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Origen

origen

Icon of Origen

From the Latin West we now return to the Greek-speaking East and begin reading from one of the most influential fathers of Alexandrian school, Origen, who lived from around 185 to 255. Origen was a skilled textual scholar and prolific writer of theology and biblical commentary. Though some of his theological speculations garnered criticism in later ages, Origen’s ideas—and his style of interpreting scripture allegorically—strongly influenced many of the other fathers of the third and fourth centuries.

Biography

Origen was born to Christian parents, and his father was likely killed in the same wave of persecution that led to Clement’s martyrdom. Origen was well-education and well-traveled, and after Clement’s death he established a catechetical school in Alexandria similar to the one Clement had run. Origen’s fame as a teacher attracted the attention of the wealthy courtier Ambrose of Alexandria, who under Origen’s guidance gave up his Valentinian faith and joined the orthodox fold. Ambrose became life-long friends with Origen and financed the copying and distribution of Origen’s works. We thus have Ambrose to thank for many of our readings. After falling out with the bishop of Alexandria, who objected to an irregularity in Origen’s ordination, Origen relocated to Caesarea of Palestine in 232 and re-established his school there. Though Origen persevered unscathed through the major persecutions of Severus (192–203) and Maximus Thrax (235–38), he was caught and tortured during the Decian persecution (249–53) and died a couple years later from his wounds.

Perhaps owing to his notoriety and the theological and ecclesiastical controversies he provoked, a number of colorful stories circulated about Origen during his life. Eusebius, for instance, reports the story that Origen would willingly have gone out to suffer persecution along with his father in 202, but could not leave the house because his mother hid all of his clothes. Eusebius also reports that as part of his rigidly ascetic personal discipline, Origen castrated himself. Scholars are divided on whether the great proponent of allegorical interpretation would have actually taken a passage like Matthew 19:12 so literally, or whether the rumor came from Origen’s detractors in Alexandria.

Works

"Origenes," in Numeros Homilia XXVII, Schäftlarn Monastery (ca. 1160)

“Origenes,” in Numeros Homilia XXVII, Schäftlarn Monastery (ca. 1160)

We will return to some of Origen’s exegetical writings at the end of Year 2. For now we will be reading the dogmatic work On First Principles (De Principiis) and the apologetic work Against Celsus. The De Principiis, written at Alexandria, is an early instance of Christian systematic theology—that is, it aims to lay out the foundation of the Christian faith, not to attack any particular heresy or defend any particular disputed point of orthodoxy. It proceeds in its four books to treat on the doctrine of God, the material world, man and free will, and scripture and methods of interpretation.

Against Celsus, written towards the end of Origen’s life, is—like similar apologetics from Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian—a careful, point-by-point refutation of the writings of Celsus, a scornful Platonic philosopher. Whereas the other apologists often combated apostates and heretics, to argue against an unbeliever Origen liberally included references to Greek literature and Platonic thought, which provided a rational grounding to Christian faith.

Theology

Origen’s theology is grounded in a high regard for both scripture and ecclesiastical tradition. Though Origen has been justly criticized for resorting to allegorical interpretation too often in his exegesis, he nevertheless was a skilled grammarian and textual critic, whose regard for the inspiration and authority of scripture made him one of the most brilliant early scholars of scripture. His famous Hexapla replicated Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible side by side for comparison, and Origen’s views on the New Testament canon largely accorded with the list of twenty-seven books that would be established in the fourth century. The De Principiis opens with the affirmation that “as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. Origen followed this rule closely in his writings, frequently citing scripture or apostolic tradition.

A fragment of Origen's Hexapla

A fragment of Origen’s Hexapla

Three strands of Origen’s thought were gradually enlarged upon by Origen’s closest students and condemned as the Origenist System at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 554, though Origen himself was not anathematized by the Church. First was the principle of allegorical interpretation. While the rules of interpretation—essentially that scripture must be interpreted in a manner worthy of God—may have been unobjectionable, in the application made by Origen and his later followers, a number of Old Testament passages that offended Greek culture in late antiquity were interpreted beyond recognition.

