Biblical women in Origen's newly discovered "Homilies on Psalms": gendered markers of Christian identity in Late Antique Caesarea

Maren R. Niehoff*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Origen’s newly discovered homilies on Psalms contain some fascinating passages on biblical women, which throw important light on his use of gender categories and his self-positioning in complex hermeneutical trajectories. Origen stands at an important juncture, where numerous exegetical traditions converged, and new ones developed. He explicitly adopts Paul as a source of inspiration for Eve, Sarah and Hagar, implying that he plays a similar role as the apostle vis-à-vis Judaizing factions. Origen also invokes an oral tradition for the image of Sarah as stemming from a Hittite background, parallel to Abraham’s Amorite genealogy. This tradition probably derives from a Jewish-Hellenistic milieu in Late Antique Caesarea and opens a rare window into the world of Greek-speaking Jews, to whom Origen felt closer than to the rabbis. Moreover, Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the midwives is adopted and embellished with Christian motifs. Origen’s own creative interpretations, on the other hand, are visible in the context of Aseneth and Judith. In these cases, he neither points to a source of inspiration nor can we as historians identify such a source. The images of these two women evolve organically from his overall views and perfectly suit his purposes of edification in the sermon. One of them is vilified and strengthens his gender biases vis-à-vis contemporary women in his community, while the other becomes a Christian prototype. The images of biblical women provide Origen with a platform to negotiate Christian identity in third-century Palaestina. Most of them serve as transitional figures, who mark boundaries: Eve and Sarah entice the audience to leave behind un-Christian ways; Aseneth shows how foreign vices are constantly lurking and endangering the believers. Their role differs from that of the patriarchs, who provide direct access to the divine and represent a stable kernel of Christian identity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)485-507
Number of pages23
JournalEphemerides Theologicae Lovanienses
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
* I wish to thank the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 1720/17) for its generous support of the research on which this article is based. Thanks also to Yehuda Liebes for his Hevruta in reading Origen’s newly discovered homilies. Coming across the reference to Judith in our Hevruta, I was inspired to embark on a broader study of the biblical women in the homilies. Thanks also to the participants of the conference “Women in Biblical and Parabiblical Texts in Jewish and Christian Literatures of Antiquity” at Beer Sheva University as well as Gretchen Reydams-Schils for their constructive comments.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 by Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses. All rights reserved.

RAMBI Publications

  • Rambi Publications
  • Origen -- Homilies on the Psalms
  • Sarah -- (Biblical matriarch) -- Christian interpretations
  • Women in the Bible
  • Women in Christianity -- History -- Early church, ca. 30-600
  • Gender identity -- Religious aspects -- Christianity


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