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Gnostics, Greeks, and Origen: the interpretation of interpretation.

Since every sign must signify, all symbols have a meaning. It seems clear that in some instances what is signified is only a mental construct, while in others it is a portion of the world. These instances are not, however, carefully distinguished in the speech of men, which allows not only error and deceit, but ambiguity and metaphor; we cannot always be sure that a philosopher knows no better when he speaks as though a logical correlative were a thing.

Plato, for example, is believed to have bred a world of nebulous substances, the Ideas, from the fallacy that a word cannot mean anything unless it denotes some object. Shrewdly resigned by Aristotle, this principle was laid to rest by Kant with his demonstration that all thought is bound by categories, beyond which we grasp nothing. And yet there are philosophers who argue that the views of Aristotle are those of Plato, that the Ideas were posited only as inherent in particulars and were not destroyed by Kant, but more perspicuously interpreted; they belong, in short, like the theory of Recollection, to his myths. Descartes affords a modern illustration of the same paradox; for, certain though it is that he held the properties of extension and of thought to be antithetical, it is by no means so certain that he postulates two substances when he speaks of mind and matter, and it may not have been he, but such interpreters as Ryle, who put the ghost in the machine.(1)

Philosophers are apt to be parsimonious in interpreting the words of other thinkers, though liberal in the reinterpretation of their own. The stubborn controversies of antiquity are rendered all the more obscure by distance and the paucity of evidence. The following essay, therefore, which attempts to explain why Origen rejected Valentinian and gnostic schools of commentary, does not profess to determine whether or not he understood them, and, while it raises questions as to the true state of their differences, can offer only a tentative reply.

The composition of allegory is as old as that of poetry, for even in the Epic of Gilgamesh sleep is a foreshadowing (and hence the cause) of death. Agni, the god of fire, devours his parents in the Vedas, and Homer speaks of Prayers that follow lamely on the heels of man's impieties.(2) We cannot date the origins of allegory, unless we can date the origins of language and of myth.

But allegories are made, not only by poets, but by critics, the latter when they detect a hidden sense in texts whose surfaces would seem to invite another interpretation. The Greek verb [alpha][lambda][lambda][eta][gamma][omicron][rho][epsilon][omega] acquired this second meaning when the moral taste of readers was offended by the improprieties of classic writings.(3) Since the practice has a motive we can speak without absurdity of its having been invented; yet Theagenes of Rhegium, to whom some Greeks ascribed this feat, may not have been a more substantial figure to our informants than to us.(4) We hear, and perhaps know, more of Pherecydes, a mythographer of the sixth century BC, who is said to have attempted a vindication of the most indecorous passages in Homer. Zeus' threat to put bonds on his consort Hera, for example, is no longer a display of paternal tyranny, but a metaphor for the subjugation of matter by the power of an intelligent artisan.(5)

This allegory comes to light for us in the second century AD, when Celsus was defending pagan literature against the shafts of Christian polemic. Some have thought the evidence too late, and the discovery too apposite; but Celsus is, like many of his contemporaries, a granary of fragments from the most archaic period, and it is rather fashion than criticism which leads some to deny the authenticity of his reports.(6) The philosopher Heraclitus, writing before 500 BC, availed himself of allegory when he said |Dionysus is Hades' (fr. 15 Diels-Kranz). Others, who turned the personages of myth into physical forces, are subjected to the mockery of Socrates in the Phaedrus (229C-230a), and it was either in Plato's time or a little before it that a commentator reading a sordid piece of Orphic poetry concluded that the god who had devoured his father's penis, raped his mother and engulfed the whole creation in his belly must be a symbol of the intellect, which was also signified in this cryptography by Ocean, light and air.

Heraclitus, Plato and the Orphic commentator have in common a desire to outdo the mysteries, which, though they supplied philosophers with images for a millennium, were blamed for their use of rites by which the bad would be emboldened and the undiscerning innocent depraved. Plato denounces peddlers of Orphic remedies against hellfire (Republic 364b-365a); Heraclitus scoffs at those who think that blood will cleanse them of pollution (Fr. 5 DK); and the commentator marvels that the public ceremonies, so much frequented, are so little understood.(8)

The infantile concomitants of mysteries could not beguile philosophers, for whom it was apparent that these instruments must have a higher meaning. The imposture on the vulgar could be defended by the allegorist with the arguments that he used elsewhere to justify the superficial vices of a text. The younger Heraclitus, borrowing his language from the mysteries declares that, having imbibed the milk of Homer in our earliest years, we are ready in maturity to explore its latent elements.(9) The critic Demetrius reasons that, if an uninterpreted allegory is like darkness, it resembles the sublime:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

For all that carries a hidden connotation is more terrible, and every man supplies his own conjecture. What is clear and plain, by contrast, is apt to be thought contemptible, like men when they are divested of their clothes (De Elocutione, 100).

Here we see that the very indeterminacy of meaning is the source of the effect. Many a modern critic would adapt this rule to poetry,(10) of which Plato spoke with eloquence, and in language that is pregnant with new mysteries: the poet drinks from springs, is fed on honey (Ion, 534a), treads the air (534b).(11) Plato held that poetry is a temptation, though a divine one (Phaedrus, 245a etc.), and, as he suspected words, so others spoke with apprehension of the act. Neoplatonists held that the approach of the philosopher to the Good may be retarded by the terror or [epsilon][kappa][pi][lambda][eta][zeta][iota][zeta] of the Beautiful,(12) and, if the process of enlightenment can be likened to the hunting which is part of initiation, we know from Plato's metaphors that the hunter may be hunted," and from experience that the vestiges or [iota][chi][nu][eta] of reality may be dangerously alluring to the uninstructed eye.

