Sunday, May 23, 2010

Origen, the Greatest 'Beard' in History

The most interesting thing about the Letter to Theodore is that it opens new windows into our research into the origins of Christian orthodoxy - and most notably - the question of whether or not there was an Alexandrian tradition of St. Mark prior to the era in which he lived.

The silence of Clement and Origen about any personal relationship to St. Mark prior to the discovery of the Mar Saba letter was one of the most puzzling aspects of early Christianity. By the fourth century there are clear signs of the existence of a tradition of St. Mark at Alexandria. Peter I, the seventeenth Patriarch of Alexandria, is explicitly murdered in the environs of the Martyrium of St. Mark. Arius, the great conservative voice of the former 'Origenist' orthodoxy of Alexandria is said to preside over the same martyrium.

As Haas and others have noted the struggle between the so-called 'Arians' and the Orthodox was very much a turf war, the orthodox possessing the major Greek cities of Egypt but their adversaries holding on to the venerated Martyrium of St. Mark through the whole period of Athanasius's rule. The situation is alluded to in Gregory's twenty first oration (c. 379 CE) in which he praises Athanasius for the:

apostolic and spiritual manner in which he is led up to the throne of Saint Mark, to succeed him in piety, no less than in office; in the latter indeed at a great distance from him, in the former, which is the genuine right of succession, following him closely. For unity in doctrine deserves unity in office; and a rival teacher sets up a rival throne; the one is a successor in reality, the other but in name. For it is not the intruder, but he whose rights are intruded upon, who is the successor, not the lawbreaker, but the lawfully appointed, not the man of contrary opinions, but the man of the same faith; if this is not what we mean by successor, he succeeds in the same sense as disease to health, darkness to light, storm to calm, and frenzy to sound sense. [Oration 21.8]

It was only in the late fourth century that the orthodox managed to gain control over the martyrium that lay in the lawless Boucolic region just beyond the eastern walls of Alexandria. It is noteworthy that ALL the official documents which describe St. Mark's association with the religious life of the city come from this late period.

Of course all of this should raise some questions about the silence of the earliest Alexandrian authorities toward St. Mark. We have to chose between one of two possibilities. Either the association of St. Mark was wholly invented at this later period and then PROJECTED back in time to associate the city with the Evangelist or - as I would suggest - that the original devotion to St. Mark was problematic for the Roman Church, that anyone 'exaggerating' the importance of the Evangelist was immediately scrutinized for suspicion of heresy and as such we can account for Clement and Origen's silence can be attributed to their desire to stay relevant in the emerging Catholic Church.

Just look at Origen for a moment. His association with heresy is absolutely certain among later writers but there is also a clear sense that he was the father of all the Patriarchs who came after him down through until the time of Nicaea. What was so significant about Origen? I would argue that he represented a clear manner of reconciling the Marcosian system with the Catholic faith developed in Rome since the rime of Commodus.

Clement's approach was clearly less successful and the fact that his real name and identity seems to have been blotted out (I am not so certain that he really shared the same name - Titus Flavius Clemens with at least three other notable figures in early Christianity). Similarly Origen does not make any reference to his predecessor which is not only strange - it adds to the false impression that Origen simply 'invented' his interpretation of Scripture out of his own imagination.

Origen was greatest beard in history. I think we can epitomize his role with the tradition of St. Mark as a whole by examining his relationship with his rich patron Ambrosius.

It is worth noting that Origen came to Rome within the decade after the death of Severus accompanied by his principal benefactor (c. 211 - 220 CE). When Origen returned to Alexandria, Ambrosius not only provided funding for secretarial staffing, including his own service in various dictational roles, but also encouraged Origen to emulate Hippolytus in the production of biblical commentaries and other works against critics of Christianity, especially those of greatest intellectual impact like Celsus (Smith 1988: 1000).

Origen's Commentary on the Gospel of John, initiated at Alexandria between 226 and 229, is specifically dedicated to Ambrosius (Q2.1.4, p. 49). The treatise "On Prayer" written in 233-234 was composed in Caesarea "at the suggestion of his friend" Ambrosius. The preface to Origen's Contra Celsum, dated about 246, not only makes clear that Ambrosius had "asked his teacher to answer" but that he was still alive.

