Sunday, March 22, 2009

Origen and early textual scholarship of the Bible

Origen of Alexandria (circa 185-254 A.D.) was a prominent scholar in the early church. At times controversial -- whether for his rashness, his political missteps, his theological borrowings from Greek philosophers or his seeming universalism -- he was an uncommonly prolific writer and made lasting contributions to the scholarship of the church. His contributions were of such value that they were not outweighed by the controversy, and secured him both prominent defenders among early Christian leaders and a distinguished place among the scholars within the early church.

Perhaps his most impressive contribution to scholarship was the Hexapla. In the church of his day, there were variant translations of the Old Testament into Greek. In view of these variant readings, he undertook to review them, analyze them, compare them to the original Hebrew – and publish the results, creating a tool that enabled later scholars to pursue the same line of study more easily. The Hexapla was a ground-breaking work in textual scholarship of the Bible in which six (occasionally more) editions of the Old Testament were laid out side-by-side. I will pass along the description of the Hexapla given us by the church historian Eusebius:
So meticulous was the scrutiny to which Origen subjected the Scriptural books that he even mastered the Hebrew language, and secured for himself a copy, in the actual Hebrew script, of the original documents circulating among the Jews. Moreover, he hunted out the published translations of Holy Writ other than the Septuagint, and in addition to the versions in common use – those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion – he discovered several alternative translations. These had been lost for many years – I don’t know where – but he hunted them out of their hiding-places and brought them to light. These were wrapped in mystery, and he had no idea who wrote them; the only thing he could say was that he had found one at Nicopolis near Actium and the other at some similar place. Anyway, in his Hexapla of the Psalms, after the four familiar versions he placed in parallel columns not only a fifth but a sixth and seventh translation; in the case of one, he has added a note that it was found at Jericho in a jar during the reign of Antoninus, the son of Severus. All these he combined in one volume, breaking them up into clauses and setting them side by side in parallel columns, along with the original Hebrew text. Thus he has left us the copies of the Hexapla, as it is called. In a separate publication he put the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion alongside the Septuagint, in his Tetrapla. (History, 6.16)
In the days before word processing, the monumental work of creating the Hexapla and Tetrapla took years of Origen’s life to complete. This also resulted in a corrected critical edition of the Septuagint translation of the Bible, considered more authoritative by Jerome than the older translation which had not undergone critical review in comparison to the Hebrew received text.

Origen’s contributions – and the church’s unqualified gratitude for his textual studies – show that the early church was not interested in suppressing variant readings, but in studying them. Origen’s scholarly approach – and the recognition it received – was a mark of the intellectual integrity of both the scholar and the church that praised and welcomed his contribution to the field of textual criticism of the Bible.


Tony-Allen said...

I've read Origen's criticism of the Masoretic text, and always meant to do more research on it. The controversy surrounding him is unfortunate, since many might pull the Tu Quoque logical fallacy to diminish his teachings (the tu quoque says that because a person was wrong about A they must be wrong about B as well).

I think it's interesting when you discuss how the early church was more interested in studying variant readings than destroying them, especially if you compare it to other sacred scripture. A Muslim caliphate later released an "official" copy of the Koran and burned all the versions that he deemed "variations," something forgotten about by Muslims who believe the Koran they hold now is the same Koran the early Muslims had.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey there

Good to see you again. I've been praying for you re: some of the things you've mentioned on your blog, & hope all is going well. (I know, it would have made more sense for me to click over there and leave a comment at your blog. Sorry about that, my own lack of focus there.)

I'm not quite sure how close Origen's Hebrew was to the actual Masoretic text. That would be a very interesting question. It's one of the questions scholars try to answer with the LXX and the Samaritan Pentateuch: how much has the Masoretic text changed over the years? It doesn't seem like the Hexapla has survived except in quotations, excerpts, sections, that kind of thing, though there's a new edition in the works. Back in the hand-copying days it would have been massively expensive to copy, requiring scribes who knew both Greek and Hebrew rather than your run-of-the-mill scribe ...

I'm sure at some point they did a little standardizing of the hand-copied NT texts too, though there are so many old citations -- and modifications and doubtful text tended to be marked -- that we have a lot of evidence of old readings before anything of that kind would have had any traction.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Now that was a scholar.

Of course, he wasn't distracted by phones, e-mail, TV, etc.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Thanks for stopping by.

I saw an unsourced comment that Origen had actually taken decades to complete his work. If that pan's out: That's dedication. But I didn't have a chance to source the fact yet, so I didn't include it ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF