The Place of Hebrew in the Biblical Theory of Epiphanius (Part 2.2)


Continuing in a series of posts attempting to describe Epiphanius’s biblical theory (see Part 1 and Part 2.1), in this post are reasons 3–5 for holding that Epiphanius considered the Hebrew text as a crucial part of his biblical theory. At the end, I will attempt to draw some conclusions on this point before moving to other aspects of his thought.

3. The Hebrew Text as Reference Point

Both in his retelling of the Aristeas narrative and in practical examples, Epiphanius holds up the Hebrew text as the reference point:

Now when they were finished, the King sat on a high throne and also thirty-six readers were seated in a lower position, having the thirty-six copies (ἰσότυπα) of each book and one having a copy (ἀντίγραφον) of the Hebrew book. And while one reader was reading and the others keeping in silence there was no disagreement found, but a marvelous work of God in order that it might be known, that those men had the gift of the Holy Spirit, agreeing in the translation…(Mens. 6).

Here Epiphanius reports that the agreement among versions is not only between the Greek copies but also with the “certified copy” of the Hebrew book. Interestingly, Aristeas does not mention the presence of the Hebrew book in the review of the translation, but Epiphanius includes this detail to support his theory that there are no disagreements between the individual Greek translations themselves and the Hebrew with them. It is also interesting to note that a certified copy of the Hebrew book contrasts implicitly with the copies of each (Greek) book.

In a more complicated instance, Epiphanius compares the Greek translation of the Seventy-Two with that of the later Jewish reviser, Aquila. He uses a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew text of Genesis 5:5 as his point of reference. I will treat this passage in more detail in a later post, since it also has bearing on his view of the Greek translation.

4. The “Hidden Treasure” and “Sealed up Spring”

After Ptolemy received copies of the Hebrew books from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, he replied to them in a second letter:

King Ptolemy to the teachers of piety who are in Jerusalem, greatest greetings. When a treasure has been hidden and the spring has been sealed what is the profit with either? Thus also the subject of the books having been sent to us from you. For because we were not able to read the things having been sent to us from you, such will become as no advantage to us (Mens. 11).

According to Epiphanius, Ptolemy compares the Hebrew scriptures to a “hidden treasure” (perhaps cp. Sir. 20:30 “Hidden wisdom and unseen treasure, of what value is either?” NRSV) and to a “sealed fountain” (perhaps cp. Song 4:12 “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a spring sealed.“). The images of hidden treasures and barred springs are positive and speak to the great value of the prize, but their inaccessibility makes them of no benefit, hence the need for translation.

This conclusion fits with that of the Letter of Aristeas itself:

The books of the law of the Jews (with some few others) are absent from the library. They are written in the Hebrew characters and language and have been carelessly interpreted, and do not represent the original text as I [Demetrius] am informed by those who know;….It is necessary that these [books] should be made accurate for your library since the law which they contain, in as much as it is of divine origin, is full of wisdom and free from all blemish. For this reason literary men and poets and the mass of historical writers have held aloof from referring to these books and the men who have lived and are living in accordance with them (Aristeas, 30–31).

There is much wisdom in these Hebrew books, according to Aristeas and Ptolemy, which is inaccessible to all except the Jews, who have been trained to read them. Translation is required to make the Hebrew treasure accessible and to unseal the Hebraic spring.

5. The Hebrew Columns in Origen’s Hexapla

There is much to say about this point (and much debate also), but space allows for only a comment on what Epiphanius describes and his positive interpretation of the work of Origen’s Hexapla:

For having compiled the six translations and the Hebrew scripture in the Hebrew letters and words themselves in one column, he [Origen] placed another column beside, with Greek letters, but with Hebrew words [i.e. a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew], for those who do not understand Hebrew letters in order that through the Greek (letters) they might know the phonetic value of the Hebrew words. And in this way by having placed the two Hebrew columns and the columns of the six translators gathered by him in parallel in the Hexapla or Octapla, he gave scholars a great increase in knowledge (Mens. 7).

In short, Epiphanius’s appraisal of Origen’s Hexapla is extremely positive. Indeed, by adding the Hebrew columns, one with the actual Hebrew and the other in Greek transliteration to the published translations, Origen supplied scholars with a great increase in knowledge, since now they could compare these Greek versions with their Hebrew source as well as compare these Greek versions with one another.


