Easily the most
prolific & most influential Christian writer prior to the legalization of
Christianity. Much of the credit for the intellectual triumph of catholic
Christianity over gnosticism
& paganism within a half century after Origen's death is rightfully his. By
personal example & vision of this world as a school to discipline souls
for salvation, he developed the model for Christian monasticism. His ideas
set the agenda for the doctrinal controversies about Christology &
salvation that embroiled Greek & Latin churches for the next three
centuries. The 4th c. Greek Christian annalist Eusebius
of Caesarea devoted most of book 6 of his 10 volume Ecclesiastical History to him; and even a
hostile pagan philosopher like Porphyry (biographer of Plotinus, the founder
of neo-Platonism) granted his intellectual prowess [quoted by Eusebius, Eccles.
The persecution of
Christians under Severus (201-202 CE)
propelled Origen to an early prominence,
when the bishop of Alexandria (Demetrius) appointed him to succeed
Clement as headmaster of the city's
catechetical school. The youthful teacher of rhetoric soon distinguished
himself not only as an eloquent preacher & energetic model of personal
asceticism, but as a more innovative scholar & systematic thinker than
others of his generation (with the possible exception of Plotinus).
With the aid of a
corps of stenographers supplied by a wealthy patron, Origen produced a
prodigious number of works, much of it aimed at refuting disciples of
Valentinus (an influential gnostic of the previous generation): notably, a 30
volume commentary on John & the first systematic Christian theology (On
First Principles). In
opposition to the gnostic view of predestined good & evil, Origen preached
a good Creator & creation in which sin & salvation depend on free
will. As his reputation spread he was invited to Rome, Antioch & Greece to
counter prominent gnostics. In an unprecedented endorsement he was ordained
presbyter at a city other than his own (Caesarea, Palestine). His independence
of thought & this breach of protocol led to a lasting rift with the
leaders of his home church, Alexandria.
relocated first to Caesarea & then to Cappodocia (Asia Minor). He
continued to attract brilliant students wherever he went, many of whom became
leaders in the next generation. But he also produced powerful enemies,
particularly in Alexandria. His notoriety led to imprisonment & torture
during the persecution of Christians under Decius (250 CE).
supporters considered him a martyr & a saint. His tomb at Tyre (Lebanon)
was a site of pilgrimage clear down to the time of the crusades. But because
many of his supporters, like Eusebius, actively resisted the imposition of the
Nicene creed (325 CE),
the man who was primarily responsible for the triumph
of catholic Christianity over sectarian gnosticism was himself condemned as a
heretic a century after his death. As a result most of his works were
destroyed. Those that survive are only fragments of the original Greek, or
Latin paraphrases by Rufinus. Only two works survive intact: a treatise
defending prayer & a refutation of a pagan critic of Christians (Against
As a biblical
scholar Origen was more than a millennium ahead of his time.
He composed the first
scientific synopsis -- the Hexapla
-- paralleling Old Testament mss.
in six versions (Hebrew & Greek).
He distinguished between
different types of biblical interpretation:
historical, moral & spiritual; arguing that biblical works were
primarily "spiritual" (theological) compositions, which
often created real problems of interpretation at the historical &
history & extended allegorical
interpretation to the whole NT.
Yet he is the earliest author to claim that the canonical order of the gospels
represented the chronological sequence in which they were composed:
The first written (gospel) was
that according to Matthew, who was once a toll-collector but later an
apostle of Jesus Christ. He published it for those who became believers from
Judaism, since it was composed in the Hebrew language.
The second was that according to
Mark, who wrote it according to Peter's instructions. Peter also
acknowledged him as his son in his general letter, saying in these words:
"She who is in Babylon, chosen with you, sends you greetings; and so
does my son Mark" (1 Pet. 5:13).
And the third was that according
to Luke, who wrote for those who were from the Gentiles, the gospel that was
praised by Paul.
And after them all, that
according to John [quoted
by Eusebius, Eccles. Hist. 6.25].
like earlier authors (Papias &
Origen claims that Matthew wrote in Hebrew. Thus, he does not
support those who claim that the canonical Greek version of Matthew
is older than Mark.