The Bible’s story is our story
IT WAS THE YEAR 240. At the church in Jerusalem, the reader stood up to read the Sunday lesson from the Septuagint, the early church’s Greek translation of the Old Testament. Starting where he had stopped the week before, he read through four episodes from the story of Saul and David (our 1 Samuel 25–28, though they had neither chapter nor verse numbers). The story ended with Saul’s visit to a necromancer—a woman inspired by a demon.
How can this be explained?
The ending of the reading puzzled the congregation. Did a necromancer actually summon up Samuel from hell, and if so, what in the world was the prophet doing there? What would their distinguished guest preacher, Origen, say?
As a scribe trained in stenography took notes, Origen led the congregation step by step through a carefully constructed argument ranging over the whole Bible. He argued that, unlike other “tough passages” (such as the story of Lot’s incest with his daughters), this one touches all of us. It calls into question our hope after death. Samuel was in hell? But Samuel was a great saint, twice mentioned in the same breath with Moses (Psalm 98:6 and Jeremiah 15:1). If Samuel went to hell, what hope do we have?
Previous Jewish and Christian interpreters had said that the necromancer must have brought up a demon impersonating Samuel. But Origen disagreed.
First, he said, the Holy Spirit had consistently inspired the biblical author to state that Samuel appeared. Secondly, Samuel told Saul something no demon could have. No demon could know about David’s kingship, an event in God’s saving plan that came to fruition in Jesus. Samuel himself must have appeared to Saul. But how did this fit into the larger biblical message?
Well, Origen argued, what people seem to find hardest to believe about Jesus is not his glory, but his humility. John the Baptist testified to Jesus’ glory since he was in his mother’s womb; but when he heard in prison about Jesus’ humility, he sent messengers asking Jesus if he was the one who was to come. Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, but he objected to the cross.
In his humility, Jesus died and descended into hell. So why should a prophet not be in hell? Anyone who needed Jesus needed the prophets too. Furthermore ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, all the patriarchs and prophets were in hell, awaiting Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Origen concluded that this story was no stumbling block to faith. In fact, now that Jesus has come, we can, unlike Samuel, hope to avoid hell and be in paradise.
Feeding on the word
What does this sermon tell us about Origen as teacher and biblical interpreter—one of the greatest Alexandria produced? First it shows his intellectual honesty and reverence for the Bible. We cannot arbitrarily interpret a difficult passage to mean what we choose, but must take the time to look at it in terms of the Bible’s message as a whole.
The sermon also reveals Origen as a teacher who sought to meet his hearers where they were and to lead them deeper. He did not just tell them how he interpreted the passage; he showed them how.
Origen believed that to bring people into a deeper understanding of the Bible was to share Jesus with them, because the Bible is an embodiment of the Word. When Jesus ordered his disciples to feed 5,000 hungry people, he was commissioning his followers to share him with others by teaching.
Alexandria, where Origen was born around 185, was a uniquely favorable place for the formation of a great teacher. After conquering Egypt, Alexander the Great founded the city in 331 BC where the Nile flowed into the Mediterranean.
Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies, ruled Egypt from Alexandria, constructing a harbor and lighthouse. In Origen’s time, it was the capital of Rome’s richest province. Trade and ideas flowed back and forth between Alexandria and the interior of Africa via the Nile; Arabia and India via the Red Sea nearby; and Europe and the Near East via the Mediterranean.
Where the action was
Alexandria was also the foremost intellectual center of the ancient world. The Ptolemies founded Alexandria’s great library and encouraged scholars who developed techniques of literary criticism that we still use. When Origen identified the narrative voice of 1 Samuel as the person of the Holy Spirit, and when he showed that the words attributed to Samuel were appropriate only to a prophet, he was employing those techniques.
Philosophy, science, and mathematics flourished in Alexandria. Alexandrians constructed the first steam engine, accurately calculated the circumference of the earth, and discovered the “precession of the equinoxes” (the slow process by which constellations appear, over a long time, to shift in the sky).
