Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On Origen of Alexandria
"He Was a True Teacher"
H.H. Benedict XVI
April 25, 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our meditations on the great figures of the ancient Church, today we
will get to know one of the most outstanding. Origen of Alexandria is
one of the key people for the development of Christian thought. He draws
on the teachings he inherited from Clement of Alexandria, whom we
reflected upon last Wednesday, and brings them forward in a totally
innovative way, creating an irreversible turn in Christian thought.
He was a true teacher; this is how his students nostalgically remembered
him: not only as a brilliant theologian, but as an exemplary witness of
the doctrine he taught. "He taught," wrote Eusebius of Caesarea, his
enthusiastic biographer, "that one's conduct must correspond to the
word, and it was for this reason above all that, helped by God's grace,
he led many to imitate him" (Hist. Eccl. 6,3,7).
His entire life was permeated by a desire for martyrdom. He was 17 years
old when, in the 10th year of Septimius Severus' reign, the persecution
against Christians began in Alexandria.
Clement, his teacher, left the city, and Origen's father, Leonides, was
thrown into prison. His son ardently yearned for martyrdom, but he would
not be able to fulfill this desire. Therefore, he wrote to his father,
exhorting him to not renounce giving the supreme witness of the faith.
And when Leonides was beheaded, young Origen felt he must follow the
example of his father.
Forty years later, while he was preaching in Caesarea, he said: "I
cannot rejoice in having had a father who was a martyr if I do not
persevere in good conduct and I do not honor the nobility of my race,
that is to the martyrdom of my father and the witness he gave in Christ"
(Hom. Ez. 4,8).
In a later homily -- when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of Emperor
Philip the Arab, the possibility of ever becoming a martyr seemed to
fade -- Origen exclaimed: "If God would consent to let me be washed in
my blood, receiving a second baptism by accepting death for Christ, I
would surely go from this world. … But blessed are they who merit these
things" (Hom. Lud. 7.12).
These words reveal Origen's nostalgia for the baptism by blood. And
finally, this irresistible desire was, in part, fulfilled. In 250,
during the persecution by Decius, Origen was arrested and cruelly
tortured. Severely weakened by the sufferings he endured, he died a few
years later. He was not yet 70 years old.
We mentioned earlier the "irreversible turn" that Origen caused in the
history of theology and Christian thought. But in what did this "turn"
consist, this turning point so full of consequences?
In substance, he grounded theology in the explanations of the
Scriptures; or we could also say that his theology is the perfect
symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In truth, the characterizing
mark of Origen's doctrine seems to reside in his incessant invitation to
pass from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in the
knowledge of God.
And this "allegoristic" approach, wrote von Balthasar, coincides
precisely "with the development of Christian dogma carried out by the
teachings of the doctors of the Church," who -- in one way or another --
accepted the "lesson" of Origen. In this way, Tradition and the
magisterium, foundation and guarantee of theological research, reach the
point of being "Scripture in act" (cf. "Origene: il mondo, Cristo e la
Chiesa," tr. it., Milano 1972, p. 43).
We can say, therefore, that the central nucleus of Origen's immense
literary works consists in his "three-pronged reading" of the Bible. But
before talking about this "reading," let us look at the literary
production of the Alexandrian.
St. Jerome, in his Epistle 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310
homilies by Origen. Unfortunately most of those works are now lost, but
the few surviving works make him the most prolific author of the first
three Christian centuries. His array of interests extended from exegesis
to dogma, to philosophy, to apologetics, to asceticism and to mysticism.
It is an important and global vision of Christian life.
The inspirational core of this work is, as we mentioned earlier, the
"three-pronged reading" of the Scriptures developed by Origen during his
life. With this expression we are alluding to the three most important
ways -- not in any order of importance -- with which Origen dedicated
himself to the study of Scripture.
He read the Bible with the intent to understand the text as best he
could and to offer a trustworthy explanation. This, for example, is the
first step: to know what is actually written and to know what this text
wanted to say intentionally and initially. He carried out a great study
with this in mind and created an edition of the Bible with six parallel
columns, from right to left, with the Hebrew texts written in Hebrew --
Origen had contact with rabbis to better understand the original Hebrew
text of the Bible.
He then transliterated the Hebrew text into Greek and then did four
different translations into Greek, which permitted him to compare the
various possibilities for translation. This synopsis is called "Hexapla"
(six columns). This is the first point: to know exactly what is written,
the text in itself.
