HO GRAPSAS – Who Knows?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

4:30 PM Language is not a list of rules. And, of course, nothing in language is ever black and white. This is true of Greek as much as it’s true of any other language. Moreover, we all interpret Scripture though our own lens of culture, history, education, context, etc. So it’s inevitable that biblical scholars will disagree on matters of interpretation. A case in point is the authorship of Hebrews. In particular, I’d like to ask: What did Origen mean, in referring to Hebrews, by “Who wrote [Greek: ho grapsas] the epistle, only God knows”?

As you may know, I’ve argued in print that Origen believed Paul was the ultimate author of Hebrews even if he wasn’t necessarily convinced that Paul was the writer/penman. This is most definitely not what I was taught in Bible college and seminary. And it remains a minority view today. But when I examined the evidence for myself, the cracks in the traditional consensus view that Paul could not have authored Hebrews began ricocheting around in my mind. For the first time in my life I read Origen for myself. And that changed everything. Clearly — at least to me — Origen was agnostic not about authorship but only about penmanship. That is, he pondered the question, “Who is responsible for the final form of this letter? Well, the answer is probably known only to God.” Origen himself was aware of two conjectures as to who the penman could have been: Luke, and Clement (of Rome). But that really didn’t matter much to him. The ultimate author was Paul, and so the question of who wrote the letter was of secondary importance.

Yesterday I was reading Tom Schreiner’s excellent Hebrews commentary. In his brief section on authorship he writes (p. 2), “Black’s interpretation of Origen should be rejected. It has been shown that when Origen speaks of who wrote the epistle he was referring to the author, not merely the secretary.” Tom cites at this point David Allen’s magisterial Hebrews commentary in the NAC, so my assistant was kind enough to copy that page for me and email it to me (since I’m stranded here on the farm). David argues that ho grapsas (“who wrote”) has to refer to authorship and not to penmanship based on context and usage. He cites A. C. Mitchell’s Hebrews commentary as follows (p. 32):

Mitchell noted the many places in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History where the Greek verb grapho (“to write”) “refers both to authorship and to actual penning” and thus concluded “Black’s distinction between author and amanuensis cannot be maintained in light of this evidence.”

So how should one respond to Dr. Black’s untenable views? My brain has some ideas. May I share them with you?

1) I will grant Tom and David that ho grapsas can refer to direct authorship. What I will not grant is that the expression must refer to direct authorship. If you want to argue that ho grapsas can’t refer to the penman, what do you do with Rom. 16:22?

I, Tertius, who wrote [ho grapsas] the epistle, greet you in the Lord.

Clearly, Paul is the author of Romans, and just as clearly, Tertius is the writer/penman/amanuensis/stenographer. I mean, isn’t this pretty clear? If so, can’t we see a parallel between Rom. 16:22 and Origen’s statement that only God knows the one “who wrote” the letter?

2) David argues (p. 32):

When Origen says “but who wrote it, only God knows,” he meant to indicate uncertainty as to which of Paul’s disciples it was who developed his ideas and was thus the actual author.

Likewise, Tom concludes:

Origen’s words about the author still ring true today: “God only knows.”

Suffice it say that, if you want to plead agnosticism on the authorship issue based on the writings of Origen, you will have to explain how Origen regularly introduces quotations from Hebrews with language like:

I think it sufficient to quote this one testimony of Paul from the Epistle to the Hebrews….

And the apostle Paul warns us….

… from what statements of Paul I have arrived at this understanding….

For the word is used by our Paul….

3) Finally, I’d like to see someone discuss this statement by Origen:

For the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in speaking of the prophets, and what they suffered, says [Heb 11:37], “they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were slain with the sword.” … someone hard pressed by this argument may have recourse to the opinion of those who reject this Epistle as not being Paul’s; against whom I must at some other time use other arguments to prove that it is Paul’s.

That seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

I’m not going to go into detail here about what Origen did or did not mean when he wrote ho grapsas. In my little book on the subject I’ve listed my source material for these quotes (and many more like them). I’m not insisting that I’m right and my friends Tom and David are wrong. But I do hope to provide you with a lens through which to read Origen in context and set you off on a new journey through this issue on your own.

Let’s dig in, shall we?

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