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Origen on Paul's Authorship of Hebrews

  • Matthew J. Thomas (a1)


It is a common notion among modern biblical scholars that Origen doubted Paul's authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This article offers an examination of Origen's writings on this question, and shows that the evidence is wildly misrepresented in contemporary discussions. It does this by beginning with Origen's Letter to Africanus, continuing with an overview of his Hebrews citations across his writing career, and concluding with an analysis of his oft-cited comments in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. This examination shows that while Origen suspects Hebrews’ composition to involve more than Paul alone, his surprisingly consistent testimony is that the epistle is indeed Paul's.



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1 See e.g. R. Brown, The Message of Hebrews (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1982) 16: ‘Most commentators on Hebrews quote the third-century Christian scholar Origen in any discussion about authorship; he was sure that as to its writer “only God knows certainly”’; similarly Mitchell, A., Hebrews (Sacra Pagina 13; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009) 3.

2 Guthrie, G., Hebrews (NIVAC 15; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) 23 n. 12.

3 Guthrie, Hebrews, 27.

4 Ehrman, B., Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) 193.

5 Ehrman, Forgery, 139.

6 Ehrman, Forgery, 88. Curiously, the Africanus letter is acknowledged in a footnote (88 n. 66), which is perhaps regarded as too brief to be labelled a ‘discussion’.

7 deSilva, D., Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle ‘to the Hebrews’ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 24–5.

8 Grappe, C., ‘Hébreux et la tradition paulinienne’, Receptions of Paul in Early Christianity (ed. Schröter, J., Butticaz, S. and Dettwiler, A.; Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2018) 461–83, at 464: ‘La prudence d'Origène illustre son indépendance d'esprit et sa rigueur’; ‘l'authenticité paulinienne était largement admise’ (my translation).

9 Bruce, F. F., The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) 23. Bruce further asserts that Origen classed Hebrews ‘as a “disputed” book’, though he himself ‘did not doubt its scriptural merit’ (Bruce, Hebrews, 23).

10 Bruce, Hebrews, 20.

11 Ellingworth, P., The Epistle to the Hebrews (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) ix. Ellingworth follows Metzger's assertion that ‘in [Origen's] Homilies on Hebrews, a late work (c. 245), he questions its authenticity’ (Ellingworth, Hebrews, 35).

12 See Lange, N. de, ‘The Letter to Africanus: Origen's Recantation?’, Studia Patristica 16 (1985) 242–7, at 242–3; Quasten, J., Patrology, vol. ii (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1986 [1950]) 74; McGuckin, J., The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Louisville, KY/London: Westminster John Knox, 2004) 40.

13 As McGuckin notes, ‘[t]he letter from Africanus was probably the only time in Origen's life when he had encountered an intelligence as polymathic as his’ (McGuckin, Handbook to Origen, 40).

14 Origen, Ep. Afr. 9.

15 Cf. Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.3.5; 3.38.2–3.

16 Metzger, B., The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987) 138.

17 Origen scholars often note the consistency of his conviction that Paul is Hebrews’ author (sometimes even showing how the Eusebius quote explains this conviction), but their work has been largely unheeded in biblical scholarship. For examples, see Lawson, R. P., The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies (ACW 26; New York: Newman, 1956) 22 n. 5 (313); Scheck, T., Homilies on Numbers (ACT; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009) 11 n. 37; see also Spencer's note in De Principiis in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. iv: Fathers of the Third Century (ed. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson and A. C. Coxe; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885) 239 n. 1916.

18 Origen, Ep. Afr. 9. Origen similarly mentions those who deny the veracity of Isaiah's death by recourse to denying Paul's authorship of Hebrews in Com. ser. Matt. 27.28. Origen explicitly identifies Paul as Hebrews’ author elsewhere in Com. ser. Matt. 65.66, citing Heb 5.14 as qui ad Hebraeos dicuntur a Paulo.

19 See also Origen, Princ. 1.2.5, 7, 8; 1.5.1; 2.3.5; 2.6.7; 3.1.10; 3.2.4; 4.1.13, 22; 4.1.24, 28.

20 See also Origen, Hom. Gen. 1.3; 3.6; 9.1; 10.1.

21 See also Origen, Hom. Lev. 1.3.2, 3; 2.2.6; 2.3.1; 4.6.5; 4.8.2; 5.1.3; 5.3.2; 5.7.3; 7.1.8; 8.5.3; 9.2.1; 9.9.5; 10.1.2; 11.2.4; 11.3.1, 2; 13.1.1; 16.2.3; 16.7.2.

