Origen: a very early copyist of Matthew made a mistake…

Alex Poulos has posted what may be the most interesting blog post that I have seen for a very long time: Textual criticism and biblical authority in Origen’s Homily on Ps. 77.  It’s the text and translation of the first section of Origen’s first homily on psalm 77, with comments.  And by golly it’s interesting!


We regularly say that the psalms with the prefix “of understanding” use this superscription to direct the listener to investigate carefully what has been said, as they need interpretation and explication, since every psalm with this prefix has dark sayings, riddles, and parables. This is indeed the case here, for we have the superscription, “of understanding, by Asaph” and immediately it says in the psalm, “I shall open my mouth in parables, I shall speak riddles as from the beginning.” (Ps. 77:2).

One must know that Matthew mentions this saying– writing about how the Savior spoke in parables, he said, “so that the passage may be fulfilled ‘I shall open my mouth in parables; I shall speak in riddles as of from the beginning’ or rather, ‘ <I shall declare things hidden> since the establishing of the world’. (1) Though Matthew paraphrased with those sorts of words what was said in this way here, there occurred a scribal error in the copies of the gospel, for it says, “so that what was said through the prophet Isaiah may be fulfilled, ‘I will open my mouth in parables’”.

It’s likely that one of the very first scribes found the text, “so that what was said through the prophet Asaph,” and supposed that it was an error because he did not realize that Asaph was a prophet. This caused him rashly to write “Isaiah” instead of “Asaph” because of his unfamiliarity with the prophet’s name.

And then he continues, with some very excellent thoughts about the scriptures, and how the devil attacks them, and uses them to attack us.  On this, Alex Poulos comments:

There’s quite a bit that’s fascinating in this passage. Origen has a problem: his copies of Matthew attribute this passage to Isaiah, when it clearly comes from the psalms. His solution is text critical: he posits an emendation to change the name from Isaiah to Asaph. He even goes a step further and speculates on the reason for the change: a scribe didn’t realize who Asaph was, and substituted the name of a prophet he did know.

The situation in the mss is quite different. All of the early minuscules simply say “the prophet” without specifying a name, with one notable exception: Sinaiticus. It seems likely, however, that “Isaiah the prophet” was the reading in all of Origen’s manuscripts, as he has to resort to emendation. Not only that, he supposes that it was one of the very first scribes that made the mistake (τὶς τῶν ἀρχῆθεν γραφόντων). Perhaps the “Isaiah” reading was widespread in Caesarea in the 3rd century. Someone who knows more about the textual history of Matthew can no doubt elucidate this better than I. For what it’s worth, it seems to me that the error arose because of the formulaic nature of the clause. Matthew cites Isaiah again and again; it would be quite easy for a scribe to insert the name by accident where it doesn’t belong. As one who’s memorized portions of Matthew, I can say that keeping straight the various subtle changes from one “fulfillment formula” to the next is not easy.

But I won’t steal Alex’s thunder – read it all.  It’s excellent stuff.  I’ve saved a copy locally, and I doubt that I will be the only one.

This is the first fruits of Marina Molin Pradel’s marvellous 2012 discovery of a bunch of previously unknown homilies by Origen in Munich (Ms. Monacensis Graecus 314) and the excellent decision by Lorenzo Perone to publish quickly in 2015.  Who can doubt that the words above are indeed the voice of Origen?

I think we must be grateful to Alex Poulos for sharing this – it is truly excellent stuff.

2 thoughts on “Origen: a very early copyist of Matthew made a mistake…

  1. Thanks so much for the link! I’m glad you found the passage as fascinating as I did. Two small things: I’m not a doctor yet! (Hopefully within a couple of years that’ll change), and it was Marina Molin Pradel who first made the discovery.

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