Origen (ca. 182 - ca. 251) was a Christian scholar and theologian and one of the most distinguished of the Fathers of the early Christian Church. He is thought to have been born at Alexandria, and died at Caesarea. His writings are important as the first serious intellectual attempt to describe Christianity.

Biographical sketch

Origenes Adamantius was born to a Christian family (most likely in Alexandria), the oldest of seven children. He was initially trained in both secular and religious literature by his father Leonides (who was exceedingly proud of his son's learning). The burden of caring for the family fell upon Origen at the age of seventeen when his father was martyred, so he began to teach. His classes proved so popular that he had to divide them, leaving beginners to an assistant, reserving the more advanced for himself.

Origen lived in extreme austerity. Eusebius related that in his rashness he castrated himself, but that account may not be accurate. He was bold in his admiration for martyrs, and many of his students suffered in the persecutions. Despite his lack of care for his own life, he was spared because many pagan philosophers and Christian heretics came to him for instruction. (The Neoplatonist Porphyry was an early acquaintance.)

His range of learning was vast. In addition to his father's instruction, Origen also studied under Ammonius Saccas and Clement of Alexandria. For the sake of biblical exegesis, he learned Hebrew. His knowledge of the philosophies of the day, especially Platonism, was profound. While still living in Alexandria, he began to write and compile books. One of the earliest and most significant was De principiis, one of the first efforts toward a systematic theology. Another work was his Hexapla, an enormous edition of the Bible arranged in six columns. It contained the Hebrew text, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, the Septuagint, and the Greek versions by Symmachus, Aquila, and Theodotion. The Hexapla was a great aid in the study of the Scriptures.

So famous did he become that Mamaea, mother of Emperor Alexander Severus, summoned him to Antioch to instruct her. On his way to Greece, he was ordained as a priest by the bishop of Caesarea. That action was uncanonical and was protested by his own bishop of Alexandria. As a result, he never returned to Egypt but settled down in Caesarea, where he taught for the remainder of his life.

Constantly called upon all his life to preach (even when he was a layman), he finally, after he had passed the age of sixty, allowed his homilies to be recorded by shorthand experts. Toward the end of his life (circa 250), he was seized by civil authorities and tortured in an effort to make him apostatize. The persecution, although very severe, failed in its purpose. But it may have contributed to his death not long after. Thus he died, not a martyr, but a confessor.

Origen wrote an incredible number of books but the total body of his work has not been preserved. What has been preserved has come down only in part in Greek, the rest in Latin translation. His leading Western interpreter was Tyrannius Rufinus, a friend of Jerome. All of Origen's work was, at least in theory, based on the literal text of Scripture, which he believed to be historical. Origen's exegesis of the text was often allegorical and typological, a style following that adopted by Alexandrian commentators on the Homeric epics. To Origen, Christ was the center and all Scripture must be interpreted in his light. That meant, for Origen, speculation on the spiritual significance of the literal.

Along with De principiis and Hexapla he also wrote commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, Song of Songs, Lamentations, the prophets, Matthew, John, and the Pauline corpus. He is the one who made the well-known remark, "But who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, only God really knows." His homilies treated Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Luke.

The details of Origen's life were recorded by his student Gregory Thaumaturgus in a panegyric, by Eusebius in his history, and by Jerome in several references. The first two were favorable. So was Jerome at first, but he later came to disapprove of Origen's exegesis. Yet, Jerome called him the second teacher of the church after Paul. Some of Origen's teachings were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The West was more favorable to his writings, albeit usually not by name. But in quite modern times, his fame and his thought have been more or less rehabilitated, owing to the effort to distinguish his doctrines from those attributed to him by his later followers.


  • Adapted from "Origen" J.D. Douglas, Who's Who in Christian History, Tyndale House, 1992