The Use of Hebrews 11:11 as Embryological Proof-Text

In the Jul-Oct 1978 volume of the Harvard Theological Review, Joyce Irwin (Colgate University) reviews the history of a debate, circa 1550s, involving the (virgin) birth of Jesus that relied on the meaning of Hebrews 11:11. The majority of the Dutch theologians involved at that time argued that Hebrews 11:11 was referring to Sarah creating sperm. She quotes a Belgian Calvinist, Guy de Bres, as saying in 1565: "Since, then, the Apostle says Sarah received power to cast seed, what madness is it to want to deny it?" Madness indeed. Her article:

The Use of Hebrews 11:11 as Embryological Proof-Test
Joyce Irwin
Harvard Theological Review, vol. 71, Jul-Oct. 1978, 312-16
[PAGE 312]

To modern [critics], Hebrews 11:11 is an enigma. Called "a cross too heavy to bear" by Jean Hering [footnote 1], the verse has given rise to numerous speculations on the meaning of εις καταβολην σπερματος in this context. Taken literally as "for laying seed", it refers to a sexual function; but because [incompetent] modern scholars have found these words used in ancient writings only with reference to male sexual function, many [such incompetent scholars] incline to tkae the phrase figuratively in the sense of "for establishing a posterity". In this way it can apply to Sarah, who seems to be the subject of the sentence. Others have suggested that the words και αντη Σαρρα were an interpolation and that Abraham, the subject of both preceding and succeeding verses, was intended as the subject of verse 11. Another interpretation makes a circumstantial clause of και αντη Σαρρα στειρα [footnote 2]. No doubt the merits of all these interpretations will be in dispute for some time. [note: 12 years later, Van der Horst proved that all of these interpretations are false, that it is indeed Sarah who is "laying seed"].

Footnote 1. Jean Haring, L'Epitre aux Hebrews (CNT; Paris, 1954) 106; English translation, The Epistle to the Hebrews (translated by A.W. Heathcote and P.J. Allcock; London, 1970) 101.

Footnote 2. See Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (3rd edition; Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) 86ff.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, however, the verse was more than an intriguing grammatical puzzle. It was a crucial proof-text in the debate over the female role in conception and, more specifically, the role of Mary in the conception of Jesus. This issue took on importance in the Christological controversies between Reformed theologians and some Anabaptists, most notably Melchior Hoffman and Menno Simons [footnote 3].

Footnote 3. For discussions of the Christological issues, see Peter Kawerau, Melchior Hoffman als religioser Denker (Haarlem: F. Bohn, 1954) 46-50, and William E. Keeney, The Development of Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice from 1539-1564 (Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1968). See also Joyce Irwin, "Embryology and the Incarnation: A Sixteenth Century Debate", Sixteenth Century Journal 9 (1978) 93-104.

Confronted with the task of explaining Jesus' sinlessness without appeal to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Melchior Hoffman (c. 1495-1543/44) had asserted that Jesus did not assume human flesh but instead had a single divine nature. He was, Hoffman taught, born through Mary but without partaking of her substance. To this extent the doctrine resembles ancient Gnostic heresies, which sought to deny Jesus' participation in the lower, physical realm.

Menno Simon (c. 1496-1561), however, wished to remain close enough to orthodoxy to affirm Jesus' humanity and yet also defend the belief in his single divine nature. In order to arrive at this blend [note: let's be honest, Irwin should have used 'contradiction' here] [PAGE 313] Menno presented what he considered a naturalistic account of Christ's origin which at the same time assumed his divinity. Jesus was not a spirit in the guise of a body but rather a complete person. As support for his argument he called on a simplified form of Aristotelian embryology, according to which the female contributes only matter, not form. The mother is the field, the father is the sower. Because the Holy Spirit provided seed for Jesus' birth, his essence is purely divine. Mary contributed only the matter of sustenance.

How was Menno to prove this was a correct understanding of natural processes? Surely not by appeal to natural science or philosophy, for as an Anabaptist he regarded only the Bible as ultimately authoritative. Hence the Bible, as God's testimony regarding both the natural and divine orders, could - and must - serve as scientific textbook. For the purpose of debating embryology, almost any verse containing the word "seed" was interpreted as support for his position. Some were directly related to Christ as the seed of David; others were merely used to demonstrate the normal processes of conception and generation. Such was the purpose of Menno's reference to Hebrews 11:11.

