The Godfather of Christian Theology
By Gabriel Blanchard
In the person of Origen, Christianity became for the first time an officially, and formidably, intellectual force.
It seems impossible to call anyone but St. Paul the father of Christian theology: his letters contain the earliest known effort at setting forth Christian doctrine in a systematic way. Nor were Christian intellectuals entirely unknown over the following century; they especially tended to gather in Alexandria, which was something like the Oxford of its day. None would transfigure Christianity’s relation with scholarship more permanently or completely than an Egyptian, nicknamed “Adamantius” for his firmness of will, but better known by his right name, Origen.
He was born in 186 to a Christian family; his father, Leonidas, was martyred during the Severan Persecutions of the early 200s. (Origen tried to accompany him at the time, but his mother contrived to save his life by hiding his clothes!) Persecutions before the reign of Decius were sporadic, regional, and short-lived; when this one died down, Origen was appointed as one of the teachers in the catechetical school of Alexandria. Another scare during the reign of Caracalla ten years later prompted him to flee to Cæsarea in the province of Syria-Palestine; he became a personal friend of the city’s bishop, Theoctistus, and was invited by him to give homilies even though he had not been ordained.
This was the beginning of fifteen years of strain between Origen and his native bishop, Demetrius, who repeatedly refused to ordain him, and was accused by Origen’s friends (though not by the scholar himself) of being spiteful and jealous of his brilliance. When, during another journey in 231, Theoctistus ordained Origen behind Demetrius’ back, the Alexandrian bishop was so outraged that Origen decided to stay in Cæsarea; Demetrius publicized a host of accusations against Origen, including the report that Origen had castrated himself in his youth, which was both illegal under Roman law and would have invalidated Origen’s ordination. It all made little difference, as Demetrius died the next year; the accusation of self-castration, however, haunted his legacy, and was uncritically accepted as fact by most scholars for many hundreds of years.
Origen remained in Cæsarea in any case, and under his influence it became an intellectual center of the Christian faith. He met the illustrious philosopher Porphyry, one of the founders of Neoplatonism, whose own reaction to Origen was mixed: he acknowledged his erudition, but was disgusted that Origen would subordinate the insights of philosophy to the teaching of Scripture. It was around this time that he composed one of his few surviving works, On First Principles, thought to be the first-ever work of systematic theology in history.
235 was the beginning of a disastrous period for the Empire. The Severan dynasty that had reigned up to this year, despite its flaws and quarrels, had kept the realm comparatively stable; then, the emperor (along with his powerful mother) was overthrown and killed, and the long Crisis of the Third Century began, which saw twenty-six emperors succeed to the throne in less than fifty years. The first of the bunch, Maximinus Thrax, conducted a series of crackdowns on his predecessor’s supporters, which included a large number of Christians; this drove Origen into hiding. However, one of the exceedingly few upsides to the crisis of the third century was that any official persecution probably would not last long, and only a few years later, Origen was at liberty to visit places as far afield as Athens and possibly even Rome. Porphyry reported that Origen even met his own master, Plotinus, around this time. It was probably also in this period that Origen composed many of his Biblical commentaries, the most famous being those on the Song of Solomon (which survives intact), Matthew (eight of its original twenty-five books survive), and John (nine of thirty-two books survive).
Porphyry was far from the only intellectual to notice, and criticize, Christianity. Some time in the second century, a certain Celsus, a philosopher of eclectic* views, wrote a polemic against Christians called The True Word. Origen set himself to answer it, and the answer he composed (simply titled Against Celsus) is a masterpiece. Not only was its author thorough, he was extremely fair-minded: to prevent misrepresenting his opponent’s thought, Origen frequently quoted The True Word, showing an honesty and care in his argument that few people rise to under criticism, and which many Christian apologists at the time fell short of, whether addressing themselves to paganism or heresy.
But the most impressive and important of all of Origen’s works was, without question, the Hexapla or “Sixfold Version”. The Septuagint was the standard Greek version of the Hebrew Bible used by Christians; however, its scholarly credentials had been challenged, and several Jews had undertaken new translations from the original Hebrew (prominent versions at the time included those of Aquila of Sinope, Symmachus, and Theodotion—whatever their merits, all were at least considered more literal than the Seputuagint). Origen was, in all probability, the first Christian to assemble a critical edition** of the Bible. The Hexapla was so named because it employed six columns of text on each page:
- The Hebrew text
- The Hebrew transliterated into Greek (and adding in the vowels)
- Aquila’s translation (early second century)
- Symmachus’ translation (late second century)
- The Septuagint text
- Theodotion’s translation (mid second century)
In addition to setting the various texts beside each other for comparison, Origen marked passages present in the Hebrew text but missing from the Septuagint with an asterisk (*), and also marked passages that appeared in the Septuagint but seemed to have no Hebrew behind them with an obelus (÷). Later editions of the Hexapla were even more profuse, thanks to Origen’s discovery of yet further manuscripts; eight or even nine columns were not unknown!
Sadly for later scholarship, only fragments of the Hexapla survive, and in fact only a tiny fraction of Origen’s work in general survives. Partly because he was so universally acclaimed, and certainly thanks to his interest in speculative theology, Origen was claimed as an authority by both sides in countless debates, great and small, from the third century right down to the sixth or seventh—particularly those over Arianism, which we touched upon last week. He certainly seems to have dabbled in the possible pre-existence and reincarnation of human souls; he was also accused of preaching not only universalism, but even the final salvation of the devil. Two major crises—one in the late fourth century, one in the early sixth—led to Origen and his writings being anathematized at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. Counting his collected homilies as a single work, only around a dozen of his books survive either complete or in substantial fragments; and this, out of a total output of about six thousand works.
*Eclecticism (from ἐκλεκτικός [eklektikos] “selective”) was a common feature of Græco-Roman philosophy at this time—more a method than a view in its own right. Instead of adhering to the doctrines of just one school of philosophy, eclectics drew together harmonious elements from multiple schools.
**A critical edition (so-called from the discipline of textual criticism) is an edition of a given work based on scholarly evaluation of a variety of available sources, seeking to reproduce the original text as accurately as possible, and generally including extensive notes on important variations between different manuscripts. For works originally composed before the advent of the printing press, this can be quite a complicated job, and in many ancient documents there is no scholarly consensus on the original form of the work.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other author profiles here at the Journal, from Hippocrates to John Bunyan to Zora Neale Hurston. You might also like our podcast, Anchored, where CLT founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss education, policy, and culture.
Published on 22nd May, 2023.