To sum up, Epiphanius holds the Hebrew canon and version in high esteem as an essential component of his whole biblical theory. His theory did not exchange the Hebrew for the Greek or the Greek for the Hebrew, as we shall see. He recognized the work of the Seventy-Two as a translation or interpretation (ἑρμηνεία) of the prior and authoritative Hebrew scripture. The next post will enquire into the role of the Greek version of the Seventy-Two in Epiphanius’s biblical theory.


7 thoughts on “The Place of Hebrew in the Biblical Theory of Epiphanius (Part 2.2)

  1. Good, fertile subject matter you’ve explored Dr. Meade! Very few of the early church ‘fathers’ are credited with knowing Hebrew and consulting the Hebrew text. Are there any others you would name besides Origen, Jerome, and Epiphanius?

    The utilization of the Hexapla is another interesting subject — the seeming lack of awareness that the ‘fountainhead’ of the Hebrew text contained variant readings makes me wonder if even the two Hebrew columns of the Hexapla were copied and circulated (just as ‘the three’ translators were). Any thoughts on that?


    1. Thanks, Steve. The study is not over yet. I don’t want to over estimate Epiphanius’s actual knowledge of Hebrew. The more important aspect of these posts is the significant place he affords the Hebrew in his biblical theory. With that said, he probably makes use of at least the second column of the Hexapla for his transliterated Hebrew from time to time. The three names you mentioned are the Christians who make the most use of the Hebrew with Jerome being the chief example. I’m not aware of any others though Syriac Christians would have used the Hebrew also.

      Many thoughts on the use of the Hexapla. Stay tuned. Currently, I don’t think any evidence supports just the two Hebrew columns were copied and circulated. But the transliterated column did make it into some copies and it certainly made its way into the margins of later manuscripts.

      Thanks for your comments and questions.


      1. Thanks for the feedback Dr. Meade. “Circulated” was probably a poor word choice on my part. But it makes sense to me that a determined collector/translator like Jerome procured copies of the Hexapla and was not purely reliant on visits to the original in Caesarea. Megan Williams in “The Monk and the Book” opined on page 125, “Jerome must have had his own copies of the Hexaplaric Bible”. She presents supportive reasoning in the pages that follow.

        Additionally, Jerome’s seeming lack of awareness that the Hebrew text also contained textual variants despite his familiarity with the Hexapla and so many of Origen’s exegetical works raises the possibility that he relied on the same base Hebrew text when compiling the Vulgate.

        Guess I’m drifting off subject :-). But Epiphanius’ use of transliterations may speak to a similar point. Anyhow, I see you have posted part 3 about Epiphanius, so the story continues!


  2. Thanks for these comments, Steve. I still need to read Megan’s work on Jerome. No doubt he saw and made use of the Hexapla, but I’m skeptical of the idea that the Hexapla was copied. I don’t think it was copied except for a book like the Psalms, perhaps. It would have been too great an undertaking. But this still leaves to explain how the hexaplaric text and readings from the other columns circulated. I and others are working on a theory to explain this. Hopefully, I’ll be able to announce more soon.

    Jerome and Origen before him would have used the proto-MT. It was already a very prevalent text in the second temple period and it became the dominant text type after the destruction of the temple. So it’s no wonder they didn’t perceive variants within it.

    Part 3 has ensued. One or two more installments to go!


    1. Williams doesn’t shy away from the idea that Jerome had a full-form copy of the Hexapla, but the more plausible allowance is that he collected the individual components. For example as shown in letter 32 (back in Rome, circa 384) he possessed Aquila’s translation: “for some time past I have been comparing Aquila’s version of the Old Testament with the scrolls of the Hebrew,”. I need to track down a reliable English translation of his commentary on Titus since that seems a standout citation in support of his copying the Hexapla.

      In any event, new ideas/evidence are certainly welcome! As to the admitted standardization of the proto-MT, one curiosity is the number of variants in the Vulgate despite Jerome’s insistence on ‘Hebraica Veritas’. Here’s a link to an old but thought-provoking examination of Isaiah that may be new to some readers:

      Sorry for drifting OT! I will now rejoin the Epiphanius presentation in progress 🙂


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