Defending Origen

by Marion Browne

That Origen of Alexandria should remain a controversial figure nearly 1800 years after his death is a tribute to the enduring fascination he holds for researchers of early Christian thought. A passing reference I made to him when quoting Canon J.D. Pearce-Higgins in a letter to the CFPSS Quarterly Review (Winter 2013) evoked a stern riposte from Dr John Newton in its Summer 2014 issue. Dr Newton’s stated aim was “to defend Origen from the oft repeated claim that he taught reincarnation”. His choice of the word ‘defend’ is a very interesting one. So much water has passed under the bridge since the heyday of, in Geza Vermes’ words, “the most versatile, exciting and influential Church Father in the early centuries of Greek Christianity,”1 that both defence and attack in relation to Origen have become problematic, for various reasons.
    Not least of those reasons is the fact that, as Christian theology evolved, later influential thinkers rejected Origen’s opinions as heretical. By Justinian’s time in the sixth century AD the dissenting voices had become so powerful that the emperor-theologian, only too willing to be convinced by them, ordered the systematic destruction of Origen’s writings. Almost all the original Greek is now lost to us and even in Latin translation very little remains.
    Further difficulties arise when we examine Rufinus of Aquileia’s own preface to his fourth-century Latin translation of Origen’s On First Principles. The translator states that he will “follow as far as possible the rule observed by [his predecessor]...for he, when translating into Latin more than seventy treatises of Origen, called Homilies, and also a number of his commentaries on St Paul’s epistles, both of which are known to contain in the original a good many statements likely to cause offence, so smoothed over and emended these in his translation, that a Latin reader would find in them nothing out of harmony with our faith.”2
    In his introduction to his own translation of On First Principles, G.W. Butterworth tackles the thorny question of what Origen himself actually believed. He makes the important point that “Origen put forward his views for discussion, and not as settled dogmas.”3 The most difficult charge to counter for those endeavouring to “smooth over” some of Origen’s more controversial statements was that, as an explanation of God’s justice, he taught the doctrine of transmigration of souls. “Now any reader of the First Principles”, says Butterworth, “if he takes into consideration, as he must do, the irrefutable evidence of Jerome and the Emperor Justinian [who quote from the Greek original], will be forced to admit that Origen at least allowed the possibility of transmigration. This is putting the case at its lowest.”4
    However, as Dr Newton rightly observes, Origen’s Commentary on St Matthew seems to contradict such an assertion; and furthermore, as Butterworth acknowledges, we still have the Greek text of this work, in which Origen argues that there would be nothing to prevent the process of transmigration, if it is a punishment for sin, from going on infinitely and thus destroying the possibility of a time when “heaven and earth shall pass away.”
    To approach this apparent contradiction in Origen’s thought perhaps we need to free our minds from the kind of academic straitjacket which seeks definitive answers to speculative questions. As Butterworth suggests, Origen may have changed his views as time progressed; or perhaps he hesitated to proclaim as dogma for an uneducated multitude possibilities that he was quite willing to reflect on with his pupils.
    But there is a further explanation, uncomfortable though it is to contemplate: The Greek scribes who copied his work may have altered it. Textual changes in the copying process, whether witting or unwitting, were a recognised problem, as Peter Cresswell explains in his carefully researched book, The Invention of Jesus: How the Church Rewrote the New Testament. The author shows how easily corruption of original texts could arise. Mishearing during dictation, omissions of words or whole paragraphs, variations in spelling which gave rise to ambiguities in meaning, the then standard absence of punctuation or quotation marks, and the replacement of missing passages by guesswork were all hazards of a system whereby the only way of reproducing old and worn-out texts was the tiring and tedious process of copying by hand. But, even more astonishing to our notions of scholarly scrupulousness, was the readiness of some scribes to ‘emend’ the text to harmonise it with corresponding biblical passages or clarify a meaning. Since hardly any texts of the Bible written before the early fourth century AD survive, there were plenty of opportunities over time, as Cresswell suggests, for the original text to be suppressed when it seemed to conflict with a dynamically evolving theology.5
    Cresswell’s views on the vagaries of copyists are anticipated by Alan Cameron in The Last Pagans of Rome where he emphasises the important difference that punctuation in particular makes in “a difficult writer like Origen.”6  Geza Vermes’ book Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea AD 30-325 gives us a valuable insight also into just how dynamic that evolving Christian theology was. All the questions which Origen debated with his students, for example the position of the Son in relation to the Father or the nature of the soul and its ultimate destiny, were hotly disputed in these turbulent, nascent years of Christianity. It was inevitable that, after Paul had carried the Gospel to the Gentiles, Greek philosophical ideas would be incorporated into the Christian message, notably by Justin Martyr in the second century. Origen, born roughly eighty-five years later, followed in his footsteps. He was, according to Vermes, a meticulous scholar: “philosopher, theologian and biblical expert all in one;”7 and an extremely productive writer, much helped by a rich patron, Ambrosius, who provided him with a team of shorthand writers, copyists and calligraphers.
    That scarcely any of Origen’s Greek texts remain, as we have seen, is not pure coincidence. His writings were a casualty of the emperor Justinian’s purge of heretical literature and heretical opinions. Thus a remarkable third-century thinker can be accessed today only in Latin translations of doubtful reliability or in the Greek fragments that still survive in the Philocalia, (an anthology of his writings), or in quotations from the letters of Jerome and Justinian.
