Origen Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

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...

(The entire section is 2040 words.)