Origen's Life and Work
Origen of Alexandria is one of most fascinating and important figures of the ancient world, not to mention the history of the Christian Church, and easily one of the most brilliant. Church historian and theologian Joseph Wilson Trigg has claimed that Origen’s importance and lasting impact in the development of Christianity is second only to that of the Apostle Paul. According to Trigg, Paul’s greatest legacy was to take the gospel to Gentiles, and to open up ways for Gentiles to become full members of the Christian church without converting to Judaism (see Acts 15 and Gal. 2). Origen’s legacy was to complete the work of Paul, by articulating a distinctly biblical faith that was at the same time fully conversant with Gentile (i.e., Greco-Roman) culture and thought, thereby providing the intellectual foundation for the transformation of Christianity from a small, marginal sect into the single most powerful force in the development of Western society until the 19th century.1 My preference is to save such accolades for Augustine of Hippo (who we look at in our next blog) rather than Origen, but I can see Tripp’s point. Augustine’s influence has been felt almost exclusively in Western Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism) and there is a sense in which Augustine’s work is—like a great cathedral built upon a solid foundation—inconceivable without Origen’s. Regardless, even to have such a debate points to the obvious: Origen must be considered among the two or three most important theological contributors to the development of the Christian Church.
Fortunately, we know a great deal more about Origen than we do about folks like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons. He was born 184/85 AD into a Christian family residing in Alexandria in northern Egypt, in many ways the greatest city in the Roman Empire except for, possibly, Rome itself. It was a large, bustling center of education, commerce, and culture, as well as religion, with a large Jewish community and numerous devotees of both Egyptian and Greco-Roman religious traditions. The Christian church in Alexandria was still apparently small enough to meet in one building for weekly worship, but it was a vibrant and growing, and during Origen’s life it would emerge as a leading theological voice in the Church.
From an early age, it was clear that Origen was gifted with a great heart and a great mind. According to tradition, his father, a convert to Christianity who would be martyred for his faith around 202 AD, would kiss his son’s chest each night as he fell asleep to honor the great Spirit he could already see at work in his son’s heart.2 In the very midst of the persecution that would take the life of his father and other Christians in Alexandria, the teenage Origen would open and take leadership for the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which had been overseen by Origen’s teacher, Clement of Alexandria, until Clement’s departure from the city to avoid the persecution.3 Origen would oversee the school for the next three decades, becoming renowned for his intellect and teachings, as well as his life as a model of Christian devotion and piety.
Around 230, at the same time that Origen began to run into conflict with his bishop, Demetrius, Origen's wealthy benefactor (Ambrose of Alexandria, whom Origen had converted or orthodoxy from Gnosticism) decided to move to Caesarea, in Palestine. Origen himself followed suit, many of his students would follow, and there his work would flourish and his renown would grow. Indeed, his work output during this period was truly astounding, in large part because Ambrose's wealth would allow him a team of scribes to help him write and publish at a dizzying pace. In fact, Origen is very likely the single most prolific author of the entire ancient world!
But his years in Caesarea were not without controversy, and included significant trials. The controversy seemed to emanate from Alexandria where Demetrius would accuse him of leaving without permission, and rumors would circulate that he had questionable teachings and personal practices.4 Despite these accusations, Origen would serve the Church faithfully. He continued to gather students—many of whom would go on to become leaders in the Church—and on several occasions he was called upon by bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea to represent them on important missions. Two of the most important included trials of rural bishops accused of the heresy of denying the full divinity of Christ, at both of which Origen not only served as the chief arbitrator, but also succeeded through the power of his mind and presence in converting the accused to an orthodox position. The trials came in the form of the Decian persecutions, which Origen was unable to escape. According to Eusebius (our primary ancient source for Origen’s life) Origen underwent horrendous torture, but refused to recant of his faith in Christ. An old man by this point, the authorities decided simply to release him rather than finish the work of executing him. He would then move to Athens where he is believed to have died sometime thereafter a broken old man, but also one who had left an enormous impact on the Church.
Origen and the Book of Scripture
As we have discussed in previous blogs, the canon of Scripture we recognize as Old and New Testament today had not yet been officially formalized in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. While a generation earlier Irenaeus of Lyons had advocated exactly this canon, there was still general disagreement about what books should be included and which should not. So, Origen would claim as Scripture the “Book of Wisdom” and “Maccabees” (which Protestants especially do not accept as Scripture) and one of his students, Dionysius, who would become bishop of Alexandria, would argue vociferously that Revelations was not written by John the Apostle and therefore should not be considered scriptural. The truth is that Origen made no significant contributions to the canonization of the Bible, but instead merely reflects the ambivalence in the Church of his time about what constitutes the New Testament.
