Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
“There is no man to whom the Church of Christ owes a more awful debt of reparation than to this incomparable saint, who […] rendered to her greater services than all her other teachers—from whom in fact those teachers for many centuries derived an immense part of their knowledge and their thoughts…”
Bishop Lightfoot (1828-1889), Bishop of Durham, echoes these comments about Origen of Alexandria when he said, “A deep thinker, an accurate grammarian, a most laborious worker, and a most earnest Christian, he not only laid the foundation, but, to a very great extent, built up the fabric of Biblical interpretation.” Origen was an early church father who published the first work on systematic theology and was the first to practice the art of textual criticism. Origen was an earnest learner of Christianity, and was one of the finest defenders of the faith. Origen was, at an early age, zealous for the Church.
Early Life and Ministry
Origen was born in Alexandria in approximately 185. He was the oldest of seven children and, while young, developed an early interest in Christianity through the teaching of his father Leonides. Origen proved to be an eager pupil of the Scriptures, and his father was very proud of his learning. According to Eusebius, Origen was trained extensively in grammar, mathematics, philosophy, and Christianity and his father particularly drilled him to learn and recite his sacred studies daily. When he was seventeen, Origen’s father was martyred in around 202. As would be expected, this event afflicted Origen and motivated him boldly to contend against his father’s opponents regarding Christianity. He hoped to be found worthy of emulating his father in death as well as in life, and it was only through his mother’s intervention that kept Origen from also finding martyrdom at a young age. Some accounts reflect that his mother hid Origen’s clothing to thwart his intention to follow in the footsteps of his father, actively pursuing his own death at the hands of his father’s persecutors. Whatever her method, his mother’s attempt to keep Origen home were successful and led him to intensely study literature and philology, or the study of languages.
With the absence of his father, Origen assumed responsibility to help his family to survive. Alexandria was well known throughout the world as a literary arts center, and Origen utilized his writing skills to provide for his family. At the age of eighteen, Origen taught grammar initially, but, later, in response to questions from non-believers interested in Christianity and with the permission of the Bishop of Alexandria, he began teaching about Christianity as well. This passion for teaching about Christianity led to even more formal instruction in this area. The popularity of his classes soon forced Origen to divide his pupils, allowing the beginner students to be taught separately from the more mature Christians who received Origen’s personal teaching in the more advanced topics.
Eusebius wrote that Origen came under the patronage of a wealthy woman in Alexandria, which may have also helped in the support of his family. Although her name remains unknown, Origen’s willingness to stay with her suggests she was a Christian. Her other protégé, however, was notably not a follower of Jesus and this is evident in the report Eusebius provided. Origen’s counterpart, Paul, a heretic, was well-skilled in arguments, and presented a significant challenge to Origen’s views and followers. Eusebius related that the heretical Paul not only dissuaded some true Christians away from the Christian worldview, but also prevented many pagans from accepting the precepts of Christianity. Although young, Origen never wavered in his beliefs or his defense of the church. Eusebius wrote that Origen would not pray with Paul, as this act would have compromised the believer’s premise from the Apostolic Constitutions (VIII.34): “let not the godly pray with an heretic.” Moreover, Origen zealously contended for the precepts and truths of Christianity, winning to him admiration and philosophical respect from around the region.
Origen studied philosophy under Ammonius Sacca (175? – ca. 242) for eleven years, and studied theology under Clement of Alexandria (150-215), ultimately succeeding Clement as a teacher upon Clement’s retirement in 203. Both of these topics proved useful to Origen in his teachings as well as in his skills in the defense of the Christian worldview. In addition, to better understand the Old Testament, Origen learned the language of Hebrew. This enhanced his skills in the exegesis, or interpretation, of the Old Testament, and it also better enabled him to present his teachings on Jesus in light of the Scriptures. These skills became all the more evident in his adult life in his writings concerning the Old Testament and his response to contemporary heretics. Origen would eventually write numerous commentaries, or explanations, of numerous Old Testament writings.