Much delicacy of thought upon this subject can be found in such a treatise as the Cave of the Nymphs by Porphyry, which is calculated, not to remove a blemish from the surface of the Odyssey, but to show that the poet himself demands an allegorical reading. Experiments in topography are thought by some to compromise, by others to establish, the authority of Homer as historian (De Antro, 58. 6-II Nauck), but the deep truth lies in symbols, whether fashioned by the mason or the poet:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

The same questions are in order whether the aim is to investigate the intention of the craftsmen or that of the poet who describes their work. The ancients would not have established sacred precincts without mystical symbols, nor would Homer have given an account of them without cause (De Antro, 58. 13-18 Nauck).

The cave of rock is thus no a less a text than the poem in which the cave appears. It will hardly have escaped this commentator that a cave is by convention a source of bardic inspiration, as are its streams, its naiads and the honey in its jars (pp. 66-70 Nauck).(14) As poems which aspire to be grand and durable compare themselves with temples, so Porphyry makes this Cave a sacred monument; if it is dark and solid, but at the same time deliquescent, filled with images and susceptible of many interpretations (pp. 59. 10 ff.), this serves as well as a simile for the texture of the poem as for the matter of the world.

As Plato had expressed the apprehension that the vulgar would not divine the hidden meaning, the [upsilon][pi][sigma][nu][omicron][iota][chi], of a parable (Rep. 378d), so Porphyry fears that minds detained by shadows will be blind to the discernment of the real:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

Rightly, then, the Cave will be called lovely for one who approaches it at first, because of its partaking of the Ideas; but nebulous it would be to one who looks upon its material core and enters this with his mind (De Antro, 59. 21-5 Nauck).

This is to generate new allegories: can the mind penetrate matter any more than it can hunt? When Plotinus speaks of the seduction of the eye by plastic images (Enneads, i. 6.8), his allusion to the fable of Narcissus is explicit, and he may also have been thinking of Numenius, his one true predecessor, who interpreted the Timaeus to mean that intellect had fallen into matter when it turned its gaze below (Fr. II. 13-16 Des Places).(15)

The images in Porphyry's Cave are sacred (p. 58. 21, 60. 15). Plato had portrayed the unexamined life as a subterranean dungeon, in which men secured by manacles guessed only at the significance of shadows, until one was turned about to see the images which cast them as they were carried in procession round a fire (Rep. 514a-515d). This parable is itself, as Glaucon notes, another image (514b), and Socrates elucidates in part when he declares that the fire is the sun and the Cave the world (517b). A further undeception is effected when a person quits the cavern for an upper realm of light (515a-516b). To such a delivered prisoner the life of men is an underworld, bereft of truth and beauty, to which no-one will spontaneously return (516d-e).(16)

This fantasy of Plato's is for Porphyry the key that springs the locks of Homer's poetry (cf. De Antro, 62. 1-9). To us his exegesis is as palpably a fable as the original, and Plato's text more palpably, obscure. For Platonists the result of this dark precedent is that authority for writing myths is greater than the authority for explaining them, and when they take in hand the myths of Plato, their elucidations, barely less poetical, are tentative and claim no perfect or exclusive truth. One that exercised many, in imitation and in mockery, is the last of the genealogies of Eros in the Symposium:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

Plenty, drunk with nectar - for there was no wine then - entered the garden of Zeus and fell through heaviness into slumber. Poverty, therefore, plotting, on account of her own destitution, to conceive a child from Plenty, lay beside him and became big with love ... Love is therefore always poor and far from being delicate and fair as he is in the eyes of many ... but on his father's side he is a seeker of the beautiful and good, brave and strong and ready, a mighty hunter who is always at his plots (Symposium, 203b-d).

The meaning is that the need from which desire is sprung bespeaks at once the absence of the object and the affinity which makes it a proper object of desire. Socrates, at the behest of his companions, is engaging in a rare plece of aetiology, but rather than attempting (like Protagoras on virtue) to explain the genesis of an abstraction by a history both contingent and incredible,(17) he turns a philosophic definition into a pedigree of love.

But was he speaking only of the love between two persons? The boldness of the female was indecorous, and her strange success required a commentary, so that Plutarch had some reason to surmise that Poverty stands for the negation of all qualities in matter, which acquires a substance only when it is shaped by its instinctual attraction to the plenitude of Form (De Iside et Osiride, 374c-d). Plotinus, though he endorsed this application in one passage (Enneads ii. 4. 16), could not leave the intoxication of Plenty without a gloss. A long piece of embroidered meditation finds that Plenty is the intellectual function of the soul, which is drunk because replete with an abundance of superior energies; these it gladly dispenses to the lower planes of the aspiring soul (Enneads, iii. 5. 9).

Diotima's speech on Love in the Symposium is the summons to a mystery (210a), for Plato is fond of likening the philosopher's intuition to the holy spectacle or epopteia.(18) In the Phaedrus Socrates describes the birth of love in the soul when it comes upon the traces of the Beautiful in an earthly form and trembles like an adept whom the mysteries have recently discharged (250e-251a). Through this sight the soul may grow the wings that will lift its chariot back to the heavenly procession, or it may prolong its exile as it rides to a second fall (255e).(19)

A mystery is always vulnerable to profanation, as Alcibiades proves in the Symposium, when he puts an end to philosophy with a crude tale of seduction, which he professes to have reserved for enlightened ears (218b). His error was to take the lesser mysteries for the greater, and such mistakes are apt to befall the aspirant who feels the shock and horror of the Beautiful before he is prepared to enjoy the Good. Thus it sometimes happens, says Plotinus, that, in striving for the Beautiful, the soul will come to nothing and lose even such a form as it once possessed:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

The soul or mind reaching towards the formless finds itself unable to grasp where nothing bounds it, or to take impression where the impinging reality is diffuse, in sheer dread of holding to nothingness it slips away (Enneads, vi. 9. 3 tr. MacKenna).

