Exaggerated Exegesis (Part Two on Wacky Patristic Interpretations)

In my last post, I chatted a little about some of the wackier interpretations of Scripture that I’ve come across from the patristic era. I ended on a pretty positive note regarding it’s legitimacy: “Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open.” Despite me wrapping things up with a happy ending, it was still an open question in my head. Are these interpretations legitimate? Or are they wrong?

I remember one friend telling me, “Well, they don’t violate any of the creeds. Why can’t the Holy Spirit speak in creative, unexpected ways in the Scriptures? I think churches today have a lot to learn about exegesis from the Church Fathers!” Now, by no means do I want to “roast” his answer. In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s far from what I suggested last week. Nonetheless, it struck me as troublesome when I heard someone else say it. There are a lot of things that the creeds don’t address at all. Should wacky Bible readings get a pass just because they don’t violate a creed? And it sounds really neat to say that we have a lot to learn from the creative interpretations of the Church Fathers, and on some level it’s certainly true, but if something they did looks a little weird, why not question it? Nobody is above critique! We aren’t obligated to repeat patristic mistakes out of a sense of duty to tradition. That’s coming from someone who identifies as a “tradition guy.” The name of the blog is “Classic Christianity,” for crying out loud! But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that we’re giving the Church Fathers a pass on some stuff that we would absolutely reject if someone tried to do today.

Imagine me going into a church and saying this during a sermon on Sunday morning:

“Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them are alone.” (Song 4:2)

Does the hearer learn anything more than when he listens to the same thought expressed in the plainest language, without the help of this figure? And yet, I don’t know why, I feel greater pleasure in contemplating holy men, when I view them as the teeth of the Church, tearing men away from their errors, and bringing them into the Church’s body, with all their harshness softened down, just as if they had been torn off and masticated by the teeth. It is with the greatest pleasure, too, that I recognize them under the figure of sheep that have been shorn, laying down the burdens of the world like fleeces, and coming up from the washing, i.e., from baptism, and all bearing twins, i.e., the twin commandments of love of God and neighbor, and none among them barren in that holy fruit.

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. J.F. Shaw

I legitimately don’t think I could get away with that. People in the pews would squint their eyes and say, “What? That’s not what it says at all. What’s wrong with Pastor Vincent this week? He’s going off the rails!” If I try to do that or anything like it without name dropping the quote’s originator, it looks like total nonsense. Meanwhile, if I name drop the author, “As the great Saint Augustine said…” I might get a pass based on his name value alone. If an interpretation is totally reliant on it’s famous originator to sound reasonable, is it really reasonable at all?

On some level, I guess my protestant expectation of plain sense readings is shining through. I have the voice of Luther in my ear, “Each passage has one clear, definite, and true sense of its own. All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions.” Not that I hate allegory as much as he claims he did, but I do expect an attempt to interpret Scripture to seem… well… reasonable. If Scripture says that a woman had nice teeth, it seems distinctly unreasonable to say that it clearly and definitely means that the church ought to have sinless saints. But if I’m rejecting that, then I have to say what I think IS a reasonable reading of that passage. What does it mean that this man’s beloved had nice teeth? What religious truth is being conveyed by God in these words? How does that edify my soul? Apparently, Martin Luther, famed allegory hater, said that the whole of Song of Songs was actually an allegory about politics (an interpretation that doesn’t seem to have caught on). I can’t find what he said about the teeth specifically without paying a lot of money for a book that I’ll only use once for this express purpose, but I get the sense that white teeth probably had an equally weird meaning in his mind. Go figure.

NO ALLEGORY! Well… maybe just a bit….

There’s some passages that are incredibly hard to interpret. Since I’ve been doing a sermon series at church about Song of Songs, those are the ones that have been nagging at me lately, but there’s lots of similar passages throughout the Bible. Sometimes, literal readings of these passages seem so shallow that we have to turn to allegory. The Church Fathers gave us a wealth of allegorical readings to consider, but I think it’s fair to be a little critical of them. The interpretive moves that they made are often wild by our modern standards. Last time, I was enamored by their creativity. After some thinking, I still respect their writings. I’m just a little more cautious about borrowing from them without a nice, critical look at the primary text itself.

Imaginative Interpretation with the Church Patriarchs

I’m consistently shocked by the way ancient interpreters read Scripture.  They draw some pretty wacky conclusions sometimes.  Not bad conclusions, mind you.  They’re great Christian advice most of the time!  But the way they reach those conclusions feels totally removed from our modern ways of Bible reading.  For example, Venerable Bede (a big name scholar born in 673 who actually helped popularize the term “AD” for measuring years) wrote this about that awkward passage in Song of Songs, “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead,” (Song 4:1).

For if goats and the hair or skins of goats always signified the foulness of sinners and never the humility of penitents, that animal would by no means have been reckoned among the clean [animals], nor would it have been said in praise of the bride: “Your hair is like a flock of goats.”

