The Hex√¶meron is the title of nine homilies delivered by St. Basil on the cosmogony of the opening chapters of Genesis. When and where they were delivered is quite uncertain. They are Lenten sermons, delivered at both the morning and evening services, and appear to have been listened to by working men. (Hom. iii.1.) Some words in Hom. viii. have confirmed the opinion that they were preached extempore, in accordance with what is believed to have been Basil's ordinary practice. Internal evidence points in the same direction, for though a marked contrast might be expected between the style of a work intended to be read, like the De Spiritu Sancto, and that of the orations to be spoken in public, the Hex√¶meron shews signs of being an unwritten composition.
In earlier ages, it was the most celebrated and admired of Basil's works. Photius (Migne, Pat. Gr. cxli) puts it first of all, and speaks warmly of its eloquence and force. As an example of oratory he would rank it with the works of Plato and Demosthenes.
Suidas singles it out for special praise. Jerome (De Viris Illust.) among Basil's works names only the Hex√¶meron, the De Sp. Scto, and the treatise Contra Eunomium.
That Basil's friends should think highly of it is only what might be expected. |Whenever I take his Hex√¶meron in hand,| says Gregory of Nazianzus, (Orat. xliii.67) |and quote its words, I am brought face to face with my Creator: I begin to understand the method of creation: I feel more awe than ever I did before, when I only looked at God's work with my eyes.|
Basil's brother Gregory, in the Prooemium to his own Hex√¶meron, speaks in exaggerated terms of Basil's work as inspired, and as being, in his opinion, as admirable as that of Moses.
The Hex√¶meron of Ambrose is rather an imitation than a translation or adaptation of that of Basil. Basil's Hex√¶meron was translated into Latin by Eustathius Afer (c. A.D.440) and is said to have been also translated by Dionysius Exiguus, the Scythian monk of the 6th C. to whom is due our custom of dating from the Saviour's birth.
More immediately interesting to English readers is the Anglo-Saxon abbreviation attributed to √Ülfric, Abbot of St. Albans in 969, and by some identified with the √Ülfric who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 996 to 1006. This is extant in a MS. numbered Junius 23 in the Bodleian Library, and was collated with the MS. Jun.47 in the same, a transcript of a MS. in the Hatton Collection, by the Rev. Henry W. Norman for his edition and translation published in 1848. It is nowhere a literal translation, but combines with the thoughts of St. Basil extracts from the Commentary upon Genesis of the Venerable Bede, as well as original matter. It is entitled
STI Basilii Exameron, ?eet Is Be Godes Six Daga Weorcvm.
|L'Hexam√©ron,| writes Fialon, |est l'explication de l'oeuvre des six jours, explication souvent tent√©e avant et apr√®s Saint Basile. Il n'est personne parmi les hommes, disait Th√©ophile d'Antioche au deuxi√®me si√®cle, qui puisse dignement faire le r√©cit et exposer toute l'ecomomie de l'oeuvre des six jours; e√Ľt il mille bouches et mille langues....Beaucoup d'ecrivains ont tente ce r√©cit; ils ont pris pour sujet, les uns la cr√©ation du monde, les autres l'origine de l'homme, et peut-√™tre n'ont ils pas fait jaillir une √©tincelle qui f√Ľt digne de la v√©rit√©.' Nous ne pouvons savoir ce que fut l'Hexam√©ron de Saint Hippolyte et nous ne savons gu√®re qu'une chose de celui d'Orig√®ne: c'est qu'il d√©naturait completement le r√©cit mosa√Įque et n'y voyait que des all√©gories. L'Hexam√©ron de Saint Basile, par la puret√© de la doctrine et la beaut√© du style, fit disparaitre tous ceux qui l'avaient pr√©c√©de.| So, too, bishop Fessler. |Sapienter, pie, et admodum eloquenter ist√¶ homil√¶ confect√¶ sunt; qu√¶dam explicationes physic√¶ profecto juxta placita scienti√¶ illius √¶tatis dijudicand√¶ sunt.| On the other hand the prominence of the |scienti√¶ illius √¶tatis| is probably the reason why the Hex√¶meron has received from adverse critics less favour than it deserves. |Diese letztern,| i.e. the Homilies in question, says B√∂hringer, |erlangten im Alterthum eine ganz unverdiente Ber√ľhmtheit....Die Art, wie Basil seine Aufgabe l√∂ste, ist diese; er nimmt die mosaische Erz√§hlung von der Sch√∂pfung Vers f√ľr Vers vor, erkl√§rt sie von dem naturhistorischen Standpunkt seiner Zeit aus, wobei er Gelegenheit nimmt, die Ansichten der griechischen Philosophen von der Weltsch√∂pfung u. s. w. zu widerlegen, und schliesst dann mit moralischer und religi√∂ser Nutzandwendung, um den Stoff auch f√ľr Geist und Herz seiner Zuh√∂rer fruchtbar zu machen. Es braucht indess kaum bemerkt zu werden, dass vom naturwissenschaftlichen wie exegetischen Standpunkt unserer Zeit diese Arbeit wenig Werth mehr hat.| The Three Cappadocians, p.61. But in truth the fact that Basil is not ahead of the science of his time is not to his discredit. It is to his credit that he is abreast with it; and this, with the exception of his geography, he appears to be. Of him we may say, as Bp. Lightfoot writes of St. Clement, in connexion with the crucial instance of the Phoenix, |it appears that he is not more credulous than the most learned and intelligent heathen writers of the preceding and following generations.| He reads the Book of Genesis in the light of the scientific knowledge of his age, and in the amplification and illustration of Holy Scripture by the supposed aid of this supposed knowledge, neither he nor his age stands alone. Later centuries may possibly not accept all the science of the XIXth.