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Abstract:

Claiming to stand on the shoulders of the later Origen, in Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, Francis B. Watson makes a compelling case that all attempts to address alleged contradictions and establishing historical truth in and between the four canonical Gospels must be abandoned. Watson proposes that the later Origen’s preference for deeper spiritual and theological truth, in the wake of alleged empirical falsehood, should be embraced as a new paradigm and more ‘comprehensive approach’, subverting and destroying previous approaches. In this article, I test Watson’s relevant interpretations of Origen, focusing on his Commentary on John, Book 10 (Comm. Jo.); Against Celsus (Cels.); and On First Principles (Princ.). In addition, I offer evidence challenging Watson’s claim that the later Origen’s return to addressing some contradictions and establishing historical truth in Cels. reflects popular apologetics for the wider public, in contrast to more radical thoughts on hermeneutics in Book 10 of his Comm. Jo. It is argued that a more comprehensive and persuasive understanding of Origen’s approach to Gospel differences and historicity, requires a close reading of his early and later treatises, resulting in a nuanced middle position.

In his 2013 volume, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, Francis B. Watson makes a compelling case that all attempts to address alleged contradictions and establishing historical truth in and between the four canonical Gospels—as necessary to establish truthfulness and the authority of Scripture—must be abandoned. After describing these practices in Augustine, the early Origen, modern harmonisations, various Gospels synopses, and quests of the historical Jesus, Watson offers the later Origen’s rejection of harmonising contradictions, in the wake of alleged empirical falsehood, and the preference for a deeper spiritual and theological approach, as the only alternative.2 In Gospel Writing, the latter forms the conscious hermeneutical background, as well as historical foundation, for much of Watson’s own ‘comprehensive approach’ to Gospel differences.

In this article, I test whether Watson’s ‘more comprehensive’ approach to Gospel differences, can legitimately claim the later Origen as its source and foundation, focusing particularly on key sections in his Commentary on John, Book 10 (Comm. Jo.); Against Celsus (Cels.); and On First Principles (Princ.). In addition, I engage with Watson’s claim that the later Origen’s surprising return to addressing some contradictions and establishing historical truth in and among the Gospels in Cels. reflects popular apologetics for the wider public, in contrast to more radical thoughts on hermeneutics in Book 10 of his Comm. Jo. I explore whether a more comprehensive and persuasive understanding of Origen’s approach to Gospel differences and historicity, requires a close reading of his early and later treatises, contributing to a nuanced middle position.

The article is structured as follows. I start with Origen’s Comm. Jo., Book 10, and the methodological implications Watson draws from it. This is followed by explorations of harmonising contradictions and the historical credibility of the pluriform resurrection appearances in the canonical Gospels in Cels. Next a critique is offered of Watson’s explanations for the later Origen’s return to addressing contradictions and establishing historicity in Cels. In conclusion I explore relevant sections in Princ. and Comm. Jo., Books 10–20, in an attempt to articulate a more comprehensive, nuanced, and persuasive understanding of Origen’s approach to Gospel differences and historicity.3

1. Watson’s Interpretation of Origen’s Commentary of John, Book 10

In the early part of his Comm. Jo. Origen, like Augustine, engages in what Watson describes as the ‘dubious practice of manufacturing separate sayings ... out of gospel variants’,4 in order to reconcile differences between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John. This is done, in order to secure the evangelists’ veracity, trustworthiness, and the authority of Scripture. For the Origen we encounter in the early stages of his Comm. Jo., Watson argues:

There is no attempt to organize the parallel passages [in the Synoptic Gospels] into a single sequential narrative, as in a gospel harmony such as Tatian’s. Nevertheless, the harmoniser’s perpetual anxiety about apparent contradictions, passages that ‘seem to clash’ and that must be shown to be ‘in agreement,’ is also evident here.5

According to Watson, Origen is therefore not preferring one gospel above another, or constructing a ‘single sequential narrative’, yet, in light of apparent contradictions he aims to show that they are in agreement. Examples where Origen attempt to do just that include John the Baptist’s pronouncement that he himself was unworthy to carry Jesus’s shoes in Matthew 3:11, in contrast with Mark 1:7, where he felt unworthy to stoop and untie them. What is crucial for both Origen and Augustine, according to Watson, is ‘the incongruous historical claim that the Baptist must have spoken on different occasions both of untying and of carrying—one recorded by Mark, the other by Matthew—because otherwise the evangelists’ veracity and trustworthiness would be compromised.’6

Thus, for the early Origen and Augustine, all apparent contradictions must be ironed out, ‘resolvable into the singularity of a composite narrative’,7 on the assumption that ‘the authority of the gospel narrative stands or falls with the possibility of successful harmonisation at the empirical-historical level.’8 Indeed, according to Watson, for the early Origen and Augustine, the ‘plurality of the gospels is a threat to their credibility’.9

Later on in the commentary, specifically in Book 10, there is a dramatic change, as Origen finds it impossible to reconcile particular differences between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel.10 In Book 10, Origen confronts, on the one hand, the Synoptic Gospels arguing that Jesus visited Capernaum after his temptation and John the Baptist’s arrest (Mark 1:12–21; Luke 3:18–20; 4:1–31), whereas in John’s Gospel, Jesus visits Capernaum before John’s arrest and without any reference to the temptations (cf. John 1:29–2:12; 3:24). Instead of attempting to harmonise these accounts as he did earlier in his commentary, Origen now opposes this rationale,11 putting ‘his own former viewpoint to devastating critique’, as Watson puts it.12 Because of the complexities of the fourfold text, Origen ‘set[s] aside one set of interpretative tools and … develop new ones.’13 Calling the differences in the four Gospels’ reports of exactly when Jesus visited Capernaum ‘dissonant plurality’, Watson shows how Origen rejects his previous quest for ‘empirical truth’ in favour of a deeper ‘spiritual truth’.14 Watson’s translation of Origen in this regard is as follows:

[The evangelists’] intention was, where possible, to speak spiritual and empirical truth together, and, where that was not possible, to prefer the spiritual to the empirical, frequently preserving (as one might put it) the spiritual truth in the empirical falsehood.15

The acknowledgement of empirical falsehood, the inevitable result of irresolvable difficulties in chronology between the four Gospels, leads Watson to conclude that numerous similar scenarios could be identified between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel, in light of which historical Jesus studies should be abandoned:

Faced with [this] dissonant plurality, there are just two possibilities: either to select one of the gospels as a historically reliable guide and to disregard the others, or to accept that the truth of the four is not to be found at the literal-historical level.… Thus the fourfold gospel marks the end of all attempts to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus.16

It is important to underscore the weight and implication of what Watson is proposing here. Watson does not argue that there are cases of dissonant plurality which complicates attempts to explore and encounter the historical Jesus in and by way of the four Gospels;17 he claims categorically that the fourfold Gospel marks the end of all attempts to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus.18 In fact, after mentioning various modern approaches and angles to historical Jesus studies, Watson argues:

What is undermined by gospel plurality or difference is direct access to a Jesus who is not yet or no longer what he is for Christian faith. From the standpoint Origen here attains, the assumption that difference threatens the gospel itself … can only be regarded as perverse. The gospel is constituted by difference. The difference that problematizes empirical correspondence does so in order to open up the spiritual sense that makes the gospel gospel: good news bringing joy to the hearer on account of the ultimate well-being it promises.19

Before proceeding further, it should be noted that Origen’s reflections on the gospel being ‘good news bringing joy to the hearer’ and what it promises, features particularly in Book one, chapter seven of the Comm. Jo. and not only in Book 10. In the former, the good news bringing joy is directly linked to a salvation-historical approach to prophesy and the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, raised from the dead and thereby the expected Messiah (cf. Matt 11:3; John 1:42–46; 4:25 and Luke 24:18–21).20 Thus, in Book 1 the good news bringing joy is directly dependent upon literal-empirical claims about the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whereas in Book 10 the spiritual sense and good news functions independent of empirical correspondence among the pluriform Gospels. It therefore seems reasonable to argue that Origen’s focus on a deeper spiritual meaning bringing good news and joy in Book 10, does not cancel out the historical basis for good news and joy in Book 1.

