Saturday, March 7, 2015

“In Truth, God Knows”

There’s a well-known statement that Origen made concerning the authorship of Hebrews. It’s quoted in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (6.25.14). Origen said, “But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows.” Lots of scholars point to this statement as early evidence that Christians have always been uncertain about who wrote Hebrews.

But David Alan Black and some others argue that Origen is here only referring to the amanuensis (secretary); that is, the person who penned the epistle, rather than the actual author who dictated it (see Rom. 16:22).

In response to this argument, David Allen has this to say:
“Writers such as J. Hug, S. Davidson, and D. Black—who argued that Origen’s statement ‘as to who wrote the epistle’ referred to the one who wrote it down for Paul, that is, who functioned as his amanuensis or translator—find themselves swimming upstream against the context and usage of the Greek ho grapsas” (Hebrews, NAC, p. 32).
As for swimming upstream against the context, here’s the fuller context of Origen’s statement:
“If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote [ho grapsasthe epistle, in truth, God knows.”
It seems to me that, in Origen’s view, Hebrews is just as much the words of Paul as the Sermon on the Mount is the words of Jesus. It’s true that Jesus was not the one who wrote down the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew did. But if I want to quote a statement from the Sermon on the Mount, I’m typically going to preface it with “Jesus said” rather than “Matthew said,” even though I recognize that Matthew was the one who actually wrote the words down.

I’ve transcribed sermons and lectures before. And one of the things you learn as you transcribe is that when spoken words are being turned into written words, there will inevitably be times when you have to smooth out the language. And many times the decisions I make as a transcriber will reflect my own writing style. But when I’m all done transcribing, I won’t have something that I can call my own work. Because it’s not my own work; it’s the work of the preacher or teacher.

Which is why Origen says that anyone who holds Hebrews to be from Paul should be commended — because he viewed the epistle/sermon as ultimately Paul’s work. Though in this case, maybe it’s better to say that Hebrews was not so much the work of an amanuensis, but rather a transcriber. Perhaps the person took notes as he heard Paul’s sermon preached and then later filled out the notes into a complete written sermon.

Now, understand that we’re still only talking about Origen’s view. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with his assessment; I’m just trying to understand his view as he actually expresses it. And in my judgment, Origen held that Hebrews was far more Pauline than most scholars would have us think. Origen would have been entirely comfortable prefacing a quotation from Hebrews with “Paul said,” and in fact, he does this himself on multiple occasions. See the long list of examples in Black’s short book, The Authorship of Hebrews.

As for swimming upstream against ho grapsas (the words “who wrote”), consider that Tertius described his own work as an amanuensis using the exact same words: “I Tertius, who wrote [ho grapsas] this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom. 16:22).

Allen writes:
“Mitchell noted the many places in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History where the Greek verb graphō (‘to write’) ‘refers both to authorship and to actual penning’ and thus concluded ‘Black’s distinction between author and amanuensis cannot be maintained in light of this evidence’” (Hebrews, NAC, p. 32).
But there are a number of problems with that. First off, Eusebius is quoting a statement made by Origen. So what matters is how Origen uses graphō; not how Eusebius uses it.

Second, for what it’s worth, there is a place where Eusebius talks about the amanuenses of Origen, and he describes them as being skilled in kalligraphein (“elegant writing”), a word clearly related to graphō.

But aside from that single instance, I’m not aware of any other place where Eusebius even mentions the task of an amanuensis. In which case, Mitchell’s argument turns out to be based on a remarkably unfair standard. If you never talk about what an amanuensis does, then of course you’re not going to use graphō to describe the task of an amanuensis.

But what term would Eusebius have been expected to use in describing what an amanuensis does? It seems reasonable enough to assume that he would have been perfectly comfortable using the same word that Tertius used in Romans 16:22, namely graphō. Why not?

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