What is Prosopological Exegesis?

September 28, 2015 — 1 Comment

Bates-Bookcover-1In have been going through a series of posts on Matthew Bates’ book (The Hermeneutics of Apostolic Proclamation: The Center of Paul’s Method of Scriptural Interpretation (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012).

Today I will offer his summary and criteria for prosopological exegesis (PE).

PE is a technique of interpreting Scripture common in the early church. As Bates describes it, PE “explains a text by suggesting that the author of the text identified various persons or characters (prosopa) as speakers or addressees in a pre-text, even though it is not clear from the pre-text itself that such persons are in view” (183).

The sociocultural backgrounds to PE in antiquity are 1) literary composition as a divinely inspired endeavor, 2) the world of theater, and 3) educational activities.

Bates comes up with the following technical definition for PE.

Prosopological exegesis is a reading technique whereby an interpreter seeks to overcome a real or perceived ambiguity regarding the identity of the speakers or addressees (or both) in the divinely inspired source text by assigning nontrivial prosopa (i.e., nontrivial vis-à-vis the “plain sense” of the text) to the speakers or addressees (or both) in order to make sense of the text (218).

He says there are four criteria for detecting PE.

(1) Speech/dialogue: the pre-text must involve a person who is speaking.

(2) Nontriviality of person: the speaker in the pre-text must be ambiguous or not identified.

(3) Introductory formulas or markers: the exegete usually (but not always) indicates in the text who he believes the speaker to be.

(4) Intertextual evidence: especially in the case where (3) is absent, if contemporary or later texts use PE to interpret a given pre-text, it is more likely that the text under consideration is also using PE when interpreting the same pre-text. Bates seems to be particularly interested reception history here.

This means that when Paul interprets the OT he sometimes attributes the speech to the Father, sometimes to Christ, sometimes to the Spirit, and at other times to other people.

Here is an example. Romans 10:16 reads

But not all have obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “O Lord, who has believed our audible message?

The quotation in the latter half of this verse is from Isa 53:1a. This verse fits the criteria, as it involves a direct address to the Lord by a speaker, and this speaker is ambiguous (“our” cannot simply refer to Isaiah). Using the insights of PE, Bates argues that the ultimate “speaker” of Isa 53:1a is not the prophet Isaiah himself but Isaiah speaking “as” the apostles of Christ. This reading is confirmed by Justin Martyr and Origen.

Paul believed that Isaiah was speaking in the character of future apostles and that the dramatic setting was Paul’s own present.

Brief Evaluation

I think there is something to this, but I also find it overly complex. Can’t we get the same results by a simple recontextualizing hermeneutic acknowledging that the Scriptures have a divine author who speaks both in and across time? Paul may be using this method, but for the classroom setting I would be more prone to looking at some underpinning assumptions about the nature of Scripture and how texts are appropriated rather than going through this explanation which is hard to summarize.

This does not mean Bates is not onto something, but there could be different avenues of arriving at this conclusion.


Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

One response to What is Prosopological Exegesis?

  1. Thanks for this. Do you have any more thoughts on prosopological exegesis to share three years later? Or could you point me to any other sources on it? I read Sanders’ introduction to it in The Triune God and Carter’s reporting of Augustine’s use of it in Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.

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