Origen's Hexapla

General Information

Although most of his writings have disappeared, Origen's literary productivity was enormous. The Hexapla was the first attempt to establish a critical text of the Old Testament.

Text edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson and first published by T&T Clark in Edinburgh in 1867. Additional introductionary material and notes provided for the American edition by A. Cleveland Coxe, 1886.

Origen's Hexapla

Catholic Information

Hexapla was the name given to Origen's edition of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Greek, the most colossal critical production of antiquity. This work was urgently demanded by the confusion which prevailed in Origen's day regarding the true text of Scripture. The Church had adopted the Septuagint for its own; this differed from the Hebrew not only by the addition of several books and passages but also by innumerable variations of text, due partly to the ordinary process of corruption in the transcription of ancient books, partly to the culpable temerity, as Origen called it, of correctors who used not a little freedom in making "corrections", additions, and suppressions, partly to mistakes in translation, and finally in great part to the fact that the original Septuagint had been made from a Hebrew text quite different from that fixed at Jamnia as the one standard by the Jewish Rabbis, under Akiba the founder of Rabbinical Judaism. Aquila, a proselyte from Christianity, gave (c. A.D. 130) a very accurate translation of this text, aiming above all at being literal; still he borrows quite freely from the Septuagint when its rendering is consistent with his own chief aim.

Symmachus and Theodotion both flourished towards the end of the second century, but it is uncertain which had priority as translator. Symmachus, who was an Ebionite according to Eusebius and Jerome, a Jewish proselyte from Samaritanism according to Epiphanius, gave a new translation which was to a considerable extent a more idiomatic and elegant rendering of Aquila. It was followed extensively by Jerome in his own work as translator of the Old Testament. Both Aquila and Symmachus produced two editions to which Jerome refers. Theodotion, who was an Ebionite or a Jew, and perhaps had been a Christian, gave a version much closer than the others to the Septuagint.

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The circulation of these versions, each so insistent in its claim to superiority, in so many instances differing from the Septuagint and yet so close to it in many others, made a comparison between them and the Septuagint imperative for a knowledge of the true text of Holy Scripture. The Hexapla, the concept of a great genius executed with unexampled patience and industry, is Origen's attempt to show the exact relations of the Septuagint to these versions and especially to the Hebrew text. The work itself has perished; its character, however, has been pretty well known to scholars through statements in early Church writers, through scholia on numerous manuscripts of the Bible, and through chance quotations found in the works of certain Fathers. Quite recently (1896 and 1900) fragments of the Hexaplar Psalms were fortunately discovered, which give us our only specimens of connected portions of Origen's work and afford a good idea of its general appearance. Our earliest authorities, Eusebius of Cæsarea, St. Epiphanius, and St. Jerome, agree that Origen made a collection into one work of texts and versions of the entire Old Testament, arranging them in parallel columns according to the following order: First, the Hebrew text in Hebrew characters; second, the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek characters; third, the version of Aquila; fourth, that of Symmachus; fifth, the Septuagint; sixth, the version of Theodotion. The recovered fragments corroborate this testimony, though they lack the first column. Aquila's version was placed next to the Hebrew, most probably because it was the most literal rendering; Symmachus next to Aquila, because his version was largely a revision of the other; for a similar reason, Theodotion's version came after the Septuagint. To these six columns, according to the same testimony, Origen added, but for certain books only, a seventh and an eighth column containing two more Greek versions, which were called respectively the Quinta and the Sexta, because they were the fifth and sixth versions in Origen's arrangement. Eusebius and Jerome mention a seventh Greek version, however nothing seems to be known of the character of the Septima. It may have been a very fragmentary version, a collection of variant readings which later editors did not consider worth preserving. Concerming the Quinta and Sexta, St. Jerome tells us that their authors were Jews. Field finds traces of the Quinta not only in Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and the Canticle of Canticles, but also in the Pentateuch and 2 Kings, though, in regard to 2 Kings, Burkitt has advanced good reasons for considering the Quinta a collection of variant readings, probably rejected from the Septuagint. The Sexta is quoted for Exodus, 1 Kings, Psalms, Job, Canticle of Canticles, Amos, and Habacuc.

