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Origen, surnamed Adamantinus, was born in all probability at Alexandria, about the year 185 a.d.18671867 Cf. Redepenning’s Origenes, vol. i. pp. 417–420 (Erste Beilage: über Origenes Geburtsjahr und den Ort, wo er geboren wurde). [His surname denotes the strength, clearness, and point of his mind and methods. It is generally given Adamantius.] Notwithstanding that his name is derived from that of an Egyptian deity,18681868 Horus vel Or. Cf. Ibid. (Zweite Beilage: über Namen und Beinamen der Origenes). [But compare Cave, vol. i. p. 322. Lives of the Fathers, Oxford, 1840.] there seems no reason to doubt that his parents were Christian at the time of his birth. His father Leonides was probably, as has been conjectured,18691869 Encyclopædie der Katholischen Theologie, s.v. Origenes. one of the many teachers of rhetoric or grammar who abounded in that city of Grecian culture, and appears to have been a man of decided piety. Under his superintendence, the youthful Origen was not only educated in the various branches of Grecian learning, but was also required daily to commit to memory and to repeat portions of Scripture prescribed him by his father; and while under this training, the spirit of inquiry into the meaning of Scripture, which afterwards formed so striking a feature in the literary character of the great Alexandrine, began to display itself. Eusebius18701870 Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. ii. § 9. relates that he was not satisfied with the plain and obvious meaning of the text, but sought to penetrate into its deeper signification, and caused his father trouble by the questions which he put to him regarding the sense of particular passages of Holy Writ. Leonides, like many parents, assumed the appearance of rebuking the curiosity of the boy for inquiring into things which were beyond his youthful capacity, and recommended him to be satisfied with the simple and apparent meaning of Scripture, while he is described as inwardly rejoicing at the signs of genius exhibited by his son, and as giving thanks to God for having made him the parent of such a child.18711871 Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. ii. §§ 10, 11. But this state of things was not to last; for in the year 202 when Origen was about seventeen years of age, the great persecution of the Christians under Septimius Severus broke out, and among the victims was his father Leonides, who was apprehended and put in prison. Origen wished to share the fate of his father, but was prevented from quitting his home by the artifice of his mother, who was obliged to conceal his clothes to prevent him from carrying out his purpose. He wrote to his father, however, a letter, exhorting him to constancy under his trials, and entreating him not to change his convictions for the sake of his family.18721872 Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. ii.: ῞Επεχε, μὴ δι᾽ ἡμᾶς ἄλλο τὶ φρονήσης. By the death of his father, whose property was confiscated to the imperial treasury, Origen was left, with his mother and six younger brothers dependent upon him for support. At this juncture, a wealthy and benevolent lady of Alexandria opened to him her house, of which he became an inmate for a short time. The society, however, which he found there was far from agreeable to the feelings of the youth. The lady had adopted as her son one Paul of Antioch, whom Eusebius terms an “advocate of the heretics then existing at Alexandria.” The eloquence of the man drew crowds to hear him, although Origen could never be induced to regard him with any favour, nor even to join with him in any act of worship, giving then, as Eusebius remarks, “unmistakeable specimens of the orthodoxy of his faith.”18731873 τῆς ἐξ ἐκείνου περὶ τὴν πίστιν ὀρθοδοξίας ἐναργῆ παρείχετο δείγματα.
Finding his position in his household so uncomfortable, he resolved to enter upon the career of a teacher of grammar, and to support himself by his own exertions. As he had been carefully instructed by his father in Grecian literature, and had devoted himself to study after his death, he was enabled successfully to carry out his intention. And now begins the second stadium of his career.