Watson’s reading of Book 10 results in a striking dichotomy constructed between attempts to address alleged contradictions and establishing historical truth, and the complete abandonment of such attempts in favour of gospel plurality, the spiritual sense and well-being.21 Watson’s detailed discussions and binary construal of an old paradigm (addressing contradictions and establishing historical truth) and new paradigm (spiritual and theological truth) seem to imply that Origen not only remained convinced about the methodological change he argued for in Book 10, but also, that he continued applying this new framework in subsequent academic treatise.22 If there was a major paradigm shift in Book 10, and if indeed the later Origen should be regarded as the catalyst and model for a new ‘more comprehensive framework’, that is, a theological and spiritual approach and quest for multiplicity, subverting and destroying an older harmonising and historical paradigm, then it needs to be explained why Origen would be returning to such ‘perverse’ harmonising practices and quests of historical truth after Book 10.

2. Origen’s Continued Quest to Address Some Contradictions in Contra Celsum

Against the background of Watson’s description of a paradigm shift in Book 10 of Origen’s Comm. Jo., the most significant evidence that at least problematizes Watson’s overall attempt to ‘subvert and destroy’ the empirical and harmonising paradigm of the early Origen and Augustine, is the later Origen’s Contra Celsum (Cels.).23 This volume of eight books and 622 chapters, Origen’s comprehensive and sophisticated critique of issues raised by Celsus, the famous second century pagan sceptic, was written well after Book 10 of his Comm. Jo.24 In Origen’s attempt to counter Celsus’s claims, he engages in a combination of harmonisations, a quest for empirical and historical truth, positive affirmations of historical and deeper spiritual truth, and at times respecting pluriformity of the canonical Easter narratives. We discuss examples of harmonisation and the quest to establish historical truth.

2.1. Harmonising Contradictions

In Cels. 2.69, Origen argues for the harmony of the Gospels in relation to Jesus being buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s new tomb. In contrast to Celsus’s claim that ‘Jesus had disappeared after he had been put to death on the cross’, Origen describes the different reports of Jesus’s burial, concluding that the four Easter narratives ‘did not invent, as they [Celsus and his Jew] consider it ought to have done, any such instantaneous disappearance, but gave a true account of the matter’ (Cels. 2.69). It is Celsus and his Jew who invent; the four Gospels offer historical truth. Although making the point that in another work he will expound various symbolical depths found in the Easter narratives (necessary to demonstrate the ‘whole view of the truth’), Origen makes clear that for current purposes, he will counter Celsus’s claims by focusing on ‘the mere letter and narrative of the events which happened to Jesus’. Expounding the true accounts found in the Gospels, Origen argues it is

sufficient to notice the clean linen in which the pure body of Jesus was to be enwrapped, and the new tomb which Joseph had hewn out of the rock, where ‘no one was yet lying,’ or, as John expresses it, ‘wherein was never man yet laid.’ And observe whether the harmony of the three evangelists here is not fitted to make an impression: for they have thought it right to describe the tomb as one that was ‘quarried or hewn out of the rock’; so that he who examines the words of the narrative may see something worthy of consideration, both in them and in the newness of the tomb—a point mentioned by Matthew and John—and in the statement of Luke and John, that no one had ever been interred therein before. (Cels. 2.69)

Indeed, despite differences in wording and perspective, Origen is able to move between the four Gospel accounts of Joseph’s tomb in such a way as to secure extensive harmony and historical trustworthiness.

A second example, remarkably similar to Augustine’s attempts to reject contradictions and reconcile the differences in the reports of the angels in the canonical Easter narratives,25 is found in Cels. 5.56. Contra Watson’s claim that Celsus and Porphyry are ‘more concerned with absurd or otherwise objectionable elements in the Gospels than with contradictions per se’,26 Origen decides to take up Celsus’s claim of a contradiction between one angel in Mark 16:5 and Matthew 28:2; and two angels in Luke 24:4 and John 20:12:

Matthew and Mark speak of one, and Luke and John of two, which statements are not contradictory. For they who mention one, say that it was he who rolled away the stone from the sepulchre; while they who mention two, refer to those who appeared in shining raiment to the women that repaired to the sepulchre, or who were seen within sitting in white garments. Each of these occurrences might now be demonstrated to have actually taken place, and to be indicative of a figurative meaning existing in these phenomena, (and intelligible) to those who were prepared to behold the resurrection of the Word. (Cels. 5.56)

Notice Origen’s clever move in the above citation: rejecting Celsus’s insistence that the one angel in Mark 16:5 and Matthew 28:2, and two angels in Luke 24:4 and John 20:12 should be harmonised, Origen instead argues that none of these narratives contradict each other, as they narrate two separate historical events. They are not to be harmonised in the way Celsus demands, but they are nonetheless harmonious as they can be placed alongside each other without contradicting each other. Indeed, the Origen we encounter in this dialogue requires contradictions to be ironed out and resolved into the singularity of a composite narrative (Cels. 2.69).27

2.2. The Historical Credibility of Pluriform Resurrection Appearances (Matt 28:9; Luke 24:41–43; John 20:19–29)

Origen informs us that Celsus and his Jew ‘arbitrarily accepts’ some positions of the canonical Easter narratives, ‘in order to find ground of accusation’ (Cels. 2.70). Thus, Celsus conveniently only selects those parts of the canonical Easter narratives that might suit his scepticism, ignoring those narratives and details that might provide answers for his scepticism. Elsewhere, Origen states that Celsus and his Jew ‘arrange things differently from what they are’, and that their selective reconstructions ‘are deserving of ridicule’ (Cels. 2.68).There are those who ‘do not adopt certain portions merely of the narrative that they may have ground for accusing Christianity, and who consider other portions to be fiction’ (Cels. 2.68). According to Origen, therefore, Celsus is employing at least three techniques: (1) he regards some events as credible in order to undermine the trustworthiness of others; (2) he rearranges events in order to discredit the actual sequences; and (3) he regards some portions as fictional from the start.

Against this background, we focus, on three separate resurrection appearances, and the way Origen describes Celsus’s challenges, as well as Origen’s counter responses.

2.2.1. Appearances to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11–17) or to Mary Magdalene and the Other Mary (Matthew 28:1–9)?

Origen’s expositions of Jesus’s appearances to women (Matt 28:1–10; John 20:11–17) are found in the context of Celsus’s Jew who rejects the credibility of Jesus’s resurrection because he should have appeared to the multitudes, not a small group of his own followers. Celsus’s Jew argues that in contrast to addressing multitudes while still in the body, after his resurrection, Jesus appears only to one woman, and his own disciples:

while he was in the body, and no one believed upon him, he preached to all without intermission; but when he might have produced a powerful belief in himself after rising from the dead, he showed himself secretly only to one woman, and to his own boon companions. (Cels. 2.61)

Origen is quick to point out that Celsus’s Jew did not read all the Easter narratives thoroughly. Whereas Celsus’s Jew focused exclusively on the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20:11–17, Origen focuses on Matthew 28:1–9:

Now it is not true that He showed Himself only to one woman; for it is stated in the Gospel according to Matthew that ‘in the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there had been a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord had descended from heaven, and come and rolled back the stone.’ And, shortly after, Matthew adds: ‘And, behold, Jesus met them’—clearly meaning the aforementioned Marys—‘saying, All hail. And they came and held Him by the feet, and worshipped Him.’ (Cels. 2.61)

Indeed, according to Origen, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary actually touched the post-resurrection body of Jesus.28 Origen’s verbatim citations, coming close to modern day proof-texting, are striking. Remarkably, the ease with which Origin cites Matthew 28:1, 9, where it is made clear that there were two Mary’s, seems to imply that Origen finds no discrepancy or contradiction with what some could argue is an individual appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20:11–17. Instead of addressing the latter possible discrepancy, Origen focuses on Celsus’s Jew who claims Jesus should’ve appeared to the multitudes (‘while undergoing his punishment he was seen by all, but after his resurrection only by one’), and uncovers a contradiction in his (that is, Celsus’s) argumentation:

Observe here the manifest contradiction into which Celsus falls. For having said, a little before, that Jesus had appeared secretly to one woman and His own boon companions, he immediately subjoins: ‘While undergoing his punishment he was seen by all men, but after his resurrection by one, whereas the opposite ought to have happened.’ And let us hear what he means by ‘ought to have happened.’ The being seen by all men while undergoing His punishment, but after His resurrection only by one individual, are opposites. Now, so far as his language conveys a meaning, he would have that to take place which is both impossible and absurd ... that while undergoing His punishment He should be seen only by one individual, but after His resurrection by all men! or else how will you explain his words, ‘The opposite ought to have happened?’ (Cels. 2.70)

Thus, after correcting Celsus’s claim that the risen Jesus appeared secretly only to one woman (John 20; Matt 28), and to his own boon companions, Origen turns the tables, arguing it is Celsus’s claims which are impossible and absurd. It is not the pluriform Easter narratives, but Celsus’s claims which are contradictory.

