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ORIGEN

ON JOHN 8

 

 

Origen deals with John 8 in Books 19 and 20 of the Comentary on John. Book 19 treats of verses 19b-25, and Book 20 expounds verses 37-63. Like most of Origen's exegesis, the section on John 8 contains a number of assorted observations and excurses. Book 19 opens with a brief Christological foray, observing that John 8.19b appears to be inconsistent with 7.28. Other topics: an allegorization of the temple treasury (19.7-8); why Jesus repudiates the charge that he has a demon, but not that he is a Samaritan (20.35); the difference between "seeing death" and "tasting death"; how it is possible to predicate the "death" of Jesus; the possible contradiction between John 8.50 and 5.22 (20.38). Like any competent exegete, Origen prefers the trees to forests, and enjoys the discovery of small points which adumbrate deep matters. Nevertheless, the commentary on John 8 seems to hover around a single issue posed by the text in several slightly different forms. It is first raised in CJ 19.11, in dealing with Jesus' words to the Pharisees, "you will look for me but you will die in your sin." Origen finds this difficult to reconcile with John 8.30: "Many believed in him." Why, if the Pharisees "look for" Jesus, would they necessarily die in their sin? Origen's first attempt at a solution is to point out various senses of zhtein, but this does not go far enough. The same problem recurs later in chapter 9 where Jesus is addressing, not the hostile Pharisees, but "the Jews who had believed in him." Of these "seed of Abraham," Jesus says they are not sons of Abraham but sons of the Devil, intent on killing him. It is tempting for a modern to see this as Origen wrestling with the problem of Judaism. In fact, he appears to be saying that although the Jews may be dying in their sin, "they have not yet lost their capacity to become sons of Abraham" (20.5). A careful reading of Origen, however, indicates that the Jews were not the prime interest of the exegete. He seems eager to establish that the phrase "seed of Abraham," while pointing to a particular family of people, is nevertheless not indicative of either a problem or a privilege which is peculiar to only one such family. Origen almost instinctively universalizes the issues which he detects in the dialogue of Jesus with the Jews, and so treats the question of the "spiritual endowments" of humankind, and their significance in the history of salvation.. Such universalization by Origen came quite naturally to him in response to a similar treatment by Heracleon. Heracleon seems to have been somewhat anti-Jewish, but he too goes beyond his feelings about the Jewish people and uses John 8 to illustrate his doctrine of the "natures." In commenting on John 8.47, Origen begins his exposition by directly attacking Heracleon's "fantasy of the differences of 'natures.'" Origen is reacting to an interpretation of John which seems to him to pervert a general truth about the relation of man to God and about the way of salvation, rather than to a question of the nature of the Mosaic dispensation. Origen wrestles with questions about the human condition: what it means to be "seed of Abraham," "sons of Abraham," "sons of the Devil," or "sons of God." For these purposes, perhaps the most instructive single passage in Books 19 and 20 of the CJ is Origen's treatment of John 8.21: "I am going away. You will look for me, but you will die in your sin." Since the gospel indicates these words lead to some kind of preliminary conversion, Origen faces the imediate question: what is presupposed concerning the human situation by the fact that seekers and believers can be condemned as "dead" or "dying"? In Book 19, Origen develops 3 related ideas: 1) He begins bv noting that belief is not everything; it is those who know the truth who are set free. The same is true of seekers: the true seeking of Christ is not an external seeking, but happens when "we preserve the seeds of the truth which are sown in our souls and the first principles of the truth" (19.12). But even more, it becomes clear that with believing as with seeking, what is in question is not a journey, but an arrival. Arrest the journey at any point, and life has not been reached: "You will die in your sin." Thus, Origen suggests that men are in via, and at any point on the way have both death and life as their companions. They may be dying in their sin even as they are seeking Christ (19.11-12). 2) For Origen, death can be taken in two senses. The one is biologioal death, which is not what Jesus is talking about here. The other is the death that is the result of sin. The dying of the seekers and believers is their captivity to sin, which is a moral condition. If such dying in sin is a state of moral being, it is not irremediable, and certainly does not reflect the "nature'" of the people who are dying. A moral situation can be changed (19.13-14). 3) Origen's third point is directed against the exegesis of Heracloon, who feels that the words "where I am going you cannot come" indicates that some are of an unredeemable nature (19.14). Pointing to the changes in the lives of the apostles, Origen counters with, "Those who are caught in ignorance and unbelief and in sins are able to come to the state of imperishability, if they change their ways: and such change is impossible for them" (19.21). Thus Origen lays down his program for the exegesis of John 8: it is concerned with the interior, moral and spiritual, journeying of people on the road between death and life. He sets forth the nature of this journey through the use of a series of images, as well as by strict argument regarding certain large philosophical issues. This is found in Book 20. The major image Origen uses is that of the contrast between the two expressions, "seed of Abraham" and "sons of Abraham." Since the Jews are explicitly the seed of Abraham, but not necessarily his sons, it appears to Origen that saed refers to an as yet undeveloped potency, an innate capacity to become something, while a son is a fully developed, existent being who has realized that capacity. This innate capacity is the property of every person, and not a matter of heredity (20.3); it consists of "certain intelligibles or reason-principles" (20.4). The preservation and cultivation of these "seeds" involves doing Abraham's works (John 8.40), not by reliving the patriarch's life, but by attempting to copy the moral and spiritual shape of his life. People do the works of Abraham when they leave their own land and arrive at the land which is given "to the inteligible seed of our soul!' (20. 10). Those who do not cultivate their intelligible, spiritual nature in this way are, for Origen, not sons of Abraham but sons of the Devil. Origen sees no middle ground between these alternatives (20.10). Using a figure drawn from 1 Cor 15.49, he contrasts the image of the heavenly with the image of the earthly. Those who choose to carry out the desires of the Devil (John 8.44) are shaped in his image. Those who love God and have their treasure in heaven bear the image of the heavenly. To beacve a "son of Abraham" is to choose God rather than Satan, the heavenly rather than the earthly, the immaterial rather than the material, life rather than death. In all this multiplication of images, Origen dwells systematically and regularly on a second theme: that the soul's journey is pursued by means of its own choice. He also persists in the opinion that neither the image of the heavenly nor of the earthly belongs to man by nature. While no life is free from sin and its demonic influence, each soul also possesses within itself the "seeds" of the logos, which direct it to a heavenly destiny. The choice between them rests with man himself. For all the eloquence of Origen's argument and the niceties of his dialectic, something of Heracleon remains in his own exegesis. In the last resort, man is not related to the Devil in a way precisely parallel to his relation with God. While being "of the Devil" is a matter of one's own choice, even for the Devil himself, it is not a matter of choice that men are creatures of God, or that man's preeminent substance is in the image of the creator (20.22). Ultimately for Origen, man's freedom is not, at least existentially, conceived as a neutral quality. It is the perpetual possibility of salvation, because it is a freedom "which belongs to the one who is after the image of the creator."