But if she is not defeated, he continues, the divine comes into being through the union of the soul with its beloved, and the tale of Eros and Psyche is the same one with a happier result (vi. 9. 9). The myth is polyvalent for Plotinus, just as Porphyry reads the Cave in Homer as both history and metaphor. Myths can be subjected to a diversity of readings, which scholars of a more scholastic turn reduced to theory. Sallustius, in the fifth century, distinguishes five modes - the material, the physical, the psychic, the theological, and a mixed one - while Proclus held that the virtue of the myth is its capacity to address the different functions of the soul.(20) We see from the example of the early Neoplatonists that, where many elucidations are permitted, some at least will be equal in opacity to the text.

These passages from the early Neoplatonists are remarkable, for they sweep away the apologies which were previously offered for the vulgar love of trumpery in poetry and myth. The younger Heraclitus, as we have seen, compared the lure of Homer's poetry with the suckling of an infant; Plutarch takes a similar position when he suggests that the versified oracles of antiquity were merely a device to force discretion on the uncultivated ear (De Pythiae Oraculis, 406b-409d). For Porphyry and Plotinus, on the other hand, obscurity is the privilege of philosophers; for others it is perilous, and those who are most awed by public festivals are the ones whom the true initiate will refer to the lowest grade.


The theology of the Naassenes, as Hippolytus reports it, is cast in the form of a commentary on a hymn to a Phrygian god. Attis, replete with epithets both in the hymn and in the commentary, is reckoned to be identical in nature, where he is similar in attributes, to the gods of other Mediterranean peoples. The most salient of these attributes is the generative organ, with which he sows the ideal forms in matter; at times we see that the phallus on his images points upward, denoting the reversion of the seed (Hippolytus, Refutatio, v. 6-10).

Attis was the chief actor in a mystery, undergoing annually the burial and return by which the life of his initiates was renewed.(21) In ancient Greece the progress from adolescence to maturity was completed by admission to such rituals, and often entailed a period of austerity or seclusion, which was treated as a passage through the kingdom of the dead.(22) Descending or ascending the soul is under the tutelage of Hermes,(23) whom the Naassenes duly honoured as the Demiurge, at work in earth and heaven (Ref. v. 6. 28-37). He was also styled (like Attis) Primal Man or the Anthropos, on a principle which is common to the mysteries, that the worshipped and the worshipper are as one. A consequence is that some gods are depicted as participants in their own mysteries, so that Heracles, the exemplary initiate, is also (in Orphic poetry, at least) the creative intellect. The Naassenes may have had Heracles in mind when they accorded to the Primal Man on earth the name of Geryon (v. 6. 6, v. 8. 4), the stealing of whose cattle was among the most illustrious of the Argive hero's many bouts with death.(24)

Of matter too the Naassenes spoke in the idiom of the mysteries. Mind and matter, neither of which is limited by any individuating property, are branching streams of a |single blessed substance', the division of which is signified in literature by the two opposing tides of Homer's Ocean (v. 7. 37), and by the parting of the Jordan in the Israelite campaign (v. 8. 4). The Jordan was for Christians the scene of the first baptismal initiation and the type of all the others,(25) while, as we have seen, the Ocean was a symbol of the intellect to a commentator on an Orphic poem. Since the nether tributary is styled Chaos (v. 7. 9, v. 10. 2), while the upper is the parent of the Anthropos, the Naassene cosmogony would seem to owe not a little to the Orphic, in which Phanes, the creator of the intelligible universe, emerges from an egg produced by Chaos, child of Time.(26)

The |single, blessed substance' has another name, which Hippolytus alleges to have been stolen from St Paul:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

|Just so the men also, abandoning the natural use of women, burned with lust for one another, men with men pursuing dissipation' [Rom 1: 27). To them the dissipation is the primary, blessed and unshapen substance, the origin of all shape in those things which have a shape (Ref. v. 6. 18).

Hippolytus has applied a characteristic innuendo. Since the word [alpha][sigma][chi][eta][mu][sigma][upsilon][nu] is borrowed from the Scriptures, and the meaning of the Scriptures is pellucid, this cosmogony need trouble us no further, being obviously erroneous, derivative and profane. It is possible (indeed likely) that the Naassenes at some time sought collusion with the New Testament, but the sect would not appear to have originated as a Christian heresy,(27) and cannot have based a doctrine of such magnitude on such an interpretation of one verse. A more probable hypothesis is that the Naasenes, through acquaintance with the mysteries, adopted or anticipated the principle advanced by a late defender of their conventions, which philosophers of his own time found obscene:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

In my view the obscene terms are a symbol of the lack of beauty in matter and the initial dissipation of those things which have the potential to be ordered, which, being in need of ordering, feel the want of it all the more in the measure of their contempt for their own deficiencies (Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, 39. 3-8 Parthey).

We see that [alpha][sigma][chi][eta][mu][omicron][sigma][upsilon][nu][eta], like [epsilon][kappa] [pi][lambda][eta][zeta][iota][zeta] or [epsilon][pi][omicron][pi][tau][epsilon][iota][alpha], belonged to the experience of the devotee at a ritual, upon which he was to put his own construction. The Naassenes have, as usual, converted the insignia of ritual into elements of cosmogony. Iamblichus holds that the prurience of the mysteries may guide us to a deeper apprehension of the virtues, while the Naassenes hold that matter, in its infinite privation, is a mirror to the infinite capacities of mind.

