Interpreting the Bible in the Early Church: First Four Centuries

Course Code: RGB3902HS


Scott Lewis, S.J.


Winter 2017
Wednesday 9:00-11:00



Course Description

This course will examine the methods of biblical interpretation used in the Church from NT times through the 4th century. Areas covered will include the Jewish forms of exegesis found in the NT, the allegorical method, visual exegesis, the schools of Antioch and Alexandria, the impact of the 4th -century Christological debates, as well as interpreters such as Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and St. Augustine. The course will consist of lectures, the reading of some introductory secondary works, and selected readings from Patristic commentaries.

Course Objectives

  •  To be familiar with the various ways that the Scriptures were interpreted in the Jewish tradition in the three centuries BCE
  • To be familiar with the continuation of those traditions in the composition of the New Testament
  • To be familiar with visual modes of exegesis
  • To understand the various challenges to early Christianity and the ways in which that affected the interpretation of Scripture
  • To understand the theological and Christological currents in the first four centuries of Christianity and how competing schools of interpretation used Scripture in their pursuit of truth
  • To be familiar with the two main schools of interpretation – Alexandria and Antioch – as well as some of the influential interpreters in these schools
  • To understand how the methods used in the early church may contribute to modern understandings of Scripture as well as the shortcomings of these methods

Course Schedule

A detailed course schedule is available for download.

Week 1

Jewish exegesis and interpretation from 300 BCE to 70 CE – Midrash, Pesher, Sifra

Week 2

Paul’s exegesis and interpretation – typology, allegory, prophecy, and polemic

Week 3

The biblical interpretation of the Four Evangelists – prophecy, Messianic fulfillment, Christology

Week 4

Visual exegesis: Dura Europos and the Roman catacombs

Week 5

The challenge of the 2nd century – Gnosticism and Marcion. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian

Week 6

Background of Christological controversies: Arianism and the various attempts to define the relationship of Christ’s humanity and divinity.

Week 7

Alexandria – the story of a magnificent city and even more magnificent Library; Alexandrian exegesis of Greco-Roman texts; Clement of Alexandria

Week 8

Alexandria –Origen, the first rigorous and systematic Christian exegete – allegory and the levels of interpretation

Week 9

Antioch – the city and its interpretive approach – Diodorus of Tarsus

Week 10

Theodore of Mopsuestia

Week 11


Week 12

Tyconius the Donatist; Ambrose; Jerome