Thursday, 26 January 2012


Origen (c.186-255) of Alexandria is often classified as a Christian theologian, though also as a Christian philosopher. His father was apparently a Roman citizen, and one of the Christian martyrs during the persecution launched by Septimius Severus (rgd 193-211). He has been described as the child of a mixed marriage; Epiphanius says that he was a native Egyptian. Yet according to Jerome, the mother was either a Jewess or a Christian (McGuckin, Westminster Handbook, p. 3 n.15). The native Egyptians were at the bottom end of the social scale in the Graeco-Roman colonisation; a community of Jews had survived in Alexandria, though regarded as inferior by the Romans. Origen was reared by his father to a Greek education, in addition to study of the Bible. The young Origen apparently continued his father’s role as a teacher of Greek literature, maintaining a private school, though he was also enlisted by Bishop Demetrius as a paid catechist of the church. His father’s wealth was confiscated by the Roman bureaucracy, and his family were in need. He later sold his father’s library for a small pension, and studied philosophy in his leisure hours.

Bishop Eusebius (263-339) is a major source, though his Ecclesiastical History has been criticised for a clerical agenda. Eusebius was a defender of Origen; his account has been considered to incorporate some hagiology.

Origen allegedly had himself castrated by a doctor, in accordance with literal interpretation of a verse (19: 12) in the Gospel of Matthew, which refers to “those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” The verse was often interpreted metaphorically. Eusebius is much in question on this matter. “The story is hardly credible” (McGuckin, p. 6). Eusebius proffered this story as an explanation for the eventual prosecution of Origen by the bishop Demetrius. Origen “himself derides the literalist interpretation of the eunuch, saying it was something only an idiot would consider” (ibid.).

According to Eusebius, Origen attended the circle of Ammonius Saccas, a Neoplatonist teacher in Alexandria. Little is known about the latter, who appears to have been a self-taught philosopher differing from the more conventional Platonist pedagogues. The circle of Ammonius eventually gained an important addition in the shape of Plotinus (entry no. 42), who was some twenty years younger than Origen.

According to Porphyry (who is cited by Eusebius), “Origen lived as a Christian and thought as a Greek; he was always reading Plato and a whole lot of philosophers whom Porphyry lists” (Crouzel, Origen, p. 11). Yet modern scholarship invented the theme of two Origens, some commentators favouring the view that a pagan Origen was involved in the circle of Ammonius, and not the Christian Origen. Other scholars have considered this distinction erroneous. “There is every reason to believe that Origen acquired his superb education in philosophy from him [Ammonius]” (Trigg, Origen,1998, p. 12).

Origen nevertheless moved at a tangent, being a Christian Neoplatonist, giving an ultimate deference to the Bible. “To the more advanced students he taught philosophy together with the subjects preparatory to it like geometry and arithmetic: he expounded the teaching of the different schools of philosophers, explained their writings, to the point where he himself acquired the reputation of being a great philosopher” (Crouzel, p. 10).

According to Eusebius, Origen learned Hebrew, though the assertion has frequently been rejected. He certainly possessed an extensive knowledge of Jewish traditions and rabbinical exegesis, apparently derived from his communications with Jewish rabbis. His Hexapla (Six Columns) is only extant in fragments, and was a synopsis of differing versions of the Old Testament, including the Hebrew and the four main Greek versions. He was concerned to establish an accurate text.

Origen defended Christian doctrines against pagan and Jewish objections. He attacked Jewish literalism with a strong invective, though he “was not by nature a persecutor” and “actually defended the Jews against the abuse of pagans” (De Lange, Origen and the Jews, pp. 133ff.).

He was pitted against the Graeco-Roman colonial mindset that was the agent of persecution, executing his father and killing several of his own students. In his early years, he was frequently threatened by pagan mobs. In his last years, he composed the Contra Celsum, a refutation of the obscure second century Platonist Celsus. In his True Doctrine, Celsus had attacked Christianity from a conservative viewpoint, regarding that religion as a barbarian manifestation deriving from the Jews, who were allegedly inferior to Greeks.

Origen “differs from Clement [of Alexandria] in that he has not the least desire to claim the protection of a great philosophical name [meaning Plato] for some principle that is important to Christians. Yet, quite unconsciously, Origen is inwardly less critical of Platonism than Clement, and proposes a system that incorporates a larger proportion of Platonic assumptions than is apparent in Clement’s writings” (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 101).

According to Eusebius, Origen was a pupil of Clement, which some scholars have strongly doubted. Origen never quotes Clement by name, though he does refer to teachings associated with the latter. “Origen never applies to the spiritual man the adjective gnostikos which Clement constantly uses” (Crouzel, p. 7). The conclusion is that Origen was more resistant to Gnostic teachings, which were proliferating in his time.

