Book Review: Origen and Scripture by Peter Martens

Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $125.00

Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $125.00

Many thanks to Oxford University Press for this free review copy.

In Peter Martens’ latest work, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, he seeks to sketch a picture of the life of Origen as an exegete. Scholarship in Origen studies has produced many books and articles focusing on the specific aspects of Origen’s exegesis such as his hermeneutical method, allegory, and his doctrine of Scripture. Martens is unique in focusing on the whole of Origen’s interpretive enterprise. How did Origen view the ideal interpreter and what tools did he use to achieve this goal? Origen viewed the practice of interpretation as a holistic experience. Indeed, scriptural interpretation was both a scholarly endeavor and a spiritual exercise. Martens goal is to "advance a new and integrative thesis about the contours of the ancient exegetical life as Origen understood it, and as best we can gather, also practiced it (6).” By building on the work of Lubac, Hanson, Torjesen, and Neuschäfer, Martens examines the exegete, Origen, for his understanding of the ideal interpreter and how he practiced it.

The first part of the book deals with Origen the philologist. Martens helpfully paints a picture of the academic setting in Origen’s day to provide the basis for his philological work. Turning to the pedagogical setting that Origen would have been teaching the reader learns that Origen taught many students who did not have the skill set or the motivation to pursue the intense study of Scripture as Origen did. He often referred to his pupils as “simpliciores, that is, the ‘simple ones (27).’” The takeaway here is that Origen was not demanding this theological rigor to a group of highly educated and motived students but rather the simpliciores, the people in the pew and students.

What was this directive that Origen gave his students and himself? He called his students to a life academic rigor studying the scriptures. Origen was trained as a philologist and this is the practice that he deems fit for the proper study of the scriptures. According to Origen, the philologist must be trained in general education and philosophy and use the insights from these disciplines in the interpretation of Scripture. Martens shows how his ideals of the interpreter and his own life were synchronized. Both his detractors and proponents all agree that Origen was competent in all these areas. Martens says, “he helped his puipls realize this ambitious project for themselves. Origen, in other words, issued a scholarly mandate that he had already appropriated, and was eager to promote in his own circles (38).”

Chapter three describes four main philological exercises: text critical analysis, reading the passage out loud, literary and historical analysis, and aesthetic and moral evaluation. It is in the philological practice that we see Origen’s wide use of his secular general education. He employs his background in zoology, arithmetic, cosmology, and many other areas to give himself the complete picture of scripture. How does this relate to Origen’s reputation of an allegorist? Martens says that the “answer is clear: allegorical interpretation was a legitimate dimension of philological inquiry…philology, in other words, could be practiced in a literal or allegorical mode — but it was always philology.” Allegory is rooted in the historic literal sense of the scripture. Only when this is understood can the interpreter then seek out a loftier interpretation.

The latter part of the book addresses how Origen envisioned the ideal interpreter in the Christian faith. Origen sought to use the best of Greco-Roman scholarship and integrate it with Christianity. Since God is creator, Origen saw Greco-Roman scholarship profitable for the interpreter. In the same way, the study of philology helped one understand the divine Scriptures and contemplate the mind of God. The study of the Scriptures in this way was a pathway of salvation for the interpreter. The more devotion one has for the Scriptures the more devotion one has for the faith (92).

What are the boundaries in the study of Scripture? In chapters 6–7, Martens explains Origen’s exegesis against the Jewish interpreters and the heterodox. Against the heterodox he does this by saying, “Scripture is not discerned according to its spiritual sense, but is understood according to the mere letter (107).” It would be easy to assume that Origen thinks his opponents should read allegorically. But this is not the distinction that Origen is arguing for. Martens argues that Origen’s two main issues with this group was their uncritical use of secular teaching and not staying within the Church’s rule of faith (108). When his opponents interpret outside these two boundaries that is when they are reading the “mere letter.” Martens goes on to say that “as a rule, Origen was targeting a more basic and deficient doctrinal current that ran through Gnostic scriptural interoperation: its phonology was deficient when (and only when) it promulgated a teaching at odds with the sort of Christianity Origen represented (115).” This section continues to show that Origen was not just a mere allegorist who did not take literal meaning (in modern terms) seriously. Origen believed the ideal interpreter should read the scriptures within the rule of faith that had been passed down by the apostles (113). This rule of faith is one of the boundary markers in exegesis. When one interprets outside these boundaries then one is not following in the tradition of the apostles.

In a similar manner when Origen is writing against Jewish interpretations he charges them with “literal” exegesis. Commonly held assumptions think that Origen was only against their “literal” interpretations of the Scriptures. Martens carefully shows that this line of thinking needs to be carefully articulated and is not as simple as “literal” versus “allegorical.” Against the Jews, Origen argues that their “literal” exegesis is deficient because it does not take into account that Christ had fulfilled the law. When the ceremonial aspects of the law were interpreted literally they were in error precisely because they did not realize that Christ had fulfilled the law. Ceremonial laws now needed to be interpreted allegorically because they had no literal bearing on Christians now. Origen does not throw out their literal exegesis in full. Many times he has actually in agreement with their exegesis on other issues (143).

In the last three chapters of the book Martens addresses Origen’s view on the moral conduct of the ideal interpreter and the salvific value of Scriptural exegesis. For the ideal interpreter, one must be morally upright in order to interpret Scripture faithfully. The interpreter is to seek after God in prayer asking for divine aid in his study of the Scriptures. The “meaning of Scripture was inaccessible” without divine aid. The reason the ideal interpreter needs study and understand the Scriptures with the help of God is because the Scriptures show the way (and aid the way) in the salvation of the interpreter. Martens notes that the Scriptures are “useful or beneficial, serving as an instrument in the divine plan of salvation for those who read and heard it well (194).” Since the intent of the Scriptures is to transform the life of its hearers one must meticulously read and stud them in a faithful manner.

In the final chapter Martens concludes his book by arguing that study of Scripture was part of the beginning, middle, and end of the plan of salvation for the interpreter. When interpreting the Scriptures, one is seeking to “reverse or counteract the original fall, in an attempt to reprise, as best as possible, the prelapsarian communion and contemplation for God (234).” Origen understood that before the fall there was a state for the soul that contemplated and communed with God but this was lost in the fall. The reason Scriptural interpretation is so vital is that it brings the interpreter in direct contact with the God who revealed himself in Holy Scripture. Even though the ideal interpreter read with veiled eyes he was on his way in the plan of salvation to communing with God once again. After death if one has been studying the Scriptures they are in a place to “resume the scholarship they now practiced in the middle act (242).”

In this detailed study Martens successfully shows how Origen envisioned the ideal interpreter. In many instances he is correcting incorrect readings of Origen in the past. In many instances he shows a more nuanced and articulated understanding Origen’s exegesis. One example is in his discussion of Origen’s disagreement against the Jews. Some scholars think of it as an enigma that Origen would argue for an allegorical reading of certain passages when Jewish interpreters read allegorically on certain passages. Martens carefully argues how Origen was broadly against “literal” interpretations. 

After reading this book, one will gain a holistic picture of Origen, the ideal interpreter he sought to become. This book fills a missing link in scholarship that focuses both on the hermeneutical practices of Origen and the biographical journey of the ideal interpreter. I highly recommend this book.

Download the PDF of this review here

Peter Martens is the Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.