Alexandrian Biblical critic, exegete, theologian, and spiritual writer


January 1, AD 185
January 1, AD 254


Picture of Origen
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Born of a Christian family (most likely in Alexandria), the oldest of seven children, Origen was initially trained in both secular and religious literature by his father Leonides (who was exceedingly proud of his son's learning). Very early Origen developed a passion for martyrdom, but he was restrained by his mother when he attempted to join his father in martyrdom. The burden of caring for the family fell upon Origen at the age of seventeen, so he began to teach. His classes proved so popular that he had to divide them, leaving beginners to an assistant, reserving the more advanced for himself.

Origen lived in extreme austerity. Eusebius related that in his rashness he castrated himself, but that account may not be accurate. He was bold in his admiration for martyrs, and many of his students suffered in the persecutions. Despite his lack of care for his own life, he was spared because many pagan philosophers and Christian heretics came to him for instruction. (The Neoplatonist Porphyry was an early acquaintance.) Origen was apparently free to travel, for he visited Rome, Palestine, and Arabia briefly, where he gained approval from many foreign bishops.

His range of learning was vast. In addition to his father's instruction, Origen also studied under Ammonius Saccas and Clement of Alexandria. For the sake of biblical exegesis, he learned Hebrew. His knowledge of the philosophies of the day, especially Platonism, was profound. While still living in Alexandria, be began to write and compile books. One of the earliest and most significant was De principiis, one of the first efforts toward a systematic theology. Another work was his Hexapla, an enormous edition of the Bible arranged in six columns. It contained the Hebrew text, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, the Septuagint, and the Greek versions by Symmachus, Aquila, and Theodotion. The Hexapla was a great aid in the study of the Scriptures.

So famous did he become that Mamaea, mother of Emperor Alexander Severus, summoned him to Antioch to instruct her. On his way to Greece, he was ordained as a priest by the bishop of Caesarea. That action was uncanonical and was protested by his own bishop of Alexandria. As a result, he never returned to Egypt but settled down in Caesarea, where he taught for the remainder of his life.

Constantly called upon all his life to preach (even when he was a layman), he finally, after he had passed the age of sixty, allowed his homilies to be recorded by shorthand experts. Toward the end of his life (250), he was seized by civil authorities and tortured in an effort to make him apostatize. The persecution, although very severe, failed in its purpose. But it may have contributed to his death a few years later. Thus he died, not a martyr, but a confessor.

Origen wrote an incredible number of books. Many have been lost. What has been preserved has come down only in part in Greek, the rest in Latin translation. His leading Western interpreter was Tyrannius Rufinus, a friend of Jerome. All of Origen's work was, at least in theory, based on the literal text of Scripture, which he believed to be historical. Origen's exegesis of the text was often allegorical and typological-a style following that adopted by Alexandrian commentators on the Homeric epics. To Origen, Christ was the center-all Scripture must be interpreted in his light. That meant, for Origen, speculation on the spiritual significance of the literal. Basically he was not terribly systematic. The very size of his literary output gave rise to paradoxes and dilemmas in his expression, even to contradictions. As a consequence, he was admired and hated in his own lifetime and afterwards. But many who disagreed with him were deeply influenced by him.

His De principiis and Hexapla have already been mentioned. He also wrote commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, Song of Songs, Lamentations, the prophets, Matthew, John, and the Pauline corpus. His homilies treated Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Luke. The total body of his work has not been preserved.

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