In a former article we have given some account of the labors and teaching of Pantaenus and Clement in the twenty years after the death of Marcus Aurelius (180-202), during which the Church enjoyed comparative peace. Commodus was not a persecutor, like his philosophic father. Personally, he was a signal instance of the total break-down of philosophy as a training for a prince imperial; for whatever advantages the most enlightened methods and the most complete establishment of philosophic tutors could afford were his, probably to his great disgust. But the Church has often found that an imperial philosopher is something even worse than an imperial debauchee. Pertinax and Didius Julianus, who succeeded Commodus, had little time either for philosophy or pleasure, for they followed their predecessor, after the violent fashion so popular with conspirators and Praetorians, in less than a twelvemonth. Septimius Severus, the first, and, with one exception, the only Roman emperor who was a native African, during the earlier years of his reign protected the Christians rather than otherwise. How and why he saw occasion to change we shall have to consider further on.
During these twenty years of tranquillity the great Church of Alexandria had been making no little progress. Her children had not been entirely undisturbed. The populace, and sometimes the magistrates, often did not wait for an imperial edict to set upon the Christians, and the commotions that followed the death of Commodus were the occasion of more than one martyr’s crown. We learn from Clement of Alexandria, speaking of this very time of comparative quiet, that burnings, beheadings, and crucifixions took place “daily;” whereby he seems to point to some particular local persecutions. But the Alexandrian Church, on the whole, was left in peace, and was rapidly extending herself among the student population of the city, among the Greeks, but, above all, among the poorer classes of the native Egyptians. Christianity seems to have spread in Egypt with a rapidity almost unexampled elsewhere, and historians have taken much pains to point out that this was the effect of the considerable agreement there is between the asceticism of the early Church and that of the native worship. Without discussing the point, we may note that rapidity of extension was the rule, not the exception, when an apostle was the missionary; and that the Alexandrian Church was founded by direct commission from Saint Peter, and, therefore, shared with Rome and Antioch the distinction of being the mother-city of Christianity. Moreover, the Nile valley, which above the Delta is nowhere more than eleven miles in width, contained a teeming population, the whole of which was thoroughly accessible by means of the river itself. For nearly five hundred miles every city and town, every least village and hamlet, stood right on the banks of the great water-way; and it is probable that half the inhabitants of Upper Egypt and the Thebaid were often floating on its bosom at one and the same time. The high road that was so serviceable for traffic and pleasure could be made of equal service to religion. How unweariedly the successors of Saint Mark must have traversed it from end to end may be read in the history of those lauras and hermitages that at one time were to be found wherever its rocky barriers were indented by a sandy valley, and wherever the old builders of Thebes and Memphis had left a quarried opening in the limestone. There was not a stronger contrast between these monastic dwellings and the bosom of the gay river than there was between Egyptians Christian and Egyptians pagan. If the Church’s converts rushed into the deserts and the caves, it was not especially because they liked them, but because there was absolutely no other means of getting out of a society not to be matched for immorality except, perhaps, by pagan Rome at its very worst. Of the number of Christians in Alexandria itself at the commencement of the third century we can only form an approximate judgment. On the one hand, Eusebius tells us that the Church had spread over the whole Thebaid. As the Thebaid was the southern division of Egypt proper, and, therefore, the most distant from Alexandria, we may safely say as much, at least, for the Delta and Middle Egypt. On the other hand, we are told by Origen that the Christians in the city were not so numerous as the pagans, or even the Jews. This will not appear surprising if we recollect that the Alexandrian Jews were more numerous, as well as richer and more powerful, than any other Jewish community in the world. We know enough to be quite sure that the Alexandrian Church was working quietly but vigorously. From the heads of the Catechetical school down to the humblest little child that was marked out by baptism in the great city of sin, there was a great work going on. The impulse that Pantaenus and Clement were giving was felt downward and around, and when Origen begins to rise on the scene, we can mark what an advance there has been even in the short twenty years since the death of Marcus Aurelius.
Septimus Severus had reigned for ten years, as we said above, before he began to persecute. He was undoubtedly an able and vigorous emperor; he could meet his enemies and get rid of his friends, bribe the Praetorians and slaughter his prisoners of war, with equal coolness and generally with equal success. In the course of a reign of twenty years he seems to have visited with hostile intent the greater part of his extensive empire, from the Syrtes of Africa, where he was born, to the banks of the Euphrates, and thence to Britain, where he died, at York, A.D. 211. At the time we speak of (198) he had just concluded a brilliant campaign against those pests of the Roman soldiery, the Parthians; and having then engaged the Arabs, still in arms for a chief whose head he had had the pleasure of sending to Rome twelve months before, had got rather the worst of it in two battles. It was between this and the year 202 that he visited Alexandria. There can be no doubt he must have been received at Alexandria with no little triumph by one class of its citizens. Some six years before, he had restored to the Greek inhabitants their senate and municipal privileges. The Greeks, who, as far as intellect went, were the indisputable rulers of Alexandria, must have been highly elated at being now restored to civil importance; for though their senate was little more than an ornament, and their municipal rights confined to holding certain assemblies for the discussion of grievances, still, to have a recognized machinery of wards and tribes, and to be called “men of Macedon,” as of old, was not without advantage, and was, indeed, all that their fathers had presumed to seek for, even in the days of the lamented Ptolemies. We cannot doubt, therefore, that by the Greeks Severus was received with much enthusiasm, and he, on his part, seems to have been equally satisfied with his reception, for we find that he enriched Alexandria with a temple of Rhea, and with public baths which he named after himself. But more came of this visit than compliments or temples. It was an hour of favor for the Greeks; the chief among them were also the chiefs and ruling spirits of the university; we know they must have come across Christianity during the preceding twenty years in many ways, but chiefly as a teaching that was gaining ground yearly among their best men; as philosophers, we know they loathed it; as worshippers of the immortal myths, they were burning to put it down. Does it seem in any way connected with these facts that Severus at this very time changes his policy of mildness, and issues a decree forbidding, under severest penalties, all conversions to Christianity or Judaism? There is something suggestive in the juxtaposition of facts, and it is not at all impossible that the commencement of the fifth persecution was a compliment to Clement of Alexandria. Severus, indeed, must have frequently come into contact with Christianity himself during the three or four years he spent in Syria and the East; he could not have visited Antioch, Edessa, and Caesarea without being obliged to notice the development of the Church. The Jews, too, had given him a great deal of trouble, which may account for that part of the edict which affected them, and perhaps the Montanist fanatics had helped to irritate him against the name of Christian. However these things may be, the prohibition, though apparently moderate in its scope, was the signal for the outburst of a tremendous persecution. Laetus, the prefect of Alexandria, was so zealous in his work, that it is impossible not to suspect that he was acting under the very eye of his imperial master. He was not content with torturing and slaying in the city itself, but sent his emissaries up the Nile to the very extremity of the Thebaid to hunt up the Christians and send them by boatloads to the capital for judgment and punishment. Numbers of the Alexandrian Christians fled to Palestine and elsewhere on the first intimation of danger. Pantaenus, who had returned from his Indian mission, had perhaps already left Alexandria; but Clement was at the head of the Catechisms, and he was of the number of those who fled. The great school was for a time broken up. The functions of the Church were suspended for want of ministers, or prevented by the impossibility of meeting in safety. It was taught in the Alexandrian Church that if they were persecuted in one city, they should flee into another; and, just at this time, the Motanist error, that it was unlawful to flee from persecution, caused this teaching to be acted upon with less hesitation than usual; and so, in the year 202, Christians in Alexandria, from being a comparatively flourishing community, became a proscribed and secret sect.
It would be very far from the truth, however, to suppose that the teachings of the Catechetical school had not been able to form martyrs. We know that multitudes stood up for their faith and shed their blood for it at Alexandria, during the first years of this persecution, and this amidst horrors so unusual even with persecutors, that it was thought they portended the coming of the last day. The name of Potamiana alone will serve to raise associations sufficient to picture both the heroism of the confessors and the enormities of the tyrants. But there is another name with which we are more nearly concerned at present. Leonides, the father of Origen, was one of those Christians who had not fled from the persecution. He was an inhabitant of Alexandria, a man of some position and substance, and when the troubles began he was living in Alexandria with his wife and family. It was not long before he was marked down by Laetus and dragged to prison. The martyr’s crown was now within his grasp; but he left behind him in his desolate home another who was burning to share it by his side. His son, Origen, was not yet seventeen when his father was torn away by the Roman soldiers, and, in spite of the entreaties of his mother, he insisted upon following him to prison. His mother finally kept him beside her by a device which may raise a smile in this generation. She “hid all his clothes,” says Eusebius, and so compelled him to stop at home. But his zeal was all aroused and on fire, and, indeed, in this, the earliest incident known to us of his life, we seem to read the zeal and fire of the man that was to be. He sent a message to his father in these words, “Be sure not to waver on our account.” The exact words seem to have been handed down to us, and Eusebius, who gives them, probably received them from Origen’s own disciples in Caesarea of Palestine. The boy well knew what would be the martyr’s chief and only anxiety in his prison. The thought of the wife and seven young children whom he was leaving desolate would be a far bitterer martyrdom than the Roman prisons. But Leonides gloriously persevered, confessed the faith, and was beheaded, while the whole of his property was confiscated to the emperor.
Origen, as we have said, was not quite seventeen years old at his father’s martyrdom, having been born about the year 185. Both his father and mother were Christians, and apparently had dwelt a long time in Alexandria. He had therefore been brought up from his infancy in that careful Christian training which it is the pride and joy of a good and earnest Christian father to bestow upon his son. The traces of this training, as we find them in Eusebius, are touching in the extreme. Leonides, to whom the teachings of Clement had made the Holy Scriptures a very fountain of life and sweetness, made them the principal means of the education of his son. Every day the child repeated to his father a portion of the holy books, and was instructed according to his capacity. Knowing what, in after life, was to be Origen’s connection with the Holy Scriptures, we are not surprised to find that his father soon began to experience some difficulty in answering his questions. The boy, with true Alexandrian instinct, was not content with the bare letter of the book; he would know its hidden meaning and prophetic sense. Leonides discouraged these questions and speculations, not, it would seem, because he disapproved of them, but because he sensibly thought them premature in so young a child. But in the secret of his heart he was full of joy to see the ardor, eagerness, and amazing quickness of his dear child, and often, when the boy was asleep, would he uncover his breast and reverently kiss it, as the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is of very great importance for the right comprehension of the great Origen to bear in view this picture of his tender youth, and to reflect that he was no convert from heathenism, no Christianized philosopher, whose early notions might from time to time be expected to crop up in the field of his orthodoxy, but a Christian child, born and bred in the Church’s bosom, brought up by a father of unquestioned ability, who died a martyr and is honored as a saint. Origen began to think rightly as soon as he could think at all; his early education left him nothing to forget. As he grew up and began to be familiar with Alexandria the beautiful, he received that subtle education of the eye and imagination that every Alexandrian, like every Athenian, succeeded to as an heirloom. But with the heathen philosophers he had nothing to do, and it may be questioned whether he ever entered the walls of the Museum. His father had not neglected to teach him the ordinary branches of Greek learning. He attended the lectures of Clement, those brilliant and winning discourses, half apology, half exhortation, that he himself was afterward to emulate so well. He heard Pantaenus, also, after the venerable teacher had returned from his Indian mission. We may be sure that he dreaded worse than poison the society of the pagan youth of the university; this his subsequent conduct proves. But he had his circle of friends, and among them was a young man, somewhat older than himself, who was hereafter to leave an undying name as Saint Alexander of Jerusalem. Thus, by ear and eye, by master and by fellow-student, by his father’s labor, and by the workings of his own wonderful intellect and indomitable will, he was formed into a man. His education came to a premature end; but his father’s martyrdom, though to outward seeming it left him a destitute orphan, really hardened the boy of seventeen into the man and the hero.
“When his father was martyred,” continues Eusebius, writing, in all probability, from the relation of those who had heard Origen’s own account, “he was left an orphan, with his mother and six young brothers and sisters, being of the age of seventeen. All his father’s property was confiscated to the emperor’s treasury, and they were in the utmost destitution; but God’s providence took care of Origen.” A rich and illustrious lady of Alexandria received him into her house. Whether this lady was professedly a Christian, a pagan, or a heretic, history does not say. She can hardly have been a pagan, though it is not impossible that a philosophic and liberal pagan lady should have taken a fancy to help such a youth as Origen. It is not likely that she was a heretic, for in that case Origen would never have entered her door. Thanks to the Gnostics, heretics in those days were looked upon in Alexandria as more to be dreaded than pagans. She was probably, by outward profession at least, a Christian, “illustrious,” says the historian, “for what she had done, and illustrious in every other way.” What she had done we are not permitted even to guess; but one fact in her history we do know, and it is very significant. She had living in her house, on the footing of an adopted son, one Paul, a native of Antioch, and one of the chiefs of the Alexandrian heretics. It is certain that Origen’s patroness must have had either very uncertain or very easy notions of Christianity, if she could lend her house, her money, and her influence to an arch-heretic, who had come from Syria to trouble the Church of Alexandria, as Basilides and Valentine had come before him. Gnosticism had probably lost ground in the city, under the eloquent attacks of Saint Clement. This Paul was a man of great eloquence, and his reputation attracted great numbers to hear him, not only of heretics, but also of Christians. He came from Antioch, the headquarters of an unknown number of Gnostic sects, and, with the usual instinct of false teachers, he had “led captive” this Alexandrian lady. Mark, of infamous memory, had already done the same thing by others, and perhaps by her, and Paul had succeeded to his position and was now the rival of the head of the Catechisms. Such a state of things makes it easier to understand why Saint Clement, in his Stromata, calls those who lean to heresy “traitors to Christ,” and compares perverts to the companions of Ulysses in the sty of Circe, and why he makes the very treating with heretics to be nothing less than desertion in the soldier of Christ. It does seem a little strange, at first sight, that the uncompromising Origen should have consented to receive assistance from one whose orthodoxy must have been in such bad odor. The difficulty grows less, however, if we consider the circumstances. It was in the very heat of a terrible persecution, when the canons of the Church must have been suspended. Origen had lost his father, and had nowhere to turn for bare subsistence. We can hardly wonder if, in such a strait as this, he asked few questions when the charitable lady wished to take him in. But when the grief and agitation of his orphaned state had somewhat subsided, and when the persecutors had begun to slacken their fury, we may suppose that he began to examine the harbor of his refuge, and that it pleased him not. He was under the same roof as Paul of Antioch, a heretic and a leader of heretics; but never, young as he was, could he be induced to associate with him in prayer, or in any way that could violate the canons of the Church, as far as it was possible to keep them in such times. “From his childhood,” says his biographer, “he kept the canons, and execrated the teachings of heretics;” and he tells us that this last phrase is Origen’s own. And it seems that he took the most energetic measures to get away from a companionship that he must have loathed. He had been well instructed, as we have said, by his father in the ordinary branches of education. After his father’s death he again applied himself to study with greater ardor than before, for he had an object in view now. It was not long before he was offering himself as a public teacher of those sciences that are designated by the general term “Grammatica.” It was the first public step in a life that was afterward to be little less than the entire history of the Eastern Church. He was not yet eighteen, but there was no help for it. He must have bread, and he could not eat of the loaf that was shared by Paul of Antioch. Early writers lay much stress on this first exhibition of orthodox zeal in him who was afterward to be the “hammer” of heretics, from Egypt to Greece. Certain it is that his conduct as a boy was the same as his sentiments when he was in his sixtieth year. “To err in morals,” he wrote in his commentary on Matthew, at Caesarea, forty years after his first essay as a teacher of grammar, – “to err in morals is bad, but to err in dogma and to contradict Holy Writ is much worse.” If in after life he was to be so singularly earnest and so unaffectedly devout, so enthusiastic for the Gospel, so eager in exploring the depths of sacred science, and so unwavering in his faith, all this was but the growth and development of what was already springing in his soul in those early years of his trials and zeal. The strong will was already trying its first flights, the sensitive heart was being schooled to throw all its motive power into duty, and the quick, clear apprehension and the wonderful memory for which he was to be so famous, were already beginning to show what they would one day be.
