Monday, February 19, 2018

What was the Hexapla?

What was the Hexapla? There is the question of what were the readings that were at one time in the Hexapla as presented herehere, and here. Then, there is the question of what was the Hexapla? We have to ask this question because it was not transmitted much (if at all), and there is no manuscript to date that we can point to and say, “that’s the Hexapla.” This is one of the saddest truths of literary history. Furthermore, these questions do not answer “Why the Hexapla?” or “How the Hexapla“, which are also interesting questions.

Quick Description

Now, the quick answer is that the Hexapla was Origen’s (ca. 185-254) six-columned synopsis containing the following versions of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: (1) the Hebrew text in Hebrew letters, (2) the Hebrew text in Greek letters, i.e., in Greek transliteration, (3) the Greek version of Aquila, (4) the Greek version of Symmachus, (5) the Greek version of the Seventy, and (6) the Greek version of Theodotion. So far this description matches the early patristic descriptions of Eusebius and Epiphanius of Salamis (who also say that for some books like Psalms, Origen had a Fifth and a Sixth edition; read about them here). Eusebius says:
Having collected all of these [Greek versions], he divided them into sections, and placed them opposite each other, with the indication (σημείωσις) itself of Hebrew [Ἑβραίων pl.] [versions?]. He thus left us the copies (ἀντίγραφον) of the so-called Hexapla, having arranged separately the edition (ἔκδοσις) of Aquila and Symmachus and Theodotion with the edition of the Seventy in the Tetrapla (Hist. eccl. 6.16.4; ANFP [adapted]).
The term σημείωσις “indication, inference from a sign” is an interesting way to describe a “text,” but perhaps this term indicates the Hebrew versions in Columns 1 and 2; that is, the Hebrew and its inference, meaning its sense or meaning in transliteration. Since he calls this work “the Hexapla“ and there are four Greek versions, he must envision the very “inference” of Hebrews as two texts. Now, there are two problems we should address.

Two Major Problems

(1) Was there a Hebrew text in Column 1? Some modern scholars have questioned whether there was a Hebrew column (P. Nautin), since our scarce manuscript remains of the synopsis do not preserve the Hebrew in Hebrew letters (remains of Column 2 can be clearly seen in the very important evidence presented in an earlier post by Dirk Jongkind on Rahlfs 86 and elsewhere). In an important paper on the palimpsests of the Cairo Geniza (Rahlfs 2005) and of the Milan Codex (Rahlfs 1098), R. G. Jenkins has shown that the remains of the synopsis in 2005 are best interpreted as a trimmed down leaf (NEW) of an originally larger leaf (OLD) capable of containing the six columns of the Hexapla. But in any case, the patristic description of the Hexapla in six columns, two Hebrew and four Greek, is fairly straightforward.

(2) Did the Fifth Column contain Critical Signs? In his Matthew Commentary (XV, 14; written post 244), Origen comments:
For when there are doubts about the Seventy on account of the disagreement of the copies, we, by making a judgment from the rest of the Versions, keep the agreement with these (= the rest of the Versions), and we use an obelus for some [Greek readings] <because> they are not in the Hebrew (not daring to remove any of these), and we place other readings under asterisks, in order that it might be clear that we have added the [readings] not present with the Seventy from the rest of the Versions to keep harmony with the Hebrew.
This text has been scrutinized but what is clear is that Origen used an asterisk (※) to mark text not in the Seventy but in the Hebrew and an obelus (÷; or sometimes described as a lance or spear) to mark text in the Seventy but not in the Hebrew. An oft missed observation on this passage is that Origen nowhere calls his work “the Hexapla“ here or elsewhere, yet this passage is often assumed to be a description of the Fifth column of the Hexapla. A better way forward could be to assume (which some scholars have done) that the differences between Versions would have been clear enough to the reader in the columnar synopsis and there would have been no need for these signs in the Hexapla. That would mean that in the Matthew Commentary Origen described another text of his in which he used the signs (what Eusebius called the Tetrapla, perhaps?). I have added to the speculation about what that text was here. But far more work needs to be done to answer this question satisfactorily.


So, in short, the Hexapla probably was a six-parallel-columned synopsis consisting of two “Hebrew” columns and four Greek columns. That Fifth column may not have included the critical signs, for probably the synopsis was sufficient for indicating the differences between the Hebrew and Greek versions. Origen probably used the signs in another edition, but more work needs to be done to answer that question.

Further Reading

Grafton, Anthony, and Megan Williams. Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Dines, Jennifer M. The Septuagint. London: T&T Clark, 2004.


  1. Six columns suggests a codex, but is there any evidence or indication of the type of book technology used?

    1. Not in the primary sources I've read, which don't indicate either way. Grafton and Williams argued that it was probably a codex that Origen used. And if Jenkins is correct about the exemplar of Ra 2005 (granted a later copy of Psalms), a codex was the medium. Have you read anything more on this question, that is, "How the Hexapla?"

    2. I'm in a reading group at the moment working through Contra Celsum and I've been pondering the book technology aspects of that composition (among other things!).

    3. I found Grafton and Williams quite helpful and stimulating on the imaginative use Origen made of the possibilities the codex form offers.
      Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams. Christianity and the Transformation of the Book (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006).

    4. PMH: if you are not careful, you will fall into a rabbit hole you can't get out of. "You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." - Morpheus to Neo :-)

      DJ: Yes, that's a good book on this issue. I have updated the post with a Further Reading section and have included it and the LXX Intro by J. Dines. Neither of these works, nor others I have read, have actually dealt with all of the primary evidence adequately. A quick example: almost all intros and monographs written since Mercati (1940's) have depended on his Greek retroversions of the Syriac colophons in the relevant MSS and have not looked at the MSS for themselves. This has created quite a bit of misinformation on the Hexapla and the Tetrapla in the 20th century. There's a project afoot to help bring some clarity to this matter, and I should have more updates on it in the coming months.