Eusebius reported that Origen voluntarily castrated himself to become a eunuch to teach better fellow Christians. Origen’s motivation was from Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs, who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (ESV emphasis added). As Origen was teaching both men and women, he may have become a eunuch for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. Regardless of the veracity of this claim, the contemporaries of Origen certainly felt this act was consistent with the zeal he had for the church.
In the first 250 years of Christianity, persecution of Christians was intermittently practiced within the Roman Empire. Like the waves of the ocean that ebb and flow, so did the attacks against Christians likewise occur in the first three centuries. When a wave of persecution was occurring, like during most of the life of Origen, few people dared teach about the Christian worldview. Origen, however, rose to the challenge and taught many, including Plutarch and his brother, Heracles (Heraclides). Plutarch, a name shared with a Roman historian of the first century, was martyred in approximately 202, while his brother, Heracles, later became the bishop of Alexandria. Thus heathens, who desired to learn more about Christianity, were drawn to Origen as he boldly proclaimed the teachings of Jesus despite the opposition of the secular authorities. The respect for Origen among Christian heretics and pagans may have been instrumental of his toleration by Roman officials despite his beliefs and teachings. It is believed Porphyry (c. 234-305), a Neo-Platonist who spoke out against Christians, may have been an acquaintance of Origen. Such was the respect of this early third century theologian.
Origen’s life coincided with some of the earlier persecutions faced by the church. Emperor Septimus Severus became emperor in 193, and he was an emperor who prohibited conversions to Christianity. While Severus’ predecessors had not been as strict in the enforcement of the mandatory Roman worship practices, Christians had merely been provided a temporary reprieve. Severus took a more legalistic stance and authorized aggressive enforcement of Roman religious requirements throughout his reign. This wave of persecution, which took the life of Origen’s father, lasted up until the end of Severus’ reign, which ended in 211.
In conjunction with the persecutions permitted under Severus, Alexandria also had an ardent official who happily persecuted Christians. Aquila, the governor of Alexandria, was responsible for the arrest and martyrdom of many of Origen’s pupils, including Plutarch, named above. Origen, however, was not intimidated by these acts and boldly encouraged the martyrs as they faced their deaths. He is reported to have walked among them and kissed them in tribute for their bravery, often inviting the anger of governing officials.
With the persecutions taking place among professing Christians, teachers such as Origen were rare. In fact, Origen may have been the only one brave enough to teach boldly about Christ in an area where Christian persecution was rampant. A brother of Plutach, Heracles, rose from being one of Origen’s students to becoming a teacher under Origen. When his students became numerous, Origen tasked Heracles with teaching the more elementary topics to new believers, to allow Origen to teach the more advanced subjects.
In this period, Gnosticism continued to challenge the precepts of Christianity. Origen was an ardent defender against Gnosticism, and readily employed his philosophical training to refute the heretical claims of Gnostics in his day. Celsus was one such heretic whom Origen spoke against publicly, and Origen’s defense of Christianity is remembered through one of Origen’s published works titled Contra Celsum, or Against Celsus.
Origen has been referred to as the first New Testament textual critic, and was certainly one of the first biblical scholars. Jerome credited Origen with approximately eight hundred writings, though it may be much higher as Eusebius credits two thousand writings to Origen’s credit, and Epiphanius credits up to eight thousand. Not many of these writings remain in existence today; partly this is the result of a sixth century condemnation of some of Origen’s views, but mostly it is a result of the age of the writings.
