Literal and Allegorical Interpretation in Origen's Contra Celsum

Dan G. McCartney

Westminster Theological Journal 48.2 (Fall 1986): 281-301.
[Reproduced by permission]

Every interpreter comes to his text with certain presuppositions about its nature and the appropriate methods of understanding its material content. Usually these assumptions are unexpressed, and often the interpreter is not even aware that he has such assumptions. Origen of Alexandria, however, was aware of many of his assumptions and expressed them. Throughout his writings, and especially in De principiis Books 3 and 4, he frequently mentions both his evaluation of the nature of his text (the Bible) and his hermeneutical methods in approaching it. He is thus critically aware of the problems involved in interpreting texts. But, in accordance with the climate of his age, he engages in what to us appears a somewhat humorous and futile method - the method of allegorical interpretation.

On the other hand, Origen is not a "pure" allegorist in that he has some place for literal interpretation as well. What motives, conscious or unconscious, underlie Origen's interpretive methods? Since he has left us indications of his own theories regarding interpretation, we are in a position to ascertain and assess them.

Many have undertaken to do this,[1] and this article does not propose to duplicate their work, but an examination, with this question in mind, of one of the most important later works, the eight books refuting the True Doctrine of Celsus, yields some interesting results. After a brief historical introduction, we will undertake an examination of Origen's explicit statements and implicit assumptions observable in Contra Celsum. We will also look at a few examples of interpretation that


occur. From these we will attempt to derive what we can about Origen's motives or controlling ideas.

I. Historical Background

Origen did not invent his interpretive techniques. It has been amply demonstrated that allegorical interpretation originated, or at least saw its first extensive development, in Hellenism, or perhaps Greece proper, in an attempt to bring the ancient and honored mythology and poetry into line with prevailing philosophical opinions.[2] History, and thus "literal" interpretation, was a phenomenal matter and therefore not of great importance. Therefore one could either use a currently available myth and allegorize it, or one could, like Plato, make up one's own myths.

1. Pagan Interpretation

The motivations for this early Greek allegory are not hard to perceive. Homer, in particular, was regarded as inspired; he was the theologian of the Olympian gods.[3] This classification of Homer as inspired led to two motives for treating him allegorically. With the development of Greek morality, the Homeric gods did not appear to come off too well, and this led to some embarrassment. Plato, who did not think Homer's inspiration something to worry about, suggested that Homer be withdrawn from publication. Probably Plato regarded Homer as never having had any particular allegorical intent, but by his time a standard defense had already arisen - Homer's poems are symbolic, and should be interpreted according to the hyponoia, the underlying meaning. Already by the fifth century BC this method of understanding Homer was widespread, according to J. Tate.(4) By the


first century AD(?) a certain Heracieltus wrote The Hometic Problems,[5] which gave an extended defense on the basis of allegory of Homer. An example of this kind of allegorizing of Homer occurred in Celsus' work, and is reproduced in Origen's Contra Celsum 6.43. Zeus' words to Hera are here taken allegorically as being God's words to matter, giving it order and proportion. Origen, probably quite correctly, traces the origins of this type of Homeric interpretation back to Pherycedes of Syros (fl. ca. 600 BC) (6.42).

The other motive for allegorizing Homer was to provide authoritative backing for a particular philosophy. The Stoics of the fourth and third centuries BC in particular did this. Since the Stoics believed only in their one God, the various gods represented aspects of Stoic philosophy, and the Homeric stories were read as something of a Pilgrim's Progress.[6] It was not only Homer that was treated allegorically. The Greeks were very cosmopolitan, and ready to incorporate new myths into their divine scheme. So, Plutarch, although committed to Greek philosophy and values, takes the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris and treats it as an allegory representing Platonic truth. And as recorded in our own text (Contra Celsum 6.17) Origen points out that Celsus, in interpreting Plato as well as Homer, quotes from them "as though they were inspired utterances" (enthes eirmenoi).[7]

In any case, the determinative object of Greek allegorizing was to present absolute, eternal, ahistorical, or at least trans- historical, truth. Since the historical was phenomenal, it was therefore unimportant. So for a historical or legal document to have more than a temporary or expedient value in the Hellenistic world, it had to contain mysteries and obscurities that demanded allegorical interpretation. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Celsus (Contra Celsum 1.17, 18, 20) can claim that, since the Bible cannot be interpreted allegorically, it therefore must not be divine.


2. Jewish Biblical Interpretation

The Greeks were not the only ones who believed in an inspired text. Whatever one's opinion of the origins of the various parts of the OT, it is clear that long before Jesus Christ, the Torah was given special recognition as a divine book. In fact, unlike their Greek counterparts, many biblical books actually claim to be a revelation from God. So the Jews had an even stronger commitment to a book of authority.