Jews settled in Alexandria in large numbers. They translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, creating the Septuagint; and they used Alexandrian literary tools to study the Bible and connect it with Greek thought. Philo, a first-century Jew from Alexandria, wrote treatises in elegant Greek demonstrating the compatibility of the Torah and Platonic philosophy.
“In the know?”
Origen learned about Plato from another Alexandrian teacher, the pagan philosopher Ammonius Saccas. But he did not only study with pagans; he mentions a Jewish teacher who taught him about the Seraphim in Isaiah 6 and may also have instructed him in the Hebrew language and in Jewish mystical interpretation of Ezekiel’s chariot vision.
And Origen also refers to a Christian teacher whose doctrines he rejected. That man, Paul, otherwise unknown, probably followed second-century teachers like Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion—the first two from Alexandria. They taught that the God of the Old Testament, who created the world and gave the Torah to Moses, was different from and inferior to the God and Father of Jesus Christ.
They argued that the Old Testament God was arbitrary and bloodthirsty and did not come close to the standard of goodness set by the merciful Father of Jesus. They also devised elaborate systems of doctrine to explain the Christian message in these terms, often claiming these were Jesus’ secret teachings. Those who knew their teachings were “in the know” (see “Saved from the compost heap,” p. 14, and CH issue 96, The Hunger for Secret Knowledge).
The rule of faith
Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–ca. 215), the preeminent Christian teacher at Alexandria in Origen’s youth, believed the church’s “Rule of Faith” excluded such teaching. The Rule, which developed later into creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed, was the list, often in narrative form, of accepted “Christian facts” against which all teachings were to be measured.
Tertullian, Clement’s contemporary at Carthage and a formative teacher for the Latin-speaking church, also shared that belief (see “See how these Christians love one another,” pp. 29–33). Clement and Tertullian saw in the Bible an unfolding plan of salvation in which the same God worked from the beginning to the end.
Clement found it important that Jesus was, in Greek, God’s incarnate Logos—a word meaning not so much “word” but “reason.” Another word for this is “wisdom.” God created the physical and moral order through the Logos. Through the prophets, God’s Logos had prepared the Hebrew people for the coming of Jesus. That same Logos, speaking through Greek philosophers (“wisdom-lovers”), also prepared the Greeks.
Clement’s chief work was Stromateis (an untranslatable title). There he upheld the Rule of Faith against teachers like Valentinus and treated Greek and biblical texts as complementary.
Clement vs. Origen
Clement set forth two basic principles for biblical interpretation: the result had to be consistent with the church’s Rule of Faith, and it had to be worthy of God. People like Valentinus objected to the God of the Old Testament, Clement thought, because they did not understand the Old Testament properly.
Stromateis was fascinating but bafflingly obscure—by design. Clement announced that he was deliberately hiding within it his more advanced teachings for those who were ready for them and would have the patience to figure them out.
There was almost nothing in Clement’s teaching that Origen did not develop further, but Origen never mentioned Clement. This may be because of one serious disagreement they had over the issue of martyrdom. Clement valued the disciplined life of holiness as the normal path to God. By contrast, Origen had a visceral admiration for martyrs.
We can see why. In the early third century when Origen was a teenager, Roman emperor Septimius Severus sought to stop the spread of Christianity by putting to death converts and those who taught them.
One victim was Perpetua (see “The hunger games and the love feast,” pp. 6–8). Another was Origen’s father. The Romans confiscated his property, leaving Origen, the oldest son, to care for his family.
Fortunately they could not take away the splendid education that enabled Origen to make a living as a teacher of Greek literature. Soon wealthy admirers enabled Origen to spend his life studying the Bible. He convinced one of them, Ambrosius, to abandon the teachings of Valentinius and his friends.
Taught by his students
Meanwhile, the martyrs’ courage spurred conversions. But, perhaps because Clement had left town for Caesarea, no teacher was available to prepare converts for baptism. The converts sought out instead the young Origen.
Roman authorities arrested some of his students and put them to death. At the risk of his own life, Origen taught them and attended their trials. He emerged with the conviction that he had the gift of teaching mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. That conviction would shape his life.
Ambrosius, recognizing Origen’s gift, encouraged him to write books and provided him stenographers and copyists so that he could compose by dictation. Thanks to him, we have Origen’s surviving works.
