Sunday 30 July 2023

439) Did early Midrashic rabbis know about Origen?

A 17th century edition of Bereishit Rabba housed in the Jewish Museum of Greece.


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Maren Niehoff[1] explores the possibility of an unlikely form of ‘dialogue’ taking place in Caesarea around the 3rd century CE between early Midrashic (i.e.,Tannaic or Mishnaic) rabbis, and Origen, an early Church Father. 

An analysis of some of the similarities between Bereishit (Genesis) Rabba and Origen’s Commentary on Genesis, raises the question of whether their authors had any knowledge of each other's writings. It appears that they may have, because not only do they sometimes deal with similar issues, but they seem to intentionally interact and, in fact, ‘correct’ each other. 


Origen was born in Alexandria but moved to Caesarea before 234 CE. Caesarea and its environs were also the likely locations of the early Midrashic (i.e., Tannaic or Mishnaic) rabbis who contributed to Bereishit Rabba. This work was finally redacted later (during Amoriaic or Gemara times) in the early 5th century, although its initial phases began about two centuries earlier in Mishnaic times.

Bereishit Rabba uses many Greek loanwords, which is consistent with this Midrashic work emerging around Caesarea, known as an important cosmopolitan centre at that time where Greek would have been spoken. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sota 7:1)  records the popularity of the Greek language spoken in Caesarea by noting that its Jewish inhabitants even recited the Shema in Greek. Also, Rabbi Abahu, who resided in Caesarea, mentions Jewish participation in the general entertainment and culture of that city. 

The question of mutual familiarity

We know that Origen was familiar with rabbinic writings from the Land of Israel, especially biblical commentaries such as those found in Bereishit Rabba. His references to commentaries only found in Bereishit Rabba (although he does not mention the work by name), are the basis of our understanding that Bereishit Rabba was emerging at that time. He uses terms like  [the] Hebrew” and “Judaios.” The question, however, is whether or not the rabbis were familiar with his writing: 

Origen’s moving to Caesarea marked the period from when he started to mention rabbinic writings. The texts from his earlier days in Alexandria only refer to Jews like Philo, but from the time he resides in Caesarea, he makes mention of the rabbis. These references to his newfound rabbinic writings happen to match and correspond directly with Bereishit Rabba. 

“If we read Genesis Rabbah in light of Origen, we notice that both often relate to the same textual problem and offer a similar solution” (Niehoff 2016:132). 

But the two bodies of literature are not always similar. We now turn to three concrete examples of unexpected but apparent textual ‘dialogues’ between Origen and Bereishit Rabba: 

Joseph’s dream

The points of correspondence between Origen and the rabbis are not always harmonious. They agree on some matters but there are also dramatic points of divergence between them. The interesting thing, though, is that even in the divergence, each seems to be aware of, and presupposes, the other. 

Origen examines Joseph’s dream in which he tells his father Jacob, that he saw all his family bow down to him. The problem is that by the time Joseph had his dream, his mother Rachel had already passed away. Jacob, picking up on this anomaly, asks: 

“Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?!” (Gen 35:18). 

Origen begins by referring to a commentary only found in Bereishit Rabba but then adds an extremely Christological interpretation, obviously not found in the Midrashic work: 

“It is clear that Joseph’s mother, Rachel, had already died before Joseph had his dream, namely when she gave birth to Benjamin. Therefore some Jews say that these things will be fulfilled at the resurrection and the mother will bow down to her son. But we, who keep away from Jewish legend (ἡμεῖς δὲ Ἰουδαϊκῆς ἀφιστάμενοι μυθολογίας), examine whether it could have been prophesied that Mary and Joseph will bow down to Christ” (Origen, E96, ed. Metzler 270, translation by Niehoff).[2] 

The first part of Qrigen’s commentary shows how he was cognisant of the interpretation offered in Bereishit Rabba where Jacob assumed that his deceased wife would come alive again because he believed the resurrection of the dead would take place in his time: 

“Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Hama bar Hanina said: Jacob thought that the resurrection of the dead would take place in his days. It would have been reasonable (niḥa) to say, ‘I and your brothers (will bow down to you),’ but why (shema) ‘I and your mother?!’ Rachel died and you say, ‘I and your mother?!’ Our father [Jacob][3] did not know that these things referred to Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, who raised him like a mother” (Bereishit Rabba 84:11, translation by Niehoff). 

