Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.50

Anna Tzvetkova-Glaser, Pentateuchauslegung bei Origenes und den frühen Rabbinen.   Frankfurt am Main:  Peter Lang, 2010.  Pp. 467.  ISBN 9783631602836.  $112.95.  

Reviewed by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan (

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This is a revised version of a Ph.D. dissertation. Its 18 chapters are arranged according to the order of the main themes found in the Pentateuch; for each theme, Origen's and the Rabbis' interpretations are described, with an attempt at assessing the possible reciprocal influences and polemics. Each chapter is equipped with a final summary, and the conclusions of the volume usefully summarize the results of sometimes very detailed analyses.

The introduction provides a helpful overview of existing scholarship, which had already acknowledged in some cases that Origen relied on Haggadic traditions. On the other hand, influence of Christian exegesis on Genesis Rabba has been highlighted especially by Maren Niehoff. Sources and methodological questions are soundly discussed as well. In this connection, it is useful to indicate a collection (too recent for the Author to take into account) that is highly relevant to her topic: The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity, eds. Emmanouela Grypeou and Helen Spurling, Leiden-Boston, 2009 (here especially Philip Alexandre, "In the Beginning: Rabbinic and Patristic Exegesis of Genesis 1:1, " 1-29, and Marc Hirschman, "Origen’s View of ‘Jewish Fables’ in Genesis," 245-254).

Philo, as is well known, is never mentioned by the Rabbis, but an influence of his exegesis of Genesis can have reached them through Origen, or even, as I suspect, directly, at least in some cases. For instance, the Rabbis took over the notion that God created the world having a plan in his mind; this notion was found both in Philo and then in Origen.1 The latter may have transmitted Philo's concept to the Rabbis, but these may also have read Philo in turn. An important excursus is provided on the development of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in Christianity (55-66). In its Rabbinic counterpart, a particularly interesting account is given of Rabbi Gamaliel's (end of first century) teaching on the original elements; these, I note, are identical to those which appear in Bardaisan of Edessa's cosmology, which was based on the Genesis account—also interpreted in the light of Plato’s Timaeus—and indeed shows other affinities with Jewish traditions.2

Tzvetkova-Glaser is surely right to conclude (107), after a thorough discussion, that in Origen’s view the human being was created with a body from the beginning. Indeed, Origen was very clear that only the Holy Trinity can subsist without a body. And in her discussion of the exegesis of the commandment of circumcision, Tzvetkova-Glaser’s thesis (179-180) that the Rabbinic interpretation, with its aversion to any allegorization of that commandment, responded to the demands of the Rabbis’ polemic against pagan and Christian criticisms is well-founded. The Rabbis too, however, accepted a moral exegesis of circumcision, provided that this did not obliterate the literal observance of the commandment. This was also the position of Philo, who offered a moral interpretation of circumcision, but did not at all mean that the material observance of the commandment should be superseded. As for Origen, his criticism of circumcision did not in fact target the Jewish people, but rather the so-called Jewish-Christians who practiced circumcision, such as the Ebionites.3

One of the most fascinating chapters of the book under review concerns the sacrifice of Isaac (186-202). The similarities between the Rabbinic and the Christian interpretations (e.g., Isaac’s willingness to be offered in sacrifice, the redemptive character of his sacrifice, etc.) are such that it is discussed whether the Rabbinic exegesis depends on the Christian—in which Isaac is of course figura Christi—or vice versa. At least some Rabbinic traditions, such as those of Isaac’s true death and subsequent resurrection (which has no grounds in the Biblical text), and of his action of bearing the “cross” on his shoulders, seem to me to reveal a sure influence of Christian accounts. The date itself of the sacrifice of Isaac on 15 Nisan reveals a striking closeness to the date of Jesus’ (the new Isaac’s) death, also toward mid Nisan. I wonder whether this detail also may reveal an influence of some Christian traditions. As for Origen in particular, his reading of Isaac as both the priest who offers the sacrifice and at the same time as the sacrificial offering itself clearly assimilates Isaac to Christ, whose functions as sacrificial offering and as high priest Origen especially emphasized in his exegesis of the Epistle to the Hebrews.4