Bede, On the Tabernacle 2.3

I’ve only heard that particular passage get brought up for two reasons: to point out that standards of beauty vary from one culture to another, or to laugh about how Song of Songs has some language that is not romantic by today’s standards (har har).  I don’t know that Bede has done anything that seems all that legitimate by modern exegetical standards, but tying the goat to an attitude of penance actually adds a dimension of spiritual edification to this passage. Is he right? I don’t know. But is it kinda cool? Yeah.

To stick to the theme of Song of Songs, here’s a bit that Origen of Alexandria (a super-influential early Christian theologian born in 183) interpreted the line “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” (Song 1:1) as follows:

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth”—that is to say, may pour the words of His mouth into mine, that I may hear Him speak Himself, and see Him teaching. The kisses are Christ’s, which He bestowed on His Church when at His coming, being present in the flesh, He in His own person spoke to her the words of faith and love and peace, according to the promise of Isaias who, when sent beforehand to the Bride, had said: Not a messenger, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself shall save us.

Origen’s Commentary on Song of Songs, 1:1

What?  How did he get to that point?  He jumped from a statement that almost entirely registers as a straightforward statement of passion to a longing prophecy about the incarnation of Christ!  It’s utterly baffling!  I don’t know if I could get away with making a claim like that from the pulpit… but isn’t it a little more edifying his way?  Sure, it’s creative and maybe even wrong, but it’s intriguing.

Even the great Augustine, the church patriarch of church patriarchs, the theologian of theologians, has his fair share of wacky interpretations.  Here’s one about Genesis 2 (which is apparently one of his many interpretations on Genesis, because he really liked that book).  To give you some background, he’s already stated that the Genesis story uses Adam to represent higher reasoning (the soul’s deep wisdom), Eve to represent lower reason (the ability to make rational decisions and manage Earthly resources appropriately), and the snake to represent appetite.  Now he moves on to his grand conclusion:

Now with that evident couple of the two human beings who were first created, the serpent did not eat from the forbidden tree, but only incited to eat, and the woman did not eat alone but gave some to her husband and they ate together, although she alone spoke to the serpent and she alone was led astray by it. So too… even in one man, the carnal (or if I may so put it the sensual) motion of the soul which is channeled into the senses of the body and which is common to us and the beasts, is shut off from the reasoning of wisdom. With bodily sensation, after all, bodily things are sensed; but eternal, unchangeable, and spiritual things are understood with the reasoning of wisdom. But the appetite is very close to the reasoning of knowledge, seeing that it is the function of this knowledge to reason about the bodily things that are perceived by bodily sensation.

Augustine, The Trinity, Trans Edmund Hill, Kindle Loc 9213

What a bizarre, psychological exploration of human nature, wrapped up in a Bible story!  It reminds me of Freud or William Blake’s prophesies!  In his hands, Genesis isn’t just a story about two people long ago; it’s about every person in every era, and the psychological resources that are so easily corrupted by appetite. And it’s history and a million other things. It speaks and it speaks and it has so much to offer.

I have no problem with the  “plain sense” reading of Scripture (the assumption that most of the Bible can be read in a relatively straightforward fashion and be interpreted with a good bit of common sense).  Yes, I know there is no self-interpreting book and that a knowledge of the Christian tradition is necessary to interpret well, but I do think that a story can have a meaning and the meaning is often not far from what was written on the page.  Nonetheless, Auggie, Origen, and Bede are doing some really creative, cool stuff with their Bible readings, and I can’t help but stop with a mix of awe and confusion and say, “Woah.”  Sure, maybe they’re just wrong, but maybe there’s more to Scripture than we see.  Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open. 

The Apostle Peter Had a WIFE?!?!

Sorry, folks, he’s off the market.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not in the top 1 percent of pastors for Bible memorization.  Some people out there know every verse by heart, and the appropriate chapter and verse number.  Not I.  I know the broad strokes pretty well, but I can easily get stumped by the smaller stuff.  For example, I played an old Bible Trivia game with my wife a few months back (more fun than it sounds, I swear), and one of the questions was about Samson violating his nazarite vows by eating honey out of a dead lion corpse.  I had no memory of this happening and was thoroughly grossed out (if any of YOU break a promise to God by eating honey out of a dead lion corpse, I will judge you so hard, and not just for the promise-breaking).  I’d still give myself maybe a 6.5 or 7 out of 10  on the pastor Bible memory scale, but on the whole, I rely on looking stuff up rather than just knowing it.

But this… this threw me.

Did you know Peter had a WIFE???  And this isn’t some lame, click bait title that refers to some apocryphal (non-canonical) book to get to a crazy conclusion.  It’s in the New Testament:

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

Matt 8:14-15, NIV

How do you get a mother-in-law without a wife?  You don’t.  You need a wife to get a mother in law. This isn’t a one-off story either.  It’s also recorded in both Mark and Luke.

Another passage that seems to confirm the rumor is 1 Corinthians 9:5:

Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?

NIV

Why would Paul specifically reference Peter (the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Cephas) to prove that he has the right to get married unless Peter was actually married and traveling with his wife?  It’d be a pretty poor example otherwise.

