Origen of Alexandria (AD 185—254), also known as Origen Adamantius, was one of the earliest and most important Christian scholars. He is remembered both for prodigious scholarship and fanatical commitment to purity. He is credited with producing hundreds of works on theology, textual criticism, and biblical interpretation. Among Origen’s most important works are the Hexapla, De Principiis, and Contra Celsum. A few of his views were unorthodox, to the point that later generations debated whether he was a saint or a heretic.
In the year 202, Origen’s father was beheaded for his Christian faith. To support his family, the teenaged Origen began teaching grammar and basic Christian beliefs. His writing and education career grew quickly. Before long, he was running an entire school and hosting visits from politicians and academics. All the while, Origen produced scholarly work both in high quality and massive quantity. At one point, he was said to have kept seven scribes working at top speed. The scholar Jerome (AD 354—420) would later ask, sarcastically, “Has anyone read everything Origen wrote?”
Origen studied under non-Christian philosophers in his birth city of Alexandria, Egypt, in order to better understand their arguments. This fueled one of his most important works, De Principiis (On First Principles). This is believed to be Christianity’s first comprehensive work of systematic theology. In it, Origen not only laid out a structured approach to Christian belief, but did so through (then) contemporary Greek philosophy.
Another of Origen’s most important works is his Hexapla (Sixfold). This book is one of the earliest examples of textual criticism and scholarly apologetics, as well as a true interlinear Bible. The Hexapla is formatted in six columns: one column of Hebrew text in parallel with five columns of various Greek translations. Origen’s purpose in compiling this was to counter Gnostic and Jewish attacks on early Christianity. This work also provided Christians with a comprehensive guide to the Old Testament. The original is estimated to have been more than 6,500 pages long and took more than 28 years to complete.
Origen also responded to an anti-Christian work, written shortly before his birth, by the Greek philosopher Celsus. Celsus’ work broadly attacked the history, philosophy, prophecies, and social duties of Christianity. In Contra Celsum (Against Celsus), Origen produced a detailed, powerfully intellectual defense of Christianity, one of the first and best of the early church era. In it, Origen answers Celsus point by point, weaving evidence, logic, and philosophy together in support of Christianity.
Understanding Origen’s work can be challenging. He believed all Scripture had three levels of meaning: literal, figurative, and moral, and he often expounded various ways to interpret the same passage. Origen is a prime example of early church scholars accepting non-literal interpretations of certain passages, such as the creation account of Genesis. He was also a vocal critic of the view that only specially ordained men had the spiritual authority to interpret Scripture. Much of his work was a deliberate effort to promote knowledge over mere authority, including church leadership.
Some of Origen’s ideas were unorthodox and put him at odds with fellow believers. For instance, Origen believed in the pre-existence of souls and that one’s status in the present world was proportional to one’s commitment to God during this pre-existence. His negative attitude toward the material world wasn’t much different than that of the Gnostics he so strongly opposed. He also considered the Trinity a ranking, not an equality, and believed that everyone, even demons, would one day be forgiven and purified by God. These claims were key to his being declared a heretic by various councils in the centuries after his death.
Origen’s radical approach to purity of lifestyle was infamous. He lived in extreme asceticism, without shoes or a bed, and often worked instead of sleeping. He fasted twice a week and avoided all meat and wine. According to Roman historian Eusebius, Origen’s quest for purity led him, through an extremely literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12, to self-castration. Even among his admirers, this was seen as an extreme and unnecessary step, though later scholars would debate whether or not Origen actually performed the deed.
Eventually, Origen’s uncompromising attitude toward Christianity and knowledge ran him afoul of the Roman Empire. Sometime after AD 251, a plague swept through Rome, and Emperor Decius laid blame on Christians for failing to worship him as a divine being. During the Decian persecution, Origen was imprisoned and brutally tortured but purposefully kept alive, in hopes he would recant his faith. True to his reputation, “Adamantius” remained a “man of steel” and was released from prison when Emperor Decius died. Unfortunately, Origen’s body hadn’t weathered the torture as well as his faith, and he died from his injuries very shortly after being freed.
Origen devoted his life to making evidence, reason, and Scripture accessible to as many people as possible. His legacy is an excellent counter to any claim that early Christianity was shallow, superstitious, or anti-intellectual. Heretic or not, Origen is among the most important figures of the early church.