The Orthodox Patristic Teaching on “The Curse of Ham” and the Origin of Black People

NOTE: “The Curse of Ham” is a misnomer for the curse upon Canaan that was imposed by the biblical patriarch Noah. The narrative occurs in the Book of Genesis and concerns Noah’s drunkenness and the accompanying shameful act perpetrated by his son Ham the father of Canaan (Gen. 9:20–27).

Noah Dunk Mosaic

This article is not about the various terms used in Patristic and Hagiographic literature that denote an anti-Black sentiment. This article examines the racist Patristic teaching concerning the Orthodox Christian belief on where black people originate—i.e. When Noah cursed Canaan, he also cursed that God make his face black. This belief is rooted in an older Talmudic Tradition that was accepted and taught by the early Church Fathers. Essentially, Canaan, or Ham’s, white skin was changed into black through Noah’s curse. These early Patristic teachings also led to the later biblical justification of colonialism and the African slave trade, since Noah’s statement that Canaan should be the slave of Japheth and Shem was translated into blacks, or “Hamites,” should be subject to whites as a result of the “Curse of Ham” [Genesis 9:18-29].

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Though today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans,1 the early Patristic texts recognized three races: the descendants of Noah’s three sons, Japheth, Shem, and Canaan. For an Orthodox Christian, “the Holy Fathers—the ‘mind of the church’—are the key to the understanding of Genesis.

Chronology of a Racist Patristic Teaching (Later writers of the non-Chalcedonian churches are also included to illustrate that this teaching is universal amongst both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches):

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.

Origen (ca. 185-254): ―For the Egyptians are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of the vices. Look at the origin of the race and you will discover that their father Cham, who had laughed at his father‘s nakedness, deserved a judgment of this kind, that his son Chanaan should be a servant to his brothers, in which case the condition of bondage would prove the wickedness of his conduct. Not without merit, therefore, does the discolored posterity imitate the ignobility of the race.2

St. Ephraim the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373): “When Noah awoke and was told what Canaan did, Noah said, ‘Cursed be Canaan and may God make his face black,’ and immediately the face of Canaan changed; so did of his father Ham, and their white faces became black and dark and their color changed.”3

The Cave of Treasures [attributed to St. Ephraim the Syrian] (4th century): Gives the explanation that Canaan’s curse was actually earned because he revived the sinful music and arts of Cain’s progeny that had been before the flood.4 “And Canaan was cursed because he had dared to do this, and his seed becamea servant of servants, that is to say, to the Egyptians, and the Cushites, and the Mûsâyê, [and theIndians, and all the Ethiopians, whose skins are black].”5

St. Ephraim the Syrian (Patron saint of Geronda Ephraim)
St. Ephraim the Syrian (Patron saint of Geronda Ephraim)

Ishodad of Merv, the Syrian Christian bishop of Hedhatha,(9th century): “When Noah cursed Canaan, ―instantly, by the force of the curse. . .his face and entire body became black [ukmotha]. This is the black color which has persisted in his descendants.”6

Eutychius, an Alexandrian Melkite patriarch, (d. 940): ― “Cursed be Ham and may he be a servant to his brothers… He himself and his descendants, who are the Egyptians, the Negroes, the Ethiopians and (it is said) the Barbari.”7

Ibn al-Tayyib, an Arabic Christian scholar, Baghdad, (d. 1043): ― “The curse of Noah affected the posterity of Canaan who were killed by Joshua son of Nun. At the moment of the curse, Canaan‘s body became black and the blackness spread out among them.”8

Bar Hebraeus, a Syrian Christian scholar, (1226–86): ― “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and showed [it] to his two brothers, That is…that Canaan was cursed and not Ham, and with the very curse he became black and the blackness was transmitted to his descendants… And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan! A servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.’”9

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Serfdom

The curse of Ham became used as a justification for serfdom during the medieval era. Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1100) was the first recorded to propose a caste system associating Ham with serfdom, writing that serfs were descended from Ham, nobles from Japheth, and free men from Shem.However, he also followed the earlier interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 by Ambrosiaster (late 4thcentury), that as servants in the temporal world, these “Hamites” were likely to receive a far greater reward in the next world than would the Japhetic nobility.10