The interpretive response to this authority was manifold. One particular approach, which apparently developed in the Jewish community of Alexandria, was that of Philo. The Alexandrian Jews were more cosmopolitan than many of their Palestinian relatives, especially the lower classes of Palestinian Judaism who tended to be reactionary as a result of their disenfranchisement. Further, the Alexandrian Jews were more directly exposed to Greek culture and philosophy. It is not surprising, therefore, that a Jew such as Philo, antecedently committed to the Bible as the Word of God on account of his Jewish background, yet anxious to be a "modern," philosophically sophisticated man, developed a method to bring those commitments together. Although Philo wished to maintain Jewish conformity to the laws in a literal sense, he seemed to regard that literal observance as rather secondary. The important thing to Philo was the philosophy (Platonic) that is allegorically contained in the Bible.[8]

On the other hand, an entirely different kind of allegory was operative in Palestinian Judiasm, as is demonstrated in the Qumran material (the Damascus Document, for example). This was an approach to the Bible that was essentially historical-eschatological. Its "allegorical method" if we may call it that, was directed at finding the current historical, existential realities in the ancient text, either as the fulfilment of prophecy, or elements of historical correspondence (typology), or in an allegorical reinterpretation of a "mystery" (raz).[9]


Another type of allegory may also have been operative in First Century Judaism, that of "legal" allegory. Certainly the later rabbis developed a very complicated system of legal interpretation which goes far beyond any "literal" meaning of a text.[10] Although some doubt whether this developed fully before the second century and the famous R. Akiba, there can be no doubt that certain elements of this approach were already active in the first century. This kind of interpretation became the dominant "Jewish" type of allegory after AD 70.

3. Christian Biblical Interpretation

(1) New Testament. Since much has already been done on this matter, it is fitting here only to point out that the nonliteral exegesis we find in the NT is generally of the second Jewish type - i.e. similar to the Qumranic approach. Even Hebrews, perhaps the most "Alexandrian" of all the NT books, does not engage in the kind of philosophical abstract allegorizing of Philo, but maintains rather a historical, typological approach, and is eschatological to the core. Much is made in Hebrews of the change in the times, and even where the language resembles Philo (speaking of types and shadows, etc.), the contrasts are not in terms of phenomenal vs. noumenal but old vs. new.

(2) Early Christianity. Again, this is well-covered ground,[11] but it is worth while to point out that by Origen's time Christian interpretation had developed in all kinds of different directions. Already in the Epistle of Barnabas the "Alexandrian type" of allegory had developed. From the scant references we have, apparently the Ebionites developed along legalistic lines. Justin Martyr appears to be synthesizing the typological and philosophical approaches to interpretation, and demonstrates a development of prophecy "proof-texting" as a hermeneutic of apologetics.


There were probably some reactions to the free, "spiritual" interpretation. Certainly by the fifth century, the Antiochene interpreters were insisting on a strictly literal reading of texts, but this idea was probably already being exhibited in some circles in the third century; else Origen (and his predecessor Clement) would not have felt obliged to defend his methods in De principiis, or to castigate those who decried allegorical interpretation. On the other side, the Valentinians were holding onto what scripture they accepted by completely allegorizing it.

Most Christians were probably in between, caught on the one hand by a desire to maintain the historical reality of the gospel events, and on the other by a need to experience the gospel in a modern way. So Origen's predecessor at Alexandria, Clement, found a solution in seeing the literal as a "starting point," suitable for the mass of Christians, and as something that piques the curiosity of the spiritually more advanced.

Finding the deeper meaning is thus the process by which God gradually, by means of parable and metaphor, leads those to whom God would reveal himself from the sensible to the intelligible world.[12]

It should be clear from this survey that Origen lived in a complex hermeneutical environment, and that the several elements of his own interpretive method were already "in the air." Certainly it is not surprising that Origen allegorized the Bible. In many respects, his world view is not really too far removed from that of his opponent. Anna Miura-Stang pointed out some time ago that "Beide, der Heide wie der Christ, bedienen sich angerichts der Schwierigkeiten, wie sie dem O[rigen] aus der Schrift erwachsen und in welt erheblicheren Mässe den C[elsus] aus der Annahme der verrufenen heidnischen Mythologien, der Allegorisierung und der dazu gehörigen zweideutig redenden Gehelmlehrer."[13] Thus it was not allegorizing as such to which Celsus could object, only allegorizing of the Bible. "Ohne welteres nimmt C[elsus] das Recht zur Allegorislerung für die eignen Mythen in Anspruch,


ja er lässt es auch fur die Ägypter gelten [polla kai ou phaula (parchontes) ainigmata] [6:42] (3:19) - nur die christliche Allegorese ist neu und unerhört."[14]

II. Explicit Statements Regarding Interpretive Principles

1. Inspiration

The most obviously determinative explicit assumption Origen makes regarding his text is that it is of divine origin. "The Logos of God arranged the Scriptures and spoke them" (4.71); "For it was fitting that the Creator of the whole world should have appointed laws for the whole world and given a power to the words that was able to overcome men everywhere" (1.18).[15] The list could be expanded indefinitely. The conclusion of Zöllig is irrefragable:

[For Origen] Holy Scripture has a divine nature, and this not simply because it contains divine ideas, nor because the breath of the divine Spirit breathes in its lines... but because it has God as its author.[16]

2. The Literal Sense

Perhaps one of the more neglected areas of Origen study is the emphasis he places, in contrast to the pagan allegorizers, on the literal sense.[17] In some ways he has an indebtedness to a literal meaning that is unconscious, but he is certainly aware of and anxious to defend the importance of the literal meaning. At least three positive values to the literal meaning are mentioned by Origen in Contra Celsum - (1) the Bible con-


tains true and important history, (2) the literal meaning has an edifying value for the simple, and (3) the literal has an apologetic value in attracting study.

First, the literal meaning is genuine history. In Contra Celsum 3.43, he points out that Celsus was willing to find a hidden allegorical meaning in the Cretan Zeus myth, even though its surface meaning is ludicrous. The NT is superior because it is grounded in a literal historical resurrection. Whatever the word "resurrection" meant to Origen, it at least meant that Jesus was seen alive, and that the tomb was empty. It is a point of argument that "there are many evidences of his appearing after death." This importance is already manifest in De principiis (4.3.4): "The incidents which are historically true [in the OT] are much more numerous than the spiritual interpretations which have been woven in by the Holy Ghost for pedagogical reasons."

It should be pointed out that this sets him apart from Philo. Hanson says, it appears correctly, that Philo, in spite of the fact that he wished to preserve some literal value in a legal sense, had virtually no sense of history.[18] For all Origen's desire to find deeper meanings, he was sensitive enough to the NT itself that he recognized its historical foundations, and although Origen heavily spiritualized the eschatology, it is still present.

The second value to the literal sense for Origen is that it is edifying to the simple. Origen regards it a point in Moses' favor over the pagans that, although his words carry a deep allegorical meaning, even the literal meaning is good and true (Contra Celsum 1.17). And he asserts that a comparison of Moses with the pagan writers as regards their surface meaning demonstrates a great moral superiority in the OT (4.48). Even its literal meaning is able to change lives (1.18). It is therefore no discredit to Christianity that the bulk of its membership are "vulgar and illiterate," for the Creator must also be concerned for them (1.27).

The third value to the literal sense is its apologetic value. Even the "embarrassing" incidents have a literal value, and persuade of the integrity of the OT.


Although Celsus ought to have approved of the honesty of the authors of the divine scriptures, who did not even conceal discreditable events, and ought to have been won over also to regard even the other more remarkable stories as being not fictitious, yet he did the opposite. Concerning the story of Lot and his daughters, he neither examined its ordinary meaning [kata to rhton], nor looked into its mystical interpretation [anaggn]; he says that the story is more iniquitous than Thyestian sins [Contra Celsum 4.45]

Origen then goes on to demonstrate how, if Lot's daughters believed that the whole human race had been destroyed except for themselves, they were doing no worse than the hypothetical wise man of Stoic philosophy who envisions a similar circumstance.

One of the functions of the literal sense is to attract people to study the Bible so that they may eventually proceed to the allegorical sense (Contra Celsum 7.60). Certainly, if a person is not already convinced of the divine origin of a text, he will not look for any deep allegorical meaning. It is therefore of significance that in Contra Celsum itself, which is Origen's chief and only sustained apologetic work, he fairly persistently avoids the use of allegory.[19] Origen appears to be sensitive to Celsus' charge that Christians "when they are ashamed of these things [embarrassing stories] flee to allegory" (4.48). Although many difficult stories do bear an allegorical meaning, they are defensible on strictly literal grounds.

Origen was a great critical scholar as well as an exegete, and although sometimes his sense of what is "proper" for God to do will result in a dismissal of a literal interpretation, he usually will seek to elucidate a historical value to a text, as well as the (more important) spiritual one. For example, Origen has no objections to Moses having used historical sources (1.21), so long as the sources were accurate. Even literal historical meaning is trustworthy by virtue of divine veracity.

3. Correspondence between Allegorical and literal

Origen assumed that there should be some correspondence between the literal and allegorical meanings of Scripture. Generally, for the allegorical to be true, the literal should be.


Some of Origen's criticisms of Celsus are based on this assumption. We already mentioned that in Contra Celsum 3.43 Celsus is reported as finding a hidden allegorical meaning in the Cretan Zeus myth. Origen seems to place value in the fact that, whereas the Greek myth as well as the NT may be capable of allegorical interpretation, the latter is superior because it is grounded in a literal historical resurrection.

Later, in 8.67, in criticizing the Stoic allegorical interpretation of Athena, he says: "But supposing that Athena is giving an allegorical interpretation and is said to be Intelligence, let anyone show that she has a real and substantial existence and that her nature conforms to this allegorical meaning."

