Origen Rediscovered

Author: Manlio Simonetti

Origen Rediscovered

Manlio Simonetti

Important discovery in an 11th-century codex in the Bavarian State Library, Munich

Marina Molin Pradel fills in the gaps with 29 of [Origen's] unpublished homilies on the Psalms

The news of the discovery of the original text of a large collection of homilies by Origen in the 11th-century manuscript Monacense greco 314 kept in the Bavarian State Library is recent. The author's name does not appear on the homilies. This is evidently due to the damnatio memoriae the great Alexandrian suffered on account of his official condemnation, passed to his detriment by the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553.

The discovery is due to the insight and scrupulous method of the Italian researcher Marina Molin Pradel. Having been asked to work on the catalogue of the library's manuscripts she came across the codex and identified its content as indisputably Origenian. She based her research above all on the comparison with his homilies on Psalm 36, which it contains, with the Latin translation in our possession made by Rufino of Aquileia at the beginning of the fifth century. Indeed the enormous importance of this discovery lies in the fact that because of the above-mentioned condemnation much of Origen's exegetics was lost. Only relatively little of what was saved has come down to us in the original language; instead, far more has been passed on to us in a Latin translation, since in the West, in spite of Origen's condemnation, people continued to read and use translations of his writings throughout the Middle Ages.

In particular, in the series of homilies preached by Origen in the years around 240 in the Church of Caesarea in Palestine we only know of a few on Jeremiah in the original Greek, in comparison with the series on Genesis, Numbers and other biblical books that are known solely in the Latin translation.

Particularly serious was the loss of the whole of his great work of the interpretation of the Psalms — in the
form of both homilies and commentaries — with the exception of a few homilies, translated into Latin,
since in his time the above-mentioned interpretation of the Psalms was considered the great exegete's opus maximum, both because of the volume of his writings and the excellence of his interpretation. Today at last we are able, at least partly, to fill this grave gap.

I am not exaggerating when I speak of a serious lacunae, both with regard to the loss, specifically of the exegesis on the Psalms and, more generally, of the overall collection of Origen's writings. He was the
greatest exponent of Christian texts in the ancient world and had an immense influence on doctrinal reflection and on spirituality in general, both in the East and the West, since his work preceded the definitive condemnation. This was a consequence of the climate of total intolerance, created especially in the East as from the fifth century. For this reason no importance was attached to what was valid and positive in Origen's writings, as compared with a few doctrinal hypotheses deemed erroneous in the light of progress made in the successive reflection on the subject.

The condemnation obviously damaged his reputation for many long centuries and led to the loss of a large part of his opus, especially in the original Greek. In the West, Origen was dear to several humanists especially Erasmus ("I learn more from one page of Origen than I do from 10 of Augustine") — but he incurred the wrath of the reformers, since his strenuous affirmation of free will came up against the rigid predestination of Luther (his De servo arbitrio should be remembered) and of Calvin. Hence the underestimation of Origen's thought in 18th-century German culture, which preferred to see him above all as the philosopher who had contributed as no one else to the Hellenization of the apostolic message.
The reaction to this state of affairs — promoted in the 1940s by Danielou and de Lubac who drew attention to Origen above all as a teacher of spirituality and successively carried on mainly by French and Italian scholars — imposed the great figure of Origen on enthusiasts of Ancient Christianity with major but not always positive results in academic circles, in both Europe and America.

Among the many innovations that Benedict XVI has promoted in the cultural sphere is his official sanction, which consequently contributed to extending this widespread study trend, as he presented Origen and his work to large numbers of the faithful at the Wednesday General Audiences a few years ago.

That this new Origenian codex came to light precisely in the region of Joseph Ratzinger's birth acquires a symbolic value in this regard.

To return to the sensational discovery and its contextualization, it should be duly pointed out that the codex in question is kept in an important German library. Let me explain. In this day and age our knowledge of ancient texts in Greek and in Coptic has been enriched thanks to the discovery of papyri in Egypt. To limit myself to Origen, I recall the finds in Tura, near Alexandria, to which we owe our knowledge of previously unknown writings by Origen and by the fervent Origenist, Didymus the Blind.

Far rarer are discoveries of hitherto unknown works in manuscripts housed in libraries in the West. If all these libraries were equipped with good catalogues, all the works contained in the codices of these libraries would be known. Unfortunately the catalogues of many, far too many, libraries are still full of gaps and have even been poorly compiled, so that still today libraries are unaware that they possess unknown works which only the methodical work of a few researchers brings to light.

I recall the discoveries in past years of Morin, Wilmart, Etaix and several others who have enabled us to become acquainted with outstanding literary figures, previously virtually unknown, such as Gregory of Elvira and Cromatius of Aquileia.

In more recent years I have mentioned the discovery of a group of texts and, successively, of a compendium of homilies by Augustine. Dolbeau identified these in a 15th-century codex of Mainz very recently and were therefore previously unknown even in Germany, which from the end of the 18th century to the first years of the 20th, practically monopolized ancient classical and also Christian studies. Not only is the codex discovered today preserved in an important German library but it dates back to the 11th century, a late date for a Greek codex. From all this we can glean an important lesson: that, though codices which pass on both classical and Christian ancient writings are kept in important libraries of very developed countries, they need to be examined with greater attention than has so far been the case, as they still keep in store for us important surprises.
The oldest Christian homilies

The sensational discovery is already yielding fruit. The nascent Church inherited from the synagogal worship of the Jews the custom of preaching a homily during liturgical services. However, not a single example of this most ancient production of Christian — nor even Judaic — homilies has come down to us in its entirety. So we can indirectly deduce some generic information concerning their character.

Origin's are effectively the oldest Christian homilies that have come down to us exactly as they were delivered. He preached them — after being distanced from Alexandria — as a priest in the Church of Caesarea in Palestine; and, as a piece of information provided by Eusebius of Caesarea tells us, it was only when Origen was already 60 years old, that is, in about 245, that he authorized tachygraphers to record the content while he was preaching, and hence to disseminate it.

We are thus dealing with the very end of Origen's long activity interpreting Scripture. Many years before, as a teacher (didaskalos) at the catechetical school he had translated numerous books and had published the content of his lessons in weighty commentaries. In the manner of classical commentary on both literary and philosophical arguments, in his scriptural commentaries Origen interprets the biblical text dividing it into entries, usually of modest length, and follows every entry with its respective explanation.

By contrast, as far as we know, both Judaic and Christian homilies were developed in a more organic and uniform way, dealing with a subject taken from a previous reading of a scriptural text.

Origen radically changed this simple uniform structure since he transferred the lemmatization of the biblical text read beforehand into the homilies, so that his homily took the form of a sequence of brief entries, each of which was followed by a specific explanation, framed by a brief introduction and an equally brief conclusion.

The composite structure of the Origenian homily is held to have been widely disseminated in both the East and the West and to have been adopted, with various adaptations, by all the most representative homilists including Augustine. (Manlio Simonetti)

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 July 2012, page 4

For subscriptions:
Online: L'Osservatore Romano

Or write to:
Weekly Edition in English
00120 Vatican City State