Reading the scriptures

Most of Origen's literary activity went into the production of commentaries on scripture. He had a patron, Ambrosius, who helped to finance this work.26 A huge amount is lost, though some has survived in translation or excerpted in compendia of various kinds. Origen also discusses the pitfalls and methods of interpreting scripture in his work, Deprincipiis ('On first principles'). For a long time the latter was taken as a basic account ofhis approach. More recent study, however, has sought to examine his actual practice of biblical interpretation in the extant commentaries and homilies.27 What is clear is that scripture lay at the heart of his philosophy, and its reading was the goal of his educational programme. Inevitably his mind was as shaped by Platonic assumptions as modern scholarship has been by evolutionary ones. So his exegetical interests often produce comments which now seem far from the point - indeed, the classic study of Origen's biblical work in English tends to suggest that, since he had no historical sense, he had no hope of understanding the texts.28 Yet Origen simply approached the task of interpretation in recognisably the same ways as many of his contemporaries.

Texts lay at the heart of the normal educational processes of antiquity. So most interpretation went on in the classroom, and we have no record of this oral activity. We can, however, discern something of what went on from various rhetorical handbooks and other surviving material. Because of its full discussion of the various stages of education, Quintilian's Institutio oratoria ('Training in oratory'), a Latin work dating from the late first century ce, enables us to observe the various exegetical moves commonly made, which are also found in Origen's commentaries.29

Texts in the ancient world were handwritten on parchment or papyrus. The first thing the teacher had to do was to see that the various copies being used in the class actually had the same wording. In other words, textual criticism was unavoidable, and it had long been practised in Alexandria. It is quite clear that Origen understood the necessity of discussing what the correct wording of a text was where there was an inconsistency or doubt. One example will prove the point: Matthew 19:19 in some copies had the added words, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' Origen thought it had been added, and that the addition is confirmed by the absence of these words in Mark and

27 See particularly Neuschafer, Origenes als Philologe, and Young, Biblical exegesis.

28 Hanson, Allegory and event.

29 The following exposition re-presents that found in Young, Biblical exegesis.

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