In the Vulgate translation of the Bible, Hebrews 11:11 does indeed seem to be a natural proof-text for Menno's position: "Fide et ipsa Sara sterilis virtutem in conceptionem seminis accepit" (By faith also Sarah, though sterile, received strength to take in seed.) [footnote 4] Sarah received the seed in the normal way from Abraham, her sterility - or inability to receive seed - having been overcome through faith.

Footnote 4. Concerning the word "to conceive", the Oxford English Dictionary (II 757) notes that in Latin "the primary notion was apparently 'to take effectively, take to oneself, take in and hold'."

But if Menno did not use the Greek New Testament, the Reformed theologians who opposed him did. They were aware that the Greek phrase εις καταβολην σπερματος called for another translation. Also, being up to date in their classical scholarship, they were aware - to some extent - of recent humanistic trends in science: the medical teachings of Galen had begun to overtake those of Aristotle. Contrary to Aristotle, Galen taught that not only men but also women produced a seed which is essential to conception. This was the evidence needed to produce an understanding of Hebrews 11:11 which would counter Menno's Christology. Reformed thinkers, it must be noted, were not the first to advance this interpretation. Erasmus, though not overly attracted to this line of argument, mentioned that Theophylactus of Ochryda, Byzantine scholar and exegete of the eleventh century, had suggested this possibility: "Theophylact indicates that some are of the opinion that it seems that women also contain seed and that this place can be adapted to that meaning." [PAGE 314] Only among those who encountered the Anabaptists' unorthodox Christology, however, was such an interpretation frequently advanced [to challenge the Anabaptists]. Calvin, for example, in his 1549 Commentaries on the Epistle to Hebrews, treated the verse entirely within the context of Sarah's faith. But when the Zwinglians were forced out of England under Queen Mary, some of them arrived in the Netherlands, where theological debates with the Anabaptists began to erupt. In the course of a 1554 debate between Menno and Martin Micron (1522[?]-59), a disciple of Bullinger [footnote 6], the embryological implications of Hebrews 11:11 were contested.

Footnote 5. Desiderius Erasmus, In Novum Testamentum . . . Annotationes (Basel, 1516) 582.

Footnote 6. See Albert Hauck, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche (Leipzig, 1903), XIII, 56-57; J.H. Gerretsen, Micronius, Zijn leven, zijn geschriften, zijn geestesrichting (Nijmegen, 1895).

The divergence of opinion was described passionately by Menno:

But as men say, Micron's little finger knows full well that the seed of the land and the seed of man are called by the same name in the Scriptures, and that also Abraham cast his seed, [that is] sowed it (Hebrews 11:11); although Micron twists it in his writings and would apply the casting to Sarah as to imply that women have procreative seed. What are we to call such willful falsifiers of the holy divine Word, I will leave to the impartial reader. [footnote 7]

Footnote 7. Menno Simons, "Reply to Martin Micron", The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (translated by Leonard Verduin; Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1956) 849.

At this point, to be sure, there were not many available versions of the Bible which would have supported Micron's point of view. He evidently had the advantage of knowing Greek, which Menno apparently did not. Even other new translations during the 1550s and 1560s left the understanding of the verse unchanged [footnote 8]. In 1565, however, the Belgian Calvinist Guy de Bres, in the context of exposing Anabaptist faults, translated the verse as "Par foy Sara a receu force de jetter semence." [footnote 9]. In commenting on the verse de Bres noted that the Vulgate version had a different sense but asserted that a look at the [original] Greek would reveal the best translation to be "to cast seed": Since, then, the Apostle says Sarah received power to cast seed, what madness is it to want to deny it?" [footnote 10].

Footnote 8. Theodore Beza's Latin New Testament of 1556, while giving Sarah a more active role from a grammatical perspective, did not significantly change the sense of the verse: "Per fidem Sara, quae sterilis erat, accepit vim ut conciperet semen." The Geneva Bible of 1560 does not reveal any new understanding: "Through faith Sarra also received strength to conceyve sede." And a French translation published in Lyon in 1561, reminiscent of Erasmus, emphasized Sarah's receptive potential: "Par foy Sara aussi receut force pour concevoir et retenir semence."

Footnote 9. Guy de Bres, La Racine, Source et Fondement des Anabaptistes ou Rebaptisez de Nostre Temps (n.p., 1565) 200.

Foonote 10. Ibid.