The diligence and ability with which Origen prosecuted his profession speedily attracted attention and brought him many pupils. Among others who sought to avail themselves of his instructions in the principles of the Christian religion, were two young men, who afterwards became distinguished in the history of the Church,—Plutarch, who died the death of martyrdom, and Heraclas, who afterwards became bishop of Alexandria. It was not, however, merely by his success as a teacher that Origen gained a reputation. The brotherly kindness and unwearied affection which he displayed to all the victims of the persecution, which at that time was raging with peculiar severity at Alexandria under the prefect Aquila, and in which many of his old pupils and friends were martyred, are described as being so marked and conspicuous, as to draw down upon him the fury of the mob, so that he was obliged on several occasions to flee from house to house to escape instant death. It is easy to understand that services of this kind could not fail to attract the attention of the heads of the Christian community at Alexandria; and partly, no doubt, because of these, but chiefly on account of his high literary reputation, Bishop Demetrius appointed him to the office of master in the Catechetical School, which was at that time vacant (by the departure of Clement, who had quitted the city on the outbreak of the persecution), although he was still a layman, and had not passed his eighteenth year. The choice of Demetrius was amply justified by the result. Origen discontinued his instructions in literature, in order to devote himself exclusively to the work of teaching in the Catechetical School. For his labours he refused all remuneration. He sold the books which he possessed,—many of them manuscripts which he himself had copied,—on condition of receiving from the purchaser four obols18741874 The obol was about three-halfpence of English money. a day; and on this scanty pittance he subsisted, leading for many years a life of the greatest asceticism and devotion to study. After a day of labour in the school, he used to devote the greater part of the night to the investigation of Scripture, sleeping on the bare ground, and keeping frequent fasts. He carried out literally the command of the Saviour, not to possess two coats, nor wear shoes. He consummated his work of mortification of the flesh by an act of self mutilation, springing from a perverted interpretation of our Lord’s words in Matthew xix. 12 and the desire to place himself beyond the reach of temptation in the intercourse which he necessarily had to hold with youthful female catechumens.18751875 For a full discussion of the doubts which have been thrown upon the credibility of Eusebius in this matter by Schnitzer and Baur, cf. Redepenning, Origenes, vol. i. pp. 444–458, and Hefele, Encyclopædie der Katholischen Theologie, s.v. Origenes. This act was destined to exercise a baneful influence upon his subsequent career in the Church.
During the episcopate of Zephyrinus (201–218) Origen visited Rome,18761876 [Where he met with Hippolytus, and heard him preach, according to St. Jerome.] and on his return again resumed his duties in the Catechetical School, transferring the care of the younger catechumens to his friend and former pupil Heraclas, that he might devote himself with less distraction to the instruction of the more advanced, and to the more thorough investigation and exposition of Scripture. With a view to accomplish this more successfully, it is probable that about this time he set himself to acquire a knowledge of the Hebrew language, the fruit of which may be seen in the fragments which remain to us of his magnum opus, the Hexapla, and as many among the more cultured heathens, attracted by his reputation, seem to have attended his lectures, he felt it necessary to make himself more extensively acquainted with the doctrines of the Grecian schools, that he might meet his opponents upon their own ground, and for this purpose he attended the prelections of Ammonius Saccas, at that time in high repute at Alexandria as an expounder of the Neo-Platonic philosophy, of which school he has generally been considered the founder. The influence which the study of philosophical speculations exerted upon the mind of Origen may be traced in the whole course of his after development, and proved the fruitful source of many of those errors which were afterwards laid to his charge, and the controversies arising out of which disturbed the peace of the Church during the two following centuries. As was to be expected, the fame of the great Alexandrine teacher was not confined to his native city, but spread far and wide; and an evidence of this was the request made by the Roman governor of the province of Arabia to Demetrius and to the prefect of Egypt, that they would send Origen to him that he might hold an interview with one whose reputation was so great. We have no details of this visit, for all that Eusebius relates is that, “having accomplished the objects of his journey, he again returned to Alexandria.”18771877 Euseb., Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. 19, § 16. It was in the year 216 that the Emperor Caracalla visited Alexandria, and directed a bloody persecution against its inhabitants, especially the literary members of the community, in revenge for the sarcastic verses which had been composed against him for the murder of his brother Geta, a crime which he had perpetrated under circumstances of the basest treachery and cruelty.
