Reading Renunciation

Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity

Elizabeth A. Clark
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Reading Renunciation
    Book Description:

    A study of how asceticism was promoted through Biblical interpretation,Reading Renunciationuses contemporary literary theory to unravel the writing strategies of the early Christian authors. Not a general discussion of early Christian teachings on celibacy and marriage, the book is a close examination, in the author's words, of how "the Fathers' axiology of abstinence informed their interpretation of Scriptural texts and incited the production of ascetic meaning."

    Elizabeth Clark begins with a survey of scholarship concerning early Christian asceticism that is designed to orient the nonspecialist. Section Two is organized around potentially troubling issues posed by Old Testament texts that demanded skillful handling by ascetically inclined Christian exegetes. The third section, "Reading Paul," focuses on the hermeneutical problems raised by I Corinthians 7, and the Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral Epistles.

    Elizabeth Clark's remarkable work will be of interest to scholars of late antiquity, religion, literary theory, and history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2318-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Abbreviation List
    (pp. xv-2)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 3-13)

    Reading Renunciationexplores the exegetical problem confronting early Christian ascetic writers who wished to ground their renunciatory program in the Bible. Their “problem” arose because the Bible only sporadically supported their agenda; many verses appeared rather to assume that marriage and reproduction were the norm for godly living. To read the Bible as wholeheartedly endorsing their ascetic program challenged the Fathers’ interpretive ingenuity as well as their comprehensive knowledge of Scripture. How, given the Bible’s sometime recalcitrance, could the lived experience of Christian renunciants find a Scriptural justification? How might they derive a consistently ascetic message from the Bible? What...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Asceticism in Late Ancient Christianity
    (pp. 14-42)

    It is significant that the Society of Biblical Literature Group on Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity, despite prolonged meetings throughout the 1980s, never reached consensus on a definition of asceticism. After scholars in the Group rehearsed the dictionary definition of “ascetic” (“given to strict self-denial, esp. for the sake of spiritual or intellectual discipline”)¹ and noted its derivation from the Greek word for the physical training that an athlete might undertake,² questions of function, motivation, and purpose intruded to disturb the short-lived agreement. Group members disagreed as to whether they should stress deprivation, pain, and the “shrinking of the self”...

  7. Reading for Asceticism
    • CHAPTER THREE Reading in the Early Christian World
      (pp. 45-69)

      A recent spate of scholarly works on the history of reading and writing has focused on the distinction between oral and literate cultures, and on the prevalence (or absence) of literacy at various historical periods. To place early Christians in this discussion has proved a vexing question. An important contribution to this exchange is classicist William V. Harris’Ancient Literacy, published in 1989. Arguing for a minimalist view of ancient literacy, Harris claims that not more than 10 percent of the adult population of the Roman Empire at the time of Christianity’s origin was literate and that literacy declined from...

    • CHAPTER FOUR The Profits and Perils of Figurative Exegesis
      (pp. 70-103)

      The traditional categories through which early Christian exegesis is often described—“literal,” “typological,” “allegorical”—are less helpful for analyzing “ascetic exegesis” than some scholars might imagine. Contrary to my own expectation, I have discovered that typology and allegory, however much they may dominate other types of patristic interpretation, were underutilized interpretive tools in the church fathers’ production of ascetic meaning from Biblical texts. Other interpretive strategies, to be detailed in chapter 5, particularly intertextual exegesis, proved on the whole far more useful. In some cases figurative interpretation of any sort seemed unnecessary to ascetically inclined exegetes because the unadorned—but...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Exegetical and Rhetorical Strategies for Ascetic Reading
      (pp. 104-152)

      In this chapter, I survey the various ways in which the church fathers produce ascetic meaning from Scriptural texts, especially those of the Old Testament. As will become evident, the degree of exegetical work needed to render these texts as messages of sexual renunciation varied considerably: in some cases, passages stood ready-to-hand for appropriation, while in others, textual displacement, or even textual violence, was necessary to extract an ascetic meaning. I here identify eleven modes of reading, some closely related, that were frequently used by ascetically inclined church fathers. Although these modes of reading often have recourse to figurative interpretations,...