[PAGE 315] In the Dutch-speaking territory of the Netherlands, the proper translation of this verse was still very much in dispute in the following century. The official States General translation of 1637 clearly states, "Door het geloove heeft oock Sara selve kracht ontfangen om zaet te geven" [footnote 11], or, as the 1657 English translation of the Dutch translations and annotations renders it, "By faith Sarah herself also received power to give seed" [footnote 12]. There had been apparent uncertainty in previous Dutch translations, for the 1594 Leyden Bible offered Sarah the option either to give ("gheben") or to receive ("ontfangen") seed. The commentary on the new translation now left no doubt as to the intention of the words: "Gr. 'for casting', 'or laying a foundation of seed': but also of Sarah herself, who in this conception by the power of faith gave her own seed thereunto, that as is done in all natural conceptions." [footnote 13].

Footnote 11. Biblia, Dat is: De gantsche H. Schrifture (Leyden, 1637).

Footnote 12. The Dutch Annotations upon the whole Bible (London, 1657).

Footnote 13. Ibid. Spelling modernized.

This translation and exegesis was reinforced by two other Dutch writers soon after the appearance of this Bible. In his New Testament commentary of 1640 [footnote 14], Daniel Heinsius (1580-1665) treated the passage at some length, reviewing the history of the text and its commentators, Chrysostom [footnote 15], Theophylact, and Erasmus. Finding them indecisive, he adduced references from Hippocrates, Galen, and Lucretius, who, though not using the phrase εις καταβολην σπερματος, nevertheless supported the theory that women as well as men produce seed. That such a theory was being contested is evident from the publication in Holland only six years earlier of a full-scale attack on the Galenic embryological theories by the Aristotelian philosopher Caesar Cremoninus (1542-1613) [footnote 16]. Heinsius was concerned, however, to defend not only the Galenic corpus but also the material flesh of Christ and his full participation in the lineage of David. Fear of the Anabaptist heresy seems ultimately to have motivated his excursus.

Footnote 14. Daniel Heinsius, Sacrarum Exercitationum ad Novum Testamentum Libri XX (2nd edition; Cambridge, 1640) 541-42.

Footnote 15. Cf. John Chrysostom, "Homily XXIII on Hebrews": "By faith also Sarah received strength to conceive seed even when she was past age. What is, 'to conceive seed'? She who was become dead, who was barren, received power for the retaining of seed, for conception. For the imperfection was two-fold; first from her time of life, for she was really old; secondly from nature, for she was barren," (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [edited by Philip Schaff; New York, 1890-, XIV. 471.)

Footnote 16. Caesar Cremoninus, De calido innato, et semine, pro Aristotele adversus Galenum (Leiden, 1634; earlier edition, Venice, 1626).

In contrast, for Johann van Beverwyck (1593-1647), Dutch physician, professor of surgery, and authors of books on medicine, the motivating force was the feminist cause. Having been impressed by the [PAGE 315] spectacular educational accomplishments of the young Dutch woman, Anna Maria van Schurman, Beverwyck set out to demonstrate the Excellence of the Female Sex [footnote 17]. Confronting the long tradition of male supremacy, Beverwyck drew upon his knowledge of biology to demonstrate that women contribute as much to their offspring as males. Yet in addition to being a physician, he was also a staunch Calvinist, who found confirmation in the Bible, specifically Hebrews 11:11, for the theory of women's seed. Disturbed by the failure of Hermann Faukelius [footnote 18] and others to recognize this truth revealed in the words εις καταβολην σπερματος, he attributed their blindness to the strong hold of tradition:

But what shall one say, seeing that so many excellent men have failed here? One has perhaps, without much research, followed the other; or, which is more probable, they have been moved by the great authority of the philosopher Aristotle, who maintained insistently that women have no fertile seed. So much can the strong belief of a man of distinction do that he gets adherents even against reason. But no authority should be considered so great that the truth must remain still greater for us. [footnote 19]

Beverwyck was clearly convinced of the accuracy and significance of the interpretation which he and Heinsius were giving to the text of Hebrews 11:11. Whether or not such an interpretation persisted after the decline of Mennonite Christology and of Aristotelianism must be determined by future research. In view of the still unresolved state of this exegetical problem, perhaps the interpretations of Heinsius and Beverwyck are worthy of reconsideration.

Footnote 17. Johann van Beverwyck, Van de Wtnementheyt des Vrouwelichen Geslachts (Dordrecht, 1639). See also my article, "Anna Maria van Schurman: From Feminism to Pietism", Church History 46 (1977) 48-62.

Footnote 18. Hermann Faukelius (circa 1560-1625), a Dutch reformed minister, published a new Dutch translation of the New Testament in 1617 and was one of the translators of the "state translation" of the Bible.

Footnote 19. Beverwyck, page 16.