Origen occupied too prominent a position in the literary Society of the city to be able to remain with safety, and therefore withdrew to Palestine to his friend Bishop Alexander of Jerusalem, and afterwards to Cæsarea, where he received an honourable welcome from Bishop Theoctistus. This step proved the beginning of his after troubles. These two men, filled with becoming admiration for the most learned teacher in the Church, requested him to expound the Scriptures in their presence in a public assembly of the Christians. Origen, although still a layman, and without any sacerdotal dignity in the Church, complied with the request. When this proceeding reached the ears of Demetrius, he was filled with the utmost indignation. “Such an act was never either heard or done before, that laymen should deliver discourses in the presence of the bishops,”18781878 Ibid., b. vi. c. 19. was his indignant remonstrance to the two offending bishops, and Origen received a command to return immediately to Alexandria. He obeyed, and for some years appears to have devoted himself solely to his studies in his usual spirit of self-abnegation.
It was probably during this period that the commencement of his friendship with Ambrosius is to be dated. Little is known of this individual. Eusebius18791879 Ibid., b. vi. c. 18. states that he had formerly been an adherent of the Valentinian heresy, but had been converted by the arguments and eloquence of Origen to the orthodox faith of the Church. They became intimate friends; and as Ambrose seems to have been possessed of large means, and entertained an unbounded admiration of the learning and abilities of his friend, it was his delight to bear the expenses attending the transcription and publication of the many works which he persuaded him to give to the world. He furnished him “with more than seven amanuenses, who relieved each other at stated times, and with an equal number of transcribers, along with young girls who had been practiced in calligraphy,”18801880 Euseb., Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. 23. to make fair copies for publication of the works dictated by Origen. The literary activity of these years must have been prodigious, and probably they were among the happiest which Origen ever enjoyed. Engaged in his favourite studies, surrounded by many friends, adding yearly to his own stores of learning, and enriching the literature of the Church with treatises of the highest value in the department of sacred criticism and exegesis, it is difficult to conceive a condition of things more congenial to the mind of a true scholar. Only one incident of any importance seems to have taken place during these peaceful years,—his visit to Julia Mammæa, the pious mother of Alexander Severus. This noble lady had heard of the fame of Origen, and invited him to visit her at Antioch, sending a military escort to conduct him from Alexandria to the Syrian capital. He remained with her some time, “exhibiting innumerable illustrations of the glory of the Lord, and of the excellence of divine instruction, and then hastened back to his accustomed studies.”18811881 Euseb., Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. 21: παρ᾽ ᾗ χρόνον διατρίψας πλεῖστά τε ὃσα εἰς τὴν τοῦ Κυρίου δόξαν καὶ τῆς τοῦ θείου διδασκαλείου ἀρετῆς ἐπιδειξάμενος, ἐπὶ τὰς συνήθεις ἔσπευδε διατριβάς.
These happy years, however, were soon to end. Origen was called to Greece, probably about the year 228,18821882 Cf. Hefele, Encyclopædie, etc., s.v. Origenes. upon what Eusebius vaguely calls “the pressing need of ecclesiastical affairs.”18831883 ᾽Επειγούσης χρείας ἐκκλησιαστικῶν ἕνεκα πραγμάτων. But, this has generally been understood18841884 Cf. Redepenning, vol. i. p. 406, etc. to refer to the prevalence of heretical views in the Church there, for the eradication of which the assistance of Origen was invoked. Before entering on this journey, he obtained letters of recommendation from his bishop.18851885 Cf. ibid. He passed through Palestine on his way to Greece, and at Cæsarea received at the hands of his friends Alexander and Theoctistus ordination to the office of presbyter,—an honour which proved to him afterwards the source of much persecution and annoyance. No doubt the motives of his friends were of the highest kind, and among them may have been the desire to take away the ground of objection formerly raised by Demetrius against the public preaching of a mere layman in the presence of a bishop. But they little dreamed of the storm which this act of theirs was to raise, and of the consequences which it was to bring upon the head of him whom they had sought to honour. After completing his journey through Greece, Origen returned to Alexandria about the year 230. He