Whence came the assumption that the structure of the world and that of the mysteries are alike? Since mystical performance was supposed to be enacted in the underworld, we have only to add that the present world is a den of shades and torments for the fallen soul, and the Naassene preaching springs up of itself. The notion that the present world is Hades is at least as old as Plato (Phaedo, 109c etc.), and his follower Numenius, a contemporary of the Naassenes, conceived the seven planets as a theatre for the entrances and exits of the soul (Fr. 31 Des Places). In the second century both Naassenes and Mithraists are said to have drawn the cosmos as a seven-gated ladder by which souls climbed back to heaven (Contra Celsum vi. 22-31). Another of the burgeoning theologies of the period was Hermeticism,(28) and in its earliest treatise, the Poimandres, the soul is said to surrender one of its vices to a planet at each stage of its ascent (Hermetica, i. 25).

Names are hard to come by in reports of a phenomenon so general, while proofs of derivation or dependence would mean little if they could even be attempted. There are, however, at least two men who are known to have inclined to Gnostic teaching, and propound the same analogy between the generation of the cosmos and a mystical rebirth. Basilides, perhaps the first to play the numerologist with Mithras,(29) spoke of the original state of matter as a [pi][alpha][nu][sigma][pi][epsilon][rho][rho][mu][iota][alpha], borrowing the term not from Aristotle but from a meal consumed at Eleusis.(30) Valentinus, another Alexandrian, may have learnt the secret of Eleusis from the Naassenes,(31) for he, like them, maintains that the germ of life is sown |in silence' when he makes Sige the bride of Buthos, the unfathomable Abyss and source of all (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. i. 1. 1).

If Gnostic myth arises from the mysteries, we cannot avoid the hermeneutic question: did these theologians mean literally and only what they said? This was not a problem for opponents such as Clement and Irenaeus, for whom all mystery was licensed scandal and the interior of a text could not be cleaner than its outside. Our business being, however, not to judge the Gnostics but to understand them, we must recognize that myth cannot be exploded like a dogma, least of all a myth whose primary function is no more than to recite what is performed.

Among such tales in Greece we must reckon the births of Zeus and Dionysus(32) and the institution of mysteries at Eleusis. The warriors whose clashing arms concealed the son of Cronus, the baubles (or [alpha][THETA][nu][rho][mu][alpha][tau][alpha]) with which treacherous custodians duped the eyes of Dionysus, were visible each year at the graduation of young citizens, while in the hymn devoted to her wanderings Demeter marks the stations of Eleusis as she fasts, drinks the [kappa][nu][kappa][epsilon][omega][nu] and extracts her sacred ointment from a chest.(33) The ceremony is justified by an epiphenomenal narrative, which declares that it was ordained at a point in history; the Naassene is bolder, and identifies the order of salvation with the process of the world. It may have been with the Gnostics as it is thought by many scholars to have been with paganism, that the liturgy was everything, its putative causes nothing, and that belief lay in adherence to a custom, not a creed.

Even to determine that the Gnostics had a ritual, rather than a theory of salvation couched in ritual formularies, is impossible. It is certain at least that a view of human nature is at the centre of their teaching, and the realm of the divine in Valentinus is, as many have observed, a man writ large. We have seen that Buthos and Sige are his originating principles. From the impregnation of the silence by the Hidden One spring Mind and Truth, the Word and Life, the Church and the Anthropos, and these with their offspring constitute a pleroma of thirty aeons (Adv. Haer. i. 1. 1-2). In usage of the period, the aeon is the life of which the elect soul takes possession in eternity,(34) while pleroma is Paul's term for that indwelling of the Deity in his creature which fulfils both God's desire and that of man.(35) The eight aeons named above compose the Ogdoad (i. 1. 3), a name that stands, in prayers of late antiquity, for the highest sphere of being.(36) The present world was flung into existence by the folly of Sophia, least and humblest of the aeons (i. 2. 2). Her name cries out for an allegory, which Burkitt understood to be a warning that man's intellect must not aspire to more than it can hold.(37)

Burkitt hit the mark, for, though Sophia and her fall are at the core of many heresies, it is only Valentinus who adapts the anthropology of the Platonists to explain it:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

Her desire, they say, was to apprehend the greatness of the Father. But when she was unable to achieve the impossible task, she fell into great stress because of the greatness of the depth, the unfathomability of the Father and the strength of her desire for him had she not encountered a power that supported her and kept all outside the ineffable greatness. This power they call also Boundary or Horos (Adv. Haer. i. 2. 2). Sophia, like the soul of whom Plotinus speaks, has forfeited her glory by unseasonably grasping it, and is robbed of form by reaching for infinity. At the same time form is both the condition and the penalty of existence, which the soul cannot transcend except with peril, nor enjoy without the pangs of vain desire. In myth it is not |just so', but only |as if': the evil of the world comes into being when man feels it as an evil, or, as myth says, with his fall.

Much that is unique to Valentinus is informed by Plato's words, if not his thinking. I have shown elsewhere that the Phaedrus has been laid under contribution in his account of Sophia's fall.(38) Another case perhaps is his description of the Cosmocrator, the prince of matter, as a left-hand deity (Adv. Haer. i. 11. 1), for in Greek (as in other languages) the left is the side of bastardy,(39) and Plato had said that matter is apprehended only by a bastard reasoning (Timaeus, 52b). It may have been from Plato that Valentinus learnt to speak of moral differences as though they lay in the category of substance; for speakers in two dialogues divide the human species into three kinds, one by aptitude, the other by sexual conduct, each at once supporting and subverting his conjecture by imputing a threefold origin to the race.

We know, of course, that adultery is not, as Aristophanes implies in the Symposium (191d-e), a vice of nature, and Socrates, when he airs the thought that different social classes might originate from diverse elements, confides that he is telling a |noble lie' (414c). Socrates concedes that the device is all too tragic, and the charge was pressed against his other myths where he neglected to forestall it;(40) he might have urged that all talk of the abstract is enigma, that the thinker who converts a moral term into a substance may be as playfully in earnest as the poet who treats the practices of ritual as historical events.