As Origen was one of the earliest Greek thinkers to tackle the subject of the Trinity in his theological writings, his language was occasionally less precise than what fourth-century orthodoxy would demand. In later years both Athanasius and the Cappodocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus) would defend Origen’s orthodoxy, but Origen’s terminology was nevertheless employed by some who insisted on an essential difference between the Father and the Son.

The most controversial view—and one clearly entertained by Origen in the De Principiis-–concerns the origin and destiny of rational souls. Origen postulated that though God created everything, he created from eternity. In other words, there was no fixed moment of time at which God began creating. This eternal creation included all rational souls, some of which became angels and some demons, while the rest of the pre-existent souls waited to be born into fleshly bodies. On the other side of eternity, Origen, like Clement before him, affirmed a belief in apokatastasis, a final restoration of all in Christ, including the unregenerate. How strongly Origen held these views is unclear: many of his exegetical writings contradict his musings from the De Principiis, and Origen later flatly denied that he believed the devil would be ultimately restored.

Alternate Editions and Further Reading

Readers hoping to understand Origen without the encumbrances of nineteenth-century translation may wish to consult G. W. Butterworth’s translation of On First Principles and Henry Chadwick’s Contra Celsum. The Paulist Press has produced an anthology translated by Rowan Greer that includes the fourth volume of De Principiis.

Those interested in the details of Origen’s theology may be interested in Han Urs van Balthasar’s systematically anthologized edition of Origen’s writings, Spirit and Fire, translated from Bathasar’s German by Robert J. Daly.

For further reading on Origen’s life and thought, see Joseph Trigg’s study or Ronald Heine’s Scholarship in the Service of the ChurchA particularly nuanced study of Origen’s allegorical method of interpreting scripture is History and Spirit by Henri de Lubac, S.J.

An Introduction to the Septuagint, the Old Testament in Greek

[N.B. This blog has many kinds of readers, some of whom are interested in the academic side of patristics, others of whom are not. Occasionally we’ll make forays into Greek and Latin or other technical topics, but these are a sidelight to our main purpose.]

In our readings from Justin in the past and coming weeks, Justin makes a spirited case for Christianity on the basis of the Old Testament. Though Justin had access to the “memoirs of the apostles,” which likely included the Gospel of John, the Scriptures that became the New Testament had not yet been canonized and collected, so it is not surprising that Justin relies on the Old Testament. Since he was writing in Greek, Justin did not read the Old Testament in Hebrew, but in Greek. In two notable passages, which we’ll take up in a moment, Justin describes how the Old Testament was translated into Greek and the difference that made for Christian theology.

In all our reading so far, you might have noticed that when the fathers quote from the Old Testament, the wording does not quite match the text of your English Bible. Sometimes the father is only alluding to a passage, as you might in a conversation, or sometimes the father seems to be quoting from memory. But often the quotation differs because the fathers were using a Greek Old Testament, but your English Bible is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Of course you need not look to the fathers to find these differences, because the New Testament writers also often quoted from a Greek rather than a Hebrew text. Both the apostles and the fathers were using a version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint.

In his First Apology (ch. 31), Justin describes how the Hebrew Scriptures came to be translated into Greek at Alexandria, a story given at greater length in the Letter of Aristeas. The legend of the Septuagint is that the Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Hellenistic king of Egypt from 283 to 246 BC, requested a translation of the Pentateuch into Greek for the library at Alexandria. On the island of Pharos in the harbor of Alexandria, which was the site of a lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, seventy-two Jewish elders from Jerusalem met and translated the Pentateuch into Greek in seventy-two days.

