In 2012 the Bavarian State Library announced that it had found among its Greek manuscripts twenty-nine homilies by Origen that were thought to be lost. These are actual transcripts, the closest we can come to hearing the voice of the third-century teacher. That voice fell silent after he was imprisoned and tortured in 251, when the Emperor Decius made the first concerted attempt to eradicate Christianity. Lorenzo Perrone, the principal editor of the critical edition of the Munich manuscript, published in 2015, demonstrated that these homilies are Origen’s last words, written shortly before his arrest.
Decius had good reason to want Origen silenced. Origen tells believers how our bodies together become God’s body, a dynamic force spreading through the Roman politeia and transforming it. The recovered homilies are on ten Psalms. These ten, an odd group, were selected because they posed problems. Origen took his time, spending the better part of an hour explaining no more than a dozen or so lines in each homily. Only three psalms were short enough to be covered by one homily.
Homilia means “discussion.” I read and discussed the homilies with an old friend who has spent much of her career studying Origen’s most brilliant and faithful legatee, Evagrius of Pontus. Origen was a subtle thinker whose style, always complex and often compressed, can make him hard to figure out. It does not help that, as a teacher, he thought that his audience would be more likely to listen if he kept them guessing what he was going to say next. His approach to the Bible, though invariably logical, relies on assumptions that we no longer share. We had to think with Origen before he made sense. Solving one puzzle after another together was fun, since the effort was generously repaid.
I began writing a translation of the homilies in 2015. The work went slowly since I found myself easily distracted by the presidential campaign. My productivity improved on November 9, 2016. I woke up hoping that what I remembered from the night before was a nightmare, but knowing that it wasn’t. The third century was a tough time, too, but a welcome relief from what looked like the death of America as a multiracial democracy. (My translation should appear this winter as Volume 141 in the Fathers of the Church series.)
As I began to translate, I sought to reflect Origen’s care in using words by consistently using one English word that corresponded to one important word in Greek. The hardest word to translate this way is the most important: logos. Logos covers a wide range of meanings. It signifies the divine Logos; the rational order of the cosmos; our capacity to comprehend that rational order; rational discourse; the message conveyed by the words of the Bible; or any “speech” such as a homily. The problem with translating this word by many English words is that, in Origen, logos can mean two or more of these things at once. Using different terms in translation, or even uppercase and lowercase to distinguish the divine Logos from logos as human speech, does not work. It negates the heart of Origen’s teaching, the divinization of humanity, including human speech. The Bible itself is a logos that is both human and divine.
The word Origen uses for the “presence” of the divine Logos is tough to translate in a different way. He largely avoids the terms used for this in the Bible, parousia and epiphaneia, words that gave names to the liturgical seasons before and after Christmas. Instead, he effectively introduced a new term into Christian usage, epidēmia. In Origen’s time this word was occasionally used for official visits, but epidēmia usually meant what it sounds like: “epidemic.”
Over the years I spent working on my translation, such attention to vocabulary became a habit of mind. On Pentecost Sunday this habit of mind briefly interfered with my worship. My wife and I attend the National Cathedral on YouTube as we shelter in place. That Sunday Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington D.C., opened the service with a heartfelt statement acknowledging the failure of our national leadership to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and the reality of systemic racism. The next day, June 1, she had the opportunity to convey much the same message to the whole country when she responded to President Trump’s bizarre photo op at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square.
The Pentecost Eucharist following her greeting was inspiring and beautiful, but I had a difficult moment when I heard the Pentecost story in Acts 2 read from the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV translation does just what I had been trying not to do for four years. It renders one Greek word, glōssa, as two different words: “tongues” (as of fire) appeared on the heads of those assembled, but they spoke (in other) “languages.”
This was an unforced error. Glōssa, like “tongue” in English, is the word for a body part. Like “tongue,” it also denotes something shaped like a tongue (a flame) and a purpose for which the tongue is used (language). The author of Acts used the ordinary Greek words for “flame” and “language” in all other contexts. Here he or she deliberately chose to use one word with two meanings. My intention in recounting this is not to join Robert Alter and David Bentley Hart in slamming contemporary Bible translations (though I agree with them). Rather, I want to share what came up when I got to wondering how Origen would approach the play on words in Acts 2.
Though I knew he would have thought it was important, I could not find Origen’s explanation of glōssa; his homilies on Acts are long gone. I did discover that in his surviving writings he referred to the “tongues as of fire” as an image for the soul’s purification. This purification is benign when we are seeking it, like the gathered Church on Pentecost, or even when we are open to it, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. On the other hand, fire is a painful but necessary remedy for those who must experience the consequences of their bad choices before they turn back to God.
Origen considered what happened at Pentecost a moment that transcends time—whenever believers gather in worship, it is Pentecost, the Day of the Lord. The Spirit is not a material substance divided up and parceled out; on Pentecost believers share the Spirit much as physicians share the science of medicine. Together the men and women who followed Jesus, already gathered in earnest prayer and study, suddenly catch on to the spiritual intention of the Hebrew Bible and share that understanding with more and more people from all nations, who catch on too. This is a great wonder (thauma). When Origen discusses thauma in the homilies, I avoided translating it as “miracle,” which implies supernatural intervention in the way things naturally are. Like Plato, who called thauma the beginning of philosophy, Origen believed that wonder arises when, by logos, we actually catch on to the way things are.
When I found that I could not find anything in Origen’s works about the use of glōssa in Acts 3–4, I decided not to guess what he might have said but to take the use of the word as a problem for myself, informed by his perspective. That is what Origen would have wanted. In his homily on Psalm 81 (Septuagint numbering), he says that a teacher’s goal is not to make another student, but to make another teacher. In pursuing this goal, the teacher imitates Christ, whose epidēmia was not intended to make us servants, but to make us friends, gods like him.
Origen himself had studied with Ammonius Saccas, a Platonist philosopher. Ammonius must have been an extraordinary teacher. Plotinus, the other great genius of the third century, was also his student. Origen’s understanding of Pentecost as an intellectual breakthrough resonates with a remarkable passage from Plato’s Seventh Letter (which he considered genuine) describing a breakthrough in understanding philosophy:
After practicing detailed comparison of names and definitions and visual and other sense perceptions, after scrutinizing them in benevolent disputation by the use of question and answer without jealousy, at last in a flash the understanding of each blazes up, and the mind, as it exerts all its power to the limit of human capacity, is flooded with light. (344b, translated by L. A. Post)
Origen does not cite philosophers in the Psalm homilies, though his training as one constantly shows through. He does discuss how philosophers train their students. Like Jesus, who trained his disciples with parables, they give them problems to solve.
The homilies enable us to observe one such problem, a phrase that was puzzling in its context, as it gnawed at Origen. His homilies follow a standard pattern: (1) an introduction sets forth a theme; (2) the main body of the homily discusses the text phrase by phrase; and (3) a concluding exhortation incorporates the last phrase covered without much explanation. When there is more than one homily on a Psalm, the next homily takes up where he left off. One homily breaks that pattern. Origen incorporated the phrase “And I said, now I have begun” into the concluding exhortation of his first homily on Psalm 76. In the following homily, rather than starting with the next phrase, he tells his congregation that he had a lot more to say about “now I have begun.”
There is a problem. Why does the Psalmist say “now I have begun” eleven lines into the Psalm? When does someone say “now I have begun” when he or she is already in the midst of doing something? A person says that when he or she makes a breakthrough. He learns to do something right that he has long been doing wrong. She finds that a skill she has been struggling to master now requires little effort. Origen piles on examples culminating in the same breakthrough that occurred on Pentecost: the realization that the whole law is spiritual.
Paul wrote that the spiritual person compares spiritual things with spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:13). For Origen, this is what Hellenistic literary criticism called “letting Homer clarify Homer.” The Bible interprets itself when we compare other places in the Bible where the word glōssa occurs to Acts 2. One obvious place is in Genesis 11. There God decides to confuse “the tongue,” glōssa, of Noah’s descendants, who are up to no good building the Tower of Babel. When, speaking many tongues, they no longer understand one another, humanity abandons that misguided project and scatters over the earth. In the Septuagint account of the tower, glōssa translates the Hebrew word for “lips,” another body part associated with speech. The “other tongues” with which the Church proclaims the mighty works of God thus begin to gather a scattered humanity, fragmented into diverse ethnic communities. This is an obvious interpretation of Acts 2. Some churches today celebrate ethnic diversity in their congregations by reading the Gospel in several languages on Pentecost Sunday. For someone who has learned to think like Origen, though, that is only the beginning.