    One thing is certain. Origen took his theological quest so seriously that he learnt Hebrew in order to familiarise himself with the original texts of the Hebrew Scriptures. He also consulted rabbis as to the texts’ inner meaning. His interest in a passage’s spiritual significance is clearly in evidence in his Commentary on the Song of Songs and his Homily XXVII on Numbers. While it is true that phrases, sentences and even paragraphs of Origen’s work could have been altered or inserted by a translator or copyist unsympathetic to the ideas expressed, its underlying philosophy is far more difficult to disguise. Underpinning that system of thought, I would suggest, is the influence of a philosophical movement among the Jews that, according to Isidore Epstein in his book Judaism, began in Alexandria (Origen’s birthplace) around the second century BC, as a result of the Jews’ close association with their Greek neighbours.8 Their ‘Book of Wisdom’, a product of this movement, is different from the ‘Wisdom’ of Proverbs 8, for instance. “Quite contrary to the ordinary Talmudic teaching, but in harmony with the Platonic,” says Epstein, “is the doctrine that the soul comes into the body from a previous existence and feels itself oppressed in the body as in a prison.”9
    Philo (c. 25 BC – c. 40 AD) was the most famous representative of Alexandrian-Jewish philosophy. He wrote many commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures and interpreted them allegorically. It was he who developed the Greek notion of the Logos (Word), “conceiving it as a personality whom he calls ‘the second God’ and sometimes ‘the son of God’.”10 Epstein points out that his works were studied eagerly by the Church Fathers (including, it is safe to assume, Origen himself), “who found in them much material for that synthesis of Jewish and Greek thought that came to be known as Christian theology.”11
    Origen’s Homily XXVII on Numbers shows Philo’s influence clearly. In the first part he states that “the true food of a rational nature is the Word of God. But [.....] not everyone is nourished by one and the same Word.” Novices in divine studies may be ready for “the more obvious and simpler teachings” such as the book of Esther or Judith but balk, for example, at the book of Leviticus.12 Numbers 33 is also a baffling chapter that seems to comprise to the uninitiated merely a list of the stages of the children of Israel “when they went forth out of the land of Egypt”. The key to understanding it, says Origen, is “that in a spiritual sense there can be seen a double exodus from Egypt, either when we leave our life as Gentiles and come to the knowledge of the divine Law or when the soul leaves its dwelling place in the body. Therefore, these stages, which Moses now writes down ‘by the Word of the Lord’, point towards both.”13
    But more pertinent, I would suggest, in the light of Dr Newton’s assertion that he repudiated reincarnation, are Origen’s succeeding remarks: “Indeed, it is concerning those stages in which souls divested of their bodies or again clothed with bodies [my italics] will dwell that the Lord made his proclamation in the Gospel by saying, ‘With my Father are many stages; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a stage for you?’ (Jn. 14: 2) Thus, there are many stages that lead to the Father. And in the case of each of them what purpose, what sojourn of use to the soul, or what instruction or enlightenment a person may receive is something only the Father of the age to come knows.”14
    Jesus, Origen explains, is the door at each stage of our soul’s journey. The soul is on pilgrimage: “It journeys on and makes stages, doubtless because God has ordained them in His promises for the sake of some kind of profit.”15 The purpose of passing through each of the different stages is to gain enlightenment. Origen in fact promulgated two journeys for the soul: “One is the means of training the soul in virtues through the Law of God when it is placed in flesh; [my italics] and by ascending through certain steps it makes progress...from virtue to virtue, and uses these progressions as stages.” The other journey is the one in which the soul “gradually ascending to the heavens...does not reach the highest point unseasonably but is led through many stages” until “it arrives at the Father of lights Himself (cf. Jas. 1: 17).”16 We have come into the world, not to “linger in its vanities” but “that we may pass from virtue to virtue” (cf. Psalm 84. 7). In this endeavour deeds and works are equally as important as the perfection of faith and knowledge.17
     Who can deny, after reading passages such as the above, that Origen’s true philosophy, regardless of how subsequent theologians misinterpreted or distorted it, lies in the perfectibility of the soul: firstly through earthly trials and temptations, “ascending through certain steps” and then through the soul’s gradual ascent to heaven ? Far from being incompatible with his doctrine, further incarnations in different earthly bodies would only serve to reinforce his belief, so eloquently expressed in his Homily on Numbers, that “virtue is not acquired without training and hard work, nor is it tested as much in prosperity as in adversity.”18
1 Vermes, G. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea AD 30-325, Allen Lane 2012, p. 213
2 Origen. On First Principles (trans. G.W. Butterworth), Ave Maria Press, Inc. 2013, p. lxxviii
3  idem. p. l
4 idem. pp. l-li
5 Cresswell, P. The Invention of Jesus: How the Church Rewrote the New Testament, Watkins Publishing Ltd., London 2013, p. 83
6 Cameron, A. The Last Pagans of Rome, OUP 2011, p. 484
7 op. cit. p. 213
8 Epstein, I. Judaism, Penguin Books 1959, p. 196
9  idem. p. 197
10 idem. p. 197
11 idem. p. 198
12 Origen. An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works, SPCK London 1979, pp. 245-6
13 idem. p. 248
14 idem. p. 248
15 idem. p. 251
16 idem. p. 253
17 idem. p. 254
18 idem. p. 258