Patristic Biblical Exegesis

Reading the Bible in the Byzantine Tradition

I have always suggested, and will not stop suggesting, that you not only heed what is said in church, but also constantly occupy yourself in reading the Divine Scriptures at home.John Chrysostom

A sound mind…that is devoted to piety and love of truth will eagerly meditate upon those things that God has placed within the power of mankind … and are clearly and unambiguously set forth in the sacred Scriptures.


Who are the Fathers?

Those first apostles and preachers of Christ worked tirelessly to maintain the truth of Christ’s teaching are known as the Fathers of the Church. From the beginning of Christianity, even in the pages of scripture itself, we see discussion on what the impact of the Gospel should be in the believers community. As each Christian era rolls by there are preachers who capture the essence of the Gospel for the controversies of their times. They are recognized as the leaders and their works are held up as the model of understanding the faith. These are the Fathers of the Church or Patrisitic authors. They are universally recognized as authorities on the interpretation of Scripture. We use their collective judgement and methods to measure the truth of our preachers even to this day.

The work of the Fathers can be classified in a number of ways. But most commonly they are seen in groups based on a combination of geographic and period in history. In historical terms, the council of Nicea is considered an important dividing point for organizing Patristic authors. Since Nicea was the first ecumenical council this began the period of formal gathering and definitions of theological controversies by the Church at large.

Apostolic Fathers & Apologists

The period directly after the composition of the New Testament scriptures is known as the Apostolic Fathers. When the final canon of sacred scripture was established in the mid-fourth century, the fathers decided to include only books with a direct authority from the twelve apostles or Paul. There are many other fine examples of Christian interpretation that were excluded from the New Testament because the author did not fit this category. These are the works of the Apostolic fathers, Clement of Alexandria, Barnabas and Polycarp to name a few.

During the second century the Church had to respond to a number of Christian groups that espoused views condemned by the church at large, such as the Gnostic Christian sects. The Fathers who wrote treatises to defend the mainstream tradition are known as the Apologists. In Greek rhetoric, an Apologist is someone who defends your position. Celsus, Athenagoras and Justin are among the apologists.

Alexandrian Exegesis

Alexandria is an important city in northern Egypt. This was the seat of culture and learning for the region. Here there was a large Jewish community with centuries of history in scripture study. They are also the source of the Greek translation of the Old Testament by Jews that became widely used in the Christian communities. Theophilus and Didymus the Blind are two famous members of this Christian school.

The Alexandrian school of exegesis is most famous for an interpretive technique called allegorical exegesis. In allegory, on uses the elements of a scripture passage as a basis for a comparison to another aspect of the spiritual life or scripture. Allegory allows a multifaceted view of scripture.

The technique is used by St. Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18 to interpret the Deuteronomy 5:4 passage. Here Deuteronomy forbids the muzzling of an ox when he treads out grain. Paul applies this passage to Christian preachers by allegory. Alexandria had a long history in the rhetorical science of allegory in the ancient world. Philo a Jewish allegorist, lived and wrote here at the same time as the Christian community was practicing the same techniques.

Antiochian Exegesis

Antioch is the city along the Mediterranean coast of the middle east where followers of Jesus were called Christians for the first time. This is also an important trade center and school for the region. Here the Christian school of interpreters practiced a style of exegesis called typology. John Chrysostom is the most famous preacher from this school.

In typology, an event in the Old Testament is seen as a prelude to a similar event or sequence in the New Testament. Typology is about a concrete series of items playing out in both the Old and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the type and the new is called the anti-type. The construct is analogous to a rubber stamp and the impression it makes. The stamp is the anti-type and the mark is the type. This style of interpretation can help us see the unfolding of God’s plan over time.

Desert Fathers

The communities of Christians in the desert developed as a way for people to isolate themselves from the world in prayer. They found inspiration in the wandering of the chosen people in the desert with God in the Old Testament and Jesus’ imitation of that wandering after his baptism. While this was largely a movement of solitary hermits, communities did quickly develop around those who were masters of spiritual meditation.

The spiritual fathers of the desert composed a number of works to help initiates advance in prayer and the spiritual life. These collections are scripturally based, but are not focused exegesis of scripture. They are rather practical advice in the advancement of spirituality that is based on scripture. The recognized leader of this movement was the monk Antony. His life story was written by Athanasius. There is a famous anonymous collection called “The Sayings of the desert fathers” that captures the essence of their thought.

Capadocian Fathers

Capadocia is in modern Turkey. Perhaps the most famous of the Capadocian Fathers is Basil and the two Gregories, Nyssa & Nazianzus. These fathers managed to combine the direct exegesis of scripture of the Antiochian/Alexandrian schools with the concentration on the spiritual life from the desert fathers. Basil would write a series of treatises on the ascetic life and found a monastic way of life. The writings of all three would form the basis for the Hesychast movement. This branch of spirituality gave us the Jesus prayer.

Syrian Fathers

The Syrian Fathers live in the large area that now includes Syria, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabi. The center of learning was Babylon. This great city was home to a Talmudic Jewish learning center. Here the foundation of Judaism as we know it today was formed. The Syrian fathers had cordial relations with their Jewish neighbors. They engaged in debate on the interpretation of scripture and we benefit from these contacts in the insights of the fathers. Perhaps the most famous import from the Syrian fathers is the prayer of Saint Ephem used during our fasting liturgies.


Beuken, Wim, Seân Freyne, and Anton Weiler, eds. The Bible and its readers. London: SCM Press, 1991. A collection of essays on scripture exegesis through the centuries. This includes a number of essays on Patristic themes.

Finan, Thomas, and Vincent Twomey. Scriptural interpretation in the Fathers : letter and spirit. Blackrock, Co. Dublin ; Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 1995.

Grant, Robert M. Greek Apologists of the second century. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988.

Grant, Robert M., and David Tracy. A short history of the interpretation of the Bible. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. In this book, the author focuses chiefly on the NT and the early church, with modern revisions. However, he refrains from prophecy, and, instead, sets forth his interpretation of the basic principles of historical and theological scripture. The author further translates quotations from the Greek NT.

Greer, Rowan A. Theodore of Mopsuestia, exegete and theologian. London: Faith Press, 1961.

Greer, Rowan A. Broken lights and mended lives: theology and common life in the early Church. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.

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.

Quasten, Johannes. Patrology: The beginnings of Patristic literature. Vol. 1. Utrecht: Spectrum Publishers, 1962.

Simonetti, Manlio. Biblical interpretation in the early church: an historical introduction to patristic exegesis. Translated by John A. Hughes. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994.

Torrance, Thomas F. Divine meaning: Studies in patristic hermeneutics. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.

Tsirpanlis, Constantine N. Introduction to eastern patristic thought and Orthodox theology. Vol. 30 Theology and life series. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press: A Michael Glazier Book, 1991.