The Ancient Physiological Notions Underlying Hebrews 11:11

In the 1924 volume of the religious journal, The Expositor, Henry Cadbury writes an article titled The Ancient Physiological Notions Underlying John 1:13 and Hebrews 11:11, in which he concludes:

Accordingly it may be left as at least one possibility that the author of Hebrews meant what he seems to say, that "Sarah also herself by faith received power to deposit seed."

What follows is that part of his article dealing with Hebrews 11:11.

The Ancient Physiological Notions Underlying
John 1:13 and Hebrews 11:11
Henry Cadbury
The Expositor, 9th Series, Volume II, 1924
[PAGE 437]

Hebrews 11:11 - πιστει και αντη Σαρρα στειρα δυναμιν εις καταβολην σπερματος ελαβεν και παρα καιρον ηλικιας

This passage has caused the commentators difficulty, since they believe καταβολην σπερματος applies only to the father. Hence they have usually adopted one of several expedients:

1. σπερμα has been understood to mean "progeny" or "family" and καταβολην is taken of the "founding" of a family, like the καταβολην κοσμον elsewhere in the New Testament. In this sense it can be applied to the mother quite as well as to the father, but there seems [PAGE 438] to be no support for the combination in this sense, while it is stereotyped in connexion with the conception of a child (see Wettstein ad loc).

2. καταβολην σπερματος is understood to refer to the father, and Abraham is made the subject of δυναμιν ελαβεν and ηγησατο in the sequel as of the preceding verbs, while αντη Σαρρα is pointed as a dative (so W.H. mg.) construed loosely as a dative of association. Against this interpretation is not only the awkwardness of the dative, but the fact that in the anaphora of πιστε, in this chapter of instances the principal person is named next. Here, after mention of Abraham, the και αντη calls attention to the change of subject, "Sarah herself also" as well as her husband. It is quite perverse, therefore, to try to refer the sentence to Abraham.

3. A kind of ellipsis is suggested by which Sarah is kept the subject of the verb ελαβεν, but Abraham is supplied as the subject of καταβολην: "Sarah received power for Abraham to deposit seed." The improbabilty of such an interpretation needs no comment.

4. A fourth solution is offered by Windisch ad loc. He cuts the Gordian knot by excision: "Was nun neu hervorgehoben wird (δυναμιν εις καταβολην σπερματος ελαβεν), kann in dem vorliegenden Wortlaut nur von dem Manne gelten (von der Frau sagt man εις νποδοχην), auch nimmt die Fortsetzung nur auf Abraham Bezug (αψ ενος . . . . . νενεκρωμενον); also ist doch wohl der Text verderbt. Das Einfachste ist, man faast (και) αντη Σαρρα als Glosse, die versehentliche in den Text geraten ist."

But another alternative is suggested when one considers the ancient differences of viewpoint as presented, for example, in T.C. Allbutt's Greek Medicine in Rome 1921, Chapter XIV, "Doctrines of Generation". From this it is clear that "the idea of the deposit of the embryo by the male to be nourished by the female, as in a nest", or as seed sown in the soil, which we find in both Aristotle and in other writings both before and after, did not hold undisputed sway. Hippocrates and Galen attributed seed to both female and male. The female seed is called not merely αιμα, but σπερμα (see footnote below), e.g., in Galen, De semine, Book II, and has an active formative function (δυναμις) beyond the receptive function attributed generally to the female to whose catamenia even Aristotle conceded a generative substance (γονη). A single quotation will suffice -- from Firmianus Lactantius, De opificio dei, xii. 6 (C.S.E.L. XXVII, p. 45): "Conceptum igitur Varro et Aristotles sic fieri arbitrantur, aiunt non tantum maribus inesse semen, verom etiam feminis, et inde plerumque matribus similes procreari, sed earum semen sanguinem esse pergatum : quod si recte cum virili mixtum sit, utraque concreta et simul coagulata informari."

It is doubtful whether Aristotle really went so far, but evidently other authorities did. When doctors disagree layman may be excused for some laxity of expression. Accordingly it may be left as at least one possibility that the author of Hebrews 11:11 meant what he seems to say, that "Sarah also herself by faith received power to deposit seed."

Footnote: Conversely the male σπερμα is said sometimes to called by metonymy αιμα. So a few commentators actually explain the αιματων in John 1:13. It is usual to quote in support of the equation Eustathius on Iliad vi. 211, ως του σπερματος υλην του αιματος εχοντ.