Almost all information about Origen's life comes from a lengthy biography of him in Book VI of the Ecclesiastical History written by the later Christian historian Eusebius (c. 260 – c. 340). Eusebius portrays Origen as the perfect Christian scholar and as a literal saint. Eusebius, however, wrote this account almost fifty years after Origen's death and had access to few reliable sources on Origen's life, especially his early years. Anxious for more material about his hero, Eusebius recorded events based on only unreliable hearsay evidence and frequently made speculative inferences about Origen based on the sources he had available. Nonetheless, scholars can reconstruct a general impression of Origen's historical life by sorting out the parts of Eusebius's account that are accurate from those that are inaccurate.
Origen was born in either 185 or 186 AD in Alexandria. According to Eusebius, Origen's father was Leonides of Alexandria, a respected professor of literature and also a devout Christian who practiced his religion openly. Joseph Wilson Trigg deems the details of this report unreliable, but states that Origen's father was certainly "a prosperous and thoroughly Hellenized bourgeois". According to John Anthony McGuckin, Origen's mother, whose name is unknown, may have been a member of the lower class who did not have the right of citizenship. It is likely that, on account of his mother's status, Origen himself was not a Roman citizen. Origen's father taught him about literature and philosophy, and also about the Bible and Christian doctrine. Eusebius states that Origen's father made him memorize passages of scripture daily. Trigg accepts this tradition as possibly genuine, given Origen's ability as an adult to recite extended passages of scripture at will. Eusebius also reports that Origen became so learned about the holy scriptures at an early age that his father was unable to answer his questions.
In 202, when Origen was "not yet seventeen", the Roman emperor Septimius Severus ordered Roman citizens who openly practiced Christianity to be executed. Origen's father Leonides was arrested and thrown in prison. Eusebius reports that Origen wanted to turn himself in to the authorities so they would execute him as well, but his mother hid all his clothes and he was unable to go to the authorities since he refused to leave the house naked. According to McGuckin, even if Origen had turned himself in, it is unlikely that he would have been punished, since the emperor was only intent on executing Roman citizens. Origen's father was beheaded and the state confiscated the family's entire property, leaving them broken and impoverished. Origen was the eldest of nine children and, as his father's heir, it became his responsibility to provide for the whole family.
Dutch illustration by Jan Luyken (1700), showing Origen teaching his students
When he was eighteen years old, Origen was appointed as a catechist at the Catechetical School of Alexandria. Many scholars have assumed that Origen became the head of the school, but, according to McGuckin, this is highly improbable and it is more likely that he was simply given a paid teaching position, perhaps as a "relief effort" for his destitute family. While employed at the school, he adopted the ascetic lifestyle of the Greek Sophists. He spent the whole day teaching and would stay up late at night writing treatises and commentaries. He went barefoot and only owned one cloak. He was a teetotaler and a vegetarian and he often fasted for long periods of time. Although Eusebius goes to great lengths to portray Origen as one of the Christian monastics of his own era, this portrayal is now generally recognized as anachronistic.
According to Eusebius, as a young man, Origen was taken in by a wealthy Gnostic woman, who was also the patron of a very influential Gnostic theologian from Antioch, who frequently lectured in her home. Eusebius goes to great lengths to insist that, although Origen studied while in her home, he never once "prayed in common" with her or the Gnostic theologian. Later, Origen succeeded in converting a wealthy man named Ambrose from Valentinian Gnosticism to orthodox Christianity. Ambrose was so impressed by the young scholar that he gave Origen a house, a secretary, seven stenographers, a crew of copyists and calligraphers, and paid for all of his writings to be published.
Sometime when he was in his early twenties, Origen sold the small library of Greek literary works which he had inherited from his father for a sum which netted him a daily income of four obols. He used this money to continue his study of the Bible and philosophy. Origen studied at numerous schools throughout Alexandria, including the Platonic Academy of Alexandria, where he was a student of Ammonius Saccas. Eusebius claims that Origen studied under Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215, but, according to McGuckin, this is almost certainly a retrospective assumption based on the similarity of their teachings. Origen himself rarely mentions Clement in his own writings and, when he does, it is usually to correct him.
Eusebius claims in his Ecclesiastical History
that, as a young man, Origen secretly paid a physician to surgically castrate
him, a claim which affected Origen's reputation for centuries, as demonstrated by these fifteenth-century depictions of Origen castrating himself.
