Origen And The Weariness Of Many Books: Part Two

When we previously discussed the matter of Origen and his attempt to defend himself as a prolific and somewhat controversial writer of many books from the accusation that he was doing something worthy of blame, we discussed in brief that he defended himself from this potential charge by claiming that he spoke in godly ways that cleared him of any blame for being a prolific writer.  Being a somewhat prolific writer whose written words have certainly caused controversy in the past and are likely to do so in the future, let us now view whether or not Origen had a reasonable case to make that his words were godly words that ought to be celebrated or if his words [1], like the words of people in general, were an admixture of good and evil that deserves some praise and some blame when it comes to how they handle scripture.  Let us judge Origen in this matter as fairly as possible, because by the same standard we shall be judged, and we could all stand to be judged with mercy.

Although Origen can be defended against some of the claims of heresy relating to his subordinationism, there were some aspects of Origen’s teaching regarding the Bible that is worthy of blame and that we would do well to avoid as believers.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Origen was an early Hellenistic Christian whose thinking was in line with much of what was fashionable within intellectual Greek-speaking culture at the time, Origen’s thought is most to be blamed when it comes to textual criticism.  This is unsurprising because it is an area in which many people who wish to consider themselves to be Christian intellectuals fall short in today.  Whenever we come to the Bible as a judge or as a critic and not as someone who is a defendant hoping for God’s mercy, we are prone to do violence to the Bible and prone to make ourselves weary to God (and often others).  After all, Solomon did provide a defense of wise biblical scholarship in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14:  “And moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yes, he pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs.  The Preacher sought to find acceptable words; and what was written was upright—words of truth.  The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd.  And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.  Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:  Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all.  For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  What Solomon is saying, briefly, is that we should let godly scholars admonish others, but we should be aware that all of us, scholars or not, will be judged by God, and we are not the judge of God or of His Word.  At times Origen appeared to forget this reality, and it is a reality that many of us would do well to heed lest we fall under the same condemnation.

Part of what makes Origen’s textual criticism to be blamed is the way that he showed some marked anti-Semitic tendencies in viewing the differences between the Hebrew scriptures and the versions of the Greek scriptures that were available to him, what is commonly considered as the Septuagint.  In his letter to Africanus, for example, he make some accusations against the Jewish scholars of antiquity, accusing them of tampering with the scriptures:  “But probably to this you will say, Why then is the “History” not in their Daniel, if, as you say, their wise men hand down by tradition such stories?  The answer is, that they hid from the knowledge of the people as many of the passages which contained any scandal against the elders, rulers, and judges, as they could, some of which have been preserved in uncanonical writings (Apocrypha) (14).”  Yet when we look at the pages of scripture as fair-minded readers, one of the most striking things we see is that the Bible includes a great deal of what would be scandalous to its priests and rulers and elders.  Many of the prophets themselves include such scandalous information.  We see David as an adulterer, Abraham and Isaac try to pass off wives as sisters, Elijah flee like a coward from the anger of Jezebel after he slew the prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth, and many other like examples.  Yet because Origen wanted to make use of stories that were of dodgy credibility, he sought to accuse the Jews of tampering with the scriptures rather than viewing the apocrypha with a greater sense of skepticism.

Yet at other times in his writings, Origen showed a marked tendency to attack the credibility of the Bible when it suited his purposes to do so as well.  It has long been a subject of interest to me how people could claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, who was a perfectly Torah-observant Jew during his life for thirty-three and a half years as a human being, without having any interest in living as Jesus Christ lived in the slightest degree with regards to their own obedience to God’s laws.  And here, specifically in his Commentary on John, Origen also shows himself to be a trailblazer of ways to escape the need to follow Jesus’ examples in the Gospels, when he attacks their credibility as sources as strongly as any of our ungodly contemporary textual critics:  “It should be carefully considered whether it is possible that the changes of the things described and the discrepancies found in them can be satisfactorily solved by the anagogic method. Each of the Evangelists ascribes to the Word different modes of action, which produce in souls of different tempers not the same effects but yet similar ones.  The discrepancy we noticed in respect of Jesus’ journeys to Jerusalem, which the Gospel now in hand reports quite differently from the other three, as we have expounded their words, cannot be made good in any other way.  John gives statements which are similar to those of the other three but not the same (187).”  Here we see in Origen’s writing the grim specter of attempting to attack the literal meaning of God’s word through accusations of discrepancy so as to replace it with a spiritualized view of the scripture that makes no ethical demands on the believer and that has no relevance to what is contentious in contemporary culture, be it pseoduscientific philosophies or politically expedient sins and corrupt cultural baggage.

But in blaming Origen for this, we ought to take care for ourselves.  Those of us who view the Bible and in particular its laws and the practices of Jesus Christ as being of timeless relevance are placed in the embarrassing position of reflecting upon the ways in which some of its contents are embarrassing to contemporary heathens just as the Gospels and their Judeo-Christian mindset were embarrassing to early Hellenistic Christians like Origen whose practices did not follow those of Jesus Christ and his earliest disciples.  Holding to the timeless nature of biblical morality forces us to deal with questions of gender and sexuality in our contemporary society, and points to the difficulty of remaining free of defiling ourselves through eating what God prohibits us to eat or engaging in behavior that God prohibits us to engage in, regardless of how awkward or embarrassing it is to be criticized for our restraint in such matters.  It is not merely in seeing the Bible correctly rather than engaging in ungodly textual criticism as Origen did but in showing our behavior to be in accordance with God’s ways that our words can be seen as not wearisome but rather the sort of goads that provoke others to righteousness rather than giving them an excuse for their desire to remain ungodly and in rebellion to the ways of God.  And by that standard, we all have a lot of work to do.  Let us go about doing that necessary work.

[1] See, for example:





About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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