By Daniel Gruber
Christian Anti-Semitism is a series of articles that
examines the historical development of the anti-Semitism that has
proceeded from the church. This reader, for one, has found the series
quite informative, and select articles from it are being presented that
the reader may gain similar benefit. Links to previous studies in
the series may be found in our Library.
In 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul said,
I will pray with the spirit, and I will
pray with the understanding also (ASV). It is the prayer of
the Shofar board that the reader may grow in understanding in this
matter and pray accordingly. ~ editor
Study 5: ORIGEN'S SYSTEM OF INTERPRETATION
is Origen's system of interpretation that produces the anti-Judaic 'New
theology wherein the Church replaces the Jews in the plan and purpose of
work is dated around the beginning of the third century. There were
others before Origen who interpreted the Scriptures in an allegorical
way, but Origen is credited with being the father of the allegorical
method of interpretation. The reason is that Origen, in a comprehensive
system, made allegory the only way to truly understand the Scriptures
In Origen's system of interpretation, he often denied the ordinary sense
of the text, and replaced it with allegories which he made up. These
allegories then became the real meaning of the text. There was no way to
challenge the allegories on the basis of the text, since what the text
actually said was no longer what it meant. It was, therefore, no longer
necessary that the allegory actually come from the text, because it was
the allegory that was authoritative. The theology which the allegory
illustrated was imposed upon the text.
In this allegorical system, when the text said, "Israel," it meant "the
Church" and not the Jews, so long as the promise or comment in the text
was good. If the promise or comment in the text was not good, then
"Israel" still meant "the Jews," and not "the Church." His theology
determined how the text was to be understood, rather than the text
determining what should be understood and believed.
Philip Schaff, the noted 19th century church historian said that "Origen
was the greatest scholar of his age." (1) Though he was very sympathetic
towards Origen, Schaff noted that
|"he can by no means be called
orthodox, either in the Catholic or in the Protestant sense. His leaning
to idealism, his predilection for Plato, and his noble effort to
reconcile Christianity with reason, and to commend it even to educated
heathens and Gnostics, led him into many grand and fascinating errors.
Among these are his extremely ascetic and almost docetistic conception
of corporeity, his denial of a material resurrection, his doctrine of
the pre-existence of the pre-temporal fall of souls (including the
pre-existence of the human soul of Christ); of eternal creation, of the
extension of the work of redemption to the inhabitants of the stars and
to all rational creatures, and of the final restoration of all men and
fallen angels . . . ." (2)
Reason, however, is only a way of getting from one point to another
after certain assumptions and rules are embraced. The problem with
Origen was four-fold: 1) where he began; 2) where he wanted to go; 3)
his assumptions and methodology; and 4) the means he used to get there.
Because of his "grand" errors, which were not "fascinating" to everyone,
Origen was considered by many to be a heretic. During his lifetime, he
was excommunicated by two church councils held in Alexandria in 231 and
232 A.D. After his death as well, his views were officially condemned by
some in the Church as heretical. Today there is no question that some of
his teachings would be considered heretical enough to place him outside
much of the Church. Nevertheless, "Most of the Greek fathers of the
third and fourth centuries stood more or less under the influence of the
spirit and the works of Origen, without adopting all his peculiar
speculative views." (3)
Though Eusebius and other leaders of the third- and fourth-century
Church did not accept all the teachings which Origen's system of
interpretation generated, they did accept the system itself. It is
Origen's system of interpretation that produces the anti-Judaic "New
Israel" theology wherein the Church replaces the Jews in the plan and
purpose of God.
Origen and his writings were well received in the Roman province of
"Palestine," especially in Caesarea. Though it was a violation of the
existing canons of the Church, Origen was ordained a presbyter there.
The churches there did not accept his ex-communication. This attitude of
the churches in the Roman province of "Palestine" is understandable in
an historical sense. Almost all the Jews in Judea and Samaria had either
died in the Bar Kokhba Rebellion of 132-135 A.D., or had been carried
off into slavery by the victorious Romans. Before the gospel was
preached to Gentiles, there were congregations of Jews who believed in
Yeshua throughout all Judea and Galilee and
Samaria. (Acts 9:31)
From the end of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion on, all Jews were forbidden to
even enter the precincts of Jerusalem. Up until that time, the "bishops"
of Jerusalem had all been Jewish. If there were "bishops" in Caesarea
before that time, they also would have almost certainly been Jewish.
The Roman Empire had destroyed or removed the Jewish leaders and
congregations/communities which believed in Yeshua. They were replaced
by Gentile ones. The Gentile "bishops" and "churches" naturally began to
think of themselves as having replaced the Jews. In his Dialogue with
Trypho the Jew, Justin, who was from Samaria, had expressed the
belief that the destruction of Jerusalem and all the suffering that
attended the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba Rebellion was a judgment of God for
the failure to believe in Iesous/Yeshua/"Jesus." A large theological
step was then taken from that view to the teaching that God had cast off
the Jews, and had replaced them with the Gentile Church. There are
obvious natural reasons why such a teaching would appeal to the Gentile
bishops and churches in "Palestine."