The idea that serfs were the descendants of Ham soon became widely promoted in Europe. At the height of the medieval era, it was a significant trend in Genesis exegesis to interpret that the descendants of Ham were serfs. Dame Juliana Berners (c. 1388) in a treatise on hawks, claimed that the “churlish” descendants of Ham had settled in Europe, those of Shem in Africa, and those of Japheth in Asia—a departure from normal arrangements — because she considered Europe to be the “country of churls”, Asia of gentility, and Africa of temperance.11

As serfdom waned in the late medieval era, the interpretation of serfs beingdescendants of Ham decreased as well.12

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 Proslavery

The curse of Ham has been used to promoted race and slavery movements as early as Classical antiquity. European biblical scholars of the Middle Ages supported the view that the “sons of Ham” of Hamites were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins. Though early arguments to this effect were sporadic, they became increasingly common during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.13

The justification of slavery itself through the sins of Ham was well suited to the ideological interests of the elite; with the emergence of the slave trade, its racialized version justified the exploitation of a ready supply of African labour.

In the parts of Africa where Christianity flourished in the early days, while it was still illegal in Rome, this idea never took hold, and its interpretation of scripture was never adopted by the African Coptic Churches. A modern Amharic commentary on Genesis notes the 19th century and earlier European theory that blacks were subject to whites as a result of the “curse of Ham”, but calls this a false teaching unsupported by the text of the Bible, emphatically pointing out that this curse fell not upon all descendants of Ham but only on the descendants of Canaan, and asserting that it was fulfilled when Canaan was occupied by both Semites (Israel) and Japethites (ancient Philistines). The commentary further notes that Canaanites ceased to exist politically after the Third Punic War (149 BC), and that their current descendants are thus unknown and scattered among all peoples.14

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NOTES:

  1. In 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a statement asserting that all humans belong to the same species and that “race” is not a biological reality but a myth. This was a summary of the findings of an international panel of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists. Today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans. Among those who study the subject, who use and accept modern scientific techniques and logic, this scientific fact is as valid and true as the fact that the earth is round and revolves around the sun. http://www.newsweek.com/there-no-such-thing-race-283123
  2. Homilies on Genesis 16.1.
  3. Paul de Lagarde. Materialien zur Kritik und Geschichte des Pentateuchs,(Leipzig, 1867), part II.
  4. This sentiment also appears in the later Syriac Book of the Bee (1222).
  5. Cave of Treasures, E. Wallis Budge translation from Syriac.
  6. C. Van Den Eynde, Corpus scriptorium Christianorum orientalium 156, Scriptores Syri 75(Louvain, 1955), p. 139.
  7. Patrologiae cursus completes…series Graeca, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris, 1857 –66), Pococke‘s (1658–59) translation of the Annales, 111.917B (sec. 41-43)7)
  8. Joannes C.J. Sanders, Commentaire sur la Genèse, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium274-275, Scriptores Arabici 24-25 (Louvain, 1967), 1:56 (text), 2:52-55 (translation).
  9. Sprengling and Graham, Barhebraeus‘ Scholia on the Old Testament, pp. 40 – 41, to Gen 9:22.
  10. Paul H. Freedman, 1999,  Images of the mediaeval peasant  p. 291; Whitford 2009 pp. 31-34.13)
  11. Whitford 2009 p. 38.14)
  12. David Mark Whitford (21 October 2009). The curse of Ham in the early modern era: the Bible and the justifications for slavery. .Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.. p. 173.ISBN978-0-7546-6625-7.  Retrieved 15 September 2011.15)
  13. Benjamin Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identitiesin the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, “William and Mary Quarterly LIV (January 1997):103 – 142. See also William McKee Evans, “From the Land of Canaan to the Land of Guinea: TheStrange Odyssey of the Sons of Ham,”American Historical Review 85 (February 1980): 15 – 4316)
  14. Commentary on Genesis) p. 133-142.

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Righteous Lot and His Daughters (St. Ephraim the Syrian)

NOTE: The following is the 16th Homily from St. Ephraim’s Commentary on Genesis:

St Ephraim the Syrian

After the three men promised Sarah fruit, they arose and looked toward Sodom.1 It was not revealed to Sarah that they were going to Sodom lest, on the same day that they had given her joy in the promise that a son was to be hers, she be grieving over her brother on account of that sentence of wrath decreed on Sodom and the nearby villages. They hid this from Sarah lest she never cease weeping, but they revealed it to Abraham2 so that he not cease praying, and so that it be announced to the world that nowhere in Sodom was there found a single just man for whose sake it might be saved.

