Friday, 8 February 2013

The weird pedigree of biblical inspiration: Marcion, Origen, and the problem of the Old Testament

As far as I can tell it is Marcion who comes up with the first full-blown "Christian" theory of biblical inspiration. It is fundamental to Marcion's system that the Hebrew scriptures are divinely inspired. They are a perfect, utterly reliable revelation, word for word and letter for letter. But there's a sinister twist in this doctrine of inspiration. For these Hebrew scriptures are inspired not by a good God but by the Demiurge, the wicked god of the Jews. In Israel's scriptural writings this god has given us a completely reliable revelation of his (monstrous) deeds and character. Corresponding to Marcion's theory of inspiration is a commitment to literal interpretation. Read literally, the Hebrew scriptures plainly show the Jewish god to be a god of violence, wrath, jealousy, injustice, ineptitude, and petty legalism. 

So the function of divine inspiration in Marcion's system is clear: it's a way of forcing the problems of the Hebrew Bible out into the open. If every word is inspired then there's no way to escape the problematic texts. And when it comes to interpretation, there's no allegorical wiggle-room. In Marcion, biblical inspiration – with its correlate, literal interpretation – is an anchor for the all-important doctrine of the badness of the Jewish God (and, by implication, the badness of the Jewish people).

Writing a century later, Origen attacks the Marcionite system at its roots. He speaks of scripture as "One Testament" of Hebrew and Christian writings. He develops a science of textual criticism and produces the first Christian commentaries on entire books of Hebrew and Christian scripture, incorporating immense philological, archeological, and historical learning. Crucially, his exegesis aims to demonstrate that beneath the letter of scripture is a pervasive spiritual sense. Not just select passages but the whole of scripture invites christological interpretation. 

And this is where the theory of biblical inspiration comes into play. In authoring scripture, Origen argues, God has deliberately planted all sorts of interpretive obstacles: problems, difficulties, mistakes, morally objectionable stories, and so forth. These manifold obstacles lead us to press beneath the surface of the text and to search more deeply for its spiritual meaning. Such spiritual exegesis isn't just a scholarly technique. It requires ascetic purification, the spiritual transformation of the reader. So the problems in scripture – the same problems which Marcion takes as proof of divine wickedness – are planted there by God to lead us into the depths of spiritual life, just as a wise teacher might plant mistakes in a class discussion in order to lead the class, gently and unobtrusively, towards the truth. 

Origen's exegesis lays the foundations for all later Christian interpretation of scripture. His conclusions are as far removed from Marcion's as the east is from the west. But what's interesting is how much he takes over from Marcion. Like Marcion, Origen sees the scriptural text as divinely inspired. And like Marcion, he sees biblical inspiration not as a way of avoiding difficulties (à la some modern evangelicals!), but as a way of radicalising the problematic aspects of scripture.

But it is part of Origen's genius to assimilate the Marcionite theory of inspiration, to absorb it into his own system so completely and so systematically that the Marcionite reading of scripture seems not only exegetically superficial (in as much as Marcion sticks to the surface of the text) but also lacking in ascetic seriousness. When you recall that the whole appeal of the Marcionites was their commitment to asceticism, Origen's deployment of the theory of inspiration must be judged a tactical tour de force in the campaign against heresy.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you have a reference to Origen's discussion so that I can follow up on this insight?

Sean

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