One of the most interesting of Origen's comments on the relation of Spiritual to divine meanings is found in the Philocalia (15.19) in the context of an excerpt from Contra Celsum.[20] There Origen draws an extended analogy between Christ's appearance on earth, where superficially he appeared to be just a man, but spiritual sight perceived his deity, and the Bible, which superficially is simply a human document, but spiritual men are sensitive to its true divinity. The implication is that the spiritual or allegorical meaning of a text cannot be simply whatever fancy strikes the interpreter, but must be related in some way to its literal sense.[21]

4. The Role of Church Tradition

More important than the correspondence of allegorical to, literal is the dictum that interpretations must conform to the


church's tradition.[22] Although Origen was certainly not one to ingratiate himself with ecclesiastical authority, he did yield to the church as a whole the role of carrying on the true tradition. And so Origen rejected interpretations that were not according to this tradition. Only the (orthodox) church had "the traditional doctrines received from Jesus" (5.61). Valentinian interpretation is invalid, because their "gnosis" does not conform to this tradition. Consequently, an interpreter should always check the teaching of other expositors.[23] It should be recognized, however, that Origen recognized only one ultimate source for this tradition - namely the Scriptures themselves. Already we see this in De principiis (3.6.6). The faith of the church is derived from Scripture. If something in the Greek philosophers is not found in Scripture then the church does not receive it. Contra Celsum 2.13 implies that the tradition about Jesus has only one authoritative source, the written Gospels. And any theological conclusions have to be based on this tradition found in the written books: "He, when he discoursed about God, declared the facts about God to his true disciples; and because we find the traces of this teaching in the written books, we possess the foundations of our own theology."

A modern interpreter may complain that Origen is in an impenetrable circle, since the tradition is the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, and Scripture is the authoritative source of tradition. Probably Origen would have appealed to, this next assumption.

5. Scripture by Scripture

Augustine of Hippo may be credited with the phrase, but he did not invent the idea of scriptura scripturae interpres. Origen indicates that one must interpret obscure passages on the


basis of the plain, comparing text with text (Contra Celsum 7.11)[24] This is echoed in his insistence that scripture be taken not piecemeal but as a whole (cf. Matt. Ser. 47; Hom. Ps. 36.3.6). And in his Commentary on Matthew (2.18 - discussing Matt. 23:16–22), he gives the interesting interpretation:

The temple is scripture, the gold is the sense of scripture; every interpretation which was outside scripture... is not holy.... No one can bring his own interpretations unless he shall have shown them to be holy, from that which is contained in the divine scriptures.

It thus appears that the ultimate standard of interpretation is the Scriptures themselves.

6. Divine Texts Should Bear an Allegorical Meaning

We have already seen that in the Hellenistic world at large, divine texts were regarded as bearing an allegorical meaning. Whatever the reasons for this development, the converse was also regarded as true, that for a text to be divine, it must bear an allegorical meaning. To say that some text cannot be interpreted allegorically is to relegate it to unimportance (4.49). And whether one is able to find an allegorical meaning in a text is apparently dependent on whether one regards the text as divine. Celsus found fault with Christians for interpreting Moses allegorically, although he himself freely interpreted myths allegorically (Contra Celsum 1.17). Origen replies rather astutely that Celsus has stacked the deck against Scripture by saying in essence, "the Bible cannot be inspired because it cannot be interpreted allegorically, and it cannot be interpreted allegorically because it is not inspired." Origen likens this to Thrasymachus' restrictions on Socrates which made the true answer impossible.

On the other hand, Origen is also guilty of circular argument, in that for him Scripture is shown to be inspired by the fact that it has a hidden sense, and we know it has a hidden sense because it is inspired. But he also refers to the swift spread of Christianity (1.26), the fulfilment (in Origen's mind, the literal fulfilment) of prophecy (6.46 et al.), and the success


of the gospel in the moral transformation of lives (passim) as other evidences of inspiration.

7. Allegorical Meaning Is for the Mature

We have already seen that for Origen's predecessor Clement, allegory has the negative effect of hindering simple Christians from attaining to the deeper truths (see note 12). Although in Contra Celsum Origen does not mention any "hindering" function,[25] he certainly shares the view that the deeper meanings are for the mature. Some texts are addressed to the weak, some to the intelligent. Many have two meanings, one for the weak and one for the intelligent, and often in the same text both lie for the one who knows how to hear it (4.71). And the ability to interpret allegorically was a mark of intelligence to both Celsus and Origen (1.27).

This duplex mode of Scripture means that sometimes things are said to the immature which may not be actually true, but designed for their good. Especially descriptions of God's wrath are oriented to immature believers (4.71; 5.16). Here we can see something of a breakdown of the commitment to a literal meaning. When the literal sense does not conform to the proper expectations, the literal is understood as being a form of accommodation to the weak, and is thus rather facilely abandoned:

These truths were proclaimed still under the form of a story because they were children... but now to those who seek for the meaning and wish to advance in it, what hitherto were myths, if I may use the word, have been transformed into the inner truth which had been hidden from them. [5.42]

This certainly makes it easy to eliminate difficulties, and it opens Origen to the charge he also wishes to avoid, that Christians "flee to allegory."


