The Strategy and Functions of Philosophical Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria

For the first session, The Role of Philosophy in Greek and Byzantine Exegesis, I will investigate the strategy and functions of philosophical exegesis in Origen of Alexandria. Origen was ‘the first professional Christian Scripture scholar we know of’. I will address Origen’s polemics against some ‘pagan’ intellectuals about the allegoresis of Scripture and will argue for the role of Origen’s allegoresis as a philosophical task (as it was in Stoicism and Middle Platonism) and how this relates to the notion of Scripture as embodiment of Christ-Logos. Structural continuities will be pointed out between Origen and the Stoic allegorical tradition, as well as the struggle with Middle-Platonic allegorists for the definition of which authoritative traditions were to be allegorised. Origen’s exegesis was philosophical and philosophy at that time was focusing more and more on commentaries, while Christian commentaries began to be produced in Origen’s time. Commentaries in imperial and late antiquity became the predominant form of academic engagement with ancient, authoritative texts. Even Plotinus’ Enneads, which are formally no commentary, were presented by him as an exegesis of Plato’s Dialogues. Origen’s De Principiis, which likewise is no formal commentary, is structured as chunks of Biblical commentaries throughout. Ancient commentaries were an integral part of reading and understanding literature and philosophy (and theology, as part and parcel of philosophy at that time). The binary between ‘pagan’ commentaries on poets, rhetoric, and philosophy vs Christian commentaries of Scripture was in fact blurred: ‘pagan’ philosophers such as Numenius and Amelius commented on Scripture, and Christians such as Origen and (if Christian) Calcidius commented on Plato. Scriptural allegoresis was a heritage of Philo, although ‘pagan’ Platonists such as Celsus and Porphyry failed—or refused—to recognize this, while Origen, as will be pointed out, acknowledged his debt to Jewish Hellenistic allegorists. Indeed, it will be suggested that Origen’s attitude toward Jewish exegesis was less ambivalent, or even hostile, than generally represented.