Origen of Alexandria

Origen (Greek: Ὠριγένης, ca. 182ca. 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 one of the first serious intellectual attempts to describe Christianity.

Early training

His full name was apparently Origenes Adamantius. He was educated by his father, Leonides, on scriptural texts that would later become the Bible and in elementary studies. But in 202 Origen’s father was killed in the outbreak of the persecution during the reign of Septimius Severus. Origen wished to follow in martyrdom, but was prevented only by a ruse of his mother. The death of Leonides left the family of nine impoverished when their property was confiscated. Origen, however, was taken under the protection of a woman of wealth and standing; but as her household already included a heretic named Paul, the strictly orthodox Origen seems to have remained with her only a short time.

Since his father’s teaching enabled him also to give elementary instruction, he revived, in 203, the catechetical school at Alexandria, whose last teacher, Clement of Alexandria, was apparently driven out by the persecution. But the persecution still raged, and the young teacher unceasingly visited the prisoners, attended the courts, and comforted the condemned, himself preserved from harm as if by a miracle. His fame and the number of his pupils increased rapidly, so that Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, made him restrict himself to instruction in Christian doctrine alone.

Origen, to be entirely independent, sold his library for a sum which netted him a daily income of 4 obols (about twelve cents) on which he lived by exercising the utmost frugality. Teaching throughout the day, he devoted the greater part of the night to the study of the Bible and lived a life of rigid asceticism. According to some traditions, he carried this to such an extent that, fearing that his position as a teacher of women as well as men might give ground for scandal to the heathen, he followed Matthew 19:12 literally and castrated himself; this action, if accurately reported, was likely partly influenced, too, by his belief that the Christian must follow the words of his Master without reserve. Later in life, however, he saw reason to judge differently concerning his extreme act. The historical accuracy of this supposed castration has been doubted by some scholars. It has been postulated that this story was circulated by Origen’s rivals in an effort to lessen his importance or to otherwise sully his reputation. Rebecca Denova is one such scholar.

During the reign of emperor Caracalla, about 211-212, Origen paid a brief visit to Rome, but the relative laxity during the pontificate of Zephyrinus seems to have disillusioned him, and on his return to Alexandria he resumed his teaching with zeal increased by the contrast. But the school had far outgrown the strength of a single man; the catechumens pressed eagerly for elementary instruction, and the baptized sought for interpretation of the Bible. Under these circumstances, Origen entrusted the teaching of the catechumens to Heraclas, the brother of the martyr Plutarch, his first pupil.

His own interests became more and more centered in exegesis, and he accordingly studied Hebrew, though there is no certain knowledge concerning his instructor in that language. From about this period (212-213) dates Origen’s acquaintance with Ambrose of Alexandria, whom he was instrumental in converting from Valentianism to orthodoxy. Later (about 218) Ambrose, a man of wealth, made a formal agreement with Origen to promulgate his writings, and all the subsequent works of Origen (except his sermons, which were not expressly prepared for publication) were dedicated to Ambrose.

In 213 or 214, Origen visited Arabia at the request of the prefect, who wished to have an interview with him; and Origen accordingly spent a brief time in Petra, after which he returned to Alexandria. In the following year, a popular uprising at Alexandria caused Caracalla to let his soldiers plunder the city, shut the schools, and expel all foreigners. The latter measure caused Ambrose to take refuge in Caesarea, where he seems to have made his permanent home; and Origen, who felt that the turmoil hindered his activity as a teacher and imperilled his safety, left Egypt, apparently going with Ambrose to Caesarea, where he spent some time. Here, in conformity with local usage based on Jewish custom, Origen, though not ordained, preached and interpreted the Scriptures at the request of the bishops Alexander of Jerusalem and Theoctistus of Caesarea. When, however, the confusion in Alexandria subsided, Demetrius recalled Origen, probably in 216.

Of Origen’s activity during the next decade little is known, but it was obviously devoted to teaching and writing. The latter was rendered the more easy for him by Ambrose, who provided him with more than seven stenographers to take dictation in relays, as many scribes to prepare long-hand copies, and a number of girls to multiply the copies. At the request of Ambrose, he now began a huge commentary on the Bible, beginning with John, and continuing with Genesis, Psalms 1-25, and Lamentations, besides brief exegeses of selected texts (forming the ten books of his Stromateis), two books on the resurrection, and the work On First Principles.


In Origen the Christian Church had its first theologian in the highest sense of the term. Attaining the pinnacle of human speculation, his teaching was not merely theoretical, but was also imbued with an intense ethical power. To the multitude to whom his instruction was beyond grasp, he left mediating images and symbols, as well as the final goal of attainment. In Origen Christianity blended with the paganism in which lived the desire for truth and the longing after God. When he died, however, he left no pupil who could succeed him, nor was the church of his period able to become his heir, and thus, his knowledge was buried. Three centuries later his very name was stricken from the books of the Church; yet in the monasteries of the Greeks his influence still lived on, and the spiritual father of Greek monasticism was that same Origen at whose name the monks had shuddered.

Origen’s Influence on the Later Church

For quite some time, Origen was counted as one of the most important church fathers and his works were widely used in the Church. His exegetical method was standard of the School of Alexandria and the Origenists were an important party in the 4th century debates on Arianism.

Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, e.g., compiled in their first monastery the Philokalia, a collection of Origen’s work, though both of them did neither adopt origenism nor use the Alexandrian allegoric exegesis.

What got Origen theologically into trouble much later with the church were some extreme views adopted by his followers, the Origenists, whose views were then attributed to Origen. In the course of this controversy, some other teachings of his came up, which were not accepted by the general church consensus: among these were the preexistence of souls, universal salvation and a hierarchical concept of the Trinity. These teachings and some extremer ones of his followers were declared anathema by a local council in Constantinople 545 and then, in an aside, by the Second Council of Constantinople 553.

At the council in 553, the anathema against him in his person, declaring him, among others, a heretic, reads as follows:

If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and [if anyone does not equally anathematize] all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema.[1]

As a result of this condemnation, the Roman Catholic Church does not regard Origen as a Church Father, while some in the Orthodox Church do, though with reservations and qualifications. In any event, the Orthodox do not draw up official lists of Church Fathers, and neither church regards Origen as a saint.

The book Reincarnation in Christianity, by the theosophist Geddes MacGregor (1978) asserted that Origen believed in reincarnation. MacGregor is convinced that Origen believed in and taught about reincarnation but that his texts written about the subject have been destroyed. He admits that there is no extant proof for that position. The allegation was also repeated by Shirley MacLaine in her book Out On a Limb.

This cannot be confirmed from the existent writings of Origen. He was cognizant of the concept of reincarnation (metensomatosis “re-embodiment” in his words) from Greek philosophy, but he repeatedly states that this concept is no part of the Christian teaching or scripture. He writes in his Comment on the Gospel of Matthew: “In this place [when Jesus said Elijah was come and referred to John the Baptist] it does not appear to me that by Elijah the soul is spoken of, lest I fall into the doctrine of transmigration, which is foreign to the Church of God, and not handed down by the apostles, nor anywhere set forth in the scriptures” (ibid., 13:1:46–53).