More on Origen and the Sabbath

N.R.M De Lange, Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) 93.

In my post, Origen, the Sabbath, and the Literal Sense, I quoted De Lange’s discussion of an Old Testament command about the Sabbath that Origen considered impossible to fulfill: the command for Israelites not to leave their homes on the Sabbath. Origen also thinks it’s impossible not to carry a burden on the Sabbath day (see Jeremiah 17:21). I asked in my post if Origen thought that God never intended the Israelites to observe the Old Testament law literally. De Lange seems to argue that Origen believes it was observed literally at some point in time, but his purpose in demonstrating the impossibility of certain Sabbath laws was to show that the spiritual meaning is what’s important, not the literal ritual.

In my mind, I wondered how Origen interpreted the Old Testament laws about the Sabbath. Here is De Lange’s answer:

The true Sabbath-observance consists of a complete break with worldly occupations and a total dedication to spiritual acts. Origen reinterprets the prohibitions mentioned above: ‘Burdens’ refers to sins, which are compared to heavy burdens in Psalm xxxvii(xxxviii).5, and fire, which is also forbidden on the Sabbath (Exodus xxxv.3), is likewise referred to evildoing, on the basis of Isaiah 1:11. As for the command to stay in one’s own place, ‘what is the “place” of the spiritual soul? Its place is justice, truth, wisdom, sanctification; everything which Christ is is the place of the soul’. Even so, the true observance of the Sabbath is impossible in this world, where even God does not rest on the Sabbath; the present age is the ‘sixth day of creation’, and the true Sabbath is the age to come.

There are two areas in which this quote interests me:

1. There appears to be a method to Origen’s allegorization. I’ve not read everything Origen has written, but there are many times when his search for “deeper meaning” in Scripture looks rather arbitrary. For my daily writing on De Lange’s book today, I was going to discuss Origen’s treatment of Zechariah 9:9-10, in which he addresses the Jewish argument that Jesus didn’t fulfill that passage, since Jesus didn’t cut off the bow of Ephraim, as v 10 says the man riding on the donkey would do. Origen’s response is to interpret “Ephraim” as something other than Ephraim–I think he said it refers to people who believe wrongly about something. For me, anything other than a literal interpretation appears to be arbitrary eisegesis.

But, in the case of the Sabbath laws, Origen actually offers Scriptural evidence for his interpretation: “burden” refers to sin because that’s how it’s used in a Psalm; the prohibited “fire” means evildoing because of Isaiah 1:11 (which bans hypocritical sacrifices). This is a technique that the rabbis use: you interpret the meaning of a word in a biblical passage by seeing how that word is used in other biblical passages.

One can argue that Origen’s method is not full-proof, since there are plenty of places in Scripture where “burden” means burden, or “fire” means fire. But Origen can come back and say that, if a command can’t really be obeyed literally, then its primary meaning must be spiritual, so one should go with the spiritual interpretation of the passage, which is supported by how other passages use particular words.

2. In a sense, Origen says that the fulfillment of the Sabbath command is yet future. I’ve had a debate on two separate occasions with two Sabbatarians: one is an ex-Armstrongite who’s currently an independent Sabbath-keeper, and the other’s an Armstrongite, or a prospective Armstrongite (he likes to quote the United Church of God). They say that we should keep the seventh-day Sabbath because it hasn’t been fulfilled yet. The animal sacrifices were fulfilled when Christ shed his blood on the cross, so we don’t have to do them anymore. But the Sabbath’s fulfillment is still future, so we still have to keep it, in their reckoning. For these two gentlemen, the Sabbath will be fulfilled in the time of the millennium, when Christ will rule the earth after his return. That will be the seventh millennium of human history, the “rest” that Hebrews 4 exhorts us to enter.

There really isn’t much Scriptural evidence for the millennium being the seventh millennium of human history. That’s speculation. But many early Christian thinkers seemed to believe something along those lines. The Epistle of Barnabas has such a concept. And, while I’m not sure if Origen believed in a literal thousand year reign of Christ, he thought that the age of come was the Sabbath.

Yet, just because Barnabas and Origen believed that the Sabbath would be fulfilled in the future, that didn’t mean they thought Christians should literally observe the seventh-day Sabbath. Barnabas is big on Sunday, as is Origen. And Origen tends to spiritualize the Sabbath, maintaining that it’s a total dedication to spiritual acts.

Echoing Colossians 2:16, Origen doesn’t think people need to keep the Sabbath because it’s a shadow of things to come. But, if the thing to come hasn’t come yet, does that mean we still have to keep the Sabbath, the same way the Israelites needed to sacrifice animals before Christ came and fulfilled the animal sacrifices? Or did Origen think that, in some sense, Christ at his first coming began the process of fulfilling the Sabbath, of being the object towards whom the Sabbath pointed?

In a sense, Christ brought “rest,” “the Messianic age,” “the kingdom of God,” whatever you want to call it, only it’s not in its state of completion at the present time. New Testament scholars call this the kingdom being “already but not yet.” And so perhaps Christ has made it possible for us to spiritually keep the Sabbath right now, to rest in him from worldliness and sin, but we can’t do so perfectly because the kingdom is not fully realized at the present moment. But it will be when Christ returns in glory.

And so perhaps Christ has begun to fulfill the Sabbath and make it spiritual, but the process will be complete when he comes back. In the meantime, do we need to keep the Sabbath literally, when the object and goal of the shadow has begun his work of fulfilling it?  

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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