This story is just a legend, of course, but sometime in the third-century BC the Pentateuch and later the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek at Alexandria. These collection of Greek texts came to be known as the Septuagint (meaning “seventy” and abbreviated LXX). The Septuagint was only the oldest of several Greek versions of the Scriptures in the two or three centuries before Christ. The church father Origen (184–254), whom we’ll read starting next September, was famous for his Hexapla, a six-column collection of a Hebrew and several Greek versions of the Old Testament, and Jerome also identified other Greek translations. But the Septuagint bears the distinction of having been the version used most often by the apostles and the fathers.

Most modern English versions of the Old Testament are translated from the Masoretic Text, a text type of the Hebrew Bible passed down with great precision by Jewish scribes. The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic Text date to the ninth century A.D., though the text preserved is older. The Septuagint is not a translation of the Masoretic Text; rather, it is a translation of Hebrew manuscripts that predate the Masoretic Text. Thus the Hebrew Masoretic Text and Greek Septuagint are independent witnesses to the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament.1

The differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint are not always easy to spot. Many English translations, especially older translations like the Authorized Version, attempt to reconcile the Hebrew Old Testament with the New Testament’s quotations in Greek, and thus with the Septuagint. Even modern English translations, like the NRSV or ESV, which are translated from the Masoretic Text rather than from the Septuagint, are translated in light of a Christological interpretation originally based on the LXX.

Comparison of the Septuagint and Masoretic Text

The most obvious difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is the list of books that comprises each. The Septuagint contains all the books that are part of the Hebrew Bible, albeit in a different combination and order, but the Septuagint also includes other books, such as Judith, Tobit, the books of the Maccabees, the Wisdom of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus). In addition, some of the books included in the Hebrew canon have longer versions in the Septuagint, including Daniel and Esther.

The various churches of Christendom disagree about the authority of these additional books. In the most general of terms: All Christians accept all of what comprises the Hebrew canon. The Eastern Orthodox churches accept all of the books in the Hebrew canon as translated in the Septuagint, and they accept all of the books in the Septuagint. The Roman Catholic church accepts most of the books in the Apocrypha (the so-called deuterocanon). Since Luther, Protestants accept only the Hebrew canon. (Luther not only denied the authority of the Apocrypha, he also doubted the canonicity of several New Testament books, most famously James, and some Old Testament books, such as Esther.) But many Protestant churches make use of the Apocrypha in liturgical readings (in the words of the Thirty-Nine Articles, “the Church doth read [those books] for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”), and Protestant versions of the Bible such as the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version routinely included the Apocrypha.2

The other important difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible is the wording of specific passages. Two examples will suffice:

  • Hebrews 10:5–7 is a quotation from Psalm 40:6–8. The phrase in Hebrews “a body you have prepared for me” is a quotation from the LXX version of Psalm 40:6, where the Masoretic text reads, “ears you fashioned for me.”
  • Matthew 1:23 (“the virgin shall conceive”) is a quotation from the LXX version of Isaiah 7:14. The word for “virgin” in both the Septuagint and the gospel is παρθένος, and Christian apologetics both ancient and modern have had to demonstrate that the Greek word is an accurate translation of the underlying Hebrew word.

One related textual variation that is important for understanding the fathers concerns Psalm 96:10 (=95:10 LXX). The Hebrew Bible, modern critical editions of the Septuagint, and all modern English translations render part of that verse as “The Lord reigns.” But some of the fathers had a Greek or Latin version that added the words, “ἀπο του ξύλου”—”The Lord reigns from the tree,” with obvious Christological implications. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin goes so far as to accuse Jews of removing those words from the text (ch. 73), though these words were certainly added by Christians  and not removed by Jews.3 Augustine interpreted the Psalm including those words, though Jerome disagreed that they were part of the text.4

Significance of the Septuagint

I’m not going to try to resolve the theological and apologetic questions that the differences between the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments pose. Those large questions can only be answered by detailed investigation into the particulars of New Testament and patristic use of the Old Testament. But I do want to suggest several reasons to consult the Septuagint.

