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Homilies on the Psalms:
Codex Monacensis Graecus 314

by origen
translated by joseph w. trigg
catholic university of america, 480 pages, $45

No Christian writer of the early centuries elicited greater hostility among critics of the new religion than did Origen of Alexandria. He was born toward the end of the second century, at a time when Greek thinkers began to sense that Christians presented a formidable social and intellectual challenge to traditional ways. Porphyry, the great Neo­platonist, faulted Origen for using his “skill in argument” to give a “Greek twist to foreign tales,” as if Origen’s way of reading Scripture had been learned from Greek thinkers, rather than from the apostles.

In his Ecclesiastical History, ­Eusebius of Caesarea defended ­Origen against Porphyry’s calumny. Origen, says Eusebius, “clung firmly to the Christian principles his parents had taught him.” So great was ­Origen’s learning and so deep his understanding of the Scriptures that well into the medieval period his hand is evident in the commentaries and sermons of later writers. It is apparent, for example, that Jerome, the fourth-century biblical scholar writing in Latin, had Origen’s commentaries before him and drew deeply on them as he wrote his own expositions.

As much as Origen was admired by later writers and his biblical exegesis embraced by them, some of his speculative ideas did not fit comfortably in the theological categories that later generations took as normative. In the late fourth century a series of writers, eager to expose Origen’s errors, accused him of heresy, and at a council in Constantinople in a.d. 543 his condemnation was made official. To document the charges against him a list of his errors was compiled. As a consequence, Origen was never venerated as a saint and many of his writings have come down to us only in Latin translations or in fragments. In the late twentieth century, there was a revival of interest in Origen (I once saw an icon of Origen standing on a podium teaching a company of saints, a fitting way to recognize his influence on later generations). But those seeking to understand him were often unable to read his ­writings directly.

So it was with astonishment and delight that in 2012, students of the early Church learned that the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in ­Munich had identified a twelfth-­century Byzantine manuscript containing twenty-nine homilies of Origen on the psalms in his original Greek. The Italian scholar Lorenzo Perrone examined the manuscript and concluded that they were indeed authentic. The Greek manuscript was edited by a team of scholars led by Perrone and published a few years ago in the distinguished series of patristic texts Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller. Now the homilies have been ably translated by Joseph W. Trigg, an American scholar, with an introduction, biblical references, and notes. Today it is possible to read in English how the greatest biblical scholar of the early Church interpreted the psalms before they had been domesticated by generations of interpreters. What is more, these homilies display Origen at the height of his powers; they are his last writings and were preached in ­Caesarea shortly before he was imprisoned, tortured, and executed during the Decian persecution in a.d. 250.

The homilies were taken down in shorthand by skilled stenographers as they were being preached, and the text has an immediacy that is ­unusual among the more finished writings of the Church Fathers. There is no evidence of a church building in ­Caesarea in the mid-third century; the homilies were most likely preached in the bishop’s house (Origen mentions the presence of the bishop, whom he called papa), or in the audience hall of a wealthy Christian. It was an intimate setting that allowed a back-and-forth with the congregation. The language is simple and direct, and Origen is attentive to his hearers, including his critics. It is also noteworthy, given later suspicion about his theological views, that he speaks as an orthodox teacher who is ­sharply critical of heretics “led astray by an imagined truth.” His judgments on the Gnostic Valentinus and on ­Marcion, who had rejected the Old Testament, are particularly harsh. In an aside, he calls Valentinus the “first born” of that “disgusting knowledge (gnosis).”

Of greater interest are offhand comments addressed to those in the congregation who are impatient with his way of interpreting the psalms. Some, for example, complain that Origen allegorizes the words of the biblical text. “Do not interpret figuratively and do not allegorize,” they say. “Keep to the wording.” In another sermon he says, yes, I am allegorizing, and “some are going to be irritated at the allegory.” Citing Psalm 81, he urges them to “open wide their mouths” (81:10) so God can fill them with the full meaning of Scripture. In another place he cites the words of ­Jesus: “See, I give you authority to tread upon snakes and scorpions and every power of the enemy, and nothing will harm you” (Luke 10:19). What kind of snakes has Jesus given his followers authority to tread on? asks Origen. If someone takes Jesus’s words to refer to actual snakes, let him go ahead and tread on the snakes, especially vipers and cobras, and see what happens.

