The term hexaemeron is derived from two Greek words: the numeral "six" (ἓξ) and the noun "day" (ἡμέραι). It has been used in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions to refer to the opening of the Book of Genesis, where God's creative work brings forth the world and all its non-living and living creatures in a period of six days, followed by the seventh day of Sabbath rest. The term is also used to refer to commentaries on the six days of creation. Such commentaries became a means for patristic authors to offer a critique of cosmogonies that were widespread in the Greco-Roman culture, offering Christian writers the opportunity to present a Christian understanding of humanity and creation.
The first Jewish author to make use of this sort of terminology in reference to the work of creation was Philo, whose interpretation of the text of Genesis reflects the wider cultural context of Greek philosophy and inclines strongly to an allegorical style of interpretation. Philo wished to find some degree of harmony between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek philosophy current at that time. Moving from this base, he develops a theology of creation with numerous themes that will reappear in later Christian authors.
In Christian circles, the usage appears already in the second century in the work of Theophilos of Antioch and then in Origen, Basil of Caesarea, and Basil's brother, Gregory of Nyssa, among others. Following his usual, allegorical method of interpretation, Origen attempted to find the moral and allegorical meanings of the creation account, sometimes going so far as to see no real significance in the historical meaning of the text.
Basil used the Genesis text as the basis for a series of Lenten sermons that aim at laying out a Christian understanding of the created world in contrast with the metaphysical dualism of many pagan theories, which related material reality to a lesser, or even evil, principle. Basil presents a picture of the beauty of creation flowing from the work of the good and benevolent Creator. His descriptions of the world reflect the influence of Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus, among others. He thus displays a theological style that is aware of the best knowledge of the natural science and philosophy of his time. It is this quality that made this work particularly admired during Basil's own time, but that led later critics to find fault with it precisely because of what they saw as its outdated understanding of nature.
While Basil's homilies did not include the work of the sixth day, on which humanity was created, this theme is taken up by Gregory of Nyssa in his On the Creation of Man, which Gregory himself describes as the completion of Basil's work. In terms of style, this work is somewhat like a homily; in terms of content, it is above all a reflection on the anthropology involved in Genesis 1:26. Gregory also makes it clear that, on a number of important points concerning creation, such as the doctrine of the pre-existence of human souls, he disagrees with Origen. Here and in his later Book on the Hexaemeron Gregory describes the wisdom of God the Creator and defends the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the work of Basil. Both Basil and Gregory make an explicit point of their intent to explain the biblical text literally and not allegorically.
In Western Christianity, Ambrose of Milan was a significant figure in bringing the influence of Philo and the Greek Christian authors into the Latin tradition. In a series of nine Lenten sermons known as The Hexaemeron in Six Books, Ambrose provides remarkable descriptions of the physical world and discusses a number of philosophical theories common at his time. While at one level Ambrose, like Basil before him, deals with the literal meaning of the text, at another level he moves frequently to a form of symbolism and moral teaching that made his work important for the medieval authors. Without using the term hexaemeron, Augustine treats the account of the six days at two levels (On Genesis against the Manichees, Bk. 1). He acknowledges a literal meaning of the text. But of even greater significance is the spiritual interpretation in which the six days are seen as prophecy showing the six ages of human history, the six stages of human life, and the six stages of growth in the spiritual life. At each level, the seventh day of Sabbath rest symbolizes the reality of heaven.
One of the most complex instances of literature on the six days is found in the Collations on the Six Days by Bonaventure. This is a set of 23 collations given to Franciscan students and faculty at the University of Paris in 1273. The work is structured around an allegorical understanding of the six days of creation, culminating in the seventh day of Sabbath rest and an eighth day (repeating the first) of resurrection. The six days provide the framework for discussing a rich theology of history, describing various stages of history and the various levels of knowledge and contemplation that, in principle, would have culminated in the beatific vision of the seventh day. This provides the context for the development of a profound theology of revelation. Because of Bonaventure's appointment to the episcopacy and his work in preparation for the Council of Lyons, the collations were left incomplete, bringing his listeners and later readers to the fourth day and leaving only hints as to what the final two days might represent as stages of history and as levels of contemplative experience.
More recent biblical studies have frequently compared the biblical account of the six days of creation with the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. A critical reading of both leads many to the conclusion that there is no extensive relation between them. The biblical text, with its description of eight acts of creation spread over six days of divine creativity followed by the seventh day of Sabbath rest, reflects a distinctly biblical theology that has virtually no parallel in the Babylonian text.
In nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the six-day account of creation has been the object of much controversy concerning the relation between science and the Bible. Originally much of this was triggered by the theory of Charles Darwin concerning the evolution of species and particularly concerning the origin of the human race. More recently the conflict relates to the wider sense of the nature and development of the cosmos as a whole and not simply to theories of biological evolution. When the biblical text is taken to be a realistic description of the initial phase of cosmic history, it is seen by some to stand in radical contradiction to the contemporary scientific views on cosmic and human origins. But when the same text is read in the light of historical criticism, it is possible to distinguish between the religious message of the Bible and the physical cosmology assumed by the redactor of the present text. From this perspective, there seems to be no necessary conflict between the message of the Bible and the views of the contemporary sciences.
Bibliography: j. quasten, Patrology, v. 3 (Westminter, Md.1986). j. ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, tr. z. hayes (Chicago 1971). r. l. numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Berkeley 1992).