Origen soon began a massive Commentary on Genesis and a Commentary on John which he would work on throughout his life. All we have today of the Genesis commentary is a fragment regarding Genesis 1:14, in which the stars are created as “signs.” In the fragment Origen refuted astrology. The stars may be signs, he said, but we will never read them accurately because of the precession of the equinoxes.
Origen also addressed issues of biblical interpretation in On First Principles, where he sought to show how Christian doctrine makes systematic sense. Origen’s thinking about the Trinity and the person of Christ provided the basis for the definitions of those doctrines by ecumenical councils in the fourth and fifth centuries. As far as the Trinity was concerned, his concept of “eternal generation” allowed Athanasius (ca. 297–373), bishop of Alexandria, to uphold the Nicene Creed against fierce opposition (see “Some others you should know,” pp. 36–37).
Mary had a baby
Theologian and bishop Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376–444) also relied on Origen’s thought to uphold the complete union of Christ’s human and divine natures. These natures took on each other’s properties, making the Virgin Mary the Mother of God. Christ did not just show his astonishing humility by dying and descending into hell, Origen reminds us; he also did so by becoming a human baby.
On First Principles upheld two essential principles: human freedom (the necessary basis of human responsibility) and the goodness of God. Origen believed that God’s punishment is always for our good and never simply retributive. Thus, like Clement before him, Origen denied the eternity of hell. His view of the afterlife, absent his belief in universal salvation, would much later influence the doctrine of purgatory.
The issue of God’s goodness had led Valentinus and Marcion to deny that the God of the Old Testament was the God of the New. Origen argued that, instead of saying these are different gods, we should interpret the problematic passages symbolically.
After Septimius’s death, persecution died down and Origen’s reputation as a teacher spread among Christians and pagans, even as far as the imperial court. Eventually Origen came into conflict with Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria in his day.
During the course of the second century, Christians, concerned about teachings contrary to the Rule of Faith, had gradually adopted an organizational structure in which a single man, the bishop, determined the teaching and governance of the church in each town. Demetrius is the first bishop we know of in Alexandria.
The foundations he laid would give his successors, including Athanasius and Cyril, enormous influence. Demetrius may have objected to some of Origen’s ideas, particularly his rejection of eternal punishment. He may also have had little use for a world-famous teacher who ascribed his own authority to a gift of the Holy Spirit.
At any rate, around 231, Origen left Alexandria and settled in Caesarea, the capital of Roman Palestine. Most of Origen’s surviving works, all showing a close attention to biblical interpretation, were written at Caesarea. There he composed Against Celsus, in which he responded in learned fashion to pagan objections to Christianity. He also completed a massive edition of the Old Testament comparing the Hebrew text word for word with the Septuagint and other Greek translations.
The way, the truth, the life
Taken in isolation Origen’s symbolic interpretations may seem arbitrary, but they have remarkable consistency. The Bible’s story is also the story for each of us. We find ourselves captives to Nebuchadnezzar, that is Satan, in a place where we do not belong. We can return to Zion through Jesus, who is himself the Way.
In 251, after 40 years of peace, the emperor Decius instituted the most systematic persecution Christians had yet faced. Origen was imprisoned. Rather than execute him, his captors tried to make him deny his faith under torture. His subsequent reputation would probably have been better had he been executed. He soon died, but was not considered a martyr.
The controversy that drove Origen from Alexandria follows his memory to this day. Because of it, most of his works were lost or survive only in Latin translations. His work is far too influential, though, for Origen simply to be dismissed. Jerome, who turned against him after trying to imitate him, credited him as “the teacher of the church after the Apostles.”
He taught Christians how to read the Bible closely, word by word, and how to read it as a whole. He laid the foundation for the doctrinal legacy of the early church. He also showed how it was possible to be a devoted follower of Jesus and a tireless scholar, following the light that enlightens everyone as far as it leads. CH
By Joseph Trigg
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #105 in 2013]Joseph Trigg is the rector of Christ Church, La Plata, MD. He is the author of Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century Church; Biblical Interpretation; and the volume on Origen in the Early Church Fathers series.
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