Historically, there’s only one person I’ve ever heard someone talk about Peter’s wife: my mom.  She brought it up to me a handful of times when we were chatting, and I always just nodded my head and smiled thinking, “ok, mom, whatever you say…” I’d never heard it in church.  I’d never heard it in seminary.  It’s just not all that popular to talk about!  Probably because Peter’s wife never actually appears in the Bible.  She’s just referenced indirectly.  Nevertheless, it seems like a pertinent detail to me!  My whole mental image of Peter is changed if he had a wife!

Looking around, it’s pretty rare to see someone challenge that Peter was married.  Obscure though the reference in the Gospels may be, it is largely accepted as a legitimate translation.  Peter was married.  The bigger question in the tradition doesn’t seem to be “was Peter married,” so much as “was Peter’s wife alive at the time of the Gospels?”

There isn’t a ton of evidence to make things clear.  We have the verses from earlier, and then we have a few references from the Church Fathers.  Clement of Alexandria writes:

They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home, and called very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, “Remember thou the Lord.” Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect disposition towards those dearest to them. 

Clement, The Stromata, Book VII

This is where things are a bit murky.  Eusebius references Peter’s wife as well, but uses Clement’s citation to do so:

Clement, indeed, whose words we have just quoted, after the above-mentioned facts gives a statement, on account of those who rejected marriage, of the apostles that had wives. “Or will they,” says he, “reject even the apostles? For Peter and Philip begat children; and Philip also gave his daughters in marriage. And Paul does not hesitate, in one of his epistles, to greet his wife, whom he did not take about with him, that he might not be inconvenienced in his ministry.”

Eusebius, Church History III.31

Eusebius’s source is of especially poor quality, not only because it’s a secondary reference, but also because he references Paul having a wife.  Paul directly writes that he is unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7:8.  Certainly not a slam-dunk of a source, which leaves our primary patristic source as Clement.

Clement is a relatively controversial source to have.  He was the teacher of Origen, a wildly popular Christian teacher and theologian in the early church, but he was anathematized (declared no-good) after his death for a variety of theological oddities, such as the belief in the existence of human souls before human birth and belief in potential of souls to be saved and fall again after death.  The Alexandrian school of the early church was famous for their thinkers, but they were also heavily influenced by native Greek philosophy. They adopted its best pieces to develop their theology, while publicly rejecting other popular pieces that they saw as competing with the Gospel. It’s only natural that Alexandrians like Origin and Clement thought in ways that seem jarring to us today.  Clement was also venerated in the Roman Catholic church until the 16th century when he was removed from the calendar by Pope Clement the VIII for being too controversial (or because he wanted to the top Clement in Church history and he had to dethrone this guy to get there).  Either way, Clement is famous enough to have clout, but also controversial enough to raise an eyebrow.

The evidence for Peter’s wife being dead hinges on her absence in the Bible.  If he’s married, where is his wife?  Why isn’t she there?  At minimum, she ought to be with her sick mother, right?  Fair point.  Unfortunately, it also has to contend with the 1 Corinthians reference.  I regularly found the attempts to dismiss that passage clumsy.  Some commentators said that “wife” didn’t actually mean wife in that context.  Whenever I hear someone try to get clever with translations, I settle the matter by looking at the different translations in the most popular Bibles.  NIV?  Wife.  NRSV?  Wife.  ESV?  Wife.  NASV?  Wife.  You get the picture.  The lone outlier is the King James Version, which says “a sister, a wife,” which still comes across to me as a Shakespearean attempt to say “a sister in the faith aka a believing wife” given the context.  In any case, I’ll take the legion of Bible translators that worked on all these versions over lone wolves that swear they have better translation skills.  But there’s still the big question, “If Peter is married, why are there so few references to his wife?” That’s something I can’t answer.

I suppose the evidence could lead in either direction, depending on how you think.  It’s not like this is a hill anyone really needs to die on.  Peter’s marital status is not doctrinally crucial.  The Scriptures were not written to illuminate Peter’s love life.

I stumbled down this whole rabbit hole last week after I found a reference to her in Martyrs Mirror (the Anabaptist martyr collection from last week’s entry). It portrayed her as an early martyr for the faith and illustrated the devotion to God that both of them had in their marriage.  Personally?  I love the idea.  Not only is the evidence reasonable enough for my tastes, but I love the possibilities it brings to the table.  It adds another woman in the apostolic era worthy of respect.  It adds a married man among the disciples.   They support each other in the faith, even through pain and suffering.  I love it!  Hopefully that excitement isn’t outweighing my logic.  I totally acknowledge that the evidence is a little scarce for a figure as public as Peter.  But even if I’m wrong and Peter was a widower, I think the story of Peter’s wife has so much to offer.  It gives us a picture of a man that wasn’t just passionate about Jesus; he was someone who was alive!  He lived!  He loved!  He lost!  That is so human, and a human faith is one that grows deep roots in our souls. I hope that this little journey helps me share the story of the first generation of Christians in a more human way.