The cry against Sodom and Gomorrah was great and their sins were very grave.3 (The cry just mentioned is explained by the sins which he recounts below). Then God said, “I have come down to see if they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me and if not, I will know.”4 It was not that God, who had just said, their sins were very grave, did not know that they had sinned. This was an example to judges not to prejudge a case, even based on reliable hearsay. For if He who knows all set aside His knowledge lest He exact vengeance without full knowledge before the trial, how much more should they set aside their ignorance and not effect judgment before the case is heard.

Then two angels set out for Sodom and they went directly to the gate where Lot was sitting to receive strangers who came there. Lot rose to meet them as if to meet strangers, but when he drew near to them there appeared in the second angel the same vision that Abraham had seen in the third, and Lot bowed himself with his face to the ground.5

Even to the Sodomites they appeared in a favorable aspect, for He said, “I have come down to see.”  For this “I have come down and see,” means “I have come down to test them.” If they had not run after the vision they saw with such rabid fury, even though their former sins would not have been forgiven, they still would not have received the punishment that they were about to receive.

Lot then hastened to bring them inside before the Sodomites gathered and caused them any offence, but the angels kept stalling on various pretexts so that the Sodomites would come and be tested by them. In the case of Abraham, they had not tarried because they were not in any way testing him; they had come down to give him a reward for his test. Since they had come down to test Sodom, they said to Lot, who was pressing them to enter, “No, we will spend the night in the street.”6

But Lot urged them more strongly and so they entered and ate, but before they lay down to sleep, the men of Sodom surrounded the house and said to Lot, “Bring out to us the men who came to you in the night, that we may know them.”7 Notice that the angels entered during the night, which obscures appearances, and not during the day, in which forms can be clearly seen. They spread a veil, so to speak, over the sight of the Sodomites with the darkness that lay over their appearances. Although they had entered at night so that, by their being invisible, they might make more manageable the test of those who were to be tried, still the Sodomites took no benefit even from this for they had been preparing themselves to do them harm whether it was day or night.

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After Lot had begged the Sodomites and they still refused, he promised them his two daughters. But the Sodomites would not take them, and they then threatened to do more harm to Lot than to the angels and they drew right up to the door to break it down.8 Then the men brought Lot inside with them and the Sodomites outside were afflicted with blindness. But even by this they were not admonished, for after this they wore themselves out groping for the door. Then the men said to Lot, “Take your in-laws, your sons, your daughters, and anyone else that belongs to you out of this place for we are about to destroy it.”9 Lot’s son-in-laws are here called “sons,” for Lot was soon to marry them to his daughters.

Lot went out and spoke with his sons-in-law and, although the Sodomites were gathered there, they neither saw him leave nor enter. When he returned, having been ridiculed even by his sons-in-law, the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hands and brought them out.”10 The Sodomites did not see them, even though they went out as a group among them.

Because the women of Lot’s household had not been tested in Sodom, they were to be tested by a law set down for them when they left Sodom. Lot begged that Zoar be preserved so that he might enter there because it was nearer. One of the angels said to Lot, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of Zoar,”11 it shall be given to you on account of the dishonor of your two daughters.”

When Lot entered Zoar, the Lord brought down upon Sodom brimstone and fire from before the Lord from heaven,”12 that is, the angel, in whom the Lord had appeared, brought down from before the Lord, who is in heaven, fire and brimstone upon Sodom.

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Lot’s wife then disregarded the commandment that had just been given as a test, and she became a pillar of salt.13 Because Lot’s wife thus remained behind, she doubled the trial of Lot and his two daughters. But not even by this did they succumb to lay aside the command of the angel.

Because the young women were afraid to dwell in a desolate city on a mountain, and because they thought that all Creation had come to an end in a flood of fire as the generation of Noah did in a flood of water, the elder said to the younger, “Behold, our father is old and there is not a man on earth to come into us. Let us make our father drink wine that we may preserve seed from him14 and there might descend, even from us, a third world like the second from Noah and the first from Adam and Eve.”15 Although there was wine for them, because everything in Zoar had been left for their possession, there was not a man in Zoar for at the very moment the angel said to Lot, “Behold, I grant this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city,”16 Zoar swallowed up its inhabitants. But all its goods were left so that through those who had possessed these goods the Just One, whom they had provoked by their deeds, might be appeased and through the goods that it left behind, the righteous Lot who had lost all he had in Sodom might be consoled.

