From sayings to texts: the literary contextualisation of Jesus’s words in the writings of Tertullian and Origen
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date25/10/2020
Burke, Simeon Richard
This thesis addresses the subject of the early Christian re-use and interpretation of the words of Jesus. Unlike previous studies, which focus predominantly on the text of, and sources for, citations of Jesus’s sayings in the first two centuries, I examine the neglected hermeneutical principles and methods that early Christian authors employ when reading Jesus’s words. I begin by demonstrating that the dominant paradigm for reading Jesus’s words in the first two centuries of the common era was the noncontextualized saying. This trend matches the broader use of the words of wise figures among contemporaneous Greco-Roman authors. To be sure, one finds evidence of literary contextualisation—the process of drawing on the literary context for interpretive purposes—in Roman-era commentaries on Homer and the Hebrew Bible. Early Christian authors like Irenaeus, Justin and Clement, however, rarely apply such practices to the words of Jesus and rarely reflect on the methods and principles they employ when reading his sayings. I argue that two significant early Christian authors—Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 155– 220 CE) and Origen of Alexandria (ca. 180–253 CE)—are the first to develop hermeneutical principles for the interpretation of Jesus’s words. They do so by elevating the immediate literary context of Jesus’s words to the level of a normative principle. By “literary” context, I refer to the immediate narrative in which Jesus’s sayings appear. I substantiate this case by focussing, in particular, on their re-use of climactic sayings of Jesus that reside within larger pronouncement stories in the Synoptic Gospels. A key example is Jesus’s command to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” which memorably concludes the tribute passage (Matt. 22.15-22 and parallels). Literary contextualisation therefore refers to the use of the immediate textual context of Jesus’s words for explicitly interpretive purposes. The crucial assumption that underlies Tertullian and Origen’s practice of literary contextualisation is that the significance of Jesus’s words is tied to, and mediated by, their immediate literary context. Tertullian and Origen’s use of the immediate literary context of Jesus’s words resulted in, and was a core component of, a disciplined effort to exegete his sayings. With Tertullian and Origen, the perception of Jesus’s sayings, and the principles used to interpret them change in significant ways. First, Tertullian and Origen understand Jesus’s climactic sayings not as non-contextualized, individual fragments of teaching but as pronouncements that belong within larger literary units. Furthermore, they conceive of his sayings as scriptural texts that require interpretation in light of a larger scriptural corpus that they connect with the immediate context of Jesus’s words. Second, and in so doing, they transform the standard methods used to interpret Jesus’s sayings. I argue that Tertullian and Origen’s “hermeneutic of literary contextualisation”—the practice of reading Jesus’s sayings in light of their literary contexts—consists of three reading strategies. First, and most significantly, both authors reproduce the entire biographical narrative in which Jesus’s sayings reside as a way of intentionally countering perceived “non-contextualisation” of Jesus’s pronouncements. Second, and relatedly, Tertullian and Origen employ fine, textual details from the anecdote as a way of interpreting and clarifying the significance of Jesus’s words. Third, both authors interpret Jesus’s sayings in light of intertexts drawn from the Christian scriptures more broadly, which they connect with the co-text of Jesus’s words. Taken together, these reading practices reflect a significant shift away from reading Jesus’s words as sayings, or literary fragments, to interpreting them as texts embedded within a literary context. To account for this development, I argue that the hermeneutic of literary contextualisation employed by Tertullian and Origen fundamentally emerges from a complex set of historical, ideological and literary factors. Most crucial of all, I suggest, are the shifting principles involved in early Christian debate. Whereas early Christian authors were naturally more focussed on debating the authority of Jesus’s sayings, and the textual sources in which they resided, such issues no longer remain as pertinent for Tertullian and Origen. Instead, they take up issues centred on the interpretation of Jesus’s words. I therefore argue that Tertullian and Origen are among the first early Christian authors to explicitly consider the hermeneutical implications of reading Jesus’s words in light of their literary contexts.