Reading the Church Fathers discussion

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Gregory of Nyssa: Life of Moses > Mar. 30: Par.31-40

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message 1: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 1503 comments
31. .... It was then that Moses, urged on by divine power, performed the most incredible deed of all. He approached the bank and struck the sea with his rod. The sea split at the blow, just as a crack in glass runs straight across to the edge when a break occurs at any point. The whole sea was split like that from the top by the rod, and the break in the waters reached to the opposite bank. At the place where the sea parted, Moses went down into the deep with all the people and they were in the deep without getting wet and their bodies were still in the sunlight....


Exodus 14:21-22
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.


Gregory’s recounting of Parting the Red Sea is different from the Biblcal account. Why?


message 2: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 317 comments He interweaves into the narrative what this might have looked like. Setting the scene for us. What would you have observed had you stood on the shore with Moses. He is not embellishing things that aren't there. None of what he writes contradicts Scripture. He is fleshing out the short-hand of the Biblical narrative. There is a subtle difference, and common spiritual practice of contemplative prayer.


message 3: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 1503 comments As far as I can tell, there are two obvious differences between the two accounts.

First, in the Biblical account, Moses didn’t strike the sea with his staff. He stretched his hand over it instead.
Second, the sea wasn’t split by the rod like a crack in glass. It was separated by a strong wind over night. (I thought Gregory’s analogy was ingenious, but it wouldn’t work that way.)


message 4: by Ruth (new)

Ruth I had some problems with that way of retelling the history too. But I read in the introduction to this book that this was common in those times, to make sure that it was not too offensive to the Greeks of that time.

The preface says that since the Church was no longer persecuted, the times had changed and the gospel could be proclaimed also to "educated aristocrats and intellectuals, trained in the traditions of syncretic Hellenism". And then later: "the Hellenistic mind could hardly be receptive to the religious history of the obscure "barbarian" nation of the Jews."

Further on: "In the literal treatment of Moses' life Danielou has noted the presence of certain features from Jewish haggada —edifying amplification of the biblical text, accent on the miraculous with a denial of naturalist interpretations, and the suppression of shocking details or interpretation of them in a favorable sense."

So perhaps it was necessary in those times, to prevent the Greek audience from being too shocked to read further than the first page..


message 5: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 317 comments I assume he would have had a Greek translation of the Scriptures. The words used for Moses's action, did they assume he had something in his hands? I don't have the answer to that, just wondering. Moses is never pictured without his staff.

This line of thinking got me to the liturgical instrument of the crosier and how far back the history of it goes. I am always amazed how much of the Bible is liturgical.

I did a quick search of the translations I have, and none mention the staff or crosier in connection with the parting of the sea. But - in the wikipedia article on the crosier it says "During the Exodus, Moses stretches out his hand with the staff to part the Red Sea." - so there must be a connection here somewhere. A mystery to be solved :)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crosier


message 6: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 317 comments Ruth wrote: "So perhaps it was necessary in those times, to prevent the Greek audience from being too shocked to read further than the first page.."

You definitely still have a lot of paganism going on, at least residually. I am not sure how much of Greece and environs were Christianized by the 4th century. As we know from the rest of Europe, pagan traditions, often Christianized, hang on for a long time. And cultural sensitivities were there just as they are today. Though I am not sure what would have been considered as "shocking." My best guess here would be God on the Cross.

G.K. Chesterton also goes into the dynamic of mythology vs. Christianity in his book The Everlasting Man, but I haven't read far enough yet to give a satisfactory answer here. He argues that the paganism of Rome was supremely suited to accept Christianity as they had a paganism where the gods of family, home and hearth were at the center of belief. Greek mythology "had already produced a perversion among Greeks, due to the worst sophistry; the sophistry of simplicity. Just as they became unnatural by worshiping nature, so they actually became unmanly by worshiping man." I am eager to find out where he is going with this.


message 7: by Rex (new)

Rex | 16 comments Personally, I like the literary embellishment, done so skillfully. The interpretation (I would presume) remains the same, and St Gregory is clearly trying to impress his readers with a sense of wonder at the miraculous works of God visible in the life of Moses.


message 8: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 317 comments Rex wrote: "Personally, I like the literary embellishment, done so skillfully. The interpretation (I would presume) remains the same, and St Gregory is clearly trying to impress his readers with a sense of won..."