The relation of Origen to Gnosticism has been differently presented. His output is generally viewed as providing a foil to the trend of joining Gnostic sects. Origen was “the supreme theologian of free will, and the constant opponent of the Valentinian determinism” (Crouzel, p. 21). However, this was not a straightforward process of denial. “Of the Gnostics, Valentinus and his followers had the most profound influence on Origenism,” and moreover, “by a process involving both acceptance and rejection, he [Origen], in effect, appropriated and transformed Valentinianism” (Trigg, Origen, pp. 8-9).

A wealthy Valentinian, namely Ambrose, became converted to Origen’s viewpoint, which is often described in terms of orthodoxy, despite some contradictions. Ambrose provided his new mentor with a team of stenographers and calligraphers who acted as a publishing agency for his prolific biblical commentaries. Only fragments of those works have survived. Origen’s “allegorical” exegesis of the Bible has been the subject of dispute and criticism.

At this period, the Roman emperor Caracalla (rgd 212-17) assassinated his royal brother, an act meeting with opposition at Alexandria. The tyrant sacked that city in retaliation, and closed the schools. Origen retreated to Caesarea in Palestine, where he was invited by bishops to teach the scriptures. His status was that of a layman, not a cleric. This event caused the Alexandrian bishop Demetrius to protest, on the grounds that it was contrary to tradition for laymen to preach in the presence of bishops. Origen was recalled to Alexandria.

The situation of Origen illustrates a major problem: the episcopal status complex. His role as catechist was subordinate to Demetrius, whom he is said to have regarded as “a worldly, power-hungry prelate consumed with pride in his own self-importance” (Chadwick, p. 109). On a later visit to Palestine, Origen was ordained to the priesthood by two bishops. “With a good grace, or unwillingly giving way to their pressure? We cannot tell” (Crouzel, p. 20).

We do know that Demetrius reacted strongly, because the ordination had occurred outside his local jurisdiction. When Origen returned to Alexandria, a synod exiled him from the city. Demetrius went further, and declared that Origen was ejected from the priesthood. A synod at Rome is reported to have ratified this decision. Origen moved to Caesarea in Palestine, where he engaged in preaching, regarded as a priestly function. According to Eusebius, Demetrius condemned and made public the act of castration which Origen allegedly performed; this detail has been queried, and is regarded by some as malicious gossip. Demetrius accused Origen of unorthodox doctrine, and this was probably the underlying factor of aversion.

In Palestine, Origen attracted pupils like Gregory Thaumaturgus, initially a pagan, who refers to his mentor as a master of philosophy. The context does not here mean Greek philosophy, but “the moral and ascetic life, of Christian and pagan alike” (Crouzel, p. 26), a usage found among Christians of that period. The study of “philosophers of every school except the atheists” (ibid.) was a preparation for the study of Biblical scripture. However, the school of Origen at Caesarea was not a centre of theology, because “the teaching leaves out almost everything peculiar to Christianity and only reproduces the doctrines that can be enunciated in philosophical terms” (ibid., p. 27). Origen’s curriculum has been described as a Christian version of Middle Platonism, and intended for young pagans.

According to Bertrand Russell, the teachings of Origen, “as set forth in his work De Principiis [Treatise on First Principles], have much affinity to those of Plotinus – more, in fact, than is compatible with [Christian] orthodoxy” (History of Western Philosophy, 1946, p. 327).

The same treatise has been described in terms of Christian Neoplatonism, and as the most systematic of his writings, a work in which Origen “establishes his main doctrines, including that of the Holy Trinity (based upon standard Middle Platonic triadic emanation schemas); the pre-existence and fall of souls; multiple ages and transmigration of souls; and the eventual restoration of all souls to a state of dynamic perfection” (Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

At the end of his life, Origen was a victim of the persecution of Christians launched by Decius, who enjoined that every subject of the Roman empire must sacrifice to the official gods. Origen survived horrific tortures, but was posthumously condemned as a heretic by Christian polemicists and bishops in later centuries, and also by the repressive Christian emperor Justinian in 543.

The ascetic characteristics of Origen were emphasised by Eusebius. Origen was favoured amongst fourth century Coptic Christian renunciates. The Desert Fathers have recently emerged from the shadow cast by orthodox interpretation; figures like Antony the hermit are revealed by scholarship to have fostered ideas and beliefs that were rejected by clericalism. The Christian bishops were eventually victorious in controlling and modifying the monastic movement.

See further G. W. Butterworth, trans., On First Principles (1936, repr. 1973); Henry Chadwick, trans., Contra Celsum (Cambridge, 1953); Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967); Elizabeth A. Clark, The Origenist Controversy (Princeton, 1992); Henri Crouzel, Origen (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989); Nicholas De Lange, Origen and the Jews (Cambridge University Press, 1976); John Anthony McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004); Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century Church (Atlanta, 1983); Trigg, Origen (London: Routledge, 1998).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 26th 2012

ENTRY no. 45

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.