Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Allegorical truth

Today's class in the Job class was devoted to book 3 of Gregory the Great's Morals in Job, one of the best-sellers of the Christian middle ages and a second example of Job interpretation guided by what Kugel calls the "Four Assumptions," the more familiar and unfamiliar for coming right after our reading from Baba Batra.

Gregory's Moralia in Iob became so significant because it's really a sprawly compendium of Christian teaching, from Bible interpretation through Christology through ethics. It can seem to be only accidentally about Job - if you're presenting all useful knowledge in a Bible ever referring to and interpreting itself, you could conceivably enter from any point. But Job isn't incidental. As an Old Testament type of Christ and as a moral exemplar whose experience of apparently unwarranted suffering is general enough to apply to most people, as a faithful man tormented by Satan and confronted by well-meaning but heretically-inclined friends whose various speeches are metaphorical enough to provide a segue for any topic, Job suggests that it all fits together.

Every passage is discussed in either its "historical," "allegorical" or "moral" sense - and often in more than one. Organizing interpretation - or theology - in this way suggests (Gregory would say shows) that you can't do moral theology without Christology, and you can't do either without the Bible. Which isn't to privilege the historical (literal) sense, as recognizing some passages as obscure, unlikely or even impossible at the literal level (Gregory thinks Job couldn't have cursed the day of his birth, for instance, since the likes of Job don't curse, and if they did, they wouldn't make curse something which already doesn't exist (IV.pref)) - is the way into the deeper meanings of the text.

We spent a good part of class just looking at Gregory's three discussions of the "potsherd" with which Job scraped his wounds - a detail of the story none of us had spent time thinking about before. At the historical level, the potsherd is taken up by Job as a reminder that he too is mud, as well as broken (III.vii.9). At the allegorical level, it is Christ taking on the "clay of our nature" (III.xvii.33), a clay which having "received firmness by fire" (the Passion) is able to scrape away the mud of sin:

And so the Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ, in giving up His Body into the hands of those who persecuted Him, scraped the humour with a potsherd, forasmuch as He put away sin by flesh; for He came, as it is written, in the likeness of sinful flesh, that He might condemn sin of sin [Rom. 8:3, Vulg]. And whilst He presented the purity of His own Flesh to the enemy, He cleansed away the defilements of ours. And by means of that flesh whereby the enemy held us captive, He made atonement for us whom He set free. For that which was made an instrument of sin by us, was by our Mediator converted for us into the instrument of righteousness.

In the moral reading, finally (III.xxx.58), the potsherd represents the "severity" with which we should examine ourselves, its edge given, as it were, by its reminder that we are mortal. "The humour is soon cleansed away if the frailty of our nature be taken up in thought, like a potsherd in the hand."

The three senses echo and enrich each other in various ways, making each word of the Biblical text seem to shine forth with arpeggios of significance. It's not that the Bible contains three levels, each on a different topic but all literally true once decoded or translated to that level. (A is B, but A is also C, so C is B...) The very understanding of meaning and truth is different. No word is or means just one thing, or even just three things. It resonates and harmonizes with other words and other usages of that same word. You could say it vibrates with significance. A isn't even just A.

The same is true, indeed, of every thing in creation.

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