Why is it then that when we hear from Valentinus of men as being by nature spiritual, psychic, or material,(41) we do not try to be any more perspicacious than our witnesses, but take him at his word? This we do despite the fact that the other great heresiarch Basilides could not brook determinism,(42) and in defiance of such Valentinian writings as the Letter to Rheginus, which maintains that, even when he has been translated to eternity, the spiritual man will not discard his robe of flesh:(43)

Why will vou not receive flesh when you enter the Aeon? That which is better than flesh is that which is for the cause of life.

The claim to Gnosis is a claim to privilege. Since it was the convention in both mystery and philosophy to address an untutored audience, we may guess that Valentinus and the Gnostics couched their principles in terms of choice obscurity, reasoning like the early Neoplatonists that words acquire a grandeur from duplicity which conceals their sense from all but the elect. The Fathers who transcribed the Gnostic libraries were incapable of divulging what they had neither the information nor the will to comprehend.


Christian polemicists decry the myths of pagans with a vehemence that reciprocates the scorn of the other party.(44) To many, however, both Christian and pagan, it appeared that the Old Testament was vulnerable to assaults of equal power, which some believed could be avoided only by renouncing its defence.(45) Those who persevered with both the Testaments were required to say why Jewish fables could be expurgated and Greek could not. Origen, who is perhaps the first theorist in the field of Christian allegory, replies that pagan literature has two peculiar vices: obscenity is not here an occasional defect but an endemic one, and where an inner meaning is discoverable it issues not from the Greeks, but from the Jews.(46) Taking up a well-notched weapon of apologetic, Origen contends that the tale of Poverty and Plenty in the Symposium is a borrowing from Moses (Contra Celsum IV.39); so vile is the exterior that comparison would exonerate Lot's daughters (cf. IV.45), for all that Plato seems to have filched his setting from the Paradise of God.

If discrimination of the modes of allegory was already a pagan custom n Origen's day, we do not hear of it.(47) The fivefold classification of Sallustius does not resemble that put forward in the De Principiis, which rests upon a certain account of man:

[Mathematical Expression Omitted]

Tripliciter ergo describere oportet in anima sua unumquemque divinarum intellegentiam litterarum: id est, ut simpliciores quique aedificentur ab ipso, ut ita dixerim, corpore scripturarum (sic enim appellamus communem istum et historialem intellectum); si qui vero aliquantum iam proficere coeperunt et possunt amplius aliquid intueri, ab ipsa scripturae anima aedificentur; qui vero perfecti sunt hi tales ab ipsa >spiritali lege<, quae >umbram habet futurorum honorum<, tamquam ab spiritu aedificentur.

Everyone must inform his soul with the intuition of the text in a threefold manner. The simplest will be edified by the body, if I may call it that, of Scripture (by this I mean the common and historical sense); but if they begin to advance [and are able to perceive a little more deeply] they. will be edified by the very soul of Scripture; while the perfect ... will be edified by that |spiritual law' which |has the shadow of things to come', [as though the Spirit himself were their instructor] (De principiis, iv. 2. 4).

Only the elect possess the Spirit, and therefore only they are alive to all three senses of Scripture. So far are Origen's precepts from the commonplace that he himself employs them only partially and seldom. Sometimes he will employ three modes, but in a different sequence, sometimes he will content himself with two or even one. Nevertheless, it may be said to have been an axiom with him that no passage is devoid of moral instruction, and there is perhaps no text, of those interpreted in his Homilies and Commentaries, which cannot, on Origen's principles, be made to speak of the passion, works or victory of Christ.

Origen's rules of exegesis rest on his theology. From this there follow a number of consequences which set him apart from pagan commentators and from Christians who admired them:

i. since every man is created in God's image, every man is naturally prepared for the completion of his nature by the Spirit; and since this is the Spirit that was abroad upon the waters of creation, there is nothing, not even matter, which its presence cannot inform.(48) Christ, who gives the Spirit, is the Word of God, as is every text of Scripture; indeed it may be said that the whole of Scripture is one word, and there can therefore be no text devoid of Christ.(49) To say, as Origen does, that the literal sense of any passage is like matter is to say that it is waiting for a spiritual discernment to refine it. The converse is that any exegesis in the Spirit has a right to any passage, and Origen points out in numerous places that a reading which makes logical and healthy sense may yet be insufficient if it fails to make the text a word for us (Hom. Ex. viii, Hom. Num. xii, etc.).

Difficulty, absurdity and offence in Scripture may necessitate the use of allegory (De principiis, vi. 2. 2.), but are not its only causes, and accasions for employing it in sacred exegesis are therefore much more common than in the study of pagan literature. Prophyry, as we have noted, is the Greek who pursues his allegory even when the surface of the poem is innocuous, and it may be in his own defence that he and Origen both maintain that the texts themselves hold symbols of the intellectual processes required to comprehend them. Porphyry looks for wisdom in the olive of Athena (De Antro, 80. 8-9), while Origen espies an invitation to profundity wherever he finds a well (Hom. Lev. x, xi, Hom. Num. xii, Hom. Fer. xviii. 4, etc.)

Nor can Origen deem it salutary that the wise should be instructed while the vulgar are misled. Christianity, as he explains to Celsus is no less for the unlearned than the learned (CC vi. 14). When we hear that the light shone in the darkness and the darkness failed to grasp it (John 1: 5), this is first of all, a riddle to be expounded, and then, since the solution is that we are light and the nations darkness, an injunction to impart the truth to everyone by Christian proclamation (Co. Foh. ii. 28). There are indeed obscurities in Scripture, and Origen declines to interpret these for the unworthy (CC iv. 45 etc.), but the fact that so many passages yield instruction to the simplest understanding is proof of the universality of Christ.

