Rodney Schofield asks which witch

Interpreting the Bible has never been simple or straightforward. From the earliest days of the Church texts have lent themselves to multiple readings, from some of which heresies grew. And, with the possibility of heterodox meanings being discovered, alarm was also generated that some readings were too fanciful, seemingly more in the way of eisegesis than exegesis. Origen, of course, is famous as a scholar who saw biblical truth as many-layered, with the historical or literal interpretation being the likeliest starting point, but open to deeper moral or spiritual truths emerging – provided these were not contradicted elsewhere. Yet his allegorical preferences were attacked later (for example, by Eustathius of Antioch) as sometimes too arbitrary. It was left for St Augustine of Hippo to write his profoundly influential De Doctrina Christiana as a magisterial discussion of the issues.

One passage in particular has caught my attention of late: the story of Saul’s visit to the ‘witch’ (more properly, the ‘medium’) of Endor, in which Samuel’s ghost is apparently summoned from the dead. This text in 1 Samuel 28 has always been problematic: what was really going on? Back in the third century BC the translators who produced the Greek Septuagint seemed to suggest that the medium was something of a ventriloquist, who spoke Samuel’s words for him. For later rabbis there was certainly an issue about where the deceased Samuel was to be located – in Sheol, perhaps, with countless other departed spirits, or – as a renowned judge and prophet – safe in God’s keeping under his throne, from whence it was unlikely that he could be disturbed.

Origen for once took the most literal reading, suggesting that here was clear evidence of life after death, very much the Church’s teaching. But Eustathius dissented; for him it was the devil who used the ‘witch’ to make Saul hallucinate, seeing a Samuel not actually there at all. Somewhere between these opposite views was the more common one spelt out earlier by Tertullian and others, that what was conjured up was not the shade of Samuel but a demon who looked like him. This is the version recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea in his historical account of Pionius’ trial before the magistrates of Smyrna, when the veracity of Christ’s own resurrection was being attacked.

But none of the church fathers to my knowledge took the line found in a very recent commentary on 1 Samuel by David Jobling, a scholar teaching now in Canada.

The Medium of Endor is a minister of religion, and a good one. She understands the need of the one who comes to her, she takes charge of the situation, she does what she can for him. In her technical capacity she efficiently performs the appropriate ceremony and gives Saul a satisfaction she realizes he must have even though it can do him no real good. In her larger capacity as minister to the whole person she insistently gets past his self-destructiveness, making him take the sustenance that in his desperation he would forego. All this she does for her bitter enemy, the one who would expel her and her colleagues from home and livelihood – with only the lightest, faintly humorous reproach.

Rodney Schofield researches at the University of Bristol.