Origen takes great delight in the plenitude of images found in the psalms. And he is fearless in letting his imagination roam as he ponders the spiritual meaning of the text before him. To wit, in the Septuagint version of Psalm 80 (81 Hebrew) the inscription at the head of the psalm reads, “concerning the vats.” This prompts him to call this psalm and the one that precedes it “vintage psalms,” because in 80:8 the psalmist says, “Thou didst bring a vine out of Egypt; and thou didst drive out the nations and plant it.” He notes that the psalm inscription refers not to one vat, but to plural “vats.” And this leads him to say that there are varieties of grapes from which wine is produced, some yielding dark wine, others white, others sweet wine. This suggests that “vats” is a metaphor for the Church and for the different ways of life among Christians, how they practice the faith, in the cultivation of contemplation, in teaching and oversight, some being married, others loving chastity. As each type of grape is unique and should not be mixed with other grapes to produce good wine, so there is no one Christian way to live. All this from the heading of a psalm.

One can see the same fertile intelligence in Origen’s reading of “Make a road for him who rides on the sunsets” (Ps. 68:4). The term “road” appears in the Septuagint, rather than “song” in the Hebrew. This prompts Origen to cite Isaiah, “Cast away the stones from the road, and make a road for my people” (Is. 62:10). A competent road builder, says Origen, clears stones from the road so that those who travel on it will not stumble. The psalmist, however, is not speaking about an actual road. The road is a metaphor for removing stumbling blocks that stand in the way of understanding the ­Scriptures. For the “whole Scripture is the road leading to salvation.” The text is speaking about a “road within you, so that God may not only dwell in you . . . but walk around in you.” Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “I shall dwell in them” (6:16), and David did not want to give sleep to his eyes until he had made a road, or a house, for“the one who wants to walk around in you” (Ps. 132). If God is to walk around in you, the place must be clean and ­commodious.

Origen knew exactly what he was doing when he used allegory to interpret the psalms. Christians had doubts that the Old Testament was spiritually edifying. Some said: What does Moses mean to me, now that Christ has come? In one instance, when a passage from the book of Deuteronomy has been read, some of Origen’s hearers object, “It is as though there were no Gospels to read.” In response, Origen quotes Jesus’s words, all of which come from the book of Deuteronomy, when he wrestled with the devil in the wilderness: “You shall prostrate yourself before the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve” (Deut. 6:13); “A human being shall not live on bread alone, but by every utterance that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3); and, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). Origen adds, that Jesus is “not about to take away the ancient things,” for they are a ladder that reaches up to higher things.

Contrary to Porphyry’s charge, in a homily on the book of Exodus Origen explains that his teacher in matters of biblical interpretation was the apostle Paul, who taught the Church how to interpret the books of the Law. He cites Paul’s famous statement in 1 Corinthians 10:

Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all were baptized in ­Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. And they drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and the rock was Christ.

Isn’t it obvious, says ­Origen, how much Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament differs from the literal meaning? Paul provided us a model, and it is the task of later interpreters to follow his example in interpreting other biblical passages. For Origen, and for other early commentators on the Bible, allegory was not the result of a gradual spiritualizing of the Scripture; it was an interpretation of the ancient book in light of the revelation in Christ, a change of register that changed everything that had been written earlier in the historical books, the prophets, the psalms.

Origen’s homilies on the psalms represent the most extensive collection of early Christian preaching prior to the vast body of sermons preached after the peace of the Church in the early fourth century. They were heard by Christians long before the famous sermons of ­Ambrose or Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria or Gregory the Great. Few writings from the early Church offer the rich bounty found in this volume. These homilies allow the reader to observe at close range and in fine detail, in the springtime of the Church’s history, how one of the great teachers of the early centuries went about the task of expounding the Scriptures before a Christian congregation. It is a book to be read slowly and reverently, with an eye for the unexpected.

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.