22 See also Origen, Hom. Judic. 8.5.

23 See also Origen, Or. 27.5, 15.

24 See also Origen, Comm. Jo. 1.11, 106, 141; 2.72, 117; 6.266; 10.84; 13.144; 32.353.

25 See also Origen, Comm. Rom. 1.6.3; 1.18.6; 2.5.5; 3.4.2; 3.8.11; 4.6.3; 4.8.8; 5.1.14, 39; 5.3.7; 5.7.6; 6.7.11; 6.12.5; 7.4.11; 8.10.7; 9.30; 9.36. Elsewhere in Origen's writings, see Hom. Ezek. 1.2.2; 5.3.1; 7.10.3; Hom. Isa. 7.1; Pasch. 33.35–34.1; 35.6–16.

26 See also Origen, Hom. Jos. 8.6; 8.7; 9.4; 9.9; 16.5; 17.2; 19.3; 23.3, 4; 26.2. This passage is suspected by some to be an interpolation of Rufinus, though this suspicion itself has often been influenced by prior assumptions of Origen's doubts towards Hebrews. On this passage, cf. Gallagher, E., ‘Origen via Rufinus on the New Testament Canon’, NTS 62 (2016) 461–76, at 474–6.

27 See e.g. Origen, Hom Gen. 13.2; Hom. Josh. 7.1.

28 Origen, Comm. Jo. 19.152. Origen also notes in Comm. Jo. 20.66 that not all accept the saying ‘faith without works is dead’ (Jas 2.26) as authoritative, without acknowledging the source. Commentators note that no mention is made of this epistle in discussion of James as Jesus’ brother in Comm. Matt. 10.17 (in contrast to Jude and his epistle), but this should be balanced by Origen's numerous attributions of the epistle to James elsewhere (e.g. Comm. Rom. 4.8.2; Hom. Josh. 10.2; Hom. Lev. 13.2.5; etc.).

29 Origen, Comm. Matt. 17.30. Origen expressly attributes the epistle to Jude in Comm. Rom. 5.1.29; Comm. Matt. 10.17; 13.27.

30 Origen, Comm. Rom. 4.9.12; 8.7.7; Hom. Lev. 4.4.2.

31 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.8.

32 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.10.

33 Metzger, Canon, 138; the solution is similarly proposed by Ehrman, Forgery, 88 n. 66.

34 See Lienhard, J., ‘Origen as Homilist’, Preaching in the Patristic Age (ed. Hunter, D.; New York: Paulist, 1989) 3652, at 45.

35 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.36.

36 See also Origen, Hom. Exod. 9.3.

37 See also Origen, Hom. Num. 2.2.5; 4.2.1; 7.5.5; 11.2.8; 24.1.1; 26.6.1; 28.2.2.

38 See also Origen, Hom. Jer. 1.8.4; 9.3.2; 18.2.3; fr. 4.

39 Note also fr. 186 from Comm. Luc.

40 Origen, Comm. Matt. 15.4; 16.15 (Lat.); cf. also 10.18; 11.12.

41 See also Origen, Cels. 7.29.

42 See P. Nautin, Origène. Sa vie et son œuvre (Paris: Beauchesne, 1977) 409–12.

43 See the Comm. Rom. references at n. 25 above. Metzger places the commentary ca. 244–6; cf. Metzger, Canon, 140.

44 Comm. Cant. Prologue.1; Prologue.4; 1.4; 2.8; 2.9; 3.5; 3.12; 3[4].14.

45 Comm. Jo. 32.353.

46 See the Comm. Matt. references at n. 40 above; for Comm. Luke, see fr. 186.

47 Nautin, Origène, 182.

48 Perrone, L., ed., Die neuen Psalmenhomilien: Eine kritische Edition des Codex Monacensis Graecus 314 (Origenes Werke xiii; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015).

49 Perrone, L., ‘The dating of the new Homilies on the Psalms in the Munich codex: The ultimate Origen?’, Proche-Orient Chrétien 67.3/4 (2017) 243–51.

