Origen   ca. 184-254 CE  

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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. Hist. 6.19].

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.

So, Origen 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). So later 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 Celsus).

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 & moral levels.

Origen relativized 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].

Note: like earlier authors (Papias & Irenaeus), 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.

The original context of these statements in Origen's commentary on Matthew is crucial to their proper interpretation. He was writing to defend catholic Christians' use of four gospels against gnostics who ignored the synoptics & favored the gospel of John. By interpreting the canonical order as historical, Origen could validate the churches' NT & claim gnostics ignored the earliest records of Jesus. His comments are based on doctrinal rather than historical concerns. He did not base synoptic priority on information from external sources but rather on inferences from the NT itself. Nevertheless, the widespread plagiarism of Origen's arguments by eastern & western Christian writers led later authors, like Augustine, to take Origen's chronology of the gospels for granted as historical fact.

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last revised 28 February 2023


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