The Apologists

100- 165 Justin Martyr, born a pagan at Naples, is the first to use Scripture methodically in his writings.

Late 2nd century Theophilus of Antioch is the first to quote primarily from the New Testament as "divine Word."

The Gnostic Crisis

Ca. 135 The Gnostic Epistle of Barnabas offers a completely spiritualized, figurative interpretation of Old Testament passages. Such Gnostic writings—some of which were discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945— pushed the church to refine its own understanding of the Old Testament.

144 Marcion of Sinope is excommunicated from his church and founds his own. He rejected the Old Testament, creating his own collection of New Testament books with Old Testament references cut out. This pushed the church to re-emphasize the Old Testament and to establish its own canon of New Testament writings.

185 In his detailed attack on the Gnostics, Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons appeals to the apostolic writings to show that the God of Moses is the same as the God and Father of Jesus Christ— thus the Old Testament must be taken as sacred Scripture.

The Alexandrian Tradition

Seeking the deep meanings

Ca. 20 B.C. - A.D. 50 Lifetime of Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish thinker and exegete who pioneered the allegorical method of interpretation to link the Hebrew Scriptures to Greek philosophy. His goal: an effective apologetic for Judaism in the Hellenistic world, with a success not lost on Clement and Origen of Alexandria. Those two Christian teachers picked up the method for the church and passed it on to Ambrose and others.

Late 2nd century Clement of Alexandria (ca. 60-215) responds to Gnostic teachings with a thorough, detailed exegesis of all of Scripture, combining allegorical methods and acute theological insights.

225 Origen publishes On First Principles, the first systematic treatise that provides a theoretical framework for biblical interpretation. This book promotes the allegorical method exemplified by Philo of Alexandria and Origen's own teacher Clement.

Early 3rd century Origen identifies three levels of spiritual meaning in Scripture: moral, mystical (dealing with the mystery of Christ and the church), and anagogical (leading to heavenly, transcendent reality).

245 After I 5 years of work, Origen completes his Hexapla, a six-column parallel edition of the Old Testament. It compares several Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible with the Hebrew original and its Greek transcription.

4 12-444 While bishop of Alexandria during these years, Cyril of Alexandria fills thousands of pages with verse-by-verse exegesis of Isaiah, the Psalms, the Gospels of John and Matthew, and other books. His eloquent, erudite interpretations of the Scriptures' spiritual sense enriched both the Western and the Eastern church for many centuries after his death.

The Latin Tradition

Adopting classical learning

Ca. 193 The lawyer Tertullian, raised as a pagan in Carthage, converts and begins to write passionate anti-pagan literature. He expressed his high view of the Bible as divinely inspired in a realistic rather than allegorical interpretive style. His principle was to let Scripture explain itself, by proceeding from clearer to more obscure passages.

Ca. 252 Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 200-258) writes On the Lord's Prayer, the West's first exegetical essay. It applies each verse of the Gospels to some aspect of the Christian's experience.

Early 360s Hilary of Poitiers, bishop from 350 to 367, writes the vast Commentary on the Psalms, written in classical style and applying to the biblical text the thought and style of Latin classical works.

End of 4th century Nesteros, an Egyptian monk, elaborates Ongen's three senses of Scripture into four: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical (heavenly). These became foundational categories for Western monastic interpretation.

375-397 In the midst of a very busy life as bishop of Milan, Ambrose (ca. 339-397) writes commentaries on parts of Genesis that joins moral instruction from the allegorical method of Philo and Origen with classical ethical sources.

380s Having discovered the only copy of Origen's Hexapla at Caesarea of Palestine, Jerome begins work on a Latin text of the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew. The resulting "Vulgate" became the Bible most widely used in the West. It introduced a principle still in use today—to understand the original setting and Semitic thinking behind the Scriptures. From 386 onward, Jerome worked from his monastery in Bethlehem.

ca. 430 By this date, Augustine of Hippo (b. 354) completed On Christian Doctrine. It explains how to distinguish passages that should be interpreted literally from those demanding an allegorical reading.

Antiochian and Syrian traditions

Interpretation rooted in history

312 Lucian, martyred in this year, founded the exegetical tradition of Antioch. Favoring literal interpretation and fidelity to Hebrew sources, Lucian made a revision of the Septuagint text more in line with the original Hebrew that was widely adopted by Eastern churches.

324 to 327 During these years Eustathius was bishop of Antioch. He wrote On the Witch of Endor Against Origen (on I Kings 28), criticizing the great Alexandrian exegete for undervaluing the historical nature of Scripture.

390 Diodore of Tarsus dies. The teacher of both John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore wrote commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible. He strongly opposed Origen's allegorical method, instead dedicating himself to close analysis of Scripture's words and grammatical structures.

392 Diodore's student Theodore (3 50-428) becomes bishop of Mopsuestia in Asia Minor. In his lifetime, he championed literal exegesis over against Origen's allegorical method. The Councils of Ephesus (431) and Constantinople (553), however, condemned Theodore's writings as heretical, and only recently have they enjoyed something of a renaissance.

397 John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) becomes patriarch of Constantinople. His many sermons (the most from any early father that survive to the modern day) are closely and carefully exegetical, and marked by twin concerns for literal meaning and practical application. His series of sermons from AD. 400 on the book of Acts is the only complete commentary on that book surviving from the patristic era.