Origen, Basil, and Reading Holy Scripture with a Veil

I have written elsewhere on Origen’s rejection of “literal exegesis.” against the heterodox but Origen also rejects some of the “literal” readings of the Jews. When he does this he speaks of the “veil” that is over their interpretation. He gets this language from 2 Cor. 3:15 saying that veil is an interpretation without drawing upon the spiritual meaning of the text. Peter Martens[1] argues that Origen is arguing against two main readings:

  1. Reading the ceremonial and liturgical mandates as applicable to New Testament believers (141).
  2. A denial that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament (145)

Origen is not alone in using the “veil” analogy to a literal reading of Scripture. Basil in his work, On the Holy Spirit[2], similarly argues against this literal reading. Basil argues that one must lift the veil to see the Spirit in these Old Testament passages. Like Origen, he makes charges against the Jews for a “literal” reading. He says, “Because he who attends merely to the meaning of the letter and wastes time with its legal observances covers his own heart with the Jewish interoperation of the letter, that is to say, with a veil (90).” The believer is supposed to follow Moses and remove the veil to see God. He goes on to say “so the obscurity of the teachings of the Law is analogous to the veil on the face of Moses, while spiritual vision, to the turning to the Lord. Therefore, he who strips off the letter in his reading of the Law turns to the Lord — the Lord here is called Spirit—and becomes similar to Moses whose face was glorified by God’s epiphany (90).”

By reading these Old Testament texts if the interpreter removes the veil and dives into the mysteries of the Holy Scripture then he is imitating Moses in seeking after God. The Spirit is the one who lifts the veil to point us to Christ. Like Origen, a rejection of reading according the letter of the text means more than a flippant spiritual reading. A spiritual reading is one that rightly sees that Christ has fulfilled the law and interpreters should read in light of that fact.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. - Luke 24:27


  1. Martens, Peter W. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.  ↩

  2. Basil, and Stephen M Hildebrand. On the Holy Spirit. Yonkers, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.  ↩

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