Sunday, November 01, 2009

Did the early church have any critical scholarship of Biblical texts?

Many people speak as though critical scholarship of Biblical texts is a recent phenomenon, something of which the early church knew nothing. Some familiarity with scholars of the early church should serve to make our impressions more accurate.


Origen (d. circa 254 A.D.) was a textual scholar with exceptional devotion to the task. His passion was largely directed towards ensuring that an accurate translation of the Old Testament existed in Greek. To the best of my knowledge, he is the first Christian scholar to mark up Biblical texts to show comparative additions and omissions with respect to another edition of the same text. He writes to Julius Africanus about his marked-up version:
Again, in Genesis, the words, “God saw that it was good,” when the firmament was made, are not found in the Hebrew, and there is no small dispute among them about this; and other instances are to be found in Genesis, which I marked, for the sake of distinction, with the sign the Greeks call an obelisk, as on the other hand I marked with an asterisk those passages in our copies which are not found in the Hebrew. (From a letter from Origen to Africanus, see #4 on the linked page.)
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first critical edition of a book of the Bible by a Christian scholar; it was made in the 200's A.D. Africanus' letter which drew this response is worth a read also. While he doesn't mention comparing editions side-by-side, he does direct a keen mind to the question of the authenticity and originality of certain passages. The correspondence of these two is the earliest instance I have been able to find of Christian scholars discussing the originality of and evidence for (and against) Biblical passages which are considered questionable. The greetings in their letters suggest that a scholarly community may already have existed that was interested in the topic at hand.

Origen's contributions to comparing the Biblical texts extended far beyond comparing two individual texts and marking additions or omissions. He also completed the monumental task of compiling a side-by-side comparative study of the Old Testament in its entirety, including four Greek translations of the Old Testament together with a Hebrew and a transliterated Hebrew edition. This resulted in a total of six editions laid out side-by-side to allow for easy comparisons among them; the work was known as the Hexapla.


Pamphilus (died 309 A.D.) was an influence on Eusebius and Jerome; Eusebius is sometimes known as "Eusebius Pamphilus" or "Eusebius Pamphili" as a tribute to this scholar. Pamphilus created one of the more well-stocked libraries of the early church at Caesarea in a day when not only was there no, there was also no printing press. Jerome remembers him as the one who had obtained a copy of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew which still existed in Jerome's day in the library (On Illustrious Men, comments under #3). Jerome relates that Pamphilus was also impressed with Origen's scholarship: "he transcribed the greater part of the works of Origen with his own hand and these are still preserved in the library at C├Žsarea." (On Illustrious Men, #75.) Anyone who is familiar with the volume of Origen's works will appreciate the size of effort taken to make copies of the majority of Origen's works. Pamphilus is said to be, along with Eusebius, "a most diligent investigator of the Holy Bible" (On Illustrious Men, #81). He provides a historical link in collecting, preserving and transmitting the scholarship of earlier Christians for the next generation of scholars. He also wrote an Apology for Origen, who was apparently rash enough to have needed it.

Eusebius the Historian

Eusebius (died circa 339 A.D.) was another prolific scholar in the early church, and another admirer of Origen's work. Though he is best remembered for his Church History, he also tried an ambitious project to compile the known histories of various nations into a more comprehensive world history. The general historian may be interested in the early histories he has passed on from various nations. For our present purposes, when he tries to chronicle the events from Jewish Scriptures, he decides to make separate treatment of the Hebrew text, the Septuagint translation into Greek, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. Eusebius mentions in his introductory notes to the Hebrew chronicle:
There is considerable disagreement among the Hebrews about their own chronology, so it will be good to commence by examining their differing accounts. By evaluating and comparing all of them, the truth will be arrived at. The five books of Moses describe the creation of the world, life before the flood, the history of the ancients after the flood, the generations of the Hebrews, and the passing of Moses. The Jews and the Samaritans, who were foreigners who came to live among the Jews, have differing versions of the books of the law. The characters of the Hebrew alphabet used by the Jews differ from those used by the Samaritans. The correct and original [alphabet] is not the one used by the [contemporary] Jews, because their descendants corrupted it. Yet there was no conflict between them [the Hebrews and the Samaritans] until the alteration of the letters. Furthermore there are numerous disagreements between the two with respect to chronology, as will become clear in the comparison below.