What drew my attention to the shift from “tongues” to “languages” in the NRSV is that it renders invisible a vital concept in the homilies on the Psalms, the divinization of the body. The tongues in the mouths of the members of the Church spread the flames that have enlightened them in a flash of understanding. Their language, divinized, has become God’s language; their bodily tongues, divinized, God’s tongue. As Origen says in a homily on Psalm 80, God does not have a mouth; nonetheless, “it is possible for God to use the tongue of a just person as his own tongue and for God to use the mouth of a holy person, so ‘The mouth of the Lord has spoken these things.’” Recognizing that a prophet is an instrument of God whose mouth becomes God’s mouth does not eliminate the distinctive contributions of the various biblical authors, making the Holy Spirit the sole author of the whole Bible. The prophet does not become someone else, losing his or her voice, perspective, and concerns. Deborah is her genuine self in the image of God.
Origen went on to say that the eyes can serve as a scientific instrument, providing evidence from which we can wonder at the rational order of the cosmos: “But I say that a god is also employing the eyes of a just person, eyes dim so as not to see iniquity, but wide open so as to see heaven and the cosmos, because God is using them as instruments of understanding to see how whatever God made is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31).” Indeed, the entire human body is divinized as we become Christ for others:
So God makes use of the ears of the just person and the hand, so that through the ears of the just person a holy logos [discourse] may be received, but a specious one rejected. And if you ever see the hand of a believer stretched out in generosity, do not reckon that such well-doing has come about from a human being so much as from God, who is making use of the just person’s hand to relieve those who need relief from God.... God also uses the beautiful feet of the one who proclaims good news (see Isaiah 52:7).... Blessed is that person, who entirely becomes, in all the parts of the body, through the entire faculty of sensation, an instrument of Christ, an instrument of God’s logos in such a way as to say: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
This divinization of the human body is most fully achieved in the Church, the body of Christ. This is the body that begins to gather itself in one place at Pentecost. A careful reader trained by Origen would notice that this nucleus of the Church included “women,” along with Mary the mother of Jesus, the disciples, and Jesus’ brothers (Acts 1:14). The Church is also a politeia, resembling the Roman Empire in one respect: it is formed out of many races. These races begin to gather as they respond to other tongues at Pentecost.
Origen’s homilies exhibit a rich understanding of the Church, though not an “ecclesiology” if that only means who is in, who is out, and who is in charge of an organization. Bishops, presbyters, and deacons are servants, not a higher class, since all believers are a priesthood. Bishops are to be commended when they do well, serving sinners as compassionate healers; to be gently put in their place, as Origen does in real time in his first homily on Psalm 67; and to be endured for the sake of unity when they lord it over others. Origen sees the Church not as an exclusive group saved from the politeia, but as the vanguard of a healed politeia and, indeed, of a redeemed cosmos.
Origen understands the Church as the body of Christ, not only in terms of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, but also in terms of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “to the extent you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” We have an obligation, not simply to perceive every other believer as Christ, but, imitating Christ ourselves, to be Christ for that person. In his homily on Psalm 81, where he explicitly discusses the divinization of the body, Origen extends to every human being this obligation to serve Christ in another person, since all are made in God’s image. He rebukes the Roman politeia for extending privileges on the basis of social class and charges that Christians themselves all too often do the same. As imitators of Christ, those who have means assist those who do not. Those who have reached a measure of maturity meet the less advanced where they are and assist them to make progress. As all become increasingly one with God in this dynamic process, they become increasingly one with—though not the same as—each other.
The Church’s gathering as a unity in which persons of all social classes and races are Christ to each other has a profound metaphysical basis. Origen interpreted Romans 7:14 (“the law is spiritual”) to imply, among other things, that the entire biblical narrative, from creation to the eschaton, recounts, in a way that accommodates all levels of understanding, the origin of all things and their ultimate return to their source. This includes two realms: the sensible cosmos, the realm of becoming, where bodies are located in space and change with time; and the intelligible cosmos, the unchanging realm of being, which includes mathematical concepts and ethical standards. Both realms derive their being by emanating from an undifferentiated unity that is both their source and their goal.
Humanity is, in Pauline terms, a composite of body, soul, and spirit. The body belongs to the realm of becoming. The soul, by its rational nature, gives us, composite humans, access to the realm of being. Origen understood the human spirit not as some additional component but as the soul’s opening to God. This is where Aquinas got the apex mentis. This opening makes every human being the image of God and akin to God. When we are alienated by sin from each other and from God, that capacity is not expressed, leaving us spiritually dead. The Bible relates how this alienation came about and how, in the divine plan, not just the intelligible but the sensible cosmos, including the human body, are redeemed. The Christian hope, culminating in the resurrection of the body, is thus the redemption of space and time.