8. Justification for Allegorical Interpretation

There are two lines of justification for allegorical interpretation of the Bible that Origen uses: (1) such interpretation is ancient, and (2) allegory is justified by and used in the NT.

Antiquity was associated with authority in the Hellenistic world. A common charge against Christianity was that it was a recent innovation. The common Christian defense is that Moses is older than Homer, and Origen also uses this defense (4.21). Antiquity was thus necessarily also invoked to justify allegorical interpretation. Origen refers to the psalmist's declaration "I will open my mouth in parables" (Ps 77:2 [Gr.]) as indication that the prophets intentionally spoke allegorically,[26] and another Psalm (118:18 [Gr.] - "Open my eyes, that I might behold wondrous things out of thy Law") as proof that the ancient prophets regarded the Torah as containing hidden truth (Contra Celsum 2.6; similarly 3.45, ref. to Hos 14:9).

But not content with this, Origen actually credits the ancient priesthood with passing on among themselves the secret meanings of their activities: "According to this the priests of the Jews served 'a pattern and shadow of the heavenly things,' discussing in secret the meaning of the law about sacrifices and the truths of which they were symbols" (5.44).

The other line of defense of allegory was that the NT acknowledged and used it. This against both the Christian "literalists" and the non-Christians like Celsus who claimed that the Bible could not be interpreted allegorically. In 4.49 Origen lists several passages where Paul is reported to have interpreted allegorically (1 Cor 9:9–10 [do not muzzle an ox], 10:1–2 [baptized into Moses], 3–4 [the spiritual rock which was Christ], Eph 5:31–2 [marriage as a symbol of the church]). Further, he finds in Paul's contrast of letter and spirit in 2 Corinthians justification for two levels of meaning (6.70). It is the "veil of ignorance" that keeps people from seeing the allegorical meaning. And Paul's own allegorical interpretation of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, where Paul actually uses the word allgore, provides him with fuel for argument (4.44).


Finally, Origen can appeal to Jesus himself, since he both spoke in parables (which were treated as allegories) and showed the previously ignorant disciples how the Scriptures actually spoke of him and his redemptive program (4.42 - referring to Luke 24).

III. Implicit Assumptions Regarding Text and Interpretation

Origen made specific most of his operating principles, and being a fairly critical thinker, he did not overlook much. Nevertheless, we may perceive at least two interpretive principles of which Origen did not seem to be consciously aware.

The first is due to the fact that the tradition, which Origen believed was based solely on Scripture, was in process of development, even into (and beyond) his own time. The church was attempting the difficult task of integrating all the various strands within Scripture into a world-view, but the church, like any other human interpretive enterprise, could not escape its own philosophical presuppositions. Origen, therefore, brought his own philosophical presuppositions into his interpretive efforts. In his case, the chief unspoken presupposition was that Platonism is the true metaphysics The consequence is that Scripture must therefore yield Platonic truth. He may have been less controlled by Platonism and more in touch with the redemptive-historical dimension of Scripture than Philo, but he nevertheless sometimes wants to move away from the historical as of secondary importance, and move on to the metaphysical underlying truth. This is not as evident in Contra Celsum as in his homilies, but is nonetheless present. In 2.48 he asserts that the chief value of a miracle is not that it happened but the truth allegorically symbolized therein.[27]

The second implicit assumption is that there is some kind of canon. Although the contents of the Bible were not completely agreed on at the time of Origen, there must have been some corpus that was generally recognized as being "Scripture." When Celsus criticizes what he thinks is Christian belief


but is not something contained in the received books, Origen dismisses him as irrelevant:

5.54 - The books entitled Enoch are not generally held to be divine among the churches.

5.21 - The Scriptures accepted in the churches of God do not declare that there are seven heavens.

So at least Enoch and Baruch are distinguished from Scripture, and the principle of canon and its general boundaries are already worked out.[28] The fact that Origen never quotes from noncanonical sources as an authority for doctrine (unlike Clement), that he never allegorically interprets a noncanonical book, and that he always assumes that the deciding factor in any discussion is the Bible, suggests that he had a definite understanding of the content of the canon.[29]

IV. Some Passages Examined

How well does Origen follow through on his statements regarding interpretation? At least in Contra Celsum he does rather well. Since Contra Celsum is a controversial and apologetic work, Origen usually carefully avoids allegorical interpretation. Frequently he feels the urge to give such interpretation, but resists:


2.37 - Celsus' Jew reproaches Jesus for greedily taking the vinegar and gall. Origen replies that although there is an allegorical interpretation of this, it is appropriate here only to give an "ordinary" answer.

