The arcane academic title of this book—Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity—offers no clue to its significance or timeliness. The phrase “Christian figural reading” refers to the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. But for John David Dawson, professor of religion at Haverford College, the question of how Christians understand the Old Testament is not chiefly a matter of hermeneutics or interpretation, but rather of the relation of two communities, the Church and the Synagogue. Hence the title’s second phrase, the “fashioning of identity.”
At its core, the book addresses a question that has been pressed upon the Church in modern times: Can Christianity continue to make its traditional claim to be the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and at the same time recognize the ongoing significance of covenantal Judaism? Dawson does not approach the issue frontally, but by an examination of modern critiques of allegory—the classical exegetical technique employed by Christians to interpret the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. This angular vision, Dawson’s sophistication about literary theory, and his knowledge of the ancient sources, particularly Origen of Alexandria, the first great Christian biblical scholar, make the book fresh and original.
Christian Figural Reading takes the form of a detailed discussion of three modern critics of allegory: Daniel Boyarin, a talmudic scholar who wrote a book on St. Paul; Erich Auerbach, a distinguished literary critic, a Jew, and the author of a minor classic, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; and Hans Frei, the Christian theologian associated with the Yale school, best remembered for his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. Though Dawson presents trenchant criticisms of each thinker, what gives the book its charm and verve is his claim that Origen thought more deeply about the relation of Christianity to the Jewish Scriptures than have modern thinkers and as a consequence is an untapped intellectual resource for contemporary Christian thought. This is an ambitious agenda, and it is a mark of Dawson’s learning, intelligence, and boldness that he carries it off with aplomb.
In his book A Radical Jew, Boyarin claims that by dispensing with circumcision as a mark of identity Paul radically severed the new Christian community from Judaism. No matter how much Christians may speak about the “new” or “true” Israel, no convincing case can be made that Christianity is continuous with the Israelites without the covenantal, genealogical link to the Jewish people. The culprit here is allegory (a term used by St. Paul in Galatians 4), and Boyarin builds his argument on an analysis of key Pauline texts (for example, Romans 11 and 2 Corinthians 3) that establish a spiritual bond between ancient Israel and the Church through the interpretation of the law and the prophets. In Boyarin’s reading, Paul replaces terms that signify concrete things and persons with immaterial spiritual meanings that have no necessary relation to the things they signify. In Galatians 4, for example, Paul says that Abraham had two sons, a biological fact that implies physical genealogy, but Paul takes “son” to refer not to the physical descendants of Abraham but to spiritual heirs who share certain religious ideas (colored by Platonism, according to Boyarin)—for instance, a contrast between outer and inner, carnal and spiritual, letter and spirit. What is missing from Paul is the body that is the bearer of identity.
In his zeal to expose Paul’s interpretation as arbitrary and contrived, Boyarin has, in Dawson’s view, ignored what is most central to Paul—namely, the person of Christ, someone who was very much a body. As a witness to the Resurrection, Paul was not interested in ephemeral “meanings” that could be attached ad libitum to the ancient texts; rather, he sought to discover what the authoritative documents of his own religious tradition meant in light of the new thing that had happened in Christ. Like many biblical scholars, Boyarin attempts to interpret the New Testament without reference to the events that produced it in the first place, “the things that have been accomplished among us,” in Luke’s memorable words. Dawson puts it this way: “To read [the text] is not to replace one thing . . . with another . . . but to be brought into direct relation with the way reality, in its fullest sense, is.” Allegory was made necessary because of what had come to be.
Auerbach presents a more subtle challenge to the practice of allegory. More sympathetic to some forms of Christian interpretation, he recognizes that the gospel was generated by historical events, in particular the Resurrection. For Auerbach, however, as the earliest Christians sought to adapt the message to a wider audience it became detached from its Jewish milieu and the Old Testament became a series of figures. When translated into a new idiom the story of Jesus became the story of the reactions to Jesus and opened the way for revisionist interpretations. It is not Jesus’ Resurrection that counts but the way in which the disciples experienced the significance of Jesus’ Resurrection. As an allegorical reading of the text took root within Christianity, history dissolved into a nebulous spiritual world divorced from the realistic narrative of the Scriptures. The otherness of history is swallowed up in subjectivity.
While acknowledging the inevitability of “subjectivity,” Dawson proposes, following Origen, that a better term is “transformation.” What is the point of interpretation if not to bring the events of the past into the present and to change the life of the believer? The newness brought by the event is not a newness that exists for itself in historical isolation. The new event changes the nature of the first event (for example, the Exodus from Egypt) because the first event is now set into a new context, something we know from first-hand experience. Further, the second event is not just an idea but an occurrence that is never wholly past but always remains present. “For Origen,” says Dawson, “what is historical is an occurrence, and the ethical task is to read in a way that allows or enables that occurrence to ‘happen’ again for the present-day reader.” What happened happened “for us,” and as it is received it changes who we are.