The Greek translation [of the Bible] also differs from the Hebrew, though not so much from the Samaritan [version]. There is disagreement [in chronology in the versions] up to the flood, but thereafter, until the time of Abraham, the versions are in harmony. The text we use was translated collectively by seventy Hebrew men from their language into Greek during the reign of Ptolemaeus Philadelphus. [Their translation] was placed in the library in the city of Alexandria, where it was carefully preserved. Now we shall set forth historical information from each of the versions, one after the other, so that it will be easy to distinguish the discrepancies.
At some point since Origen's Hexapla, Christian scholarship of the Old Testament had expanded to become aware of the Samaritan Pentateuch.

Eusebius is also the probable creator of a valuable textual study tool, now known as the Eusebian Canons, for locating parallel passages among the four gospels. This became a standard research and reference tool for those studying the gospels. Here, Eusebius built on and acknowledged the earlier work of the scholar Ammonius (probably early 200's A.D.). It should be difficult to imagine that nobody had noticed the parallels among the gospels in ancient times, given that reference tables had been compiled to locate parallel passages.


Jerome (died 420 A.D.) stood in what is, by now, a long line of Christian scholars with an interest in the text. He stands as a bridge between the rich history of Greek-speaking scholars of the text and a new generation of scholars who spoke Latin. Jerome is most famous as a translator, producing the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible which was used in western Christendom for many centuries. Rather than belabor all the work which would go into translating the entire Bible into Latin, it should be mentioned that he also prepared critical editions of some books, using the same system of marking that we already saw in Origen two centuries before. Here we see none less than St. Augustine writing Jerome about two critical editions/translations of the book of Job, one prepared from the Greek (with comparative critical marks to the Hebrew) and the other straight from the Hebrew:
In this letter I have further to say, that I have since heard that you have translated Job out of the original Hebrew, although in your own translation of the same prophet from the Greek tongue we had already a version of that book. In that earlier version you marked with asterisks the words found in the Hebrew but wanting in the Greek, and with obelisks the words found in the Greek but wanting in the Hebrew; and this was done with such astonishing exactness, that in some places we have every word distinguished by a separate asterisk, as a sign that these words are in the Hebrew, but not in the Greek. Now, however, in this more recent version from the Hebrew, there is not the same scrupulous fidelity as to the words; and it perplexes any thoughtful reader to understand either what was the reason for marking the asterisks in the former version with so much care that they indicate the absence from the Greek version of even the smallest grammatical particles which have not been rendered from the Hebrew, or what is the reason for so much less care having been taken in this recent version from the Hebrew to secure that these same particles be found in their own places. I would have put down here an extract or two in illustration of this criticism; but at present I have not access to the Ms. of the translation from the Hebrew. Since, however, your quick discernment anticipates and goes beyond not only what I have said, but also what I meant to say, you already understand, I think, enough to be able, by giving the reason for the plan which you have adopted, to explain what perplexes me. (Letter from Augustine to Jerome, from #3 in linked page)
To this Jerome replied rather sharply that Augustine should "desist from annoying an old man, who seeks retirement in his monastic cell," and that "As for me, a soldier once, but a retired veteran now, it becomes me rather to applaud the victories won by you and others, than with my worn-out body to take part in the conflict." (Letter from Jerome to Augustine, see #3 on the linked page.) Augustine's marvel over the "astonishing exactness" of the young Jerome's critical editions may have led to his disappointment when, in his old age, Jerome no longer had the time or energy to produce new critical editions on the same level as before. For my part, I can't help but feel that Jerome's rest was well-deserved; he had already made enduring contributions to the life of the church.


Here I have surveyed the early scholars who are familiar to me, or who are friends or key sources of those familiar scholars. I cannot imagine how anyone familiar with these men and their work could say that early church had no true scholars of the texts. The modern scholar assumes study tools and critical approaches to the text that the early church helped to develop. While we may disagree with them at points, we still stand in the debt of the textual scholars of the early church.

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