Using Origen to Deny the Literalness of Genesis? Don’t !

“Philo and Origen are not your friends, Dr. Alexander: A short survey of what two Biblical allegorists taught about Adam and Eve” by Vincent Torley  [SOURCE]

adam-and-eve-lamentingDr. Denis Alexander, who is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University, is an eminently qualified molecular biologist with a very odd combination of theological beliefs. In a recent article in The Guardian (December 23, 2011) entitled, Evolution, Christmas and the Atonement, he rejected belief in a literal Adam and Eve and an historical Fall, on the grounds that it was totally incompatible with scientific discoveries over the last few decades, which clearly indicate that “we last shared a common ancestor with the chimps about 5-6 million years ago, and humans have been gradually emerging through a series of hominid intermediates ever since.” Dr. Alexander had no time for belief in an immaterial soul, either: in his view, it is our complex brains that endow us with free will.

But in the same article, Dr. Alexander affirmed his belief in the Christian doctrine of the Atonement: he declares up-front that “Jesus was born to save us.” And during a discussion chaired by Professor Bob White on 2 March 2004, following a lecture given by Professor Colin Humphreys, entitled, Can Scientists Believe in Miracles?, Dr. Alexander went even further in affirming his traditional faith: he defended the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (more accurately, the virginal conception) of Jesus, arguing that “it’s not a problem for Jesus to do anything – He can do what he wants.” An earlier paper by Dr. Alexander entitled, Cloning humans – distorting the image of God? (The Jubilee Centre, Cambridge Papers, Vol. 10, No. 2, June 2001), leaves no doubt as to his views: there he explicitly states that Jesus “was born of a virgin” and that according to the usual Christian understanding of the Virgin birth, Jesus was “miraculously bestowed with a full genetic complement so that he might share fully in our humanity.”

Intelligent Design Theory has nothing specific to say about the details of human origins, apart from affirming that human beings, as organisms exhibiting a very high degree of specified complexity, are the product of an intelligently guided process. Like Dr. Alexander, I happen to believe in common descent – although unlike him, I believe that our evolution was intelligently guided along its path – but I have to say I find it very odd that someone who believes in the Virgin Birth would balk at belief in a literal Adam and Eve. Perhaps Dr. Alexander might respond that he can at least envisage what kind of miracle would have taken place in the Virgin Birth, whereas it is difficult to even do that, in the case of the miracle required to reconcile belief in a literal Adam and Eve with the range of genetic diversity we find in human beings today. That would explain why, in the 2004 discussion chaired by Professor Bob White following Professor Humphreys’ lecture, Dr. Alexander boldly suggested that some Biblical miracles were “potentially soluble from a scientific perspective,” and went on to argue that “our greater understanding of reproductive mechanisms has shed some limited light on the possible mechanisms involved in a virgin birth.” He even added that “with the virgin birth we can come up with pretty good models about how virgin births can happen.” But if Dr. Alexander meant naturalistic models, then he was evidently mistaken. In 2006, the Christian biologist Steven Jones wrote an excellent little post, explaining why from a naturalistic perspective, “the Virgin Birth of Jesus has become more miraculous than ever,” and would therefore, in Jones’ view, require an act of intelligent design in order for it to occur (as he believes it did).

What’s more, the evolutionary biologist and Gnu Atheist, Professor Jerry Coyne, has already identified the kind of miracle that would be required in order to reconcile Adam and Eve with the findings of genetics, in a mocking online post on the Multi-Germic Theory, which was proposed by a reader of his Website, named Drew. The theory won first prize in a wacky contest announced by Coyne for his (mostly atheist) readers: “What is the best way to reconcile the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with the genetic facts?” Professor Coyne judged Drew’s entry to be the winning answer, for overall theological and biological plausibility. Readers can draw their own conclusions about Drew’s “Multi-Germic Theory,” but as Coyne is a respected biologist, I’ll accept his verdict that if you’re going to believe in Adam and Eve, the Multi-Germic scenario he describes would probably be your best bet.

The reason why I am mentioning all this is to make a simple point: both the Virgin Birth and the descent of all human beings from an original couple could only have occurred through supernatural intervention, if they actually took place; also, the kind of miraculous intervention that would have been required can be specified equally well in both cases. Thus if the story of Adam and Eve is deemed incredible (as Dr. Alexander evidently thinks it is), then it is hard to see how belief in the Virgin Birth could survive.

I would also like to point out in passing that Dr. Alexander’s gradualism regarding human origins clashes with his belief in free will, which is necessarily a capacity that you either have or you don’t. Free will is not like baldness: it doesn’t come in halves. There are of course degrees of freedom, and one could argue that some humans have a much greater degree of moral freedom than others. But there is a vast and infinite gulf between a being with zero degrees of moral freedom, and a being with one. If we have the capacity to choose freely, then at some point in our past, there must have been a first generation of hominids possessing free will. These hominids would have been the first human beings. (Current scientific findings indicate very strongly that there were several thousand of them, but if you are prepared to posit the kind of supernatural intervention described in the post described by Professor Coyne above, that won’t be a problem.)

Finally, the fact that there were “countless deaths over thousands of generations” prior to the appearance of the first human beings does not conflict in any way with the doctrine of the Fall, which is meant to explain why human beings die, and not why other animals die. This suffices to refute Dr. Alexander’s argument, in his article for The Guardian, that if the traditional doctrine of the Fall is correct, then there is “clear incompatibility with evolution.” But I digress.

Philo and Origen to the rescue?

