Origen’s View of “Jewish Fables” in Genesis (Marc Hirshman)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, pp. 245-254:

origen

In the pastoral letter to Titus, Paul is said to have warned the Cretans from heeding ἰουδαϊκοῖς μύθοις καὶ ἐντολαῖς ἀνθρώπων ‘Jewish myths and human commandments’ (Titus 1:14).1 It would seem that the author is warning the audience against the Jewish misunderstanding of Scripture on two fronts, aggadah and halakhah, interpretation and observance. This passage from Titus concerning Jewish fables is cited on numerous occasions by the Church Fathers. We will investigate Origen’s particular use of the notion of Jewish fables. We will briefly canvass here other pejorative invocations of myth in the New Testament, though not specifically called Jewish. In another of the pastoral epistles, we hear of a warning against τοὺς δὲ βεβήλους καὶ γραώδεις μύθους ‘profane and old wives’ myths which are to be avoided’ (1 Tim 4:7). I would like to focus on Origen’s usage of ‘mythos’ in his Homilies on Genesis and elsewhere, and compare those places where he denigrates interpretations as ‘mythos’ to the treatment of those passages in Genesis Rabbah. Our inquiry will proceed on two levels. The first level is the alleged content of the Jewish ‘mythos,’ what is it that Origen is not willing to accept and therefore relegates to ‘mythos.’ Secondly, but in a most lapidary manner, I would like to call for a reassessment of the function and status of biblical stories in general in the Jewish and Christian traditions. For in 2 Pet 1:16, a book whose earliest attestation is Origen himself, the author claims his source for the power of Jesus is not ‘tales artfully spun’ (σεσοφισμένοις μύθοις) but rather his own eyewitness testimony. In this short introductory paragraph we have mentioned three of the five usages of ‘mythos’ in the New Testament, all in late passages (i.e. Titus 1:14; 1 Tim 4:7; 2 Pet 1:16). We will add one more from the pastoral letter of 2 Timothy that opposes ‘mythos’ to ‘alethos,’ καὶ ἀπὸ μὲν τῆς ἀληθείας τὴν ἀκοὴν ἀποστρέψουσιν ἐπὶ δὲ τοὺς μύθους ἐκτραπήσονται ‘instead of listening to truth people will turn to “mythos” ’ (2 Tim 4:4).

Papyrus fragment of Origen's commentary on Genesis
Papyrus fragment of Origen’s commentary on Genesis

In his Homilies on Genesis, Origen is steadfast in his refusal to see the saints and the patriarchs alike as anything but paragons of virtue who achieved extraordinary levels of spirituality. When treating the binding of Isaac, Origen declares that only through Paul’s mediation can he, Origen, venture to comprehend ‘the thoughts of the great patriarch’ (Hom.Gen. 8.1). But most telling is his refusal to accept the literal reading of the story of Abraham, Sarah and Abimelech and its parallels. Origen sums up his allegorical reading of the section with the following declaration:

Let the Church of God (. . .) in this way uphold the deeds of the fathers with a fitting and honorable interpretation, in this way not disgrace the words of the holy spirit with foolish and Jewish fables, but reckon them to be full of honor, full of virtue and usefulness. Otherwise, what edification will we receive when we read that Abraham, such a great patriarch, not only lied to King Abimelech, but also surrendered his wife’s chastity to him? In what way does the wife of so great a patriarch edify us if she is supposed to have been exposed to defilements through marital indulgence? These things are what the Jews suppose, along with those who are friends of the letter, not of the spirit. (Hom.Gen. 6.3)

Icon of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church who used the writings of the Theologian Origen of Alexandria.
Icon of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church who used the writings of the Theologian Origen of Alexandria.

Interestingly, according to this allegorical thrust there is no room for any development in the characters of Scripture. Every saint, patriarch or matriarch, has to be a thoroughly pious, unflawed character in each and every verse. This radically conservative approach is even more striking when one considers that Origen’s works were built around a dynamic progression that the reader was supposed to undergo. Yet in our context, Origen insisted that each of the heroes of scripture was to be a static, flawless image, for the adherent to imitate to the best of their ability. Thus, to represent a fallible patriarch or matriarch is ‘disgraceful’ and is one of those Jewish myths propounded by Jewish exegetes.