2.2.2. Greek Mythology, Jesus’s Divinity, and Eating Fish (Luke 24:41–43)

Origen’s interpretation of Luke 24:41–43 is found in a section where Celsus questions the divinity of Jesus, on the grounds that he eats and is nourished, presumably unlike the Greek ‘gods’. According to Celsus, ‘the body of a god is not nourished with such food (as was that of Jesus) … the body of a god does not make use of such a voice as that of Jesus, nor employ such a method of persuasion as he’ (Cels. 1.70).29

Interestingly, for the sake of argument, it seems Celsus accepts the credibility of Luke 24:41–43, but only to demonstrate that Jesus was not a ‘god’. Origen responds, adamantly referring to: (i) Jesus ‘actually’ eating the Passover with His disciples (Mark 14; Matt 26; Luke 22; John 13); (ii) Jesus experiencing the sensation of thirst beside the well of Jacob (John 4:6–7); and crucially (iii) the risen Jesus eating fish (‘it appears indubitable that after His resurrection He ate a piece of fish [Luke 24:41–43]; for, according to our view, He assumed a (true) body, as one born of a woman’, Cels. 1.70).

Origen’s strategy is to underscore Celsus’s problem by highlighting the pre-resurrection Jesus’s eating, being thirsty, and the post-resurrection Jesus eating fish. Instead of spiritualising these texts in order to counter Celsus’s rejection of Jesus’s divinity, Origen highlights their literal truth, preparing the way for his next clever move. Being thoroughly steeped in Greek mythology himself, Origen is able to show that Celsus’s objections are not only trifling, but ‘altogether contemptible’, finding conceptually similar actions in Greek mythology. Origen shows that

he who is believed among the Greeks to be a god, viz., the Pythian and Didymean Apollo, makes use of such a voice for his Pythian priestess at Delphi, and for his prophetess at Miletus; and yet neither the Pythian nor Didymean is charged by the Greeks with not being a god, nor any other Grecian deity whose worship is established in one place. And it is far better, surely, that a god should employ a voice which, on account of its being uttered with power, should produce an indescribable sort of persuasion in the minds of the hearers. (Cels. 1.70)

To summarise, Origen’s exposition of Luke 24:41–43 and related texts are remarkably historical and literal, even excluding deeper spiritual meanings. Indeed, an exclusively deeper spiritual meaning of the risen Jesus eating would have been helpful to refute Celsus’s rejection of Jesus’s divinity. On the contrary, Origen emphasises the historicity and literal truth of Luke 24:41–43, even invoking Celsus’s Greek gods as witnesses.

2.2.3. Perverted Imaginations and Docetism: Doubting Thomas and the Emmaus Stories (John 20:24–27 and Luke 24:13–35)

In Cels. 2.60–62, Origen attempts to address a number of inter-related challenges raised by Celsus. According to Celsus, the appearances of Jesus were either (i) misinterpreted dreams; (ii) the actualisation of a desired image under influence of a perverted imagination; (iii) some kind of docetism, that is, after Jesus’s death, he exhibited only the ‘appearance of wounds received on the cross’; or (iv) non-bodily ghostly vanishings.

Starting with (i) misinterpreted dreams and (ii) a desired image under influence of a perverted imagination, Origen concedes that such things are indeed possible while one is asleep, but distinguishes the latter from what actually happened: ‘Now it is not irrational to believe that a dream may take place while one is asleep; but to suppose a waking vision in the case of those who are not altogether out of their senses, and under the influence of delirium or hypochondria, is incredible’ (2.60).

Repudiating Celsus for arbitrarily selecting the appearance to Mary Magdalene (including his dubious description of her character), in an attempt to refute any kind of docetism (iii), Origen unpacks the appearance to doubting Thomas, which is, probably, conveniently ignored by Celsus. Origen takes great care in trying to convince Celsus that Thomas could actually touch the scars of the risen Jesus’s body (John 20:27): Thomas did not merely say ‘Unless I see, I will not believe’; Origen emphasises what Thomas added: ‘Unless I put my hands upon His side, I will not believe’. These words, Origen makes clear,

were spoken by Thomas, who deemed it possible that the body of the soul might be seen by the eye of sense, resembling in all respects its former appearance both in size, and in beauty of eyes, and in voice; and frequently, too ‘Having, also, such garments around the person (as when alive).’ Jesus accordingly, having called Thomas, said, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side’ (Cels. 2.61).

In what follows, as background for the claim of a non-bodily ghostly vanishings (iv), Origen emphasises that Jesus’s resurrection was predicted (Job 17:14; Acts 2:27) and should be marvelous. Describing Jesus’s miraculous ability to appear and disappear at will, Origen proposes that the risen Jesus ‘existed in a body intermediate, as it were, between the grossness of that which He had before His sufferings, and the appearance of a soul uncovered by such a body’ (Cels. 2.61).

Of course, this explanation is necessary, putting in perspective the miraculous and uncommon abilities of the risen Jesus’s body. This is followed by a citation of John 20:26–27, where the risen Jesus appears in his disciples’ midst while the doors were shut, inviting Thomas to touch his body. Without interval or elaboration, Origen expounds Luke 24:14–17, 31:

In the Gospel of Luke also, while Simon and Cleopas were conversing with each other respecting all that had happened to them, Jesus ‘drew near, and went with them. And their eyes were holden, that they should not know Him. And He said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk?’ And when their eyes were opened, and they knew Him, then the Scripture says, in express words, ‘And He vanished out of their sight.’ (2.62)

The way in which Origen moves freely between John 20:26–27 and Luke 24:14–17, 31, suggests not only that there are conceptually similar themes in both accounts; but also, implicitly, that both accounts actually happened.

2.3. Summary

Origen takes seriously Celsus’s approach and arguments in rejecting the resurrection of Jesus: (i) some events are held to be credible in order to undermine the truthfulness of others; (ii) events are rearranged in order to discredit the actual sequences; and (iii) some portions are dismissed as fictional from the start. Origen engages these issues as follows. First, alleged contradictions are harmonised (one angel in Mark 16:5 and Matt 28:2; two angels in Luke 24:4 and John 20:12). Second, Jesus appeared not only to Mary Magdalene but also to the other Mary (John 20:11–17; Matt 28:1–9). Third, contradictions are uncovered in Celsus’s argumentation. Fourth, in support of the credibility of the risen Jesus eating (Luke 24:41–43), conceptually similar abilities of gods in Greek mythology is offered (the background is Celsus doubting Jesus’s divinity). Fifth, countering Celsus’s claims that the appearances are misinterpreted dreams, the actualisation of a desired image, some kind of docetism, or a non-bodily ghostly vanishing, Origen argues as follows:

  1. the appearances occurred in daylight, not at night or while they slept;
  2. countering docetism, Origen focuses on the physicality of Jesus’s appearance to doubting Thomas (John 20:27; probably absent from Celsus’s reconstruction);
  3. addressing claims of a ghostly disappearance, the focus is on the resurrection being predicted and miraculous (Job 17:14; Acts 2:27); the risen Jesus possessing an ‘intermediate’ body; his supernatural ability to appear and disappear (John 20:26–27 and Luke 24:14–17 are both trustworthy), and believers’ eyes were withheld from seeing the risen Jesus.

