Monday, September 4, 2017

Were Clement and Origen Friends?

What evidence is there that Clement and Origen knew one another?  Very little direct evidence in fact.  As Morton Smith noted over forty years ago:
Apparently he [Origen] never mentioned Clement, since Eusebius, attempting to prove that Clement was Origen's teacher, is forced to argue by inference from their temporal proximity (HE VI. 6) and to quote a letter of Alexander of Jerusalem to Origen in which Alexander refers to Clement (then deceased) as formerly known to Origen and as one through whom he himself had made Origen's acquaintance (HE VI. I4.8f). But this only makes Origen's silence about Clement more significant. It would seem that the two were not close, and that if Clement ever was Origen's teacher, it was only for a short period when Origen was fifteen or sixteen. Consequently Origen's ignorance of the longer text [of Mark] is understandable. [Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark p. 285]
The fact that both are said to have been from Alexandria, the fact that both men shared a similar Platonic orientation, the fact that many of their core beliefs and assumptions about Jesus and the gospels are similar - all leads to the same conclusion that they must have known one another.

I am not as optimistic about the state of manuscripts for either man.  I think many of Clement's works have been heavily interpolated - most especially the Instructor.  I think Jerome and Rufinus seem to know something about Eusebius 'correcting' the writings of both men to avoid charges of heresy.  The fact that both Jerome and Rufinus are so willing to continue correcting the writings of Origen lends me to believe that it will be very difficult to explain why Clement never mentions Origen and Origen never Clement.

It is difficult to penetrate the wall of silence which surrounds early Alexandrian Christianity.  The one thing that we can determine with some degree of certainty is the fact that Clement's Quis Dives Salvetur (Can the Rich Man be Saved) seems to have been written with Origen's interpretation of the 'rich man' narrative (Mark 10:17 - 31 and equivalents) from his Commentary on Matthew in mind, and vice versa.  While they do not directly name or confront one another they spend a great deal of time 'correcting' the other's interpretation.

Clement famously does not believe that the gospel should be read as saying that the rich have to give up all their possessions to enter into the kingdom of God/heaven.  While it may seem a forced interpretation he has a text of the Gospel of Mark which seems to support his allegorical or 'spiritual' arguments.  On the other hand, despite bringing forward this particular gospel he spends most of the homily attacking arguments which develop from the words and terminology of our canonical gospel of Matthew.  His opponent or opponents claim that only a literal reading of Matthew makes sense - Jesus demanded that those who want to get into heaven sell all their property and join a monastery sharing the proceeds with their brothers.

In time there will be an Origenist monastic tradition.  The followers of Origen were so numerous and so despicable that much of the surviving literature from the fourth and fifth centuries deals with the problem of stamping our 'Origenists' from the Church.  Origenists like Jerome had to recant their association with his writings.  But who was Origen?  A castrated Christian teacher of some kind who was forced out of Alexandria into Palestine seems to be the consensus from antiquity.  But was Origen already living with a monastic order at that time?

While the question is never asked as far as I can tell I find the existence of some sort of proto-monastery at that time very appealing.  We know that the books of Origen were collected into a rich Christian believer's library in the port city of Caesarea.  Eusebius eventually presided over this collection.  Yet in Origen's time the great Christian library was located in Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem).  It was established by a shadowy figure named 'Alexander' who seemed to be close to Clement.

Eusebius recorded that he used the library, with its extensive archives, to write his The Ecclesiastical History He said: "Now there flourished at that time many learned churchmen, and the letters which they penned to one another are still extant and easily accessible. They have been preserved to our day in the library at Aelia, equipped by Alexander, then ruling the church there; from which also we have been able ourselves to gather together the material for our present work"  This library must have already existed in Origen's time; how odd again that we don't see Clement and Origen intersecting.

We know less than nothing about Clement.  Origen as noted seems to have been born in Alexandria but was eventually forced to flee.  We hear it repeatedly mentioned that he fell into some sort of dispute with the future Pope or bishop of Alexandria, Demetrius.  Indeed he seems to have shaken up the entire world as Jerome later remembers:
So you see, the labors of this one man [Origen] have surpassed those of all previous writers, Greek and Latin. Who has ever managed to read all that he has written? Yet what reward have his exertions brought him? He stands condemned by his bishop, Demetrius, only the bishops of Palestine, Arabia, Phoenecia, and Achaia dissenting. Imperial Rome consents to his condemnation, and even convenes a senate to censure him, not -- as the rabid hounds who now pursue him cry -- because of the novelty or heterodoxy of his doctrines, but because men could not tolerate the incomparable eloquence and knowledge which, when once he opened his lips, made others seem dumb.(Epistle 33)
What could have caused this upheaval?  Origen revealed a previously secret doctrine.  This has to be the bottom line.

Of course this conflict is framed in terms of Origen's 'innovation.'  Yet this is standard propaganda in early Christian literature.  The apostles were venerated to such a point that everything associated with them represented nothing short of a 'perfect golden age.'  This was the epoch when all Christians allegedly 'got along' on issues of doctrine.  But surely we can't believe these myths any longer.  The beginning of 'real history' in Christianity has to be timed to Origen's 'escape' from Alexandria.  Everything before that are just manuscripts divorced from any 'meta-relationships' with mainstream Roman history.

For whatever reasons we choose to develop, Origen revealed a previously unheard of doctrine which turned the world upside down.  His own bishop lined up against him.  In the aforementioned history of Jerome, the grouping of Palestine, Arabia and Phoenicia makes some sense - this is the 'Semitic' Church.  But Achaia seems the odd one out. 54) tells us that it was on account of heresies which were troubling the churches of Achaia (propter ecclesias Achaiae, quae pluribus haeresibus vexabantur). Photius (Cod. 118) reports that Origen went to Athens without the consent of Demetrius, but Demetrius's anger might well have been related to Origen's ordination in Achaia.

Eusebius tells us that Origen traveled through Palestine and ultimately made his way to Greece from certain letters of Alexander in the old Jerusalem library.  He is the same Alexander from whom we learn certain interesting tidbits about Clement.  But was this Clement of Alexander, Clement of Alexandria?  Many have doubted the association.  It is Eusebius who steers us in this direction because of his overall efforts to line up 'Clement' and 'Origen' as intimates because of their mutual association with Alexander of Jerusalem.

It is odd our evidence for their relationship should be so weak.  Epiphanius doesn't seem to know anything definitive about Clement other than what Eusebius tells us.  If we assume that Alexander's Clement was not the actual author of the Stromata the obvious question is - why would Eusebius have went to such lengths to pretend the two were friends?  The answer has to be that he was hiding or obscuring their acrimonious relationship.  Perhaps even the historical 'Clement' was actually Demetrius ...

Email with comments or questions.

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