Origen was now a teacher of grammar and the sciences, but he had not kept school for many months when his teachings took a turn that he can hardly have anticipated. His text-books were the common pagan historians, poets, and philosophers that have been thumbed by the school-boy from that generation to this. It was no part of Origen’s character to leave his hearers in error when plain speaking would prevent it; and so it happened that his exposition of his author often took in hand not merely the parts of speech, but the doctrine. Though he was only school-master by profession, his scholars soon found out he was a Christian, and a Christian of uncommon power and clear-sightedness. The Catechetical school was closed; masters and scholars were scattered in flight or in concealment. It was not long, therefore, before the young teacher found himself applied to by first one heathen and then another, who, under other circumstances, would have applied to the school of the Catechisms. Among these were Plutarchus, who soon afterward showed how a young Alexandrian student could die a glorious martyr; and Heraclas, his brother, who, after his conversion, left everything to remain with his master, became his assistant and successor in his catechetical work, and finally died Patriarch of Alexandria. These were the first-fruits of his zeal for souls. Many others followed; and as the persecution was somewhat abating, Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, looking round for men to resume the work of the schools, saw no one better fitted to be intrusted with its direction than Origen himself. He was accordingly, though not yet eighteen, appointed the successor of Clement.
Laetus, prefect of Alexandria, who had exerted himself so strenuously to please Severus when the persecution commenced, had now been recalled; probably he had reaped the reward of his zeal, and was promoted. His successor, Aquila, signalized his entering upon office by an activity that outdid that of Laetus himself. The persecution that had calmed down a little toward the end of the first year and when Laetus was leaving, now raged with redoubled fury. We have already said that the authoritative tradition, and, in great measure, also the practice, of the Alexandrian Church was flight at a time like this. Origen, however, was very far from fleeing; never at any time of his life did he display such fearless baldness, such energetic contempt for the enemy, as during these years of blood, from 204 to 211. There was no prison so well-guarded, no dungeon so deep, that he could not hold communication with the confessors of Christ. He went up to the tribunals with them, and stood beside them at the interrogatory and at the torture. He went back with them in a sort of defiant triumph, after sentence of death had been pronounced. He walked undauntedly by their side up to the stake and the beheading block, and kissed them and bade them adieu when it was time for them to die. It is no wonder that Eusebius sets down his own safety to a miraculous interposition of the right hand of God. Once, as he stood by a dying martyr, embracing him as he expired, the Alexandrian mob set on him with stones and nearly killed him; how he escaped none could tell. Again and again the persecutors tried to seize him; as often (“it is impossible,” says the historian, “to tell how often”) was he delivered from their hands. He was nowhere safe: no sooner did the mob get a suspicion of where he was than they surrounded the house, and hounded in the soldiers to drag him out. He fled from house to house; perhaps he was assisted to escape by some of his numerous friends; perhaps he hid himself, as Saint Athanasius in the next century did, in some of those underground wells and cisterns with which every house in Alexander’s city was provided, and then sought other quarters when the mob had gone off. But it was not long before he was again discovered. The numbers that came to hear him soon let the infuriated pagans know where their victim was, and he was again besieged and hunted out. Once, Saint Epiphanius relates, he was caught, apparently by a street-mob, and some of the low Egyptian priests as their leaders. It was near the Egyptian quarter of the city; perhaps, even, he was visiting some poor native convert in the dirty streets of the Rhacôtis itself. If so, the name of Origen would have been enough to empty the whole quarter of its pariah race, and bring them yelling and cursing into the Heptastadion. They showed him no mercy; they abused him horribly; they beat him and bruised him; they dragged him along the ground. But before killing him outright, the idea seized them that they should make him deny his religion, and at the same time make a shameful exhibition of himself. There must have been Greeks in the crowd, for Egyptians would never have had patience to spare him so long. The Serapeion, however, was at hand, and thither they dragged him. As they hauled him along, “they shaved his head,” says Saint Epiphanius – that is, they tried to make him look like the Egyptian priests, who were distinguished by a womanish smoothness of face; and we may imagine that they did it with no gentle hands. When at length the rushing mob had surged up the steps of the great temple, their victim in the midst of them, they set him on his feet, and gave him some palm branches, telling him to act the priest and distribute them to the votaries of Serapis. The palm, we know, was a favorite tree with the Egyptian priests; it was sculptured and painted on the walls of their huge temples, and it was borne in the hands of worshippers on solemn festivals. On the present occasion there were, probably, priests of one rank or another standing before the vestibule of the Serapeion, ready to supply those who should enter. It was, therefore, the work of a moment to seize the stock of one of these ministers, and force Origen to take his place. If they anticipated the pleasure of seeing the hated Christian teacher humiliated to the position of an ostiarius of an idolatrous temple, they were never more mistaken in their lives. Origen took the palms, and began without hesitation to distribute them; but, as he did so, he cried out in a voice as loud and steady as if neither suffering nor danger could affect him, “Take the palms, good people! – not the palms of idols, but the palms of Christ!” How he escaped after this piece of daring, we are only left to conjecture. Perhaps the Roman troops came suddenly on the scene to quell the riot; and as they hated the dwellers in the Rhacôtis almost as much as the latter hated Origen, the neighborhood of the Serapeion would have been speedily cleared of Egyptians. However it came about, Origen was saved.
Meanwhile, he saw his own scholars daily going to death. The young student Plutarchus fell among the first victims of Aquila’s new vigor; Origen was by his side when he was led to execution, was recognized by the mob, and once more narrowly escaped with his life. Serenus, another of his disciples, was burnt; Heraclides, a catechumen, and Hero, who had just been baptized, were beheaded; a second Serenus, after enduring many torments, suffered in the same way. A woman named Heraeis, one of his converts, was burned before she could be baptized, receiving the baptism of fire, as her instructor said. Another who is numbered among his disciples is Basilides, the soldier who protected Saint Potamiana from the insults of the mob, and whom she converted by appealing to him three nights afterward. We are told that the brethren, and we know who would be foremost among the brethren in such a case, visited him in prison as soon as they heard of his wonderful and unexpected confession. He told them his vision, was baptized, and the following day died a martyr. Probably it was Origen who addressed to him the few hurried words of instruction there was time to say. “All the martyrs,” says Eusebius, “whether he knew them or knew them not, he ministered to with the most eager affection.” His reputation, it may well be conceived, suffered no diminution as these things came to be known. The horrors of the persecution could not keep scholars away from him, nor prevent increasing numbers from coming to seek him. Many of the unbelieving pagans, full of admiration for a holiness of life and a heroism they could not comprehend, came to his instructions; and even literary Greeks who had gone through the curriculum of the Museum, and were deeply versed in Platonic myths and Pythagorean theories of mortification, came to listen to this fearless young philosopher, in whom they found a learning that could not be gainsaid, combined with a practical contempt for the things of the body that was quite unknown in their own schools.
The persecution seems to have died down and gone out toward the year 211, nine years after its commencement. Origen’s labors became the more extraordinary in proportion as he had freer scope for pursuing them. The feature in his life at this time, which is most characteristic of the time and the city, and which more than anything else attracted the cultivated heathens to listen to him, was his severe asceticism. Times of persecution may be considered to dispense with asceticism; but Origen did not think so. It was a saying of his master, Saint Clement, and, indeed, appears to have been a common proverb in that reformed school of heathen philosophy which resulted in Neo-Platonism, “As your words, so be your life.” A philosopher in Alexandria at that time, if he would not be thought to belong to an effete race of thinkers who had long been left behind, or who only survived in the well-paid and well-fed professorships of the university, was of necessity a man whose strict and sober living corresponded to the high and serious truths which he considered it his mission to utter. Saint Clement did not forget this, either in principle or in practice, when he undertook to win the heathen men of science to Christ. Origen, born a Christian, made a teacher apparently by chance and in the confusion of a persecution, cared little, in the first instance, for what pagan philosophy would think of him. The fact that all who pretended to be philosophers pretended also to asceticism may, indeed, have caused him to embrace a life of denial more as a matter of course. But the holy gospels and the teachings of Clement were the reasons of his asceticism. It is amazing that Protestant writers, when they write of the asceticism of the early Church, can see in it nothing but the reflection of Buddhism, or Judaism, or of the tenets of Pythagoras, and that they always seem nervously glad to prove by the assistance of the Egyptian climate or the Platonic hatred of matter, that it was not the carrying out of the law of Christ, but merely a self-imposed burden. Climate, doubtless, has great influence on food, and English dinners would no more suit an Egyptian sun than would the two regulation paximatia of the Abbot Moses in Cassian be enough for even the most willing of English Cistercians. But why go to climate, to Plato, to Pythagoras, and to Buddha, to account for what is one of the most striking recommendations of the gospels? We need not stop to inquire the reason, but we may be sure that a child who had been taught the Holy Scriptures by heart would not be unlikely to know something of their teaching. His biographer tells us expressly, with regard to several of his acts of mortification, that they were done in the endeavor to carry out literally our Lord’s commands. And yet it is very remarkable, and a trait of the times, that Eusebius, in describing his mode of life, uses the word philosophy three times where we should use asceticism. Origen, soon after being appointed head of the Catechetic school, found he could not do his duty by his hearers as thoroughly as he could wish, on account of his other occupation of teacher of grammar. He therefore resolved to give it up. It was his only means of subsistence, but he might reasonably have expected “to live by the gospel” as long as he was in such a post as chief catechist. If he had expected this he would not have been disappointed, for there would have been no lack of charity. But he had an entirely different view of the matter. He would be a burden to no one, and would live a life of the strictest poverty. Simple, straightforward, and great, here as ever, we may conceive how he would appreciate the fetters of a rich man’s patronage. But, if we may trust the utterances of his whole life, his love for holy poverty was such that, while it makes some refer once more to Pythagoras, to a Catholic it rather suggests Saint Francis of Assisi. “I tremble,” he said thirty years afterward, “when I think how Jesus commands his children to leave all they have. For my own part, I plead guilty to my accusers and I pronounce my own sentence; I will not conceal my guiltiness lest I become doubly guilty. I will preach the precepts of the Lord, though I am conscious of not having followed them myself. Let us now at least lose no time in becoming true priests of the Lord, whose inheritance is not on earth but in heaven.” Such language from one who can hardly be said to have possessed anything during his whole life can only be explained on one hypothesis. In order, therefore, at once to secure his independence in God’s work, and to oblige himself to practise rigorous poverty, he made a sacrifice which none but a poor student can appreciate. He sold his manuscripts, and secured to himself, from the sale, a sum of four oboli a day, which was to be his whole income. This sum, which was about the ordinary pay of a common sailor, who had his food and lodging provided for him, was little enough to live upon; but miserable as it was, Origen must have paid a dear premium to obtain it. Those manuscripts of “ancient authors” were probably the fruits and the assistance of his early studies; he must have written many of them under the eye of his martyred father. He had “labored with care and love to write them out fairly,” we are told, and doubtless he prized them at once as a scholar prizes his library and a laborious worker the work of his hands. For many years, probably until he went to Rome in 211, he continued to receive his twopence or threepence every day from the person who had bought his books. But we cease in great part to wonder how little he lived on when we know how he lived. In obedience to our Lord’s command, and in opposition to the prevailing practice of all but the poorest classes, he wore the tunic single, and as for the pallium, he seems either to have dispensed with it altogether, or only to have worn it whilst teaching. For many years he went entirely barefoot. He fasted continually from all that was not absolutely necessary to keep him alive; he never touched wine; he worked hard all day in teaching and visiting the poor; and after studying what we should call theology the greater part of the night, he did not go to bed, but took a little rest on the floor. This “vehemently philosophic” life, as Eusebius calls it, reduced him in time, as might have been expected, to a mere wreck; insufficient food and scanty clothing brought on severe stomachic complaints, which nearly caused his death. It is not to be supposed that his disciples and the Church in general looked on with indifference whilst he practised these austerities. On the contrary, he was solicited over and over again to receive assistance and to take care of himself; and many were even somewhat offended because he refused their well-meant offers. But Origen had chosen to put his hand to the plough, and he would not have been Origen if he had turned back. It is probable, indeed, that he somewhat moderated his austerities when his health began to give way seriously; but hard work and hard living were his lot to the end, and the name of Adamantine, which he received at this time, and which all ages and countries have confirmed to him, shows what the popular impression was of what he actually went through. As might have been expected, a man of such singleness and determination had many imitators. We have seen that the very pagan philosophers came to listen to him. The young scholars whom he instructed, and many of whom he converted, did more than listen to him; they joined him, and imitated as nearly as they could what Eusebius again calls the “philosophy” of his life. It was no barren aping of externals, such as might have been seen going on a little way off at the Museum; he, on his part, taught them deep and earnest lessons in the deepest and most earnest of all philosophies; they, on theirs, proved that his words were power by the severest of all tests – they stood firm in the horrors of a fearful persecution, and more than one of them witnessed to them by a cruel death.
