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Reading Asceticism: Exegetical Strategies in the Early Christian Rhetoric of Renunciation

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When in early Christianity the ascetic body came to occupy a central discursive position, exegetes needed to find in Scripture ballast for their changing cultural project. This essay identifies three strategies by which patristic exegetes appropriated for their own purposes an apparently "underasceticized" Hebrew and early Christian past. The writings of John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Origen, respectively, provide the textual base. Chrysostom minimized the difference separating ancient Hebrew from contemporary Christian values: Hebrew patriarchs and Christian ascetics were not to be hierarchically positioned in relation to each other. Rather, "difference" and "distinction" were signalled through an exegetically established and maintained hierarchy of husband over wife. A second interpretive option, represented by Jerome, accentuated the difference between the "carnality" of the Hebrew past and the "spirituality" of the Christian ascetic present. Although Jerome rejected the charges of "Manicheanism" hurled against him, he nonetheless accorded "distinction" to the ascetics of his own day through ingenious intertextual readings of Scripture. A third exegetical model, represented by Origen, circumvented the debate over the "difference in times" by abandoning any chronological trajectory between Hebrew past and Christian present. Here it was not ascetic bodies that were distinguished from marital ones, but reason from sense, virtue from vice-a choice open to both the celibate and the married. The essay thus seeks to correlate modes of exegesis with the debates over asceticism that were prominent in early Christian writing. It also suggests the usefulness of contemporary theory for appreciating the rhetoric of these Fathers' exegesis.


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