In conclusion, addressing Celsus’s challenges in relation to the pluriform reports of the resurrection of Jesus in the four Gospels, Origen harmonises differences; rejects selective readings that compromise historicity; uncovers contradictions in Celsus’s arguments; and offers external and internal evidence in support of the historicity and credibility of the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, exactly that which Watson submits to devastating criticism in Augustine and the early Origen’s harmonisation program—that is, harmonising different gospel accounts, establishing historical truth, and even engaging in the ‘dubious practice of manufacturing separate sayings ... out of gospel variants’30—is done by the ‘hero’ of Watson’s ‘more comprehensive’ ‘new paradigm’,31 long after Book 10 of his Comm. Jo.

3. Popular Apologetics (Against Celsus) in Contrast to More Radical Thoughts on Hermeneutics (Commentary on John)?

Watson’s detailed critique, binary construal between an old and new paradigm, and the use of emotive words such as ‘perverse’ and ‘destroy’ in relation to Origen’s harmonisation paradigm (in Gospel Writing), leaves the reader with the expectation that Origen’s spiritual and theological paradigm (after Comm. Jo., Book 10) replaced the old paradigm, and that he continued to follow through with the new paradigm in subsequent treatise. Although Watson can refer to the supplementation of an initial a priori hermeneutic, he also states that ‘Origen is compelled by the complex realities of the fourfold text to set aside one set of interpretative tools and to develop new ones.’32 It is precisely in the latter context that Watson relies on Origen, claiming that ‘the fourfold gospel marks the end of all attempts to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus’.33 The latter seems to imply that Origen never again attempted to address alleged contradictions and engage in serious historical Jesus reconstructions of the fourfold Gospel. Indeed, even in an earlier article, exploring the assumption that Gospel harmonisation is essential to the credibility of Christianity, Watson’s binary construal of an old and new paradigm is evident: ‘Augustine’s De Consensu Evangelistarum—a work whose enduring influence on western Christianity ensured that the alternative Origenist approach to gospel differences remained virtually unknown.’34

Against this background, if Watson is correct to argue for an early and later Origen representing an old and a new paradigm (addressing contradictions and establishing historical-truth), and an exclusively spiritual and theological paradigm (destroying and subverting the former), then there needs to be persuasive evidence presented why the later Origen, at times, continued with the old ‘dubious’ and ‘perverse’ practice of harmonising contradictions and establishing historical truth between the Gospels in Cels. In the absence of such evidence, the claim of an old and new paradigm could be understood as an artificially imposed scheme not adequately reflecting a more complex and nuanced methodological and hermeneutical reality in Origen. In addition, the latter could call into question the alleged new ‘more comprehensive’ approach extensively articulated and defended by Watson in Gospel Writing, because Origen’s Book 10, Comm. Jo., functions as hermeneutical framework for it. Yet, there are no discussions of the relevant issues in Gospel Writing.

In personal correspondence, Watson acknowledged being aware of Origen harmonising contradictions, and a quest to establish historical truth between the Gospels, in his extended critique of Celsus. He also indicated being aware that this critique was completed well after Book 10 of Origen’s Comm. Jo. Watson’s explanation for the methodological and hermeneutical differences between these works is that he would not expect Origen’s more radical thoughts on hermeneutics (Comm. Jo., Book 10) to feature in a work of apologetics intended for a wider public (Cels.).35 Watson’s claim is therefore that Origen’s Comm. Jo., particularly Book 10 and beyond, represents his more radical thoughts on hermeneutics, written for the sophisticated reader and not apologetic in nature, in contrast to his critique of Celsus, which represents the genre of popular apologetics for the less educated and wider public. These claims require scrutiny.

3.1. The Absence of Contra Celsus in Gospel Writing

It is potentially significant that there is no mention of the later Origen returning to harmonising contradictions, and a quest to establish historical truth in Cels., in Watson’s Gospel Writing. One would at least have expected a footnote about the later Origen’s return to addressing contradictions, as Watson refers to Cels. elsewhere when it suits his argument.36 In his more recent The Fourfold Gospel. A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus, Watson reflects briefly on Origen’s Comm. Jo., Book 10, summarising his more detailed discussions in Gospel Writing. Significantly, he includes a four page discussion of Cels., calling it ‘his great apologetic treatise’,37 but there is no mention of the way in which the later Origen harmonise Gospel differences in the four Easter accounts,38 nor reference to his claim that Comm. Jo. contains radical thoughts on hermeneutics for the more sophisticated reader, while Cels. represents popular apologetics for the wider public. Of course, if indeed Watson is correct in claiming that Origen’s Comm. Jo. contains radical thoughts on hermeneutics in contrast to apologetics intended for a wider public in Cels., then it would not be significant that there is no engagement with the latter in Gospel Writing. Indeed, Watson would be vindicated. But that is what needs to be tested below.

3.2. Engaging Watson’s Popular Apologetics (Contra Celsus) and Radical Hermeneutics (Commentary on John) Claims

Watson’s claims seem to imply that apologetics intended for a wider and less educated audience in Cels. gave Origen the liberty to contradict an anti-harmonisation and spiritually informed methodology implemented in Book 10 of his Comm. Jo. It also seems to imply that the Comm. Jo. was not intended for the wider public and apologetic in nature, therefore explaining Origen’s more radical hermeneutics, historical-criticism and spiritual expositions in Book 10. If Watson’s claims and its implications are probable, then we can assume that Origen would be content to abandon his new ‘radical’ methodological principles developed in his Comm. Jo. (specifically in Book 10) in Cels., knowing full well that bishops, educated Christians (not the ‘wider public’), and sceptics in particular (Celsus?) would be able to detect and expose serious methodological inconsistencies in these two works, but that it would not matter, as they would be aware that Cels. is popular apologetics for the ‘wider public’, in contrast to the Comm. Jo. which reflects more radical hermeneutical insights for a small elite.39

On the other hand, should one not allow for serious inconsistencies in Origen’s different works? Tertullian and Augustine, we know, went through different theological phases (in relation to the resurrection body) that clearly highlighted significant development and contradictions in their work.40 We also know that Philo of Alexandria, for instance, differentiated between the audiences he wrote for, and it had a significant impact on what and how he wrote.41 Could the same be true of Origen’s commentary on John on the one hand, and his volume refuting Celsus on the other? We suggest there are credible reasons to doubt all these possibilities.

3.2.1. Refuting Heracleon (Commentary on John) and Celsus (Contra Celsus)

Both Origen’s Comm. Jo. and Cels. are written against the background of what were held to be serious errors threatening the orthodox faith. In relation to Origen’s Comm. Jo., Watson rightly shows how Ambrosius, Origen’s patron and publisher, was himself a convert from Valentinianism, asking Origen to devote special attention to refuting an earlier, heretical commentary on John. Jerome and Clement tell us that this commentary was written by Heracleon.42 Following Ambrosius’s advice, Origen interacts with and refutes Heracleon’s heretical claims up until Book 20 of his Comm. Jo. (which has been lost); thus, long after Book 10, in which he abandons harmonisation.43 Origen is therefore writing a counter-commentary on an earlier Valentinian commentary, attempting to provide an important and useful tool that can provide guidance to searching and confused Christians. In Book 8 of his Comm. Jo., Origen shows how the

heterodox are rising up against Christ’s holy church with their pretended knowledge, producing works in many books that provide an exposition of the gospels.... If we remain silent and do not oppose them with true and sound teaching, they will get a hold on inquiring minds who, for lack of wholesome fare, would hasten after forbidden and truly unclean and hateful foods.44

The context seems to suggest that the ‘inquiring minds’ Origen refers to, includes the wider public, who probably lacks the knowledge and ability to understand the difference between heresy and orthodoxy, and whose faith could easily be shaken.

By comparison, how does Origen describe the audience he is writing for in Cels.? In the preface to Book 1 Origen explains the background of the defense he is about to give. Likely his last scholarly work before his death, his maturity as a Christian scholar is evident, as he emphasises that the arguments and threats offered by Celsus should not shake the faith of even ordinary believers.45 Yet, crucially, Origen goes on explaining that

since in the multitude of those who are considered believers some such persons might be found as would have their faith shaken and overthrown by the writings of Celsus, but who might be preserved by a reply to them of such a nature as to refute his statements and to exhibit the truth, we have deemed it right to yield to your [Ambrosius’s] injunction, and to furnish an answer to the treatise which you sent us (Preface 4).

