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Article abstract: Alexandrian scholar and church father{$I[g]Alexandria;Origen} Origen was the first to write extensive commentaries on most books of the Bible{$IBible;Origen’s commentaries} and also to study the main areas and problems within theology. What he wrote often determined the main lines of subsequent Christian thought.

Early Life

Origen (AHR-eh-jehn) was born at the end of the period that Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth century English historian, called the happiest and most prosperous the human race had known; he died during a time of civil war, plague, economic dislocation, and persecution of the Christian Church. Alexandria, the city of his birth, was one of the great cities of the world; it used Greek as its first language and was the home of the largest library in the Mediterranean basin. There many of the best scholars of the Greek world taught and studied.

Origen was the oldest of nine children. His father, whom tradition names Leonides, was prosperous enough to provide him with a Greek literary education and concerned enough about his Christian formation to teach him the Bible. From childhood, Origen was a serious Christian and a learned Greek. The Old Testament from which he studied, the Septuagint, was a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It contained, in addition to translations of those Scriptures originally written in Hebrew, books originally written in Greek. Although the canon, or list of books considered properly to be in the Bible, was not completely set in Origen’s day, for most purposes his New Testament is that still used by Christians. While young, Origen memorized long passages of the Bible; thus as an adult he could associate passages from throughout the Bible on the basis of common words or themes. He, like other Christians of his day, also accepted as authoritative a body of teaching held to come from the Apostles.

Origen imbibed from his father and the Christian community the dramatic and heroic idea that he, as an individual Christian, was a participant in the drama by which the world was being redeemed. Like many other Christians, he was uneasy about wealth and marriage and tended to see Jesus calling the Christian to poverty and celibacy (that is, to a heroic mode of existence). Although martyrdom was still relatively infrequent, it was exalted in the Christian community, and in many ways Origen saw himself throughout his life as a living martyr doing battle for the spread of Christ’s kingdom. At an unknown date, thoroughly instructed in the faith, he was baptized. Around 202, when Origen was seventeen, his father was martyred and the family property was confiscated by the state. It may be argued that for the rest of his life Origen saw himself continuing his martyred father’s work.

Life’s Work

In the following years, Origen added to his knowledge of grammar and Greek literature a familiarity with Gnosticism, a form of dualism very common in the Greek world of his day, which condemned all things material, especially the appetites and passions of the human body, and celebrated the spiritual, especially the human soul and spirit. Salvation was seen to lie in the separation of the soul from matter, and before Origen’s day a form of Christian Gnosticism had developed. After his father’s death, a Christian woman had taken Origen into her house so that he could continue his studies, and he subsequently began to teach grammar. In this woman’s house Christian Gnosticism was practiced. Although Origen rejected much of what he heard there, he adopted the Gnostics’ distinction between literal Christians, who understood only the literal sense of the Bible; psychic Christians, who went beyond this to consider the spiritual meaning of Scripture; and perfect Christians, who understood and followed the deepest meanings of the Bible. Origen also accepted a doctrine that was, after his death, to be condemned as heretical: He believed that ultimately all men, and even Satan himself, would be reconciled with God.

One of the second century Gnostic documents discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945 contains many teachings similar to those found in Origen’s writings and represents a form of Gnosticism more acceptable to the Christian tradition in which Origen had been formed. In this work, as in that of Origen, Christ was conceived of as very similar to God the Father, although subordinate to him in being. The work, and Origen, also conceived of human existence as a long process of education, in which evil and death prepare humans for union with God. Another writer, Marcion, whom Origen classified a Gnostic, provided a foil against which Origen developed the teaching that human suffering can be reconciled with God’s power and goodness. Unlike Marcion, Origen held that difficult passages in the Scripture might be allegorized.

Sometime between 206 and 211, Origen added catechetical instruction (explanation of Christianity to those interested in conversion) to his duties as a grammar teacher. This period was again a time of persecution, and although he taught in secret, at one point Origen was discovered and almost killed; some of his students were martyred.

After the persecution, he gave up his work as a teacher of grammar, sold his books of Greek literature, became the chief Christian teacher in Alexandria, and gave himself totally to Bible study. He began to follow what became a lifelong practice of strictly imitating the most difficult sayings of Jesus, fasting regularly, sleeping very little (the Bible had said to “pray without ceasing”), and possessing only one cloak; he also castrated himself.

In the years between 211 and 215, Origen learned much of the Platonic tradition, and that had a deep influence on him, especially the Platonists’ insistence on both Divine Providence and human freedom and—against the Gnostics—on the fundamental, if limited, good of the created order. Sometime before 217 Origen traveled briefly to Rome, where he was exposed to growing controversies over the definition of the relation of Jesus Christ to God the Father. Also sometime between 215 and 222, Origen met a Hebrew-speaking convert to Christianity who had been trained as a rabbi, with whom he began to study Hebrew and Jewish biblical interpretation. He also met an Alexandrian, Ambrose, who became his lifelong patron. The first problem facing Origen as a biblical scholar was the establishment of a reliable biblical text. His response was to write first Tetrapla (third century) and ultimately, after he had settled in Palestine, Hexapla (231-c. 245), each of which contained various Greek translations in parallel columns next to a transliterated Hebrew Old Testament. In this task he revealed lifelong characteristics—painstaking interests in textual criticism and historical problems. In his mind these were completely compatible with his interest in mystical interpretation of the Bible. Origen’s growing reputation is evident from an incident that occurred about 222, when he was summoned to Arabia by the Roman governor for the discussion of an unknown subject.

