Academic journal article Theological Studies

Exegesis of Biblical Theophanies in Byzantine Hymnography: Rewritten Bible?

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Exegesis of Biblical Theophanies in Byzantine Hymnography: Rewritten Bible?

Article excerpt

THE INTERPRETATION OF BIBLICAL THEOPHANIES holds an important place in the polemical and catechetical articulation of early Christianity's religious claims. While considerable attention has been given to the exegesis of theophanies in the New Testament and other early Christian (especially pre-Nicene) writings, the use of theophanies in Christian hymns has received far less attention. This is unfortunate, because by the very nature of its performative character, hymnographic material has enjoyed a wider circulation and reception than most patristic writings. The following pages will take into consideration Byzantine hymns of a distinct type, whose roots stretch back to the early patristic era, and that are still in use in Eastern Orthodox worship. I will first discuss the hymnographic exegesis of specific biblical theophanies (e.g., God's manifestation to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel) and then attempt to "categorize" this type of exegesis. As will become apparent, the biblical exegesis present in these hymns is difficult to frame within the categories commonly used to describe patristic exegesis. Perhaps surprisingly, it appears that the closest parallels can be drawn to the category "Rewritten Bible," current among scholars who investigate the biblical interpretation of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.


It is often said that Byzantine hymnography is "dogmatic," because the hymns function as a vehicle for dogmatic statements. (1) The hymns that I shall discuss in this article, however, are not of the dogmatic type. (2) They are compositions connected with the so-called Improperia tradition. I have in mind, first, hymns of the "Improperia tradition," a term by which, following Hansjorg Auf der Maur, I understand the various earlier forms of the tradition that also found expression in the Improperia of the Roman Good Friday liturgy. (3) A second category comprises hymns of Holy Week that do not evince the "Tadel- und Vorwurfs-Schema" but are nevertheless intimately connected with the Reproaches. (4) Finally, I consider other festal hymns that are obviously modeled after the hymns of the second category. (5)

"Byzantine hymnography" as we know it today is the result of intense interaction between the liturgical centers of the Christian East--namely, St. Sabbas Monastery in Palestine, the "Great Church" and the Stoudios monastery in Constantinople, and the monastic community of Mount Athos--over a period ranging from the end of the iconoclastic crisis (8th-9th century) to the wake of the Hesychastic debate (14th century). However, the hymnographic material itself existed prior to its codification, scattered in loose collections of hymns. (6)

"In Jerusalem lies the key," asserts Robert Taft, "to much of the present-day Byzantine Rite, and to its Holy Week Triduum ceremonies." (7) The same holds true for pascal hymnography and, in fact, for hymnography in general. Indeed, as Peter Jeffery has shown, "it was Jerusalem that produced the earliest annual cycle of chants, the earliest known true chantbook, and the first repertories organized in eight modes." (8) Some of the Byzantine festal hymns--more than 200, according to Jeffery (9)--are found in the eighth-to-tenth century manuscript of the Georgian Iadgari (roughly "chantbook"), which contains a translation of hymns used at Jerusalem; some also occur in the Georgian lectionary. (10) The Greek hymnographic material preserved in these sources is now dated to late fourth or early fifth century. (11)

Scholars have pointed out the extraordinary diffusion of the Improperia compositions in Syriac, Greek, and Latin liturgical usage; in patristic writers such as Aphrahat, Ephrem of Nineveh, Jacob of Serugh, Melito of Sardis, Cyril of Jerusalem, Asterius Sophistes, Romanos the Melodist, Pseudo-Cyprian (the author of Adversus Iudaeos); in the sermon "On the Soul and the Body" ascribed to Alexander of Alexandria and preserved only in Coptic; in New Testament Apocrypha such as the Acts of Pilate, the Acts of Thomas, and the Gospel of Bartholomew. …

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