Explaining that his intention was to start by focusing on Celsus’s principle objections, followed by brief answers, and then a subsequent systematic treatise of the whole discourse, Origen apologises for not being able to follow these procedures; offering as excuse that he should be economical with his time. With this in mind Origen states: ‘I should in the following part grapple closely, to the best of my ability, with the charges of Celsus’ (Cels. Preface 6). Origen is therefore taking very seriously Celsus’s challenges, and the references to ‘grapple closely’ and ‘best of my ability’ suggest he is going to refute Celsus with some of the very best and sophisticated skills and tools available to him. Indeed, to be discussed below (3.2.2), the latter also indicates that the more sophisticated reader will benefit from Origen’s critiques of Celsus.

Thus, Origen’s reference to the ‘heterodox ... rising up’ and the prospect that they might ‘get a hold on inquiring minds’ if he does not oppose them (Comm. Jo.) on the one hand, and the reference to some whose faith might be ‘shaken and overthrown by the writings of Celsus’ should he not respond on the other, seems to suggest that both works are indeed apologetic, intended for the wider public, and aimed at refuting heresy. The former concerns Heracleon, the latter Celsus.

3.2.2. Criticising the ‘Wider Public’ in Contra Celsus

If one accepts Watson’s claim that Cels. is popular apologetics for the wider public in contrast to radical hermeneutics for a more sophisticated audience in Comm. Jo., then one would not expect Origen to severely criticize the beliefs and interpretive skills of the wider public (understood to be uneducated Christians) in Cels. The latter seems to be implied in Watson’s relevant claims.46 Watson also seems to suggest that Origen allowed himself the right to harmonise differences between the Gospels in Cels., in order to meet the apologetic requirements of strengthening the faith of the wider public, while in a more sophisticated work for the intelligent believer, he rejects harmonisations (Comm. Jo., Book 10). Against this background, I reflect on two examples in Cels., where Origen criticizes the wider public.47

3.2.2.1. The Resurrection of the Flesh

Origen seems to blame less sophisticated believers for Celsus’s wrong perceptions of the resurrection body: ‘Celsus ridicules this doctrine because he does not understand it and because he has learned it from ignorant persons, who were unable to support it on any reasonable grounds’ (Cels. 5.19; 7.32).48 In dealing with Paul’s seed analogy in 1 Corinthians 15:37, in contrast to the then popular claim that Paul’s seed analogy implies that dust particles that remain following the decomposition of dead bodies will somehow be taken up, absorbed and transformed as part of the future spiritual body, Origen persistently argues the opposite. There is no connection between the future spiritual body and particles that remain following decomposition of dead bodies. For Origen, the latter represents the natural body (1 Cor 15:44) and flesh and blood (15:50) that will not inherit the kingdom of God. In an attempt to counter the misguided views of Celsus, the ‘simpler class’ and ‘wider public’, Origen declared: ‘Our hope is not the hope of worms, nor does our soul long for a body that has seen corruption’ (Cels. 5.19). As hermeneutical framework for the latter perspectives, Origen incorporated the Platonic idea of the eidos and the Stoic terminology of ‘seminal reasons’ or ‘structures’ to designate the soul as the principle of continuity between the dying and resurrection body. Also, Origen utilized the ancient concept of the body as flux (the human person understood in terms of ‘continual psychosomatic change’), expressed in the Galenic version of humoural theory to insist on the necessary transformation, discontinuity and radical change that will be characteristic of the future spiritual body.49

Thus, when dealing with Celsus’s misconceptions about the resurrection body, not only is Origen criticizing the wider public’s belief in the resurrection of the flesh, he offers an alternative combining Middle Platonic, Stoic, Galenic and scriptural insights in a remarkably sophisticated way. The latter seems not to reflect popular apologetics for the wider public, but the kind of hermeneutic that would appeal to the more sophisticated Christian. Indeed, it was only Origen’s sophisticated articulations of the resurrection body that would provide sufficient evidence to counter Celsus’s claims.

3.2.2.2. A Sophisticated Interpretation of the Baptism of Jesus

Origen informs us that Celsus regards the Gospel of Matthew’s reports of the virginal conception of Jesus and his baptism as pious fraud. In response, Origen articulates three methodological options remarkably close to the historical-criticism articulated in Comm. Jo., Book 10. After exploring a number of examples from Greek mythology, Origen argues:

He who deals candidly with histories, and would wish to keep himself also from being imposed upon by them, will exercise his judgment as to what statements he will give his assent to, and what he will accept figuratively, seeking to discover the meaning of the authors of such inventions, and from what statements he will withhold his belief, as having been written for the gratification of certain individuals (Cels. 1.42).

Origen therefore identifies three basic options for assessing historical work. First, its historical claims are accepted as literally true. Second, rejecting literalism, a figurative or spiritual meaning is intended. Third, the story is invented for the benefit of particular persons. These methodological possibilities, Origen states, are lauded out

by way of anticipation respecting the whole history related to the Gospels concerning Jesus, not as inviting men of acuteness to a simple and unreasoning faith, but wishing to show that there is need of candour in those who are to read, and of much investigation, and, so to speak, of insight into the meaning of the writers, that the object with which each event has been recorded may be discovered (1.42).

Not the uneducated, but the more sophisticated believer is in a position to select the appropriate methodology for a particular text. After exploring various conceptually similar phenomenon in the life of Moses, Ezekiel and Isaiah (including the heavens being split open), Origen not only proposes that the heavens being split open in Matthew should be interpreted figuratively, he does so, knowing full well that the latter would be a stumbling block for the wider public:

I do not suppose that the visible heaven was actually opened, and its physical structure divided, in order that Ezekiel might be able to record such an occurrence. Should not, therefore, the same be believed of the Saviour by every intelligent hearer of the Gospels?—although such an occurrence may be a stumbling-block to the simple, who in their simplicity would set the whole world in movement, and split in sunder the compact and mighty body of the whole heavens (1.48).

3.3. Summary

To test Watson’s claims, I focused on the potential significance of the absence of Cels., in Gospel Writing, followed by a more elaborate engagement with the claim that Cels. is a popular apologetic work for the wider public, in contrast to the Comm. Jo., written for the more sophisticated reader and containing more radical thoughts on hermeneutics. I offered evidence indicating that both works contain apologetics intended for the wider public, providing answers for believers whose faith might otherwise be shaken. In Comm. Jo., Heracleon’s heretical views are addressed while Celsus’s claims are dealt with in Cels. Next I explored the significance of criticisms leveled against the wider public in Cels., focusing on Origen’s rejection of the popular view that the flesh will be raised in future, and his rejection of the literal truth of the events narrated in Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus. In both instances, Origen articulated a sophisticated view siding with educated readers, openly rejecting the wider public’s interpretations.

In light of the evidence presented, it could be argued that Cels. is not a work of popular apologetics for the ‘wider public’ and ‘simple’ Christians in radical contrast with Origen’s Comm. Jo., which is addressed to the ‘more intelligent believer’, containing radical thoughts on hermeneutics. Both are apologetic treatises, intended to address various heresies, equipping believers so their faith will not be shaken. Not only that, both Origen’s Comm. Jo. (Book 10 and beyond) and Cels. contain more radical thoughts on hermeneutics, written for an audience that includes sophisticated readers.

4. A More Comprehensive Methodological Paradigm for Origen’s Approach

Our explorations of Origen’s Comm. Jo. and Cels. have shown that both these works contain apologetics for the wider public, as well as more radical thoughts on hermeneutics. However, in order to provide an alternative and more nuanced alternative to Watson’s construal of a ‘comprehensive approach’ in the work of Origen, we need to provide additional evidence. Thus, in addition to the evidence already presented in Cels., we explore relevant examples from On First Principles and Comm. Jo., Books 10–20.