As long as the persecution lasted, anything like regularity and completeness in a work like that of Origen was clearly impossible. But a persecution at Alexandria, though generally furious as long as it lasted, happily seldom lasted very long. Popular opinion was, no doubt, very bitter against Christianity. But popular opinion was one thing; the will of the prince-governor another. Moreover, the popular opinion of the Greek philosophers was generally diametrically opposed to that of their Roman masters, and the beliefs and traditions of the Rhacôtis tended to the instant extermination of the Jews; and though these four antagonistic elements could, upon occasion, so far forget their differences as to unite in an onslaught against the Christians, yet, before long, quarrels arose and riots ensued among the allied parties to such an extent that the legionaries had no choice but to clear the streets in the most impartial manner. Again, it is quite certain that the Christian party included in it not a few men of rank; and, what is more important, of power and authority. This we know from the trouble Saint Dionysius, one of Origen’s scholars, afterward had with many such persons who had “lapsed” in the Decian persecution. As everything, therefore, depended on the humor of the governor, and as the governor was, as other men, liable to be influenced by bribes suggestions, and caprice, a furious persecution might suddenly die out, and the Church begin to enjoy comparative peace at the very time when things looked worst. Until the year 211, “Adamantius” taught, studied, prayed, and fasted amidst disturbance, martyrdoms, and fleeings from house to house; but that year wrought a change, not only in Alexandria, but over the whole world. It was simply the year of the death of Septimus Severus at York, and of the accession of Caracalla and Geta; but this was an event which, if precedents were to be trusted, invited all the nations that recognized the Roman eagle to be ready for any change, however unreasonable, beginning with the senate, and ending with the Christians. It was, probably, in this same year, 211, that Origen took advantage of the restoration of tranquillity to visit the city and Church of Rome. It would seem that this episode of his journey to Rome has not been sufficiently considered in the greater part of the accounts of his life. Protestant writers, as may be expected, pass it over quietly, either barely mentioning it, or, if they do put a gloss upon it, confining themselves to generalities about the interchange of ideas or the antiquity and renown of the Roman Church. But there is evidently more in it than this. Origen was just twenty-six years of age: though so young, he was already famous as a teacher and a holy liver in the most learned of cities, and one of the most ascetical of churches. His work was immense, and daily increasing. On the cessation of the persecution, the great school was to be reorganized, and put once more into that thorough working order which had made it so effective under Pantaenus and Clement. Yet, just at this busy crisis, he hurries off to Rome, stays there a short time, and hurries back again. In the first place, why go at all? What could Rome or any other church give him that he had not already at Alexandria? Not scientific learning, certainly; not a systematic organization of work; not reverence for Holy Scripture; not the method of confuting learned philosophy. Again: why go specially to Rome? Was there not a high road, easy and comparatively short, to Caesarea of Palestine, and would he not find there facilities enough for the “interchange of thought?” For there, about fifteen years before, had assembled one of the first councils ever held since the council of Jerusalem. Was there not Jerusalem, the cradle of the Church? It was then, indeed, shorn of its glory, both spiritual and historical; for it was subject, at least not superior, to Caesarea, and was known to the empire by the name of Aelia Capitolina; but its aged bishop was a worker of miracles. Was there not Antioch, the great central see of busy, intellectual Syria, the see of Saint Theophilus, wherein saintly bishops on the one hand, and Marcionite heresy and Paschal schism on the other, kept the traditions of the faith bright and polished? Were there not the Seven Churches? Was there not many a “mother-city” between the Mediterranean and the mountain ranges where apostolic teachings were strong yet, and apostolic men yet ruled? Origen’s motive in going to “see Rome” is given us by himself, or, rather, by his biographer in his words; but, unfortunately, in such an ambiguous way that it is almost useless as an argument; he wished, says Eusebius, “to see the very ancient Church of Rome.” The word we have translated “very ancient” ( .) may also mean, as we need not say, “first in dignity.” It is hardly worth while to argue upon it, but it will not fail to strike the reader that Jerusalem and Antioch, not to mention other sees, were both older than Rome, if age was the only recommendation. Origen’s visit to Rome, then, is a very remarkable event in his life, for it shows undoubtedly that the chief of the greatest school of the Church found he required something which could only be obtained in Rome, and that something can only have been an approach to the chief and supreme depositary of tradition. He was at the very beginning of his career, and he could begin no better than by invoking the blessing of that rock of the Church of whom his master, Clement, had taught him to think so nobly and lovingly. We shall see that, many a year after this, in the midst of troubles and calumnies, when his great life was nearly closed, the same see of Peter received the professions and obedience of his failing voice, as it had witnessed and blessed the ardor of his youth. He was not, indeed, the first who, though already great in his own country, had been drawn toward a greatness which something told them was without a rival. Three-quarters of a century before Rome had attracted from far-off Jerusalem that great Saint Hegesippus, the founder of church history, whose works are lost, but whose fame remains. A convert from Judaism, he left his native city, travelled to Rome, and sojourned there for twenty years, busily learning and committing to writing those practices and traditions of the Roman Church which he afterward appears to have disseminated all over the East, and which he conveyed, toward the end of his life, to his own Jerusalem, where he died. From Assyria and beyond the Tigris the “perfume of Rome” had enticed the great Tatian – happy if, on his return, he had still kept pure that faith which, at Rome, he defended so well against Crescens the cynic. A great mind and a widely cultivated genius found the sphere of its rest in Rome, when Saint Justin finished his wanderings there and sealed the workings of his active intellect by shedding his blood at the bidding of the ruling clique of Stoics – “philosophus et martyr” as the old martyrologies call him. A famous name, too, is that of Rhodon, of Asia, well known for his steady and able defence of the faith against Marcionites and other heretics. These, and such as these, had come from the world’s ends to visit the great apostolic see before Origen’s day dawned. But there were others, and as great, whom he may actually have met in the city, either on a visit like himself, or because they were members of the Roman clergy. There was the great Carthaginian, Tertullian, who, for many years, lived, learned, and wrote in Rome; his works show how well he knew the Roman Church, and how often afterward he had occasion, in his polemical battles, to allude to the “Ecclesia transmarina” as Africa called Rome. A meeting between Origen and Tertullian is a very suggestive idea; the only misfortune is, that we have no warrant whatever for supposing it beyond the bare possibility. But by naming Tertullian we suggest one view, at least, of the ecclesiastical society which Origen would meet when he visited Rome. Another celebrated man, whom there is more likelihood that Origen did meet, is the convert Roman lawyer, Minucius Felix, who employed his recognized talents and trained skill in vigorous apologetic writings, one of which we still possess. A third was the priest Caius, one of the Roman clergy, famed as the adversary of Proclus the Montanist, unless he had already started on his missionary career as regionary bishop. Finally, there was Saint Hippolytus, who, like Caius, was from the school of Saint Irenaeus, and had come from Lyons to Rome, where he seems to have been no unworthy representative of his teacher’s zeal against heretics. Nearly every step of the life of Saint Hippolytus is encumbered by the ruin of a learned theory or the useless rubbish of an abandoned position; but he as far as we can conjecture, the chief scientific adviser of the Roman pontiffs in the measures they took at this time regarding Easter and against the Noetians. Until scientific men have settled their disputes as to who was the author of the Philosophumena, or Treatise against All Heresies, little more can be said about Saint Hippolytus. The Treatise itself, however, whose recovery some twenty years ago excited so much interest, must have had an author, and it is nearly certain the author must have been one of the Roman clergy at this very time. It is still more certain that the matters therein discussed must represent very completely one view of Church matters at Rome in the early part of the third century; and, therefore, even if Origen did not meet the author in person, he must have met many who thought as he did. Now it is rather interesting to read the Philosophumena in this light, and to conjecture what Origen would think of some of its views. The leading idea of the work, which is not even yet extant complete, is to prove that all heresies have sprung from Greek philosophy. This it attempts to do by detailing, first, the systems of the philosophers, then those of the heretics, and showing their mutual connection. The scandalous attack on Saint Callistus, in the ninth book, may or may not be an interpolation by a later hand; if not, the author must have been much more ingenious than reputable. There is no denying the historical and literary value of the Treatise; but where it professes to draw deductions and to give philosophical analyses of systems, it seems of comparatively moderate worth. For instance, the author’s analysis and appreciation of the philosophy of Aristotle is little better than a libel on the great “maestro di lor chi sanno;” and Basilides, though doubtless a clever personage in his way, can hardly have taken the trouble to go so far for the small amount of philosophy that seasons his fantastical speculations. But a general opinion resembling the opinion maintained in the Treatise seems to have been common in the West; and when Tertullian says of the philosophy of Plato that it was “haereticorum omnium condimentarium,” he was doubtless expressing the idea of many beside himself. To Origen, fresh from the school of Clement and the atmosphere of Alexandria, such language must have sounded startling, to say the least, and we cannot help feeling he would be rather sorry, if not indignant, to hear the great names he had been taught to think of with so much admiration and compassion unfeelingly caricatured into a relationship of paternity with such men as the founders of Gnosticism. He does not appear to have been very familiar yet with the Greek systems; they had not come specially in his way, though he had heard of them in the Christian schools, and there is little doubt that he had already seen the necessity of studying them more closely, as he actually did on his return to Alexandria. What effect the views of the Western Church had on his teaching, and how he treated the philosophers, we shall have to consider in the sequel. Meanwhile, his stay at Rome was over; he had studied the faith and heresy, discipline and schism, church organization and sectarian rebellion, in the most important centre of the whole Church, and his school at Alexandria was awaiting him, to reap the benefit of his journey.
On the return of Origen to Alexandria, it would almost appear as if he had wished to decline, for a time, the office of chief of the Catechisms. The historian tells us that he only resumed it at the strongly expressed desire of his bishop, Demetrius, who was anxious for the “profit and advantage of the brethren.” Perhaps he wished for greater leisure than such a post would permit of, in order to carry into execution certain projects that were forming in his mind. But neither the patriarch nor his scholars would hear of his giving up, and so he had to settle to his work again; “which he did,” says Eusebius, “with the greatest zeal,” as he did everything. From this time, with one or two short interruptions, he lived and taught in Alexandria for twenty years. His life as an authoritative teacher and “master in Israel” may be said to commence from this point. It was an epoch resembling in some degree that other epoch, thirty years before, when Pantaenus had been called upon to take the charge of chief teacher in the Alexandrian Church. Now, as then, the winter of a persecution had passed, and the season was sunny and promising. Now, as then, men were high in hope, and set to work with valiant hearts to repair the breaches the straggle had left, and to restore to the rock-built fortress that glory and comeliness that became her so well; but with which, if need was, she could securely dispense. But there was no slight difference between 180 and 211. The tide of Christianity had risen perceptibly all over the Church; most of all on the shores of its greatest scientific centre. The possibility of appealing to those who had heard the apostles had long been past, but now even the disciples of Polycarp, Simeon, and Ignatius had disappeared; instead of Irenaeus there was Hippolytus, and Demetrius of Alexandria was the eleventh successor of Saint Mark. Heretics had multiplied, questions had been asked, tradition was developing itself, dogma was being fixed. The form of teaching was, therefore, in process of change as other things changed. Greater precision, more “positive theology,” a more constant look-out for what authority had said or might say – these necessities would make the teacher’s office more difficult, even if more definite. The position of the Church toward its enemies, also, was sensibly changing. The “gain-sayers” were not of the same class as had been addressed by Saint Theophilus or Saint Justin. The state of things had grown more distinctly marked. Christianity was no longer an idea that might, in a burst of noble rhetoric, be made to set on fire, for a moment, even the camp of the enemy. It was now known to the Gentile world as a stern and unyielding praxis; susceptible, perhaps, of scientific and literary treatment, but quite distinct from both science and letters. Enthusiastic but timid dilettanti had lost their enthusiasm, and gave full scope to their fears. Amiable philosophers took back the right hand of fellowship, and retreated behind those who, by a special instinct, had always refused to be amiable, and now thought themselves more justified than ever. On the Christian side the war had lost much of the adventure which accompanies the first dashing inroads into an enemy’s country. Surprises were not so easy, systematic opposition was frequent, and their writers were obliged to fight by tactics, and in the prosaic array of argument for argument. Documents, moral testimony, institutions, were the objects of attack from without. The apostles were vilified, faith was proved to be irrational, the Bible was ranked with Syrian impostures and Jewish charm-books. And here, in the matter of the Bible, was a mighty enterprise for the Christian teacher. The canon had not yet been officially promulgated. A generation that would despise an apocryphal book of Homer or a false Orphic hymn would not be easily satisfied with the credentials of a religion. Great, then, would be that Christian teacher who should at once teach the faithful, and yet not “take away from” the faith; win the philosophers, and yet fight them hand to hand; and give to the world a critical edition of the Bible, yet hold fast to ancient tradition. Such was the work of Origen.
He began by external organization; he divided the multitudes that flocked to the Catechisms into two grand classes; one of those who were commencing, another of those who were more advanced. The former class he gave to his first convert, Heraclas; the latter he kept to himself. Heraclas was “skilled in theology,” and “in other respects a very eloquent man;” and, moreover, he was “fairly conversant with philosophy,” three qualifications in an Alexandrian catechist none of which could be dispensed with. In any case, the division was a matter of absolute necessity, for these extraordinary Alexandrian scholars, models and patterns that deserve to be imitated more extensively than they have been, gave him no respite and kept no regular school-hours, but crowded in and out “from morning till night;” “not even a breathing-space did they afford him,” says his biographer. In such circumstances theological study and scriptural labors were out of the question, even if he had been the man of adamant that his admirers, with the true Alexandrian passion for nicknames, had already begun to call him. He therefore looked about among “his familiars,” those of his disciples who had attached themselves to him and lived with him a life of study and asceticism; and from them he chose out Heraclas, the brother of the martyred Plutarchus, to be the chief associate of his work.
