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JOHN THE BAPTIST AND THE PROPHETS OF ISRAEL:

ORIGEN'S EXEGETICAL PROBLEM

 

 

 

 

In his commentary on John, Book 2.133-229, Origen presents his own interpretation of John the baptist and, by extension, the prophets of Israel. He sets his own theory in contrast to that of Heracleon and the Valentinians, whom he charges with an excessively deterministic anthropology; they say that if John was called from his mother's womb, this means that he was pneumatic from the first, and thus predestined. Origen argues that this theory of predestination effectively denies God's righteousness. For Origen, if God is just, then the basis for John's special relation to God must be sought in "works done before this life," or even in the possibility that John was an angel sent on a special mission, like Gabriel. Origen, aware that such exegesis of John the baptist would prove controversial, directly raises the hermeneutical question: how are the prophets to be interpreted? He contrasts his views to two conflicting interpretations: (1) the Valentian view of Heracleon, who claims that the prophets of Israel operate wholly within the sense-perceptible region of immediate experience, the level of the demiurge (6.108- 111). As such, the prophets cannot truly witness to Christ, who comes from the One beyond the demiurge. The true meaning of his revelation is beyond their comprehension (2.199). (2) ..the ecclesiastics, who attribute the prophets' inspiration to God the father and creator, and interpret their role as "proclaiming the coming of Christ" (2.205). Origen sees that both gnostic and ecclesiastic Christians, despite their differences, agree on one point -- that the prophets stand in a position of spiritual inferiority to the apostles. For both groups, Israel's faith was only a preliminary stage, in preparation for fulfilment in Christ. Origen objects to this assumption which underlies both exegeses.

The Ecclesiastical Typologists Origen's attack on the ecclesiastics is aimed at nothing less than the view of prophecy and fulfilment developed and proclaimed by such prominent Christian teachers as Ignatius, Justin, Hippolytus, Melito, and Irenaeus. Irenaeus declares that none of the prophets actually saw God himself. What they saw were only the "dispensations and mysteries" through which God would reveal himself fully in future time in Christ (AdvHaer 4.20.8-11). The prophets received "shadows" and "types," and could not possibly have understood them fully before the prophesied event occurred (AdvHaer 4.26.1). This typological hemeneutic has as its theological premise that revelation occurs in and through the events of salvation history. Its method is to correlate event with event, prophecy with fulfilment, and type with truth (alhqeia), which is the fulfilment of the type in history. Thus, John the baptist fulfils Isaiah's prophecy of a forerunner; the type of Elijah is fulfilled in the reality (truth) of John. Origen claims that the proponents of this theory have not thought out its implicacations. He asks, for instance, how Christians can claim (vs. the Valentinians) that the patriarchs indeed knew God, and not an inferior power, unless they acknowledge that they knew God through his son, the Logos, apart from whom no one knows the father (6.15-16). Likewise the prophets if they receive life from God, could only receive it from the one who is himself the "life" (6.19; 6.37). Origen insists that the greatest of the prophets know not only the future events of salvation history,"but also the mysteries which such events convey concerning God himself. "Those who were perfected in earlier generations know, no less than the apostles, what Christ revealed to them, since the same teacher was with them as he who revealed to the apostles the 'unspeakable mysteries of God'" (6.24). For Origen, the historical fulfilment was not the same as the understanding of it: it would be far better to understand an event of salvation history by the knowledge of the Logos than to live through the event itself without that full understanding. With this argument, Origen denies the claim that Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Melito consider essential to Christian theology - - that historical events are the primary means of revelation. For Origen, the doctrine of the Logos means that the eternal Logos is the primary source of all revelation and that acts of salvation history are only relative to that source. Thus, the coming of John the baptist, even seen in connection with Isaiah's prophecy and the type of Elijah, remains a mere historical event, until the event is perceived as revelation by the self- manifestation of the Logos. The Logos can manifest himself in creation and in the rational structure of human nature as well as in historical events. While earlier apologists were content to proclaim the kerygma in terms of the acts of God which convey salvation to mankind, Origen feels that this can be misunderstood as a mere recitation of past events, unless the Christian can obtain spiritual insight into its meaning in terms of his own present experience. As one who is aware of the potential literalism of Christian profession, Origen comes to perceive the potential spirituality of the prophets of Israel.