Because liberal biblical scholarship attached free-floating meanings to events without any intrinsic connection between the event and the meaning (in the axiom of Rudolf Bultmann, Christ is risen in the kerygma), Hans Frei saw an affinity between historical criticism and allegory. The parallel is far-fetched for the obvious reason, which Dawson does not note, that classical Christian allegory took place within the context of the Church’s tradition as formed by the liturgy and disciplined by the creeds. Subjectivity there was, but of a kind that led readers more deeply into the mystery; it did not seduce them with something alien.
Frei was correct, however, about the deficiencies of modern biblical criticism. During the last two centuries, as the history that was thought to undergird the Scriptures became wobbly or, in the eyes of some, collapsed, arguments were manufactured to preserve the meaning (that is, new life) while dispensing with the history (Resurrection). Inevitably, the “meaning” of the Scripture acquired a life of its own independent of the person of Christ. Nevertheless, Dawson is dissatisfied with Frei’s project and in the final pages of the book returns again to Origen in search of a better way.
Among Origen’s writings is a sermon on Exodus 34, the veiling of Moses. Origen interprets the account in Exodus with the help of Luke’s telling of the Transfiguration. On Mt. Tabor, Moses and Elijah beheld the unveiled face of the transfigured Jesus. Yet most Christians, says Origen (he has in mind those to whom he is preaching), still have a veil over their faces. Even now, he says, “we are not able to look at the glory in [Christ’s] countenance.” Origen draws a contrast not between Jews and Christians (one veiled, the other not), but between those who have turned wholly to the Lord, namely Moses and Elijah, and those who have not. For Origen, then, the key to the text is spiritual discernment and transformation.
Frei offers a very different reading of the same passage in the conclusion of The Identity of Christ. While Frei, like Origen, sees in Moses a prototypical Christian believer, he finds the metaphor of “self-veiling” to be far more appropriate to depict Christian knowledge of God than “unveiling.” What troubles Frei is that if one accents the transformation of the believer as Origen does, Christ’s presence can too easily become a presence that is not Christ’s own, but one “diffused into humanity by becoming one with it.” Hence he takes the veil to be a metaphor for distance and remove. In his view the spiritual interpretation of the Bible is an act of hubris, an attempt to remove the veil and gain access to what we cannot know.
Origen, a much more audacious thinker and spiritual guide than Frei, knew that embracing Christ brought forth a life of continual transformation that led not only to the Cross but also to the Resurrection. When Jesus said, “Where I am going you cannot come now,” he did not mean the Cross but the glorified life of the Resurrection in which Christ will be seen with unveiled eyes. Frei, by contrast, thought one could not see beyond the Cross. “Only Christ’s dying, not his now living to God,” can be ours. Hence there remains an “everlasting veil” between him and us. The disciple always follows at a distance. “The life he lives to God,” writes Frei, “is not accessible to us, although it is mirrored in all life.”
All this may seem far removed from where the book began, but Dawson remains true to his original quest. “The overwhelming presumption of classical Christian figural reading . . . is that the Christian Bible is read Christianly when it is seen to depict the ongoing historical outworkings of a divine intention to transform humanity over the course of time.” The Christian Bible is a book of the working out of divine agency in the history of Israel, the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and the calling together of a new community, the Church. If God has chosen to lead men and women to a new way of living through these occurrences, certain Jewish beliefs and practices can no longer have the same significance for Christians.
One concludes Dawson’s book wishing that he had drawn out the implications of his argument and taken up more explicitly the questions posed in the introduction about the relation of Christianity to Judaism. Several centuries after Origen, Pope Leo the Great said that “To speak of our Lord, the son of the blessed Virgin Mary, as true and perfect man, is of no value to us if we do not believe that he is descended from the line of ancestors set out in the Gospel.” Any discussion of the Christian relation to Judaism and the Jewish people turns on the Jewishness of Jesus and of his first followers. Even Maimonides understood that it was one thing to anticipate the Messianic age at some time in the distant future, but something else to claim that it had already begun. Because the things proclaimed by the prophets had taken place in their time, the disciples of Jesus believed that the end of the ages had dawned, and when they opened the sacred books anew the ancient oracles could not be read as earlier generations had read them. The Messianic age was not marked by catastrophic events as had been expected. When the Messiah comes, wrote Maimonides, “the world will follow its normal course.” For this reason the words of the prophets about, for example, a peaceable kingdom in which “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (Isaiah 11) are to be taken “figuratively.” Likewise, expressions used in connection with the Messiah must be understood “metaphorically.”
In the end, this is the argument that Origen made to his Jewish critics (and to Christian chiliasts): their view of what it means for the prophecies to be fulfilled is too restricted. He cheerfully acknowledged that the words of the prophets had not been fulfilled in the way many had envisioned. Yet something had happened—not only in the mind, but in the world of space and time. In Origen’s words: “The word of God itself, that Wisdom of God, . . . came to exist within the circumscribed limits of a man who appeared in Judea.” Christian interpreters did not impose an evanescent superstructure on the text without root in history or experience. They shunned a strictly literal or historical reading of the law and the prophets, not because they preferred spirit to history, but because they were members of a community that attended to a new series of historical events. If Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the prophecies about the Messianic age had already been fulfilled, and it was the task of the earliest Christians to discover what the scriptural promises meant in light of this new fact. Paradoxically, the spiritual sense was the historical sense.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.