4.21 - Origen, even in face of the challenge by Celsus that there is no hidden truth there, contents himself with asserting that the story of the tower of Babel has both a literal and a "mystical" interpretation.

4.44 - From the fact that Prov 5:15–17 uses the figure of a well allegorically, Origen can conclude that other stories about wells (in Genesis, for example) bear an allegorical content, but he avoids giving such at this time, and emphasizes the literal truth, in that these wells still existed.

5.29 - Origen will not completely elucidate the mystical meaning of Genesis 11 (the tower of Babel) because it is not suitable to throw pearls before swine.[30]

5.58 - It is the "wrong moment" for giving an allegorical interpretation. Origen answers Celsus' objection by reference to the story as it stands.

Two other passages also bear out Origen's use of the literal in apologetics. In 1.34, Origen operates on the level of a word study, trying to prove that the Hebrew word 'almah means "virgin," as evidence of literal prophecy regarding Jesus. Unfortunately for his case, his reference to Deuteronomy (Chap. 22) is misinformed (only bethulah occurs in Deuteronomy), but at least Origen thinks he is giving a sound literal interpretation. Further, he then goes on in 1.35 to argue for the application of the prophecy to Christ based on the literal sense: "What sort of sign would it be if a young woman not a virgin bore a son?"[31] Literal fulfilment of prophecy is for Origen an important proof of Christianity.

Because of the importance of literal fulfilment of prophecy, it is understandable why Origen berates the Jews for interpreting Isaiah 53 allegorically. In 1.55 he points out that if the 'ebed means all the people, how can all the people be put to death in behalf of all the people. The literal fulfilment, or at least what Origen understands to be the literal fulfilment, is again important to the establishment of the truth of Christianity.

It is possible that the writing of Contra Celsum enabled Origen to appreciate more the value of centralizing on the "foun-


dational" meaning. R. P. C. Hanson[32] points out that in Origen's last major work, the Commentary on Matthew, "Origen shows an unusual respect for the literal sense and tends to introduce allegory a little cautiously and apologetically."

Now it must be admitted that Origen cannot quite keep this rigid program of' sticking to literal exegesis, even in apologetics. However, the little slips into what might be called allegory that turn up in Contra Celsum are instructive of what some of Origen's motives were in allegorizing. We will therefore now turn to these.

1. Allegories in Contra Celsum

2.48 - Isa 35:6 (leap like a hart) is connected with Luke 10:19 (tread on serpents and scorpions).

4.13 - A catena around the word "fire," from Deut 4:24 and 9:3; Dan 7:10; Mal 3:2; and I Cor 3:12–15. The last is used to interpret the others "he enters like the fire of a smelting furnace to mould the rational nature which has been filled by the lead to evil and other impure substances which adulterate the soul's golden or silver nature, so to speak."

6.4 - On the patriarchs'"seeing" God, Origen says "they saw him not with the eyes of the body but with a pure heart. In the words of our Jesus, 'blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.'"

6.16 - On Matt 19:24, the camel is crooked by constitution, but the way to life is narrow and straight. Also the camel is ceremonially unclean.

6.58 - Origen must allegorize to deal with the problem of God's "repenting." He here follows Philo (Quod Deus Immut. 33–50).

2. Implicit Motives for Allegorical Interpretation

Compared with some of his deliberations in other works, these are exceedingly modest. It suggests that he is indeed carrying out his approach that only the literal is suitable for apologetics. Although Origen vehemently defends the allegorization of Scripture, he does not engage in it much in Contra Celsum. Of what does occur, we may distinguish basically two types.

(1) Illustration. The second and fourth examples are of the illustrative type. The catena and the discourse on the camel use allegory to illustrate the doctrine that is contained in the literal meaning. This is not too different from the common


use of Scripture stories as sermon illustrations today. Thus, one motive for allegory is simply as a source for "inspired" illustrations of doctrine.

(2) Explanation. The third and fifth examples are not allegorizations of any particular passage, but of concepts in the OT, both of which are inconsonant with Origen's presuppositions. Since "seeing" God with one's physical eyes is philosophically impossible, spiritual eyes must be in view, and since God does not change his mind, "repenting" must be a verbal accommodation. So a second reason for allegorization is to explain difficulties. In Contra Celsum however, Origen is remarkably restrained in this use of allegory.

One passage not in Contra Celsum but in De principiis (2.9.7) demonstrates rather forcefully how when a particular doctrine is in question, allegory is generally not a resource. Origen is faced with a problem in Rom 9:13, where Paul quotes Malachi, "Jacob I loved but Esau I hated." Origen's assumptions demand that rational beings be self-determinative, and hence he must reject predestination. When Paul quotes Malachi then to establish predestination, Origen must do something with it. But rather than "flee to allegory" he maintains a literal sense, and solves his problem by reference to preexistence. Jacob and Esau did good and evil before they were incarnate.

