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Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity

Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity

Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity
    Book Description:

    This book makes an illuminating contribution to one of Christianity's central problems: the understanding and interpretation of scripture, and more specifically, the relationship between the Old Testament and the New. John David Dawson analyzes the practice and theory of "figural" reading in the Christian tradition of Biblical interpretation by looking at writings of Jewish and Christian thinkers, both ancient and modern, who have reflected on that form of traditional Christian Biblical interpretation. Dawson argues Christian interpretation of Hebrew scripture originally was, and should be, aimed at not reducing the Jewish meaning or replacing it but rather at building on it or carrying on from it. Dawson closely examines the work of three prominent twentieth-century thinkers who have offered influential variants of figural reading: Biblical scholar Daniel Boyarin, philologist and literary historian Erich Auerbach, and Christian theologianHans Frei. Contrasting the interpretive programs of these modern thinkers to that of Origen of Alexandria, Dawson proposes that Origen exemplifies a kind of Christian reading that can respect Christianity's link to Judaism while also respecting the independent religious identity of Jews. Through a fresh study of Origen's allegorical interpretation, this book challenges the common charge that Christian non-literal reading of scripture necessarily undermines the literal meaning of the text. This highly interdisciplinary work will advance debates about different methods of interpretation and about different types of textual meaning that are relevant for many disciplines, including ancient Christianity, Jewish and Christian thought, literary theory, religious studies, and classical studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92598-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    In December 1933, less than a month before Hitler formally assumed the chancellorship of Germany, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, delivered a series of Advent sermons in St. Michael’s Cathedral. Faulhaber opened his first sermon, “The Religious Values of the Old Testament and Their Fulfillment in Christianity,” by observing that “already in the year 1899, on the occasion of an anti-Semitic demonstration at Hamburg,” “a demand was raised for the total separation of Judaism from Christianity, and for the complete elimination from Christianity of all Jewish elements.”¹ Even more alarming to Faulhaber, though, was that now, in 1933,...


    • Chapter 1 Body against Spirit: Daniel Boyarin
      (pp. 19-46)

      According to the apostle Paul, the Christian who circumcises his or her “heart” is an “inward Jew.” Circumcised in the heart rather than the flesh, Christians regard themselves as adopted members of the community of Israel. In his recent provocative study of Paul, Daniel Boyarin argues that Paul’s inclusion of Christians in the community of Israel is fundamentally contradictory, for a Judaism devoid of its most central self-identifying physical practice is simply not Judaism, no matter how often it might call itself the “new” or “true” Israel.¹ Paul’s idiosyncratic representation of Israel is a direct consequence of his allegorical reading,...

    • Chapter 2 Allegory and Embodiment: Boyarin and Origen
      (pp. 47-64)

      InA Radical Jew,Boyarin more than once explicitly associates Paul with Origen of Alexandria, whom he identifies as one of Paul’s most influential heirs.¹ In an earlier work,Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash,Boyarin found in Origen’sCommentary on the Song of Songsa telling example of the way post-Pauline Christian allegorical reading perpetuated the disembodying consequences of Pauline allegory. After first outlining Boyarin’s comments on a key passage from Origen’s commentary, I shall offer an alternative analysis of the passage in the context of Origen’s allegorical reading of the Song that highlights its valorization of embodiment through...

    • Chapter 3 Spiritual Bodies: Origen
      (pp. 65-80)

      In Origen’s view, salvation requires a radical transformation of body, but it cannot entail its replacement, even as an allegorical reading requires deepening and extending, but not replacing, the text’s literal sense. Transforming the body through reading the literal sense can be compared to transforming the body through ingesting food. To read allegorically is to consume and digest “the body of the text.” Hence Origen can represent the allegorical interpretation of Scripture as a mode of eucharistic performance, and in doing so he takes pains to show that his celebration of allegorical transformation of identity is a spiritualization, not a...


    • Chapter 4 The Figure in the Fulfillment: Erich Auerbach
      (pp. 83-113)

      Questions about the body lead immediately to questions about history, and Origenist allegory has been routinely castigated for denigrating history as much as the body. The Romance philologist and literary historian Erich Auerbach argues that ancient Christian figural readers, in contrast to allegorical readers such as Origen, preserved the historicity of biblical figures. Auerbach describes how figural interpreters drew on a relational conception of meaning that enabled them to withstand the threats of an allegorical meaning that might free itself from, and ultimately turn against, the historical persons and events depicted by the text. Auerbach’s preservation of the historical reality...

