Monday, August 25, 2014

Basil the Great, Proverbs 8:22, and the Hebrew Bible

I've been reading Kevin Giles' book on the Eternal Generation of the Son, not a topic of my expertise but also not outside my interests. At Kindle location 1351 (ch. 5, on the Cappadocians), he comments on Basil of Caesarea's interpretation of Proverbs 8:22, and this does interact with a topic to which I have devoted some study, the patristic reception of Hebrew scripture.

Proverbs 8:22 was a favorite verse of opponents of the Nicene definition of the Trinity, because it could be interpreted as affirming that the Son of God was created and not eternal. In the LXX, it reads:
κύριος ἔκτισέν με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ
The Lord created me as the beginning of his ways, for the sake of his works. (NETS
The speaker of this line in the text of Proverbs is "Wisdom," and every fourth-century Christian knew that Christ himself was the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:24, 30). They regularly assumed that Christ was the speaker of this passage. But if so, does this verse not affirm that Christ is himself a created thing, a creature, and not eternal God? So Arius seems to have interpreted, and, more to the point, so Eunomius interpreted it.

The pro-Nicene Church Fathers had different ways of handling this passage without accepting the idea that the verse affirms the creation of the Son. Athanasius interpreted it in terms of the incarnation (Or. 2.44-56). Basil says (Adv. Eun. 2.20) that this single verse should not override other scriptures that affirm the divinity of the Son, and he cautions that the Book of Proverbs is enigmatic. But his third argument against the interpretation of Eunomius is what I want to highlight:
But in the meantime let us be sure not to let the following point go unnoticed: that other translators, who have hit upon the meaning of the Hebrew words in a more appropriate way [οἱ καιοιώτερον τῆς σημασίας τῶν Ἑβραϊκῶν καθικόμενοι], render it as "he acquired me" instead of he created me. This is going to be a great obstacle for them against their blasphemous term 'creature.' For the one who said: I have acquired a man through God [Gn 4.1] clearly used this term, not because he had created Cain, but rather because he had begotten him. (trans. DelCogliano and Radde-Gallwitz, 160-61; the Greek can be found at PG 29.616-17. I don't have access to the SC edition; TLG uses Migne for this text.)
[Basil messes up that last bit, where he seems to think that Adam is the speaker in Gen 4:1 (note the masculine pronouns), whereas it is actually Eve. The translators point out in a note that Basil follows Eusebius of Caesarea in this error.]

Basil is referencing here the alternative Greek translations of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, traditionally understood as second-century CE Jewish translators. He makes the argument that these later translators provide insight into the meaning of the passage by offering the term "acquire" as a substitute for "create."

My interest in this has to do with the implications of this argument for Basil's view of the authoritative text of the Bible. His argument seems to rely on the notion that the Hebrew text of scripture is authoritative for the Church. I haven't studied Basil's views on this topic in detail, and I'm not sure that there is much in his works that would provide material for such a study. I have studied the views of other Fathers (in ch. 5 here, and also here), and if I am correctly interpreting Basil's thought in this passage, I can say that he does not stand alone in affirming the theoretical importance (and at least occasional practical importance, as we see here) of the Hebrew text of scripture.

Of course, Basil doesn't discuss here how he can reconcile these statements with what I presume to be his view that the Greek text of the LXX is inspired and also authoritative for the Church. He probably would have said that the Seventy translators rendered the text ambiguously, perhaps even with edifying intent--to push readers toward higher spiritual realities. But the more recent translators offer a clearer, more straightforward rendering, which helps us to figure out what the LXX means. This is the way some other Church Fathers thought of the matter, and so it is reasonable to attribute the view to Basil. The LXX retains its authoritative position, but it should be interpreted in accordance with the true meaning of the Hebrew text as revealed by the more recent translators.

One of Basil's modern translators--Mark DelCogliano--has written an article on Basil's interpretation of Proverbs 8:22 where he points out that Basil largely depends on Eusebius of Caesarea for most of his thoughts on the passage, including his citation of other translations as offering superior interpretations of the Hebrew text. Eusebius offers this interpretation at Ecclesiastica Theologia 3.2.15 (Eusebius Werke IV, p. 142). DelCogliano (188 n. 26) also cites Epiphanius (Panarion 69.25.1-9) as following the same line.

No comments: