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Cyril’s Introduction to His John Commentary

November 14, 2009

I thought it might be interesting to post a selection from the introduction to Cyril’s commentary on John along with a few observations. Here is an important passage (the translation is my own):

Therefore, what we said in the beginning – for I think it is necessary to return to that – the exegesis of the divine mysteries is exceedingly hard, and perhaps silence would be better. But since your much speech persuades us, O most diligent brother [i.e., the Apostle Paul], to offer the book as a sort of “fruit of our lips” and a “spiritual sacrifice” [Heb. 13:15], I will not hesitate to do even this, because I have put my trust in the God who gives wisdom to the blind, and who certainly does not seek from us what is beyond us, but who equally receives even the offerings from those who are poor. For with reference to the one who wishes to offer a gift for a whole burnt offering to the Lord, then just as it appears in the beginning of Leviticus, after the lawgiver gave the order to sacrifice from the herd, and also after he defined by this the degree of the value in the type [Lev. 1:8-9], he lowers it again, by saying that those who are not sufficient for that degree ought to slay sheep [Lev. 1:10]. But he certainly knew indeed, that sad and inexorable poverty would perhaps move some to be too weak for this offering. Surely for this reason he said, “and he will bring his gift from the turtledoves or from the pigeons” [Lev. 1:14]. And also he honors the one who is still more wanting than these and who comes near with the cheapest things. For he says, “flour will be his gift” [Lev. 2:1], in order to define a votive offering that I suppose would be most easily procurable by everyone, and would not be exceedingly oppressive even to those in the furthest degree of poverty. For the lawgiver surely knew well that it is better and more advantageous to bear fruit even if in a small quantity than for one to be altogether barren, and through shame of seeming to be inferior to the handiwork of others to be driven together to the argument that one ought not to honor the master of all.

The first point to be noted is simply Cyril’s hesitancy itself which did not stem from a recognition of the inadequacy of his ability as a commentator. Rather, Cyril recognizes that the task of exegesis is difficulty because it involves “speaking concerning the Essence that is above all, and the Mysteries belonging thereunto.”[1] In other words, Cyril recognized that the interpretation of scripture did not merely involve the examination of a text, but was fundamentally an encounter with the God who spoke through and in the text. Any time one attempts to speak concerning the highest reality, namely the divine essence, there is an inherent danger of going astray. Standing behind the text of scripture is not merely a human author, but the God who is Lord over all, who cannot be tamed and made to serve the whims of the human exegete. Such a realization of the majesty of God should cause the heart of every would-be interpreter to tremble, even as Cyril rightly acknowledged in his commentary.

Similar to above point is a related topic. The comparison that Cyril draws between the writing of a commentary and the sacrifices of Israel is telling. For him, writing a commentary on the gospel of John was not purely a detached, objective exercise. Rather, it was essentially an act of praise, the offering of the fruit of one’s lips up to God who is over all. However tedious and laborious the task of exegesis might be, church fathers such as Cyril recognized that labor was not incompatible with worship of the holy Trinity. Instead, the rigors of biblical exegesis and theological systematization were intimately and inseparably bound up with spiritual worship. In the modern age that favors increasing fragmentation between biblical studies, theology, and spirituality, Cyril’s comparison of a commentary to a spiritual sacrifice is a welcome and healthy corrective.

A final note needs to be said about Cyril’s conception of the nature of scripture itself. The kind of exegetical move that he makes in this brief passage surveyed here would be considered out of bounds by many modern exegetes. In order to provide justification for his attempt at a commentary, Cyril thought to go to Leviticus. The only reason he considered such a move legitimate is because of his underlying presupposition that all of scripture is a single book with a single divine author. Indeed, this is the first of Cassel’s three principles that guided Cyril’s exegesis, and it is a dominant feature of nearly all patristic exegesis. The divine authorship of Scripture does not merely imply that the meaning of each individual book has moral and theological significance. It also implies that those books tell a single, consistent story. The words of that story then create a world of meaning which readers inhabit, and they provide a basic grammar that the readers can use to describe their own experience of the world and of ultimate reality. Cyril went to the book of Leviticus because he believed that he inhabited the same world and related to the same God as Moses the lawgiver and the Israelites of old.

Here is the Greek text of the passage I quoted above:

Ὅπερ οὖν ἔφημεν ἐν ἀρχῇ· χρῆναι γὰρ οἶμαι παλινδρομεῖν ἐπ’ ἐκεῖνο δυσχερεστάτη λίαν ἐστὶν ἡ περὶ τῶν θείων μυστηρίων ἐξήγησις, καὶ τάχα κρείττων ἡ σιωπή· ἀλλ’ ἐπείπερ ἡμᾶς πολὺς ἀναπείθει λόγος, ὦ φιλοπονώτατε ἀδελφὲ, καθάπερ τινὰ χειλέων καρπὸν καὶ θυσίαν πνευματικὴν ἀναθεῖναι τὸ σύγγραμμα, καὶ τοῦτο ποιεῖν οὐκ ὀκνήσω, τῷ σοφοῦντι τοὺς τυφλοὺς ἐπιθαρσήσας Θεῷ, καὶ ζητοῦντι μὲν παρ’ ἡμῶν, οὐ πάντως τὸ ὑπὲρ ἡμᾶς, δεχομένῳ δὲ ὡς ἐκεῖνα καὶ τὰς ἐκ τῶν πτωχευόντων προσαγωγάς. τὸν γὰρ δὴ προσκομίζειν ἐθέλοντα δῶρον εἰς ὁλοκαύτωμα τῷ Κυρίῳ, καθάπερ οὖν ἐν ἀρχῇ κεῖται τοῦ Λευιτικοῦ, βουθυτεῖν ἐπιτάξας ὁ νομοθέτης, καὶ δὴ καὶ ἐν τούτῳ τῆς ἐν τύπῳ τιμῆς ὁρίσας τὸ μέτρον, ὑποβιβάζει πάλιν αὐτὸ, μηλοσφαγεῖν χρῆναι λέγων τοὺς οἵπερ ἂν εἶεν οὐχ ἱκανοὶ πρὸς ἐκεῖνο· ἀλλ’ ᾔδει δὴ πάντως, ὅτι καὶ πρὸς τοῦτο τυχὸν ἀτονῆσαί τινας ἡ στυγνὴ καὶ ἀνουθέτητος ἀναπείσει πενία· διά γε τοι τοῦτο “καὶ προσοίσει, φησὶν, ἀπὸ τῶν τρυγόνων ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν “περιστερῶν τὸ δῶρον αὐτοῦ·” τὸν δὲ καὶ τούτων ἔτι κατα δεέστερον, καὶ μετὰ τῶν εὐτελεστάτων προσιόντα τιμᾷ. “Σεμίδαλις γὰρ, φησὶν, ἔσται τὸ δῶρον αὐτοῦ,” εὐπόριστον οἶμαί που παντὶ, καὶ πτωχείαν τὴν εἰς ἄκρον οὐ σφόδρα πλεονεκτεῖν ὁρίζων ἀνάθημα. κρεῖττον γὰρ δήπου καὶ ἄμεινον ὁ νομοθέτης ἐξηπίστατο τὸ κἂν ἐν ὀλίγοις καρποφορεῖν τοῦ ἀπεστειρῶσθαι παντελῶς, αἰδοῖ τε τοῦ μὴ δοκεῖν τῆς ἑτέρων ἡττᾶσθαι χειρὸς, εἰς τὸν ἐπὶ τῷ μὴ χρῆναι τιμᾶν τὸν ἁπάντων Δεσπότην συνελαύνεσθαι λογισμόν.


[1]Cyril, Commentary on S. John, trans. Pusey, 1.

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