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Historian Explores Exegesis in Byzantium


Tia Kolbaba, Ph.D., defended the importance of Byzantine exegetes during her Feb. 4 lecture, co-sponsored by the Center for Medieval Studies and the Orthodox Christian Studies Center. Photo by Dana Maxson

Very few see eye to eye when it comes to interpreting the Bible. It’s just as difficult, it turns out, to agree on which of the many Biblical interpreters are themselves worth listening to.

For instance, interpreters from the Byzantine era—the period of the Roman Empire between Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, or roughly 330 to 1450 A.D.—are often overlooked by contemporary scholars, because these interpreters do not seem to offer anything new to Biblical debates.

However, passing over the Byzantines is a big mistake, said Tia Kolbaba, Ph.D., associate professor of Byzantine studies at Rutgers University. Her Feb. 4 lecture, “‘All things are clear and open that are in the divine scriptures’: Interpretative Ideals and Polemical Purposes in Byzantine Exegesis,” launched the spring lecture series hosted by Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies.

Kolbaba’s talk centered on the topic of exegesis, a term that refers to how texts such as scripture are interpreted and explained. The term, which comes from a Greek word meaning, “to lead out,” connotes that the task of exegetes—scholars who do exegesis—is to pull meaning out of a text.

“At the most basic level, exegesis gives the factual information that will make the text intelligible, such as context, definition, explanation of obscure vocabulary, and so on. It answers questions such as, ‘Where is Egypt? What’s a Pharaoh? Why was there a Roman governor in Judea in the time of Jesus?’” Kolbaba said.

Exegesis has other functions besides answering factual questions that help readers understand a text. For instance, Biblical exegesis can answer such questions as “What does it mean to love my neighbor as myself?” and show a reader what a scriptural passage means for his or her life and for the Christian community overall.

In some instances, though, exegesis can become controversial, especially when biblical messages no longer apply to the times in which a Christian community lives.

“When at least some members of the community begin to find the community’s sacred traditions and the texts that record them inadequate in some way… something has to be done to reconcile them with changing circumstances and changing understanding,” Kolbaba said, offering the example of interpreting the story of Adam and Eve as allegorical, rather than as a literal account of creation.

“In other words, the old stories are no longer acceptable as literal accounts of the activity of the divine, but they are still sacred. You can’t just ditch them. So you make them symbols of more elevated and abstract concepts.”

Even trickier than making sense of stories found in scripture is the task of answering theological questions that do not appear explicitly in the Bible, for instance, what was the actual relationship of the son, Jesus, to God the father?

In this case, Kolbaba said, the scriptures “do not suffice”—a problem with which Byzantine exegetes were all too familiar.

Participants filled the McGinley Center faculty lounge on Feb. 4 for “‘All things are clear in the divine sciprtures’: Interpretative Ideals and Polemical Purposes in Byzantine Exegesis.” Photo by Dana Maxson

“By the seventh century, the problem has been recognized over and over again, and a solution is falling into place—when scripture is not clear, we must follow the interpretation of the [Church] Fathers,” she said. “A Byzantine commentator was going to eschew originality… His task was to explain how the scriptures in every particular taught the right faith and refuted heresy.”

And even though many scholars brush off Byzantine exegesis because it seems to offer nothing new in the face of such controversies, Kolbaba said the alleged lack of originality is no reason to leave the Byzantines behind.

“They can tell us a lot about middle Byzantine mentalities,” she said. “Even if there is nothing new in these commentaries, they are still [Byzantine], and they are going to reflect [their]concerns and intentions.”

Thus, even though Byzantine exegetes seemingly do not offer novel interpretations of the Bible, their views, as situated in their unique historical context, nonetheless offer an important piece in the puzzle of Christian history.

“No matter how genuine their dedication to unchanging tradition, they were bound to read scriptures in ways peculiar to their own changing world,” she continued. “Not just as a pale shadow of Late Antique Christianity or a rather strange reflection of western Christianity, but in its own right.”

The lecture was co-sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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