The Gnostic Allegorists In opposing the ecclesiastics, Origen appears to be putting himself on the side of the gnostics, who deny the historical sense of scripture, including the historical incarnation. Certainly, Origen shares many of the gnostics' theological concerns. The Valentinians also criticized the "literalism" of the kerygma based on historical events. For them, the gospels when read as the narrative of mere events convey neither spiritual power nor meaning; the divine Logos cannot penetrate the merely "material." Thus Heracleon, a Valentinian contemporary of Irenaeus and Tertullian, rejects the typology of the ecclesiastical writers; e.g. the typological interpretation of John the baptist. Heracleon interprets the whole John the baptist account as an allegory of the process of the transformation of human perception, in effect a description of the process of repentance and conversion effected through faith in Jesus as son of the demiurge. This transformation of the account from historical narration to a description of internal conversion is, however, valid only on the psychic level, and is of limited value. The true theological meaning, on the pneumatic level for the complete Christian, is that the story signifies the end of the old, material order ruled by the demiurge. It points to the awakening to recognition that Christ is more than "messiah" (the literal sense) or the "lamb of God" whose death on the cross offers forgiveness of sin (psychic sense), but is the one present "in spirit and truth." For the gnostics, the passage must be interpreted on the two upper levels to have any meaning at all. Origen, however, places his own exegetical technique in sharp contrast to that of the gnostics. He feels that if the ecclesiastics fail to understand revelation in its primary sense as enlightenment through the Logos, the gnostics equally fail to grasp the other meaning -- as revelation progressively in and through actual historical events. Origen insists, as do the ecclesiastics, on beginning with the actual historical level of interpretation. He criticizes Heracleon for not considering the variant descriptions of John the baptist in the four gospels. Origen is so convinced that the evangelists could not err that he concludes that the different accounts must refer to different events (6.170-172). Likewise, Origen criticizes Heracleon for failing to note innacurate textual citations of place names. These, too, must be reconciled to the geography of the area. Even passages which cannot be taken literally as actual history; e.g. when John contradicts the synoptics by placing the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, remain valid to Origen, because in such cases the historical account has been made subservient to the more important theological intention. The prime intention of the evangelists is to present "spiritual," i.e. theological truth. Origen's chief criticism of Heracleon at this point is that the gnostic mistakes a fundamental point by ignoring entirely the historical dimensions of the narrative. For Origen, insofar as divine revelation is given in and through historical events, the understanding of such events must be the foundation for any sound symbolic interpretation.

Origen's Exegesis: a Middle Way Origen differs from the ecclesiastical apologists in his willingness to apply typology even within the OT narrative, rather than only from OT event to NT fulfilment. Thus, the type of the crossing of the Red Sea is fulfilled in the crossing of the Jordan; "religion had by this time grown clearer and had assumed a more appropriate form" (6.230). Although the move from spiritual immaturity to greater spiritual maturity is seen within the history of Israel, the process is not yet complete. The whole process of transition from Moses to Joshua is in turn a type of the future transition from John the baptist to Christ. Within this limited scope, Origen agrees with other Christians that the whole history of Israel serves as a type of the "new people of God." Far from denying the actuality of biblical history or rendering it theologically irrelevant, Origen agrees that this history must be taken seriously as history, and that the revelatory events of history actually change the human capacity to receive divine revelation. The first task of exegesis is historical typology which, though necessary, is extremely limited, since it does not demonstrate how such past events become revelation in the present. To consider this, Origen utilizes "spiritual" exegesis; e.g. applying the account of John's activity to the present experience of the believer. Thus, John symbolizes the human voice that prepares each believer to receive Christ; i.e. the catechetical teaching that precedes reception of the Spirit in baptism (2.224). In his commentary on John, Origen attempts to revise the whole understanding of the exegetical process, refusing to identify himself with either the typological exegesis of the ecclesiastics or the allegorical exegesis of the gnostics. He is convinced that both traditions, especially in deprecating the revelation to Israel, fail to see that all revelation comes from one source -- the eternal Logos. While agreeing with the ecclesiastics that the Logos does reveal himself in and through actual historical events with their attendant typology, he rejects the assumption that such "salvation history" itself conveys theological meaning. In terms of the one revelation communicated through the Logos, Origen considers all scriptural narrative, the history of Christ as well as the history of Israel, to contain only "types and shadows" whose "truth" is realized only in the experience of those Jews and Christians who have recognized their relation to the eternal Logos.