Origen's system of interpretation provided a way for overcoming the
scriptural obstacles to such teaching. Origen taught that some
scriptures are to be understood only allegorically, some are to be
understood only literally, and some are to be understood both
allegorically and literally. While that appears on the surface to be an
acceptable approach to the Scriptures, there are several serious
problems that it causes. One example from Origen's work is his treatment
of the story of Moses and Amalek.
The Bible itself makes it clear that it contains signs and symbols,
types and foreshadows, metaphors and parables, visions, dreams, and
mysteries, as well as spiritual lessons that transcend the description
of a particular incident. The lesson, however, can only be learned from
understanding what actually happened, not by ignoring or altering the
reality to fit what we already have chosen to believe. Unfortunately,
Origen chose to ignore or alter reality to make it fit with his beliefs.
In his theological battle against those in the Church who held to the
plain meaning of the text, Origen portrayed them as disgraceful "Jews"
who were rejecting the Lord.
How can anyone test the truth of a particular allegorical or mystical
interpretation? What makes it true? Is there any way to delineate what
is acceptable and what is not? Whose allegorical or mystical
interpretation is right or authoritative? Does it even matter if the
facts are actually quite different than the interpreter claims?
The Scriptures present themselves as the standard of Truth by which all
else, including interpretation, is to be judged. Yet the very manner of
an allegorical and mystical system of interpretation, by denying the
plain sense and meaning of the text, makes that standard useless. The
"real" meaning of the Scriptures is no longer in what they actually say.
"For Origen, the standard itself became invisible to all but 'the
perfect man' [who] can attain to an understanding of the spiritual law."
If the basic prophecies concerning the first coming of the Messiah were
literally fulfilled, then why should we expect the prophecies concerning
His second coming to have only mystical fulfillment? The literal
fulfillment of prophecy is of tremendous significance to the gospel.
Without the literal fulfillment of prophecy, there is no gospel.
Even the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are essential to the gospel. To
the allegorist, what could be more "carnal" than a literal understanding
of Jewish genealogies? But those genealogies establish the legal right
of Jesus to the throne of David. His physical descent from David was
essential to God's plan of redemption for the world.
Origen's teachings arise from, and demand, an anti-Judaic outlook. He
disinherited the Jews and set the Church in their place. Those
scriptures that promised judgment on Israel (or the Jews, or Jacob,
etc.) were still to be understood in their literal sense. But those
scriptures that promised blessing on Israel (or the Jews, or Jacob,
etc.) were henceforth only to be understood as referring to the Church.
That made the churches in "Palestine" the sole geographical heirs of the
gospel, worthy of special reverence. Origen was invited to teach there,
despite the dissension which his teachings aroused elsewhere. He was
made a presbyter there, despite the canons of the Church. His teachings
were carefully recorded and kept there.
The views of Origen had been declared to be heretical, but, led by
Pamphilus, the churches in "Palestine" established a theological school
and library dedicated to establishing Origen's views as the true
orthodoxy throughout the entire Church. Pamphilus taught Eusebius, and
Eusebius wholeheartedly gave himself to the task of defending the views
of Origen. Eusebius did that explicitly in the six volume defense of
Origen which he completed, but he also did it in his Ecclesiastical
History. Origen's heresy was to triumph in the fourth century at the
Council of Nicea through Eusebius, Constantine, and those who followed
them. "The letters from the emperor cited in the Vita Constantini,
one of which must date even before Nicea, show both the closeness of the
relationship that had grown up between the two men and also
Constantine's acceptance of the role which Eusebius had cast for him."
(5) Before we take a look at that Council and its decisions, we need to
first examine the pivotal theological issue - the nature of the
fulfilled kingdom of God.
1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church,
Vol.II, Ante-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 100-325, Charles Scribner's Sons,
NY, 1883, P.790
2. ibid., P. 791
3. P .797
4. De Lange, N.R.M. Origen and the Jews, Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, 1976, P.83, n.65
5. W.H.C. Frend, "Church and State: Perspective and Problems in the
Patristic Era," Studia Patristica, Vol.XVII, Part One, Pergamon Press,
Oxford, 1982, P.40
© Daniel Gruber
Daniel Gruber's complete Anti-Semitism series may
be read in
its original form at
|Daniel Gruber has taught in numerous
countries on five continents with a focus on the
intersection of government and faith including Judaism,
Christianity, and contemporary international law. His latest
book is a unique annotated translation of the Jewish-Greek of
the Messianic Writings (Matthias through Revelation). He has
authored six books, some or all of which have been translated
into Hebrew, Polish, Dutch, Spanish, German, and Russian. They
are: The Messianic Writings: The First-Century Jewish
Scriptures that Changed the World; The Children of
Abraham; The Church and the Jews: The Biblical
Relationship; The Separation of Church and Faith, Vol 1:
Copernicus and the Jews; Torah and the New Covenant;
Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority.
Daniel's books are available at
articles that appear in The Shofar have been reviewed and approved by the
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approval of all views of that author, some
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