Then the daughters began to bring forward various pretexts. “We were afraid to sleep because of visions.” Our mother comes and stands before us like a pillar of salt and we see the Sodomites burning with fire.” “We hear the voices of women crying out from the midst of the fire and young children writhing in the midst of the conflagration appear to us.” “So for the sake of your daughters’ comfort do not sleep, but amuse yourself with wine that we might rob the night with a vigil that is free from terror.”

After they saw that his mind had been stolen by the wine and that a deep sleep had spread over his limbs, the elder went in and stole seed from the sleeping farmer, without his perceiving anything. Then this elder daughter, who had found success the previous day, enticed her sister also to become a “bride of the moment” and to take on a life of widowhood.

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When the younger had thus been persuaded she too went in and departed without Lot perceiving her. Then, after the child within the daughters became evident the younger complained to the elder saying, “It would have been better for us to be barren than to die of disgrace, to remain with our father without children than that our father be alone without daughters. For what excuses can we make to him when he judges us? And what answer shall we give when he is about to kill us, saying, ‘I said that no man knew my daughters in Sodom. Who then is the one who has known them on this mountain? Should we say that we are bearing a spirit? When we reach the point of childbirth what will we do?”

Then, while they were fretting over these things, their father summoned them and said to them, “For days now I have been secretly watching your stomachs and day by day you confirm the suspicion of adultery that I have concerning you. Tell me then, whence has this pregnancy within you come about? When? How? By whom were you raped?”

The elder answered her father and said, “Our betrothed pressed our mother to conceal them from you but to show us to them. Although nature made us their brides, your lack of sons made us their sisters. These, who had come to us in the likeness of brothers, when our mother was compelled to go out for some reason or another, then rose against us and subdued us like tyrants. When our mother returned and saw us, she threw those wanton ones out of her house with the disgrace they deserved. But she consoled us, saying, “They were your betrothed and not adulterers; you have received the seed of your ploughmen even though you were, in all truth, raped.”

Their father accepted their explanations since these things they related about the Sodomites were relatively minor things. For it was nothing that those who had assailed both each other and angels from on high would rape and disgrace, before the time of marriage, those to whom they were betrothed.

The elder gave birth and she named him Moab17 and he became a nation because he was a son of Lot. The younger, too, gave birth and named him Bar-ammi,18 that is, he is the race of my father because he is from my father. Because the two daughters had yielded two disgraces their two sons became two nations; because the two daughters had been offered in the place of the two angels, their two offences were forgiven them. The young women could no longer be with Lot as wives, because he was their father, nor could they belong to any others, for the husband of their youth was still alive. These two thus condemned themselves and, because they rashly did what was not right, deprived themselves of what they ought to have had. By this last solemn modesty, however, their previous rashness was greatly pardoned.

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  1. Gen. 18:16.
  2. Gen. 18:17-19.
  3. Gen. 18:20.
  4. Gen. 18:21.
  5. Cf. Gen. 19:1.
  6. Gen. 19:2.
  7. Gen. 19:3-5.
  8. Cf. Gen. 19:7-9.
  9. Cf. Gen. 19:10-13.
  10. Gen. 19:16.
  11. Cf. Gen. 19:16-22.
  12. Gen. 19:24.
  13. Cf. Gen. 19:26.
  14. Gen. 19:31-32.
  15. See Hymns on Virginity 38, where St. Ephraim excuses Lot for getting drunk as well as the behavior of his two daughters on the grounds that they thought themselves to be the last persons on earth. See also Hymns on Virginity 1, 11. See also the same tradition in Genesis Rabbah 51:8.
  16. Gen. 19:21.
  17. Gen. 19:37.
  18. Gen. 19:38. The Syriac equivalent of the Hebrew “Ben-ammi,” literally, “son of my people.”