It need not be again mentioned that Origen’s work, as that of Pantaenus and of Clement before him, had three classes of persons to deal with – catechumens, heretics, and philosophers. His dealings with the heretics and philosophers will be treated of more appropriately when we come to consider his journeys, the most important of which occurred after the expiration of the twenty years with which we are now concerned. As the school of Alexandria was chiefly and primarily connected with the catechumens, the account of the twenty years of his presidency will naturally be concerned chiefly and primarily with the latter, that is to say, with those whom that great school undertook to instruct in faith and discipline. And here we approach and stand close beneath one side of that monumental fane that bears upon it for all generations the name of Origen. The neophytes of Alexandria were chiefly taught out of one book; it was the custom handed from teacher to teacher; each held up the book and explained it, according to the “unvarying tradition of the ancients.” For two hundred and ten years the work had gone on; but time has destroyed nearly every trace of what was written and spoken. For the first time since Saint Mark wrote the gospel, Alexandria speaks now in history with a voice that shall commence a new era in the history of Holy Scripture. Pantaemus had written “Commentaries” on the whole of the Bible; Clement had left, in the Hypotyposes, a summary exposition of all the canonical Scripture, not forgetting a glance at the “Contradictions” of heretics. Both these writings have perished long ago. When Origen came, in his turn, to take the same work in hand, a pressing want soon forced itself upon his mind. There was no authentic version of the sacred Word. The New Testament canon was still uncertain, one Church upholding a greater number of books, another less. The Roman canon was, indeed, from the first identical with the Tridentine (see Perrone, “De Locis Theologicis”). But the Church of Antioch, e.g., ignored no less than five of the canonical books. Alexandria, well supplied with learned expositors, and not a little influenced by the native Alexandrian instinct for criticism and grammar, had got further in the development of the canon than the majority of its sisters. Yet, so far, there had hardly been any distinct interference on the part of authority, and though, as we shall see, Origen’s New Testament canon was the same as that of the Council of Trent, yet there were not wanting private writers who expressed doubts about the Epistle to the Hebrews or the Apocalypse. One thing, however, is very clear in all these somewhat troublesome disputes about the canon; whether we turn to Tertullian in Africa, to Saint Jerome in Italy, to Saint Irenaeus in the West, or to Clement and Origen in the East, we find one grand and large criterion put forth as the test of all authenticity, viz., the tradition of the ancients. “Go to the oldest churches,” says Saint Irenaeus. “The truest,” says Tertullian, “is the oldest; the oldest is what always was; what always was is from the apostles; go therefore to the churches of the apostles, and find what is there held sacred.” “We must not transgress the bounds set by our fathers,” says Origen. It took several centuries to complete this process; but the principle was a strong and a living one, and its working out was only a matter of time. It was worked out something in this fashion. A provincial presbyter, we will say from Pelusium, or Syene, or Arsinoe, came up to Alexandria (he may easily have done so, thanks to the police arrangements and engineering enterprise of Ptolemy Philadelphus); having much ecclesiastical news to communicate, and perhaps important business to arrange on the part of his bishop, he would be thrown into close contact with the presbytery of the metropolitan Church. Let us suppose that, in order to support some point of practical morality, touching the “lapsed” or the converts, he quoted Hermas’ “Shepherd” as canonical Scripture. The archdeacon with whom he was arguing would demur to such an authority; let him quote Paul, or Jude, or Peter, or John, but not Hernias; Hernias was not in the canon. The presbyter from the provinces would be a little amazed and even ruffled; how could he say it was not in the canon when he himself had heard it read on the Lord’s day before the sacred mysteries in the patriarchal Church, in the presence of the very patriarch himself, seated on his throne, and surrounded by the clergy? A canonical book meant a book within the Church’s general rule, and the rule of the Church was that a book read at such a time was thereby declared true Scripture. The archdeacon would reply that the presbyter was right in the main, both as to facts and principles; but would point out that at Alexandria they had a set of books which were read at the solemn time he mentioned, beside regular Scripture; and if he had known their usages better, or if he had asked any of the clergy, or the patriarch, he would be aware that such writings were only read to the people as pious exhortations, not defined as the repository of the faith. The presbyter would consider this inconvenient, and would doubtless be right in thinking so. The practice was condemned by various councils in the next century. But he would at once admit that if the tradition were so, then the Alexandrian Church certainly appeared to reject Hernias. But he would have another difficulty. Did not Clement, of blessed memory, consider Hernias as authentic, or, at any rate, the Epistle of Barnabas, which was quite a parallel case? And did not Origen (whom we suppose to be then teaching) call the “Shepherd” “divinely inspired?” It was true, the archdeacon would rejoin, that both Clement in former years and Origen then spoke very highly of several writings of this class; but he must refer him once more to the authoritative tradition of the Alexandrian Church, to be learned, in the last instance, from the lips of Demetrius himself: this would at once show that Clement and Origen could not mean to put Hernias on a level with Paul, and Origen himself would certainly admit so much, if he were asked. The presbyter would inquire, during his stay, of the heads of the Catechetical school, of the ancient priests, and of the patriarch; he would be satisfied that what the archdeacon said was true; and he would return to his city on the Red Sea, or at the extremity of the Thebaid, or on the north-western coast of the continent, with authentic intelligence that the Apostolic Church of Alexandria rejected Hermas from the Scripture canon, and that, therefore, it certainly ought to be rejected by his own Church. He would, perhaps, in addition to this, bring the information that the metropolitan Church, so he had found out in his researches, upheld the Epistle to the Hebrews, or the Apocalypse of the Apostle John, to be true and genuine Scripture; would it not, therefore, be well to consider whether these also should not be admitted by themselves? In this way, or in some way analogous, the Churches that lay within the “circumscription” of a patriarchal or apostolic see would by degrees be led to conform their canon to the canon of the principal Church. As time went on, the great metropolitan sees themselves became grouped round the three grand centres of Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome; and, finally, in the process of the development of tradition, at least as early as A.D. 800, the whole Church had adopted the canon as approved by Rome in the decretal of Innocent I. It is, therefore, a remarkable fact that Origen quotes the canon of the New Testament precisely as it now stands in the Vulgate. It would hardly be true to say that he formally states as exclusively authentic the complete list of the Catholic canon; but that he does enumerate it is certain. Moreover, in addition to the remarkable correctness of his investigations on the canon, Origen did much, in other ways, for a book that was emphatically the textbook of his school. The exemplars in general use were in a most unsatisfactory state: there were hardly two alike. Writers had been careless, audacious innovators had inserted their interpolations, honest but mistaken bunglers had added and taken away whenever the sense seemed to require it. It is Origen himself who makes these complaints, and nobody had better occasion to know how true they were. The manuscript used in the great Church probably differed from that used by the chief catechist; his, again, differed from every one of those brought to class by the wealthier of his scholars. One would bring up a copy of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, which, on investigation, would turn out to be full of Nazarite or Ebionite “improvements” – another would have an Acts of the Apostles, which had been bequeathed to him by some venerable Judaizant, and wherein Saint James of Jerusalem would be found to have assumed more importance than Saint Luke was generally supposed to have given him. A third would have a copy so full of monstrous corruptions in the way of mutilation and deliberate heretical glossing, that the orthodox ears of the master would certainly have detected a quotation from it in two lines: it would be one of Valentine’s editions. A fourth, newly arrived from some place where Tertullian had never been heard of, would appear with a bulky set of volumina, which Origen would find to his great disgust to be the New Testament “according to Marcion.” That first and chief of reckless falsifiers had “circumcised” the New Testament, as Saint Irenaeus calls it, to such an extent that he had to invent a quantity of new Acts and Apocalypses to keep up appearances, and what he retained he had freely cut and tortured into Marcionism; for he said openly that the apostles were moderately well-informed, but that his lights were far in advance of them. Such examples as these are, of course, extremes; but even in orthodox copies there must have been a bewildering number of variantes. Origen’s position would bring him into contact with exemplars from many distant churches. The work of copying fresh ones for the “missions,” or to supply the wants of the provinces, would necessitate some choice of manuscripts; and in a matter so important, we may be sure that his catechists, fellow-townsmen of Aristarchus, rather enjoyed than otherwise the vigorous critical disputes which the collation of MSS. has a special tendency to engender. It is nearly established – indeed, we may say, it is certain – that Origen wrote a copy of the New Testament with his own hand. It was not a new edition, apparently, but a corrected copy of the generally received version. He corrected the blunders of copyists; he struck out of the text everything that was evidently a mere gloss; he re-inserted what had clearly dropped out by mischance, and adopted a few readings that were unmistakable improvements. But he made no alteration of the text on mere conjecture. However faulty a reading might seem, he never changed it without authority; he had too much reverence for Holy Scripture, and probably, also, too bitter an experience of conjectural emendations, to sanction such dangerous proceedings by his own practice. This precious copy, the fruit of his labors and study, the depositary of his wide experience, and the record of his “adamantine” industry, was apparently the one from which he himself always quoted, and, therefore, we may conclude, which he always used. It lay, after his death, in the archives of Caesarea of Palestine, with his other Biblical MSS. Pamphilus the Martyr is related to have copied it; and in the time of Constantine, Eusebius sent many transcripts of it to the imperial city. Eusebius himself copied it with all the reverence he would necessarily feel for his hero, Origen; and by means of his copy, or of copies made by his direction, it became the basis of that recension of the New Testament known as the Alexandrine. Saint Jerome was well acquainted with the library of Caesarea, and often mentions the “Codices Adamantii” which he was privileged to consult there; and we need not remind the reader of the well-known agreement of the Latin versions with those of Palestine and Alexandria. Now Palestine meant – first, Jerusalem, where was the celebrated library formed by Saint Alexander, Origen’s own college friend and an Alexandria man, as we should say, and partly under Origen’s influence; and, secondly, Caesarea, which inherited Origen’s traditions and teaching, at least equally with Alexandria, as we shall see later on, and in which the originals of his works were preserved with religious veneration, until war and sack of Persian or Moslem destroyed them. Thus the work of Origen on the New Testament, begun and mainly carried out during those twenty years at Alexandria, is living and active at this very day.
But if the New Testament needed setting to rights, it was correct and accurate in comparison with the Old. How he treated the Septuagint, and how the Hexapla and the Tetrapla grew under nimble hands and learned heads, we must for the present defer to tell.
We resume our notes on those twenty years (211-280) which he spent with little interruption at Alexandria, engaged chiefly in the instruction of the catechumens. We have already seen what he did for the New Testament; let us now study his labors on the Old.
The authorship of that most famous Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, seems destined to be a mystery in literature. The gorgeous and circumstantial account of the Jew Aristeas, with all its details of embassy and counter-embassy, of the seventy-two venerable sages, the cells in the rock, the reverence of the Ptolemy, and the wind-up of banquets, gifts, and all good things, seems, as Dom Montfaucon says, to “savor of the fabulous.” There is some little difficulty about dates in the matter of Demetrius Phalerius, the literary minister under whose auspices the event is placed. There is a far more formidable difficulty in the elevation of Philadelphus, a cruel, sensual despot, into a devout admirer of the law of Moses, bowing seven times and weeping for joy in presence of the sacred documents, and in the sudden conversion of all the cultivated Greeks who are concerned in the story. The part of Aristeas’s narration which regards the separate cells, and the wonderful agreement of the translations, is curtly set down by Saint Jerome as a fiction. It seems probable, moreover, that the translator of the Pentateuch was not the same as the translate of the other parts of the Old Testament. In the midst of uncertainties and probabilities, however, four things seem to be tolerably clear; first, that the version called the LXX. was made at Alexandria; secondly, that it was the work of different authors; thirdly, that it was not inspired; fourthly, that it was a holy and correct version, quoted by the apostles, always used in the Greek church, and the basis of all the Latin editions before St Jerome’s Vulgate.
All the misfortunes that continual transcription, careless blundering, and wilful corruption could combine to inflict upon a manuscript had fallen to the lot of the Septuagint version at the time when it was handed Origen to be used in the instruction of the faithful and the refutation of Jew and Greek. This was only what might have been fully expected from the fact that, since the Christian era, it had become the court of appeal of two rival sets of controversialists – the Christian and the Jew. Indeed, from the very beginning it had been defective, and, if we may trust Saint Jerome, designedly defective; for the Septuagint translation of the prophetical books had purposely omitted passages of the Hebrew which its authors considered not proper to be submitted to the sight of profane Greeks and Gentiles. Up to the Christian era, however, we may suppose great discrepancies of manuscript did not exist, and that those variations which did appear were not much heeded in the comparatively rare transcription of the text. The Hellenistic Jews and the Jews of Palestine used the LXX. in the synagogues instead of the Hebrew. A few libraries of great cities had copies, and a few learned Greeks had some idea of their existence. Beyond this there was nothing to make its correctness of more importance than that of a liturgy or psalm-book. But, soon after the Christian era, its character and importance were completely changed. The eunuch was reading the Septuagint version when Philip, by divine inspiration, came up with him and showed him that the words he was reading were verified in Jesus. This was prophetic of what was to follow. The Christians used it to prove the divine mission of Jesus Christ; the Jews made the most of it to confute the same. Thereupon, somewhat suspiciously, there arose among the Jews a disposition to underrate the LXX., and make much of the Hebrew original. Hebrew was but little known, whereas all the intellectual commerce of the world was carried on by means of that Hellenistic Greek which had been diffused through the East by the conquests of Alexander. If, therefore, the Jews could bar all appeals to the well-known Greek, and remove the controversy to the inner courts of their own temple, the decision, it might be expected, would not improbably turn out to be in their own favor. Just before Origen’s own time more than one Jew or Judaizing heretic had attempted to produce Greek versions which should supersede the Septuagint. Some ninety years before the period of which we write, Aquila, a Jewish proselyte of Sinope, had issued what professed to be a literal translation from the Hebrew. It was so uncompromisingly literal that the reader sometimes found the Hebrew word or phrase imported bodily into the Greek, with only the slight alteration of new characters and a fresh ending. Its purpose was not disavowed. It was to furnish the Greek-speaking Jews with a more exact translation from the Hebrew, in order to fortify them in their opposition to Christianity. Some five years later, Theodotion, an Ebionite of Ephesus, made another version of the Septuagint; he did not profess to re-translate it, but only to correct it where it differed from the Hebrew. A little later, and yet another Ebionite tried his hand on the Alexandrian version; this was Symmachus. His translation was more readable than that of Aquila, as not being so utterly barbarous in expression; but it was far from being elegant, or even correct, Greek.
Of course Origen could never dream of substituting any of these translations for the Septuagint, stamped as it was with the approbation of the whole Eastern church. But still they might be made very useful; indeed, notwithstanding the original sin of motive to which they owed their existence, we have the authority of Saint Jerome, and of Origen himself, for saying that even the barbarous Aquila had understood his work and executed it more fairly than might have been expected. What Origen wanted was to get a pure Greek version. To do this he must, of course, compare it with the Hebrew; but the Hebrew itself might be corrupt, so he must seek help also elsewhere. Now these Greek versions, made sixty, eighty, ninety years before, had undoubtedly, he could see, been written with the Septuagint open before their writers. Here, then, was a valuable means of testing how far the present manuscripts of the Septuagint had been corrupted during the last century at least. He himself had collected some such manuscripts, and the duties of his office made him acquainted with many more. From the commencement of his career he had been accustomed to compare and criticise them, and he had grown skilful, as may be supposed, in distinguishing the valuable ones from those that were worthless. We have said sufficient to show how the idea of the “Hexapla” arose in his mind. The Hexapla was nothing less than a complete transcription of the Septuagint side by side with the Hebrew text, the agreement and divergence of the two illustrated by the parallel transcription of the versions of Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus; the remaining column containing the Hebrew text in Greek letters. The whole of the Old Testament was thus transcribed sixfold in parallel columns. These extra illustrations were furnished by the partial use of three other Greek versions which Origen found or picked up in his travels, and which he considered of sufficient importance to be occasionally used in his great work. And Origen was not content with the mere juxtaposition of the versions. The text of the Septuagint given in the Hexapla was his own; that is to say, it was an edition of the great authoritative translation completely revised and corrected by the master himself. It was a great and a daring work. Of its necessity there can be no doubt; but nothing except necessity could have justified it; and it is certainly to the bold and unprecedented character of the enterprise that we owe the shape that he has given it in performance. To correct the Septuagint to his own satisfaction was not enough; it must be corrected to the satisfaction of jealous friends and, at least, reasonable enemies. Side by side, therefore, with his amended text he gave the reasons and the proofs of his corrections. He was scrupulously exact in pointing out where he had altered by addition or subtraction. The Alexandrian critics had invented a number of critical marks of varied shape and value, which they industriously used on the works about which they exercised their propensity to criticise. Origen, “Aristarchus sacer,” as an admiring author calls him, did not hesitate to avail himself of these profane notae. There was the “asterisk,” or star, which marked what he himself had thought it proper to insert, and which, therefore, the original authors of the Septuagint had apparently thought it proper to leave out. Then there was the “obelus,” or spit, the sign of slaughter, as Saint Jerome calls it; passages so marked were not in the original Hebrew, and were thereby set down as doubtful and suspected by sound criticism. Moreover, there was the “lemniscus,” or pendent ribbon, and its supplement, the “hypo-lemniscus;” what these marks signified the learned cannot agree in stating. It seems certain, however, that they were not of such a decided import as the first two, but implied some minor degree of divergence from the Hebrew, as for instance in those passages where the translators had given an elegant periphrasis instead of the original word, or had volunteered an explanation which a critic would have preferred to have had in the margin. The “asterisk” and “obelus” still continue to figure in those scraps of Origen’s work that have come down to us; so, indeed, does the lemniscus; but since the times of Saint Epiphanius and Saint Jerome no MS. seems to make much distinction between it and the “asterisk.” Of the other marks, contractions, signs, and references which the MSS. of Hexapla show, the greater part have been added by transcribers who had various purposes in view. Some of these marks are easy to interpret, others continue to exercise the acumen of the keenest critics.
