Tag Archives: origen and scripture

Book Review: Origen and Scripture by Peter Martens

Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $125.00

Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $125.00

Many thanks to Oxford University Press for this free review copy.

In Peter Martens’ latest work, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, he seeks to sketch a picture of the life of Origen as an exegete. Scholarship in Origen studies has produced many books and articles focusing on the specific aspects of Origen’s exegesis such as his hermeneutical method, allegory, and his doctrine of Scripture. Martens is unique in focusing on the whole of Origen’s interpretive enterprise. How did Origen view the ideal interpreter and what tools did he use to achieve this goal? Origen viewed the practice of interpretation as a holistic experience. Indeed, scriptural interpretation was both a scholarly endeavor and a spiritual exercise. Martens goal is to “advance a new and integrative thesis about the contours of the ancient exegetical life as Origen understood it, and as best we can gather, also practiced it (6).” By building on the work of Lubac, Hanson, Torjesen, and Neuschäfer, Martens examines the exegete, Origen, for his understanding of the ideal interpreter and how he practiced it.

The first part of the book deals with Origen the philologist. Martens helpfully paints a picture of the academic setting in Origen’s day to provide the basis for his philological work. Turning to the pedagogical setting that Origen would have been teaching the reader learns that Origen taught many students who did not have the skill set or the motivation to pursue the intense study of Scripture as Origen did. He often referred to his pupils as “simpliciores, that is, the ‘simple ones (27).’” The takeaway here is that Origen was not demanding this theological rigor to a group of highly educated and motived students but rather the simpliciores, the people in the pew and students.

What was this directive that Origen gave his students and himself? He called his students to a life academic rigor studying the scriptures. Origen was trained as a philologist and this is the practice that he deems fit for the proper study of the scriptures. According to Origen, the philologist must be trained in general education and philosophy and use the insights from these disciplines in the interpretation of Scripture. Martens shows how his ideals of the interpreter and his own life were synchronized. Both his detractors and proponents all agree that Origen was competent in all these areas. Martens says, “he helped his puipls realize this ambitious project for themselves. Origen, in other words, issued a scholarly mandate that he had already appropriated, and was eager to promote in his own circles (38).”

Chapter three describes four main philological exercises: text critical analysis, reading the passage out loud, literary and historical analysis, and aesthetic and moral evaluation. It is in the philological practice that we see Origen’s wide use of his secular general education. He employs his background in zoology, arithmetic, cosmology, and many other areas to give himself the complete picture of scripture. How does this relate to Origen’s reputation of an allegorist? Martens says that the “answer is clear: allegorical interpretation was a legitimate dimension of philological inquiry…philology, in other words, could be practiced in a literal or allegorical mode — but it was always philology.” Allegory is rooted in the historic literal sense of the scripture. Only when this is understood can the interpreter then seek out a loftier interpretation.

The latter part of the book addresses how Origen envisioned the ideal interpreter in the Christian faith. Origen sought to use the best of Greco-Roman scholarship and integrate it with Christianity. Since God is creator, Origen saw Greco-Roman scholarship profitable for the interpreter. In the same way, the study of philology helped one understand the divine Scriptures and contemplate the mind of God. The study of the Scriptures in this way was a pathway of salvation for the interpreter. The more devotion one has for the Scriptures the more devotion one has for the faith (92).

What are the boundaries in the study of Scripture? In chapters 6–7, Martens explains Origen’s exegesis against the Jewish interpreters and the heterodox. Against the heterodox he does this by saying, “Scripture is not discerned according to its spiritual sense, but is understood according to the mere letter (107).” It would be easy to assume that Origen thinks his opponents should read allegorically. But this is not the distinction that Origen is arguing for. Martens argues that Origen’s two main issues with this group was their uncritical use of secular teaching and not staying within the Church’s rule of faith (108). When his opponents interpret outside these two boundaries that is when they are reading the “mere letter.” Martens goes on to say that “as a rule, Origen was targeting a more basic and deficient doctrinal current that ran through Gnostic scriptural interoperation: its phonology was deficient when (and only when) it promulgated a teaching at odds with the sort of Christianity Origen represented (115).” This section continues to show that Origen was not just a mere allegorist who did not take literal meaning (in modern terms) seriously. Origen believed the ideal interpreter should read the scriptures within the rule of faith that had been passed down by the apostles (113). This rule of faith is one of the boundary markers in exegesis. When one interprets outside these boundaries then one is not following in the tradition of the apostles.