The assessment of the relationship between Origen and Greek philosophy and culture is perhaps too negative (243, 245, 251). Origen had been educated in the liberal arts and the study of philosophy at his school and never rejected philosophy; on the contrary, he used it and, in a letter preserved by Eusebius, even defended as perfectly legitimate the position of a Christian philosopher or a philosopher presbyter against the criticisms of his detractors, who did not approve of a Christian who was a philosopher.5 It is in fact problematic to determine Origen’s attitude to Greek culture and philosophy only on the basis of his obviously negative interpretation of Egypt and Pharaoh. What Origen rejects is pagan religion, rather than Greek culture; I would not say that, while the Rabbis rejected idolatry, Origen rejected Greek culture (251); indeed, the second and the fifth Egyptian plagues represent pagan religion and its mythical expressions in his view. As for the plague of the bloody water, it represents, not philosophy tout court (as the Author seems to suggest: ”Allegorie der Philosophie,” 245), but those philosophical doctrines that are wrong, that is to say, incompatible with Christianity (Hom. in Ex. 4.6). Moreover, it is natural that in homilies addressed to a simple public, such as his Homilies on Exodus, Origen did not make much of philosophy. For Origen’s understanding of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, an issue well treated on p. 247, it might have been good to refer to Book 3 of Περὶ Ἀρχῶν, which is surely the most important discussion that Origen devoted to this problem, with a view to the fundamental problem of theodicy.6

The analysis of the Rabbis’ and Origen’s interpretations of the Paschal lamb (253-271) is particularly well done, and it is correctly underlined that Origen refused to see in that lamb a prefiguration of the suffering of Christ on the cross. This refusal is coherent with his rejection of the etymology of πάσχα from πάσχω and his preference for the (correct) Hebrew etymology "passage." It is also interesting that Origen, in his interpretation of the characteristics of the Paschal lamb in reference to Christ, in Περὶ Πάσχα 2 (quoted on 258 n. 12), states that this lamb is said to be "perfect" because Christ is perfect, in that he lacks nothing, and that the lamb is said to be "male," not because Christ is a male, but because Christ is "steadfast and courageous." Indeed, for Origen, just as, for instance, for Gregory of Nyssa or John the Scot Eriugena, it is important to stress that Christ is not an ἀνήρ, but an ἄνθρωπος. This inclusivity as a characteristic of Christ’s person is necessary if he is supposed to subsume all of humanity.

Attention is rightly paid by Tzvetkova-Glaser to the Eucharistic typology of the lamb: the eating of the lamb is the reading and meditation of Scripture. It is repeatedly noted by Tzvetkova-Glaser, and rightly so, that there is no liturgical typology in Origen for the Paschal lamb; i.e., the Paschal lamb is not read as a representation of the liturgical Eucharist. Now, this can be explained, I think, with the very fact that for Origen the reading and meditation of Scripture itself is a liturgical, Eucharistic act. Just as the Paschal lamb, so the manna too is interpreted by Origen as a representation of Scripture. If, as Tzetkova-Glaser correctly observes (278), Origen does not interpret the manna as the liturgical Eucharist, this can be explained again, I find, with the fact that in Origen’s view the study and meditation, i.e. the manducation, of Scripture is a Eucharistic act per se.

Origen’s knowledge of Haggadic traditions is rightly supposed (276) in the case of the interpretation of Ex 13:17-14:31. Some other points may be questionable, such as the assumption that Clement of Alexandria was Origen's teacher (32), or that Origen postulated the existence of more "worlds" (72), whereas he spoke of more αἰῶνες but not of more κόσμοι, a distinction that tended to be blurred in Latin. On the whole, however, this is a careful work. Even typos are few (e.g. νεκροῶν for νεκρῶν, 105 n. 156; συζυςίαν for συζυγίαν 135 n. 29).