However, Origen made massive contributions in other ways, for he was pioneering and extremely influential as a biblical scholar and exegete. Although relatively little of his has survived, he wrote extensive commentaries on the entirety of Scripture as he knew it. Perhaps more important, he published a massive version of the Old Testament called the Hexapla. Early Christians, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, used as their Old Testament a Greek translation of the Hebrew called the Septuagint that had been developed by the Greek-speaking Jewish community in Alexandria in the 3rd century BC. By Origen’s time, Jewish scholars had produced newer translations, and Origen understood this both to complicate and enrich our interpreting of Scripture. The complication is the same Christians face today. English is a very different language from Hebrew and Greek, and there are often multiple ways that certain words and passages can be translated that can lead to varying understandings in English. To confound this problem, there are multiple copies of the ancient texts with slight variations among which translators must choose. Origen was the first Christian scholar to have come to terms with this problem, for not only were there three different Greek versions of the Old Testament, but there were multiple Hebrew versions that differed in substantial ways. How can we determine which is the original and therefore authentic version? Origen’s answer to take all of the versions that he could find and put them next to each other in one volume, and develop cross-reference tools for discerning which version was the most authentic.5 In the end, the Hexapla amounted to something close to 6000 pages. It is one of the truly monumental scholarly accomplishments of the ancient world.
Origen was also an important in developing the allegorical (or, as he called it, “spiritual”) method of reading and interpreting Scripture. This is not to say that he advocated only reading Scripture as allegory—quite the contrary. Instead, Origen believed that there are multiple layers to Scripture, and the task of the exegete (i.e., the person interpreting Scripture for the Church) is to unpack all of the layers of Scripture, to dig deeply until one has uncovered all the divine treasures that lie within, rather than to be satisfied only with what one finds in a simplistic and literalistic reading of Scripture.
Origen developed this approach to Scripture in part as a response to the way that Gnostics like Marcion and Valentinius (whom we have met in previous blogs on Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) read Scripture. Marcion, one of the first Christian heretics, read Scripture only in a literal and plain-meaning-of-the-text way, and this led him to claim a sharp discontinuity between the God of the Old Testament and the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Marcion argued that the Hebrew Scriptures reveal a God who is a petty, violent dictator concerned with animal sacrifices and ritual purity laws and should be rejected in favor of the God of Jesus—a God of love, grace, and spiritual freedom. Origen took seriously Marcion’s concerns. A purely literal reading of certain Old Testaments passages could, for instance, be used to imply many problematic things: that God had a body, that there were multiple deities in heaven with God, that God was capable of certain human emotions (jealousy, regret, anger, etc.) and changes of heart that made God appear not unlike the petty, capricious deities worshipped by pagans.6 The problem with Marcion and other Gnostics, argued Origen, was that they could only look at the “flesh” of Scripture and see its outer appearance, rather than look more deeply into Scripture and discern its true “spirit.” Of course God is not like the pagan deities, nor does God change God’s mind, for the God revealed in Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8, Mal. 6). Therefore, when we approach any particular passage of Scripture, we need to be willing to open ourselves to the fullness of what might lie within, and reading Scripture allegorically in one important way to allow God to unfold for us its deeper truths. This kind of reading would become an extremely popular way of reading Scripture (especially much of the Old Testament) for centuries to come, and would be the approach advocated by Augustine of Hippo, to whom we’ll turn in in a couple of weeks. But first, tomorrow, we’ll look at Origen’s contributions to Christian thinking about the Book of Creation.
1. See Tripp’s Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church (John Knox Press, 1983).
2. Tripp is my chief source for the details of Origen’s life, although there are many other sources one could look at as well. My chief course for Origen’s theology is his On First Principles, which may be found in numerous different translations. The chief ancient source for Origen’s life is Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History.
3. There is some disagreement among scholars about the continuity between Clement’s school and that of Origen. It seems likely that Clement’s school was not officially overseen by the Church, and therefore cannot be properly called a Catechetical School. Origen’s school was certainly overseen by the Church.
4. Many scholars believe that Demetrius was, in fact, jealous of Origen, who had side-stepped his authority and accepted ordination by the bishop of Caesarea without Demetrius' permission. One of the chief rumors had to do with Origen's supposed self-castration, apparently done in literal obedience to Jesus' teaching in Matthew 19:12. Scholars today consider it far more likely that this story was circulated--possibly by critics or admirers--as an attempt to explain Origen's ability to remain chaste despite having many close female admirers and disciples. Not only was self-castration illegal, but Origen himself explicitly rejects a literal reading of this passage in his commentary on Matthew.
5. There were also times when he found differences in texts to be enriching, believing that God had in some sense led to the formation of conflicting versions (as was the case with the four gospels in the New Testament) that would then lead us to deeper reflection on the texts and deeper discernment on what God was saying through it.
6. See, for instance, Exodus 32:7-14 where, if read in a literal way, Moses essentially shames God into not destroying all the people of Israel. Note especially use of the word “your.” Moses must remind God that the people are God’s people and that it will look really bad if God destroys them all after leading them out of Egypt.