The Sons of God Unite with the Daughters of Men (Genesis 6:1-4)

When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim [LXX giants] were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men [LXX giants] that were of old, the men of renown. (Genesis 6:14)

There are two opposing Patristic teachings concerning the sons of God:

  1. The sons of God are angels who forsake the beauty of God for perishable beauty and unite themselves with women (St. Clement of Alexandria).
  2. The sons of God are the sons of Seth, who marry the daughters of Cain (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

There are also two opposing Patristic views concerning the Nephilim [LXX Giants]:

  1. The giants were generated by the sons of Seth and the daughters of Cain (St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. Augustine of Hippo)
  2. The giants were born from angels uniting to mortal women (St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Ambrose of Milan).

One thing the Patristics agree on concerning the giants is they symbolize those persons who are devoted only to earthly desires and their time for repentance was limited.

Prophet Enoch
Prophet Enoch

Orthodox Church Fathers Who Believed Fallen Angels and Human Woman Bred Giants

There has been much speculation about who these “sons of God” mentioned in the sixth chapter of Genesis were.  Three basic interpretations of this passage have been advanced.

The first, and oldest, belief is that “the sons of God” were fallen angels who consorted with human women, producing giant offspring called nephilim (Heb. נפילים).  This view was widely held in the world of the first century CE, and was supported by Flavius Josephus, Philo, Eusebius and many of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers,” including Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Athenagoras and Commodianus.

The second view is one which was first suggested by Julius Africanus in the third century CE and later advocated by St. Augustine  of Hippo.  Augustine rejected the concept of the fallen host having committed fornication with women.  In his early fifth century CE book The City of God, he promoted the theory that “the sons of God” simply referred to the genealogical line of Seth, who were committed to preserving the true worship of God.  He interpreted Genesis 6 to mean that the male offspring of Adam through Seth were “the sons of God,” and the female offspring of Adam through Cain were “the daughters of men.”  He wrote that the problem was that the family of Seth had interbred with the family of Cain, intermingling the bloodlines and corrupting the pure religion.  This view has become the dominant one among most modern biblical scholars.

The third view is that “the sons of God” were the sons of pre-Flood rulers or magistrates.  This belief became the standard explanation of rabbinical Judaism after Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai pronounced a curse in the second century CE upon those Jews who believed the common teaching that the angels were responsible for the nephilim.  This interpretation was advocated by two of the most respected Jewish sages of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) and Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), and became the standard explanation of rabbinical Judaism.  However, it is not widely accepted by modern scholars.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Hieronymus Bosch is based on Genesis 6:1–4
The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Hieronymus Bosch is based on Genesis 6:1–4

Book of Enoch (ca. 300 BC): And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto 2 them beautiful and comely daughters.  And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another:  ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men 3 and beget us children.’  And Semjaza, who was their leader, said unto them:  ‘I fear ye will not 4 indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.’  And they all answered him and said:  ‘Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations 5 not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.’  Then sware they all together and bound themselves 6 by mutual imprecations upon it.  And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon. [Chapter 6:1-6; The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament]

Book of Jubilees (ca. 3rd-2nd century BC): And it came to pass when the children of men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born unto them, that the angels of God saw them on a certain year of this jubilee, that they were beautiful to look upon; and they took themselves wives of all whom they 2 chose, and they bare unto them sons and they were giants.  And lawlessness increased on the earth and all flesh corrupted its way, alike men and cattle and beasts and birds and everything that walks on the earth – all of them corrupted their ways and their orders, and they began to devour each other, and lawlessness increased on the earth and every imagination of the thoughts of all men 3 (was) thus evil continually. [5:1-3; The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament]

St. Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165): God, when He had made the whole world, and subjected things earthly to man, and arranged the heavenly elements for the increase of fruits and rotation of the seasons, and appointed this divine law – for these things also He evidently made for man – committed the care of men and of all things under heaven to angels whom He appointed over them. But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate needs, and all wickedness. . . . (Second Apology, “How the Angels Transgressed,” #5)

St. Justin Martyr the Philosopher
St. Justin Martyr the Philosopher

Tatian the Assyrian (ca. 120 – 180 AD): “[God]… committed the care of men and of all things under heaven to angels whom He appointed over them. But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by the love of women, and begat children who are those who are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness.” [2nd Apology, #5].