Eusebius claims that, as a young man, following a literal misreading of Matthew 19:12, in which Jesus is presented as saying "there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven", Origen went to a physician and paid him to surgically remove his genitals in order to ensure his reputation as a respectable tutor to young men and women. Eusebius further alleges that Origen privately told Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, about the castration and that Demetrius initially praised him for his devotion to God on account of it. Origen himself, however, never mentions anything about having castrated himself in any of his surviving writings and, in his exegesis of this verse in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, written near the end of life, he strongly condemns any literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12, asserting that only an idiot would interpret the passage as advocating literal castration.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, some scholars have questioned the historicity of Origen's self-castration, with many seeing it as a wholesale fabrication. Trigg states that Eusebius's account of Origen's self-castration is certainly true, because Eusebius, who was an ardent admirer of Origen, yet clearly describes the castration as an act of pure folly, would have had no motive to pass on a piece of information that might tarnish Origen's reputation unless it was "notorious and beyond question." Trigg sees Origen's condemnation of the literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12 as him "tacitly repudiating the literalistic reading he had acted on in his youth."
In sharp contrast, McGuckin dismisses Eusebius's story of Origen's self-castration as "hardly credible", seeing it as a deliberate attempt by Eusebius to distract from more serious questions regarding the orthodoxy of Origen's teachings. McGuckin also states, "We have no indication that the motive of castration for respectability was ever regarded as standard by a teacher of mixed-gender classes." He adds that Origen's female students (whom Eusebius lists by name) would have been accompanied by attendants at all times, meaning Origen would have had no good reason to think that anyone would suspect him of impropriety. Henry Chadwick argues that, while Eusebius's story may be true, it seems unlikely, given that Origen's exposition of Matthew 19:12 "strongly deplored any literal interpretation of the words". Instead, Chadwick suggests, "Perhaps Eusebius was uncritically reporting malicious gossip retailed by Origen's enemies, of whom there were many." However, many noted historians, such as Peter Brown and William Placher, continue to find no reason to conclude that the story is false. Placher theorizes that, if it is true, it may have followed an episode in which Origen received some raised eyebrows while privately tutoring a woman.
Travels and early writings
Map of the Mediterranean showing locations associated with Origen
In his early twenties, Origen became less interested in being a grammarian and more interested in being a rhetor-philosopher. He gave his job as a catechist to his younger colleague Heraclas. Meanwhile, Origen began to style himself as a "master of philosophy". Origen's new position as a self-styled Christian philosopher brought him into conflict with Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria. Demetrius was a charismatic leader who ruled the Christian congregation of Alexandria with an iron fist and he was the one who was most directly responsible for the elevation of the bishop of Alexandria; prior to Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria had merely been a priest who was elected to represent his fellows, but after Demetrius, the bishop was seen as clearly a rank higher than his fellow priests. By styling himself as an independent philosopher, Origen was reviving a role that had been prominent in earlier Christianity, but which challenged the authority of the now-powerful bishop.
Meanwhile, Origen began composing his massive theological treatise On the First Principles, a landmark book which systematically laid out the foundations of Christian theology for centuries to come. Origen also began travelling abroad to visit schools across the Mediterranean. In 212 AD, he travelled to Rome, which was a major center of philosophy at the time. In Rome, Origen attended lectures by Hippolytus of Rome and was influenced by his logos theology. In 213 or 214, the governor of Arabia sent a message to the prefect of Egypt requesting him to send Origen to meet with him so that he could interview him and learn more about Christianity from its leading intellectual. Origen was escorted by official bodyguards and spent a short time in Arabia with the governor before returning to Alexandria.
In the autumn of 215, the Roman emperor Caracalla visited Alexandria. During the visit, the students at the schools there protested and made fun of him for having murdered his brother Geta. Caracalla was incensed and ordered his troops to ravage the city, execute the governor, and kill all the protesters. He also commanded them to expel all the teachers and intellectuals from the city. Origen fled Alexandria and travelled to the city of Caesarea Maritima in Roman province of Palestine, where the bishops
Theoctistus of Caesarea and Alexander of Jerusalem became his devoted admirers and asked him to deliver discourses on the scriptures in their respective churches. This effectively amounted to letting Origen deliver homilies, even though he was not formally ordained. While this was not at all a completely unexpected phenomenon, especially given Origen's international fame as a teacher and philosopher, it infuriated Demetrius, who saw it as a direct undermining of his authority. Demetrius sent deacons from Alexandria to demand that the Palestinian hierarchs immediately return "his" catechist to Alexandria. He also issued a decree chastising the Palestinians for allowing a person who was not ordained to preach. The Palestinian bishops, in turn, issued their own condemnation, accusing Demetrius of being jealous of Origen's fame and prestige.