2. Jesus Christ was a figure of history: in the fulness of the Spirit words were uttered and acts performed. The deeds and savings of Christ, as they are reported in the Gospels, provide a test of moral explanation, and the spiritual sense of any episode or character is most often that which makes it seem a type of the Redeemer's life on earth. The cleansing of the Temple in John's Gospel may not be reconcilable with history (Co. Foh. ix. 8), and the literal observance of some maxims in the Sermon on the Mount would be paradoxical (De principiis iv. 3. 3); for the most part, however, what is ethical and historical in the New Testament is not transformed by allegory, being itself the truth to which the allegories tend.

The unity of inspiration gives to certain terms a rigid value, in whatever parts of Scripture they occur. A rock is always Christ, because God's word bestows that title on him; fire, by which the Lord refines our natures, is the same thing in the heart of the believer and in the punishments of hell.(50) It seems, however, that substitutions must be endorsed by some expressed equivalence in Scripture: even when the seventy-seven occasions of forgiveness for a brother are supposed to represent the sum of ages in the world's history, this play with the number seven has some warrant in the first creative act.(51) The theory of Heracleon, that the Samaritan with five husbands is an emblem of the Spirit's fornication with the senses (Co. Foh. xiii. 9-11), augments the text in a manner that offends both sense and reason, for the Spirit cannot yield to imperfection, and it is even less conceivable on Valentinian premisses than on those of the Evangelists that a good tree should bring forth an evil fruit.(52)

3. All revelation is personal, and Jesus is our teacher (CC ix. 5). According to a simile of Origen's preserved by an ardent listener, the relation of the teacher and his student is a bonding of two souls.(53) As we persevere in Christ, we grow into his likeness and hence increase in understanding (Co. Foh. i. 17 ... etc.). One of the means of constant intercourse is the perusal of his word, in reading which we must progress, as a great Epistle says, from milk to meat (Heb. 5: 14; cf. Hom. Lev. iv). It is dangerous to guard the literal sense without the others, as dangerous as to venerate the naked flesh of Jesus, or to take the physical sacraments without the inward change (Hom. Num. xxvii. 8, Co. Foh. x. 18, etc.).

Such, indeed, is Origen's aversion to mere tasting that he cannot be shown to have thought the outward ritual efficacious.(54) When he employs a sacramental image, as in his Exhortation to the Martyrs (p. 40), it is only to point his readers to a world where such a meal cannot be taken in the flesh. (By contrast, he saw nothing figurative in the Cross, or even, in his youth, of the injunction to be a eunuch.)(55) He would not have approved or understood the Naassenes, whose whole discourse perpetuates the [alpha][sigma][chi][eta][mu][omicron][sigma][upsilon][nu][eta] of the mysteries, as though it were their aim to feed eternally on milk.

Origen has no ear for myths and mysteries, which will fabricate a substance or an event from empty syllables as a charter for some act or way of speaking. The exposition of the hidden truth must be as bare as the exterior, or barer if the exterior is itself ornately figured. If there are times for keeping secrets, there is never any cause to multlply them,(56) and even on the most elevated subjects speculation may be hesitant but never double-tongued.

When, therefore, he takes up a thought from Plato, he is as frank as Plato's followers are evasive. Twice the master had spoken in his myths as though an immaterial entity could be oppressed by heaviness, once when the soul descends in its broken chariot from the plain above the heavens (Phaedrus, 246c-255d), and once when Plenty stumbles out from the feast of Aphrodite. Plotinus, in conjecturing that Plenty is the intellect overcome by its own repletion (Enneads, iii. 5. 9 as above), impresses one account upon the other, and, as ever, leaves the important question hanging: does the soul descend through superfluity of goodness or attraction to the bad?(57) If Origen maintained that the soul acquires a grosser body in its fall from pure cognition,(58) he will have left no doubt that this descent was evil; on transmigration Platonists equivocate,(59) but when Origen submits it to discussion, it is always as a dogma, not as myth (De principiis i. 8. 4, Co. Rom. vii. 8).

Nor will Origen's sheep be fed with images that might beget false doctrine. Paul's statement, in the Epistle to the Romans, that men are vessels formed by God for wrath or for salvation (ix. 18-21), is one of the texts in which the New Testament lends itself most readily to the idiom of the Gnostics. Origen cannot allow the Apostle to deny the choice of man in his election, nor is he content to call a precept of the New Testament metaphorical (De principiis iii. 1. 20, Co. Rom. vii. 17, etc.). A text that the Valentinian would be free to imitate Origen must prune of all suggestion, lest every man should form his own conjecture, as Demetrius foretold.


Difficulty of the kind considered here is not peculiar to the study of Greek philosophy. Only a minority would hold that |sons of Belial' in the Old Testament are men foredoomed to sinning, that the children of the devil are so by nature in the Fourth Gospel, or that the spiritual and psychic in Paul's letters are two races, immutably estranged by God's commandment.(60) What is one to make of a recent argument that when the earliest Gnostics postulated a second deity, they meant no more than we should if we said that |the God of Daniel is not the God of Paul'?(61)

It is, however, Plato who is said to have made a heretic of such men as Valentinus.(61) Platonism held throughout antiquity that mystic graduation was analogous to the philosopher's unveiling of reality. Within the schools the symbols could be multiplied to create a new mythology, but when they were exhibited to men who were not prepared to look beyond them they were apt to lead astray. |Myth'- so wrote the most inspired of Platonists after Plato -|must necessarily import time-distinctions into the subject and will often present as separate, Powers which exist in unity but differ in rank and faculty.' Therefore, while |the truth is conveyed in the only way possible, it is left to our good sense to bring all together again' (Plotinus, Enneads, iii. 5. 5 tr. MacKenna).