Athenagoras of Athens (ca. 133 – 190 AD): These angels, then, who fell from heaven busy themselves about the air and the earth and are no longer able to rise to the realms above the heavens. Te soulsof the giants are the demons (δαίμονες) who wander about the world. Both angelsand demons produce (ποιέω) movements (κινήσεις)—demons movements which are akin to the natures they received, and angels movements which are akin to the lusts (ἐπιθυμίαι) with which they were possessed. Te prince of matter, as may be seen from what happens, directs and administers things in a manner opposed to God’s goodness . . . But since the demonic impulses and activities (δαιμονικαὶ κινήσεις καὶ ἐνέργειαι) of the hostile spirit (πνεῦμα) bring these wild attacks (ἄτακται ἐπιφοραί)—indeed we see them move men from within and from with-out, one man one way and another man another, some individually and some as nations, one at a time and all together, because of our kinship (συμπάθεια) with matter and our affinity with the divine . . . But to the extent that it depends on the reason peculiar to each individual and the activity (ἐνέργεια) of the ruling prince and his attendant demons, one man is swept along (φέρεται καὶ κινεῖται) one way, another man another way, even though all have the same rationality (λογισμός) within. [Legatio 25, 1-3]

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202): And for a very long while wickedness extended and spread, and reached and laid hold upon the whole race of mankind, until a very small seed of righteousness remained among them and illicit unions took place upon the earth, since angels were united with the daughters of the race of mankind; and they bore to them sons who for their exceeding greatness were called giants. And the angels brought as presents to their wives teachings of wickedness,1 in that they brought them the virtues of roots and herbs, dyeing in colors and cosmetics, the discovery of rare substances, love-potions, aversions, amours, concupiscence, constraints of love, spells of bewitchment, and all sorcery and idolatry hateful to God; by the entry of which things into the world evil extended and spread, while righteousness was diminished and enfeebled. [Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, #18. Note, This is from the Book of Enoch, to which Irenæus also refers in IV, xxvii. 2. Enoch vii. 1: καὶ ἐδίδαξαν αὐτὰς φαρμακείας καὶ ἐπαοιδὰς καὶ ῥιζοτυμίας, καὶ τὰς βυτάνας ἐδήλωσαν αὐταῖς: viii. 1: ψέλια καὶ κόσμους καὶ στίβεις καὶ τὸ καλλιβλέφαρον καὶ παντοίους λίθους ἐκλεκτοὺς καὶ τὰ βαφικά].

St. Irenaeus of Lyon
St. Irenaeus of Lyon

St. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 –  215): But from their unhallowed intercourse spurious men sprang, greater in stature than ordinary men, whom they afterwards called giants; not those dragon-footed giants who waged war against God, as those blasphemous myths of the Greeks do sing, but wild in manners, and greater than men in size, inasmuch as they were sprung of angels; yet less than angels, as they were born of women.

Therefore God, knowing that they were barbarized to brutality, and that the world was not sufficient to satisfy them (for it was created according to the proportion of men and human use), that they might not through want of food turn, contrary to nature, to the eating of animals, and yet seem to be blameless, as having ventured upon this through necessity, the Almighty God rained manna upon them, suited to their various tastes; and they enjoyed all that they would. But they, on account of their nature, not being pleased with purity of food, longed only after the taste of blood. Wherefore they first tasted flesh. [Fragments of the Clementine Homilies; Chapter 15, “The Giants.”]

St. Clement of Alexandria
St. Clement of Alexandria

Tertullian (ca. 160 – 225 AD): For they, withal, who instituted them are assigned, under condemnation, to the penalty of death, — those angels, to wit, who rushed from heaven on the daughters of men; so that this ignominy also attaches to woman…Was it that women, without material causes of splendour, and without ingenious contrivances of grace, could not please men, who, while still unadorned, and uncouth and — so to say — crude and rude, had moved (the mind of) angels? or was it that the lovers would appear sordid and — through gratuitous use — contumelious, if they had conferred no (compensating) gift on the women who had been enticed into connubial connection with them?… Women who possessed angels (as husbands) could desire nothing more; they had, forsooth, made a grand match! [On the Apparel of Women, Chapter 2, “The Origin of Female Ornamentation, Traced Back to the Angels who had Fallen”].