This is a very rich and stimulating study. Perhaps it is not always highly original, and sometimes it tends to limiting itself to a juxtaposition of the Rabbis’ and Origen's exegeses, but it is well documented, often supported with sound judgment, and immensely helpful for any research in the interaction between Jewish and early Christian exegesis of the book of Genesis and the Pentateuch. A similar comparison, but between the Christian and the "pagan" philosophical side, and only with regard to t he beginning of the book of Genesis, has been recently provided by Charlotte Köckert, Christliche Kosmologie und kaiserzeitliche Philosophie. Die Auslegung des Schöpfungsberichtes bei Origenes, Basilius und Gregor von Nyssa vor dem Hintergrund kaiserzeitlicher Timaeus-Interpretationen, Tübingen 2009.7 Both these extensive analyses together help to understand better Origen's doctrine of creation and its Biblical and philosophical roots. This is a crucial point in Patristic philosophy and exegesis at the same time.


Kapitel 1. Weltschöpfung
Kapitel 2. Die Schöpfung des Menschen
Kapitel 3. Eden
Kapitel 4. Die Geschichte Noahs
Kapitel 5. Beschneidung
Kapitel 6. Die Opferung / die Bindung Isaaks
Kapitel 7. Kleinere Themen aus der Patriarchengeschichte
Kapitel 8. Allegorische Deutung der Plagen der Ägypter
Kapitel 9. Interpretation des Pascha
Kapitel 10. Die Überquerung des Schilfmeeres
Kapitel 11. Das Manna
Kapitel 12. Gabe und Empfang der Tora
Kapitel 13. Interpretation des Stiftszeltes
Kapitel 14. Priestertum
Kapitel 15. Interpretation des Opferkultes
Kapitel 16. Interpretation der Reinheitsgesetze
Kapitel 17. Interpretation des Versöhnungstags
Kapitel 18. Interpretation der Sabbatfeier


1.   Analysis and contextualization in my "Clement’s Notion of the Logos 'All Things As One.' Its Alexandrian Background in Philo and its Developments," in Alexandrian Personae: Scholarly Culture and Religious Traditions in Ancient Alexandria, forthcoming in Tübingen.
2.   Analysis in my Bardaisan of Edessa. A Reassessment of the Evidence and a New Interpretation. Also in the Light of Origen and the Original Fragments from De India (Eastern Christian Studies 22), Piscataway 2009, 314-355.
3.   On the problem of Jewish Christianity see, most recently, J. Carleton Paget, Jews, Christians, and Jewish Christians in Antiquity, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2010, also with methodological assessments.
4.   See my "The Universal and Eternal Validity of Jesus's High-Priestly Sacrifice. The Epistle to the Hebrews in Support of Origen’s Theory of Apokatastasis," in A Cloud of Witnesses: The Theology of Hebrews in Its Ancient Contexts, eds R.J. Bauckham, D.R. Driver, T.A. Hart, and N. MacDonald, London 2008, 210-221.
5.   Documentation analyzed in Ilaria Ramelli, "Origen, Patristic Philosophy, and Christian Platonism: Re-Thinking the Christianisation of Hellenism, " Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009) 217-263.
6.   See at least Il cuore indurito del Faraone: Origene e il problema del libero arbitrio, ed. Lorenzo Perrone, Genoa, 1992; Ilaria Ramelli, "La coerenza della soteriologia origeniana: dalla polemica contro il determinismo gnostico all’universale restaurazione escatologica," in Pagani e cristiani alla ricerca della salvezza, Rome, 2006, 66–88.
7.   Reviewed by David Runia, Vigiliae Christianae 65 (2011) 106-109; my review is forthcoming in GNOMON.

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