BMCR 2011.05.56

Mind, Text, and Commentary: Noetic Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and Evagrius Ponticus. Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity 6

, Mind, Text, and Commentary: Noetic Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and Evagrius Ponticus. Early Christianity in the Context of Antiquity 6. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2010. 416. ISBN 9783631602676. $98.95.


In this book, Stefaniw undertakes a deceptively simple task: describing the exegetical technique of the three ancient writers named in the title. Her observation is that the three all participated in “noetic exegesis,” a method of reading aimed toward “perceiving the noetic content of an authoritative text by means of noetic comprehension of the higher significance of the text and with a view to rehabilitating and cultivating the interpreter’s nous ” (12-13). For these three writers, reading was the use of the nous or intellect to comprehend those parts of texts likely to offer intellectual insights—traces of another world, one divine and naturally akin to the intellect. While this may seem at first glance an intervention of limited scope, Mind, Text, and Commentary represents a seed of disruption that if taken earnestly, as it should be, can realign our way of understanding texts, readers, and the alchemy that binds them, for it refuses to define a reading practice through the purported religious identity of the reader. Noetic exegesis and the assumptions that underlie it are “neither specifically nor exclusively Christian” (62).

Stefaniw operates in the same field as many scholars of Christian biblical interpretation, yet her work understands the process of reading differently, especially with respect to the relationship between reader, text, and society. Stefaniw acknowledges her debt to the scholars whose work in the last two decades has revitalized our understanding of Christians and the effects of their reading practices, Elizabeth Clark ( Reading Renunciation), Frances Young ( Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture) and David Dawson ( Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity; Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria) among them. What Stefaniw’s predecessors share is an interest in how reading practices allowed Christians to negotiate and perhaps to master the cultural discourses of late antiquity. Oriented outward from the Christian reader toward the wider world, the inventive work of these scholars helped most (but not all) of us get beyond the well-worn tropes of Antiochene “historical” and Alexandrian “allegorical” reading and to see how Christian reader and Christian text worked together in a specific way to influence society. Stefaniw reverses the perspective: instead of looking outward from the reader, wondering what readers were attempting to do to others—to rulers, to structures in the wider culture—with their interpretations, she looks inward, finding that Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius were really practicing reading as a method of self-development. What is more, their practice only happened to involve Christian texts. Noetic exegesis, Stefaniw argues, is best described by “the aims and concerns of the philosophical and pedagogical project” these intellectuals were engaged in, rather than by their “confessional allegiance” (22). Noetic exegetes were not contestants in a struggle to establish cultural coherence for Christianity, but practitioners of a cosmological experiment common to many in late ancient society, the discovery of intellectual knowledge through authoritative texts.

Stefaniw’s exposition explicitly follows a structure inspired by the journalist’s core interrogatives. First is “What?”, as in “What Manner of Thing Was the Text Believed To Be?” In this chapter, Stefaniw explains that noetic exegesis was enabled by particular beliefs about the nature of texts. Not all texts are static groups of words, but rather some are “designed to convey divine revelation of higher spiritual realities,” able to reveal to readers things unable to be borne in language (62). The authority of such texts was an evolving quality: the more that the practice of noetic exegesis yielded from a text, the more readers could be assured that a text was worthy of noetic exegesis. In this way, a “text read as revelatory, whose revelatory status has been practiced socially, becomes a doctrinally legitimised deposit of revelation” (60). The generality of this statement is key: the assumptions about texts that underlie noetic exegesis were not specifically Christian. Instead, Stefaniw argues that noetic exegetes were actively making the claim that Christian Scriptures could be read in the same way, with a “parallel status,” as the ancient Greek classics read by Plotinus and Porphyry (62).