“When the day of Pentecost had fully arrived, all were together in one place” (Acts 2:1). At Pentecost, with the right conditions, a gathering in prayer—the redemption of space and time—starts spreading, “catching” like a fire or like an infection. Space begins to be redeemed in Jerusalem, the location of the Temple, where God is present to humanity, the geographic analog to the human spirit. As Origen put it in a homily on Psalm 73: “Each of us, to the extent possible, builds for himself a holy place to God and builds an altar within.” When “God in his holy place” (Psalm 67:6), God is nowhere and everywhere:
God, whom neither heaven nor earth contains—for all creation is smaller than the creator—when he chooses, becomes spatially present; he becomes spatially present in a holy place, for wherever a place is defiled and profane, God cannot be there. What [not “where”]...is the holy place? That place concerning which the Apostle tells you “Do not give a place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:17), concerning which Solomon says to you “if the spirit of one having authority rises upon you, do not cede your place” (Ecclesiastes 10:4).
The “time” when time begins to be redeemed is Pentecost, “the Day of the Lord” that Christians celebrate whenever they gather. In the homilies Origen speaks about how we redeem the time:
When someone spends the day on bodily affairs, he spends it in emptiness, even when, at intervals, it is not only spent in emptiness but in something good. And may it be that most of us may not pass the whole day in emptiness, but the lesser part in emptiness, the greater part not in emptiness!
The activities that divinize the body in space also redeem time:
Times of gathering are not in emptiness, times of prayer are not in emptiness, times of looking after one’s neighbor are not in emptiness. It is not in emptiness, when, in haste and without shirking, we are zealous for our neighbor. But it is in emptiness, when I take down storehouses and build bigger ones and I say to my soul “Soul, you have goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, enjoy” (see Luke 12:18–19).... Also it is not “in emptiness of mind” when the mind is engaged in understanding God, preparing itself to understand the things of God.
Those who understand that the law is spiritual perceive in the story of Israel the reintegration of scattered humanity, twice released from its captivity to the mental disturbances that separate us from each other and alienate us from the Holy Land, the ground of our being. Immediately after humanity scatters at the Tower of Babel, God begins, with the call of Abraham, the process of reintegration. This fusion of the Bible story with Platonic metaphysics began, like just about everything else in early Christianity, in Second Temple Judaism. It is most fully developed in the works of Philo, whom Origen used extensively and cited in his homily on Psalm 75. Alexandrian Jews two centuries before Philo paved the way for this fusion when they used Greek philosophical terms to translate the Hebrew Bible; God tells Moses from the burning bush that his name is “Being” (ho ōn). Biblical scholars commonly observe the same phenomenon in the work of other Second Temple Jews such as the authors of Wisdom, Hebrews, and (the preface at least) of the Gospel of John.
Origen finds it preeminently in the writings of yet another Second Temple Jew, the Apostle Paul. In Romans the whole Creation reveals and waits for God. In Second Corinthians all believers have passed through the sea out of Egypt and have been supplied with food and drink in the wilderness. In Philippians the divine Logos comes to us, meeting us where we are by taking on the form of a servant and enduring death on the cross, enabling us to stretch toward the goal of unity with God. In First Corinthians, as members of the body of Christ “in part,” we are able to know and to prophesy “in part” until, at the final consummation when God is “all in all,” we shall know even as we are known because, one with God, God will know himself in us.
This time of pandemic and mass interracial demonstrations enables us to appreciate Origen’s fusion of the Bible and Platonism in a new way. Perhaps he consistently referred to Christ’s presence with a word that ordinarily meant “epidemic” because that term best conveyed the spiritual dynamism of his thought; when the divine logos comes to humanity, it catches and spreads. Gatherings become superspreader events. In the Pentecost story in Acts, in the immediate aftermath of ignition, the Church grows exponentially, like a pandemic. Unlike the gatherings that spread COVID-19, though, or the plagues that Origen dreaded in the cities of the ancient world, Pentecost is a superspreader of healing.
Now, all of a sudden, most white Americans catch on to the way things are—our “system of justice” systematically perverts justice. Mass interracial gatherings on the streets of America and around the world demand respect for black Americans. Learning from Origen, we can perceive this “wonder”—in our hearts as well as in our streets—and as an epidemic of healing, the healing of the human politeia as part of the ongoing redemption of the cosmos. A president and attorney general, who count on holding on to power by dividing us, have good reason to worry. The contrast between the dynamics of gathering and the dynamics of scattering has never been so stark. Origen enables us to see these dynamics in a new light. His newly discovered homilies on the Psalms, like the rest of his work, are a resource the Church today should not neglect in its endeavor to spread healing and reconciliation.