As mentioned previously, the Greeks often used allegorization of Homer, etc., as a means of finding ancient textual support for particular doctrines. Remarkably, Origen is here exceedingly restrained in such use. He studiously avoids it in Contra Celsum. Apparently, if a doctrine is not declared plainly (literally) in Scripture, neither should one try to find it allegorically.

Behind the above examined motives for allegorization, both implicit and explicit, there lies the desire to show that all Scripture, even the seemingly irrelevant parts, has something to teach the church. Allegory is one effective way to "realize" the ancient writings into contemporary relevance.


Origen's basic commitments are to the Scriptures as the word of God, the church as the guardian of the tradition and the household of faith, and to Platonic metaphysics He thus


wants to hold both to his literally true Christian history, and to his spiritually true Platonism. He thus strives to steer a middle course between "purely spiritual" interpretation such as the Valentinians engaged in, and "purely literal" interpretation such as the Antiochenes later championed. He certainly stoutly rejects the gnostic view that evil inheres in matter, but he does not consistently follow through on his convictions that God is Creator. Unlike his predecessor Clement, he has a lower view of marriage and the body; he does not seem to countenance a physical resurrection.

A subsidiary commitment of Origen's is that the Scriptures speak of Christ. Hence, Origen is not willing to give up the historical, and frequently understands the prophets as literally prophesying of Jesus and his redemptive program. The result is that Origen frequently stresses both literal and allegorical, each appropriate to different circumstances. Texts have a double meaning.[33] Further, the "spiritual" meaning is sometimes Philonic, sometimes Christian-typological.[34] Origen's interpretation therefore lies between the typology of the earlier apologists and the philosophical allegorism of Philo and the Valentinians.[35]

In summary, we may point out that biblical philosophy necessarily has two dimensions, a vertical, absolute, eternal dimension, which concerns itself which ultimate truth and reality, and a linear, historical, developing dimension, which realizes that truth in a phenomenal-experiential way. With Origen's Platonic commitment to the former, it is not surprising that he tended to interpret the Scriptures in the same way that non-Christian Platonists interpreted ancient texts like Homer. Like Philo he expected to find Greek philosophy in


the pages of holy writ, and he did so by allegorical interpretation. But Origen was also steeped in the Bible itself. The NT continually impressed upon Origen something of the historical nature of the Christian religion. Further, Origen obviously felt a certain faithfulness to the church. He wished to defend it. Consequently he felt controlled by the church's tradition, which was based on the literal meaning of the NT.

A Platonist of more recent vintage, Fichte, is reputed to have said, "Only the metaphysical can save; never in any sense the historical." Probably Origen felt this way, which explains why the "spiritual" (= intellectual-metaphysical) was always regarded as superior to the "literal." But he also knew that our only contact with the metaphysical is by way of the historical. Although Origen used interpretive techniques that for us are quaint, and strove for interpretive goals that for us are certainly not indigenous to the Bible, Origen was trying to be faithful to the Bible and also apply it to contemporary life. For Origen, the most important thing in life was the intellect. So the Bible became in his hands an intellectual book. Where intellectual proof was required, the literal served. But where edification and stimulation were involved, the allegorical was at hand.


[1] Most notably R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen's Interpretation of Scripture (London: SCM, 1959).

[2] Cf. ibid., 37-64. The origins of Greek allegory are discussed by J. Tate, "The Beginnings of Greek Allegory," CR 41 (1927) 214-15.

[3] Cf. Walter Otto, The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion (London: Thomas & Hudson, 1954).

[4] J. Tate, "Plato and Allegorical Interpretation," Classical Quarterly 23 (1929) 142-54; 24 (1930) 1-10.

[5] For an edition of this work, cf. Allégories dHomère (ed. Félix Buffière; Paris: Société Edition [Les Belles Lettres], 1962).

[6] W. B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme (Oxford: Clarendon, 1954) 121.

[7] Cf. also Contra Celsum 7.31 where Celsus' reallegorization of Plato's myth in Phaedo 58 is reported.

[8] For Philo's interpretive method, cf. S. Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), esp. Part 1.

[9] Cf. K. Elliger, Studien zum Habakkuk-Kommentar vom Toten Meer BHT 15; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1953) 157. Many scholars have subsequently dealt with this connection between raz in Daniel and Qumran interpretation. M. Horgan, Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books (CBQMS 8; Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979) 252-53 n. 89, gives an extensive bibliography.

[10] Str.-B. 3.397-98.

[11] Some helpfully brief overviews are in Hanson. Allegory and Event, esp. pp. 97-129, and J. W. Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church (Atlanta: John Knox, 1983).

[12] Stromateis 6.15.126.

[13] Anna Miura-Stang, Celsus und Origenes. Das Gemeinsame ihrer Weltanschauung nach den acht Büchern des Origenes gegen Celsus (Giessen: Töpelmann, 1926) 54.

[14] Ibid.

[15] All English citations of Contra Celsum are from the translation of H. Chadwick (Cambridge: The University Press, 1953) unless otherwise noted.

