken up the same way, and I must admit, reading it is quite intuitive.  First, the Scripture pericope under consideration is cited in full.  A brief overview is then listed, a sort of synthesis of the various patristic comments on the text.  There are then bolded topical headings that highlight the content of the comment that follows (for instance, the headings under Gen 12:1 are “why he left,” “Abraham represents the mind,” “Abraham believed God’s promise,” “in baptism our land is our body,” “our kinsfolk are our sins and vices,” and “the devil was our father before grace”).  At the end of each patristic comment is a citation noting the author’s name and textual reference, be it by book, section/subsection, or verse reference.  And for those wanting more, perhaps the most valuable aspect of this commentary are the footnotes, which will point the reader to an English translation of the larger work from which the comment has been taken. 

The nature of this volume precludes any sustained  discussion of the actual patristic interpretations offered.  I would like to comment, however, on other aspects that make this commentary great.  In this volume (and I trust in all others), there is a lengthy, detailed “Introduction to Genesis 12-50” that surveys the history of patristic interpretation on Gen 12-50 from Paul to Origen.  To say this section is thorough would be an understatement.  Some of the main interpreters are discussed, including brief biographical sketches and summations of their work(s) on Gen 12-50.  Among those named are Philo of Alexandria, Origen, Ephrem the Syrian, Didymus the Blind, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Caesarius of Arles, and Bede the Venerable.  This introductory section next moves to a treatment of the “Literary Genres Used by Early Christian Commentators,” followed by  a lengthy treatment of “the Rules of Interpretation.”  This section is a must read for every volume; it helps to orient the reader not only to the pertinent issues and methods in patristic exegesis but also to situate a given interpreter in their historical and ideological context.  I cannot praise this section of the commentary enough.

A series of appendices close out the volume.  First is a list of all the early Christian writers cited, as well as the specific documents from which the citations are culled.  Next are very brief, though helpful, biographical sketches and short descriptions of select anonymous works.  Here one can flip for quick reference about any figure or text employed in the volume.  Next is a timeline charting the various writers from the patristic period, organized both chronologically and by locale (for instance, Philo is in Africa, and Justin Martyr and Eusebius in Italy).  Rounding out the volume is a bibliography of patristic works having been discussed in the original languages, as well as a bibliography of these works in English translation. 

In the end, the ACCS does indeed achieve its stated goal: it exposes (post-)modern readers to premodern exegesis by some of the most formative thinkers in Christian history.  The volume is very well organized, intuitive to use, easy to navigate, and contains a wealth of information for the initiated and uninitiated alike.  The footnotes and bibliographies pointing to the larger works are, in my view, among the most helpful elements of the commentary.  The great success of this series lies not merely in giving a voice to patristic exegesis of Scripture but to providing a voice that is both useful and accessible to student and scholar alike.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50

  1. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    While I appreciate how ACCS organizes selections of the analects of premodern Christian biblical interpretation, I must say that I am now very wary of this series. In the spring semester of 2008, I participated in a Greek readings course in which Dr. Parsons led us in reading selections from J. A. Cramer’s Catena on the book of Acts — a repository of many of these fragmentary texts (pertaining to Acts) transcribed from their original Greek. Several of the ACCS texts on Acts were in this volume, and we were all surprised at how much liberty the ACCS translators took in translating them. Something that would restore a measure of faith in the ACCS, however, would be if they started to provided 1) the citation of the transcribed text (or fragment) they are translating, 2) detailed annotations of their translation, and 3) a text-critical apparatus where applicable since some of these texts exist in multiple forms (quotations of quotations, etc.). In short, if the premodern source is important enough to include in a scholarly work, I think its best whenever possible to consult it in its original language. A demanding standard, I admit, and one that would deter many from using these fragments due to the difficulty of translating these fragments, but one that I think is necessary at the scholarly level.

    • Roy "Eli" Garton says:

      Additional clarifiers for my comment above: 1) when I say “citation of the transcribed text,” I mean to say “per entry” rather than a kind of original works consulted at the end of a volume. The critiques apply primarily to Acts volume of the ACCS . . . I have yet to look at the volume under discussion.

      If I sounded a bit cranky, I’m sorry. It’s been one of those weeks. A fine review, by the way! 🙂

  2. John Anderson says:

    Roy:

    You just sound bitter that this volume wouldn’t help you cheat as much as you wanted it to! Ok, that’s unfair . . . . just razzing, buddy (for those who don’t know, Roy and I know each other well and are good friends). Anyways, yes, the footnotes are not exhaustive, but they will point you often to the fuller context in that author’s writing. Worst case scenario, it will involve a bit more page flipping. I’m open to that.

    • Roy "Eli" Garton says:

      No, John. I’d say that is a very fair assessment. Patristic Greek was some of the most difficult translating I’ve ever had to do . . . give me Akkadian any day!

  3. Rob F. says:

    Roy Eli Garton,

    Just a point of clarification, AFAIK the ACCS does very little translation of its own; it is almost wholy dependent on pre-existing English translations. IIRC, they sometimes tweak these to update archaic English. I would hope that any “updating” would not alter the meaning of the translation at all. If you could find an example of their botching an update, then I agree, I would lose all faith in the commentary.

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