The presence of these two additional versions in the Hexapla has led to a discussion of that term and of others applied to Origen's work. By some the "six-fold" Bible was considered so called because it contained six Greek versions of certain books; but the common opinion has been that the name designates probably the six columns (the two of Hebrew and the four of the chief Greek versions, which consititute the bulk of the work), and came to be extended to the entire work. The terms Pentapla, Heptapla, Octapla, were also used of Origen's work, according as it contained five, seven, or eight columns. Since the six or seven columns, as the case might be, were visible at every opening of the Hexapla, each column must have been quite narrow. The fragments show, in fact, that one or at most two Hebrew words were placed on each line, with the transliteration in the adjoining column and the various renditions in the succeeding columns, all on the same level. This arrangement would naturally necessitate, at times, a shifting of the Greek words from their proper order, although this was not always done. An arrangement so minute and liberal must produce a work of enormous bulk. Swete estimated 3250 leaves, or 6500 pages, but Nestle considers 6000 leaves not far beyond the number. In addition to these columns of texts and versions, Origen copied out on the margins or between the lines other readings which he cited as given by ‘o ‘Ebrâios, ‘o Eúros, tò Samareitikón, the meaning of which is obscure. Field considers "the Hebrew" to be the Hebrew author of a Greek version, otherwise unknown, of certain books; "the Syrian", the author of another Greek version made in Syria; while "the Samaritan" gives Greek readings taken, not from the current Hebrew text, but from the Samaritan Pentateuch (thirty-six out of forty-three readings agree with that text). Loisy's opinion, not the mention many others, is that "the Hebrew" denotes citations from a Targum, "the Syrian", from the Peschito.

Origen's purpose, as regards the Septuagint, was to indicate very clearly its exact relation to the Hebrew text, and incidentally to the other Greek versions. With this in view, he adopted (and placed in the Septuagint column only) the symbols used by Aristarchus in his edition of Homer. "As employed by Origen in the fifth column of the Hexapla, the obelus was prefixed to words or lines which were wanting in the Hebrew, and therefore, from Origen's point of view, of doubtful authority, while the asterisk called attention to words or lines wanting in the Septuagint, but present in the Hebrew. The close of the context to which the obelus or asterisk was intended to apply was marked by another sign known as the metobelus" (Swete). The fifth column, therefore, contained not the mere text of the Septuagint only, but in addition a translation taken generally from Theodotion (occasionally from Aquila) of these words or lines of the Hebrew which were lacking in the Septuagint. In certain instances, where the Septuagint translation differed widely from the Hebrew meaning, Origen inserted the true rendering (from Theodotion or Aquila) alongside the false; he deleted nothing from the Septuagint text. By this arrangement and these symbols, any reader, even if ignorant of Hebrew, could generally tell at a glance the exact relation of the Septuagint text to the Hebrew.

The principles which guided Origen in his work as textual critic are partly explained by Origen himself. He began by assuming the correctness of the current Hebrew textus receptus, and considered the Septuagint as more or less pure according to the degree in which it approximated to the Hebrew. He frequently changed the spelling of proper names to conform with the Hebrew. The symbols were intended not only to indicate a difference between the two texts, but to mark a departure from the Hebrew verity or genuine text. These principles are rightly discredited by modern scholars, who recognize that the Septuagint often bears plain witness to a Hebrew original different from the textus receptus and older than it in some parts. Moreover, of two readings, one a free, the other a literal, translation of the Hebrew, the free is more likely to be the original rendering of the Septuagint translator, while the literal is more apt to represent the effort of correctors, who very frequently endeavoured to bring the Greek into greater conformity with the Hebrew. Origen's critical principles were at fault, then, but his use of symbols ought to have guarded others from being led by his work into error. Unfortunately, the symbols were not reproduced in many copies which were taken of the fifth column - the Septuagint together with the readings from Theodotion and Aquila.

After the completion of the Hexapla, Origen prepared a minor edition, or extract from it, consisting of the four principal versions, Aquila, Symmachus, the Septuagint, and Theodotion; this is the Tetrapla. It has been sometimes maintained, however, that the Tetrapla is the earlier work and was expanded into the Hexapla, principally on the ground that the Hexapla, which in a few instances has a superior reading, as at Ps. lxxxvi, 5, presents light missing to Origen when he composed the Tetrapla, a very unstable ground, we judge, for the Hexapla did not leave the hand of Origen as a printed work becomes independent of a modern author, but received occasional additions and corrections with the progress of his knowledge. The language of Eusebius implies that the Tetrapla was the later work. The dates of the two works, however, cannot be definitely fixed; all we know, says Field, is that the Hexapla or the Tetrapla was composed before Origen's letter to Africanus (c. 240).