4.1. On First Principles

In On First Principles—probably written between AD 220 and 230, and according to some, the first ever Christian systematic theology—Origen explores both deeper spiritual and literal interpretations of a variety of Old and New Testament texts.50 Focusing on such commands as ‘Salute no man by the way’ (Luke 10:4); ‘If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other one as well’ (Luke 6:29); and ‘if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out’ (Matt 5:29),51 Origen skillfully demonstrates how such commands of Jesus should be interpreted spiritually. Probably anticipating questions about related texts making literal claims, Origen argues that ‘very many of these are to be literally observed’ (cf. ‘honour your father and mother’ and various prohibitions [i.e. ‘you shall not commit adultery’ and ‘you shall not steal’]). In the same context, Origen also deals with what he calls ‘certain’ unhistorical and a ‘majority’ of historical events:

Let no one, however, entertain the suspicion that we do not believe any history in Scripture to be real, because we suspect certain events related in it not to have taken place … or that we do not believe those predictions which were written of the Saviour to have been fulfilled in a manner palpable to the senses.… We have therefore to state in answer, since we are manifestly so of opinion, that the truth of the history may and ought to be preserved in the majority of instances (Princ. 4.19).

Origen then goes on mentioning some of these ‘majority of instances’, primarily focusing on Old Testament texts (cf. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob being buried at Hebron; Shechem that was given to Joseph; Jerusalem being the metropolis of Judea and Solomon who built the temple), concluding that there are ‘countless other [such] statements’. Origen concludes by claiming that ‘the passages which are historically true are far more numerous than those which were composed with purely spiritual meaning’ (Princ. 4.19).52 Applied to Gospel differences, the latter approach could imply that there are instances where a purely spiritual meaning is to be preferred (in light of dissonant plurality and alleged empirical falsehood), while there are far more instances where the Gospels contain historically true passages (and that alleged contradictions can be addressed successfully).

Even Watson acknowledges (before focusing on Gospel differences in Origen’s Comm. Jo.) that Origen’s hermeneutic is not everywhere the same. Criticizing those proposing that the distinction between literal-historical and anagogical-spiritual senses remain consistently the same in Origen, Watson underscores the reality that Origen’s hermeneutic is affected by ‘differences of genre among the scriptural texts or by specific issues arising in interpretative practice’.53 Acknowledging there is a close relationship between hermeneutical theory and interpretative practice in Origen, Watson nevertheless concedes that ‘it seems unlikely that exactly the same theory could determine the interpretation of texts as diverse as ... John, and Romans’.54 It could even be argued that within some comparisons between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel, it is unlikely that one theory (such as the complete abandonment of addressing contradictions) could determine Origen’s interpretation of texts. This claim coheres well with the relevant examples discussed in Princ.

4.2. Historical and Literary Evidence in Commentary on John, Books 10–20

Five chapters after acknowledging possible historical falsehood and the preference for a deeper spiritual meaning (Comm. Jo. 10.4), Origen confronts Heracleon’s claim that Jesus’s going down to Capernaum (John 2:12),

means these farthest-out parts of the world, these districts of matter, into which He descended, and because the place was not suitable, he says, He is not reported either to have done anything or said anything in it (Comm. Jo. 10.9).

In what follows, Origen’s theological aim is to counter Heracleon’s deep suspicion of the value and goodness of the material world, which he superimposes on Jesus who ‘went down’ to Capernaum. The method employed is classic historical-criticism: multiple attestation and corroboration between the Gospels. According to Origen, had Jesus not been reported to have worked in Capernaum in the other three Gospels, ‘we might have hesitated whether this view ought or ought not to be received’. Origen then cites Matthew 4:13; Mark 1:21–28; and Luke 4:38–41, concluding with a confident tone and challenge addressed at Heracleon:

We have presented all these statements as to the Saviour’s sayings and doings at Capernaum in order to refute Heracleon’s interpretation of our passage, ‘Hence He is not said to have done or to have spoken anything there.’ He must either give two meanings to Capernaum, and show us his reasons for them, or if he cannot do this he must give up saying that the Saviour visited any place to no purpose (Comm. Jo. 10.9).55

The methodological tools Origen abandoned in 10.4—that is, harmonisation and the quest for historicity—is reintroduced successfully to counter Heracleon’s theological claims and arbitrary engagement with the Gospels.

Harmonisations aside, even Watson discusses at length how, in Books 10–20 of his Comm. Jo., Origen offers credible historical and literary evidence (often in combination with deeper spiritual truth) countering Heracleon’s one sided claims. One example is sufficient.

In Book 13, exploring the Samaritan women who left her jar behind (John 4:28), Origen defends the ‘literal-ethical’ or ‘normal sense’ in combination with a deeper ‘anagogical, up-leading or uplifting sense’, in contrast to dubious hidden senses articulated by Heracleon and modern commentators such as Raymond E. Brown.56 In contrast to Brown’s ‘Potential amplification of the plain sense … but only in order to be marginalized … Origen’s interpretation of the abandoned water jar is richer and more complex.’57 According to Watson,

The depths from which the water jar is to be filled [cf. Heracleon’s and Brown’s interpretations] signify a profound teaching that is profoundly wrong, misstating or contradicting basic Christian beliefs about God and the world.58

Indeed, it is possible to demonstrate from his Comm. Jo. (cf. 10.9.48–60; 10.9.222–24; 13.187–92; and 13.51.349–51) that Origen did not abandon completely the quest for historical and literal truth (in combination with deeper spiritual truth), as he continues addressing wrong teaching that contradicts basic Christian beliefs.59

Thus, there are times when an exclusively deeper spiritual meaning (cf. Heracleon) would be a hindrance. In such cases, the plain sense should not be marginalized, but incorporated to provide a rich and more complex meaning to wear of one sided spiritual interpretations and arbitrary selections from Scripture. In fact, it could be argued that in such instances, rejecting the plain and literal meaning of key texts and Christian doctrines, can result in the gospel itself being threatened and can only be regarded as perverse. Indeed, although deeper spiritual meanings are of foundational importance to Origen, there are instances when a purely spiritual sense can obstruct what makes the gospel to be gospel: good news bringing joy to the hearer on account of the ultimate well-being it promises.60

4.3. A More Comprehensive Approach to Gospel Differences

My explorations of Origen’s Comm. Jo. and Cels. have shown that both works contain apologetics for the wider public, as well as more radical thoughts on hermeneutics. In order to provide an alternative to Watson’s construal of a ‘comprehensive approach’ in the later Origen, I explored additional evidence from Princ. and Comm. Jo. 10–20. The evidence from Princ. indicated that there are instances where Origen prefers a purely spiritual meaning (in light of dissonant plurality and alleged empirical falsehood), while there are far more instances where the Gospels contain historically true passages (where alleged contradictions can be addressed successfully). Analysing relevant examples from Comm. Jo. 10–20, I demonstrated that Origen did not abandon completely the quest for historical and literal truth (in combination with deeper spiritual truth), as he continues addressing wrong teaching that contradicts basic Christian beliefs. In fact, there are instances when Heracleon’s spiritual interpretations must be rejected, and a literal interpretation preferred, in order for the gospel to be good news.61

What Crouzel has argued in relation to Origen’s doctrines in general, this article has attempted to demonstrated in relation to Origen’s comprehensive approach to Gospel differences: ‘To recover with certainty [Origen’s comprehensive approach to gospel differences] ... one must look for ... [it] in his own work, studied not in some particular text or other, but in his work as a whole’.62 It is only by working through the early and later Origen’s treatise that one is able to come to a truly comprehensive understanding of Origen’s approach to Gospels differences.