In the Naassene homily, the symbol is the heir to all discourse, while Valentinus follows ancient precedent by clothing his theology in myth. Facts

are more discernible than motives, but it may be that the function of the symbol, here as in Neoplatonism, is to set apart the hearers who receive it with impunity from the ignorant who cannot. Origen, whose task is the instruction of the ignorant, can allow no such autonomy to the symbol; proficiency in knowledge is, in his view, an ascent from type to doctrine, which is effected in the soul of any man by his collusion with the historic and continuing work of One.

(1) On Plato and Aristotle see I. M. Crombie, An Examination of Plato's Doctrines (London, 1963); on Plato and Kant see J. A. K. Stewart, The Myths of Plato (London, 1905); on Descartes and Ryle see H. D. Lewis, The Elusive Mind (London, 1969), 15-96. None of these books can yet be said to express an orthodoxy. (2) Rig Veda x. 79; Iliad ix. 502-12. (3) On the double meaning of [alpha][lambda][lambda][eta][gamma][omicron][rho][epsilon][omega] (to create an allegory and to interpret one) see J. B. Lightfoot, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (London, 1896), 180 on Gal. 4: 24. (4) Tatian, Oratio, 31; F. Wehrli, Zum Geschichte der Allegorische Deutung Homers im Alterthum (Diss. Basle, 1928), 88-91. (5) Origen, Contra Celsum vi. 42, not included in H. Schibli, Pherekydes of Syros (Oxford, 1990). (6) For a collection of views on the place of Pherecydes in the evolution of allegory see Schibli (1990), p. 99 n. 84. (7) Text in Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 47 (1982), * 1-* 12. For bibliography and discussion see my |Notes on the Derveni Commentator', ZPE 85 (1991), 203-11. (8) Column xvi. 1-12. On * 1 in the ZPE text the commentator cites Heraclitus as one who, as though rehearsing a sacred tale, gave common words an uncommon sense. (9) Homeric Allegories i. 5-7. On the name of the author and his work see the edition of F. Buffiere (Paris 1962), p. viii. (10) The landmark in such discussions is W. Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (London, 1953, 1961). (11) On Plato as an innovator in the theory, of inspiration see P. Murray, |Poetic Inspiration in early Greece', FHS 101 (1981), 98-100. (12) See Enneads iii. 6. 4, v. 8. 11, v. 5. 12, all from the series of four consecutive treatises which culminate in ii. 9 (|Against the Gnostics'). (13) See Porphyry, Sententiae, 54. 17 ff.; Plato, Sophist, 231d and Symposium, 203d, where the hunter is a sophist. On hunting as an ordeal in the ephebate see P. Vidal-Naquet, The Black Hunter (Baltimore, 1983), 106-28. (14) See, e.g., for streams Callimachus, Hymn, ii. 105-12 and Catullus 95; for Naiads Virgil, Eclogues x. 10; for honey, Theocritus xii. 81-2. (15) On the importance of Numenius in the development of Neoplatonism see E. R. Dodds, |Numenius and Ammonius', in Entretiens Hardt 5 (Geneva, 1960): Les Sources de Plotin, 1-32. (16) On the relation of this simile to Republic, 509d-511e (the |Divided Line') see, e.g., R. Robinson, Plato's Earlier Dialectic (Cambridge, 1953), 180-211. (17) Cf. Protagoras, 320c-323a, where the sophist, arbitrarily adopting myth in preference to dialectic argument, suggests that certain virtues were allotted to men by Zeus in compensation for the oversight committed by Epimetheus in the initial dispensation of attributes. (18) See Symposium, 209e, Phaedrus, 250a, Epistle, vii. 333e; and cf. Clement, Stromateis, I. 27. 176. (19) On allusions to the mysteries in the Phaedrus see now C. Riedweg, Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon und Klemens von Alexandrien (Berlin, 1987), 31-69. (20) See J. Trouillard, La Mystagogie de Proclus (Paris, 1982), 44-51. (21) See Firmicus Maternus, De Errore iii. 2, xviii. 1. For Roman interpretations of these mysteries see R. Turcan, Les Cultes Orientaux dans le Monde Romain (Paris, 1989), 69-75. (22) See W. Burkert, Homo Necans (California, 1983),p. 254 n. 47. (23) See, e.g., Odyssey xxiv. 1-4; Horace, Odes, i. 10. 17-20. (24) See J. H. Croon, The Herdsman of the Dead (Utrecht, 1952); M. Davies, |Stesichorus' Geryoneis and its Folk-Tale Origins', CQ 38 (1988), 277-90. (25) On the Jordan as a type see J. Danielou, From Shadows to Reality, (London, (1960), 261-75. (26) Conflating Fragments 54, 55, and 56 in the edition of O. Kern (Berlin, 1922); cf. M. L. West, The Orphic Poems (Oxford, 1983), 70. (27) The Naassene sermon clearly grew by a process of accretion. This sect would seem to offer the greatest difficulty to the thesis of S. Petrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism (London, 1991), which reverses the testimony of Irenaeus and Hippolytus to make Valentinus and Basilides the authors of every form of gnostic theory. (28) See W. B. Scott, Hermetica (London, 1925); A.-J. Festugiere, La Revelation d'Hermes Trismegiste (Paris, 1947-54). (29) Jerome, Comm. in Amos 5. 9-10. F. Cumont, Textes et Monuments Figures Relatifs aux Mysteres de Mithra, Vol. 11 (Paris, 1896), p. 19 n. 1 observes that the spelling Meithras yields a total of 365 in Greek arithmetic notation. (30) Hippolytus, Refutatio vii. 21-2. Although Aristotle employs the word to describe the miscegenation of elements in accounts of other systems (e.g. De Caelo, 303a on Anaxagoras), it is not peculiar to him (cf. Plato, Timaeus 73c) and is not cited in Hippolytus' comparison. For full discussion see my |Hippolytus of Rome on Aristotle', Eranos 88 (1990), 25-9. On the [pi][alpha][nu][sigma][pi][epsilon][rho][mu][iota] [alpha] at Eleusis in the month of Pyanepsion see H. W. Parke, Festivals of the Athenians (London, 1977), 75. (31) See Hippolytus, Refutation v. 8. 