Sunday, 3 May 2015

Mark Randall James: Anatomist of the Prophetic Word: Origen on Scientific and Hermeneutic Method

In a number of passages, Origen compares the task of interpreting the Scriptures to an anatomy of Scripture as a kind of body (Philocalia 10, Peri Archon 4.1.7, et al.). While Origen's frequent use of medical imagery is well-known, few scholars have observed that anatomy in particular was a contested practice in Origen's day. As R. J. Hankinson has shown, anatomy functioned as a powerful ancient symbol of the scientific pursuit of underlying causes or logos, for anatomy is quite literally an empirical investigation of matters that lie underneath the surface. Galen in particular made it a centerpiece of his medical practice because it symbolized his account of science as a process of constructing rational hypotheses about the underlying causes of phenomenona that must then by tested empirically.
Drawing on my dissertation research, I argue that Origen's comparisons between interpretation and anatomy should be interpreted against the background of ancient disputes about scientific method. Through a close reading of Philocalia 10, I show how Origen uses arguments similar to Galen's to draw a similar conclusion: Scripture interpretation is analogous to the procedures of ancient empirical science. I then briefly suggest that by taking seriously Origen's scientific aspirations, one can better explain the perception that Origen's exegesis is 'arbitrary.' This perception may arise, I suggest, if scholars abstract Origen's interpretive hypotheses from their methodological context within a larger process of empirical investigation.

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