Saturday, 11 April 2015

Ann Conway-Jones: An Ambiguous Type: The Figure of Aaron Interpreted by Gregory of Nyssa and Ephrem the Syrian

The biblical Aaron is an ambiguous figure.  Brother and spokesperson of Moses, Israel’s first high priest, he nevertheless plays a key role in the episode of the golden calf.  The fourth century Christian exegetes Gregory of Nyssa and Ephrem the Syrian, although writing in different languages, both scoured the Old Testament for types and symbols.  Sebastian Brock has listed a number of themes shared by Gregory and Ephrem.  David Taylor has even suggested considering seriously the possibility of direct influence.  In their interpretations of Aaron, however, they differ markedly.  Gregory sees Aaron as a type of humanity’s older brother: the intellectual, incorporeal angelic nature.  Angels, like brothers, can be good or bad, and Aaron encapsulates both possibilities (Vit. Moys. 2.42–53, 209–213).  Rather than splitting Aaron into two opposite poles, Ephrem places him halfway up Mount Sinai (Par. 2.12).  In Commentary on Exodus, he strenuously distinguishes him from the people, presenting a long list of excuses for his behaviour.  Aaron is a key figure for Ephrem because, like Moses, he wields a rod which prefigures the cross.  Even more importantly, his atoning and death-defeating priesthood (Num 17:41–50) comes down to John the Baptist through Elizabeth, daughter of Aaron (Luke 1:5), and then passes to Jesus at his baptism (Comm. Diat. 1.31, 4.3; Haer. 22.19).  Aaron’s halfway status, in that he holds back Death, but cannot resist Satan (Nis. 53.13), is symptomatic of Ephrem’s troubled relationship with Judaism.

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