Monday, March 06, 2017

Origen on Textual Criticism and Biblical Authority

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Over at his blog, Alex Poulos has posted an interesting translation of Origen’s sermon on Psalm 78 (LXX 77). The issue at hand for Origen involves the first verse: “I shall open my mouth in parables, I shall speak riddles as from the beginning.” This is quoted in Matt 13.35 and the problem is that Origen’s text of Matthew attributes this not to a prophet generically, but to Isaiah specifically. This is the reading found today in 01*, Θ, f1, 13, 33, pc. Origen explains this as a simple scribal mistake:
It’s likely that one of the very first scribes found the text, “so that what was said through the prophet Asaph,” and supposed that it was an error because he did not realize that Asaph was a prophet. This caused him rashly to write “Isaiah” instead of “Asaph” because of his unfamiliarity with the prophet’s name.
But then he goes on to discuss the theological cause of textual corruption.
Now it must be said that the devil generally plots against living creatures and plans to divide the churches, to contrive heresies and schisms, and to produce countless stumbling blocks among men. It’s no surprise, then, that he also plots against the scriptures. Since our salvation is through them, he contrives to introduce discrepancies among them, so that through these discrepancies readers might be scandalized. Which are we to heed, this one or that one? You know all that we have labored over for God and for his grace, in juxtaposing the Hebrew text and the other editions to ascertain the proper correction of these mistakes. He will also grant aid in all that we want to do about the rest.
He proceeds, in Augustinian fashion (cf. ch. 1 §3 here), to say that such obvious mistakes must be attributed either to our ignorance or to scribes, but not to God.
Now one must acknowledge this, that if someone ever proposes something as a contradiction in the scripture, we must not regard these as contradictions, as we know that either we don’t understand something or a scribal error has occurred...
This does not, however, mean that Origen is in favor of “correcting” any old problem he finds in the text. Rather, he says
So we see that the devil plots against the scriptures, but we must not, therefore, rashly resort to correcting the text. For Marcion suffered from something of this sort in supposing that the scriptures were in error and that the devil had brought about additions. So he entrusted himself with the task of correcting the scripture. In so doing, he cut out from the foundations necessary parts of the gospels, like the birth of the savior, and countless others, like the visions and prophecies, and necessary parts of the apostle. 
Perhaps most interestingly, he suggests that because of such tampering with the text, one might be better off trusting God first for what they learn of him in nature and in the church than what they read of him in Scripture:
As such, it’s reasonable for one to have faith in the maker of heaven and earth and all within them more because of the universe and the order in it, than because of the scriptures. Likewise, it’s reasonable for one to believe in Christ Jesus more because of the clear display of his power in the churches, and from the multitude of the might he shows in ruling the world, than because the scriptures. Only afterwards should one then come to the scriptures, and even then, one should ask again for grace from God, so that we don’t misunderstand what has been written.
Clearly, Origen does not intend to demean the importance of the Scriptures through which, he says, “our salvation comes.” It seems rather that Scripture is placed second in terms of epistemology. Perhaps modern advances in textual criticism would have encouraged Origen to change his tune on this, but who knows.

You can read the whole text and Alex’s thoughts on it here

11 comments :

  1. Thanks so much for the link! I'm glad you found the passage as interesting as I did. I have to think that Origen would have been heartened by advances in text criticism, though I suspect he would still want natural revelation and the church to be epistemically prior. It would be a worthwhile study to see how Origen's exegetical and hermeneutical approach(es) might fit with traditional protestant notions of perspicuity of scripture, etc. Perhaps it's even already been done, I don't know about it!

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    1. Alex, that's a great question. From this it seems that Origen's view would clash with Protestant's.

      Thanks again for the post (and the translation).

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  2. I invived Amy Donaldson to present a paper on "Explicit References to Variant Readings among the Church Fathers and Their Application to Modern Textual Criticism"at the SNTS in Montreal last year in which this passage was her final and most elaborated example.

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    1. Her dissertation is great. Do you know if she plans to publish her SNTS paper?

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  3. I have proposed that and I know she is considering it.

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  4. By the way, there is an interesting question, if the original text did not specify a prophet at all (as per NA), then how did Isaiah get into the text in the first place?

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  5. Thank you, Tommy, for bringing this discussion to my attention. The main point I brought up in reference to Origen's comments here is that Jerome (as he so often does) repeated Origen's argument about this variant (that is, Asaph was the original reading) in his homily on this Psalm and in his Commentary on Matthew. Until Origen's homilies were recently rediscovered, we only had Jerome's testimony to the variant reading (or, conjecture) "Asaph," which has worked its way into our critical apparatus. My argument is that I think Origen's evidence clearly shows that Jerome's argument is borrowed from Origen and that it is Origen's conjecture, not firsthand testimony by Jerome (or Origen) to early manuscripts that contained the reading "Asaph." It is also interesting more broadly to compare Jerome's homily to Origen's homily at this point. Although their discussions cover different details, Jerome follows the same basic theme as Origen, using Matt. 13:35 to launch a larger discussion of scribal errors.

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  6. On the question of how Isaiah's name got into the text of Matthew 13:35 -- the same way that his name got inserted in other places, as I describe in my defense of the Byzantine reading of Mark 1:2, at http://www.curtisvillechristianchurch.org/MarkOneTwo.htm .

    It's a facet of the scribal mechanism that tended to name the nameless -- which should justify the canon, "Prefer the less specific variant."

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    1. Thanks James. That's helpful and I agree that scribes would naturally fill such vacuums. The only problem is that most of your "other places" involve explicit citations from Isaiah, or at least have such a citation nearby. So Matt 13.35 still looks odd. Scribes have been known to do odd things of course.

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  7. Just FYI I gave a paper on this homily at MWSBL in Feb 2016, SWSBL in March 2016, NAPS May 2016 and SBL/AAR Nov 2016; the article is in press now to appear in Adamantius (2017),in case of interest. This is a fascinating and important homily for text-critical and other reasons. MMM

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  8. PS happy to send an advance proof to anyone who's interested (mmm17@uchicago.edu).

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