The Hexapla, as may be easily supposed, was a gigantic work. The labor of writing out the whole of the Old Testament six times over, not to mention those parts which were written seven, eight, or nine times, was prodigious. First came the Hebrew text twice over, in Hebrew characters in the first column, in Greek in the second. Biblical scholars sigh to think of the utter loss of Origen’s Hebrew text, and of what would now be the state of textual criticism of the Old Testament did we possess such a Hebrew version of a date anterior to Masoretic additions. But among the scattered relics of the Hexapla the Hebrew fragments are at once fewest in number and most disputable in character. The two columns of Hebrew were followed by Aquila the stiff, and be by Symmachus, so that the Jews could read their Hebrew and their two favorite translations side by side. Next came the Septuagint itself, pointed, marked, and noted by the master. Theodotion closed the array, except where portions of the three extra translations before mentioned had to be brought in. Beside these formidable columns, which may be called the text of the Hexapla, space had to be found for Origen’s own marginal notes, consisting of critical observations and explanations of proper names or difficult words, with perhaps an occasional glance at the Syriac and Samaritan. Fifty enormous volumina would hardly have contained all this, when we take into consideration that the characters were in no tiny Italian hand, but in great broad uncial penmanship, such as befitted the text and the occasion. The poverty and unprovidedness of Origen would never have been able to carry such a work through had not that very poverty brought him the command of money and means. It is always the detached men who accomplish the really great things of the world. Origen had converted from some form of heresy, probably from Valentinianism, a rich Alexandrian named Ambrose. The convert was one of those zealous and earnest men who, without possessing great powers themselves, are always urging on and offering to assist those who have the right and the ability to work, but perhaps not the means or the inclination. The adamantine Origen required no one to keep him to his work; and yet the grateful Ambrose thought he could make no better return for the gift of the faith than to establish himself as prompter-in-chief to the man that had converted him. He seems to have left his master very little peace. He put all his wealth at his service, and it would appear that he even forced him to lodge with him. He was continually urging Origen to explain some passage of Scripture, or to rectify some doubtful reading. During supper he had manuscripts on the table, and the two criticised while they ate; and the same thing went on in their walks and recreations. He sat beside him far into the night, prayed with him when he left his books for prayer, and after prayer went back with him to his books again. When the master looked round in his catechetical lectures, doubtless the indefatigable Ambrose was there, note-book in hand, and doubtless everything pertaining to the lectures was rigidly discussed when they found themselves together again; for Ambrose was a deacon of the church, and as such had great interest in its external ministration. Origen calls him his , or work-presser. and in another place he says he is one of God’s work-pressers. There is little doubt that the Hexapla is in great measure owing to Ambrose. Origen resisted long his friend’s solicitations to undertake a revision of the text; reverence for the sacred words, and for the tradition of the ancients, held him back; but he was at length prevailed upon. Ambrose, indeed, did a great deal more than advise and exhort; he put at Origen’s disposal seven short-hand writers, to take down his dictations, and seven transcribers to write out fairly what the others had taken down. And so the gigantic work was begun. When it was finished we cannot exactly tell, but it cannot have been till near the end of his life, and it was probably completed at Tyre, just before he suffered for the faith. After his death, the great work, “opus Ecclesia,” as it was termed, was placed in the library of Caesarea of Palestine. Probably no copy of it was ever taken; the labor was too great. It was seen, or at least quoted, by many; such as Pamphylus the Martyr, Eusebius, Saint Athanasius, Didymus, Saint Hilary, Saint Eusebius of Vercelli, Saint Epiphanius, Saint Basil, Saint Gregory Nyssen, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, and especially Saint Jerome and Theodoret. It perished in the sack of Caesarea by the Persians or the Arabs, before the end of the seventh century.
We need not say much here about the Tetrapla. Its origin appears to have been as follows: When the Hexapla was completed, or nearly completed, it was evident that it was too bulky to be copied. Origen, therefore, superintended the production of an abridgment of it. He omitted the two columns of Hebrew, the great stumbling-block to copyists, and suppressed some of his notes. He then transcribed Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, putting his amended version of the Septuagint, without the marks and signs, just before the last. The two first answered the purposes of a Hebrew text, the last was a sort of connecting link between it and the freedom of the Septuagint; and so, for all practical purposes, he had a version that friends might put their trust in, and that enemies could not dispute.
Such was the work that Origen did for the Bible. It was not all done at once, in a year, or in ten years. It was begun almost without a distinct conception of what it would one day grow to. It progressed gradually, in the midst of many cares and much other labor, and it was barely completed when its architect’s busy life was drawing to a close. Every one of those twenty years at Alexandria, which we are now dwelling upon, must have seen the work going on. The seven short-hand writers, and the seven young maidens who copied out, were Origen’s daily attendants, as he seems to say himself. But the catechetical school was in full vigor all this time. Indeed, the critical fixing of the Bible text, wonderful as it was, was only the material part of his work. He had to preach the Bible, not merely to write it out. His preaching will take us to a new scene and to new circumstances – to Caesarea, where the greater part of his homilies were delivered. But, before we accompany him thither, we must take a glance at his school at Alexandria, and try to realize how he spoke and taught. We have already described his manner of life, and the description of his biblical labors will have given some idea of a very important part of his daily work; what we have now to do is to supplement this by the picture of him as the head of the great catechetical school.
One of the most striking characteristics of the career of Origen is the way in which his work grew upon him. It is, indeed, a feature in the lives of all the great geniuses who have served the church and lived in her fold, that they have achieved greatness by an apparently unconscious following of the path of duty rather than by any brilliant excursion under the guidance of ambition. Origen was the very opposite of a proud philosopher or self-appointed dogmatizer. He did not come to his task with the consciousness that he was the man of his age, and that he was born to set right the times. We have seen his birth and bringing up, we have seen how he found himself in the important place that he held, and we have seen how all his success seemed to come to him whilst he was merely bent on carrying through with the utmost industry the affair that had been placed in his hands. We have seen that, so far was he from trying to fit the gospel to the exigencies of a cramped philosophy, – that he was brought up and passed part of his youth without any special acquaintance with philosophy or philosophers. He found, however, on resuming his duties as catechist, that if he wished to do all the good that offered itself to his hand, he must make himself more intimate with those great minds who, erring as he knew them to be, yet influenced so much of what was good and noble in heathenism. At that very time, a movement, perhaps a resurrection, was taking place in Gentile philosophy. A teacher, brilliant as Plato himself, and with secrets to develop that Plato had only dreamt of, was in possession of the lecture-hall of the Museum. Ammonius Saccas had landed at Alexandria as a common porter; nothing but uncommon energy and extraordinary talents can have given him a position in the university and a place in history, as the teacher of the philosophic Trinity and the real founder of Neo-Platonism. Origen, to whom the Museum had been strange ground in his early youth, saw himself compelled to frequent it at the age of thirty. Saccas, to be sure, was probably a Christian of some sort. At any rate, the Christian teacher went and heard him, and made himself acquainted with what it was that was charming the ears of his fellow-citizens, and furnishing ground for half of the objections and difficulties that his catechumens and would-be converts brought to him for solution. That the influence of these studies is seen in his writings is not to be denied. It would be impossible for any mind but the very dullest to touch the spirit of Plato and not to be impressed and affected. The writings of Origen at this period include three philosophical works. There is first the “Notes on the Philosophers,” which is entirely lost. We may suppose it to have been the common-place book wherein was entered what he learnt from his teacher, and what he thought of the teacher and the doctrine. Then there is the “Stromata” (a work of the same nature as the Stromata of his master, Saint Clement), whose leading idea was the great master-idea of Clement, that Plato and Aristotle and the rest were all partially right, but had failed to see the whole truth, which can only be known by revelation. This work, also, is lost – all but a fragment or two. Thirdly, there is the celebrated work, , or, “De Principiis.” Eusebius tells us expressly that this work was written at Alexandria. Most unfortunately, we have this treatise not in the original, but in two rival and contradictory Latin versions, one by Saint Jerome, the other by Ruffinus. Both profess to be faithful renderings of a Greek original, and on the decision as to which version is the genuine translation depends in great measure the question of Origen’s orthodoxy or heterodoxy. And yet this treatise, “De Principiis,” much as it has been abused, from Marcellus of Ancyra down to the last French author who copied out Dom Ceillier, and waiving the discussion of certain particular opinions that we may have yet to advert to, seems to us to bear the stamp of Origen on every page. It is such a work as a man would have written who had come fresh from an exposition of deep heathen philosophy, and who felt, with feelings too deep for expression, that all the beauty and depth of the philosophy he had heard were overmatched a thousand times by the philosophy of Jesus Christ. It is the first specimen, in Christian literature, of a regular scientific treatise on the principles of Christianity. Every one knows that a discussion on the principles or sources of the world, of man, of life, was one of the commonest shapes of controversy between the schools of philosophy; and at that very time, the great Longinus, who probably sat beside Origen in the school of Ammonius Saccas, was writing or thinking out a treatise with the very title of that of Origen. It was a natural idea, therefore, to show his scholars that he could give them better principia than the heathens. The treatise takes no notice, or next to none, of heathen philosophy and its disputes; but it travels over well-known ground, and what is more, it provokes comparison in a very significant manner. For instance, the words wherewith it commences are words which Plato introduces in the “Gorgias,” and to those who knew that elaborate dialogue, the sudden and unhesitating introduction of the name of Christ, and the calm position that he and none else is the truth, and that in him is the science of the good and happy life, must have been quite as striking as its author probably intended it to be. The treatise is not in the Platonic form – the dialogue; that form, which was suitable to the days of the Sophists and the sharp-tongued Athenians, had been superseded at Alexandria by the ornate monologue, more suitable to an audience of novices and wonderers. Origen adopts this form. One God made all things, himself a pure spirit; there is a Trinity of divine persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; of the rational creatures of God, some fell irremediably, others fell not at all; others again – that is, the race of man – fell, but not irremediably, having a mediator in Jesus Christ, being assisted by the good angels and persecuted by the bad; the wonderful fact that the Word was made flesh; man’s free will, eternal punishment and eternal reward; such are the heads of the subjects treated of in the “De Principiis.” The lame and disjointed condition of the present text is evident on a very cursory examination; it is perfectly unworthy of the “contra Celsum.” But the reader who studies the text carefully, by the light of contemporary thought, can hardly help thinking that materials so solid and good must have been put together in a form as satisfactory and as conclusive. A first attempt in any science is always more admired for its genius than criticised for its faults. This of Origen’s was a first attempt toward a scientific theology. We say a theology, not a philosophy; for, though philosophic in form, and accepted as philosophy by his hearers, it is wholly theological in matter, being founded on the continual word of Holy Scripture, and not unfrequently undertaking to refute heresy. Christianity, as we have before observed, was looked upon by strangers as a philosophy, and its doctors rightly allowed them to think so, and even called it so themselves. Now the “De Principiis” was Origen’s philosophy of Christianity. It did not prove so much as draw out into system. It answered all the questions of the day. What is God? asked the philosophers. He is the creator of all things, and a pure spirit, answered the Christian catechist. Is not this Trinity a wonderful idea? said the young students to each other, after hearing Saccas. Christianity, said Origen, teaches a Trinity far more awful and wonderful, and far more reasonable, too – a Trinity, not of ideas, but of persons. The new school talked of the inferior gods that ruled the lower world, and of the demons, good and bad, who executed their behests. The Christian philosopher explained the great fact of creation, and laid down the true doctrine of guardian angels and tempting devils. The constitution of man was another puzzle; the rebellion of the passions, the nature of sin, the question of free-will. Plotinus, who listened to Saccas at the same time as Origen, has left us the attempts at the solution of these difficulties that were accepted in the school of his master; the answers of Origen may be read in the “De Principiis.” The earnest among the heathen philosophers were totally in the dark as to the state of soul and of body after death. Some were ashamed of having a body at all, and few of them could see of what use it was, or how it could subserve the great end of arriving at union with God. Origen dwells with marked emphasis, and with tender lingering, on the great key of mysteries, the incarnation, and its consequences, the resurrection of the flesh; and shows how the body is to be kept down in this life by the rational will, that it too may have its glory in the life to come. The whole effort and striving of Neo-Platonism was to enable the soul to be united with the Divinity. Origen accepted this; it was the object of the Christian philosophy as well; but he drew into prominence two all-important facts – first, the necessity of the grace of God; secondly, the moral and not physical nature of the purification of the soul; together with the Christian dogma that it was only after death that perfect union could take place. All this must have been perfectly fitted to the time and the occasion. And yet there are evident signs that it was not delivered or written as a manifesto to the frequenters of the Museum; it was evidently meant as an instruction to the upper class of the catechetical school. Its author’s first idea was that he was a Christian teacher, and he spoke to Christians who believed the Holy Scriptures. What his words might do for others he was not directly concerned with, but there is no doubt that the subjects treated of in the “De Principiis” must have been discussed over and over again with those students and philosophers from the university who, as Eusebius tells us, flocked to hear him in such numbers, and also with that large class of Christians who still retained their love of scientific learning, though believing most firmly in the faith of Jesus Christ.
Of the matter of his ordinary catechetical instructions we need say little, because it is evident that it would be mainly the same as it has been under the like circumstances in all ages. Those of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, delivered a century later, may furnish us with a good idea of them, saving where doctrinal distinctions are discussed which had not arisen in the time of the elder teacher. It is rather extra-ordinary that so little trace has reached us of any formal catechetical discourse of Origen. We are inclined to think, however, that the “De Principiis,” in its original form, must have been the summary or embodiment of his periodical instructions. But we have numerous hints at what he taught in the several works on Holy Scripture, some lost, some still partly extant, which he composed during these twenty years at Alexandria. It appears that he was in the habit of writing three different kinds of commentary on the Scriptures; first, brief comments or notices, such as he has left in the Hexapla; secondly, scholia, or explanations of some length; and thirdly, regular homilies. But his homilies belong to a later period. At Alexandria he commented Saint John’s Gospel (a labor that occupied him all his life), Genesis, several of the Psalms, and the “Canticle of Canticles,” a celebrated work, yet extant in a Latin version, of which it has been said that whereas in his other commentaries he excelled all other interpreters, in this he excelled himself. But the whole interesting subject of his creation of Scripture-commenting must be treated of when we follow him to Caesarea, and listen to him preaching.
What we desire now, to complete our idea of his Alexandrian career, and of what we may call the inner life of his teaching, is, that some one – a contemporary and a scholar, if possible – should describe his method and manner, and let us know how he treated his hearers and how they liked him. Fortunately, the very witness and document that we want is ready to our hands. One of the most famous of Origen’s scholars was Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, and the most interesting of the extant works of that father is undoubtedly the discourse and panegyric which he pronounced upon his master, on the occasion of bidding farewell to his school. Gregory, or, as he was then called, Theodore, and his brother Athenodorus, were of a noble and wealthy family of Cappadocia; that is to say, probably, descendants of Greek colonists of the times of the Alexandrian conquests, though, no doubt, with much Syrian blood in their veins. When Gregory was fourteen they lost their father, and the two wealthy young orphans were left to the care of their mother. Under her guidance they were educated according to their birth and position, and in a few years began to study for the profession of public speakers. As they would have plenty of money, it mattered little what they took to; but the profession of an orator was something like what the bar is now, and gave a man an education that would be useful if he required it, and ornamental whether he required it or not. The best judges pronounced that the young men would soon be finished rhetores; Saint Gregory tells us so, but will not say whether he thinks their opinion right, and before proof could be made the two youths had been persuaded by a master they were very fond of to take up the study of Roman jurisprudence. Berytus, a city of Phoenicia, better known to the modern world as Beyrout, had just then attained that great eminence as a school for Roman law which it preserved for nigh three centuries. Thither the young Cappadocians were to go. Their master had taught them what he could, and wished either to accompany them to the law university or to send them thither to be finished and perfected. It does not appear, however, that they ever really got there. Most biographies of Saint Gregory say that they studied there; what Saint Gregory himself says is, that they were on their way thither, but that, having to pass through Caesarea (of Palestine), they met with Origen, to whom they took so great an affection that he converted them to Christianity and kept them by him there and at Alexandria for five years. The “Oratio Panegyrica” was delivered at Caesarea, and after the date of Origen’s twenty years as catechist at Alexandria; but it will be readily understood that the whole spirit, and, indeed, the whole details, of the composition are as applicable to Alexandria as to Caesarea; for his teaching work was precisely of the same nature at the latter city as at the former, with a trifling difference in his position. The oration of Saint Gregory is a formal and solemn effort of rhetoric, spoken at some public meeting, perhaps in the school, in the presence of learned men and of fellow-students, and of the master himself. It is written very elegantly and eloquently, but it is in a style that we should call young, did we not know that to make parade of apophthegms and weighty sayings, to moralize rather too much, to pursue metaphors unnecessarily, and to beat about a thing with words so as to do everything but say it, was the characteristic of most orators, old and young, from the days of Ptolemy Philadelphus till the days when oratory, as a profession, expired before anarchy and the barbarians. But its literary merits, though great, are the least of its recommendations. Its value as a theological monument is shown by the appeals made to it in the controversy against Arius; and in more recent times Bishop Bull, for instance, has made great use of it in his “Defensio Fidei Nicaenae.” To us, at present, its most important service is the light it sheds upon the teaching of Origen. We need make no apology for making Saint Gregory the type of the Alexandrian or Caesarean scholar; they may not have been all like him, but one real living specimen will tell us more than much abstract description.