Bearing in mind that Bereishit Rabba is a work that developed over some centuries, in this Midrash, a blatant self-correction by a later Amoraic rabbi, R. Levi, occurs. Initially, the view is presented that Jacob thought that his deceased wife, Rachel, would experience a resurrection of the dead. That ‘incorrect’ view (concerning the resurrection) appears to have been an earlier interpretation by an earlier Tannaic rabbi. It is then later ‘corrected’ by an Amoraic rabbi  [from the Gemara period] suggesting that there is no concern for the resurrection or for messianic times, but that rather  it simply refers to Joseph’s ‘second mother,’ Bilhah. 

This Midrash is, therefore, loaded with theological innuendo. Origen, in the middle of the 3rd century, refers to the original version of the Midrash in Bereishit Rabba where Jacob thought his deceased wife would be resurrected. This interpretation is not offered anywhere else, other than the early version of Bereishit Rabba. If Origen heard this “Jewish legend” from “some Jews,” it could only have been from Bereishit Rabba.

For some reason perhaps because the later rabbis saw how this view was ridiculed by Origen – later, during the 5th century, the Amoriaic rabbis decided to correct the earlier [Mishanic][4] view and declared that “Our father [Jacob][5] did not know that these things referred to Bilhah,” Joseph’s metaphorical mother. 

“Origen thus testifies to an earlier rabbinic tradition, which was later dismissed by amoraic teachers” (Niehoff 2016:135). 

The later rabbis of the 5th century, however, continued the polemic by criticising Origen and his Christological interpretations where he anachronistically interpolated Jesus into the Torah story of Joseph and the rabbis now subtly dismissed the notion of ‘resurrection’ and all its problematic associations. Interpreted this way, both sides were able to trade theological barbs: 

“Origen’s interpretation is as difficult to imagine without the initial impetus of the rabbis as it is difficult to understand why the rabbis developed a new solution to the problem of Jacob’s words if we do not take into account Origen’s dismissal of their original solution” (Niehoff 2016:135). 

The Flood

Another example of Qrigen’s apparent awareness of the commentary of Bereishit Rabba relates to the biblical episode of the Flood. Immediately after the Flood, G-d blesses Noah with the assurance that: 

“the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast on the earth and every bird in the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea” (Gen 9:2). 

Origen has issues with those who take this verse literally by thinking that in the aftermath of the great Flood, all animals are afraid of humans. Origen writes: 

“Anyone will violate [the verse] (βιάσεται) who says according to the literal sense (κατὰ τὸ ρἡτὸν) that every living creature is filled with fear when seeing man, even the wild animals in the desert. It is perhaps better to think (μήποτε δὲ βέλτιον νοεῖν) that the [evil] powers, which are the ‘wild beasts of the earth,’ fare differently from other kinds, for the fear and trembling of the righteous is upon these. The evil powers fear the righteous” (Origen, E16, ed. Metzler 212, translation by Niehoff). 

Origen totally rejects the literal interpretation of this verse, where animals are said to fear humans. He notes that that’s simply not the reality of the world. He, therefore, offers his interpretation that the beasts, birds, crawling creatures and fish are metaphors for evil and demonic forces who fear righteous people, like Noah: 

“Distinguishing between all of Noah’s descendants and the righteous, Origen insists that only the latter arouse fear in the evil powers” (Niehoff 2016:136). 