The second "reading" is Origen's systematic reading of the Bible along
with its most famous commentaries. They faithfully reproduce the
explanations give by Origen to his students, in Alexandria and Caesarea.
He proceeds almost verse by verse, probing amply and deeply, with
philological and doctrinal notes. He works with great attention to
exactness to better understand what the sacred authors wanted to say.
In conclusion, even before his ordination, Origen dedicated himself a
great deal to the preaching of the Bible, adapting himself to varied
audiences. In any case, as we see in his Homilies, the teacher,
dedicated to systematic interpretation of verses, breaks them down into
Also in the Homilies, Origen takes every opportunity to mention the
various senses of sacred Scripture that help or express a way of growth
in faith: There is the "literal" sense, but this hides depths that are
not apparent upon a first reading; the second dimension is the "moral"
sense: what we must do as we live the Word; and in the end we have the
"spiritual" sense, the unity of Scripture in its diversity.
This would be interesting to show. I tried somewhat, in my book "Jesus
of Nazareth," to show the multiple dimensions of the Word in today's
world, of sacred Scripture, that must first of all be respected in the
historical sense. But this sense brings us toward Christ, in the light
of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, how to live.
We find traces of this, for example in the ninth Homily on Numbers,
where Origen compares the Scriptures to nuts: "The doctrine of the Law
and of the Prophets in the school of Christ," he affirms, "is bitter
reading, like the peel, after which you come to the shell which is the
moral doctrine, in the third place you will find the meaning of the
mysteries, where the souls of the saints are fed in this life and in the
next" (Hom. Num. 9,7).
Following along this path, Origen began promoting a "Christian reading"
of the Old Testament, brilliantly overcoming the challenge of the
heretics -- above all the Gnostics and the Marcionites -- who ended up
rejecting the Old Testament.
The Alexandrian wrote about this in the same Homily on Numbers: "I do
not call the Law an 'Old Testament,' if I understand it in the Spirit.
The Law becomes an 'Old Testament' only for those that what to
understand it in terms of the flesh," that is to say, stopping at the
mere reading of the text. But, "for us, we who understand it and apply
it in the Spirit and in the sense of the Gospel, the Law is ever new,
and the two Testaments are for us a new Testament, not because of a
temporal date, but because of the newness of the meaning. … For the
sinner on the other hand and those who do not respect the pact of
charity, even the Gospels get old" (Hom. Num. 9,4).
I invite you to welcome the teachings of this great teacher of the faith
into your hearts. He reminds us that in the prayerful reading of
Scripture and in a coherent way of life, the Church is renewed and
The Word of God, which never ages or has its meaning exhausted, is a
privileged way of doing this. It is the Word of God, through the work of
the Holy Spirit, which leads us always to the whole truth (cf. Benedict
XVI, international congress for the 40th anniversary of the dogmatic
constitution "Dei Verbum," in Insegnamenti, vol. I, 2005, pp. 552-553).
Let us ask the Lord to enable us thinkers, theologians and exegetes of
today to find this multidimensional nature, this permanent validity of
We pray that the Lord will help us to read the sacred Scriptures in a
prayerful way, to really nourish ourselves on the true bread of life,
[Translation by ZENIT]
[After the audience, the Holy Father greeted the people in several
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechetical journey through the early Church brings us to the
remarkable figure of Origen of Alexandria. This great teacher of the
faith was highly esteemed by his students not only for his theological
brilliance, but also for his exemplary moral conduct. His father,
Leonides, was martyred during the reign of Septimius Severus. Though
Origen himself always had a deep yearning to die a martyr's death, he
decided that the best way to honour his father and glorify Christ was by
living a good and upright life. Later, under the emperor Decius, he was
arrested and tortured for his faith, dying a few years later. Origen is
best known for his unique contribution to theology: an "irreversible
turn" which grounded theology in Scripture. He emphasized an allegorical
and spiritual reading of the word of God, and demonstrated how the three
levels of meaning -- the literal, the moral, and the spiritual --
progressively lead us to a deeper prayer life and closer relationship
with God. Origen teaches us that when we meditate on God's word and
conform our lives to it, we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to the
fullness of truth. May we follow Origen's example by praying with
scripture, always listening attentively to God's word.
I extend a cordial welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims. I am
pleased to greet those attending the Thirteenth World Seminar for
Catholic Civil Aviation Chaplains and Chaplaincy Members, as well as
pilgrims from the following countries: England, Ireland, Sweden,
Finland, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States of America. May God
bless you all!
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