Most of his early writings, from between 222 and 230, have been lost, but one of his most important, Peri archōn (220-230 c.e., also known as De principiis; On First Principles, 1936), survives. Heavily influenced by Platonism, it espoused the idea, later to be condemned, that the human soul before entering the body has existed eternally. Students were now flocking to Origen’s lectures; of these he accepted only the most promising. Ambrose provided a staff of stenographers, who took down Origen’s lectures in shorthand as he gave them, and of copyists, who then prepared a finished text.

Probably in 230, after unspecified conflict with Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, Origen moved, at first briefly, to Caesarea, in Palestine. Having returned to Alexandria, he again left in 231, summoned by the dowager empress, Julia Mamaea, to Antioch to teach her more about Christianity. After a brief return to Alexandria, he left for Greece, traveling via Caesarea, where he was ordained a priest. In 233 a final break with Bishop Demetrius took place, and Origen moved to Caesarea. Finally, works that he had long been developing, such as a commentary on the Gospel of John and Peri eykhēs (c. 233; On Prayer, 1954), the first thorough Christian examination of prayer as contemplation of God, were finished.

Even more productive were the years from 238 to 244, when he regularly preached and was consulted in matters of doctrine. Again, although most of his work has been lost, some has survived, above all more than two hundred sermons. Following an estrangement from his bishop, Theoctistus, Origen departed for Athens, where he continued his writing. In 246 or 247, he returned to Caesarea, where he set to work on commentaries on the Gospels of Luke and Matthew and on Contra Celsum (c. 249; Against Celsus, 1954), a defense of Christianity. During roughly the last eight years of his life, he found himself in the midst of both theological controversy and serious persecution of the Christians by the emperor Decius. By 251, Origen, who had been imprisoned and tortured, was a broken man. The circumstances of his death are uncertain.


Origen was more important than any other early Christian thinker in assimilating the Jewish and Greek traditions into Christianity. The former he accomplished through his lifelong contact with rabbinic scholars and the latter through his lifelong devotion to the Platonic tradition. His conscious intent was always to be faithful to Christianity whenever there was a direct conflict between it and what he had inherited from the earlier traditions. Nevertheless, he also intended to be open to truth wherever it might be found. That Christians usually think of themselves as the heirs to both the Jewish and the Greek traditions is more his work than any other’s. He was the first Christian to discuss at length central problems such as the nature of free will and of God’s relation to the world; as the first to do so, Origen did not always arrive at conclusions deemed correct by later standards. Thus, in spite of his genius, he has often been the subject of some suspicion in later Christian tradition. Arguably, he had as much influence in setting the terms of later Christian theology as any writer, Saint Paul included.

Origen subjected himself to great ascetic discipline, usually surrounded by his community of scribes and students, and his mode of life may be justly described as protomonastic. Indeed, it was only about forty years after his death that the monastic movement began. Finally, with his great confidence in the ability of the disciplined intellect to rise above the world of sense to the vision of God, Origen stands near the source of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Further Reading:

Caspary, Gerard E. Politics and Exegesis: Origen and the Two Swords. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Centers on Origen’s thought about the relation of Christianity to the political order but has much useful information about his biblical interpretation and political thought. A structuralist interpretation that mistakenly attributes pacifism to early Christians in general before the time of Constantine the Great.

Daniélou, Jean. Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture. Vol. 2 in A History of Early Christian Doctrine Before the Council of Nicaea. Translated by John Austin Baker. London: Westminster Press, 1973. Contains fine sections on Origen’s catechetical teaching, biblical interpretation, Christology, anthropology, demonology, and understanding of Christian Gnosticism. Daniélou is very precise on the meaning and practice of allegory for Origen.

Daniélou, Jean. Origen. Translated by Walter Mitchell. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955. Covers Origen’s life and times but is especially strong on his theology, including his interpretation of the Bible, cosmology, angelology, Christology, and eschatology. This Roman Catholic reading of Origen gives a very fair account of scholarly disagreement over Origen’s theology of the sacraments.

Origen. Contra Celsum. Translated by Henry Chadwick. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1965. The introduction and notes of this translation of one of Origen’s most important works are a mine of information. Well indexed.

Trigg, Joseph Wilson. Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1983. The best general survey of Origen’s life and thought in English. Daniélou’s explanation (see entries above) of Origen’s spiritual exegesis of the Bible is more perceptive than that of Trigg, but Trigg is consistently well-informed. A Protestant reading of Origen.


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