[16] A. Zöllig, Die Inspirationslehre des Origenes (Freiburg, 1902) 13-15, translated and cited in Hanson, Allegory and Event, 187.

[17] By "literal meaning" I mean the communicative value that adhered to a statement in its own sociocultural context, whether regarded as the "author's intent" or the "original hearers' understanding" (thus, an allegorical meaning could also be the literal meaning if the text in its original setting indicated that it was of an allegorical genre). The degree to which it is possible to recover such a value, and the degree of certainty one may have regarding such recovery, are secondary questions.

[18] Hanson, Allegory and Event, 52.

[19] It is interesting to observe that the two great last works of Origen, Contra Celsum and the Commentary on Matthew, are the least likely to slip into allegory and have the most respect for the literal sense.

[20] The Philocalia was a collection of sundry material from Origen compiled by Gregory and Basil in the fourth century. Chapter 15 of this work is set right in the midst of an extended excerpt from Contra Celsum, but it is not in any extant manuscript of Contra Celsum itself, and in fact does not appear in any known work of Origen's. Scholars generally concur that, although the passage is certainly Origenic, the style here is much more homiletic than discursive or apologetic. Koetschau in his standard Greek edition of Contra Celsum [GCS Bd. 2-3] included this excerpt, but after being taken to task by Wendland [Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen, 1899] he deleted it from his German translation. The passage is generally thought to be excerpted from a lost homily, and inserted by Basil and Gregory because of its loose relation to the material being discussed at that place in Contra Celsum.

[21] This analogy is also used by Origen in his homilies; cf. Matt. Ser. 27: Hom. Exod 12.4; Hom. Lev. 1.1.

[22] For more on this cf. R. P. C. Hanson, Origen's Doctrine of Tradition (London: SPCK, 1954).

[23] Hom. Lev. 16.5, Hom. Num. 26.6. Cf. A. Harnack. Der Kirchengeschichte Ertrag der exegetischen Arbeiten des Origenes (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1919) 2.4-33.

[24] Cf. also Origen's comments on 1 Cor 2:14. Text available in C. Jenkins, "Origen on 1 Corinthians," JTS 9 (1908) 240.

[25] Although in his earlier De principiis (4.2.8 [Lat. 4.3.11]) Origen accepted his predecessor's views on this, probably his love for communicating and teaching made the idea of hindering people from the truth a bit incomprehensible to him. It must have run counter to his nature to attempt to hide things the way Clement did in Stromateis, although one could argue that he was indeed hiding things in Contra Celsum by not giving the allegorical meanings.

[26] In 4.49 Origen treats this psalm as Asaph's allegorical interpretation of Exodus and Numbers.

[27] Origen almost anticipates here modern form and redaction criticism, which minimizes or eliminates the historical reality of a miracle and concentrates on its theological intent.

[28] See also De principiis 2.3.6. Canon cannot operate without a church, and so we can see here also a fully formed idea of "orthodoxy" in Origen. In 5.61 Origen distinguishes the "heretics" from the church and asks regarding Celsus' remarks, which were directed against the Valentinians, "What criticism is there in this against those who belong to the Church, whom Celsus calls those of the 'multitude'?" The reference is apparently that recorded in 5.59, where he quotes Celsus as referring to the "great church." Origen therefore regarded such a situation (of distinction between the "great church" and the sects) as existing in Celsus' time as well. Eusebius (H. E. 6.23) tells us that Origen rescued his later patron Ambrosius from "heresy" (gnosticism) around 210, and since Eusebius is here relying on some of the letters he amassed, we can confidently trust him at this point.

[29] Eusebius (H.E. 6.25) quotes extensively from Origen to demonstrate that Origen had a clear and definite canon in mind. Also there is one passage in Rufinus' translation of the Hom. in Jos. (7.1) which actually reads like a canon list. Although Rufinus has heavily edited Origen in his translations, the passage certainly reflects Origen's style and may be original.

[30] This is reminiscent of Clement's reservations about openly revealing the secret truths hidden in passages. Origen cannot, however, resist the temptation to say at least something of the allegorical meaning.

[31] Repeating a well-known argument. Cf. Justin, Dial 84; Tertullian, Adv. Jud. 9; Adv. Marc. 3.13.

[32] Allegory and Event, 238.

[33] It should be noted that ancient allegorical interpretation was not due to any conceived inherent polyvalence of all texts, such as the modern subjectivists believe. Double meanings were due to the divinity of texts. The assumption of the divinity of a text implies its relevance and meaning beyond the immediate and obvious. In Origen's case, since the material world was less important than the spiritual world, and since the Bible was divine, the Bible had to have a spiritual (i.e. Platonic) meaning.

[34] H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966) 74.

[35] Cf. Elaine Pagels, "Origen and the Prophets of Israel. A critique of Christian Typology," JANESCU 5 (1973) 335-44.

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