The church historian, Eusebius (c. 260-340), bishop of Caesarea, writing less than a century later, identified Ambrosius as one who originally had "held the views of the heresy of Valentinus" but having come under the influence of Origen "gave his adhesion to the true doctrine as taught by the Church" (H.E. VI.18.1; Oulton 1927: 191). As a consequence, Ambrosius made available to Origen "more than seven shorthand-writers, who relieved each other at fixed times, and as many copyists, as well as girls skilled in penmanship" (H.E. VI.22.2; Oulton 1927: 196), so that from him came the most prodigious output of anyone in the early church.

Origen's work Exhortatio ad martyrium is addressed to Ambrosius, and Prototectos a presbyter of the community at Caesarea, for in the resumption of persecution under Maximinus Thrax (235-238), they were arrested and threatened with death (H.E. VI.28; cf. Q2.1.4, pp. 69-73; Frend 1967: 287), though Eusebius seems to suggest erroneously their death occurred at this time.

A century after Eusebius, the Latin biblical scholar, Jerome (c. 347-419), in his De viris inlustribus ("Lives of Illustrious Men") repeats the vagueness of Ambrosius' original background, now identifying him as a follower of Marcion "set right by Origen," who then became a "deacon in the church" at Alexandria and ultimately "gloriously distinguished as confessor of the Lord." Jerome specifies the aid given to Origen as "industry, funds, and perseverance" so that Origen could dictate "a great number of volumes," and says that Ambrosius himself was of "literary talent, as his letters to Origen indicate," though none of these survive.

A letter from Origen to Julius Africanus written about 240 originated in the house of Ambrosius then at Nicomedia (Q2.1.4, p. 74). As Origen had found it necessary to leave Alexandria, so had Ambrosius moved with him (Carrington 1957: II.462). His death before that of Origen, Jerome says, was "condemned by many, in that being a man of wealth, he did not at death, remember in his will, his old and needy friend" [ J 56; NPNF 2 III (1892) 374], but no exact date can be established (perhaps c. 250, presumably under Decius, who reigned from September 249 to June 251 when he was killed in battle against the Goths, cf. Lawlor 1928: 213-214).

Jerome also in his identification of Hippolytus confirms that Hippolytus was aware of "speaking in the church in the presence of Origen," just as Jerome further affirms the correlation of Hippolytus with Origen, whom he knew had called Hippolytus his "Taskmaster." In this context Ambrosius is again recalled as the one who "urged Origen to write, in emulation of Hippolytus, commentaries on the Scriptures" [ J 61; NPNF 2 III (1892) 375].

The question of course is whether Eusebius's reference to Ambrosius being a 'Valentinian' and Jerome's identification of him as a 'Marcionite' can be reconciled by simply assuming that he was a crypto-Marcosian. Mark, as we have shown was undoubtedly both the true head of the Marcosian tradition (wrongly identified as a 'Valentinian' because of the manner in which Irenaeus's original reports were compiled by a third century Roman editor closely associated with Hippolytus WHO WANTED to encourage this association but as we have already shown in previous posts Tertullian's early copy of Irenaeus's original work against the Valentinians shows that Valentinian and Marcosian sect were entirely separate from one another. Hippolytus's treatment of their apolutrosis baptism - i.e. making explicit it was not shared by the followers of Valentinus - is further strengthens this understanding.

Indeed Hippolytus explicitly references a tradition that the Marcionites claimed that their founder wrote the original Gospel of Mark. The only way that this could be true is if he were identified to be St. Mark himself. My theory that the the very name 'Marcion' is a back formation from a Semitic gentilic collective plural meaning 'those of Mark' solidifies this understanding.

As such if it can be acknowledged that Origen was the great hope of the Alexandrian tradition in the third century to allow it to secretly retain its original beliefs and practices while outwardly conforming the universal Catholic faith of the world around it, I think we can finally come to terms with the crypto-history of the faith. In this light Origen of Alexandria can be seen to be a precursor of sorts to Jacob Querido of Alexandria and subsequent crypto-Jews who managed to steer a way through a hostile religious orthodoxy and keep the original messianic tradition intact while outwardly appearing as faithful converts.

It's time for the world to open their eyes. That which is identified as the 'Marcosian' faith in Irenaeus is the surviving remnant of the original Christianity of St. Mark. Clement, Origen, Dionysius and Arius are merely stones that managed to keep their heads above the tempestuous forces of the age.

The original faith of St. Mark never died. It just became 'watered down' by the relentless torrent from Imperial Rome and later Byzantium.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.