“The Word of God Was Messing With Us”

One surprise I have found in reading Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-253 AD) is that he believes that there are intentional mistakes, impossibilities, and strange things inserted into the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in order to conceal deeper meanings from the multitudes, and invite investigation from the wise. Origen’s allegorical interpretation of sacred scripture is well-known, but probably less-known is his contention that the divine inspiration of scripture was intentionally tricky. Consider the following quotations:

“This was to conceal the doctrine relating to the before-mentioned subjects in words forming a narrative that contained a record dealing with the visible creation” (PA [Peri Archon] IV.2.8).

“Consequently the Word of God has arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted into the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not be completely drawn away by the sheer attractiveness of the language…or else by never moving away from the letter to fail to learn anything of the more divine element” (PA IV.2.9).

“…whenever the Word found that things which had happened in history could be harmonised with these mystical events he used them, concealing from the multitude their deeper meaning…[T]he scripture wove into the story something which did not happen, occasionally something which could not happen, and occasionally something which might have happened but in fact did not” (PA IV.2.9).

 It seems that Origen believes that the Word [Logos] was messing with us, as it were, to entice us to search for deeper meanings in the text. The Word looked for opportune places in the historical accounts of Israel to insert strange claims, to entice those with ears to hear. Is this not a reverse of the typical historical method? For the latter method, when one encounters strange elements in an ancient text, one assumes that we are missing some cultural, historical, or contextual detail that would unlock the meaning of the text. But for Origen, there are intentional oddities in the text to ground the possibility of future interpretations (This is actually an idea native to the New Testament, for example in 1 Peter 1:10-12).

13 thoughts on ““The Word of God Was Messing With Us”

  1. Yes, I suppose this is similar. I always loved that one about the deceptive fossil record!

    However, on a more serious note, we must consider whether any author might use such literary devices such as concealing meanings, etc., regardless of whether the author was the “Divine Logos” or not (that would be the difference).

  2. Ironically, Origen was saying way back then that only a total fool would think that God created the world in six days! This was before there was the whole “science and religion problem.” Little did he know that he was combatting fundamentalists who would come along 1700 years later.

    Just a thought, since you mentioned the fossil record.

  3. I turned in a paper on Book Four of On First Principles just today. I like how he says that if the Bible made perfect sense at a literal level, then people would either think that such a prosaic document is unworthy of God, or they’d just settle for pedestrian stuff like ethics and history. But the weird stuff in the Bible makes you dig deep for the good stuff, like the soul. Israelite souls, and Egyptian souls! And angels!! I mean, wouldn’t everyone rather talk about angels than sex or money?

    Oops, never mind…

  4. Well, joking aside, I’m not sure this sort of esoteric reading is laudable. Some of the content might be (anti-creationist, fluidity of meaning, etc.), but the form is disconcerting in many ways. It allows, for instance, the learned, often court intellectuals, to take on an authority disconnected from the common good. Spinoza makes these points convincingly in his Theological-Political Treatise (I’m going to keep bothering you until you read this) and Nancy Levene’s Spinoza’s Revelation is interesting on these points.

  5. Anthony,

    Well, there is a complexity lacking in my account of “form” (your term here), but also in Origen as well. What I mean by this is that we cannot treat stories which are intentionally allegorical (e.g., the Book of Jonah) the same was as other sentences in a normal account that strike us as strange (both would fall under the category of “spiritual interpretation” for him). In some ways, Origen was simply trying to be sympathetic to the author (divine or human, though divine from his perspective), which is a good thing I affirm. Someone probably did insert weird details into the stories to be caught by those with ears to hear. For example, Origen notices a passage in Genesis that notes that Abraham was standing to the left of a tree. Origen asks, What good is it to know that Abraham was standing under a tree? (I find this humorous). Obviously there is something more than a literal reading called for here.

    But I might agree that esoteric readings are not laudable (it depends on what we mean here. In fact, esoteric reading was the weapon of the Gnostics, which is why Origen underwent so much fire for his allegorical exegesis ). But that does not mean the meaning of a text has to be limited to the understanding of the masses.

    Origen says many things I don’t want to own, but he did read scripture in many attractive ways (e.g., for him the book of Romans is not about the revelation of God’s righteousness and wrath, but that the good news is to cross national boundaries, and be for all peoples and nations. Most commentators do worse than this even today!). The allegorists are admirable because they pay attention to detail.

    And yes, I need to read Spinoza (feel free to keep on me).

    Marvin: Thanks for commenting. I hope your paper went well. What is your thesis? I cannot imagine that many AUFS readers out there have read PA Book IV as recent as you, so I might as well keep the conversation going with someone who has.

  6. The paper was in the context of reading a variety of patristic hermeneutics in a book in the Sources of Early Christian Thought series. So I contrasted Origen with the Antiochene exegetes Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus, who are also in the book.

    I think that what it gets down to is whether or not you think that Christianity is a historical or a literary religion. For Origen it’s clearly the latter, so he is happy to deny the historicity of a lot of texts and at the same time affirm the divine inspiration of those very same texts, which makes him a bit different than many modern historical critics who deny a lot of stuff really happened but are agnostic about or hostile to any idea of inspiration.

    The Antiochenes thought that Christianity was a historical religion, and thus denying the happenedness of one text undermines the whole. They allow for symbolic interpretations as long as they are firmly grounded in the text’s literal, historical sense.To deny a text’s literal meaning and interpret it allegorically was for them like building an air castle.

    Antiochene exegesis is good. I like Diodore’s moving commendation of the Psalms to contemporary readers looking for words to express their agonies and ecstasies. But Origen is sounder methodologically, because he makes a good point: Does God really don bib overalls, a John Deere hat and go out and plant a garden? Did God really have to ban the eating of vultures?

  7. Marvin:

    (In regards to you last two paragraphs) Origen’s trouble (from a historical perspective) is not that he denies certain historical events (though he does deny some), but that he does not seem to offer a clear method for discerning which texts we are to take “bodily” (literally), and which only “spiritually” (allegorically). No one, for example, has ever interpreted Song of Songs literally (at least no whole tradition/group/sect has). This text demands “spiritual” interpretation and resists literal (according to Origen). But what of other texts? Yes, maybe God did not have an actual prohibition of vultures in mind, but did God have the same thing going on with pork? The big question for this hermeneutic is how to decide which text ought to be interpreted in which way.

    Just a thought.

  8. APS: ” It allows, for instance, the learned, often court intellectuals, to take on an authority disconnected from the common good. Spinoza makes these points convincingly in his Theological-Political Treatise”

    Kvond: One wonders if one can find a nexus point between Spinoza’s interpretation and Origen’s. Spinoza’s point is that these historical inconsistencies and illusions are products of the imagination, and imagination trying to come to grips with the true reality of Substance and human relations. In a sense, they are Substance expressing itself (through the prophets) in a deceptive way (to readers who are not careful). Origen’s reading is not so far off, though more anthropomorphic. The deception is intentional, and must be negotiated with a veiw towards the possibility that we can be deceieved. In a strange way, Origen says that the deception is “intentional” and Spinoza says its “intensional”.

    It is true that Spinoza is against any “esoteric” reading, of a truth behind the “truth” which theologians might be in charge of, but again, as a dissembler of the “imagination” he himself awards something of the same, in a different way.

  9. Do you think so, Thomas? He says that any text which is impossible, absurd or superfluous must be interpreted spiritually and not literally. But he also says that most texts can be profitably interpreted at the literal level. It seems as though he trusts the reader’s rationality and common sense to pick out the texts that demand a non-literal interpretation.

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