First of all, then, the scholar was not of an emphatically philosophic cast of mind. The Greek philosophers were absolutely unknown to him. He was a rich and clever young man, bade fair to be a good speaker, studied the law not because he liked it, but because his friends and his master wished it; thought the Latin language very imperial, but very difficult; and had a habit of taking up what opinions he did adopt more after the manner of clothes that he could change as he pleased than as immutable truths. He was of a warm and affectionate disposition, and had a keen appreciation of physical and moral beauty. He was not without leanings to Christianity, but he leaned to it in an easy, off-hand sort of way, as he might have leaned to a new school in poetry or a new style of dress. He had no idea that there is such a thing as the absolutely right and the absolutely wrong in ethics any more than in taste. He was confirmed in this state of mind by the philosophic schools of the day, among whom it was considered disreputable to change one’s opinions, however good the reasons for a change might be; which was to degrade philosophy from truth to the mere spirit of party, and to make a philosopher not a lover of wisdom but a volunteer of opinion. So prepared and constituted, the scholar, on his way to Berytus, fell in with Origen, not so much by accident as by the disposition of Providence and the guidance of his angel guardian; so at least he thought himself. The first process which he went through at the hands of the master is compared by the scholar to the catching of a beast, or a bird, or a fish, in a net. Philosophizing had small charms for the accomplished young man; to philosophize was precisely what the master had determined he should do. We must remember the meaning of the word ; it meant to think, act, and live as a man who seeks true wisdom. All the sects acknowledge this theoretically; what Clement and Origen wanted to show, among other things, was that only a Christian was a true philosopher in practice. Hence the net he spread for Theodore, a net of words, strong and not to be broken. “You are a fine and clever young man,” he seemed to say; “but to what purpose are your accomplishments and your journeys hither and thither? you cannot answer me the simple question, Who are you? You are going to study the laws of Rome, but should you not first have some definite notion as to your last end, as to what is real evil and what is real good? You are looking forward to enjoyment from your wealth and honor from your talents; why, so does every poor, sordid, creeping mortal on the earth; so even do the brute beasts. Surely the divine gift of reason was given you to help you to live to some higher end than this.” The scholar hesitated, the master insisted. The view was striking in itself, but the teacher’s personal gifts made it strike far more effectually. “He was a mixture,” says the scholar, “of geniality, persuasiveness, and compulsion. I wanted to go away, but could not; his words held me like a cord.” The young man, unsettled as his mind had been, yet had always at heart believed in some sort of Divine Being. Origen completed the conquest of his intellect by showing him that without philosophy, that is, without correct views on morality, the worship of God, or piety, as it used to be called, is impossible. And yet wisdom and eloquence might have been thrown away here as in so many other cases had not another influence, imperious and all-powerful, been all this time rising up in his heart. The scholar began to love the master. It was not an ordinary love, the love with which Origen inspired his hearers. It was an intense, almost a fierce, love (we are almost translating the words of the original), a fitting response to the genuineness and kindly spirit of one who seemed to think no pains or kindness too great to win the young heart to true morality, and thereby to the worship of the only God – “to that saving word,” says Saint Gregory, in his lofty style, “which alone can teach God-service, which to whomsoever it comes home it makes a conquest of them; and this gift God seems to have given to him, beyond all men now in the world.” To that sacred and lovely word, therefore, and to the man who was its interpreter and its friend, sprang up in the heart of the scholar a deep, inextinguishable love. For that the abandoned pursuits and studies which he had hitherto considered indispensable; for that he left the “grand” laws of Rome, and forsook the friends he had left at home, and the friends that were then at his side. “And the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David,” quotes the scholar, noting that the text speaks emphatically of the union of the soul, which no earthly accidents can affect, and finding a parallel to himself in Jonathan, to his master in David, the wise, the holy, and the strong. And though the hour for parting had come, the moment when these bonds of the soul should be severed would never come!
The scholar was now completely in the hands of his teacher – -“as a land,” he says, “empty, unproductive, and the reverse of fertile, saline” (like the waste lands near the Nile), “burnt up, stony, drifted with sand; yet not absolutely barren; nay, with qualities which might be worth cultivating, but which had hitherto been left without tillage or care, to be overgrown with thorn and thicket.” He can hardly make enough of this metaphor of land and cultivation to show the nature of the work that the teacher had with his mind. We have to read on for some time before we find out that all this vigorous grubbing, ploughing, harrowing, and sowing represents the dialectical training which Origen gave his pupils, such pupils, at least, as those of whom Gregory Thaumaturgus was the type. In fact, the dialectics of the Platonists and their off-shoots is very inadequately represented by the modern use of the word logic. It seems to have signified, as nearly as a short definition can express it, the rectifying the ideas of the mind about itself, and about those things most intimately connected with it. A modern student takes up his manual of logic, or sits down in his class-room with his most important ideas, either correct and settled, or else incorrect, beyond the cure of logic. At Alexandria manuals were scarce, and the ideas of the converts from heathenism were so utterly and fundamentally confused, that the first lessons of the Christian teacher to an educated Greek or Syrian necessarily took the shape of a Socratic discussion, or a disquisition on principles. And so the scholar, not without much amazement and ruffling of the feelings, found the field of his mind unceremoniously cleared out, broken up, and freshly planted. But, the process once complete, the result was worth the inconvenience.
It was about this stage, also, that the master insisted on a special training in natural history and mathematics. In his youth Origen had been educated, as we have seen, by his father in the whole circle of the sciences of the day. Such an education was possible then, though impossible now, and the spirit of Alexandrian teaching was especially attached to the sciences that regarded numbers, the figure of the earth, and nature. The schools of the Greek philosophers had always tolerated these sciences in their own precincts; nay, most of the schools themselves had arisen from attempts made in the direction of those very sciences, and few of them had attempted to distinguish accurately between physics and metaphysics. Moreover, geography, astronomy, and geometry, were the peculiar property of the Museum, for Eratosthenes, Euclid, Ilipparchus, and Ptolemy himself, had observed and taught within its walls. Origen, therefore, would not be likely to undervalue those interesting sciences which he had studied with his father, and which nine out of ten of his educated catechumens were more or less acquainted, and puzzled, or delighted, with. Happy days when mathematics was little and chemistry in its infancy, when astronomy lived shut up in a tower, clad in mystic vesture, and when geology was yet in the womb of its mother earth! Enviable times, when they all (such at least as were born) could be sufficiently attended to and provided for in a casual paragraph of a theological instruction, or brought into a philosophical discussion to be admired and dismissed! Origen, however, had, as usual, a deeper motive for bringing physics and mathematics into his system. We need not remind the reader that, if Plato can be considered to have a weak part, that part is where he goes into Pythagorean speculations about bodies, numbers, and regular solids. His revivers, about the time we are speaking of, had with the usual instinct of revivers found out his weak part, and made the most of it, as if it had been the sublimest evolution of his genius. We may guess what was taking place from what afterward did take place, when even Porphyry fluctuated all his life between pretensions to philosophy and what Saint Augustine calls “sacrilegious curiosity,” and when the whimsical triads of poor old Proclus were powerless to stop the deluge of theurgy, incantations, and all superstitions that finally swamped Neo-Platonism for ever. With this view present to our minds the words of the scholar in this place are very significant “By these two studies, geometry and astronomy, he made us a path toward heaven,” The three words that Saint Gregory uses in the description of this part of the master’s teaching are worth noticing. The first is Geometry, which is taken to mean everything that relates to the earth’s surface. The second is astronomy, which treats of the face of the heavens. The third is physiology, which is the science of nature, or of all that comes between heaven and earth. So that Origen’s scientific teaching was truly encyclopaedic. He was, moreover, an experimental philosopher, and did not merely retail the theories of others. He analyzed things and resolved them into their elements (their “very first” elements, says the scholar); he descanted on the multiform changes and conversions of things, partly from his own discoveries, and gave his hearers a rational admiration for the sacredness and perfection of nature, instead of a blind and stupid bewilderment; he “carved on their minds geometry the unquestionable, so dear to all, and astronomy that searches the upper air.” What were the precise details of his teachings on these subjects it would be unfair to ask, even if it were possible to answer. We know that he thought diamonds and precious stones were formed from dew, but this is no proof he was behind his age; and his acquaintance with the literature of the subject proves he was, if anything, before it. With regard to naphtha, the magnet, and the looking-glass, it will be pleasing to know he was substantially right. He was, perhaps, the first to make a spiritual use of the accepted notion that the serpent was powerless against the stag; the reason is, he says, that the stag is the type of Christ warring against Anti-Christ. That he believed in griffins is unfortunate, but natural in an Alexandrian, who had lived in an atmosphere d stories brought down from the upper Nile by the ingenious sailors. As to his “denying the existence of the Tragelaphus” we must remain ignorant whether it redounds to his credit or otherwise, until modern researches have exhausted the African continent.
The scholar next comes to the more strictly ethical part of Origen’s teaching. The preliminary dialectics had cleared the ground, and to a certain extent replanted it; physics made the process more easy, pleasant, and complete; but the great end of a philosophic life was ethics, that is, the making a man good. The making of a man good and virtuous seems now-a-days a simple matter, as far as theory is concerned, and so perhaps it is, if only theory and principles be considered; though morality is an extensive science, and one that is not mastered in an hour or a day. But in Origen’s day a science of Christian ethics did not exist. The teaching of the Scripture and the voice of the pastors was sufficient, doubtless, for the guidance of the faithful; but science is a different thing. Such a science is shadowed out to us by the scholar in the record we are noticing. Saint Thomas, the great finisher of scientific Christian ethics, embraces all virtues under two great classes, viz., the theological and the cardinal. The whole science of morality treats only of the seven virtues included under these two divisions. The master’s teaching comprehended, of course, faith, and hope, and charity; indeed, it would be more correct to say that these three virtues were his whole ultimate object; but the scholar says little of them in particular just because of this very reason, and also because they were bound up in that piety which he mentions so often. But it is a most interesting fact that the virtues, and the only virtues, mentioned in the summary of Origen’s moral teaching given by Saint Gregory, are precisely the four cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The classification dates, of course, from the Stoics, but the circumstance that the framework laid down by a father in the beginning of the third century was used and completed by another father in the thirteenth, gives the early father an undoubted claim to be considered the founder of Christian ethics. And here we lay our hands on one of the earliest instances of heathen philosophy being made to hew wood and carry water for Christian theology. The division of virtues was a good one; all the schools pretended to teach it; but the distinctive boast and triumph of the Christian teacher was that he taught true prudence, true justice, fortitude, and temperance, “not such,” says the scholar, “as the other philosophers teach, and especially the moderns, who are strong and great in words; he not only talked about the virtues, but exhorted us to practise them; and he exhorted us by what he did far more than by what he said.” And here the scholar takes the opportunity of recording his opinion about “the other” philosophers, now that he has had a course of Origen’s training. He first apologizes to them for hurting their feelings. He says that, personally, he has no ill-will against them, but he plainly tells them that things have come to such a pass, through their conduct, that the very name of philosophy is laughed at. And he goes on to develop what appeared to him the very essence of their faults, viz., too much talk, and nothing but talk. Their teaching is like a widely-extended morass; once set foot in it, and you can neither get out nor go on, but stick fast till you perish. Or it is like a thick forest; the traveller who once finds himself in it has no chance of ever getting back to the open fields and the light of day, but gropes about backward and forward, first trying one path, then another, and finding they all lead farther in, until at last, wearied and desperate, he sits down and dwells in the forest, resolving that the forest shall be his world, since all the world seems to be a forest. This is, perhaps, one of the most graphic pictures ever given of the state of mind, so artificial, so unsatisfied, and yet so self-sufficient, brought about by a specious heathen philosophy, and the effect of enlightened reason destitute of revelation. The scholar cannot heighten the strength of his description by going on to compare it, in the third place, to a labyrinth, but the comparison brings out two striking features well worthy of notice. The first is, the innocent and guileless look of the whole concern from the outside; “the traveller sees the open door, and in he goes, suspecting nothing.” Once in, he sees a great deal to admire, (and this is the second point in the labyrinth-simile;) he sees the very perfection of art and arrangement, doors after doors, rooms within rooms, passages leading most ingeniously and conveniently into other passages; he sees all this art, admires the architect, and – thinks of going out. But there is no going out for him; he is fast. All the artifice and ingenuity he has been admiring have been expended for the express purpose of keeping in for ever those foolish people who have been so unwary as to come in at the open door. “For there is no labyrinth so hard to thread,” sums up the scholar, “no wood so deep and thick, no bog so false and hopeless, as the language of some of these philosophers.” In this language we recognize another of of the characteristic feelings of the day – the feeling of profound disgust for the highest teachings of heathenism from the moment the soul catches a ray of the light of the Gospel In Origen’s school the confines of the receding darkness skirted the advancing kingdom of light, and those that sat in the darkness to-day saw it leaving them to-morrow, and far behind them the morrow after that; and all the time the great master had to be peering anxiously into the darkness to see what souls were nearest the light, and to hold out his hand to win them too into the company of those that were already sitting at his feet. In such days as those, sharp comparisons between heathen wisdom and the light of Christ must have been part of the atmosphere in which the catechumens of the great school lived and breathed; there was a reality and interest in them such as can never be again. And yet the master was no bigot in his dealings with the Greek philosophies. “He was the first and the only one,” says his scholar, “that made me study the philosophy of Greece.” The scholar was to reject nothing, to despise nothing, but make himself thoroughly acquainted with the whole range of Greek philosophy and poetry; there was only one class of writers he was to have nothing to do with, and those were the atheists who denied God and God’s providence; their books could only sully a mind that was striving after piety. But his pupils were to attach themselves to no school or party, as did the mob of those who pretended to study philosophy. Under his guidance they were to take what was true and good, and leave what was false and bad. He walked beside them and in front of them through the labyrinth; he had studied its windings and knew its turns; in his company, and with their eyes on his “lofty and safe” teaching, his scholars need fear no danger.
