HEXAPLA AND TETRAPLA
Two editions of the Old Testament by ORIGEN. The Bible was the centre of Origen’s religion, and no church father lived more in it than he did. The foundation, however, of all study of the Bible was the establishment of an accurate text. Fairly early in his career (c. 220) Origen was confronted with the fact that Jews disputed whether some Christian proof texts were to be found in scripture, while Christians accused the Jews of removing embarrassing texts from scripture.
It was not, however, until his long exile in Caesarea (232-254) that Origen had the opportunity to undertake his major work of textual criticism. EUSEBIUS (Historia ecclesiastica 6. 16) tells us that “he even made a thorough study of the Hebrew language,” an exaggeration; but with the help of a Jewish teacher he learned enough Hebrew to be able to compare the various Jewish and Jewish-Christian versions of the Old Testament that were extant in the third century. Jerome (De viris illustribus 54) adds that knowledge of Hebrew was “contrary to the spirit of his period and his race,” an interesting sidelight on how Greeks and Jews remained in their separate communities even though they might live in the same towns in the Greco-Roman East.
Origen started with the Septuagint, and then, according to Eusebius (6. 16), turned first to “the original writings in the actual Hebrew characters” and then to the versions of the Jews Aquila and Theodotion and the Jewish-Christian Symmachus.
There is a problem, however, about the next stage in Origen’s critical work. Eusebius mentions two separate editions: the Tetrapla (“Fourfold”), in which Origen set out in parallel columns four versions of scripture—the Septuagint with the versions of Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus—and the Hexapla (“Sixfold”), which included a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew and a fifth translation that Eusebius does not identify. To these were added, for the Psalms, a sixth and seventh translation, one of which Origen identified while at Nicopolis in Epirus and the other from a jar discovered near Jericho during the reign of Caracalla (211-217)—an early anticipation of the Dead Sea Scrolls! Epiphanius (Panarion 64. 3) indicates that about 370 the Hexapla included a column in Hebrew alongside the Greek transliteration. The most recent critic, P. Nautin, has argued, however, that the term “Hexapla” referred to six translations or versions: the Septuagint, the versions of the three named authors (Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus), and the “fifth” and “sixth” unnamed, added later (1977, chap. 9).
Whatever the precise arrangement of the columns of text, the objective was clear. Origen had found that the Septuagint was outdated, superseded by the Greek versions of Aquila and Theodotion by the end of the second century, and now by that of his contemporary Symmachus. He was determined to rectify this situation for the benefit of the church. He explains about 247 in his Commentary on Matthew (15. 14):
By the grace of God, we have sought to remedy the divergences which are to be found in copies of the Old Testament, by using other editions as a means of control. In places where there has been a lack of certainty in the copies of LXX because of differences in the text of these copies, we have used other editions [of the Greek Old Testament] in harmonizing the LXX with these. We have marked with an Obelus (+) passages which are not to be found in the Hebrew, not daring to suppress these completely. Elsewhere, we have added an asterisk, so that it is made clear where we have added passages which are not to be found in the LXX in agreement with the Hebrew text, in taking these passages from other versions.
Origen thus applied the critical methods of his time to establish an updated version of the Septuagint, which was the text authorized by the church. It was a bold step, and it is interesting that Origen never attempted to treat the New Testament in the same way.
Though the Tetrapla and Hexapla were huge and unwieldy productions, copies were retained in the library at Caesarea, where Jerome used them for his commentaries on the Psalms. Not surprisingly, only fragments have survived, the most important being derived from a Syriac translation of the Septuagint text by Paul, Monophysite bishop of Tella in Mesopotamia, about 616.
- Danielou. J. Origène, pp. 139-144. Paris, 1948.
- Field, F. Origenis Hexaplorum quae supersunt, 2 vols. London, 1867-1875.
- Nautin, P. Origène, sa vie et son oeuvre, chap. 9. Paris, 1977.
- Taylor, C. “Hexapla.” In Dictionary of Christian Biography, ed. W. Smith and H. Wace, Vol. 3, pp. 14-23. Repr. New York, 1974.
W. H. C. FREND