Origen, Against Celsus VII.26

The necessity of the updating of the Mosaic law, in accordance with life under Roman rule

Name of the author: 
Origen of Alexandria
248 CE
Caesarea Maritima
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Against Celsus

For a general introduction to Origen, please see the commentary on Against Celsus I.3.

In this passage, Origen begins by outlining the differences between the law of Moses, translated above as “constitution,” (the term used here is πολιτεία, politeia, which will be discussed below) and the rules which the Christians are now attempting to abide by. The use of the term πολιτεία, politeia, is interesting, as although it has a range of applications and meanings, it is one which is strongly associated with the notion of citizenship. Origen’s choice of language here is perhaps explained by the fact that he proceeds to argue that the Mosaic law is not compatible when taken literally with either the calling of the Gentiles advocated in the Gospels, or Jewish subjugation to Roman rule. Both the mention of Gentiles (ἔθνος, ethnos) and the Roman government serve to remind here that the “ethnic” aspect of Judaism, whereby Jewish identity was very much grounded in their collective peoplehood, was challenged both by the new message of Jesus which sought to bring God’s teachings to all nations, and a reigning empire which as Origen acknowledges in Against Celsus II.30, had succeeded to unite numerous kingdoms and peoples under one rule. Indeed, for Origen, as for other early-Christian authors (see the commentary on II.30 for details), that Christ’s birth coincided with this was no accident, but rather part of God’s divine will. In the opening of the present passage, then, Origen suggests that while Christians and the message to the Gentiles which they are charged with can work successfully within the framework of Roman rule, Jewish law and the Jewish way of life should adapt. The use of the term politeia, therefore, perhaps supports this argument due to its associations with citizenship and peoplehood. Elements of Hellenistic Jewish thought, notably Philo, can also be seen in Origen’s argumentation here, where the peoplehood of Israel and the Mosaic law were also designated with the term politeia. Essentially, Origen sees the universalisation of the revelation given to the Jews of old as not only necessary progress, but highly desirable. The Mosaic law needed modernising, and ought not to be limited to one people alone. When taken hand in hand with the argument that the Jews were punished for their killing of Jesus (on this, see the commentary on Against Celsus II.13), this position is very telling of the role which Origen sees Rome as playing in God’s divine plan. Not only was Rome the agent of God’s punishment of the Jews through the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, but the combination of Christ’s advent and the Pax Romana worked perfectly towards disseminating the Gospel message among all the peoples of the world. The Jews, then, should adapt, as their exclusive claim to God’s favour was no longer tenable (see De Lange, Origen and the Jews, p. 78).

Origen continues to highlight the incompatibilities of Moses’s commands with Christian teaching, namely the slaying of enemies and the burning or stoning of criminals. Moreover, it is pointed out that the Jews themselves living under Roman rule are not able to punish wrongdoers in this way. As De Lange discusses, the issue of Jewish jurisdiction in such cases is not straightforward. Origen also mentions in his Commentary of Romans VI.7 that Jews cannot punish adulteresses or murderers, yet elsewhere (see his Epistle to Africanus 14) he claims that they held secret trials and condemned persons to death. De Lange argues that he could have been correct on both counts, because while the Jews had no formal right to execute capital sentences, the Roman authorities often simply turned a blind eye (Origen and the Jews, p. 33-34). Perhaps in smaller villages, for example, local justice was more independent from Roman laws, and somewhat harsher on those in the community who deviated.

Next, Origen contrasts the ancient Jews, who governed their own land and people, with those of the present time, who were living under Roman government. It would not have been possible, Origen argues, for the ancient Jews to have functioned and defended themselves and their land without the laws of old. However, as is made clear in the proceeding part of the passage, this is not the world in which the Jews currently live. Their laws which once enabled them to maintain and protect their unique peoplehood are neither necessary anymore, nor what God desires. Indeed, by sending the Gospel of Christ and destroying the city of Jerusalem and its temple, God has shown that he no longer supports the Jewish state. The subduing of the Jewish people and the expansion of the Christian religion is for Origen all the proof that is necessary to indicate God’s plan for the future. The divine favouring of Christianity is made even clearer, Origen argues, by the fact that it has suffered greatly at the hands of rulers and people everywhere, yet has continued to expand. This reference to the persecution of Christianity at the hands of Rome must be kept in mind (and is of course something which Origen was very aware of) when attempting to form a broad picture of Origen’s stance towards the empire. Essentially, like other Christian authors who came before him, he understood Rome as playing a vital role in both the punishment of the Jews and creating the optimum conditions for the Gospel message to be spread through a more united empire of peoples. However, this did not detract from the fact that Rome was also an enemy of the Christians at the same time. What we are presented with ultimately, is an empire which was utilised in God’s divine plan, yet had not yet accepted the Gospel message which it had unconsciously aided. Moreover, whereas the conflict between Rome and the Jews, represented through the destruction of the Temple, is understood by Origen as divine punishment, that between Rome and the Christians, is understood somewhat differently. In the latter case, the persecution of Christ’s followers and obstacles to the spreading of his message are seen as evidence of the evil which still exists within the unconverted empire.

Bibliographical references: 


Crouzel, HenribookOrigenEdinburghT&T Clark1989
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