In a similar manner when Origen is writing against Jewish interpretations he charges them with “literal” exegesis. Commonly held assumptions think that Origen was only against their “literal” interpretations of the Scriptures. Martens carefully shows that this line of thinking needs to be carefully articulated and is not as simple as “literal” versus “allegorical.” Against the Jews, Origen argues that their “literal” exegesis is deficient because it does not take into account that Christ had fulfilled the law. When the ceremonial aspects of the law were interpreted literally they were in error precisely because they did not realize that Christ had fulfilled the law. Ceremonial laws now needed to be interpreted allegorically because they had no literal bearing on Christians now. Origen does not throw out their literal exegesis in full. Many times he has actually in agreement with their exegesis on other issues (143).

In the last three chapters of the book Martens addresses Origen’s view on the moral conduct of the ideal interpreter and the salvific value of Scriptural exegesis. For the ideal interpreter, one must be morally upright in order to interpret Scripture faithfully. The interpreter is to seek after God in prayer asking for divine aid in his study of the Scriptures. The “meaning of Scripture was inaccessible” without divine aid. The reason the ideal interpreter needs study and understand the Scriptures with the help of God is because the Scriptures show the way (and aid the way) in the salvation of the interpreter. Martens notes that the Scriptures are “useful or beneficial, serving as an instrument in the divine plan of salvation for those who read and heard it well (194).” Since the intent of the Scriptures is to transform the life of its hearers one must meticulously read and stud them in a faithful manner.

In the final chapter Martens concludes his book by arguing that study of Scripture was part of the beginning, middle, and end of the plan of salvation for the interpreter. When interpreting the Scriptures, one is seeking to “reverse or counteract the original fall, in an attempt to reprise, as best as possible, the prelapsarian communion and contemplation for God (234).” Origen understood that before the fall there was a state for the soul that cont
emplated and communed with God but this was lost in the fall. The reason Scriptural interpretation is so vital is that it brings the interpreter in direct contact with the God who revealed himself in Holy Scripture. Even though the ideal interpreter read with veiled eyes he was on his way in the plan of salvation to communing with God once again. After death if one has been studying the Scriptures they are in a place to “resume the scholarship they now practiced in the middle act (242).”

In this detailed study Martens successfully shows how Origen envisioned the ideal interpreter. In many instances he is correcting incorrect readings of Origen in the past. In many instances he shows a more nuanced and articulated understanding Origen’s exegesis. One example is in his discussion of Origen’s disagreement against the Jews. Some scholars think of it as an enigma that Origen would argue for an allegorical reading of certain passages when Jewish interpreters read allegorically on certain passages. Martens carefully argues how Origen was broadly against “literal” interpretations. 

After reading this book, one will gain a holistic picture of Origen, the ideal interpreter he sought to become. This book fills a missing link in scholarship that focuses both on the hermeneutical practices of Origen and the biographical journey of the ideal interpreter. I highly recommend this book.

Download the PDF of this review here

Peter Martens is the Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.

 

Origen, Basil, and Reading Holy Scripture with a Veil

I have written elsewhere on Origen’s rejection of “literal exegesis.” against the heterodox but Origen also rejects some of the “literal” readings of the Jews. When he does this he speaks of the “veil” that is over their interpretation. He gets this language from 2 Cor. 3:15 saying that veil is an interpretation without drawing upon the spiritual meaning of the text. Peter Martens[1] argues that Origen is arguing against two main readings:

  1. Reading the ceremonial and liturgical mandates as applicable to New Testament believers (141).
  2. A denial that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament (145)

Origen is not alone in using the “veil” analogy to a literal reading of Scripture. Basil in his work, On the Holy Spirit[2], similarly argues against this literal reading. Basil argues that one must lift the veil to see the Spirit in these Old Testament passages. Like Origen, he makes charges against the Jews for a “literal” reading. He says, “Because he who attends merely to the meaning of the letter and wastes time with its legal observances covers his own heart with the Jewish interoperation of the letter, that is to say, with a veil (90).” The believer is supposed to follow Moses and remove the veil to see God. He goes on to say “so the obscurity of the teachings of the Law is analogous to the veil on the face of Moses, while spiritual vision, to the turning to the Lord. Therefore, he who strips off the letter in his reading of the Law turns to the Lord — the Lord here is called Spirit—and becomes similar to Moses whose face was glorified by God’s epiphany (90).”