Later, Origen will defend Joseph with great dexterity against the charge that Joseph, the holy man according to Origen, had reduced the Egyptians to slavery and acquired all their possessions for Pharaoh. There Origen contends that:

(. . .) the statement itself of Scripture excuses the administration of the holy man when it says that the Egyptians sold themselves and their possessions. Blame therefore is not reflected on the administrator (. . .). (Hom.Gen. 16.2)

Origen’s defense of Joseph and removal of blame is very close to the language Jerome will use to defend Sarah against charges of impropriety, as we will see…

Origen’s refusal to see development in his holy characters accords well with his insistence that Scripture does not simply tell stories:

Do we think that it is the Holy Spirit’s intention to write stories and to narrate how a child was weaned and a feast was made, how he played and did other childish things? Or should we understand by these things that he wishes to teach us something divine and worthy that the human race might learn from the words of God. (Hom.Gen. 7.1)

Origen3

Toward the end of the Homilies on Genesis, Origen returns to this theme and says quite bluntly, ‘Nor is Scripture devoted so much to historical narratives as to things and ideas which are mystical’ (Hom.Gen. 15.1). One must see Scripture as a genre set apart, uniformly efficacious. As always, Origen is combating at least two opponents at once. At the same time that he is vociferously opposed to what he calls the Jewish ‘fabulous,’ that is fable ridden, interpretation of Scripture, he is at pains to defend Scripture from the attacks of ‘(. . .) the philosophers (who) despise these stories as fabulous and formed in the like of poetic fictions’ (Hom.Gen. 3.1). Indeed, Origen’s usage of the Greek word ‘mythos’ elsewhere in his writings is clearly in opposition to ‘truth.’ So, for example, in his Contra Celsum he says to the Jew:

What you adduce as myths, we regard also as such; but the statements of the Scripture which are common to us both, in which not only you, but we also, take pride, we do not at all regard as myths. (Contr.Cels. II.58; Ante-Nicene Fathers p. 455)

The pagan intellectual Celsus
The pagan intellectual Celsus

When Celsus claims that the biblical narrative is simply Jewish mythmaking (ἐμυθολόγησαν) for little children, Origen is quick to upbraid Celsus for his hostility, unbecoming to a philosopher, and calls Scripture (τὴν ἀρχαιοτάτην Ἰουδαίων γραφήν), ancient Jewish writings (Contr.Cels. IV.41). So, in our example, one need distinguish between the ancient Jewish writing about Sarah and Abraham, and the Jewish false interpretation of it, ‘mythologos,’ that disparages Abraham. This ‘mythical’ reading is, as de Lange has noted, simply the Jewish literal reading of Scripture (de Lange 1976, 104–105 and n. 8). The valence of myth here is, as its usage from Plato’s time and on, falsity, the opposite of truth (Naddaf 1998, x). In effect, Origen has replaced ‘mythos’ with ‘mystikos’ and as such there is no storyline but rather mystical interpretations.

Origen is generally devoted to interpretation on three levels, the first being the historical or narrative line. Why here is he so adamant in his refusal to read the story on a literal level? Why is this gifted exegete stymied by the seemingly sordid plot which casts aspersions on the ‘great patriarch’ and raises doubts as to Sarah’s status as his wife? …

On the other hand, Jerome, over a century after Origen, had no compunctions about castigating Abraham:

(. . .) it is possible for Sarai to be freed from blame because in the time of famine she was alone in foreign places and unable to resist the king, and her husband was conniving at the deed (. . .). (Quaest.Gen. 12:15–16)

In his learned article on narrative aggadah in patristic literature, Adam Kamesar cites Origen’s view that the Jews were privy to three different kinds of sources when they came to interpret scripture. These were ‘unwritten tradition, conjecture, and apochrypha (i.e. apochryphal writings).’ Both Origen and Jerome availed themselves of these traditions, after carefully weighing their validity and possible contribution to the understanding of the historical narrative. But, as the Talmud says, the question has returned to its place. Why does Origen, on the one hand, whitewash the ‘sister’ story, and why is the midrash, on the other hand, unusually unequivocal in its reprimanding of Abraham, and once in the most acerbic of terms?

