After experiencing a deluge of delightful visitors and not so delightful term papers, I am finally finding a bit of space to read and write. Over the last month or two, I have splashed about in Margaret M. Mitchell’s The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation (Louisville: WJK, 2002). I haven’t had sufficient time (or strength!) to swim through the whole of it, but as I have dipped in a toe here, and a finger there, I have certainly found it thoughtful and insightful.
John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) was an eloquent and fiery preacher (nicknamed “golden mouth”), famous for his willingness to fearlessly confront all his listeners with the word of God, including various members of the imperial family and court in Constantinople. His homilies were usually intensely exegetical, as John expertly drew forth the rhetorical potential latent in the biblical text–so much so that his sermons are still prized by biblical scholars today as valuable commentaries on the biblical text by a native Greek speaker.
Above all other saints, Chrysostom admired the Apostle Paul. In fact, he wrote seven homilies in praise of Saint Paul (all of which Mitchell translates into English in an appendix). In considering the portraits of Paul that Chrysostom paints in these homilies, I was struck by Mitchell’s insightful comments about the manner in which the mental images we hold of a biblical author impact our own textual interpretations when we are seeking to understand that author. With regard to Paul, Mitchell states, “I would argue on principle that all exegetical projects depend upon some explicit or (more often) implicit mental image of Paul, the author” (p. xix). All of this, of course, is not to say that we are caught in a vicious cycle in which the only Paul we can find is one that our own fancy creates. But nonetheless, it was a good reminder to me that we need to be self-critical as we ponder the mental images that we have developed over time with respect to the various biblical authors–perhaps especially those, such as Paul, who have become most familiar.