Genesis 12-50. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament 1

By Mark Sheridan, ed.
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2002). xxxix + 392 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
15.2 (Fall 2004) : 269-271

The 28-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) targets the patristic period of church history (approximately A.D. 95-749). For a more detailed description of this series and the format of its volumes, see my prior review of the first OT volume (TMSJ 13/1 [Spring 2002]:134-36). The “Introduction to Genesis 12–50” (xvii-xxxix) opens this volume with an informative essay on the history and methodology of patristic exegesis. Sheridan identifies and illustrates the influence of the apostle Paul’s interpretation of Genesis on Origen as a key factor in the development of patristic exegesis (xvii-xix). His discussion encompasses Philo of Alexandria, Origen, Ephrem the Syrian, Didymus, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Caesarius of Arles, Venerable Bede, and the anonymous compiler of the catena on Genesis.

Rules of patristic interpretation, according to Sheridan’s analysis, were heavily influenced by Origen, who thought of himself as continuing Paul’s work on the OT (xxvi). The Alexandrian school with its allegorical methodology succeeded in shaping early church interpretation more than the Antiochean school’s literal interpretive method (xxvi). Origen employed a number of Pauline passages (1 Cor 10:1-11; 2 Cor 3:6-18; Gal 4:21-24; Heb 8:5; 10:1) as examples of Pauline exegesis (xxvii). Sheridan develops the impact of these texts on patristic exegesis (xxviixxxiv). It is an introduction worth reading before utilizing either one of the two volumes on Genesis.

Due to covering 39 of the 50 chapters of Genesis, the editor’s choices are restricted by space considerations. Key sections of Genesis (e.g., chaps. 12, 14, 15, 18, 19, 22, and 49), do not appear to be subject to noticeable scrimping. However, the total lack of any example of patristic discussion of the sin of homosexuality in Genesis 19 causes this reviewer to wonder if the editor avoided it in an effort to appear politically correct in the contemporary American environment.

Regardless of possible omissions for doubtful reasons, the reader will be rewarded with many gems of patristic interpretation that will enhance his/her own study of Genesis. Ancientness is no guarantee of orthodoxy, but modern fascination with novelty in interpretation desperately needs the tempering influence of the early church fathers. On the other side of the coin, it is inevitable that new interpretive errors will be discovered to be nothing more than old heresy dressed in an updated vocabulary.

A few excerpts from this volume will whet the appetite for more. Novatian’s (fl. A.D. 235-258) argumentation for a distinction between the Persons of the Godhead in understanding OT theophanies is classic: “If God cannot be seen, how did God appear? If he appeared, how is it that he can not be seen? . . . But certainly Scripture does not lie; therefore God was really seen. Accordingly this can only mean that it was not the Father, who never has been seen, that was seen, but the Son who willed to descend and to be seen, for the simple reason that he has descended” (5-6, re: Gen 12:7).

Ambrose (fl. 374-397), writing on Sarah’s beauty (Gen 12:11-15), is as contemporary as this past Sunday’s sermon: “Whoever desires the happiness of marriage should look not for a wealthy woman, who will not be held in check by the obligations of marriage. One looks not for one ornamented with jewels but with good manners. The wife who is conscious of being of a higher social level generally humiliates her husband” (8). Origen (fl. ca. 200-254) is no less practical when he summarizes Gen 18:2-7 by saying that Abraham “himself runs, his wife hastens, the servant makes haste. No one is slow in the house of a wise man” (65).

Of course, this volume also contains many examples of patristic eisegesis and allegorical excess. Consider how Origen supports his view that Lot should be taken as a figure of the Law (Gen 19:37): “Let not the fact that the word law is declined in the feminine gender in Latin appear incongruous, since it preserves the masculine gender in Greek” (82; is in italics is an editorial error). Caesarius of Arles (ca. 470-543) took the reference to Abraham’s arrival at Mt. Moriah on the third day (Gen 22:4) as a representation of “the mystery of the Trinity” (103). Concerning the food Esau prepared for Isaac (Gen 27 :31), Hippolytus (fl. 222-245) indicates that it signifies “the cult of the people under the law. Since they are inflated with pride and are certain of being justified by circumcision, they offer the pagan converts as nourishment, whereas they themselves need nourishment because they cannot touch the heavenly bread” (177). Ephrem the Syrian (fl. 363-373), Ambrose, and Rufinus (ca. 345-411) all concluded that “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf” (49:27) refers to Paul (346).

Early church fathers wrestled with some of the same apparent contradictions in Scripture that present day neo-theists exploit. For example, Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 315-367) concludes that the knowledge about which God speaks in Gen 22:12 “is adapted to the time rather than to the result of a change, since in connection with that which God knew it is a question of the opportune moment to divulge what is known rather than to acquire it” (108).

Anyone fascinated with hermeneutics, homiletics, church history, historical theology, and even OT and NT studies, will find the two ACCS volumes on Genesis a valuable resource. May these volumes be but the stepping stone to expanded studies of the patristic writings.