Aristobulus on Biblical Interpretaion

As quoted by Eusebius:

These are the accurate distinctions concerning the idea set forth allegorically in the sacred laws, which the High Priest gave to those Greeks who had come to him, thinking them likely to meet with the translations of the Scriptures which were about to be published. But it is time to hear what Aristobulus, who had partaken of Aristotle’s philosophy in addition to that of his own country, declared concerning the passages in the Sacred Books which are currently understood to refer to limbs of God’s body. This is that very man who is mentioned in the beginning of the Second Book of Maccabees:7 and in his writing addressed to King Ptolemy he too explains this principle.

[ARISTOBULUS] ‘WHEN, however, we had said enough in answer to the questions put before us, you also, O king, did further demand, why by our law there are intimations given of hands, and arm, and face, and feet, and walking, in the case of the Divine Power: which things shall receive a becoming explanation, and will not at all contradict the opinions which we have previously expressed.

‘But I would entreat you to take the interpretations in a natural way, and to hold fast the fitting conception of God, and not to fall off into the idea of a fabulous anthropomorphic constitution.

‘For our lawgiver Moses, when he wishes to express his meaning in various ways, announces certain arrangements of nature and preparations for mighty deeds, by adopting phrases applicable to other things, I mean to things outward and visible.

‘Those therefore who have a good understanding admire his wisdom, and the divine inspiration in consequence of which he has been proclaimed a prophet;8 among whom are the aforesaid philosophers and many others, including poets, who have borrowed important suggestions from him, and are admired accordingly.

‘But to those who are devoid of power and intelligence, and only cling close to the letter, he does not appear to explain any grand idea.

‘I shall begin then to interpret each particular signification, as far as I may be able. But if I shall fail to hit upon the truth, and to persuade you, do not impute the inconsistency to the Lawgiver, but to my want of ability to distinguish clearly the thoughts in his mind.

‘First then the word “hands” evidently has, even in our own case, a more general meaning. For when you as a king send out forces, wishing to accomplish some purpose, we say, The king has a mighty hand, and the hearers’ thoughts are carried to the power which you possess.

‘Now this is what Moses also signifies in our Law, when he speaks thus : “God brought thee forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand”;9 and again: “I will put forth My hand,” saith God, “and will smite the Egyptians.” 10 Again in the account of the death of the cattle Moses says to Pharaoh : “Behold, the hand of the Lord shall be upon thy cattle, and upon all that are in the fields a great death.” 11 So that the “hands” are understood of the power of God: for indeed it is easy to perceive that the whole strength of men and their active powers are in their hands.

‘Wherefore our Lawgiver, in saying that the effects are God’s hands, has made the word a beautiful metaphor of majesty. The constitution too of the world may well be called for its majesty God’s standing; for God is over all, and all things are subject unto Him, and have received from Him their station, so that men may comprehend that they are immovable. Now my meaning is like this, that heaven has never become earth, and earth heaven, nor the sun become the shining moon, nor again the moon become the sun, nor rivers seas, nor seas rivers.

‘And again in the case of living beings there is the same principle. For man will never be beast, nor beast man. In the case of all the rest too the same rule exists, of plants and all other things: they are not interchangeable, but are subject to the same changes in themselves, and to decay.

‘In these ways then God may rightly be spoken of as standing, since all things are set under Him. It is said too in the book of the Law that there was a descent of God upon the mountain, at the time when He was giving the Law, in order that all might behold the operation of God: for this is a manifest descent; and so any one wishing to guard safely the doctrine of God would interpret these circumstances as follows.12

‘It is declared that the mountain burned with fire, as the Lawgiver says, because God had descended upon it, and that there were the voices of trumpets, and the fire blazing so that none could withstand it.

‘For while the whole multitude, not less than a thousand thousands, besides those of unfit age, were assembled around the mount, the circuit of it being not less than five days’ journey, in every part of the view around them all as they were encamped the fire was seen blazing.

‘So that the descent was not local; for God is everywhere. But whereas the power of fire is beyond all things marvellous because it consumes everything, he could not have shown it blazing irresistibly, yet consuming nothing, unless there were the efficacy given to it from God.

‘For though the places were all ablaze, the fire did not actually consume any of the things which grew upon that mountain: but the herbage of all remained untouched by fire, and the voices of trumpets were loudly heard together with the lightning-like flashing of the fire, though there were no such instruments present nor any that sounded them, but all things were done by divine arrangement.

‘So that it is plain that the divine descent took place for these reasons, that the spectators might have a manifest comprehension of the several circumstances, that neither the fire which, as I said before, burnt nothing, nor the voices of the trumpets were produced by human action or a supply of instruments, but that God without any aid was exhibiting His own all-pervading majesty.’

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