Commodianus (ca. 250): When Almighty God, to beautify the nature of the world, willed that that earth should be visited by angels, when they were sent down they despised His laws. Such was the beauty of women, that it turned them aside; so that, being contaminated, they could not return to heaven. Rebels from God, they uttered words against Him. Then the Highest uttered His judgment against them; and from their seed giants are said to have been born. By them arts were made known in the earth, and they taught the dyeing of wool, and everything which is done; and to them, when they died, men erected images. But the Almighty, because they were of an evil seed, did not approve that, when dead, they should be brought back from death. Whence wandering they now subvert many bodies, and it is such as these especially that ye this day worship and pray to as gods. [Instructions #3; “The Worship of Demons.”]

nephilim-giants-2

Lactantius (ca. 250 – 325): When, therefore, the number of men had begun to increase, God in His forethought, lest the devil, to whom from the beginning He had given power over the earth, should by his subtlety either corrupt or destroy men, as he had done at first, sent angels for the protection and improvement of the human race; and inasmuch as He had given these a free will, He enjoined them above all things not to defile themselves with contamination from the earth, and thus lose the dignity of their heavenly nature. He plainly prohibited them from doing that which He knew that they would do, that they might entertain no hope of pardon. Therefore, while they abode among men, that mostdeceitful ruler of the earth, by his very association, gradually enticed them to vices, and polluted them by intercourse with women. Then, not being admitted into heaven on account of the sins into which they had plunged themselves, they fell to the earth. Thus from angels the devil makes them to become his satellites and attendants. But they who were born from these, because they were neither angels nor men, but bearing a kind ofmixed nature, were not admitted into hell, as their fathers were not into heaven. Thus there came to be two kinds of demons; one of heaven, the other of the earth. [Divine Institutes, Book II On the Origin of Errors, chapter 15, “Of the Corruption of Angels, and the Two Kinds of Demons.”]

St. Ambrose of Milan (ca. 340-390 AD): “The giants (Nephilim) were on earth in those days.” The author of the divine Scripture does not mean that those giants must be considered, according to the tradition of poets, as sons of the earth but asserts that those whom he defines with such a name because of the extraordinary size of their body were generated by angels and women. And let us see whether by any chance the men who only care of their body and not of their soul are similar to the Nephilim and at the same time to those giants who were born from the earth according to the tales of the poets and despised the authority of the gods by confiding in the hugeness of their body. Must we really consider as different from giants those men who, even though they are composed of body and soul, despise the most precious good of the soul, that is, the activity of the mind, and show themselves to be imitators of this flesh, as if confirming that they were heirs of their own mother’s foolishness. They only struggle in vain when they believe that they will conquer the heaven with their bold desires and their earthly activities. On the contrary, by choosing a lower way of life and despising the higher life, they are condemned with greater severity since they are guilty of voluntary sins. [On Noah 4.8. St. Ambrose alludes to the pagan myth of the giants, who were generated by the earth. Confiding in their huge bodies and strength, according to this myth, they tried to climb Olympus in order to dethrone Zeus but were destroyed by the thunderbolts that the god hurled at them.]

St. Ambrose of Milan
St. Ambrose of Milan

NOTE: All the above teachings by the early God-bearing Fathers of the Church concerning angels and women having intercourse and producing offspring were refuted by the God-bearing Fathers of the late 3rd century AD and on. The interpretation of the early Christian writer Julius Africanus (A.D. 200-245)—i.e. the sons of God are the sons of Seth—became the standard interpretation for the future generations of God-bearing Church Fathers. St. John Chrysostom (Commentary on Genesis 22:6-7), St. Ephraim the Syrian (Commentary on Genesis 6:3, Hymns on the Nativity 1:48, Hymns on Faith 46:9, Hymns against Heresies 19:1-8, and Hymns on Paradise 1:11), St. John Cassian (Conferences 8:20-21), Blessed Augustine (City of God 15:23), St. Gregory Palamas (‘Topics of Natural and Theological Science’ 62), St. Athanasius (Four Discourses against the Arians 4:22), St. Cyril of Alexandria, and others.”]

Also see The Meaning of the Word Nephilim:Fact vs. Fantasy

Michael S. Heiser is an American biblical scholar who has criticized ancient alien astronaut theorists.
Michael S. Heiser is an American biblical scholar who has criticized ancient alien astronaut theorists.

Also see The Nachash and His Seed: Some Explanatory Notes on Why the “Serpent” in Genesis 3 Wasn’t a Serpent

Chester Beatty XII, Greek manuscript of the Book of Enoch, 4th century
Chester Beatty XII, Greek manuscript of the Book of Enoch, 4th century

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.