    • CHAPTER SIX Three Models of Reading Renunciation
      (pp. 153-174)

      The exegetical modes outlined above, I will argue, should not be understood as purely formal constructs: they were used by early Christian writers to counsel, exhort, and warn “real-life” audiences concerning issues of marriage, sexuality, and ascetic renunciation. Hence the Fathers’ ways of interpreting Biblical texts correlate closely with their (somewhat) differing marital and ascetic axiologies. In this chapter I hope to show how the evaluations of marriage and asceticism by three patristic authors—John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Origen—relate to their respective modes of reading. Although other authors of the early Christian era might have served to illustrate my...

  8. Rejection and Recuperation:: The Old Dispensation and the New
    • CHAPTER SEVEN From Reproduction to Defamilialization
      (pp. 177-203)

      This chapter explores how the church fathers might appropriate for their own purposes an apparently “underasceticized” Hebrew (and earlier Christian) past. How could “Israel of the flesh,” with its concern for abundant reproduction, inspire those who yearned for “Jerusalem above,” where marriage and family were counted as naught? If “sacred literature” could not be rejected, only interpreted, hermeneutical strategies had to be devised to accommodate Biblical texts to an ascetic agenda: through delicate mining, recalcitrant passages would yield up treasures for the ascetic program. Although words had changed their “social atmosphere”¹ from the time of the Hebrew patriarchs to that...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT From Ritual to Askēsis
      (pp. 204-232)

      In some quarters, the study of ritual has shifted emphasis in recent decades. Scholars have gradually abandoned the functionalist view that ritual serves to create social unity,¹ stressing instead its marking of social difference. In part, this shift signals a dissatisfaction with functionalism’s inherently conservative emphasis on “societal balance,” on the preservation of thestatus quo.² Informed by a more sharply critical analysis, theoreticians now note the gaps, the distinctions, the discrepancies of a society that ritual, far from healing, instead underscores and maintains. Differentiation is here seen as an activity that can be examined through a focus on ritual.³...

    • CHAPTER NINE The Exegesis of Divorce
      (pp. 233-256)

      The Fathers’ interpretations of the Biblical divorce texts reveal with particular clarity the problems that beset ascetically minded Christian authors confronted with a Scriptural corpus that, on the surface, provided dubious support for their programs of renunciation. Yet Scriptural passages could, with imaginative assistance, be harnessed to carry a more strict ascetic agenda. The “supplementariness” of Biblical texts appears to have encouraged manifold exegeses of divorce: in this case, bodies, not interpretations, were restrained.

      I wish to explore several questions in this chapter. First, I ask how the Fathers “managed” the diversity of texts pertaining to divorce: the texts of...

  9. Reading Paul
    • CHAPTER TEN I Corinthians 7 in Early Christian Exegesis
      (pp. 259-329)

      How did patristic authors “read” I Corinthians 7 in a later Christian setting that pressured the Bible to ratify an escalating ascetic theory and practice? This famous chapter, containing Paul’s most detailed teaching on marriage and sexual abstinence, proved sufficiently elastic to enable exegetes to express their varied ascetic preferences while expounding a text that they considered immutable and eternally valid. To be sure, almost all patristic writers rate sexual abstinence (if properly motivated) as “higher” on the scale of Christian values than marriage; nonetheless, they diverge considerably from each other in the weight they lend to this preference.


    • CHAPTER ELEVEN From Paul to the Pastorals
      (pp. 330-370)

      My survey of the patristic exegesis of I Corinthians 7 suggests that despite the widespread praise for ascetic renunciation, the Fathers’ interpretations varied in accord with their own purposes and the contexts within which they reflected on particular verses. Nonetheless, for ascetically inclined exegetes, all New Testament passages pertaining to marriage and sexuality must be conformed to the lofty standard of I Corinthians 7. In some cases, this task proved easy; in others, more difficult.

      Paul’s teaching on sexual issues elsewhere than in I Corinthians 7 posed few difficulties for the Fathers; such verses were to be read in accord...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 371-374)

    In his essay, “Reading as Poaching,” the French theorist and historian Michel de Certeau imaginatively posits a contrast between writers and readers:

    Far from being writers—founders of their own place, heirs of the peasants of earlier ages now working on the soil of language, diggers of wells and builders of houses—readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves.¹

    In this book, I hope to have shown how the church fathers werebothreaders who “poached”...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 375-400)
  12. Select Index of Biblical Passages
    (pp. 401-408)
  13. Select General Index
    (pp. 409-420)