One of his greatest works was the Hexapla, a publication consisting of six columns of the Old Testament that took Origen twenty years to compile. The six columns designated the format of the book. The first column was in Hebrew, a second column was the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew where Origen phonetically spelled the sounds of the Hebrew words into Greek, and a third column was the Septuagint, the most widely accepted Greek version of the Old Testament. The remaining three columns were Greek versions of the Old Testament written by second century translators Symmachus, Aquila of Sinope, and Theodotion. This arrangement provided an early version of textual criticism and allowed readers to compare the differing versions of the text. The Septuagint portion sometimes omitted portions contained within the Hebrew version, and yet sometimes added material that was not contained within it as well. With his knowledge of Hebrew, Origen was able to identify the extra passages with an obelus ( ), and the omitted passages which he re-inserted were identified with an asterick (*). Similar practices on identifying spurious passages are still in practice among textual critics today. Unfortunately, Origen’s Hexapla was not copied sufficiently and fell out of existence, though many of the versions of the Greek Old Testament did survive. To complicate the issue, the identifying marks inserted by Origen to identify the variations between texts were omitted from later copies. As a result, copies of the Septuagint derived from Origen’s Hexapla inadvertently became contaminated because the insertions were not identified in later manuscripts, and these were passed down in the church mistakenly as the original Septuagint writings.
Another of Origen’s writings of renown was De Principiis, or “On First Principles.” This book was the first book comprising a systematic theology in the Christian church. It blended Origen’s knowledge of Greek philosophy with his knowledge of Christianity. It was through this book that much of Origen’s teachings were recorded and his belief system was articulated for others to read and gain a better understanding of Christianity. Also entering into this book was Origen’s lack of confidence in some Old Testament passages as being literally true, but these were reconciled through a strong belief in allegory to hold to the principal of inerrancy of Scripture. To Origen, certain parts of the Old Testament might not be physically and historically accurate, yet when accepted as an allegory, the passages could remain truthful. Origen believed that the Bible was divinely inspired, yet it was not always to be interpreted literally. Origen believed that, just as man is body, soul, and spirit, so also the Bible is literal, moral, and allegory. In this light, for example, Origen accepted the days of creation as allegory, as the idea that the first three days would have been without sun, moon, and stars seemed ludicrous to him and therefore the creation account must also be considered in an allegorical sense.
One of the greatest apologetic works produced by the early church was that in which Origen confronted the heretic Celsus. A Greek philosopher of the second century, Celsus wrote against Christianity in The True Word around the year 178. Celsus believed (1) the Old Testament did not truly reflect predictions of events of the coming Christ, though this objection was ultimately a tacit admission that the events these prophecies predicted had indeed been fulfilled. Celsus also alleged (2) the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Messiah were nothing short of falsehoods created to encourage people to believe in Jesus. Further, (3) any miracles attributed to Jesus were, according to Celsus, nothing short of legends of his greatness or of his skill as a sorcerer. Further. Celsus asserted (4) the resurrection was merely a borrowing of pagan mythology. And finally, Celsus claimed (5) any truths contained within the Bible, or points of wisdom, were actually ideas smuggled in from Greek philosophy. The True Word was an early and significant philosophical challenge to the precepts of the Christian faith. No copies of this writing exist today, and it is only through Origen’s writing that we know it even existed.
Origen, publicly and literally, refuted Celsus point by point. The writing that came from this defense of Christian doctrine was Against Celsus, and was published around 248. Origen demonstrated proof of how the Old Testament could not have been manufactured at a later date, and Origen was one of the first to utilize the conversions of Paul, along with the satisfaction of Thomas’ doubts, as proof of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Origen utilized his skills in philosophy to persuade his listeners and readers of the truth of the Christian worldview. One additional charge he refuted in this work was the accusation that Christians were not true citizens because they refused military service. Origen disagreed. He famously quoted “We who by our prayers destroy all demons which stir up wars, violate oaths, and disturb the peace are of more help to the emperors than those who seem to be doing the fighting.” Origen declared that Christians were actually the ones who were making the greatest victories on behalf of the Empire. Christians were eliminating the spiritual sources of conflicts.
