Whenever I handle his Hexaemeron and take its words on my lips, I am brought into the presence of the Creator, and understand the works of creation, and admire the Creator more than before, using my teacher as my only means of sight.
Gregory of Nazianzus
All who have read that divinely inspired exposition of our father on the same subject, the creation of the world, admire it no less than the writings of Moses, and in my opinion, they do well and reasonably
Gregory of Nysa
The term Hexaemeron is used in reference to homilies on the six days of creation. This series of nine sermons by St. Basil was preached during morning and evening services during the Great Fast. The exact date is not known, but they are believed to be after his elevation to the episcopate in Cesarea. Amand De Mendieta dates them to 378-79.
Their appeal spread far and wide. In the east, Gregory of Nysa & Nazianzus praised the work highly. In the west, Ambrose used them as a basis for his own Hexaemeron and Jerome was heavily influenced by them as well. To the east Ephrem the Syrians commentaries also contain interpretations based on Basil’s, to the point of quoting the Hexaemeron directly on three occasions. In short, Basil’s approach became the standard by which the genre is judged.
Inspired by Spirit
For Basil, the underlying assumption is that Genesis is composed by the Holy Spirit through Moses. This faith in the source of the text means the message of the text is from the Spirit of God, not from the human realm. Each part of the text is significant, every word and even every syllable holds meaning for us as a message from God.
“Let us listen then to these words of truth written without the help of the ‘enticing words of man’s wisdom’ by the dictation of the Holy Spirit; words destined to produce not the applause of those who hear them, but the salvation of those who are instructed by them.” Hexaemeron 1:1
Basil insists on the role of the Holy Spirit speaking to Moses in the creation accounts. This dictation by the Holy Spirit infuses these creation accounts with a special quality that cannot be ignored.
Approached with Reverence
Since the Holy Spirit is the source of the words here, they must be approached with the heart prepared in the proper fashion.
“How earnestly the soul should prepare itself to receive such high lessons. How pure it should be from carnal affections, how unclothed by worldly disquietudes, how active and ardent in its researches, how eager to find in its surroundings an idea of God which may be worthy of him.” Hexaemeron 1:1
One must be attentive to the words and not distracted by earthly cares.
“The time you lend to God is not lost: he will return it to you with large interest… Deliver your heart, then, from the care of this life and give close heed to my words. Of what avail will it be to you if you are here in body, and your heart is anxious about your earthly treasure?” Hexaemeron 3:1
There is a depth to the scriptures that can only be fathomed by attentive reading and a reverent approach. We should pay as much attention and study to these stories in scripture as we do to the stage.
“It is absolutely necessary that all lovers of great and grand shows should bring a mind well prepared to study them.” Hexaemeron 6:1
Our interpretations of scripture must be consistent with the spirit of God that inspires these words. This requires that they be consistent throughout all of scripture. But Basil also see this as a demand to accept the literal level of the text as the starting point for interpretation.
Fialon sees a movement in Basil’s exegesis more and more towards the literal throughout his time as a preacher. This is part of the reason he dates the Hexaemeron to later in Basil’s time as Bishop, because of the insistence on literal interpretation. The works Fialon dates to earlier in his ministry, like the Psalm commentaries, show more of a tendency to sacrifice the literal for the allegorical.
In some sense this move away from allegorical interpretation is surprising. Basil admired a great deal one of the greatest allegorical preachers, Origen. He worked with his brother Gregory to compile and save Origen’s work into the philokalia. The reason for this shift can perhaps be seen in the use of allegory by the gnostics and other rivals to orthodox Christianity. In the present collection, Basil warns of going to far afield from the plain meaning of the text too quickly.
“Shall I then prefer foolish wisdom to the oracles of the Holy Spirit? Shall I not rather exalt Him (God) who, not wishing to fill or minds with these vanities, has regulated all the economy of Scripture in view of the edification and the making perfect of our souls? It is this which those seem to me not to have understood, who, giving themselves up to the distorted meaning of allegory, have undertaken to give a majesty of their own invention to Scripture. It is to believe themselves wiser than the Holy Spirit, and to bring forth their own ideas under a pretext of exegesis.” Hexaemeron 9:1
Thus the allegorist is one who in pride finds their own wisdom greater than that of the Holy Spirit that inspires scripture. A couple of examples follow to demonstrate how this method plays out in the Hexaemeron.
Creation of Animals
This insistence on the literal meaning of the creation accounts is best demonstrated in his ninth sermon on the creation of animals. Here we find what Jaroslav Pelican calls the most vigorous criticism of allegory by any orthodox theologian.
“I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense.” Hexaemeron 9:1
Fialon takes this as a reference to the work of Origen. In his commentary on Genesis, he makes a passing nod to the literal word of creation on his way to the spiritual allegory.
