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ORIGEN'S EXEGETICAL METHOD

AS DEMONSTRATED IN BOOK I OF THE COMMENTARY

 

 

 

Origen, a Greek educated in Greek learning...hawked himself and his literary skill about; and while his manner of life was Christian and contrary to the law, in his opinions about material things and the Deity he played the Greek, and introduced Greek ideas into foreign fables. For he was always consorting with Plato, and was conversant with the writings of Numenius and Cronius, Apollophanes and Longinus and Moderatus, Nichomachus and the distinguished men among the Pythagoreans; and he used also the books of Chaeremon the Stoic and Cornutus, from whom he learnt the figurative interpretation, as employed in the Greek mysteries, and applied it to the Jewish writings.

These snide remarks about Origen by Porphyry (Eusebius, HE 6.19.7) give an accurate indication of the factors that shaped Origen's intellectual approach to his task as a Christian teacher, and of the persons and philosophical movements which helped to shape his intellectual outlook. The basically Platonic worldview as influenced by Stoics and neo-Pythagorreans, and above all the employment of the figurative interpretative method are fundamental for an understanding of Origen as theologian and exegete. He synthesized the Platonic tradition as he knew it with the Christian tradition as he knew it. Origen considered himself primarily as a teacher. Only after he was swamped with pupils did he agree to having his expositions of scripture written downt and only very late in life did he allow stenographers to take down his sermons and public discourses. Even his great textual work, the Hexapla (with its offshoot the Tetrapla) was done to facilitate his exegetical teaching. Apart from his major polemical work (Contra Celsum) and his major systematic work (De Principiis), his writings were exegetical and expository, with homilies for the common believers and commentaries for the more serious students. Reports of the extent of his work run from 2000 (Jerome) to 6000 (Epiphanius) volumes or rolls. The best list of his works is found in Harnack, Geschichte der Altchristlichen Literatur, pp. 340ff. His comentary on John consisted of 32 books, not all of which are extant. Those books which survived are 1 (Jn 1.1), 2 (Jn 1.2-7), 4 (fragment), 5 (fragment), 6 (Jn 1.19-29), 10 (Jn 2), 13 (Jn 4), 19 (Jn 8.19-25), 20 (Jn 8.37-54), 28 (Jn 9.39-57), and 32 (Jn 13.2-33).

Origen's Career, a Sumary (1)

Student (185-202) of secular and scriptural literature. Studied under Clement of Alexandria; depicted as venturesome and inquiring while still a child. Father martyred under Severus (203), and catechetical school was temporarily closed. (2)

Teacher (202-220) of the catechetical school at the invitation of Demetrius. Gave up secular teaching and sold personal library in exchange for a tiny pension. Rich widow became his patroness. Increasing number of pupils, including thoughtful pagans. Fame spread to other lands; journeyed to Rome and Palestine. (3)

Writer (221-231), a career made possible through the patronage of Ambrosius, a convert from Valentinianism (HE 6.23.1), who encouraged Origen to write commentaries, provided stenographers, copyists, and calligraphers. Began John Commentary in Alexandria; discouraged by the time he reached Bk. 5. Wrote 8 books on Genesis; 25 on the Psalms; 5 books on Lamentations. (4)

Exile (231-254), following his acceptance of ordination in Caesarea on his way to Greece (HE 6.31.4). He was forced to leave Alexandria and defamed by its bishop, Demetrius. Nevertheless, he was sought out by pupils from Palestine and from various parts of the Roman world. By dictation, he resumed writing, completing 32 books in all of the John commentary; the Hexapla, for which he had learned Hebrew earlier (De Princ. 4.3.14); Contra Celsum; Commentaries on Romans and Matthew; homilies. Persecuted during the reign of Decius (249); died in Tyre in 70th year (254).

Origen's Intellectual Background and Orientation (1)

Platonism. Origen's basic conception of God is taken over from Platonism as understood in 2d and 3d century Alexandria: God is identified as the Idea of the Good (hence no evil can be attributed to him); God is unchangeable (hence no anthropomorphisms); the human soul is related to the divine Nous (hence mystical experience and mythological formulation are necessary for man to move into fuller knowledge of God). Origen accomodates scripture to this idea of God, and is reluctant to speak of God's love. His cosmology is derived from the Timaeus: the Logos is pervasive reason, as defined by later Stoicism. This denies the reality of the sensible world, which is but a "shadow" of the real world. The goal of human existence is to proceed to ever-increasing knowledge of God (hence paideusis); the goal of the cosmos is to move toward perfection of the good (hence pronoia, which is Origen's version of eschatology). [See Hal Koch, Pronoia und Paideusis.] Note that Origen has no concern for sin, although he is troubled philosophically by evil. (2)

Gnosticism. The attribution of creation to a Second God by Marcion and the Gnostics required Origen to assert that the creation is the work of God, that it is moving toward perfection by his providence, and that humans participate in that movement without violation of the freedom of their wills. This is the central importance of paideusis; Origen does not speak of predestination at all, even in Pauline terms. (3)

The allegorical exegetical method. The method was developed by Philo of Alexandria, and was perfected into an intellectually respectable method by the lst and 2d century Stoics and, archaists, who allegorized their own mythology. It was probably utilized by Pantaenus, and certainly by Clement. This method was ideally suited to achieve Origen's purpose of showing that the true meaning of scripture is concealed behind the letter of the text. His linguistic skill aided his etymological interpretations of place and personal names in the scriptures. His Hebrew appears to have been learned from Christian teachers, and although he could use it, he much preferred the scriptures in Greek. It is not unlikely that Origen used allegorical exegesis in specific contrast to the more literal methods used by Jews of his time. [See N. R. M. De Lange, "Origen and Jewish Bible Exegesis," JJS 22 (1971).] (4)

