The lack of Roman remorse for their treatment of Christians
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Born in 184-185 CE in Alexandria, to Christian parents, Origen received a classic Hellenistic education in addition to being encouraged to study the scriptures by his father Leonides (who was martyred in 202 CE). Our main source of information for Origen’s life is Eusebius, who tells us in his Ecclesiastical History VI.6 that with the church suffering persecution under Septimius Severus (193-211 CE), Clement of Alexandria was in 203 CE forced to flee, leaving an eighteen-year-old Origen in the former’s previous role in charge of the Catechetical School in Alexandria (on the relationship between Origen and Clement, see Joseph Trigg, Origen, p. 53-54; the latter appears to have been of some influence to the former, with many common elements between their works). Origen was a keen ascetic; Eusebius even tells us in Ecclesiastical History VI.8 that he castrated himself based on Matthew 19:12’s story of the eunuch. However, Origen criticised literal interpretation of scripture, so the historicity of this claim is debated, and his works eventually became very popular amongst the monks of fourth-century Egypt, causing some controversy (on Origen as an ascetic, see Richard Finn, Asceticism, p. 100-130). Origen died in Tyre, in 253/254 CE.
Hans von Balthasar divides Origen’s thought into three strata. 1) This stratum covers Origen’s “heterodox” opinions which were largely influenced by Platonising and “Gnostic” notions, and ultimately rejected by the church (such as the subordination of the three divine persons and their relative roles in soteriology); 2) In the second stratum von Balthasar sees the “formal influence” (including the philosophical schools of the time, which had by this time become somewhat mixed, and figures such as Clement) on Origen which helped him to develop his ideas, particularly relating to the notion of the soul’s development and journey through stages; 3) Finally, von Balthasar sees the deepest element of Origen’s thought as being his great passion, an almost “mystical” understanding of the scripture as having a living essence, which led him to an interpretive method usually described as “allegorical,” which rather than understanding God’s word literally as a historical relic, sought to illuminate them as truly alive and present in the world (see Origen: Spirit and Fire, p. 6-13; Crouzel also helpfully overviews Origen’s spirituality and theology in chapters four and five of his Origen).
His literary legacy is significant, including works in the areas of textual criticism, including commentaries on various biblical books, philosophy and its relationship to Christianity, apologetic (his eight volume Against Celsus is particularly noteworthy), and a Hexapla (a six-column arrangement of the Hebrew Bible). He wrote in Greek, but some of his works have only survived to us partly or fully in Latin (for a survey, see Crouzel, Origen, p. 41-49). Still, Origen remains one of the most controversial figures in Christian history, and his arguments relating to the pre-existence of souls, the reconciliation of all creatures, potentially even the devil, and Jesus’s subordinate place in relation to God came to be declared heretical by the emerging “orthodox” church. Origen was ultimately declared anathema from the church at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE.
The present commentary deals with Origen’s famous rebuttal of Celsus, the earliest known Greek intellectual to produce a written challenge to Christianity (in the form of his The True Doctrine, which has not survived in its original form; see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.36, where Origen is cited as having refuted this work). His original context for his knowledge of the new religion was Alexandria, although he seems later to have visited Rome, as he is aware of Marcion’s teachings (see Against Celsus VI.51-53; 74), who founded a church in Rome. Celsus criticises the Christians for their misinterpretation of Plato’s ideas, and for being a movement of the uneducated and illiterate, rather than the intellectual elite. He also accused the Christians of reprehensible and illegal social and political practices, such as gathering in secret to perform magic, and removing themselves from civic life. In his Contra Celsum, or Against Celsus, Origen addresses these accusations. At the start of his multi-volume apologetic treatise (see I.41) Origen promises to respond to every point raised by Celsus in his The True Doctrine (indeed, Origen is essentially our source for Celsus’s text), but he does not actually do this. Nonetheless, he frequently quotes from it, and appears to reproduce the majority of the text and follow its structure (see Maren Niehoff, “A Jewish Critique of Christianity,” p. 154).
In the present extract, Origen begins by citing Celsus’s claim that Christians meet in secret to share their teachings—the suspicion that Christianity had the characteristics of a dangerous cult group appears over and over again as one of the reasons for public hostility to it. Indeed, in the second century CE, the governor Pliny the Younger in his Letter to Trajan X.96.7 mentions that in his region of Bithynia and Pontus, the local Christians had actually stopped meeting to worship before dawn because Pliny had forbidden all secret societies on the emperor’s orders. The notion of Roman authorities attempting to quash such secretive societies (not exclusively Christianity) is quite well attested (for instance, see the discussion of the senate’s measures to suppress the Bacchanales in 186 BCE in Livy, Roman History XXXIX). Origen cites Celsus as implying that the Christians are wise to meet in secret, however, due to the risk of being sentenced to death should they be found to be practicing an illegitimate superstition. The risk that they take for the sake of their beliefs, we are told, is comparable in Celsus’s view to that taken for philosophy by Socrates or Pythagoras. However, for Origen, the difference lies in the fact that when the Athenians did eventually execute Socrates, they regretted it (on the regret of the Athenians following Socrates’s death, see, for example, Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers II.43 and Maximus of Tyre, Philosophical Orations III.2e). The implication, which will be stated more explicitly by Origen shortly after, is that this is not the case for the Christians, whose persecution inspires no remorse on the part of the Romans.
First, however, Origen mentions that the Pythagoreans had managed to establish themselves throughout Magna Graecia. This was the Roman name for the southern coastal areas of Italy; the regions of modern-day Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily. These areas were highly populated by Greeks who settled there from the 8th century BCE. This reference to the spreading of this philosophical school seems to serve initially to highlight that unlike the Christians, the Pythagoreans had not been frequently oppressed. However, the latter part of the passage goes on to explain that despite being opposed and fought by the Roman authorities and the Roman people more generally, Christianity has with the aid of God succeeded to spread throughout the world. Therefore, Christianity is firmly established by Origen as superior to any philosophy, owing to its divine favour (on the vast issue of Origen and philosophy, see Henri Crouzel’s, Origène et la philosophie; also Origen, p. 156-163).
That Origen describes the enemies of Christianity as the Roman senate (βουλὴ, boulē), the Roman emperors (βασιλεύς, basileus), the Roman army (στρατιωτικός, stratiōtikos), the Roman people (δῆμος, dēmos), and even those related to Christians—who of course could also fit into one of the aforementioned categories—emphasises that the empire’s hostility to Christians does not purely stem from those in Rome with ruling power. Rather, it is something which is apparent in every tier of Roman society, from the very top to the very bottom. Indeed, Origen makes clear that the combination of these sources of opposition would have proved majorly problematic for Christianity’s expansion, were it not for the fact that divine power is on its side, and ultimately superior to the individual or joint powers of the Roman government, military, and people. Origen’s claim here implicitly challenges the notion that Rome has support from the gods. Moreover, his argument represents a different trend in Christian thought than that which forwarded the idea of Christianity operating in harmony with the Roman authorities, and even respecting them as put in place by God (we see this in first and second century sources such as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Clement 60.4 – 61.3).