there found his bishop greatly incensed against him for what had taken place at Cæsarea. Nor did his anger expend itself in mere objurgations and rebukes. In the year 231 a synod was summoned by Demetrius, composed of Egyptian bishops and Alexandrian presbyters, who declared Origen unworthy to hold the office of teacher, and excommunicated him from the fellowship of the Church of Alexandria. Even this did not satisfy the vindictive feeling of Demetrius. He summoned a second synod, in which the bishops alone were permitted to vote, and by their suffrages Origen was degraded from the office of presbyter, and intimation of this sentence was ordered to be made by encyclical letter to the various Churches. The validity of the sentence was recognised by all of them, with the exception of those in Palestine, Phœnicia, Arabia, and Achaia; a remarkable proof of the position of influence which was at that time held by the Church of Alexandria. Origen appears to have quitted the city before the bursting of the storm, and betook himself to Cæsarea, which henceforth became his home, and the seat of his labours for a period of nearly a quarter of a century. The motives which impelled Demetrius to this treatment of Origen have been variously stated and variously criticized. Eusebius18861886 Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. 22. and c. 33. refers his readers for a full account of all the matters involved to the treatise which he and Pamphilus composed in his defence; but this work has not come down to us,18871887 With the exception of the first book; cf. Migne, vol. ix. pp. 542–632. although we possess a brief notice of it in the Bibliotheca of Photius,18881888 Cf. Photii Bibliotheca, ed. Hoeschel, p. 298. from which we derive our knowledge of the proceedings of the two synods. There seems little reason to doubt that jealousy of interference on the part of the bishops of another diocese was one main cause of the resentment displayed by Demetrius; while it is also possible that another alleged cause, the heterodox character of some of Origen’s opinions, as made known in his already published works, among which were his Stromata and De Principiis,18891889 Eusebius expressly mentions that both these works, among others, were published before he left Alexandria.—Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. 24. may have produced some effect upon the minds of the hostile bishops. Hefele18901890 s.v. Origenes. asserts that the act of the Palestinian bishops was contrary to the Church law of the time, and that Demetrius was justified on that ground for his procedure against him. But it may well be doubted whether there was any generally understood law or practice existing at so early a period of the Church’s history. If so, it is difficult to understand how it should have been unknown to the Palestinian bishops; or, on the supposition of any such existing law or usage, it is equally difficult to conceive that either they themselves or Origen should have agreed to disregard it, knowing as they did the jealous temper of Demetrius, displayed on the occasion of Origen’s preaching at Cæsarea already referred to. This had drawn from the Alexandrine bishop an indignant remonstrance, in which he had asserted that such an act was “quite unheard of before;”18911891 Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. 19. but, to this statement the Cæsarean bishops replied in a letter, in which they enumerated several instances of laymen who had addressed the congregation.18921892 Ibid. The probabilities, therefore, are in favour of there being no generally understood law or practice on the subject, and that the procedure, therefore, was dictated by hierarchical jealousy on the part of Demetrius. According to Eusebius,18931893 Ibid., b. vi. c. 8. indeed, the act of mutilation already referred to was made a ground of accusation against Origen; and there seems no doubt that there existed an old canon of the Church,18941894 ὁ ἀκρωτηριάσας ἑαυτὸν μὴ γενέσθω κληρικός. Cf. Redepenning, vol. i. pp. 208, 216, 218. based upon the words in Deuteronomy xxiii. 1, which rendered one who had committed such an act ineligible for office in the Church. But there is no trace of this act, as disqualifying Origen for the office of presbyter, having been urged by Demetrius, so far as can be discovered from the notices of the two synods which have been preserved by Rufinus and Photius. And it seems extremely probable, as Redepenning remarks,18951895 Cf. Redepenning, vol. i. p. 409, note 2. that if Demetrius were acquainted with this act of Origen, as Eusebius says he was,18961896 Hist. Eccles., b. vi. c. 8. he made no public mention of it, far less that he made it a presence for his deposition.
