Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reading Titus with John Chrysostom (Excursus): An Enlightened Antique

There is a certain perception about exegesis in antiquity which believes that it is lost in a quagmire of dogmatism and allegory. While I never quite adhered to that mentality, it was always hard to dismiss it outright, since much of my readings in antique exegesis had been from Philo, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Didymus the Blind. One can only read that the ark is the church so many times before the phrase "patristic exegesis" begins to ring with the quaint tone of irrelevance.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to realize the degree of serious scholarship that appears to have gone into John's exegesis of Titus. (Certainly this perceived exegetical superiority is attached in part to the modern preference for the Antiochine school, of which John was a part.) It reminded me that early Christians were capable of commenting intelligently on matters which we continue to debate today, without allowing those facts to become the content of biblical studies (a challenge which we have not, sadly, been able to adequately overcome in my opinion).

John begins his first homily on Titus a section of introductory material, not unlike the kind of introductions which are appended to most modern commentaries. He identifies the recipient of the letter as "Titus...an approved one of the companions of Paul" and then justifies this description based on the content of the epistle. He notes that many believe that Titus was a young man when this was written, based largely on the reference to Titus as "my son." John, without rejecting the conclusion, notes that this is not sufficient to constitute proof of Titus' age. He mentions the possible reference to Titus at Corinth in Acts 18, but notes that even if there is a Titus here it is not necessarily the same Titus to which the letter is addressed.

He then proceeds to discuss the status of Paul for the writing of the letter. He notes that Paul must certainly have been freed from his imprisonment, and gives two reasons for this. First, he notes that, unlike in many other letters, Paul does not mention any trials or sufferings in Titus. Second, he references 3:12 in which Paul speaks of wintering in Nicopolis as proof that Paul was at large and no longer in prison. Based on the tradition which links Timothy to a second roman imprisonment, John concludes that Titus was written before Timothy.

Finally, he considers the purpose of the letter, which he sees as two fold. First, it is to encourage the Christians in Crete to persevere in virtue "for to learn to what state they had been transferred, and that by grace, and what had been vouchsafed them, was no little encouragement." Second, he targeted Jews who were causing trouble in the church in Crete. John makes a special point not to let this appear to be anti-semitism. He draws a parallel to Galatians 3:1, pointing out that the harsh censure of the Jews, like that of the Galatians, was a labor of love.

It is telling to me how many of these observations continue to be valid (though perhaps not the most popular) even today. Having just heard lectures on the Pastoral epistles, there were a surprising number of parallels between John's and conservatives' positions on the authorship, date, audience, and purpose of Titus. For all our methodological advances (or perhaps metamorphoses is a better, less qualitatively judgmental term), John seems to have been able to discern much of what we now know even in the fourth century. Certainly, whatever we feel about the legitimacy of his interpretation, we cannot pretend that it was arrived at in ignorance. Even knowing "historical-critical" information about the text, John preached what he did.

The question for me then becomes, is it really the wealth of knowledge garnered from historical which precludes ancient interpretation which seem so foreign to us or is it merely a (perhaps artificial) change in hermeneutical presuppositions?

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