The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture– Part Six

The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture– Part Six January 26, 2016


Eusebius (ca. 260-340 A.D.), is of course best known for his work Ecclesiastical History for which he came to be dubbed the ‘father of church history’. It is only in more recent decades that research has focused more on Eusebius as a Biblical commentator, and still more recently his Isaiah commentary has been unearthed, analyzed and made available (1999). It is clear enough that Eusebius is cognizant of earlier approaches to interpreting the Bible in the Christian tradition, but his teacher was taught by Origen, and so he does indeed stand in the line of the Alexandrian exegetes though he lived in Caesarea Maritima in the Holy Land, and was bishop there. He, like Origen, is concerned with various Greek translations of Isaiah, and textual variants, and he does not think that the deep meaning of the Biblical text necessarily lies right on the surface of the text. He is supercessionist and apologetic in his interpretation of Isaiah, wanting to demonstrate that it was prophesied all along that the church was to be God’s people, though he concedes that before Christ there were faithful Jews who were God’s people. While Jerome was later to accuse Eusebius of lapsing into allegory like Origen, in fact Eusebius focuses on two sorts of senses he found in the Biblical text—literal and spiritual, and sometimes they were intertwined. Childs thinks that Eusebius saw the spiritual sense as a metaphorical extension of the literal sense.

Eusebius demonstrates a clear concern to get at the literal meaning of the text, and interestingly he uses etymology for that task, not to get at a deeper spiritual meaning of the text. As a genuine scholar, Eusebius compared and contrasted four Greek versions of the Biblical text— the LXX, Theodition, Symmachus, and Aquila arguing that the latter was closest to the Hebrew text. This sort of careful scholarship was undertaken precisely because Eusebius wanted to understand the literal sense of the text. His tendency was to prefer the reading which provided the most coherent meaning. Eusebius did not see the spiritual sense of the text as a ‘second’ meaning but rather as the inner and supernatural dimension of the historical events which the text literally reported. For example, the defeat of the Babylonians by Cyrus is shown to be a historical event but the deeper meaning has to do with the defeat of idolatry and the Devil. Both OT and NT and early church events are seen to be prophesied in the Scriptures (including the Roman peace through Constantine). There is much less allegory than in Origen, but references to water and animals usually prompted allegorical reflections, in the former case about baptism or the Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly, he brings a Christian and Christological perspective to the interpretation of both testaments, and Childs avers that this is the hermeneutic that is really driving interpretation for the most part. Childs is right as well that in a sense Eusebius reflects a combination of the Alexandrian and Antiochian approaches to the text, concerned with both the spiritual and the literal meaning of the text. It is interesting as well that after Nicaea Eusebius focused more on realized than on future eschatology (there are less references to the second coming in his Isaiah and later work), seeing the no long persecuted church as the fulfillment of prophecy and the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth. We are on the road to Augustine’s City of God.

There are three works of Eusebius which reveal his approach to Isaiah, the Prophetic Selections, the Proof of the Gospel, and finally his commentary on Isaiah, written in that order, with the last being written somewhere between the time of the first and second sessions of Nicaea, so after 325. Unlike Marcion and the Gnostics, Eusebius sees the OT as fully inspired and speaking always of the Biblical God who is the Father of Jesus. The prophecies in Isaiah receive a literal fulfillment in Christ. In fact Eusebius defends the historical substance and validity of the prophecies, including those in Isaiah.
Eusebius uses the whole of Isaiah to present the Gospel, with texts being applied to everything from the virginal conception (Is. 7.14 of course), to the death and resurrection (Is. 52-53 of course), to the return of Christ and the kingdom come fully on earth (Is. 62-66). We will focus on his interpretation of Is. 7.14 for a moment. He is well aware of the Jewish rebuttal of the Christian interpretation of the text, namely that it refers to an ordinary birth of Hezekiah. He responds: 1) that the LXX translators knew what they were doing when they used parthenos which is more technical than ‘young nubile woman’ (neanis) and anyway Deut. 22.27 shows that even the latter word could mean ‘virgin’; 2) that a normal birth is hardly a ‘sign’ but Isaiah calls it that; 3) Immanuel can hardly be Hezekiah since he was already sixteen when Ahaz began to reign. Whereas Prophetic Selections works its way through Isaiah, interpreting in a Christian manner, Proof of the Gospel sets up theological categories and slots texts into them, providing proof-texts for a Biblical theology. “Eusebius chooses to concentrate on chapters 6,7,8, and 9, which he immediately sets within the context of John’s prologue in chapter 1 and he continues to weave his Isaiah texts with New Testament citations to produce a sort of ‘biblical theology’ of the Incarnation.” In other words, Eusebius is indeed ‘reading backwards’. He starts with John 12.41 which says Isaiah saw Christ glory, and says this (described in Is. 6) with the guidance of the Spirit is what led Isaiah to prophesy Christ’s birth from a virgin, and also in Is.6 the hardening of the Jews, which includes the continual opposition by Jews to the Gospel in the church age. Eusebius also sees a perfect and literal fit between Is. 35 and the ministry of Jesus in which the blind did really receive their sight, as well as a literal fit between Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and what Is. 9 and 11 say (with help from Micah 5 and Ps. 132).

It is Eusebius, who’s commentary on Isaiah set a precedent, that established the practice of line by line commenting on a Biblical book. In interpreting Is. 2.2-4 coupled with Is. 66.18-23 Eusebius sees a prophecy of universal salvation with the nations flowing to Zion in search of the law of Christ which replaces the law of Moses. Interestingly, in his Isaiah commentary, Eusebius even suggests in his exposition on Is. 7 that some explanation must be given for why Isaiah speaks in the singular ‘you shall call his name Immanuel’ whereas Mt. 2.23 has the plural ‘they will call his name’. Eusebius takes this to mean that the prophecy originally was directed only to the house of David, whereas the plural in Matthew indicates it is now for everyone. Immanuel then becomes a foreshadowing of Jesus. The notion of double fulfillment seems to be in play here. Part of the problem here is that Eusebius seems to take Immanuel to be an actual name, rather than a title or throne name.
Eusebius interprets the stump of Is. 11 to refer to the dead end destiny of the race of David, whereas the shoot of Jesse is a reference to Jesus, humble and poor but equipped with wisdom, understanding and might to rule. Interestingly, in his treatment of Is. 35 in the Isaiah commentary he focuses less on Jesus as a healer, and instead sees the church’s baptism as the bath of regeneration transforming the land. And yet, Eusebius is apparently the first Christian writer to treat the Cyrus prophecy in Is. 44-45 at length in a historical manner (though there are scattered hints in Origen) over against Barnabas, Irenaeus and Tertullian who read ‘to Christ my Lord’ rather than ‘to Cyrus’. Eusebius repeats the legend found in Josephus Ant. 11.1-7 that Cyrus knew the prophecy of Isaiah because it was shown to him by Jews. Interestingly, Eusebius spends much time pondering the Incarnation on the basis of Isaiah, for example he joins Is. 61.1 to 60.22b and sees a reference to the two natures of Christ, one referring to ‘the Lord’ (i.e. the divine side of who he was) and the other to the recipient of the Spirit, and so he interprets Luke’s use of Is. 61 in Lk. 4.16ff. to refer to the divine anointing of Jesus by the Spirit.

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