    • Chapter 5 The Preservation of Historical Reality: Auerbach and Origen
      (pp. 114-126)

      Erich Auerbach couples his praise of early Christian figural reading with a corresponding attack on ancient allegorical reading, especially Origen’s. If figural reading, in the work of a writer such as Tertullian, preserved the historical reality of ancient biblical types even in their corresponding fulfillments, Origenist allegorical reading dissolved history in favor of spiritual or abstract meaning. A careful comparison of Auerbach and Origen will show that both thinkers want to “preserve” historical reality, but whereas for Auerbach, preserving history means allowing the concrete, bodily reality of past persons and events to persist into the present person or event that...

    • Chapter 6 The Present Occurrence of Past Events: Origen
      (pp. 127-138)

      Origen’s distinctive way of preserving history is evident in his anti-gnostic exegesis of the Gospel of John. Against the gnostic Pauline interpreter Heracleon, who utterly disdains the historical realities represented in the Old Testament, Origen insists that the actions that the Gospel describes taking place before the arrival of Jesus are extended into the post-resurrection life of Christians. Origen is concerned that these past actions not simply be regarded as over and done with, but that they remain relevant—indeed, necessary—for the spiritual advancement of his contemporaries by continuing to occur in the present and future. In thus accentuating...


    • Chapter 7 The Literal Sense and Personal Identity: Hans Frei
      (pp. 141-185)

      Resisting what he identifies as a distinctively modern tendency to separate biblical narrative from its “meaning” or “subject matter,” the Christian theologian Hans W. Frei insists that the proper Christian reading of biblical narrative does not separate the meaning of the text from its “narrative shape.” As a historian of Christian biblical hermeneutics, Frei offers an account of how the postmodern binary opposition between literal and nonliteral meaning that informs approaches such as Daniel Boyarin’s became possible, and he appeals to Erich Auerbach’s conception of figural reading to explain how contemporary Christian biblical interpreters might resist such modern and postmodern...

    • Chapter 8 Moses Veiled and Unveiled: Hans Frei and Origen
      (pp. 186-193)

      Like Auerbach, Frei also sees in Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic a fundamental threat to the form of figural interpretation he wants to advance. In his estimation, Origen’s allegorical interpretation fails to properly serve the Bible’s “literal sense.” When properly read, that sense renders the identity of Christ to readers. But Frei believes that Origenist allegory subverts the literal sense, allowing the allegorical reader’s own identity to supplant the independent identity of Jesus. In this chapter, I show that Origen also has a stake in the way biblical narrative articulates the identity of Christ. But Origen is especially concerned to work out...

    • Chapter 9 Identity and Transformation: Origen
      (pp. 194-206)

      Although Origen presents discipleship as enabled by an ever-increasing interrelation of Christ and the faithful reader, he is less concerned than Frei is to ward off threats to Christ’s unique identity, and more concerned than Frei is to describe the efficacious reality of Christ’s transformation of the individual believer. If Frei’s conception of personal identity is anchored in narrative depictions that lend stability, definition and, above all, continuity to character, Origen’s conception stresses the ongoing and (as yet) unfinished fashioning of personhood. For Origen, the Christian is challenged to become who he or she is by continuing to change. Radical...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 207-218)

    Boyarin’s presentation of Paul’s allegorical reading starkly poses the following question to Christian interpreters of Hebrew Scripture as the Old Testament: How will it be possible to read the text in a way that does justice to the novelty of Christianity, preserves Christianity’s intrinsic relation to Judaism, and yet respects Judaism’s own ongoing identity as a separate religion in its own right? The problem posed for Christian biblical interpreters is one found in other religions in which new movements arise and subsequently define themselves both in opposition to, and continuity with, their “parent” traditions. In some cases, the new religion...

  9. Abbreviations
    (pp. 219-220)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 221-274)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 275-282)
  12. General Index
    (pp. 283-296)
  13. Index Locorum
    (pp. 297-302)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-303)