I do too :)


message 9: by Nemo (last edited Apr 01, 2018 02:19PM) (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 1503 comments Rex wrote: "Personally, I like the literary embellishment, done so skillfully. The interpretation (I would presume) remains the same, and St Gregory is clearly trying to impress his readers with a sense of won..."

Yes, literary embellishment is welcome when done skillfully and not contradictory to the text.

In this case, however, I was a bit wary about ascribing an action to Moses that he didn't perform, namely, striking the sea with his rod, because in another passage in the Scripture, he made the error of striking the rock with his rod when he was commanded to speak to it, and suffered for his error as a consequence.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/...

In addition, I have a hard time imagining the sea as a cracking glass, perhaps because I've lived most of my life on the coast, and know too well that the sea doesn't crack like glass. :)


message 10: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Kerstin wrote: "Though I am not sure what would have been considered as "shocking." My best guess here would be God on the Cross. "

I remember from Augustine's Confessions, or from the introduction course that I listened to, that for Augustine it was really difficult (as someone with a sophisticated education), to believe in all the 'harsh' and 'material' stories in the old testament. That is, all the violence and the bloody sacrifices. He only began to be open to Christendom when the bishop Ambrose explained the allegorical meaning to him.

So with that in my mind, I think that Moses killing someone in a fit of anger would be very shocking to the Greek philosophers, so much that they would no longer take him seriously. And perhaps the same holds true for the all too physical - down to earth - explanations of things.


message 11: by Kerstin (last edited Apr 05, 2018 08:24AM) (new)

Kerstin | 317 comments Ruth wrote: "I remember from Augustine's Confessions, or from the introduction course that I listened to, that for Augustine it was really difficult (as someone with a sophisticated education), to believe in all the 'harsh' and 'material' stories in the old testament. That is, all the violence and the bloody sacrifices. He only began to be open to Christendom when the bishop Ambrose explained the allegorical meaning to him."

I dug out the passage you're referring to. It has an interesting footnote:
At first the case Ambrose was making began to seem defensible to me, and I realized that the Catholic faith, in support of which I had believed nothing could be advanced against Manichean opponents, was in fact intellectually respectable. This realization was particularly keen when once, and again, and indeed frequently, I heard some difficult passage of the Old Testament explained figuratively; such passages had been death to me because I was taking them literally. (Book V, 14.24 Maria Boulding translation)

Footnote: One of the first practical details of doctrine that Ambrose's preaching gave the intellectually eager Augustine was how to understand Scripture rightly. The Manichees ridiculed the Old Testament because they had thought all passages were historical and literal; through Ambrose's method of preaching, however, Augustine came to see how many passages and images of Scripture are to be understood allegorically, conveying deeper truths that can be understood only in a spiritual sense. Allegory thus taught Augustine that Scripture means much more than what can be captured simply on the page. It is significant that the great orator's mind is beginning to wake up to the beauty of Christianity by first learning how to understand words rightly. (italics in text)
The literalist Manichean position of taking everything in the Bible as historical and literal is a perennial one shared by many fundamentalists to this day. As I understand it, the distinction depends on the genre of the individual text, i.e., the Song of Songs is a poem, etc. as much as identifying whether or not the content is to be taken as symbolical, allegorical, historical, etc. All of these are represented.

So with that in my mind, I think that Moses killing someone in a fit of anger would be very shocking to the Greek philosophers, so much that they would no longer take him seriously. And perhaps the same holds true for the all too physical - down to earth - explanations of things.

Then the Greek philosophers must not have taken their own mythology seriously :)


message 12: by Ruth (new)

Ruth O, I see. Thanks for looking that up. So his problem was that he couldn't see the point of reading those stories if they were *only* taken literally.

I agree with you about the fundamentalists taking things too literally.

I think the way of interpretation has indeed to do with the genre of the text, but I also think that very many parts of Scripture contain truths at multiple levels. Therefore Gregory tells both the historical and allegorical meaning.
I'm also slowly reading 'morals in Job' by Gregory the Great, who tells of almost every verse in the book of Job the historical, moral, and allegorical meaning.

Now I am again wondering why Gregory changed the details of the historical retelling, if it wasn't to avoid shocking idealistic philosophers.

I think that for an allegory to work you must first really understand the details of the story you want to explain and thus not change something like exactly how the sea split.


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