50 See Origen, Hom. Ps. 77.9.1; 77.8.4. See also 37.1.1 and 38.2.2 in the previously known Psalms homilies.

51 This is the only instance of σχολιογραφέω in this period, and so translation is dependent on context; Lampe's rendering of ‘make notes on’ is followed here (Lampe, G., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961) 1361).

52 See e.g. Mitchell's commentary, which rejects the author–amanuensis reading and states that Origen believes ‘Hebrews was written by someone, perhaps a disciple of Paul, who had later recalled his teacher's thought and written it down’, then continues: ‘Curiously, Origen commends churches that attribute the authorship of Hebrews to Paul …’ (Mitchell, Hebrews, 2).

53 See Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon, 202.

54 Origen employs ἀπομνημονεύω similarly in Comm. Jo. 6.172 to describe the evangelists who recorded differing words of John the Baptist (οἱ ἀπομνημονεύοντες διαφόρως ‘those whose records differ’; R. Heine, Commentary on the Gospel according to John Books 110 (FC 80; Washington, DC: CUA, 1989) 217), and again when describing how discrepancies in the gospels lead some to think they were ‘not written by a divine spirit, or not successfully recorded’ in 10.10 (ἐπιτετευγμένως ἀπομνημονευθέντων; Heine, John, 256). Heine translates the verb as ‘in their recollection’ in describing the gospel writers in Comm. Matt. 16.12 (ἐν τῷ ἀπομνημονεύειν οἱ γράψαντες), though here too the context is one of recording in writing (Heine, R., The Commentary of Origen on the Gospel of St. Matthew (2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) i.249). The final example in Origen is less clear: Origen ostensibly cites Celsus’ words in Cels. 1.20 which describe Greeks who knew no records of pre-deluge events (οὐδ’ ἀπομνημονεύουσιν), which Chadwick renders as ‘possess records’ (Chadwick, H., Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) 20).

55 See also the identical description (ὁ γράψας ἐπιστολήν) for the scribe Evarestos in Martyrdom of Polycarp 20.2. I owe this reference to S. Reece, Paul's Large Letters: Paul's Autographic Subscription in the Light of Ancient Epistolary Conventions (LNTS 561; London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) 41 n. 1.

56 See Origen, Comm. Rom. 10.40.

57 Reece, Paul's Large Letters, 43. Reece offers as an example Cicero, who in some cases ‘dictated to a scribe who took notes, perhaps in shorthand, and then edited the letter and re-crafted it in longhand in a subsequent stage of composition … with his scribe Tiro (ad Atticum 13.25.3). In such cases the scribe's style, diction, and other linguistic traits blended somewhat with those of the author/sender’ (Reece, Paul's Large Letters, 204). Cicero also presents an example of a writer who used scribes in widely varying ways, ranging from word-for-word dictation all the way to ghostwriting (Reece, Paul's Large Letters, 204).

58 Reece, Paul's Large Letters, 207.

59 See e.g. Origen, Princ. Preface.1 (hoc Pauli testimonio debere nos uti ex Epistola quam ad Hebraeos scribit); Comm. Jo. 1.139–41 (ὁ Παῦλος … πρὸς Ἑβραίους γράφων); Comm. Rom. 6.12.5 (et praecipue Paulus ad Hebraeos scribens).

60 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.3.5.

61 The danger of misrepresenting Origen's thought in this passage is noted by none other than Franz Overbeck, who saw how taking the ‘God knows’ sentence out of context could give the impression that he denied the Pauline origin of the epistle: ‘Zweifel an dieser würde nur bei vollständigem Missverständniss aus dem vorletzten Satze gelesen. Nur den Schreiber, nicht den geistigen Urheber des Hbfs. lässt Origenes dahingestellt’ (Overbeck, F., Zur Geschichte des Kanons (Chemnitz: E. Schmeitzner, 1880) 22; cited in Pilhofer, P., Die frühen Christen und ihre Welt (WUNT i/145; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002) 58 n. 2).

62 I wish to thank Simon Gathercole, Mark Edwards, John Sehorn, Thomas Scheck, Ed Gallagher, Jacob Cerone, Curtis Mitch, Peter Gurry, Steve Reece and Ronald Heine for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article, and most of all my wife Leeanne for her encouragement to pursue it.



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