While in Jericho
, Origen bought an ancient manuscript of the Hebrew Bible which had been discovered "in a jar", a discovery which prefigures the later discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
in the twentieth century. Shown here is a section of the Isaiah scroll
Origen obeyed Demetrius's order and returned to Alexandria, bringing with him an antique scroll he had purchased at Jericho containing the full text of the Hebrew Bible. The manuscript, which had purportedly been found "in a jar", became the source text for one of the two Hebrew columns in Origen's Hexapla, the first critical edition of the Old Testament, containing two versions of the Hebrew text and four Greek translations of it, all written in columns next to each other. Origen studied the Old Testament in great depth; Eusebius even claims that Origen learned Hebrew. Most modern scholars agree that this is implausible, but they disagree on how much Origen actually knew about the language. H. Lietzmann concludes that Origen probably only knew the Hebrew alphabet and not much else; whereas, R. P. C. Hanson and G. Bardy argue that Origen had a superficial understanding of the language, but not enough to have composed the entire Hexapla. A note in Origen's On the First Principles mentions an unknown "Hebrew master", but this was probably a consultant, not a teacher.
Origen also studied the entire New Testament, but especially the epistles of the apostle Paul and the Gospel of John, the writings which Origen regarded as the most important and authoritative. At Ambrose's request, Origen composed the first five books of his exhaustive Commentary on the Gospel of John, He also wrote the first eight books of his Commentary on Genesis, his Commentary on Psalms 1-25, and his Commentary on Lamentations. In addition to these commentaries, Origen also wrote two books on the resurrection of Jesus and ten books of Stromata. It is likely that these works contained much theological speculation, which brought Origen into even greater conflict with Demetrius.
Conflict with Demetrius and removal to Caesarea
Origen repeatedly asked Demetrius to ordain him as a priest, but Demetrius continually refused. In around 231, Demetrius sent Origen on a mission to Athens. Along the way, Origen stopped in Caesarea, where he was warmly greeted by the bishops Theoctistus and Alexander of Jerusalem, who had become his close friends during his previous stay. While he was visiting Caesarea, Origen asked Theoctistus to ordain him as a priest. Theoctistus gladly complied. Upon learning of Origen's ordination, Demetrius was outraged and issued a condemnation declaring that Origen's ordination by a foreign bishop was an act of insubordination.
Eusebius reports that, as a result of Demetrius's condemnations, Origen decided not to return to Alexandria and to instead take up permanent residence in Caesarea. John Anthony McGuckin, however, argues that Origen had probably already been planning to stay in Caesarea. The Palestinian bishops declared Origen the chief theologian of Caesarea. Firmilian, the bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, was such a devoted disciple of Origen that he begged him to come to Cappadocia and teach there.
Demetrius raised a storm of protests against the bishops of Palestine and the church synod in Rome itself. According to Eusebius, Demetrius published the allegation that Origen had secretly castrated himself, a capital offense under Roman law at the time and one which would have made Origen's ordination invalid, since eunuchs were forbidden from becoming priests. Demetrius also alleged that Origen had taught an extreme form of apokatastasis, which held that all beings, including even Satan himself, would eventually attain salvation. This allegation probably arose from a misunderstanding of Origen's argument during a debate with the Valentinian Gnostic teacher Candidus. Candidus had argued in favor of predestination by declaring that the Devil was beyond salvation. Origen had responded by arguing that, if the Devil is destined for eternal damnation, it was on account of his actions, which were the result of his own free will. Therefore, Origen had declared that Satan was only morally reprobate, not absolutely reprobate.
Demetrius died in 232, within less than a year after Origen's departure from Alexandria. The accusations against Origen faded with the death of Demetrius, but they did not disappear entirely and they continued to haunt him for the rest of his career. Origen defended himself in his Letter to Friends in Alexandria, in which he vehemently denied that he had ever taught that the Devil would attain salvation and insisted that the very notion of the Devil attaining salvation was simply ludicrous.
Work and teaching in Caesarea
||It was like a spark falling in our deepest soul, setting it on fire, making it burst into flame within us. It was, at the same time, a love for the Holy Word, the most beautiful object of all that, by its ineffable beauty attracts all things to itself with irresistible force, and it was also love for this man, the friend and advocate of the Holy Word. I was thus persuaded to give up all other goals... I had only one remaining object that I valued and longed for - philosophy, and that divine man who was my master of philosophy.
|— Theodore, Panegyric, a first-hand account of what listening to one of Origen's lectures in Caesarea was like
During his early years in Caesarea, Origen's primary task was the establishment of a Christian School; Caesarea had long been seen as a center of learning for Jews and Hellenistic philosophers, but, until Origen's arrival, it had lacked a Christian center of higher education. According to Eusebius, the school Origen founded was primarily targeted towards young pagans who had expressed interest in Christianity, but were not yet ready to ask for baptism. The school therefore sought to explain Christian teachings through Middle Platonism. Origen started his curriculum by teaching his students classical Socratic reasoning. After they had mastered this, he taught them cosmology and natural history. Finally, once they had mastered all of these subjects, he taught them theology, which was the highest of all philosophies, the accumulation of everything they had learning previously.
