Christian History Timeline: The First Bible Teachers
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
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
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #80 in 2003]
Resources: Reading over the Fathers’ Shoulders
Here are several good guides to early exegesis, along with some of the best editions of the early interpreters’ own writings.Collin Hansen
John Newton: Did You Know?
Interesting and unusual facts about John Newton’s life and times.the Editors
From Bede’s world to Whitefield’s thumb.Compiled by Ted Olsen
Wesley’s word to a condemned malefactor.the Editors