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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Deeper Sense of the Scriptures: Origen

Origen, born of Christian parents c.185 in Alexandria, the centre of the Hellenistic world, opened in his city about 206 a Bible school, which he later transformed into a sort of academy for advanced studies. He regarded teaching, commenting, and preaching the Bible as his mission. For the emendation of the biblical text he produced a synopsis of the Hebrew Bible with the Septuagint and other Greek translations in four (later six) columns (the Hexapla). In Alexandria and even during several journeys which took him to Rome, Arabia, Antioch, and Athens, he dictated commentaries on different books of the Bible (Psalms, Lamentations, Genesis, later also on the Gospel of John, the letters of Paul and the prophets). Criticism of his approach forced him to write a defence: ‘Peri Archôn’ (De principiis—On the Beginnings). From 233 on he stayed (with some interruptions) in Caesarea. There he preached (as a presbyter) sometimes every morning on Old Testament texts, and in the evening services three times a week on New Testament passages. The sermon on the Old Testament was open also to the catechumens, on the New Testament only to the baptized members of the congregation. This shows his differing esteem for the testaments. He died after 251.

For understanding Origin's exegetical methods one must know about the intellectual background in Alexandria. There the Jewish philosopher Philo (first half of the first century CE) applied the Platonic/Stoic hermeneutics of the Hellenistic academy to the Bible. Also in Origen's opinion a Christian should not be content to understand only the literal sense like the simple-minded. Guided by an initiated teacher, he should progress to a deeper knowledge, detecting the spiritual sense of a passage. How this method functions can be seen above all in Origen's sermons. For instance, preaching on the stations of Israel's wandering through the desert in Numbers 33 , he likens Israel's exodus from Egypt to the spiritual exodus of the Christian from a heathen lifestyle and/or the exodus of the soul from the body with death. The stations remind him of the stations a Christian has to pass on the way to the Father. To accept the divine law is the first station on this way, but the appeal to a moral outset is built upon the ground that God in Christ meets halfway with grace. The ascension of the soul to heaven is the core of Origen's theology; its traces are detected in a Bible explained by allegory. For his understanding of the Song of Songs, Genesis 1: 26f. and 2: 7 are decisive: God has created two men: one in his likeness, one out of dust from the ground. According to 2 Corinthians 4: 16 these are the ‘outer’ and the ‘inner’ man. The main catchwords of the Song of Songs are to be comprehended spiritually: the book as a whole traditionally means the love of the church for her bridegroom, Christ. For the single believer it shows the highest step in the three-stage ascent to God: the vision of the Divine. It is an intellectual rise: a progress mediated first by moral teachers, then by the word of God itself. The way Origen treats the New Testament, especially in his sermons, is more simple, but based on a similar dualistic world-view. Especially the gospels, as treated in his commentary on Matthew, have for him two levels: the literal/historical wording describes the human life of Christ, the spiritual aspect discloses his divinity.

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