Narratives not only required informative expansion, however. In the schools, pupils were taught to assess the probability of stories,37 to find ways of proving or disproving them, the point being that this kind of criticism would be vital when they came to act as lawyers in court. Origen had his own skills here: he treats as 'myth' Celsus' version of the birth of Jesus, whereby Mary had a child by a soldier called Panthera, and so was turned out by Joseph to whom she was betrothed.38 In his gospel commentaries he does not hesitate to note discrepancies in different versions ofparticular stories. One example is the story of the so-called cleansing of the temple.39 Quite apart from minor differences, there is a huge discrepancy in the matter of timing: according to John's gospel this incident came at the very beginning of Jesus' career; according to the other gospels it immediately preceded his arrest and condemnation. Origen 'conceives it to be impossible for those who admit nothing more than the history in their interpretation to show that these discrepant statements are in harmony with one another'.40 He demonstrates the implausibility of the Johannine timing, and then goes on to discuss the deeper meaning of that narrative. Turning to the Matthaean version, he again draws attention to features which are implausible as they stand, looking for the deeper intent of each evangelist. Just as in the case of his grammatical and lexical analysis, so here, puzzles and problems are a pointer to the fact that the 'material' level of the text is not sufficient of itself for one seeking to discover the true meaning. The aporiai stimulate the sensitive reader to go beyond the letter to the spirit. Scripture is full of'enigmas' or 'parables'.

It was accepted by rhetoricians that orators might speak falsehood for the benefit of the hearer. Origen believes that God does something similar, accommodating himself to the human level. Frequently he speaks of God acting as a father dealing with an infant son, or as a doctor dealing with a patient: 'the whole of divine scripture is full of such medicines', he suggests.41 In this way he made the obscure and difficult 'barbarian' books, written in awkward trans-lationese, acceptable to educated enquirers. Its crude language and anthropomorphisms were explained. The important thing was to grow in understanding so as to move beyond the 'letter' of the text, to discover its moral and spiritual level. No wonder Theodore saw the interpretation of scripture as the object of Origen's curriculum.

37 For further discussion see Grant, Earliest lives.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment