Letters, by Origen Adamantius
To put it somewhat mildly, Origen was an interesting fellow who had a complex role in Early Christianity as an intellectual whose hostility to the Jews led him on the one hand to promote a Hellenistic Christianity I am deeply critical of, but whose obvious brilliance led him to advocate some positions I am fond of that were contrary to later developments in Hellenistic Christianity . Although he is certainly an obscure figure to contemporary readers of the Bible as well as books about the Bible, anytime I can read a short but important book by or about him I will generally take full advantage of, and such is the case here. Readers of this book should likely do so with the idea of finding out more about what Origen thought from his own writings, as this book contains some important ideas that later became of great importance to later thinkers in justifying their own actions and behavior. And for that reason the letters of Origen are worth being familiar with, along with some appreciation that they have survived at all from an era where a lot of writings are lost to history.
The 40 pages or so of this book consist of three letters. The first letter is the one I agreed with the most, and it was intriguingly enough a letter by a fellow named Africanus to Origen in which he points out the obviousness of the spurious nature of the additions to Daniel that are found in the Septuagint, like the story of Susana and the elders, where he points out that the puns are in Greek and not in Hebrew. The second letter is the reply of Origen to Africanus, which takes up most of the book and is a lengthy letter at 30 pages. In this letter Origen uses his intellect to make specious arguments about the possibility of the Jews hiding unflattering aspects of their own culture and history in scripture and refuses to accept what the Jews view as canon. Perhaps the most important of the letters for the intellectual history of Christianity, though, is the third letter, which is written to a young man named Gregory in which the young man is urged to learn enough of heathen scholarship to “plunder the Egyptians,” which is a defense of Christian involvement in heathen educational systems and Christian use of secular technologies in order to promote the interests of preaching the Gospel.
While these letters are short they are definitely significant in terms of Christian thought and practice. For one, the letters demonstrate that even in the ancient world that there was considerable debate about the validity of certain additions to Daniel. The textual criticism of early Christianity, especially within Hellenistic Christianity, was of the sort that would eventually lead to the actions of the Council of Trent in viewing the Greek additions to the Hebrew Bible as authoritative. Likewise, it is unsurprising that Daniel and Esther were early among the books where discussion of textual criticism was at a high level. It is also noteworthy, though, that Origen’s letters seek to provide a defense of heathen education among believers so that they may be better Christian intellectuals, something that would become of increasing importance throughout the first few centuries of Christianity and even to our own day where plundering the Egyptians is a motive for the behavior of intellectually inclined believers. All of this makes this short collection of letters a truly interesting book that is definitely well worth reading, even if Origen does not come off the best among the letter-writers.
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