By reading these Old Testament texts if the interpreter removes the veil and dives into the mysteries of the Holy Scripture then he is imitating Moses in seeking after God. The Spirit is the one who lifts the veil to point us to Christ. Like Origen, a rejection of reading according the letter of the text means more than a flippant spiritual reading. A spiritual reading is one that rightly sees that Christ has fulfilled the law and interpreters should read in light of that fact.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. – Luke 24:27


  1. Martens, Peter W. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.  ↩

  2. Basil, and Stephen M Hildebrand. On the Holy Spirit. Yonkers, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.  ↩

The Musical Harmony of the Scriptures

For just as the different chords of the harp and zither, each of which produces a sound unique to it that seems not to be similar to the sound of the other, are thought to be out of accord on account of the dissemblance of sounds by the uncultured who do not know the principle of musical harmony, so also with those who do not know how to listen to the harmony of God in the sacred Scriptures. These think that the Old is inharmonious with the New, or the prophets with the law, or the gospels with themselves, the apostle with the gospel or himself or the [other] apostles. But the one who has learned the music of God…this one will produce the sound of the music of God…For he knows that all Scripture is one harmonious instrument of God, producing one saving melody from different sounds for those who desire to learn, a melody that calms and hinders every action of the evil spirit. – Origen

Peter Martens Origen and Scripture, p. 205. His translation from Philocalia 6.2/SC 302, 310.1–21

The Role of Prayer in Origen’s Exegetical Endeavors

Peter Martens has written a fantastic book, Origen and Scripture examining the exegetic life of Origen and how he perceived the ideal interpreter of Scripture. I am now through chapter 8 of the book and so far Martens has examined the tools of Origen’s exegetical endeavor[1] and his placement within the Greco-Roman educational system (67) in the first part of the book. In the final part Martens examines Origen’s view of the ideal interpreter in the way manner they conduct their exegesis. He says that Origen believed that “exegetes did not simply offer scholarly assessments of the message of salvation inscribed on Scripture’s pages; the exercise of biblical interpretation was also a means of participating in this living drama, a way of life culminating in the vision of God (67).”

The chapter, Conduct: Moral Inquiry, I think is especially insightful for getting a glimpse of Origen’s ideal of the posture one should have when interpreting scripture. Scripture cannot be interpreted apart from a moral life that is seeking after God. Martens states that “only those who were ‘worthy’ or ‘pure’ — that is, only those who had made some moral progress on the itinerary of the Christian faith — could interpret the Scriptures well (161).” Someone who came to the Scriptures without this moral pursuit would read into the Scriptures ideas contrary to the high moral life that Scripture speaks of. Martens outlines three ideals that Origen believed to be necessary in the interpreters pursuit of the meaning of the Scriptures: exegetical virtues, faith in the scriptures, and prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide in the exegetes interpretation.

I think most telling of Origen’s posture when it came to the study of the Scriptures is his emphasis on prayer during study. For Origen, the divine Scriptures are a mystery and contain many difficult truths that can only be understood with the help of the Spirit. Martens says, “it is remarkable that Origen frequently spoke of his exegetical project as anything but an autonomous affair in which he wrestled with the text in isolation from its divine authors (italics mine) (182).” Regardless of the tools in the interpreter had at his disposal it was prayer that unlocked the truth of the Scriptures. Origen reflecting on the difficulty of some of the truths in Scripture says, “And we see this daily among us when we search for some true meaning in the Scriptures. Before we find what we are looking for, we suffer from an absence of meanings, until such an absence is brought to an end in us by God who gives to the worthy ‘food at the right time’ (183–84).”

This book is an enlightening look into the exegetical mind of Origen and his view of the ideal interpreter. Not only is this book helpful in learning more about the life of Origen but it also gives interpreters today food for thought in their own exegetical endeavors.

Thanks of Oxford University Press for this review copy. I will be writing a full review of this book when finished.


  1. See my short post on Origen the Philologist  ↩