Rowan A Greer and Margaret M. Mitchell, The “Belly-Myther” of Endor: Interpretations
of 1 Kingdoms 28 in the Early Church (Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature,
The authors present the patristic interpretations of the “Belly-Myther”, which was apparently a contentious issue, especially Eustathius against Origen’s interpretation, with other exegetes and theologians weighing in on the issue. As the authors point out, a few main issues seem to be at stake, which determined the ways the interpreters understood the passage. Where did Samuel’s soul reside? Simply in hell, preaching to the souls awaiting the Christ? Or in Abraham’s bosom among the righteous a chasm away from the evil? Was the “belly-myther” real, a charlatan, or a demon in disguise? Did Samuel, then, really come up, or was it a demon pretending to be Samuel? Would an evil demon-possessed “belly-myther” have power over righteous Samuel’s soul to bring him up? Would a soul who is brought up have any need of clothes? When the text of Scripture says that the “belly-myther” saw a figure, who was identified by Saul as being Samuel, can this be taken literally as being true because Scripture recounts it? Can the testimony of Saul be believed since he is an evil character, and controlled by demons? Since there is a lack of underlying consensus on the nature of the soul, as well as the destiny of the soul between death, Christ, and judgment, there is little clear answer on these subjects.
The author’s helpfully point out that Origen and Eustathius are both using forms of classical rhetoric in their interpretations, both to call their opponents as witnesses and to refute them. Placing their texts within this context greatly aids in understanding how these texts were meant to work to their audience. Even with this shared rhetorical background, there is great similarity between Origen and Eustathius concerning how they use complementary Scriptural texts, whether because of shared subject matter or shared word forms, and use them to tie into, and interpret, the base text.
Also, there is a helpful discussion of the cultural background of “belly-mythers” in classical thought. That the patristic writers understood the “belly-myther” to be a type of Delphic oracle aids in understanding why Eustathius in particular is so insistent upon saying that the “belly-myther” was demonic, and why he was so disturbed by the fact that Origen apparently had little problem with the idea that the “belly-myther” had any real power. Though even given this background Eustathius still seems to be a little over the top, considering that the Delphic oracle and similar things had long since lost popularity in civilized society.
To modern eyes, Eustathius’ use of the court-room rhetoric in order to disprove Origen seems to be not only excessive, but it also unhelpfully polarizes the discussion into two extremes. Diodore’s interpretation, in comparison, appears much more even handed.