The tenor of Origen’s homilies seems to be of someone embattled, defensive of his interpretation and irritated by his audience’s lack of attention to both Scripture and Origen’s own words. Let me give a few examples. Homilies 10, 11, 13 and 14 all revolve around the motif of the well, first Rebekah, then Hagar, followed by two with Isaac. Origen notes this proclivity in Scripture and says in the thirteenth homily, ‘We are always encountering the habitual works of the patriarchs regarding wells’ (Hom.Gen. 13.1). And according to Origen:

(. . .) each of us who serves the word of God digs wells and seeks “living water”, from which he may renew his hearers. (. . .) if I shall attempt to remove the veil of the Law and to show that the things which have been written “allegorical”, I am indeed digging wells. But immediately the friends of the letter will stir up malicious charges against me (. . .). (Hom.Gen. 13.3)

The wells that Abraham dug and were filled up by the Philistines, represent, according to Origen, prophecies from Moses and on ‘which the earthy and squalid understanding of the Jews had filled’ (Hom.Gen. 13.2). They are filled with earth by ‘those who teach the law carnally and defile the waters of the holy spirit’ (Hom.Gen. 13.2). Origen declares himself a follower of Paul in his allegorical interpretation (Hom.Gen. 10.5). But Origen is not just waging a battle in terms of the nature of interpretation, but also vigorously combating his audience’s indifference. He rails against their lack of church attendance (Hom.Gen. 10.1) as well as their inattentiveness even when they are in church—‘you waste your time on common everyday stories; you turn your backs to the word of God or to the divine readings’ (ibid.). In direct contrast, he shortly after castigates them with high rhetoric for their attitude to what is taught in Scripture:

Do you think these are tales and that the Holy Spirit tells stories in Scripture (. . .) All these things which are written are mysteries. (Hom.Gen. 10.2)

Or in another earlier homily, cited above, but worth rehearsing in this context:

Do we think that it is the Holy Spirit’s intention to write stories and to narrate how a child was weaned, and a feast was made, how he played and did other childish acts? Or should we understand by these things that he wishes to teach us something divine and worthy that the human race might learn from the words of God? (Hom.Gen. 7.1)

Origen’s Father is an Orthodox Saint (Saint Leonides)
Origen’s Father is an Orthodox Saint (Saint Leonides)

Origen’s embattled position forces him to distinguish his understanding of Scripture, indeed Scripture itself, from everyday stories on the one hand and clumsy, earthy Jewish fables on the other hand. There is room only for the mysterious and the spiritual.

Thus, the patriarchs themselves are, according to Origen, to be understood as types of Jesus (Hom.Gen. 14.1) and are each one comparable to the stars of creation to be planted firmly in the soul of the believer (Hom.Gen. 1.7). Origen’s reluctance to accord to some of the stories of Genesis (some but not all—he is at pains, for example, to explain the physical construction and geometry of Noah’s ark [Hom.Gen. 2.1–2]) any ‘historical’ valence is a compelling problem and has recently received a penetrating analysis in J. Christopher King’s, Origen on the Song of Songs as the Spirit of Scripture (2005). These ‘bodiless texts’ as he calls them, which Origen called skandala, stumbling blocks, are intended to interrupt any naive reading of Scripture and point one to a higher reading. Origen is also open to the proposition that Scripture ‘recorded the acts of the righteous and the sins that these same persons occasionally committed’. King sums up Origen’s view on this saying ‘God has placed these in Scripture not for the edification of the mature reader, who has no need of such elementary lessons in the just life, but for the guidance and moral reproof of the beginner.’ On the whole, the economics of Origen’s view of Scripture, does not allow for an expansive treatment of the mundane and the everyday, even if the pedestrian sometimes points to the ethical. Scripture must be uniquely beneficial and is generally pointed to the higher spiritual realms…

Do Origen and the Rabbis represent diverse approaches to understandings of the sanctity and import of the ‘everyday’ mundane or pedestrian in the narrative of Scripture and its intent? While discussing the opposing interpretations of the narrative of the circumcision, Origen compares his interpretation ‘with your8 Jewish fables and disgusting stories’ [Hom.Gen. 3.6]. The thought of God commanding a physical circumcision disgusts the church father. … Origen pressed Scripture to the utmost, seeking to squeeze mystical meaning out of every passage. …

2nd Council of Constantinople (553) condemns Origen
2nd Council of Constantinople (553) condemns Origen

NOTES

1 Translations are the author’s own unless otherwise stated.

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