In the next chapter, “Why: Under What Conditions Was Noetic Exegesis Considered Necessary?” Stefaniw explores the reasons this kind of exegesis was valued. Those performing noetic exegesis assumed that it could reveal information beyond the sensible world (which is “unreal, temporal, illusory”), allowing a reader access to the intelligible world (which is “invisible, higher, eternal and truly real”). As beings fully encompassed in the sensible, readers could use noetic practices to “circumvent the limitations of the embodied mind and enscripted revelation,” trusting that the text had hints that, for a reader properly trained, could unleash the intelligible (151). As Stefaniw points out, such assumptions have often been presented as the unfortunate psychological baggage smuggled into specifically Christian exegesis from the separate sphere of philosophy, either something a Christian writer had adopted as a tactic “to make the Bible comprehensible and acceptable to non-Christians” or the result of a situation in which the Christian could not think stringently or clearly and had “allowed himself to be ‘influenced’ by the larger culture” (152). Instead of seeing the product of noetic exegesis when practiced by Christians as a compromise, or worse a failure of nerve, Stefaniw explains how the interpretative results of noetic exegetes are common among all ancient writers who assume the cosmological divide between the sensible and the intelligible. That is to say, Stefaniw’s work allows us to sidestep the strange gymnastic routine of identity guessing.

Stefaniw wonders “How?” in the next chapter, subtitled “The Performance, Embodiment, and Acquisition of Noetic Skill.” The chapter is less a step-by-step set of instructions for producing noetic interpretations than it is a map of the anthropological assumptions and pedagogical contexts in which noetic exegesis took place. As Stefaniw explains, the process depended on the “moral and mental formation” of students in pedagogical settings. Through physical and moral training of body and soul, the nous could be supported, made supple, and brought to higher functioning levels, ever closer in nature to the intelligible world from which it came and which it was meant to grasp. These transformations were supported by the specific social structures of late ancient schooling—in the case of Origen and Didymus, relatively traditional educational circles, and in the case of Evagrius, an educational circle existing within the monastic framework. It is in this later context that a certain progressive understanding of the development of the nous is realized: the objects the nous is able to know are indicators of its advancement (248). Thus good noetic exegetes and good spiritual practitioners are (especially for Evagrius) one and the same. The knowledge that noetic exegetes released from the text was not knowledge in the form of new content, but rather a state of union, an acquaintance with the divine experienced within themselves.

The last of the interrogative chapters, “Where: The Social and Institutional Context of Noetic Exegesis,” fleshes out the pedagogical locations of such interpretation from what can be known of the schools and curricula of Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius. This is the most historically minded of the chapters and accomplishes the “thick description” that Stefaniw sets as her goal in the introduction to the whole work. Stefaniw notes the historical contortions necessary to limit noetic exegesis to Christians and Christian intellectual circles, and she concludes that “the curriculum which occurs in conjunction with noetic exegesis is by no means equivalent to explanation of basic tenets of the Christian faith or instruction in accepted doctrine” (361). Or, put more strongly, “the goal that is pursued [in noetic exegesis] is perfection in virtue and the full functioning of the nous, not baptism.” The lesson here is that to identify an ancient teacher by his or her religious identity is to impose unnecessarily on our understanding of his or her goals, practices, and ultimately, assumptions about truth.

As is likely obvious, the organization of the chapters after a series of questions has its benefits and its drawbacks. It is a creative approach to the problem of describing a new paradigm in the face of deeply ingrained scholarly tendencies, like the tendency to tie religious allegiance to style of reading. At the same time, the answers to the questions that head each chapter overlap in many ways; for example, the social contexts, cosmological assumptions, and patterns of supporting pedagogy for noetic exegesis are all treated in more than one chapter. The best thing for a reader to do is to take the chapters as stand-alone pieces, linked vignettes that introduce and explain, each from a slightly different angle, the concept of “noetic exegesis.” Given the extreme clarity with which Stefaniw treats these questions, a reader could be forgiven for wishing she had answered others as well: such as, “What reception did the products of noetic exegesis receive outside the limited social context in which it was practiced?” or “Was there pedagogical or social continuity among Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius that might lend context to their common practice?” Both of these would have required Stefaniw to work more closely with materials outside her focus on these three interpreters. These wishful questions, though, do not detract from the overall positive evaluation of the book.

In sum, Stefaniw’s work is both precise and challenging. The clarity of the language, the discipline of thought, and the ability to re-imagine the categories of ancient interpretation mark Mind, Text, and Commentary as a book that will require its readers to adjust to a new scholarly viewpoint. As Stefaniw writes, “Noetic exegesis is not only part of the gorgeously complex human behaviour of interpretation, but also an essentially late antique answer to questions about what the human mind is and what should be done with it” (386). Those questions were not determined in meaningful ways by an interpreter’s religious identity, and we as historians trying to understand the process of reading in antiquity may need to look past confessional allegiance to find other, more productive categories of study.