The Regula Fidei. Origen unswervingly committed himself to the Rule of Faith as he knew it, and would not contradict it. This acted as a brake on his Platonism, although in areas of doctrine not defined in the Rule (e.g. Christology, transmigration of souls) Origen strayed far from "orthodoxy" (De Princ. 4.2.7). (5)

Inspiration of Scriptures. Origen was concerned to see value in all scripture, but especially in those passages which caused theological or logical difficulties, since these tended to discourage non-serious scholars. He saw no conflict between a theory of verbal inspiration and the problem of textual variants; his own practice was often to follow the text he liked best in that particular instance. The LXX itself was inspired (Hom. on Lk 35; Cant. 1; Philocalia).

Origen's Exegetical Method (De Princ. 4) Origen followed a 3-fold system of interpretation of scripture, in terms of body,soul, and spirit. The bodily interpretation was the obvious, literal one; the level of the soul was a middle level, often concerned with ethics; the spiritual interpretation utilized a full understanding of the mystery inherent in the text itself. Origen bases this system on Prov 22.20-21 (LXX), and finds an allusion to it in Jn 2.6, where the "2 or 3 measures" are taken to mean ways of interpreting scriptures. He finds precedent for his technique in Paul (1 Cor 9.9-10; Heb 8.5; Gal 4; Rom 9.4). Normally, Origen used only 2 meanings for a text -- the fleshly and the spiritual, and then discarded the first. For his purposes, impossible laws and incredible narrative were of great value, since they drove us back to the hidden meanings (De Princ. 4.3.1-2). Even in the gospels, the literal sense is to be taken as nonsense (4.3.3), and historical and geographic references are of little value. For Origen, the question is not what a text says, or what the writer intended to say, but what the Spirit says, which is what it really means.

Origen's Exegetical Method in John, as seen in Book l (1)

The argument of Book 1: Origen begins disarmingly, on a matter seemingly irrelevant to the gospel. The church is, mystically speaking, the tribes of Israel as Rev 14 asserts; its priests are those who devote themselves solely to the service of God, or rather of his Word, and are therefore the interpreters of and students of scripture. Among these servants of the Lord, the most distinguished are the "high priests" (10), They offer the first fruits (aparxh), which are not the same as the first growth (prwtogonnhma). The latter is the law of Moses, but the former is the gospel (13). Therefore, the gospel is the first fruits of all scripture; of the four gospels, John is the first fruit (23): in it alone the deity of Jesus is expressed, and mystical communion with Jesus is described. The four are truly gospel because they announce directly the coming of Jesus (28). Since all scripture promises his coming, all are in a sense gospel, but it is John who enables us to perceive the gospel in the whole of scriptures (33). All the mysteries concerning Christ are discernible in John: the somatic gospel points to the Jesus who may be seen and heard, and who died; the spiritual gospel offers heavenly wisdom, and makes possible partaking of the Logos, which rose after it was made flesh, and returned to God, as it was in the beginning. Jesus is himself the gospel, but his coming makes gospel of the angels who announce his coming, and of all scripture, which becomes 'the beginning of the gospel." Origen prays for God's aid by the Spirit to be able to unfold the mystical sense which is treasured up in the words of John (89). Origen then lists various meanings for arxh: the chief is Demiurge, the instrument through which creation is accomplished; it is logically prior to all other names, Wisdom is the design by which all else came into being. "As Light, he illumines not bodies but the incorporeal intellect, to the end that each of us, enlightened as by the sun, may be able to discern the rest of the things of the mind." As True Light (alhqinos), he enables men to see reality itself. Origen lists the titles or functions applied by John to Jesus; e.g. Bread, which means ethical studies that rejoice and satisfy; Vine, which offers mystical experience and inspires the heart. As Sword, Christ cuts the bond which joins body and soul; this is what is meant by being wounded by divine love (Cant 2.5). He concludes with Logos, which in man is his rationality, but points to his perfection. Logos is fragmentarily among men generally, but through Christ it returns to its source in God. Origen builds on the LXX of Ps 44(45).2 to show how Logos "belches forth" from the heart of God (280); it is thus in the arxh, with God and in all that he does. (2)

Controlling Ideas in Origen's exegesis of John First among all controlling ideas is the unity of God, derived from Plato. This is observed so strictly that no anthropomorphisms are allowed, nor is any mention of qualities or limitations to God (90 ff; 109 ff). The unity of scripture, from both Christian and Jewish tradition, implies that there is no difference between OT and NT for exegetical purposes (119 ff). The freedom of man is from Aristotle (190). The finding of a mystical meaning behind the letter of the text is from the methodological practices of Alexandria (261 ff). In all, nothing is affirmed in contradiction to the Rule of Faith (191 ff).

Concluding Observations It is out of order to charge Origen with having no historical sense, or of exploiting scripture. His Platonic view of reality was the view of his time, and he found nothing unusual in accomodating the scriptures to it. In fact, he was using scripture precisely as it should be used in his time and place. Although his terminology was specifically Platonic, many of his views were broader than those ordinarily associated with Platonism. For his process, the Gospel of John was central, since the transcendental ideas of the gospel could easily be used to present his philosophical outlook. In modern times, much the same process has been utilized by Bultmann, who used this gospel as a means to reach his own existential philosophy.