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Figuring It Out: The Relationship between exemplum and figura in Ambrose of Milan’s De Abraham

Anthony J Thomas

The University of Minnesota

This paper considers the relationship of Roman exemplary discourse and Christian typological discourse in Ambrose of Milan’s De Abraham. Ambrose of Milan, as a provincial governor turned Christian bishop was a member of the rhetorically-trained late antique elite and thus familiar with Roman exemplary discourse. Both exemplum and figura create communities by creating links between the past (historical or legendary) and the present. Matthew Roller’s (2004 and 2018) work has greatly improved our understanding the Roman use of exempla, the rhetorical presentation of the extraordinary deeds as models for imitation. Similarly, much work has been done on the place of figural interpretation in the formation of a Christian discourse (for instance, Dawson 2001). Figural interpretation presents events in the “Old Testament” as anticipations of events in the life of Christ or the Christian community.

The use of exempla in Ambrose’s writings has begun to receive attention in recent years. Margaret Mohrmann (1995), focusing on Ambrose’s De Officiis, has demonstrated Ambrose’s preference for teaching morals by exempla rather than precepts. Marcia Colish (2005) has focused on Ambrose’s presentation of four Old Testament Patriarchs as models for the lay Christians. Andrew Harmon (2017), relying on Matthew Roller’s 2004 article, focusing primarily on Ambrose’s De Officiis, has shown the manner in which Ambrose’s appeals to Old Testament exempla function as an appeal to antiquity in the context of the Roman discourse of exemplarity. Similarly, much work has been done on the place of typology in Ambrose’s work (for instance, Jacob 1990 and 1993). Little work has been done, however, to consider how the discourse of exemplarity functions in Ambrose’s work to reframe typology in a manner appealing to his western, Latin audience.

This paper considers how Ambrose, in his homiletic commentary De Abraham, uses the language of the exemplum to frame his presentation of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) as a figure of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He does so by beginning the work with a passage that alludes to the contrast drawn in Cicero’s De Republica II.1 between the fictitious cities invented by philosophers and the historical verity of the Roman constitution. That exemplum is used to demonstrate the value of a new version of the classical Roman virtue of fides, loyalty to and faith in the Christian God. Ambrose discusses at length how those who hear the story of Abraham and Isaac learn zeal in obeying God. The exemplary function of Abraham is demonstrated especially clearly when Ambrose describes how Christian fathers gladly allow their sons to be martyred because of the example of Abraham and its typological fulfillment in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Ambrose, moreover, rather than giving his audience an Abraham whose faith is merely static, presents Abraham as a model of the growth in knowledge of the Trinity through faithful obedience to God’s commands. He emphasizes the fact that Abraham initially does not know about the ram that God would provide to replace Isaac (Genesis 22:10–14), let alone its function as a figure of Christ on the cross. By the end of the story, however, the unexpected gift of the sacrificial ram has revealed to Abraham Christ’s saving sacrifice and his divinity.

Ambrose thus presents Abraham’s life as a process of growth into knowledge of Christ’s divinity. In so doing, he perfomatively effects in his audience a similar development in their understanding of Christ in order to bring them from their initial ambivalence to theology (Williams 2017) to a belief in Christ’s divinity and its manifestation in “Old Testament” figurae. Ambrose thus makes use of traditional Roman exemplary discourse to form a communal identity for his Milanese audience centered around the experience of growing into knowledge of Christ. This paper demonstrates the ease with which early Christian authors like Ambrose interwove the discourses of exemplarity and typology and thus found a place for (their version of) Christianity in the late antique world.

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Late Antiquity

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