Demetrius did not long survive the execution of his vengeance against his unfortunate catechist. He died about a year afterwards, and was succeeded by Heraclas, the friend and former pupil of Origen. It does not, however, appear that Heraclas made any effort to have the sentence against Origen recalled, so that he might return to the early seat of his labours. Origen devoted himself at Cæsarea chiefly to exegetical studies upon the books of Scripture, enjoying the countenance and friendship of the two bishops Alexander and Theoctistus, who are said by Eusebius “to have attended him the whole time as pupils do their master.” He speedily raised the theological school of that city to a degree of reputation which attracted many pupils. Among those who placed themselves under his instructions were two young Cappadocians, who had come to Cæsarea with other intentions, but who were so attracted by the whole character and personality of Origen, that they immediately became his pupils. The former of these, afterwards Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of New Cæsarea, has left us, in the panegyric which he wrote after a discipleship of five years, a full and admiring account of the method of his great master.
The persecution under the Emperor Maximin obliged Origen to take refuge in Cæsarea in Cappadocia, where he remained in concealment about two years in the house of a Christian lady named Juliana, who was the heiress of Symmachus, the Ebionite translator of the Septuagint, and from whom he obtained several mss. which had belonged to Symmachus. Here, also, he composed his Exhortation to Martyrdom, which was expressly written for the sake of his friends Ambrosius and Protoctetus, who had been imprisoned on account of their Christian profession, but who recovered their freedom after the death of Maximin,—an event which allowed Origen to return to the Palestinian Cæsarea and to the prosecution of his labours. A visit to Athens, where he seems to have remained some time, and to Bostra in Arabia, in order to bring back to the true faith Bishop Beryllus, who had expressed heterodox opinions upon the subject of the divinity of Christ, (in which attempt he proved successful,) were the chief events of his life during the next five years. On the outbreak of the Decian persecution, however, in 249, he was imprisoned at Tyre, to which city he had gone from Cæsarea for some unknown reason, and was made to suffer great cruelties by his persecutors. The effect of these upon a frame worn out by ascetic labours may be easily conceived. Although he survived his imprisonment, his body was so weakened by his sufferings, that he died at Tyre in 254, in the seventieth year of his age.
The character of Origen is singularly pure and noble; for his moral qualities are as remarkable as his intellectual gifts. The history of the Church records the names of few whose patience and meekness under unmerited suffering were more conspicuous than his. How very differently would Jerome have acted under circumstances like those which led to Origen’s banishment from Alexandria! And what a favourable contrast is presented by the self-denying asceticism of his whole life, to the sins which stained the early years of Augustine, prior to his conversion! The impression which his whole personality made upon those who came within the sphere of his influence is evidenced in a remarkable degree by the admiring affection displayed towards him by his friend Ambrose and his pupil Gregory. Nor was it friends alone that he so impressed. To him belongs the rare honour of convincing heretics of their errors, and of leading them back to the Church; a result which must have been due as much to the gentleness and earnestness of his Christian character, as to the prodigious learning, marvellous acuteness, and logical power, which entitle him to be regarded as the greatest of the Fathers. It is singular, indeed, that a charge of heresy should have been brought, not only after his death, but even during his life, against one who rendered such eminent services to the cause of orthodox Christianity. But this charge must be considered in reference to the times when he lived and wrote. No General Council had yet been held to settle authoritatively the doctrine of the Church upon any of those great questions, the discussion of which convulsed the Christian world during the two following centuries; and in these circumstances greater latitude was naturally permissible than would have been justifiable at a later period. Moreover, a mind so speculative as that of Origen, and so engrossed with the deepest and most difficult problems of human thought, must sometimes have expressed itself in a way liable to be misunderstood. But no doubt the chief cause of his being regarded as a heretic is to be found in the haste with which he allowed many of his writings to be published. Had he considered more carefully what he intended to bring before the public eye, less occasion would have been furnished to objectors, and the memory of one of the greatest scholars and most devoted Christians that the world has ever seen would have been freed, to a great extent at least, from the reproach of heresy.
Origen was a very voluminous author. Jerome says that he wrote more than any individual could read; and Epiphanius18971897 Hæres, lxiv. 63. relates that his writings amounted to 6,000 volumes, by which statement we are probably to understand that every individual treatise, large or small, including each of the numerous homilies, was counted as a separate volume. The admiration entertained for him by his friend Ambrosius, and the readiness with which the latter bore all the expenses of transcription and publication, led Origen to give to the world much which otherwise would never have seen the light.
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