This brief analysis of part of Saint Gregory’s remarkable oration will serve to give us some idea of Origen’s method of treating his more learned and cultivated converts, of whom we know he had a very great many. It will also have admitted us, in some sort, into the interior of his school, and let as hear the question in debate and the matters that were of greatest interest in that most influential centre of Christian teaching. It does not, of course, deal directly with theology, or with those great controversies which Origen, in a manner, rendered possible for his pupils and successors of the next century. The scholar, indeed, does go on now to speak of his theological teachings; but he describes rather his manner than his matter, and rather the salient points of characteristic gifts than the details of his dogmatic system. As this is precisely our own object in these notes, we need only say that Saint Gregory, in the concluding pages of his farewell discourse, sufficiently proves that the great end and object of all philosophic teaching and intellectual discipline in the school of his master was faith and practical piety. To teach his hearers the great first cause was his most careful and earnest task. His instructions about God were so full of knowledge and so carefully prepared that the scholar is at a loss how to describe them. His explanations of the prophets, and of Holy Scripture generally, were so wonderful that he seemed to be the friend and interpreter of the Word. The soul that thirsted for knowledge went away from him refreshed, and the hard of heart and the unbelieving could not listen to him without both understanding, and believing, and making submission to God. “It was no otherwise than by the communication of the Holy Ghost that he spoke thus,” says his disciple, “for the prophets and the interpreters of the prophets have necessarily the same help from above, and none can understand a prophet unless by the same spirit wherein the prophet spoke. This greatest of gifts and this splendid destiny he seemed to have received from God, that he should be the interpreter of God’s words to men, that he should understand the things of God, as though he heard them from God’s own mouth, and that through him men should be brought to listen and obey.” Two little indications of what we may call the spirit of Origen are to be found in this address of his pupil. The first is the great value he sets upon purity as the only means of arriving at the knowledge and communion of God. We know what a watchword this “union with God” was among the popular philosophers of the day. To attain to it was the end of all the Neo-Platonic asceticism. It was Origen’s great end as well; but he taught that purity alone and the subjugation of the passions by the grace of God will avail to lead the soul thither, and that no amount of external refinement or abstinence from gross sin will suffice to make the soul pure in the sight of God. The second is, his devotion to the person of the Son, the ever-blessed Word of God. The whole oration of the scholar takes the form of a thanksgiving to “the Master and Saviour of our souls, the firstborn Word, the maker and ruler of all things.” He never misses an opportunity all through it of bursting into eloquent love to that “Prince of the universe;” he cannot praise his master without first praising him, or ascribe anything to the powers of the earthly teacher without referring it first of all to the heavenly Giver. He had learned this from Origen, the predecessor, unconsciously certainly, but in will and in spirit, of another Alexandrian, the great Athanasius. And here again error was bringing out the truth, for unless the Gnostics and the Neo-Platonists had been at that very time theorizing about their demiurge and their emanations, we should probably have missed the tender devotion and repeated homage to the eternal Word which we find in the words of Origen and his disciple.
Theodore, or Gregory, as he had been named in baptism, had to thank his master and to praise him, and he had, Moreover, to say how sorry he was to leave him. He concludes his speech with the expression of his regrets. He is afraid that all the grand teaching he has received has been to a great extent thrown away upon him. He is not yet prudent, he is not just, he is not temperate, he has no fortitude, alas, for his own native imbecility! But one gift the master has given him he has made him love all these virtues with a love that knows no bounds; and he has made him love, over and above them all, that virtue which is alike their beginning and their consummation – the blessed virtue of piety, the service and love of God. And now, in leaving him, he seems to be leaving a garden full of useful trees and pleasant fruits, full of green grass and cheering sunshine. And he thereupon compares himself, at considerable length, to our first parents banished from Paradise. “I am leaving the face of God and going back to the earth from whence I came; and I shall eat earth all my days, and till earth – an earth that will produce me nothing but thorn and briers now that it is deprived of its good and excellent tending.” He goes on to liken himself to the prodigal son; and yet he finds himself worse than he, for he is going away without receiving the “due portion of substance,” and leaving behind everything he loves and cares for. Again, he seems to be one of that band of Jewish captives that hang up their harps on the willows and wept beside the rivers of Babylon. “I am going out from my Jerusalem,” he says, “my holy city, where day and night the holy law is being announced, where are hymns and canticles and mystic speech; where a light brighter than the sun shines upon us as we discuss the mysteries of God, and where our fancy brings back in the night visions of what has occupied us in the day; I am leaving this holy city, wherein God seems to breathe everywhere, and going into a land of exile: there will be no singing for me; even the mournful flute will not be my solace when my harp is hung on the willows; but I shall be working by river-sides and making bricks; the hymns I remember I shall not be allowed to sing; nay, it may be that my very memory will play me false, and my hard work will make me forget them.” The youthful heart, that has left a cloistered retreat of learning and piety, where masters have been loved, studies enjoyed, and God tenderly served, will test these words by itself, and read in their eloquent painting another proof that nature is the same to-day as yesterday. Gregory the wonder-worker was truly a scholar to be proud of, but the master’s pride must have been obliterated in his emotion when he listened to such a description of his school as this.
But the scholar, after all, will leave with a good heart. “There is the Word, the sleepless guardian of all men.” He puts his trust in him, and in the good seed that his master has sown; perhaps he may come back again and see him yet once more, when the seed shall have sprung up and produced such fruits as can be expected from a nature which is barren and evil, but which he prays God may never become worse by his own fault. “And do thou, O my beloved master ( ), arise and send us forth with thy prayer; thou hast been our saviour by thy holy teachings whilst we were with thee; save us still by thy prayers when we depart. Give us back, master, give us up into the hands of him that sent us to thee, God; thank him for what has befallen us; pray him that in the future he may ever be with us to direct us, that he may keep his laws before our eyes and set in our heart that best of teachers his divine fear. Away from thee, we shall not obey him as freely as we obeyed him here. Keep praying that we may find consolation in him for our loss of thee, that he may send us his angel to go with us; and ask him to bring us back to thee once more; no other consolation could be half so great.” And so they depart, the two brothers, never again to see their master more. They both became great bishops, Gregory the greatest; we find Origen writing to him, soon after his departure, a letter full of affection and good counsel; and who can tell how much the teaching of the catechist of Alexandria had to do with that wonderful life and never-dying reputation that distinguish Gregory Thaumaturgus among all the saints of the church?
Origen presided at Alexandria for twenty years – that is to say, from 211 to 231. In the latter year he left it for ever. During this period he had been temporarily absent more than once. The governor of the Roman Arabia, or Arabia Petraea, had sent a special messenger to the prefect of Alexandria and the patriarch, to beg that the catechist might pay him a visit. What he wanted him for is not recorded; but Petra, the capital of the Roman province, was not so far from the great road between Alexandria and Palestine as to be out of the way of Greek thought and civilization, and its interesting remains of art, belonging to this very period, which startled modern travellers only a short time past, prove that it was itself no inconsiderable centre of intellectual cultivation. We may, therefore, conjecture that his errand was philosophical, or, in other words, religious.
The second time that Origen was absent from Alexandria was for a somewhat longer space. The emperor Caracalla, after murdering his brother and indulging in indiscriminate slaughter, in all parts of the world from Rome to Syria, had at last arrived, with his troubled conscience and his well-bribed legions, at Alexandria. The Alexandrians, it is well known, had an irresistible tendency to give nicknames. Caracalla’s career was open to a few epithets, and the unfortunate “men of Macedon” made merry on some salient points in the character of the emperor and his mother. They had better have held their tongues, or plucked them out; for in a fury of vengeance he let loose his bloodthirsty bands on the city. How many were slain in that awful visitation no one ever knew; the dead were thrown into trenches, and hastily covered up, uncounted and unrecorded. The spectre-haunted emperor took special vengeance on the institutions and professors of learning. It would seem that he destroyed a great part of the buildings of the Museum, and put to death or banished the teachers. As for the students, he had the whole youth of the city driven together into the gymnasium, and ordered them to be formed into a “Macedonian phalanx” for his army – a grim retort, in kind, for their pleasantries at his expense. Origen fled before this storm. Had he remained, he was far too well known now to have been safe for an hour. Doubtless obedience made him conceal himself and escape. He took refuge in Caesarea of Palestine, where the bishop, Saint Theoctistus, received him with the utmost honor; and, though he was yet only a layman, made him preach in the church, which he had never done at Alexandria. When the tempest in Egypt had gone by, Demetrius wrote for him to come back. He returned, and resumed the duties of his post.
After this he took either one or two other journeys. He was sent into Greece, and visited Athens, with letters from his bishop, to refute heresy and confirm the Christian religion. He also stayed awhile at the great central see of Antioch.
On his journey to Greece, he had been ordained priest at Caesarea, by his friend Saint Theoctistus. When he returned to Alexandria, about the year 231, Demetrius, the patriarch, was pleased to be exceedingly indignant at his ordination. We cannot go into the controversy here; we need only say that a synod of bishops, summoned by the patriarch, decreed that he must leave Alexandria, but retain his priesthood; which seems to show that they thought he had better leave for the sake of peace, though they could not recognize any canonical fault; for if they had, they would have suspended or degraded him. Demetrius, indeed, assembled another synod some time later, and did degrade and excommunicate him. But by this time Origen had left Alexandria, never to return and was quietly living at Caesarea. We dare not pronounce sentence in a cause that has occupied so many learned pens; but we dare confidently say this, that it is impossible to prove Origen to have been knowingly in the wrong. We must now follow him to Caesarea.
If some Levantine merchantman, manned by swarthy Greeks or Syrians, in trying to make Beyrout, should be driven by a north wind some fifty miles further along the coast to the southwest, she might possibly find herself, at break of day, in sight of a strange-looking harbor. There would be a wide semi-circular sweep of buildings, or what had once been buildings; there would be a southern promontory, crowned with a tower in ruins; there would be the vestiges of a splendid pier; and there would be rows of granite pillars lying as if a hurricane had come off the land, and blown them bodily into the sea. An Arab or two, in their white cotton clothes, would be grimly looking about them, on some prostrate columns; and a stray jackal, caught by the rising sun, would be scampering into some hole in the ruins. Our merchantman would have come upon all that is left of Caesarea of Palestine. If she did not immediately make all sail to Jaffa, or back to Beyrout, it would not be because the place does not look ghostly and dismal enough. And yet it was once the greatest port on that Mediterranean coast, and far more important than either Jaffa, Acre, Sidon, or even Beyrout now. It owed its celebrity to Herod the Great. Twelve years of labor, and the expenditure of vast sums of money, made the ancient Turris Stratonis worthy to be rechristened Caesarea, in honor of Caesar Augustus. Its great pier, constructed of granite blocks of incredible size, afforded at once dwelling-places and hostelries for the sailors and a splendid columned promenade for the wealthy citizens. The half-circle of buildings, all of polished granite, that embraced the sea and the harbor, and terminated in a rocky promontory on either side, shone far out to sea, and showed conspicuous in the midst the great temple of Caesar, crowned with statues of Augustus and of the Roman city. An agora, a praetorium, a circus looking out to sea, and a rock-hewn theatre, were included in Herod’s magnificent plans, and fittingly adorned a city that was to become in a few years the capital of Palestine. We see its importance even as early as the days immediately after Pentecost. It was here that the Gentiles were called to the faith, in the person of Cornelius the centurion, a commander of the legionaries stationed at Caesarea. His house, three hundred years later, was turned into a chapel by Saint Paulo, and must therefore have been recognizable at the time of which we write. It was here that Herod Agrippa I. planned the apprehension of Saint Peter and the execution of Saint James the Greater; and it was in the theatre here that the beams of the sun shone upon his glittering apparel, and the people saluted him as a god, only to see him smitten by the hand of the true God, and carried to his palace in the agonies of mortal pain. Saint Paul was here several times, and last of all when he was brought from Jerusalem by the fifty horsemen and the two hundred spearmen. Here he was examined before Felix, and before Festus, in the presence of King Agrippa, when he made his celebrated speech; and it was from the harbor of Caesarea that he sailed for Rome to be heard before Caesar. For many centuries, even into the times of the crusaders, it continued to be a capital and haven of great importance. Between 195 and 198, it was the scene of one of the earliest councils of the Eastern Church, and, as the see of Eusebius, the founder of church history, and the site of a celebrated library, it must always be interesting in ecclesiastical annals. But perhaps it would require nothing more to make it a place of note in our eyes than the fact that when Origen was driven from Alexandria, in 231, he transferred to Caesarea not the Alexandrian school, it is true, but the teacher whose presence and spirit had contributed so much to make it immortal.
Caesarea, indeed, was at that time a literary centre only second to Alexandria or Antioch. It was in direct communication with Jerusalem by an excellent military road, and with Alexandria by a road that was longer, indeed, but in no way inferior. It was not far from Berytus both by land and sea. Like Capharnaum and Ptolemais, but in a yet higher degree, it was one of Herod the Great’s model cities, in which he had embodied his scheme of Grecianizing his country by the influence of splendid Greek art and overpowering Greek intellect. It was also the metropolis of Palestine. Saint Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, Origen’s fellow-student, was the intimate friend of Theoctistus, bishop of Caesarea; and it is clear that bishops, or their messengers, from the cities all along the coast, as for as Antioch, and even the distant Cappadocia and Pontus, were not unfrequent visitors to this great rallying-point of the church and the empire.
When Origen, therefore, left Alexandria and took up his abode in a city that was in a manner the diminished counterpart of one he had abandoned, he did not find himself in a strange land. Saint Theoctistus received him with delight. It was not long before he journeyed the short distance to Jerusalem, to renew his acquaintance with Saint Alexander; and these two bishops were only too glad to put on his shoulders all the charges that he would accept. “They referred to him,” says Eusebius, “on every occasion as their master; they committed to him alone the charge of interpreting and teaching Holy Scripture and everything connected with preaching the Word of God in the church.” From the way in which the historian joins the two bishops together, it would appear that Caesarea was a common school for the two dioceses, and a sort of ecclesiastical seminary whither the clerics from Jerusalem came, as to a centre where learning and learned men would abound more than in ruined and fallen AElia. It is certain, however, that Origen, in a short time, was teaching and writing as fast as at Alexandria. His name soon began to draw scholars. Firmilian, bishop of so distant a see as Caesarea of Cappadocia, one of the most stirring minds of his age, who had controversies on his hands all round the sea-coast to Carthage in one direction, and Rome in the other, was a friend of Theoctistus. It is possible that he knew Origen also, perhaps from having seen him at Alexandria, but more probably from having met him when Origen travelled into Greece. At any rate, he conceived an enthusiastic liking for him. Nothing would serve him but to make Origen travel to his own far-off province to teach and stimulate pastors and people; and, not long afterward, we find himself in Judaea, that is, at Caesarea, on a visit to Origen, with whom he is stated to have remained “some time,” for the sake of “bettering himself” in divinity. And, as Eusebius sums up, “not only those who lived in the same part of the world, but very many others from distant lands, left their country and came flocking to listen to him.” We need not mention here again the names Gregory and Athenodorus.
The position now occupied by Origen at Caesarea was, therefore, one of the highest importance. He was no longer a private teacher, or even an authorized master teaching in private; he was no less than the substitute for the bishop himself. In the Eastern Church, indeed, the custom by which no one but the Bishop ever preached in the church was not so strictly observed as it was in the West; but if a presbyter did received the commission of preaching, it was always with the understanding that what he said was said on behalf of the pontiff, whose presence in his chair was a guarantee for its orthodoxy. When Origen, therefore, on the Lord’s day, after the reading of the holy Gospel, stood forward from his place in the presbytery, and began to explain either the Gospel text itself or some passage in the Old Testament which also had formed part of the liturgical service, it was well understood that he was speaking with authority. And this is the first light in which we should view his homilies.
