John Chrysostom’s pedagogical exegesis: The case of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9)

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The nature of John Chrysostom’s (ca. 349–407 C.E.) exegesis has been a contested matter among historians of early Christianity for some time. Traditionally, it has been understood that Chrysostom was part of the Antiochene school of exegesis, who preferred the literal interpretation of the text, gave attention to the rhetoric of the text, used typology, and tried to avoid allegory in general. This stands in contrast to the so-called Alexandrian school of exegesis, whose proponents preferred allegorical interpretations of ancient texts. But the dichotomy between Antiochene and Alexandrian schools of exegesis is no longer accepted as such, as Young (2002:161–215) and Fairbairn (2007:1–19) have shown.

Others, like Behr (2004) and Macdonald (2017), suggest that we should rather speak of pro-Nicene and anti-Nicene biblical interpretation, due to the lasting impact of the council of Nicaea on early Christian thought. But even this proves to be problematic, especially for understanding Chrysostom’s exegesis. When reading Chrysostom’s homilies, we see that he does not devote that much attention, explicitly, to doctrinal issues. One of the classic criticisms against Chrysostom is that he was more of a moralist than a theologian; however, this criticism is unfounded. Rylaarsdam’s (2014) important study shows that Chrysostom was more of a “rhetorical theologian”, and correctly states that a distinction between a theologian and a moralist, in the fourth century C.E., would not have existed.

How should we then understand the nature of Chrysostom’s exegesis? The purpose of this article is to show that Chrysostom follows what we might call “pedagogical exegesis”; that is, a mode of exegesis in which pedagogy, or teaching, gains precedence and even structures the exegetical discourse. This pedagogy is focused on human (and divine) behaviour, and especially aims to correct behaviour and cultivate good habits. The article also aims to delineate the features of this mode of exegesis. The main purpose of Chrysostom’s exegesis was to change people’s behaviour and habits (Maxwell 2009:118–68). The features of Chrysostom’s pedagogical exegesis are delineated by means of a case study, namely his exegesis of the narrative of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9). I have selected this case study because of its lasting influence on early Christian thought about communication, language, and identity, as Minets (2021:99–169) has shown more recently. This narrative, as will be demonstrated, proved to be ripe for pedagogical exegesis. The main source for Chrysostom’s exegesis of this narrative is his Homily 30 on Genesis, although other minor references in Chrysostom’s works are also examined.

The study illustrates that Chrysostom’s exegesis of this text is based on several pedagogical themes: 1) human beings do not know their limits; 2) the problem of humanity’s conceit and desire for remembrance; 3) God’s adaptation (συγκατάβασις) and patience; and 4) the notion that a righteous division is better than an evil unity.

In terms of the first pedagogical principle, we see Chrysostom here returning to one of his favourite moral themes, namely self-control and discipline. He argues that the people from the story of the tower of Babel did not recognise their limits, but always desired more. This is seen in their acts of conquering more lands, and even wanting to reach to the heavens by building the great tower (Gen. 11:1–2). Humanity is therefore never satisfied with their due and appropriate limits. We should note here that excess (ἀμετρία) in anything was a great vice. The caution of the tale, in this instance, is that people should learn be moderate and self-controlled, and not indulge in excessive vice.

The second pedagogical theme relates to the problem of humanity’s conceit and their longing for remembrance. Chrysostom lays emphasis on Gen. 11:4 here, which states that the reason for the building of the tower was to ensure the people had a great legacy and reputation after they were gone. He relates this problem to the interesting phenomenon in Roman culture of damnatio memoriae. This practice illustrates humanity’s obsession with being remembered. At the same time, Chrysostom also addresses the related problem of civic benefaction. Chrysostom states that people in his own time and society also want to build monuments, like large houses, baths, and porticos, to show their worth and assure their legacy. This represents the same sin as the people who built the tower of Babel. In response to this, Chrysostom advises his audience to build a reputation in heaven by caring and providing for the poor.

The third pedagogical theme is not related to human nature and behaviour, but to what might be deduced from God’s behaviour. In his interpretation of Gen. 11:5, in which the Lord descends to the people to see their endeavours, Chrysostom develops the theme of descent with reference to God’s adaptation, or συγκατάβασις. The notion of συγκατάβασις is central to Chrysostom’s biblical interpretation, and he reads it into the text of Gen. 11:5. God’s actions towards the people who sinned by building the tower only testify to his mercy and providence, and most of all, his desire to instruct humanity through the punishment of sin.

The fourth pedagogical theme introduces the notion that a righteous division is more beneficial than an evil unity. This principle serves to justify the confusion caused by multilingualism and the scattering of the peoples across the lands. Chrysostom contextualises this principle with that of the centrality of peace and concord in Roman culture. Peace (pax) and concord, or unity (concordia), were seen as fundamental virtues in the Roman world. But Chrysostom corrects this view, and notes that peace and unity should not come at the cost of doing evil. Division was therefore necessary and beneficial to humanity to control the effects of sin. Multilingualism, just like some other institutions, such as marriage, slavery, and imperial governance, functions as a bridle for sin, according to Chrysostom.

Thus, the article demonstrates that Chrysostom’s exegesis displays a clear pedagogical nature. He is less concerned with theological matters, as is seen with some other interpreters of the text, such as Augustine. Chrysostom rather wants to provide his audience with practical guidelines on how to behave and which good habits to cultivate. Thus, the people who built the tower of Babel function as exempla − examples of how not to behave. The theme of pedagogy is often explicitly noted in the texts, especially when discussing the nature of God’s behaviour and habits.

Keywords: exegesis; Genesis 11; John Chrysostom; multilingualism; pedagogy; tower of Babel


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Johannes Chrusostomus se pedagogiese eksegese: Die geval van die toring van Babel (Gen. 11:1–9)

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