“There is no question of the literal meaning of God creating all the creatures, but we need to see this explained in a spiritual sense. The creatures from the waters are the impulses and thoughts from our minds, which are brought forth from the depth of the heart. The impulses of our carnal and earthly man are indicated by this which is from the earth.” Origen Homily 1 on Genesis
Chrysostom in his homily 7 on Genesis sticks to the literal creation account for the animals. He sees the power of God in the diversity of creation. The goodness of these animals are missed by humanity because of our sinfulness. The creation of animals by God shows the folly of those who would worship animals as God. This worship of animals theme is taken up by Ephrem in his commentary on Genesis.
Augustine takes this literal interpretation to another level in his “Literal Interpretation of Genesis.” He discusses each type of animal in detail and discusses how their origen from the word of God informs our understanding of creation. Didymus the Blind contains a similar discussion on animal types. This is especially striking since he is seen as Origen’s successor in the allegorical school of Antioch. Yet in his own commentary on creation, Basil’s view is so well established he follows that path.
Creation of Dome
In Basil’s discussion on the creation of the dome to separate the waters, he takes a similar shot at the allegorical method.
“But as far as concerns the separation of the waters I am obliged to contest the opinion of certain writers in the Church who, under the shadow of high and sublime conceptions, have launched out into metaphor, and have only seen in the waters a figure to denote spiritual and incorporeal powers. In the higher regions, above the firmament, dwell the better; in the lower regions, earth and matter are the dwelling place of the malignant. So, say they, God is praised by the waters that are above the heaven, that is to say, by the good powers, the purity of whose soul makes them worthy to sing the praises of God… Let us reject these theories as dreams and old women’s tales. Let us understand that by water is meant; for the dividing of the waters by the firmament let us accept the reason which has been given us.” Hexaemeron 3:9
Again, Fialon sees Origen as the target for this criticism. Basil is focusing on the works of creation and what they say about God and us. The allegories, like Origen launch into the spiritual equivalents for the matrix of the text. Basil knows where these spiritual explorations have led with the Gnostic movement.
“God created heaven his dwelling place already. This creation of heaven is the corporal heaven. The separation is like our body and spirit. He tells us of the separation to that each day we become dividers of the waters, that which is above and below. The things of heaven and of earth. We have the waters within ourselves and must setup a firmament to separate the earthly and the heavenly within our own body.” Origen Homily 1 on Genesis
Chrysostom again takes the same path as Basil. He grounds his reflections on the passage in the literal meaning expressed. The focus is on the actions and descriptions rather than the allegory of the invisible internals of humanity.
“The darkness explains the invisibility of the world. The creation of light removes this. God names each for their purpose. He separates the waters and explains how the firmament was formed calling this heaven. Creation is at the power of the word of god. Let there be…so it was. When asked how this creation can be with the air in the sky coming into being he says “no sensible person would be rash enough to make a decision on it. Instead, it is better to be quite grateful and ready to accept what is told us and not reach beyond the limits of our own nature in meddling in matters beyond us, but rather to know only the simple fact and keep it within us—namely, that by the lords command the firmament was produced, causing division of the waters.” Chrysostom Homily 4 on Genesis
Ephrem the Syrian takes this same literal slant as Basil as well. The dome is a real dome that separates the real waters. The same sentiment is found in Didymus the Blind, the creation of the dome is for utilitarian reasons.
The study of scripture as a source for his own life and work grounds much of Basil’s work in the Hexaemeron. This attitude can be seen in a wide variety of Basil’s work throughout his career. Basil reminds Gregory as he retires to his monastery in Pontus:
“The study of inspired Scripture is the chief way of finding our duty, for in it we find both instruction about conduct and the lives of blessed men, delivered in writing, as some breathing images of godly living, for the imitation of their good works.” Epistle II:3
From this same retreat, he encourages Libanius to study scripture over the sophists. Basil notes that his own writings or scripture may lack in polish, but this is of no account.
“I, however, my dear sir, am now spending my time with Moses and Elias, and saints like them, who tell me their stories in a barbarous tongue, and I utter what I learnt from them, true, indeed, in sense, though rude in phrase, as what I am writing testifies.” Epistle CCCXXXIX
This lifelong commitment to the words and sense of scripture shines through in his insistence on literal exegesis in the Hexaemeron. The truth of the words may encompass meanings beyond the literal sense, but Basil insists that the literal sense is the real meaning too. Basil’s encounters with heterodox preachers that bypass the literal sense for the “spiritual” sense of allegory, feeds his desire to keep us grounded in reality during the contemplation of creation in these sermons.
Amand de Mendieta, Emmanuel. Basile de Césarée: la tradition manuscrite directe des neuf homélies sur l’Hexaéméron: étude philologique. Vol. 123 Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1980. This is a detailed study of the extant manuscripts of Basil’s Hexaemeron with an introduction covering the general background of all the editions, their chronology and collation. Emmanuel finds two major groups of textual tradition with four subgroups in the first and five in the second. This comprehensive study contains notes all of the subgroups and each individual manuscript within them as well.
