On the Origins of Scripture

One way to categorize how Christians in antiquity, especially the 1st-3rd centuries CE, understood the idea of a Bible is through three categories: normative, authoritative, and Scriptural. Normative means the tradition is standard and accepted amongst many. Authoritative means the tradition is standard and carries the an authoritative status. Authoritative can either be in a written text, or not. Scriptural means the understanding of a body of literature compiled into one, coherent piece. Scriptural does include the idea of authoritative tradition; however, the movement from authoritative to Scriptural results in the importance of the written material.

One of Origen’s letters, Exhortation to Martyrdom, offers some insight into this question. I won’t cite the text for the sake of time. This is mainly because I want to work out this idea in my own head.

Throughout the letter, he consistently speaks about what Jesus spoke, what Paul spoke, and even what the book of Revelation spoke. Obviously, the “speaking” done by Paul, Jesus, and Revelation occurs through the medium of a text. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible is a written text. When referencing the Hebrew Bible, Origen references it as a written, material thing. Although he sometimes talks about what Yahweh said to Moses, it is a reference to a story told through a written, material tradition.

In other words, references to what we call the New Testament tend to be understood stood as an authoritative tradition. Even though they have material texts, the texts are simply a medium for a spoken, authoritative tradition. Distinct from these, references to the Hebrew Bible tend to be understood as written text. These texts were written in the past and were now relevant for Origen. As far as I am aware, they are not reference as “spoken” in this letter (i.e. “Thus, Moses speaks”).

In short, based on my short reading of Origen, the New Testament traditions are part of an authoritative tradition, which found its way to Origen through text. The Hebrew Bible is part of Scriptural in the sense that it is a written, material thing. This written, material thing is the object from which Origen draws meaning from the written word for his day. In reference to New Testament literature, Origen draws from the spoken word for his day, which just happens to be spoken through a medium of literature.

Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Pseudo-Hecataeus


Pseudo-Hecataeus (henceforth Ps-Hec) is based on historian Hecataeus of Abdera from 300 BCE. Multiple fragments attest to different Ps-Hec. Unfortunately, fragments are only available via Josephus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and the Letter of Aristeas. The fragments offer insight into how Greeks, or non-Jews, viewed Jews around 300 BCE. Because the text is so short, as we are only looking at the fragment from the Letter of Aristeas 31, it is posted below:

“You should have accurate translations of these works, because this legislation, as it is divine, is highly philosophic and pure. However, writers, poets and most historians have not mentioned the aforesaid books and the men who have lived (and are living [1]) in accordance with them, because the views proposed in these books are in some way holy and reverent, as Hecataeus of Abdera says.” – Translation by R. Doran.

“These (books) also must be in your library in an accurate version, because this legislation, as could be expected from its divine nature, is very philosophical and genuine. Writers therefore and poets and the whole army of historians have been reluctant to refer to the aforementioned books, and to the men past (and present) who featured largely in them, because the consideration of them is sacred and hallowed, as Hecataeus of Abdera says.” – Translation by R. J. H. Shutt [2]

Pseudo-Hecataeus, 2nd Temple Period Jews, and Holy Books

The manner is which Ps-Hec presents books of the Jews demonstrates limited knowledge of Judaism [3]. His note that the books are holy and reverent is interesting because, in some ways, it reflects the historical development on the authority of scripture [4] from an external perspective. Doran and Shutt ‘s translations also differ significantly, with each drawing on differing linguistic emphases and literary focuses to guide their translations. Doran focuses more on the men who lived in agreement with the scripture, while Shutt focuses more on the men who were part of scripture. Due to the philosophical focus of Greeks, in which students sat and considered Plato, Aristotle, etc., it seems more likely that Shutt’s translation accurately translates the passage. Rather than portraying men as adhering to Scripture like Doran, Shutt appeals to Greek sensibilities regarding the consideration of ancient wisdom. This also fits with other concurrent literature in which Moses is portrayed as having taught astronomy and philosophy to Egyptians and Greek.

Essentially, if we agree with Shutt’s translation, characters in the scriptures are given a sort of a-historical, philosophical wisdom that is viable through the ages. Ultimately, the wise people of the past are the sacred and hallowed, not the scriptures themselves. Perhaps, though, this is important in the development of scripture from normative to authoritative. When prophets and characters in scripture became philosophical figures who transcended history, perhaps it was a contribution to or began the evolution of scripture from normative to authoritative by expanding understanding the sacred, holy, and reverent men of the past to the sacred, holy, reverent book from the divine [5].

[1] R. Doran, “Pseudo-Hecataeus”, ed. James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 1. Letter of Aristeas 31, n. b, demonstrates that this is a late addition.

[2] R. J. H. Shutt, “Letter of Aristeas”, ed. James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983).

[3] R. Doran, “Pseudo-Hecataeus”, 1. Letter of Aristeas 31, n. c.

[4] I use the term “scripture” loosely, without pre-conceived notions of exactly what books and elements composed the normative texts of the period. Scripture in the 3rd century BCE is akin to “Christianity” in the 21st century: it is a fluid term and means different things to different people.

[5] For further reading on Pseudo-Hecataeus citations in Diodorus of Sicily, see Bezalel Bar-Kochva, Pseudo-Hecataeus on the Jews: Legitimizing the Jewish Diaspora (Berkley: University of California Press, 1997), availble on the UC Books E-Collection.