5. Conclusion

Watson’s interpretation of Origen’s Comm. Jo., Book 10, and the hermeneutical implications extracted from it, forms the heart of his call for a new paradigm shift in biblical studies. The old paradigm, represented by Augustine, the early Origen, modern harmonisations, various Gospels synopses, and quests of the historical Jesus, must be subverted and destroyed, making way for a deeper spiritual and theological approach that respects irreducible pluriformity intrinsic to the fourfold Gospel. According to Watson, the fourfold Gospel marks the end of all attempts to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus. In Watson’s reading of Origen, we witness an old paradigm and new paradigm, an early Origen and a later Origen, an Origen before Book 10 and an Origen after Book 10 of his Comm. Jo. The problem with this binary construal, we discovered, is that the later Origen—especially in Cels.—harmonises differences, rejects selective readings that compromise historicity, uncovers contradictions in Celsus’s arguments, and offers external and internal evidence in support of the historicity and credibility of the pluriform resurrection appearances of Jesus. Precisely that which Watson submits to devastating criticism in the early Origen is done by the ‘hero’ of Watson’s ‘more comprehensive’ ‘new paradigm’, long after Book 10 of his Comm. Jo. Watson never mentions this, nor reflects on its possible significance in Gospel Writing. In personal correspondence, Watson explained that he would not expect Origen’s more radical thoughts on hermeneutics for the sophisticated Christian (Comm. Jo., Book 10) to feature in a work of apologetics intended for a wider public and simple believers (Cels.).

To test Watson’s claims, I focused on the potential significance of the absence of Cels. in Gospel Writing, followed by engagement with the claim that Cels. is a popular apologetic work for the wider public, in contrast to the Comm. Jo., which is for the sophisticated reader, and includes more radical thoughts on hermeneutics. I offered evidence indicating that both works contain apologetics intended for the wider public, providing answers for believers whose faith might otherwise be shaken. Next I explored the significance of criticisms leveled against the wider public in Cels., focusing on Origen’s rejection of the popular view that the flesh will be raised in future, and his rejection of the literal truth of the events narrated in Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus. In both instances, Origen rejected simplistic interpretations and sided with more sophisticated readers. I concluded that both Cels. and the Comm. Jo. contain apologetics, as well as more sophisticated and radical hermeneutics. In order to provide a more nuanced alternative to Watson’s ‘comprehensive approach’ in the work of Origen, I offered additional evidence, exploring relevant examples from Princ. and Comm. Jo. 10–20. The former highlighted that already in his earlier work, Origen acknowledged historical falsehood, but also argued that there are significantly more narratives containing historical truth. The latter confirmed that Origen’s Comm. Jo., Book 10, cannot be understood as a paradigm shift, as he continues to harmonise alleged contradictions and establish historical truth among the Gospels, when deemed necessary.

All the evidence considered, my conclusion is that Origen’s approach to Gospel differences cannot be reduced to either a complete rejection of any attempt to smooth out tensions, harmonise contradictions to establish historical truth (often in conjunction with deeper spiritual truth), or the embrace of attempts to smooth out almost all tensions, and harmonise contradictions to establish historical truth (often in conjunction with spiritual truth). Rather, a more comprehensive approach to Gospel differences in Origen (compared to Watson’s selective reading of Origen as hermeneutical framework for his comprehensive approach) would encompass a nuanced middle position rejecting both extremes.

[1] A revised version of this article was presented at the 2016 British Patristics Conference in Birmingham, UK. Thanks must go to a couple Patristic specialists, including Prof Francis Young, who offered valuable advice. In particular, I have to thank Prof Wayne Coppins, who offered crucial comments on an earlier draft of this article.

[2] Henri Crouzel, Origen (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 80, offers important insights into the complexities involved in understanding the various layers of meaning involved in Origen’s ‘spiritual exegesis’ and allegorical method. However, I limit discussions of ‘spiritual’ and ‘allegorical’ meanings in Origen, to the way in which it is understood and applied by Francis Watson in Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

[3] The primary concern of this article is therefore Origen and not an attempt to ‘abstract Jesus from his own reception and to present him in the trappings of some preferred historical identity’ (Watson, Gospel Writing, 607). It is also not an attempt to deny the inter-connection between reception, historical research, theology, hermeneutics, and the ongoing process of interpretation and reinterpretation. It is because I accept the inter-connection of these methods and approaches that it is possible to dialogue with Watson’s interpretations of Origen, proposing re-adjustments and more nuanced refinements.

[4] Watson, Gospel Writing, 548.

[5] Ibid., 547, emphasis original.

[6] Ibid., 548.

[7] However, Watson also concedes that at times, Augustine can accept ‘that canonical pluriformity discloses a degree of noncorrespondence to prior historical reality, and that this can be adequately explained not only psychologically but also theologically’ (Ibid., 31).

[8] Ibid., 549.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Do Origen’s quarrels with the Bishop of Alexandria have anything to do with this change? We know that Origen’s ordination as presbyter while in Caesarea aroused the hostility of Demetrius, then bishop of Alexandria. This forced Origen to move to Palestine, where he established a new school (Annewies van den Hoek, “Origen. c. 185–253 AD,” in Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation, ed. Stanley E. Porter [London: Routledge, 2007], 249).

[11] Watson clearly adds some rhetorical spin to accentuate this change: ‘Origen’s anxiety attack when faced with his first significant gospel parallel is uncharacteristic. When he returns to this issue in Book 10 of his Comm. Jo., he subjects his own earlier assumptions to radical criticism’ (Watson, Gospel Writing, 548).

[12] Ibid., 552. See also David Laired Dungan, A History of the Synoptic Problem. The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 80–88, who discusses other examples not mentioned by Watson.

[13] Watson, Gospel Writing, 542.

[14] Watson focuses on such issues as when Jesus visited Capernaum, and when the cleansing of the temple occurred (Ibid., 547–51). According to Origen, ‘the truth of these matters must lie in the spiritual sphere. Otherwise, if the discord is not resolved, our trust in the gospels must be abandoned and we may no longer regard them as true or divinely inspired or as the reliable record they are supposed to be. As for those who accept the four gospels but do not consider that the apparent discord is to be resolved analogically, let them tell us, in connection with the difficulties raised above about the forty days of temptation for which there is absolutely no room in John, when it was that the Lord came to Capernaum’ (Watson’s translation, Gospel Writing, 549–50; Origen, Comm. Jo. 10.2.10. Similar, Origen, Comm. Jo. 10.4.18–20).

[15] Watson, Gospel Writing, 551; Origen, Comm. Jo. 10.4.18–20. However, take note of Markus Bockmuehl’s alternative translation: ‘preserving the spiritual truth “in the alleged literal falsehood”’ (‘Review of Watson, Francis B. Gospel Writing. A Canonical Perspective’, JTS [2014], 206). Bockmuehl also argues that an anti-Lubacian agenda is conveniently served by Watson, whereby he removed ‘“as one might put it” to the beginning of the phrase, thus yielding an Origen hermeneutically altogether untroubled about any “empirical falsehood”’ (206).

[16] Watson, Gospel Writing, 564.

[17] Attempts to explore and encounter the historical Jesus in and by way of the four Gospels, do not need to involve abstracting Jesus and the Gospels from reception, theology and hermeneutics. However, more work needs to be done in this regard.

[18] This claim that the fourfold Gospel marks the end of all attempts to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus, contradicts Watson’s claim in the prologue: a ‘new paradigm will not seek merely to subvert and destroy but will propose a more comprehensive framework within which older results, insights, and perspectives may still have their place’ (Gospel Writing, 2–3, my emphasis). Indeed, in Watson’s new scheme, there seems to be no more place for attempts to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus, even more nuanced attempts from fresh new angles which could include insights from reception history.

[19] Ibid., 550–51; 607–8.

[20] In Book 1, chapters 8–11, Origen focuses on Jesus himself being the ‘gospel’ as well as the ‘sensible’ and ‘spiritual’ gospel. Although there is a ‘pure truth underlying’ the perceptible, the former ‘sensible’ gospel is never excluded in Origen’s discussion.

[21] There are a number of instances where Watson’s contrasting construal create the impression of two opposite and irreconcilable paradigms in Origen: ‘a profound early reinterpretation ... [in contrast to] ... an existing interpretative practice’; ‘former viewpoint’ in contrast to a new viewpoint; ‘wrong conception of “gospel truth”’, implying a right conception (Gospel Writing, 552, 610). These contrasting construals are not only evident in Watson’s engagements with alleged contradictions, but include more general sections dealing with historicity.

[22] Ibid., 2–3. In Gospel Writing there are no discussions or reflections on a gradual development from an old paradigm to a new paradigm in Origen. Nor is there any reflection on Origen initiating a new paradigm, but not always following through with it in subsequent projects (cf. Ibid., 541–52).