With the establishment of the Caesarean school, Origen's reputation as a scholar and theologian reached its zenith and he became known throughout the Mediterranean world as a brilliant intellectual. The hierarchs of the Palestinian and Arabian church synods regarded Origen as the ultimate expert on all matters dealing with theology. While teaching in Caesarea, Origen resumed work on his Commentary on John, composing at least books six through ten. In the first of these books, Origen compares himself to "an Israelite who has escaped the perverse persecution of the Egyptians." Origen also wrote the treatise On Prayer at the request of his friend Ambrose and his "sister" Tatiana, in which he analyzes the different types of prayers described in the Bible and offers a detailed exegesis on the Lord's Prayer.
Not only Christians, but also pagans took a fascination with Origen. The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry heard of Origen's fame and travelled to Caesarea to listen to his lectures. Porphyry recounts that Origen had extensively studied the teachings of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, but also those of important Middle Platonists, Neopythagoreans, and Stoics, including Numenius of Apamea,
Chronius, Apollophanes, Longinus, Moderatus of Gades, Nicomachus, Chaeremon, and Cornutus. Nonetheless, Porphyry accused Origen of having betrayed true philosophy by subjugating its insights to the exegesis of the Christian scriptures. Eusebius reports that Origen was summoned from Caesarea to Antioch at the behest of Julia Avita Mamaea, the mother of the Roman emperor Severus Alexander, "to discuss Christian philosophy and doctrine with her."
In 235, approximately three years after Origen began teaching in Caesarea, Alexander Severus, who had been tolerant towards Christians, was murdered and the new emperor Maximinus Thrax instigated a purge of all those who had supported his predecessor. His pogroms targeted Christian leaders and, in Rome, Pope Pontianus and Hippolytus of Rome were both sent into exile. Origen knew that he was in danger and went into hiding in the home of a faithful Christian woman named Juliana the Virgin, who had been a student of the Ebionite leader Symmachus. Origen's close friend and longtime patron Ambrose was arrested in Nicomedia and Protoctetes, the leading priest in Caesarea, was also arrested. In their honor, Origen composed his treatise
Exhortation to Martyrdom, which is now regarded as one of the greatest classics of Christian resistance literature. After coming out of hiding following Maximinus's death, Origen founded a school where Gregory Thaumaturgus, later bishop of Pontus, was one of the pupils. He preached regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays, and later daily.
Sometime between 238 and 244, Origen visited Athens, where he completed his Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel and began writing his Commentary on the Song of Songs. After visiting Athens, he visited Ambrose in Nicomedia. According to Porphyry, Origen also travelled to Rome or Antioch, where he met Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism. The Christians of the eastern Mediterranean continued to revere Origen as the most orthodox of all theologians and, when the Palestinian hierarchs learned that Beryllus, the bishop of Bostra and one of the most energetic Christian leaders of the time, had been preaching adoptionism (i.e., belief that Jesus was born human and only became divine after his baptism), they sent Origen to convert him to orthodoxy. Origen engaged Beryllus in a public disputation, which went so successfully that Beryllus promised to only teach Origen's theology from then on. On another occasion, a Christian leader in Arabia named Heracleides began teaching that the soul was mortal and that it perished with the body. Origen refuted these teachings, arguing that the soul is immortal and can never die.
In c. 249, the Plague of Cyprian broke out. In 250, Emperor Decius, believing that the plague was caused by Christians' failure to recognise him as Divine, issued a decree for Christians to be persecuted. This time Origen did not escape. Eusebius recounts how Origen suffered "bodily tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon; and how for many days with his feet stretched four spaces in the stocks". The governor of Caesarea gave very specific orders that Origen was not to be killed until he had publicly renounced his faith in Christ. Origen endured two years of imprisonment and torture, but obstinately refused to renounce his faith. In 252, the emperor Decius was assassinated and Origen was released from prison. Nonetheless, Origen's health was broken by the physical tortures enacted on him and he died less than a year later at the age of sixty-nine. A later legend, recounted by Jerome and numerous itineraries, places his death and burial at Tyre, but little value can be attached to this.