But where did Origen notice literature supporting the literal interpretation of the biblical verse that wild beasts are afraid of humans? Once again, the first time in rabbinic literature that the idea of wild animals fearing humans, is found in Bereishit Rabba. Here,  R. Shimon, for some reason, insisted on adopting the literal sense of the verse where all animals are indeed said to fear humans: 

“an infant one day old, alive, need not be guarded from mice or serpents to prevent them picking out his eyes; a lion sees him and flees, a serpent sees him and flees” (Bereishit Rabba 34:12). 

Unlike, the previous case, there does not seem to be a Midrashic rejoinder to this particular criticism by Origen. 

The voice is Jacob’s voice

The third example has to do with the blessings of Isaac to Jacob who pretended to be Esau. It seems that although Jacob essentially lied to his father, Isaac, about his identity, no one had drawn undue attention to this discrepancy on the part of a great biblical personality like Jacob. During the earlier Second Temple times, Philo simply glosses over it as a “white lie,” the Book of Jubilees claims that Isaac blessed Jacob unconsciously but with divine inspiration, and Josephus just comments that it was a fraudulent act. But as we move to the times of Origen, suddenly much attention is devoted to the matter of the "deception." Bereishit Rabba goes to great lengths to emphasise that Isaac blessed Jacob consciously “as a Jew and father of the Jewish nation” (Niehoff 2016:142) and insists that there was no deception. 

The reason for this refocussing on, and reframing of, the blessings, may have been that Origen had compared the Church to Jacob. Once this happened, Bereishit Rabba went out of its way to emphasise the Jewishness of Jacob and his legitimate blessings, especially because Esau is often associated with Christianity.  It records R. Levi arguing and insisting that Jacob never lied to his father nor did he receive the blessings by pretending to be Esau. He claims that when Jacob said “I am Esau your firstborn” (Gen 27:19), he meant “I am = Anochi” (the first word of the Ten Commandments) represented Jacob who kept the commandments, but who had separated from “Esau your first-born.”  

Effectively a literary pause or comma was now inserted between the word “I am” and “Esau your first-born.” Thus, through this technical re-reading and change in punctuation, there was no deception, and Jacob gave his father the choice of which son he wanted to bless. Isaac could choose between Jacob, the one who kept “Anochi,” the commandments or the firstborn, Esau. On this tendentious reading, Isaac chose to bless Jacob and there was no deception (Bereishit Rabba 65:18). 

Bereshit Raba goes on to record the following in the name of Abba bar Kahana who describes the nations of the world who once approached a philosopher for advice on how to destroy Israel. The philosopher turned around to them and declared: 

“[G]o and see their synagogues and houses of learning. If you find boys raising their voice in prayer, you cannot prevail, but if not, you can attack them, because thus promised their father: ‘the voice is Jacob’s voice’ (Gen 27:22), as long as Jacob makes his voice heard in the synagogues, Esau has no power” (Bereishit Rabba 65:20). 

Niehoff suggests that these Midrashim denying the deception and emphasising the synagogues, were not incidental but rather direct responses to the claims made by Origen that Jacob lied and that there was power in ‘Jacob as the Church.’ This is why now, for the first time, attempts were made by Bereishit Rabba to show 1) that Jacob did not lie, and 2) that “Jacob makes his voice heard in the synagogues: 

“The rabbinic emphasis on the contemporary synagogue emerges as a direct mirror image of Origen’s stress on the contemporary Church” (Niehoff 2016:144). 

Origen refers to the rabbis, but they do not refer to him

Why is it that Origen openly references the rabbis, but the rabbis do not mention him at all? Niehoff (2016:139) answers that before the final redaction of Bereishit Rabba, the Roman Empire had turned Christian. This placed the Jews in a vulnerable position and it would not have been politically wise for rabbis to challenge Origen directly by name. 