[23] Other evidence will be discussed later.

[24] According to Eusebius (Church History 6.34–36), the composition of Cels. should be placed during the reign of Philip the Arab in c. 244–49. If we can trust Eusebius that Origen died at the age of sixty-nine at around the same time as the emperor Decius (c. 249–51) (under whom he had endured imprisonment and torture), then it means Cels. was one of or even the last major work(s) he completed before his death (cf. Watson, Gospel Writing, 518).

[25] Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels 3.24.69; Watson, Gospel Writing, 38–43.

[26] Watson, Gospel Writing, 29n54.

[27] Origen provides interesting allegorical interpretations, one example being that the tomb was not built of stones gathered from various quarters, but carved out of one rock having a natural unity. The latter is of course Origen’s own idea, nowhere hinted at in the biblical texts. Yet, the underlying reality is clear: Origen rejects Celsus’s assertion that Jesus had immediately disappeared from the cross. Rather, Jesus’s dead body was taken off the cross, buried, raised, leaving an empty tomb behind. The latter is the basis for a deeper spiritual meaning.

[28] Origen can even cite Acts 2:27 where Peter quotes Ps. 16:8–11, stating, for example, that ‘My flesh shall rest in hope, and You will not leave my soul in Hades, and will not suffer Your Holy One to see corruption’ (Cels. 2.61). It is at least interesting that Origen refers positively to the flesh in this context, since elsewhere, he rejects the Western view that the flesh will rise from the dead.

[29] See also Origen’s Commentary on Matthew 11.2.

[30] Watson, Gospel Writing, 548; 40–43.

[31] Ibid., 3.

[32] Ibid., 542, my emphasis.

[33] Ibid., 564. Interestingly, this coming to an end of all attempts to do historical Jesus research in relation to Gospel differences, seems to be rejected by Francis Watson: ‘The goal of the present argument is to show how the scholarly construct known as the “historical Jesus” can be reintegrated into the canonical image of the historic, biblical Christ’ (‘Veritas Christi: How to Get from the Jesus of History to the Christ of Faith without Losing One’s Way’, in Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 101). Also, ‘The concrete traits of the historical Jesus belongs within an account of the “historic, biblical Christ” and should not be allowed to take on an independent life of their own’ (114). Watson does offer various qualifications under the heading ‘The Dynamics of Reception’, but it reflects a more nuanced view in comparison to Gospel Writing, 542–52.

[34] Watson, ‘Historian’, 64n39, my emphasis.

[35] In personal correspondence with Watson, after presenting some of the harmonisations found in Cels. and contrasting it with Comm. Jo., Book 10 (22 October 2013).

[36] Watson, Gospel Writing, 96n120; 402 n106. In Francis Watson, The Fourfold Gospel. A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), there are four pages of reflections on Origen’s Cels., yet there are no acknowledgement or discussions of a return to addressing contradictions between the Gospels (175–79).

[37] Watson, Fourfold Gospel, 175.

[38] While Watson’s claim that ‘Celsus knows that a number of versions of the gospel are in circulation, but he is familiar primarily with the Matthean one’ (Ibid., 176) is accurate in relation to the miraculous birth of Jesus, the same is not the case when it comes to the canonical Easter narratives (cf. Cels. 2.69; 5.56). In the latter case, Celsus introduces alleged contradictions between the four Gospels which Origen attempts to resolve.

[39] We know that Origen’s ordination as presbyter during a visit to Caesarea aroused the hostility of Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria. After a second return to Alexandria, Origen eventually moved to Palestine where he established a new school. Book 10 of his Comm. Jo. and Cels. post-dates the hostilities with the bishop. Cf. Watson, Gospel Writing, 516–24, 532.

[40] For Tertullian, see Against Marcion 3.25; 5.10 and The Resurrection of the Flesh 62–63. For Augustine, see On Faith and the Creed, The Kingdom of God and Retractations. In Retr. Augustine attempted to address tensions and contradictions between his early and later work.

[41] See e.g. John C. Cavadini, ‘Exegetical Transformations: The Sacrifice of Isaac in Philo, Origen, and Ambrose’ in In Dominico Eloquio—In Lordly Eloquence: Essays on Patristic Exegesis in Honor of Robert Louis Wilken, ed. Paul M. Blowers, Angela Russell Christman, and David G. Hunter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 35–49.

[42] Watson, Gospel Writing, 525–28; See Elaine H. Pagels, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon’s Commentary on John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973). Pagels argues that the earliest known exegetical commentary on John’s Gospel comes from Heracleon, which she dates to around c. 160–80. Even earlier, Pagels argues, the Naassenes (from around c. 100) and Peratae referred to the Gospel of John ‘to the virtual exclusion of the synoptics’ (ibid., 16; cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.8.5; 3.11.7).

[43] Watson, Gospel Writing, 525.

[44] Ibid., 524–25. We will refer to the same issue in Cels. later.

[45] Origen emphasises that Celsus’s book was not composed for ‘thorough believers’, but either for ‘such as are either wholly unacquainted with the Christian faith, or for those who, as the apostle terms them are ‘weak in the faith.’’ (Cels. Preface 5–6). However, the latter must include at least some rhetorical spin, as Origen also states that those who are not impressed or assisted by his ‘powerful arguments’, which he crafted to the ‘best of his ability’, are referred ‘to men who are wiser ... and who are able by words and treatises to overthrow the charges which he [Celsus] brings against us’.

[46] Origen can defend the faith of the uneducated wider public at times (cf. Cels. 1.9), but my aim is to demonstrate that Origen’s criticisms of the uneducated in Cels. rules out the binary construal that the Comm. Jo., is for the educated elite and Cels. for the uneducated wider public.

[47] Underlying this claim is the understanding that it is less likely that a popular apologetic work for the wider public, would include various dismissals of views held by the wider public in the context of Christian beliefs. Relevant theological issues will be explored in what follows.

[48] There is little doubt that the wider public in the early church believed in the resurrection of the flesh. Cf. Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336, LHR 15 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 19–58; Brian E. Daley, “A Hope for Worms,” in Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, ed. Ted Peters, et al. (Grand Rapids.: Eerdmans, 2002), 136–64, esp. 147–48.

[49] Bynum, Resurrection, 63–67; Daley, “Worms”, 153–56.

[50] John A. McGuckin, ‘The Scholarly Works of Origen’ in The SCM Press A-Z of Origen, ed. John A. McGuckin, The SCM Press A-Z of Christian Theology (London: SCM, 2006), 25–44, esp. 36.

[51] In Princ. 4.18, Origen speaks of ‘the very soil and surface, so to speak, of Scripture—that is, the literal meaning—is the field, filled with plants and flowers of all kinds; while that deeper and profounder spiritual meaning are the very hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge which the Holy Spirit by Isaiah calls the dark and invisible and hidden treasures’. Although Origen focuses on and favours a deeper spiritual meaning more often than the literal meaning, he does not give up on historical and literal readings alongside deeper spiritual meanings.

[52] Cf. Dungan, Synoptic Problem, 81, 427n64–n65. In Princ. 4.16 Origen considered unhistorical Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11), his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (John 12), and his cleansing of the temple (Matt 21:12–17). See Dungan, Synoptic Problem, 78–88.

[53] Watson, Gospel Writing, 537.

[54] Ibid., 537n76.

[55] Cf. Matt 4:13; Mark 1:21–28; Luke 4:38–41.

[56] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John I–XII, AB 29 (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 173. Cf. Comm. Jo. 10.9.48–60; 10.9.222–24; 13.187–92; 13.51.349–51 (Watson, Gospel Writing, 525–28).

[57] Watson, Gospel Writing, 527.

[58] Ibid., 528.

[59] Ibid., 525–28. Even if there are no more harmonisations of alleged contradictions between the synoptics and John following Book 10, it remains significant that at a number of intervals, Origen continues to defend the plain and empirical truth of some texts.

[60] Contra Watson, Gospel Writing, 550–51; 607–8.

[61] Dungan, Synoptic Problem, 81, 427n64–n65. Related see Dale C. Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (London: SPCK, 2010), 446n35.

[62] Crouzel, Origen, 163.

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