First, if you want to understand the theology and biblical interpretation of the fathers, then it can be helpful to have the same Old Testament text in front of you that was in front of them. This includes the books outside the Hebrew canon, which are occasionally cited by the fathers and in a few cases alluded to in the New Testament. I’m not asking anyone to reconsider his or her canon, but it’s worth at least being acquainted with all the books that have been accounted Scripture.

Second, the Septuagint was the first edition of the Old Testament in use in churches, both in the east and in the west. This heritage deserves honor. (I realize that this argument, taken to an extreme could be a fallacy—”It was good for the church fathers [3x] … and it’s good enough for me.”)

Third, using the Septuagint forces us to confront the Scriptures as they are, rather than as we assume they ought to be. In my (narrow) experience, a common error in thinking about the Scriptures is to make some a deductive claim about how the Scriptures ought to function, then to demonstrate that they do in fact function in that way, when instead we ought to first see how how God has used the Scriptures and the church has read them, then learn how we can describe them. The Septuagint makes things messier, but that’s how things really are. If the Scriptures are the Word of God in a way that is parallel to Christ being the incarnated Word of God, then we have to give full weight to the way the Scriptures take human form, without veering into whatever the equivalent of the docetist or gnostic heresies would be, even if that makes the Scriptures sometimes seem like “an untidy and leaky vehicle.”

Fourth, Christians have always interpreted the Septuagint Christologically. We must of course avoid Justin’s mistake in insisting on versions of the text that are absolutely indefensible. But it was reading the Septuagint which persuaded Christians that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Logos of God. It’s essential to learn how to read the Old Testament Christologically as the fathers did, and this can be done from the Septuagint.

The Septuagint in English

If you want an English translation of the Septuagint, there is a recent edition titled A New English Translation of the SeptuagintNETS is available for free in its entirety online in PDF proofs of the book. NETS is based on the NRSV, meaning that it amends the NRSV translation of the Hebrew Bible where the Septuagint Greek differs from the Hebrew. The reasoning is well explained in the translators’ preface “To the Readers” (PDF), which I recommend for further information on the Septuagint. The real advantage of NETS is the ability to look up Old Testament passages and have a translation of the edition that the fathers were using.

The Septuagint in Greek

Cover of Rahlfs SeptuagintaSome of our readers may know Greek, and wish to consult a Greek edition. The best complete critical edition of the Greek text of the Septuagint is Rahlfs and Hanhart’s Septuaginta, published by Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft as are the critical editions of the Greek New Testament.5 This edition includes all of the books that comprise the Septuagint. An older edition of the Greek text of the Septuagint is Lancelot C. Brenton’s The Septuagint with Apocrypha, first published in an English translation in 1844, then in a Greek-English diglot in 1870, and still in print by Hendrickson. Brenton’s edition is the cheapest, and to my knowledge it is the only diglot on the market.6 But Brenton’s text is bizarre and unreliable. Besides the progress made in Septuagint scholarship since the nineteenth century, Brenton’s translation is not really a Septuagint at all. The books are listed in the order of the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint, with the additional books of the Septuagint in the back as apocrypha. More troubling, Brenton seems to have included only the verses of the Hebrew Bible, rather than preserving the readings of the Septuagint. Since Brenton’s version is just the Hebrew Bible arranged in Greek, I can’t imagine what useful scholarly purpose it could serve.7

Further Reading

If you’d like a fuller introduction to the Septuagint, I highly recommend Karen H. Jobes and Moiesés Silva’s Invitation to the Septuagint, which discusses the history of the Septuagint, an introduction to current editions, and an explanation of some passages in the Septuagint. If you want help learning to read the Septuagint in Greek, Rodney Decker’s Koine Greek Reader: Selections from the New Testament, Septuagint, and Early Christian Writers is an introductory text, similar in format to the patristic Greek reader I recommended earlier.

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