Ambrose. Hexaemeron, paradise, and Cain and Abel. Translated by John J. Savage. Vol. 42 The Fathers of the Church, ed. Thomas P. Halton. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1961.
Ardanaz, Santiago Fernandez. Genesis Y Anagennesis: Fundamentos de la antropologia cristiana según Clemente de Alejandría. Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientatlium Studiorum, 1990. This is a study of Clement of Alexandria’s thought on the creation of man in Genesis. Clement engages the Greek Stoic philosophers and the Gnostic Christian movement in the debate on the nature of humanity. Clement engages the scientific debate in a method similar to what Basil employs in the Hexaemeron.
Augustine. The Literal meaning of Genesis Books 1-6. Translated by John Hammond Taylor. Vol. 41 Ancient Christian Writers, ed. Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt and Thomas Comerford Lawler. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982.
________. On Genesis: Two books on Genesis against the Manichees and on the literal interpretaion of Genesis: An unfinished book. Translated by Roland J. Teske. Vol. 84 The Fathers of the Church, ed. Thomas P. Halton. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1991.
Basil. Exegetical homilies. Translated by Agnes Clare Way. Vol. 46 The Fathers of the Church, ed. Joseph Deferrari. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1963. This contains a complete English translation of the Hexaemeron’s nine homilies. There are also homilies on Psalms 1, 7, 14, 28, 29, 32, 33, 44, 45, 48, 59, 61, & 114. The brief introduction reviews the likely time of composition and background for the homilies.
Basil. Basil: letters & select works. Translated by Blomfield Jackson. Vol. 8. 14 vols. Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series, ed. Philip Schaeff and Henry Wace. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995. This contains the full English translation for “On the Holy Spirit,” the “Hexaemeron,” and Basil’s letters.
Chrysostom, John. Homilies on Genesis 1-17. Translated by Robert C. Hill. Vol. 74 The fathers of the church, ed. Thomas P. Halton. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1985.
Ephraem, Syrus. The Armenian commentary on Genesis attributed to Ephrem the Syrian. Translated by Edward G. Mathews. Vol. 572-573 Corpus scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium. Lovanii: Peeters, 1998. Volume 572 is the original text and description of the manuscripts. Volume 573 is the translation, notes and commentary.
Ephraem, Syrus. Le commentaire sur Genèse-Exode 9,32 du manuscrit (olim) Diyarbakir 22. Translated by Lucas Van Rompay. Vol. 483-484 Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium. Lovanii: Peeters, 1986. Volume 483 is the original text and manuscript descriptions. Volume 484 is the translation, notes and commentary. The commentary ncludes a twenty page section discussing the influences of the Greek and Syrian authors reflected in the commentary, including Basil’s work.
Fialon, E. Étude historique et littéraire sur saint Basile. Paris: A. Durand, 1861. The seminal study on Basil’s homilies for literary style and the dating of his work and thought. This review places Basil’s work in the context of the theological controversies of his day, most especially the nature of the trinity and role of the spirit.
Hall, Christopher A. Reading scripture with the church fathers Ancient Christian Commentary, ed. Thomas Oden. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1998. A supplement volume to the Ancient Christian Commentary on scripture series dealing with patristic exegesis. This reviews the main figures, both east and west. Hall also devotes a chapter each to both Antioch and Alexandria and their schools.
Hall, Christopher A. Learning theology with the church fathers Ancient Christian Commentary, ed. Thomas Oden. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002. A supplement volume to the Ancient Christian Commentary on scripture series dealing with the major theological controversies in patristic literature. Each chapter is organized around these themes: Christology, Trinity, Holy Spirit, sin & grace, God’s providence, scripture, resurrection and the church.
Louth, Andrew, ed. Genesis 1-11. Edited by Thomas C. Oden. Vol. OT I, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2001.
Nautin, Pierre, and Louis Dautreleau. Didyme L’Aveugle Sur La Genèse. Vol. 233 Sources Chrétiennes, ed. C. Mondésert. Paris: Les Éditions Du Cerf, 1976.
Origen. Homélies sur la Genèse. Translated by Louis Doutreleau. Vol. 7 Sources Chrétiennes. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1976. This edition contains the original text in Rufinus’ Latin translation in addition to a translation of the same into French.
Origen. Homilies on Genesis & Exodus. Translated by Ronald Heine. Vol. 87 The Fathers of the church, ed. Thomas P. Halton. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1981.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Christianity and classic culture: The metamorphosis of natural theology in Christian encounter with Hellenism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993. This historical study of Christian theology traces the influence and conflict of Christian thought with the Greek world. This includes a discussion of Basil’s method of literal interpretation and his comments against allegory in the Hexaemeron.
Tieck, William Arthur. “Basil of Caesarea and the Bible.” Columbia University, 1953. This dissertation is an overview of Basil’s life and approach to scripture. A treasure of research tied back to his homilies with numerous examples. There are sections dealing with the relationship of philosophy to scripture and a section on inspiration and authority of scripture in Basil’s writtings.
Originally Posted March 20, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010