Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The School of Antioch

From very early times there had been a difference of approach between the theologians of Alexandria in Egypt and that of those in Antioch. From the beginning Alexandria had represented a mixture of Egyptian and Hellenistic thinking. Allegoric interpretation of religious writings was popular. Thus the Jewish philosophers as Philo of Alexandria (d. A.D. 50) applied allegoric interpretations on the Hebrew Bible. On this background the theologians Clement (d. c. 215) and Origen who were living at the end of the second century and in the beginning of the third explained the Bible allegorically as had already been done on Homer’s poems by Greek philosophers. This does not mean that Origen denied that there was history behind the Biblical text. But this was not important to him – especially where he could not harmonise the text with what he felt was difficult to explain historically.[1]

In 232 Origen had to leave Alexandria and he settled in Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern Kayseri in Turkey) where he continued his exegetic theology along his Alexandrian line. His ideas about Jesus are said to have influenced Lucian of Antioch and the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea.

Also the idea called Monophysitism, the teaching that Christ has only one nature in which the human aspect has been absorbed by the divine, was a result of the Alexandrian way of thinking. It has been said that this theology virtually negated the humanity of Christ. The Egyptian mythology with Pharaoh as a divine being, the materialisation of the god Horus, may have had some influence on this claim.

The School of Antioch had a different approach. Here theology was based on grammatical and historical interpretation of the Biblical text. It was admitted that certain parts of the Bible should not be understood literal; still the exegesis should be dependent on the historical background of the text. Some of these theologians had knowledge of both Hebrew and Greek and were able to understand the history behind the Greek terms used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in the New Testament as well. One might say that their approach was rational and scholarly.

Historically the School of Antioch had three phases:

  • The early period starting about 270 with Lucian of Antioch.[2]
  • The middle period from about 350 to 433 with Antiochian theologians as Diodore of Tarsus (d. c. 390), Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. c. 428) and John Chrysostom.
  • The late period after 433.

The characteristics of the School of Antioch were as follows:

The approach to exegesis as applied by the theologians of Antioch was strictly historical. Allegory was only used occasionally and it was held that the biblical text was written in a way that was understood by people with a certain historical background. The events described in the text were real events. One might say that this way of interpretation was close to that of the Jews.[3]

Although not interpreted allegorically some of these events were taken to be types of later events in the Christian era. When the Bible for instance describes the sacrifices under the Mosaic Law these really took place, but were prophetic types pointing ahead to the sacrifice of Christ.

This attitude also influenced the way these theologians dealt with the text itself. They saw no problem in adding words to the biblical text they were editing if these words made it easier for the reader to understand what he read. They found the message important, not the wording.

The theologians of Antioch distinguished between the divine and the human aspects of Jesus. It was close to Arianism that claimed that Jesus on earth was a man. It was held by some that the divine Logos did not really become man but took up residence in the man Jesus. This may give some the idea that there were two Sons, but this difficulty was overcome by explaining that there was one Christ with two prosopa. The Greek word prosopon is mostly used for “face”, but it also has the meaning of “appearance” and “mask” as those used in the ancient Greek theatre.[4] The Antiochian theologians used the word not in its usual sense, but as the way in which something or somebody appears.

In Alexandria however the same word was used for “person”, but when the theologians in Antioch said that Christ had two prosopa that were united they did not mean to say that he was a combination of two persons but of two ways of manifestation. After the unification of the two prosopa, the human and the divine, the unison became one prosopon of its own.

Among some of the theologians of Antioch there was a strong aversion against the term Theotokos (God-bearer or Mother of God), a newly introduced title of the Virgin Mary. Mary was seen as the mother of Jesus while the divine prosopon was eternal and could not be born. Still the child Mary gave birth to was regarded as having been united with God. Thus Antioch clearly distinguished between two natures of Christ.


[1] D.S. Wallace-Hadrill: Christian Antioch - A study of early Christian thought in the East, Cambridge University Press 1982, pp.27, 28

[2] Daniel Andersen in his Patrologisk Kompendium prefers the year A.D. 312: http://www.sanktandreasbibliotek.dk/fileadmin/pdf/patrol_komp.pdf)

[3] Wallace-Hadrill, pp. 30, 31

[4] Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, Oxford University Press 2002, p. 280