It would be saying little to say that Origen’s homilies and commentaries (for we need not distinguish them here) marked an era in the exposition of Scripture. They not only were the first of their kind, but they may be said to have created the art, and not only to have created it, but, in certain aspects, to have finished it and to have become like Aristotle in some of his treatises, at once the model and the quarry for future generations. It may be true, as of course it is, that he was not absolutely the first to write expositions of Scripture. The splendid eloquence of Theophilus of Antioch had already been heard on the four Gospels, and his spirit of interpretation seems to have had much more affinity for Origen’s own spirit than for that of the school of his own Antioch two centuries later. Melito had written on the Apocalypse, but his direct labors on Scripture were only an insignificant part of his voluminous works, if, indeed, they were not all rather apologetic and hortatory than explanatory. The Mosaic account of the creation had occupied a few fathers with its defence against Gnostic and infidel. But we know from Origen’s own words that he had read and used “his predecessors,” as he calls them. And yet we may truly say that he is the first of commentators, not only because no one before him had dared to undertake the whole Scripture, but on account of his novel and regular method. He is turned by one great authority, Sixtus Senensis, “almost self-taught,” so little of what he says can he have gleaned from others. But in estimating how much Origen owed to those before him, we should lose a valuable hint towards understanding him if we forgot Clement of Alexandria and the great body of tradition, oral and written, of which the Alexandrian school was the headquarters. We know that the Alexandrian Jew, Philo, two hundred years before Clement’s time, had written wonderful lucubrations on the mystical sense of Holy Scripture. The Alexandrian catechetical teachers, catching and using the spirit of the place, had always been Alexandrian in their Scriptural teachings. Clement himself had commented on the whole of the Scriptures in his book called the “Hypotyposes.” Origen entered into inheritance. We see the spirit of the time and place in those questionings with which, in his early years, he used to puzzle his father. The unrivalled industry that made him collect versions of the sacred text from Syria, Asia, and even the shores of Greece, must have scrupulously sought out and exhausted every source of information and every extant document relating to Scripture exposition that was at hand for him in his own city. So that Origen, though in one sense the founder of a school, was really the culmination of a series of learned men, and, by the influence of his name, made common to the universal church that knowledge and method which before had been confined to the pupils that had listened to the Catechisms.
Although, however, we may guess, we cannot be certain how progressively or gradually a methodical and scientific exegesis had been growing up at Alexandria; and we come upon the commentaries of Origen with all the freshness of a discovery. Before him we have been accustomed to writings like those of the apostolic fathers: we have been reading apologies of the most wonderful eloquence, whose Greek shames the rhetoricians, or whose Latin has all the spirit, earnestness, and tenderness of new language, but in which Holy Scripture is at the most only summarized and held up to view. Or, again, we have been listening to a venerable priest crushing the heretics with the word of God, or to a philosopher confuting the Jews out of their own mouth. Or, once more, we have heard the pagan intellect of the world convinced that truth was nowhere to be found but in Jesus, that the writings of the prophets were better than those of the philosophers, and that the morality of the New Testament cast far into the shade the sayings of Socrates. Splendid ideas, striking applications, telling proofs, grand views, all these the early fathers found in holy Scripture, and all these they used in the exhortations, apologies, or refutations that were called for by the several necessities of their times. But sustained, regular commentary, as such, they have none, or, what is the same to us now, none has come down. The explanation of words, the classification of meanings, the distinction of senses, the answering of difficulties and the solution of objections – all this, done, not for an odd portion of the text here and there, but regularly through the whole Bible, is what distinguishes the labors of Origen from those of all who have gone before him, and makes them so important for all who shall come after him. In making acquaintance with him we feel that we have come across a master, with breadth of view enough to handle masses of materials in a scientific way, and with learning enough never to be in want of materials for his science. We see in his Scripture commentaries the pressure of three forces of unequal strength, but each of them of marked presence, the tradition of the church, the teachings of the great school, and the needs of his own times. To understand him we must understand this pressure under which he wrote. The first two forces may be passed over as requiring no explanation. We must dwell a little on the latter, for unless we vividly realize the necessities under which the Christian teacher in his time lay, of meeting certain enemies and withstanding certain views, we shall be led to join in the cry of those who exclaim against Origen’s Scripture exposition as partly useless and partly dangerous.
These necessities arose from two phenomena that appeared almost with the birth of Christianity, and which, with a somewhat wide generalization, we may call the Ebionite and the Gnostic. No one can have looked into early church history without being struck by the difficulty the church seems to have had to free herself from the trammels of Judaism. We need not allude to Saint Paul, and his Epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans, and his various contentions with friend and foe for the freedom of the Gospel. The Epistle to the Hebrews, with its thoroughness of dogmatic exposition and its grand style, was also addressed to the Judaizants. Nay, if Ebion himself ever had an existence, it is more than probable that he was teaching at Jerusalem about the very time at which the Epistle seems to have been written and sent, if sent, to the Christian Jews of that city. It is certain, however, that Alexandria was one of the very earliest of the churches which shook itself free, in a marked manner, from the traditions of the law. The cosmopolitan spirit of the great city was a powerful natural auxiliary in a development which was substantially brought about by the Holy Ghost and the pastors of the patriarchal see. The Hebrew element hardly ever had such a footing at Alexandria as it had at Antioch. We can see in the writing of Justin Martyr, (circa 160,) whose wide experience of all the churches makes his testimony especially valuable, a picture of Christianity, young and exuberant, with its face joyously set to its destined career, and with the swathing-bands of the synagogue lying neglected behind it. Justin had an Alexandrian training, and among his many-sided gifts shone pre-eminent that intellectual culture which was the most effectual of the human weapons that beat off the spirit of Judaism. And in Clement himself there is no trace of any narrow formalism, but, on the contrary, a grand, world-embracing charity, that can recognize the work of the Divine Logos in all the manifold varieties of human wisdom and human beauty. So that long before the time that Origen succeeded his master, the Alexandrian church was free from all suspicion of clinging to what Saint Paul calls the “yoke of bondage;” and knew no distinction of Jew or Greek. But the party that had troubled the Apostle, and spread itself through the churches almost as soon as the churches were founded, was by no means extinct, even at Alexandria. Since the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews had become scattered all over the empire. The great towns, such as Antioch, Caesarea, and Alexandria, each contained a strong Jewish community. At Alexandria they were numerous enough to have a quarter to themselves. Now, it is not too much to say that many so-called Jews and Christians in such a city were neither Jews nor Christians, but Ebionites; that is, they acknowledged the divine mission of Christ, which destroyed their genuine Judaism, but denied his divinity, which was still more fatal to their Christianity. The consequences of such a state of things to the interpretation of Scripture are manifest. The law was still good and binding. Jerusalem was still the holy city, the chosen of God, and the spiritual and temporal capital of the world. Saint Paul was denounced as one who admitted heathen innovations and destroyed the word of God. Everything in holy Scripture, that is, in the Old Testament and in the scanty excerpts from the New, which they admitted, was to be understood in a rigorously literal sense; and the “Clementines,” once falsely attributed to Saint Clement of Rome, but now considered to belong to the second century, and to be the work of an Ebionite, are the only writings of the period in which the allegorical sense is totally and peremptorily denied. Ebionism was not very consistent with itself, and the Ebionites of Saint Jerome’s time would hardly have saluted their sterner brethren of the apostolic age; but the name may always be truly taken to typify those whose views led them to hold to the “carnal letter” of the Old Testament. They carried the old Jewish exclusiveness into Christianity. They considered the historical parts of the Scripture to have been written merely because their own history was so important in God’s sight that he thought it right to preserve its minutest record. The prophecies were only meant to glorify, to warn, or to terrify themselves, and had no message for the Gentiles. Even the parables and figures that occurred in the imagery of the inspired writer were dragged down to the most absurd and literal significations. The adherents of Ebionism were neither few nor silent in the time of Origen.
But if the Ebionite party in Alexandria, and in the Church generally, was strong and stirring, there was a party not less important, perhaps, who, in their zeal for the freedom of Christianity against the bonds of Judaism, were in danger of going quite as far wrong in a different direction. It is always the case in a reaction, that the returning force finds it difficult to stop at its due mark. So it had been with the reaction against the Ebionites, and especially at Alexandria. There was a body of advanced Christians who did not content themselves with not observing the law, but went on to depreciate it. It was not enough for them to see the Old Testament fulfilled by Jesus Christ, but they must needs show that it never had much claim to be even a preparation and a type. It was full of frivolous details, useless records, and absurd narrations. Who cared for the minutiae about Pharaoh’s butler, Joseph’s coat, or Tobias’s dog? Of what importance to the world were the marchings and counter-marchings, the stupid obstinacy and the unsavory morality of a few thousand Hebrews? Who was interested to hear how their prophets scolded them, or their enemies destroyed them, or their kings tyrannized over them? How could it edify Christians to know the number and color of the skins of the tabernacles or the names of the masons and blacksmiths that built the Temple, or the fact that the Jewish people considerably varied their carnal piety by intervals of still more carnal crime and idolatry? The state of things represented by the Old Testament had passed away, and they were of no interest save as ancient history; and therefore, it was absurd to treasure up the Pentateuch and the Prophets as if they were anything more, and not rather much less, than the rhapsodies of Homer and the travels of Herodotus. In fact – and to this conclusion a considerable party came before long – the Old Testament was certainly not divine at all; at any rate, it was not the work of the Father of the Lord Jesus, but of some other principle. And here the Gnostic interest was at hand with an opportune idea. Who could have written the Old Testament but the Demiurge? That primary offshoot of the Divinity, just, but not good, (this was their distinction,) can never have been more worthily employed than in concocting a series of writings in which there was some skill, some justice, and very little goodness. The Demiurge was certainly a handy suggestion, and the consigning of the Old Testament to his workmanship made all commentary thereon compressive into a very brief space. Away with it all, for a farrago of nonsense, lies, and nuisances!
Of course, neither of these parties, when extremely developed, could lay any claim to Christianity. But the world of that day had in it Ebionites and Gnostics of every degree and every changing hue of error. They were not unrepresented in the very bosom of the Church. Pious Christians might be found who, strong in filial feeling to their Jewish great-grandfathers, would see in the records of the old covenant nothing but a most interesting family history, with delightfully long pedigrees and a great deal of strong language about the glory and dignity of the descendants of Israel. On the other hand, equally pious Christians, and among them a great majority, perhaps, of the Gentile converts, would consider it an extravagant compliment to read in the house of God the sayings and doings of such a very unworthy set of people as the Hebrews. And the remarkable fact would be, that both these sets of worthy Christians would begin with the same fundamental error, though arriving at precisely opposite conclusions. That the Old Testament had a literal meaning, and no other was the starting-point of both Ebionite and Gnostic The former concluded, “therefore let us honor it, for we are a divine race;” the latter, “therefore let us reject it, for what are the Jews to us?”
It would not require many sentences to prove, if our object in these notes were proof of any sort, that Origen’s leading idea in his Scripture exposition is to look for the mystical sense. His very name is a synonym for allegory, and he is perhaps as often blamed for it as praised. But even blame, when outspoken and honest, is better than feeble excuse; and and unfortunately not a few of the great Alexandrian’s critics have undertaken to excuse him for having such a leaning to allegory. The Neo-Platonists, they say, dealt largely in myths, and allegorized everything; somebody allegorized Homer just about that time. Now Origen was a Platonist. We might answer, that Origen was above all a Christian, and knew but very little of Plato till he was thirty years old; and that the Greek allegories were invented by a more decorous generation for the purpose of veiling the grossness of the popular mythology; whereas the Christian allegory, as introduced by St Paul, or indeed by our Blessed Saviour, was a spiritual and mysterious application of real facts. Others, again, offer the excuse that Philo had allegorized very much, and Origen admired Philo. This is saying that allegory was very usual at Alexandria, as we have said ourselves when speaking of Saint Clement. But it is not saying why allegory was kept up so warmly in the school of the Catechisms, or what was the radical cause that made its being kept up there a necessity for the well-being of the Church. This we have endeavored to state in the foregoing remarks.
When Origen, then, announces his grand principle of Scripture commentary, in the fourth book of the De Principiis, we may be excused if we see in it the statement of an important canon, whereby to understand much that he has written. He says, “Wherefore, to those who are convinced that the sacred books are not the utterances of man, but were written and made over to us by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, by the will of God the Father of all through Jesus Christ, we will endeavor to point out how they are to read them, keeping the rules of the divine and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.” This is the key-note of all his exposition, and derives its significance from the state of opinions among those for whom he wrote; and a dispassionate application of it to such passages as seem questionable or gratuitous in his writings, will explain many a difficulty, and show how clearly he apprehended the work he had to do. If the Old Testament be really the word of the Holy Ghost, as, he says, all true Christians believe, then nothing in it can be trivial, nothing useless, nothing false. This he insists upon over and over again. And, descending more to particulars, he states these three celebrated rules of interpretation, which may be called, with their development, his contribution to Scripture exposition. They are so plainly aimed at Ebionites and Gnostics, that we need merely to state them to show the connection.
His first rule regards the old Law. The Law, he says, being abrogated by Jesus Christ, the precepts and ordinances that are purely legal are no longer to be taken and acted up to literally, but only in their mystical sense. This seems rudimentary and evident nowadays; but at that period it greatly needed to be clearly stated and enforced.
His second rule is about the history and prophecy relating to Jew or Gentile that is found in the Old Testament. The Ebionite who kissed the Pentateuch, and the Gnostic who tore it up, were both foolish because both ignorant. These historic and prophetic details were undoubtedly true in their letter; but their chief use to the Christian Church, and the main object the Holy Spirit had in giving them to us, was the mystical meaning that lies hidden under the letter. Thus the earthly Pharaoh, the earthly Jerusalem, Babylon, or Egypt, are chiefly of importance to the Church from the fact that they are the allegories of heavenly truths.
Origen’s third canon of scriptural exposition is this: “Whatever in holy Scripture seems trivial, useless, or false,” (the Gnostics could not or would not see that parabolic narratives are most unjustly called false,) “is by no means to be rejected, but its presence in the divine record is to be explained by the fact that the divine Author had a deeper and more important meaning in it than appears from the letter. Such portions, therefore, must be taken and applied in a spiritual and mystical sense, in which sense chiefly they were dictated by Almighty God.”
These three rules look simple now; they were all-important and not so simple then. It was by means of them, and in the spirit which they indicate, that the great catechist led his hearers by the hand through the flowery paths of God’s word, and in his own easy, simple, earnest style, so different from that of the rhetoricians, showed them the true use of the Old Testament. We hope it is not a fanciful idea, but it has struck us that, the difference of circumstances considered, there are few writers so like each other in their handling of holy Scripture as Origen and Saint John of the Cross. Both treat of deep truths, and in a phraseology that sounds uncommon – the one because his hearers were intellectual Greeks, the other because he is professedly treating of the very highest points of the spiritual life. Both use holy Scripture in a fashion that is absolutely startling to those who are accustomed to rationalistic Protestantism, or to what may be called the domestic wife-and-children interpretation of the Evangelicals. Both bring forward, in the most unhesitating manner, the mystic sense of the inspired words to prove or illustrate their point, and both mix up with their more abstruse disquisitions a large amount of practical matter in the very plainest words. From communion with both of them we rise full of a new sense of the presence and nearness of the Spirit of God, and of reverence for the minutest details of his Word. Finally, both the Greek father and the Spanish mystic interpret the ceremonial prescriptions, the history, the allusions to physical nature, and the incidents of domestic life that occur in the Old Testament, as if all these, however important in their letter, had a far deeper and more interesting signification addressed to the spiritual sense of the spiritual Christian.
To illustrate Origen’s principles of Scripture interpretation by extracts from his works would exceed our present limits, however interesting and satisfactory the task might be. Neither have we space to notice his celebrated division of the meaning of the text into literal, mystical, and moral, a division he was the first to insist upon formally. To answer the objections of critics against both his principles and his alleged practice would also be a distinct task of great length. We must content ourselves with having briefly sketched and indicated his spirit. There are grave theological controversies too, as is well known, connected with his name; and on these we have had no thought of entering. The purpose of this and the preceding articles has not been dogmatical, but rather biographical. We have attempted to set forth on the one hand the personal character of this great man; on the other, the external circumstances by which that character was influenced, and through which it exercised influence on others.