Thursday, September 4, 2014

Crazy Brilliant guy from the 3rd century: Origen of Alexandria

The Life and Times of Origen of Alexandria

When I was a high school student, the last thing I would spend my spare time on is reading history.

But as I’ve gotten older and especially in the past year I have become fascinated with the question of how we got to where we are today.  And the answer is found in history.

One of my goals this year is to get a better grasp on this history of western civilization.

As a Christian and a pastor, naturally I’m interested in the interesection of Christian faith with western history.

I took a class related to that this summer.  For that class, I researched the life of a 3rd century man you may not have heard of, but whose impact was enormous.  I believe whether or not you are a person of faith you will find his life inspiring.

He was the greatest biblical scholar since the apostle Paul, and influenced the following 1300 years of biblical interpretation.   If you’ve ever heard of the Bible containing a deeper or allegorical meaning beyond its literal-historical meaning, the roots of that idea trace back to this man.  [He also provided one of the first near-complete lists of the New Testament books, and wrote the first systematic theology and a massive Hebrew-Greek parallel edition of the Old Testament.]

Much of his life is recorded by 4th century historian Eusebius.  And many of his 2000+ works were preserved by Latin translator Rufinus.
His name: Origen of Alexandria, Egypt.  He was born to Christian parents around 185 AD.

His father was his most significant teacher in early life.  In the year 202 Emperor Septimus Severus initiated an anti-conversion law with severe persecution.  Soldiers came to their home and collected Origen’s father.  Origen, 17, wanted to go to be martyred with him, but his mother prevented him from emerging by hiding his clothes.  Origen told his father, “mind you, don’t change your mind on our account.”   He didn’t, and he was beheaded.  A year later, Origen was called on to fill in as a theological teacher.

Origen was not only a Bible scholar; he was throughly trained in the disciplines of Greek education.  In his school, to which thousands came over nearly 30 years, he taught philosophy, logic, natural science, geometry, and astronomy as a primer to ethics and theology.  One writer says he studied by night and prepared the faithful for martyrdom by day.  It was not only other Christians who attended his school.   So highly respected was he, that Greek philosophers sought his counsel and sometimes dedicated their writings to him.  His popularity may have afforded him some protection, but he was often on the run avoiding plots on his life.

At age 47 (232 AD) he accepted an invitation to leave Egypt for Palestine to serve in Caesarea.  This coincided with his excommunication by the Alexandrian bishop, perhaps motivated by jealously  In Caesarea where he live 20 years, Origen was ordained a priest, founded a Christian school and library, preached, counselled the persecuted, and built meaningful relationships with the Jewish rabbis.  It was during this time he wrote the majority of his works.

As an old man Origen was tortured and pressed to renounce his faith.  He didn’t, but the abuse left his body weak, and he died in Tyre 253.


Origen’s mastery of Greek philosophy made him a highly skilled critic of his host culture.  However it also distorted aspects of his Biblical theology.  A later church counsel rightly pegged his proposals regarding universal salvation for everyone including the devil himself as heresy.

He was an ascetic, often fasting from food, wine, sleep, and even shoes.  In his devotion to serve God, he literally made himself a eunuch through castration.  Nevertheless These lifestyle choices made him the “ancestor of the great monastic movement”[1].


Origen's goal was to make the Bible practical for everyday people.

His life is an example of healthy critical dialogue with people of 
opposing worldviews, with meticulous care establishing rappoire with Greek philosophers and Jewish rabbis (learned Hebrew just to be able to dialogue with Jews intelligently).

His role in the History of Biblical interpretation:  he popularized the allegorical, or spiritual interpretation of Scripture.  That is, in addition to the literal meaning of the text, there is a spiritual meaning with Christ at the centre.   

He promoted a sense of wonder in God.  I finish with this quote from Origen in On First Principles:  “For whatever be the knowledge which we are able to obtain of God, either by perception or reflection, we must of necessity believe that He is by many degrees far better than what we perceive Him to be.”[2]

[1] Jean Danielou in McDermott
[2] Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 243.

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