The First Bible Teachers: Did You Know?

by the Editors

Interesting and unusual facts about the church’s first Bible interpreters.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 80 in 2003 ]

Great grandfather of medieval culture?

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160–215) began the monumental project that would culminate in the Middle Ages—to place all of Western culture on a biblical foundation. Robert Wilken calculates there are between seven and eight biblical citations on every page of Clement’s writings, which contain, in all, some 1,500 references to the Old Testament and 3,000 to the New Testament. His writings are “suffused with [the Bible’s] language, its forms of expressions, its images and metaphors, its stories. Its heroes become his heroes, and its history his history.” This is all the more remarkable, adds Wilken, given that for Clement the Bible was “an alien book, written in a plain and unadorned style, a product of Jewish culture, quite unlike the artful and polished works of Greek literature.”

Origenal sins

Though Origen is hands down the most influential figure in the early history of Biblical interpretation (p. 18), he was condemned at Constantinople in 553 by an ecumenical council and was regularly viewed as a heretic throughout much of Christian History. Among the teachings that contributed to this judgment were his Christological formulations that led Arius to deny the eternal existence of the Son, his belief in the preexistence of human souls, and his affirmation of the genuine possibility of a universal salvation of all creatures. In addition, he was viewed as the source of numerous heresies that, while not directly connected to his thought, were affirmed by those who claimed to be his followers.

How could 72 translators be wrong?

Until the writings of the apostles were gathered into a canonical collection in about the third century A.D., the only Bible the early church knew was the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made by Hellenistic Jews. Ptolemy Philadelphus (285–246 B.C.) is supposed to have commissioned the great undertaking to introduce a copy of Hebrew Law into his renowned library at Alexandria. According to Jewish tradition, 72 scholars gathered in 72 individual cells, each assigned to translate a full copy of the Bible. Emerging to compare their renderings, they discovered that each version was nearly identical. Until Jerome created his Vulgate translation between 383 and 405, the Septuagint continued as the church’s authoritative Old Testament. The Vulgate united the entire Bible under a common linguistic banner for the first time. The Septuagint remains the canonical Hebrew Bible text for the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Not just role playing

We owe the word “Trinity” to the African theologian and apologist Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian (ca. 160 – ca. 225). Tertullian used the word for the concept that appears everywhere in the Bible but is never explicitly named. He coined it in an argument with a teacher who promoted modalism—the view that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons but mere appearances (modes) or roles played by a single God.

Classically trained

Early Christianity’s intellectual leaders were all classical scholars. Their schooling was in Homer, Virgil, Isocrates, Cicero, Euripides, Herodotus, Plutarch, Thucydides, and other Greek and Latin masters of philosophy, rhetoric, drama, and history. They valued effective use of words, and when they interpreted the Bible, they did so using the tools of their classical education (p. 40).

No “dark ages” here

Early Christians took a very different attitude towards the body of the classical learning that preceded their rise to cultural dominance than did early Muslims, who spoke of the centuries leading up to Mohammed as al-Jahiliyyaha, “the time of ignorance.”

Dreamy rebuke

Jerome (ca. 342 – 420) was a master of classical learning—his age’s best Latin writer, some have said. His passion for scholarship took him to the empire’s intellectual centers, where he devoured the works of the pagan thinkers. Though it troubled him, he preferred the cultured style of Cicero and other rhetoricians to the plain, sometimes clumsy style of the Bible. But in Antioch, he had a feverish dream in which Christ scourged him and accused him, “You are a Ciceronian, and not a Christian.” Jerome vowed not to study pagan books again, though whether he kept the vow is unclear. He did spend the years 374–377 fasting and studying in the desert east of Antioch.

Eight for the ages

In 1295 Pope Boniface VIII named the first four Latin Doctors of the Church (that is, its formative thinkers): Ambrose (Pastoral Doctor), Jerome (Doctor of Biblical Science), Augustine (Doctor of Grace), and Gregory the Great (Doctor of Hymnology). In 1568 Pius V named four Doctors of the Church in the East, rounding out the Eight Ecumenical Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church: Basil the Great (Doctor of Monasticism), Gregory Nazianzen (Doctor of Theologies), John Chrysostom (Doctor of Preachers), and Athanasius (Doctor of Orthodoxy).

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