Origen on the Literal Sense

Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986) 81.

Origen is the only early Christian author known to me who makes explicit the analogy between the reading of Homer and the reading of the Gospels. He considers Homer to be largely historically accurate, but to incorporate fantastic elements that are to be interpreted allegorically. This sort of reading is simply a matter of open-mindedness for Origen, and he demands the same open-mindedness of pagan readers of the Gospels[.]

Lamberton proceeds to quote Origen’s Contra Celsum 1:42, where Origen states that the pagans take certain parts of Homer (e.g., the Trojan War) to be historical, while treating the fantastic elements (e.g., human offspring of gods, the sphinx) as figurative or designed for entertainment. So Origen exhorts the pagans to keep an open-mind regarding the Gospels: much of their content is historical, and the parts that appear fantastic could be symbolic of deeper truths.

But Origen is not exactly Thomas Jefferson, who purged the Gospels of their miraculous content because of their seeming irrationality. Origen was not an anti-supernaturalist. Rather, as one can see in Book I of Contra Celsum, Origen believed that Jesus’ miracles and those of the church were evidence for the truth of Christianity. In his response to a Jewish interlocutor in Celsus’ document, Origen says he can understand why certain pagan philosophers may have problems with the miracle stories in the Gospels, but why would a Jew, whose own Hebrew Bible contains accounts of the miraculous?

I did a search on New Advent’s site about Jesus going only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, for I remembered from a class on Jewish-Christianity that Origen didn’t take that passage literally (or maybe it would be more accurate to say “just literally”). And I may have found what I was looking for here.

But, in the process of my search, I stumbled upon a passage in De Principiis, Book IV in which Origen explains his use of allegory. I’ve had questions about this subject. We know that Origen said the Bible had four levels of meaning, two of which were the literal and the allegorical. Did Origen believe that all the events in the Bible literally happened but had a deeper meaning? Did he think that some events in the biblical narrative happened while others are merely symbolic? Or (as Tom Harpur maintains), did he hold that none of the Bible was historical, making all of it symbolic?

In Sections 18-19, Origen states the following:

And if we go to the Gospel and institute a similar examination, what would be more irrational than (to take literally the injunction), Salute no man by the way, which simple persons think the Sav­iour enjoined on the apostles? The com­mand, moreover, that the right cheek should be smitten, is most incredible, since everyone who strikes, unless he happen to have some bodily defect, smites the left cheek with his right hand. And it is im­possible to take (literally, the statement) in the Gospel about the offending of the right eye. For, to grant the possibility of one being offended by the sense of sight, how, when there are two eyes that see, should the blame be laid upon the right eye? And who is there that, con­demning himself for having looked upon a woman to lust after her, would rationally transfer the blame to the right eye alone, and throw it away?…

All these statements have been made by us, in order to show that the design of that divine power which gave us the sacred Scriptures is, that we should not receive what is presented by the letter alone (such things being sometimes not true in their literal acceptation, but absurd and impos­sible), but that certain things have been introduced into the actual history and into the legislation that are useful in their literal sense.

But that no one may suppose that we assert respecting the whole that no his­tory is real because a certain one is not; and that no law is to be literally observed, because a certain one, (understood) ac­cording to the letter, is absurd or impossi­ble; or that the statements regarding the Saviour are not true in a manner percept­ible to the senses; or that no command­ment and precept of His ought to be obeyed—we have to answer that, with regard to certain things, it is perfectly clear to us that the historical account is true; as that Abraham was buried in the double cave at Hebron, as also Isaac and Jacob, and the wives of each of them; and that Shechem was given as a portion to Joseph; and that Jerusalem is the metropolis of Judea of , in which the temple God was built by Solomon; and innumerable other statements. For the passages that are true in their historical meaning are much more numerous than those which are interspersed with a purely spiritual signification.

To answer my questions, Origen believed that the literal sense of Scripture was valid, except when it was patently false and ridiculous. In that case, only the deeper meaning held water. And, contra Tom Harpur, Origen thought that most of the events in the biblical narrative literally happened, even if they contain a deeper spiritual meaning.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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