Much of Origen’s views concerning the Scriptures were captured in his numerous commentaries. From the Old Testament, Origen wrote commentaries on Genesis, Psalms, the Song of Songs, the book of Lamentations, and the prophets. From the New Testament writings, Origen wrote commentaries on Matthew, John, and the many writings from the Apostle Paul. Origen also wrote homilies, or sermon-like discourses, on sections of Scriptures as well. These discourses were written primarily on the Old Testament from portions of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. This was likely the result of his command of Hebrew and his knowledge of the Old Testament. Despite his commentaries on some of the books from the New Testament, the only homilies Origen is known to have written were from the Gospel of Luke.
Some of Origen’s writings also speak of the transformation process in which a believer progressed after conversion. This process, Origen wrote, began with the new believer in a relationship with the Father, which was based primarily upon fear. He likened this with the slave, or servant, relationship with a master. Over time, as the believer comes to know the Father, this relationship progresses into one that is more like a son to a father; a relationship based upon love rather than upon fear. Reinhartz sums up Origen’s idea: “…as the believer comes to know God as Father, the believer advances from the status of servant to that of disciple, from disciple to infant, from infant to brother of the Son, and so becomes a son of God.” This progression was made manifest through the moral behavior of the believer. To support his view, Origen called upon the Apostle John and his first epistle “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9 ESV). Therefore, for a person to progress from servant to son it must be in accordance with obedience to the Word of God.
Many of Origen’s writings also reflected his views concerning the allegory, or “Spiritual interpretation” of Scriptures. As man was three parts – body, soul and spirit, and God was three parts – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the Scriptures must also be viewed in like manner. As mentioned above, there were many accounts within these writings Origen had difficulty coming to terms with, and the use of allegory was a method that allowed him to maintain his view of the inerrancy of Scripture. Examples of his understanding, he believed, could be found in the Gospel accounts. For example, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke could be viewed as comparable to the bodily form of Christ. The Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, would be more akin to the Jesus of prophecy, or the soul of Christ. Finally, the Gospel of John was the spirit of Jesus.
It was Origen’s writings on the allegorical interpretation of Scripture that later caused the church to reject Origen’s ideas and writings. Centuries later, the Emperor Justinian would declare anathema many of the teachings of Origen, which only survived at this point in writing. In the fifth ecumenical council, which convened in 553, many of Origen’s non-Scripturally based teachings were declared heretical. Specifically, in the writings that survived, the notions that there was a preexistence of the soul, in which Origen believed souls existed prior to earthly life, and the idea of universalism, that everyone will ultimately be saved, were found in his writings. Origen also wrote on the hierarchy of the Trinity, in which the three members of the Godhead were ranked in authority as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and, while affirming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Origen denied the permanent physical resurrection of Jesus. He wrote that Jesus’ physical body was temporary for the appearances to the disciples, and then it was later discarded and only the spirit of Jesus remains.
Defenders of Origen suggest the writings may have been corrupted between Origen’s death and the mid-sixth century. Despite the original writing, those writings that survived attracted the attention of the fifth ecumenical council who declared, point by point, those heretical teachings. These declarations certainly marred the character of Origen, though much of his work was truly unparalleled for his time. His writings became the first systematic theology and the first apologetic defense for Christianity. Despite the controversy, some of his writings have survived.
As described above, Origen began teaching grammar at an early age, and Christian theology soon after. He alone, or with perhaps few others, were bold enough to teach in defiance of Rome about Jesus Christ. Although not an ordained priest, Origen demonstrated a firm command of the tenets of Christianity, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Demetrius, appointed Origen to fill Clement of Alexandria’s role as head of the catechetical school when Clement retired in 203. Origen was merely eighteen when he assumed this role.
Initially, Origen taught new converts the principles of catechism, which is the knowledge that prepared the prospective believers to be baptized into the faith. When the number of students began to grow, he designated one of his pupils to teach Christianity at the introductory level so that he could teach more advanced concepts and ideas to the mature Christians. Origen’s fame began to spread outside his home in Alexandria.