Rabbis adopting the surrounding imagery

The Binding of Isaac was an episode that attracted much Christian interest due to its notions of ‘sacrifice.’ Bereishit Rabba also seems to have somehow been caught up in this attention to the Akeida (the Binding). It surprisingly describes Avraham carrying the wood for the sacrifice: 

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה (בראשית כב, ו), כָּזֶה שֶׁהוּא טוֹעֵן צְלוּבוֹ בִּכְתֵפוֹ 

as someone who carries his cross” (Bereishit Rabba 56:3).[6] 

Once again, it is in Bereishit Rabba that such a description appears for the first time in Jewish literature. Where did this unusual and unexpected imagery come from? 

In Origen’s commentary on the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, he writes that Isaac:[7] 

“carried his cross like Jesus, as this was the typological [anticipation] of him” (Origen, E54, ed. Metzler, 240, translation by Niehoff). 

Origen continues to claim that the biblical figures mentioned in the Torah were, anachronistically, prefigures and a foreshadowing of later Christian characters. That’s understandable and typical of some Christological interpretations. But it is entirely mystifying why Bereishit Rabba adopts the very same imagery and refers to Abraham as “someone who carries his cross.” That’s obviously not to say that Breishit Rabba agrees with the prefiguring interpretations, but it nevertheless surprisingly uses the same idiomatic imagery. 

Perhaps the surrounding culture of Christian Rome with its ubiquitous artwork and iconography had created the cross as a representation and universal symbol of suffering and sacrifice, and the rabbis, counterintuitively but yet innocently, may have also adopted it as an idiom for sacrifice.  

Or perhaps, they stripped it entirely of its Christian connotations and believed that Isaac was indeed tied on the sacrifice with two pieces of wood placed at right-angles to each other. Building on this latter idea, and in keeping with the general tenor of our discussion, it is most likely that this reference to a "Tzlav" or cross, was yet another in the series of exchanges of barbs. Beresihit Rabba was undermining the notion that it was only Christians who suffered, and casually pointed out that Isaac had already undergone a similar process of suffering long before the popular focus on a suffering Jesus.[8]

We know that Origen was aware of Bereishit Rabba. It also evident that Bereishit Rabba was acutely aware of Origen’s writings and interpretations sometimes challenging them, and other times correcting and reframing their own earlier rabbinic positions to counter his interpretations. Both texts point to a polemic with each party aware of the other's position and intent on outdoing their theological opponent.

[1] Niehoff, M., 2016, ‘Origen’s Commentary on Genesis as a key to Genesis Rabbah’, in Genesis Rabbah in Text and Context, Edited by Sarit Kattan Gribetz, David M. Grossberg, Martha Himmelfarb, and Peter Schäfer, Mohr Siebeck, 129-153.

[2] Karin Metzler, Origenes: Die Kommentierung des Buches Genesis (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010).

[3] Square brackets are mine.

[4] The Midrashic work Bereishit Rabba extended over two rabbinic periods, the late Mishnaic/Tannaic period, and the early Amoraic/Gemara period. Origen moed to Caesarea some time before 234 CE, and the break between the Tannaic and Amoraic periods was around 210 CE. Origen would thus have been familiar with the earlier strata of Bereishit Rabba produced during the earlier period.

[5] Square brackets are mine.

[6] Sefaria offers a softer translation: “And Avraham took the wood of the burnt-offering (Gen. 22:6) — like one who carries his own stake [to be impaled] on his shoulder.

[7] Origen refers to Isaac, although the verse mentions Abraham carrying the wood.

[8] I thank Simeon Khazin for suggesting this interpretation to me.


  1. Interesting discussion.

    The flood exibit seems forced as there isn't necessarily any indication that he saw someone explain it that way, his language can seemingly accommodate that "dont be tempted to explain it literally because . . "
    In any event, he famously authored the massive hexapla (which includes translations from a few jewish scholars) which itself talks to his wide scholarship and knowledge of the jewish tradition

  2. Thanks, Nachum. Although R. Shimon, in Bereishit Rabba (34:12) does explain the verse in most literal fashion by suggesting that a one-day old baby can be left alone in the wild and is not susceptible to attacks from dangerous animals like lions.