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  • Mere Stories and Ordinary Words
  • Stephen D. Benin (bio)

It was the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes of Colon who observed: “But if oxen [and horses] and lions had hands or could draw with hands and create works of art like those made by men, horses would draw pictures of gods like horses, and oxen of gods like oxen, and they would make the bodies [of their gods] in accordance with the form that each species possesses.” 1 Indeed, if animals understood or viewed their gods in their own forms, then, a fortiori, humans did the same thing. But humans, unlike animals, had texts that told of their god(s), and when it came to interpreting the sacred text of Judaism and Christianity, exegetes employed diverse hermeneutical techniques and stratagems to uncover truths about God.

One of the most prevalent, ubiquitous, and remarkable interpretive ideas employed freely and widely by interpreters of the sacred page was often discussed and studied repeatedly by Amos Funkenstein; namely, divine accommodation. 2 This richest of topics and deepest of insights into the religious culture of both Judaism and Christianity seemed to have captured Funkenstein’s attention from his earliest publications, found voice throughout his all too brief career, and received a fuller and more mature treatment in his last publications. 3 Accommodation maintained most simply that divine revelation was tempered by the infinite wisdom of an infinite deity to finite beings. That is, the sublime nature of divine revelation was too majestic and hence incomprehensible for humanity, and thus, in a merciful and compassionate act, the deity adjusted, modified, harmonized, and regulated his revelation to human limitations. This sort of act was visible and tangible in sacred texts, religious law, historical understanding, and philosophy. 4 The following pages will survey key passages and texts that represent the opulence of [End Page 83] the principle of divine accommodation, and the abundant uses uncovered in Funkenstein’s oeuvre.

The historical confrontation between Judaism and Christianity witnessed the early use of accommodation as a weapon in that struggle. 5 Indeed, as early as Justin and Irenaeus, arguments about the nature of the divine law and the role of history in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity became rather common and set the stage for later developments of these and similar themes. 6 Indeed, once the Law of Moses became—as it was seen in Galatians 3:1—a pedagogue until the advent of Christ, then there was some positive historical, if not theological, value in the Mosaic Code. That is, such a view seemed to suggest that the two dispensations were somehow historically conditioned or accommodated to different people at different times. An adequatio—an adjustment—or mutually convenient arrangement existed between man and the divine. 7

This notion would, of course, be found in Christian and Jewish thought and would become an idea with a lengthy pedigree. From Augustine of Hippo, who used the principle to answer all sorts of questions (like why Christ had not come sooner) to the second Augustine, Anselm of Havelberg, who invoked it to explain why changes appeared in the church of the twelfth century, accommodation enjoyed an extended and vibrant history. Funkenstein makes this quite clear in many of his writings. 8

For purposes of a closer examination of the principle of accommodation in Christian writings, I shall limit the analysis of Christian materials to Augustine. 9 It was Augustine who not only laid the foundation for subsequent Latin exegesis but also in many ways gave the fullest and most trenchant interpretation of exegesis in the early Church. In his De Vera Religione, Augustine, while attacking schismatics, gave eloquent voice to the notion of accommodation:

Whoever denies that both Testaments come from the same God for the reason that our people are not bound by the same sacraments as those by which the Jews were bound and are still bound, cannot deny that it would be perfectly just and possible for one father of a family to lay one set of commands upon those for whom he judged a harsher servitude to be useful, and a different set on those whom he deigned to adopt into a position of sons. If...

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