39; J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cambridge, 1903), 548-50. (32) See for the Curetes Pausanias v. 7. 4 and J. E. Harrison, Themis (Cambridge, 1912), 1-29; for the many nativities of Dionysus see West (1983), 140-75. (33) See Hymn, 49-50 (fasting), 206-10 (drinking), 237 (anointing); N. J. Richardson, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Oxford, 1974), 12-30. For the formula of the rite see Clement, Protrepticus, ii. 21. 2. (34) See Festugiere, La Revelation Vol. IV (1954), 152-99, and especially Corpus Hermeticum xi. 20, where the devotee is to |become the Aion'. (35) See Col. 1: 19, 2: 2-9; Eph. 1: 23, 3: 19. Both epistle were received as Pauline by the Valentinians. (36) See Festugiere, La Revelation, Vol. III (1953), 131-3. (37) F. C. Burkitt, The Church and Gnosis (Cambridge, 1932), 44-5. (38) M. J. Edwards, |Gnostics and Valentinians in the Church Fathers', FTS, NS 40 (1989), 42-3. (39) On lameness, left-handedness, bastardy and the name Laius see J.-P. Vernant, |From Oedipus to Periander', Arethusa 18 (1982), 19-38. (40) Republic, 413b; for the strictures of Colotes see Macrobius, In Somn, Scip. i. 9. 9 and Proclus, In Rem Publicam, Vol. II, pp. 105 ff. Kroll. (41) Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. i. 6. 1 etc.; cf. Hippolytus on the Naassenes, Refutation v. 6. 1 etc. (42) See the fragments of Basilides and Isidorus collected in the Appendix to A. Stieren's Irenaeus (Leipzig, 1853), 903-9. The doctrine of pre-existence anticipates the thesis of Origen's De principiis, though Origen denies its application to Rom. 7: 9. It may be that Basilides could speculate with less reserve because he was creating myth, not dogma. (43) Tr. M. L. Peel in J. M. Robinson (ed.) The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Leiden, 1988), 57. (44) See, e.g., Tatian, Oratio ad Graecos; Clement, Protrepticus; Firmicus Maternus, De Errore Profanarum Religionum. All these works deny the pagans the right to allegory. (45) See, e.g., Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem, Books II-V; Augustine, In Faustum Manichaeum. (46) See M. Fedou, Christianisme et Religions Paiennes dans le Contre Celse d'Origene (Paris, 1988), 116-39. (47) H. De Lubac, Exegese Medievale, Vol. I (Paris, 1952), 171-7 demonstrates that Clement is not a true precursor. J. Danielou, Origene (Paris, 1948), 179-90 argues, like many others, that Origen borrows some cardinal premisses, as well as some particular applications, from Philo Judaeus; but the recognition of his spiritual sense would be impossible for a Jew. (48) See, e.g., De princ. i. 3. 3, iii. 6. 1 and iii. 6. 6-9. (49) See e.g. Hom. Lev. i. 1, Philocalia, 2 (pp. 36-40 Robinson); K. J. Torjesen, Hermeneutical Procedure and Theological Method in Origen's Exegesis (Berlin, 1986), 108-47. (50) For a striking application of the typology of the rock see In Canticum Canticorum, IV on Exod. 33: 22-3. On fire see E. Schockenhoff, Zum Fest der Freiheit (Tubingen, 1990), 252-8. (51) Comm. in Matt. xiv. 1. The Jubilee year, the Seventy Elders and the days of creation give legitimacy to this exegesis; Philo's De Opificio Mundi, 89-127 is rather an analogue than a likely source. (52) On Heracleon see E. Pagels, The Fohannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis (Society of Biblical Literature, 1973). (53) [Gregor Thaumaturgus] In Originem Oratio, citing 1 Sam. 18: 1. (54) H. De Lubac, Histoire et Esprit (Paris, 1950), 355-63 collates evidence and opinions on this subject. (55) Exhortatio ad Martyres, 12 omits |daily' from the Lucan injunction to take up Jesus' Cross, thus precluding any attenuation of the literal sense. For Origen's castration see Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, vi. 8. Eusebius would not tell this story lightly, yet Origen's lack of diffidence is remarkable at Comm. in Matt. xv. 1. (56) It seems to me unfortunate that the judicious study of R. P. C. Hanson, Origen's Doctrine of Tradition (London, 1954), 73-90, should impute to Origen even momentarily an |almost Gnostic' view of exegesis (p. 77). (57) See Enneads iv. 8. 1 on Plato's inconsistencies; J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge, 1967), 112-29. (58) For Koetschau's augmentation of De Princ. i. 4. 1 we are dependent on Jerome, Contra Foh. Hieros. 16. See n. 42 above. (59) See A. N. M. Rich, |Reincarnation in Plotinus', Mnemosyne 10 (1957), 262-8. Transmigration of souls into animal bodies is allowed by the Timaeus but not the Phaedrus. (60) Sects and scholars differ profoundly on the interpretation of Paul and John. For a presentation of the latter as a dualist with gnostic traits see R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. II (London 1955), 15-32. (61) Petrement (1991) is perhaps the most important history of Gnosticism for many years. (62) Hippolytus, Refutatio, vi. 37; Tertullian, De Praescr. Haer. 30; G. C. Stead, |In Search of Valentinus', in B. Layton (ed.) The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Vol. I (Leiden, 1980), 75-95.
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Author:Edwards, Mark J.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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