No copy of the entire Hexapla, on account of the immense labour and expense involved, seems ever to have been made, but the Psalter, minus the first column, was copied, as the two fragments prove. A reading in Isaias is quoted from the Pentapla, which possibly (though very doubtfully) implies the existence of a similar copy. Shortly after the beginning of the fourth century, Pamphilus, the martyr, and Eusebius, Bishop of Cæsarea, gave out an edition of the fifth column of the Hexapla, containing the Septuagint, the insertions from Theodotion and Aquila, and the symbols, together with variant readings on the margin, in the belief that they were bestowing on the Church the purest text. It was through the reproduction of this edition by later scribes, without Origen's critical signs, that arose the Hexaplar text which so greatly increased the confusion of Septuagint manuscripts. However, it hardly circulated outside of Palestine. It was translated into Syriac, "with the Origenic signs scrupulously retained", by Paul, Bishop of Tella, in Mesopotamia, who accomplished the work at Alexandria about 616-17. Several books and large portions of this Syro-Hexaplar text survive, and are the source, in a very great measure, of our knowledge of Origen's work. The Hexaplar text also influenced St. Jerome very strongly in his first two translations of the Psalter into Latin, the Psalterium Romanum and (particularly) the Gallicanum. Saint Jerome also followed the Hexaplar text, for which he had a very high regard, as the basis of his translations, no longer extant, of other books. The same influence is further seen in the Coptic (Sahidic), the Arabic, and the Armenian versions. If the original Septuagint text be taken as the standard, it is unquestionable that Origen's influence, both upon the Septuagint and its daughter versions, ultimately availed, through the negligence of copyists, to remove them further from the pristine purity of the Biblical text; but by all those who regard the Hexaplar text, by reason of its insertions and corrections from the textus receptus, as nearer to the original Hebrew than is the Septuagint, his influence must be judged to have worked, on the whole, for the spread of a truer text. The Hexaplar manuscript was kept at Cæsarea in Palestine, where it was consulted by Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome; it disappeared from sight shortly after the beginning of the seventh century.

The first attempt to collect its disjecta membra, scattered over Biblical manuscripts and patristic writings, was made by Drusius (Driesch) in his work "In Psalmos Davidis Veterum Interpretum quæ extant Fragmenta", Antwerp, 1581 (so Mercati). Additions were made by Peter Morin in his notes to the Greek Bible authorized by Sixtus V (158), as also in the posthumous work of Drusius (1622), and the monumental work of Montfaucon (1713). The publication of the Syro-Hexaplar text by Ceriani and others gave back to the world a great part of Origen's work. Frederick Field in his "Origenis Hexaplorum quæ supersunt … fragmenta" (Oxford, 1875) collected into one grand work the results of two centuries of investigation and discovery. Since his day, Pitra's "Analecta Sacra", III (Venice, 1883), Klosterman's "Analecta zur … Hexapla" (Leipzig, 1895), and Dom Morin's "Anecdota Maredsolana", III, i, have given the world further discoveries. Add to these, to complete the history of the Hexapla's recovery, the palimpsest fragments of several of the psalms discovered by Mercati in the Ambrosian Library of Milan (1896), and the palimpsest fragment of Ps. xxii recovered from a genizah of Cairo (1900), which reproduce almost the exact form of Origen's work. Though much has been lost, including most of the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, still, by these patient, untiring labours, vast materials have been gathered for the reconstruction of a purer Sacred Text. [See MANUSCRIPTS OF THE BIBLE; ORIGEN; SEPTUAGINT; VERSIONS OF THE BIBLE Greek)].

Publication information Written by John Francis Fenlon. Transcribed by WG Kofron. With thanks to Fr. John Hilkert and St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


Of the above mentioned works FIELD is by far the most important. See also TAYLOR in Dict. Christ. Biog., s. v.; SWETE, Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (Cambridge, 1902); LOISY, Histoire Critique du Texte et des Versions de la Bible (Amiens, 1892); NESTLE in HAST., Dict. of the Bible, s. v. Septuagint; ERMONI in VIG., Dict de la Bible s. v. Hexapla; HOWARTH, The Hexapla and Tetrapla of Origen in Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology (London, May, 1902); BURKITT, The So-Called Quinta of IV Kings, ibid. (June, 1902); MERCATI, Un Palimpsesto Ambrosiano dei Salmi Esapli (Turin, 1896), extract from Accademia Reale delle Scienze di Torino (1895-96); MERCATI, Psalmorum Hexaplorum Reliquiæ a Codice rescripto Ambrosiano (Rome, 1901)–cf. Expository Times (Nov., 1901); DRYER, Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel (Oxford, 1890), pp. 44 sqq. A considerable number of patristic and other references may be found in FIELD and SWETE.

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