As his popularity grew among Alexandria, it appears jealousy may have arisen proportionately between Origen and Demetrius. Origen was often summoned to other areas to teach. When Origen’s popularity spread to other parts of the Roman Empire, the jealousy became worse. During the reign of Alexander Severus, the Emperor’s mother, Mamaea, summoned Origen to teach her about Christianity in Antioch. The prestige of educating the Emperor’s mother regarding the precepts of Christianity encouraged Origen to go to her.
Origen’s route to Antioch took him through Jerusalem and Caesarea, where he was warmly welcomed and encouraged on his mission. His tension with his home bishop of Alexandria increased when the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea both allowed Origen to preach to the priests in their areas. Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, and Theoctistus, bishop of Caesarea, were thrilled with Origen’s mission to teach Mamaea. To further Origen’s credibility, they ordained him into the priesthood. This act, done without consulting Origen’s home bishop, infuriated Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, and he banished Origen from returning to Alexandria. Further, Demetrius sent out letters of condemnation to all of the churches concerning Origen in 232. While many churches upheld Origen’s banishment, the churches in Palestine, Phoenicia, Arabia, and Achaea rejected this decree. Not to be deterred, Origen took up residence in Caesarea. It was there he continued his teaching and writing, under the patronage of Ambrose of Alexandria (d. 250) who was a former Marcionite and Gnostic who had become convinced by Origen’s teachings regarding the truth of Christianity. Origen’s internal persecution from Demetrius came to an end later the same year, when Demetrius died in 232. Ironically, Eusebius reported that Bishop Demetrius was succeeded by one of Origen’s star pupils, Heracles, upon Demetrius’ death.
Origen was finally imprisoned during a new wave of persecution under the Emperor Decius around the year 251. Almost fifty years had transpired since the martyrdom of his father, and it appeared likely Origen was to experience the same fate. This delay of forty-eight years, however, brought about a greater good that Origen, as a seventeen-year-old boy, could not have foreseen when he earnestly sought to by martyred with his father. His upbringing, coupled with his zeal for the church, brought forth the teachings and conversions of countless non-believers during periods of Roman persecution. Further, this nearly half-century provided him the opportunity to author hundreds of writings that helped shape the Christian worldview into a systematic theology that provided consistency.
Origen was tortured while imprisoned. The Roman authorities under Emperor Decius hoped they could cause the 65-year-old Christian apologist to forsake his beliefs. Origen had waited his entire adult life for such an ordeal. When pressed to deny Christ, Origen refused. The Roman officials’ hopes were dashed. Origen maintained his witness to Jesus, just like his father and his pupils had before him, and outlasted the Emperor. When Decius died in 252, Origen was set free. Despite his freedom, however, the physical ordeal he experienced during his imprisonment and torture greatly damaged his health. Slightly more than one year following his release, Origen died a follower of Jesus. Even unto death, Origen maintained his zeal for the church.
By Kyle J. Clark
Cabal, Ted. “Notable Christian Apologist: Origen.” In The Apologetics Study Bibe: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, by Ted, Chad O. Brand, E. Ray Clendenen et. al Cabal, 1387. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.
Cabaniss, A. “Origen (Origenes Adamantius).” In Who’s Who in Christian History, by J.D., and Philip W. Comfort Douglas, 522. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992.
Farrar, Frederic William. History of Interpretation. London: Macmillan and Co., 1886.
Galli, Mark and Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Christianity Today, Inc., 2000.
Gohl, Justin M. “Origen.” In The Lexham Bible Dictionary, by ed. John D. Barry. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012.
Reinhartz, Adele ed. Semeia 85: Gof the Father in the Gospel of John. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
SCROLL THROUGH DIFFERENT CATEGORIES BELOW
BIBLE TRANSLATION AND TEXTUAL CRITICISM
BIBLICAL STUDIES / INTERPRETATION
CHRISTIAN APOLOGETIC EVANGELISM
CHURCH ISSUES, GROWTH, AND HISTORY
 (Farrar 1886, 187-88).
 (Farrar 1886, 188).
 (Galli 2000, 334).
 (Cabaniss 1992).
 (Reinhartz 2001, 113).