Although Dr. Alexander rejects the idea of an historical Adam and Eve, he believes that the Bible can be rescued by a figurative understanding of the Genesis narrative. He claims that this figurative understanding of Genesis goes back 2,000 years, in both the Jewish and Christian traditions:

The tradition of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis figuratively – as a theological essay, not as science – goes back to two great thinkers from Alexandria: the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, and the third-century church father Origen. In 248 Origen wrote that Genesis references to Adam are “not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race”. Figurative understandings of the Genesis text have been part of mainstream theology ever since.

The first mention of Adam in the Bible is clearly referring to humankind (Genesis 1:26-27) and the definite article in front of Adam in chapters 2 and 3 – “the man” – suggests a representative man, because in Hebrew the definite article is not used for personal names, with Eve being the representative woman.

Dr. Alexander chose his authorities well: Philo and Origen are about as allegorical as you can possibly get. If you’re looking for Jewish and Christian authorities from antiquity who favor a figurative interpretation of Genesis, then you won’t find any better friends than these two learned men.

Dr. Alexander is certainly right in claiming that both Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – 50 A.D.) and Origen (c. 185-254 A.D.) interpreted the book of Genesis quite figuratively. For example, both of them held that the description of Paradise in Genesis 2 was a figurative one.

What’s more, the Jewish philosopher Philo pointedly rejects a literal interpretation of the Biblical account of Eve’s formation in his work, The Second Book of the Treatise on The Allegories of the Sacred Laws, after the Work of the Six Days of Creation:

VII. (19) “And God cast a deep trance upon Adam, and sent him to sleep; and he took one of his ribs,” and so on. The literal statement conveyed in these words is a fabulous one; for how can any one believe that a woman was made of a rib of a man, or, in short, that any human being was made out of another? And what hindered God, as he had made man out of the earth, from making woman in the same manner? For the Creator was the same, and the material was almost interminable, from which every distinctive quality whatever was made. And why, when there were so many parts of a man, did not God make the woman out of some other part rather than out of one of his ribs? Again, of which rib did he make her? And this question would hold even if we were to say, that he had only spoken of two ribs; but in truth he has not specified their number. Was it then the right rib, or the left rib? (Italics mine – VJT.)

Likewise, the Christian theologian Origen, in Contra Celsum, Book IV, chapter 38, argues that the words of the Genesis narrative describing the formation of Eve from Adam’s side “are spoken with a figurative meaning.” In Contra Celsum, Book IV, chapter 40, he adds that “in the Hebrew language Adam signifies man; and that in those parts of the narrative which appear to refer to Adam as an individual, Moses is discoursing upon the nature of man in general.”

Nevertheless, as I will show below, both Philo and Origen clearly affirmed in their writings that Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals, and they also taught that the existence of an historical Adam was a point of religious doctrine, and not just a matter of theological opinion.

What did Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – 50 A.D.) teach about Adam and Eve?

Philo describes the formation of Adam by God in his work, A Treatise on the Account of the Creation of the World, as Given by Moses:

XLVII. (136) But the original man, he who was created out of the clay, the primeval founder of all our race, appears to me to have been most excellent in both particulars, in both soul and body, and to have been very far superior to all the men of subsequent ages from his pre-eminent excellence in both parts. For he in truth was really good and perfect. And one may form a conjecture of the perfection of his bodily beauty from three considerations, the first of which is this: when the earth was now but lately formed by its separation from that abundant quantity of water which was called the sea, it happened that the materials out of which the things just created were formed were unmixed, uncorrupted, and pure; and the things made from this material were naturally free from all imperfection. (137) The second consideration is that it is not likely that God made this figure in the present form of a man, working with the most sublime care, after he had taken the clay from any chance portion of earth, but that he selected carefully the most excellent clay of all the earth, of the pure material choosing the finest and most carefully sifted portion,such as was especially fit for the formation of the work which he had in hand.For it was an abode or sacred temple for a reasonable soul which was being made, the image of which he was about to carry in his heart, being the most God-like looking of images. (138) The third consideration is one which admits of no comparison with those which have been already mentioned, namely, this: the Creator was good both in other respects, and also in knowledge, so that every one of the parts of the body had separately the numbers which were suited to it, and was also accurately completed in the admirable adaptation to the share in the universe of which it was to partake. And after he had endowed it with fair proportions, he clothed it with beauty of flesh, and embellished it with an exquisite complexion, wishing, as far as was possible, that man should appear the most beautiful of beings. (Italics mine – VJT.)

In the preceding passage, Philo affirmed that Adam was:

(a) the original man (i.e. an historical individual);
(b) the primeval founder of the human race;
(c) created out of the finest clay;
(d) made with perfectly proportioned parts; and
(e) far superior to all other men, both in the excellence of his soul and of his body.

In an earlier paragraph in the same book, Philo describes the formation of Adam as a two-stage process: firstly, as a prototype, or abstract idea in the mind of God; and second, as an individual man, who was formed out of a lump of clay, into which God infused a soul:

XLVI. (134) After this, Moses says that “God made man, having taken clay from the earth, and he breathed into his face the breath of life.” And by this expression he shows most clearly that there is a vast difference between man as generated now, and the first man who was made according to the image of God. For man as formed now is perceptible to the external senses, partaking of qualities, consisting of body and soul, man or woman, by nature mortal. But man, made according to the image of God, was an idea, or a genus, or a seal, perceptible only by the intellect, incorporeal, neither male nor female, imperishable by nature. (135) But heasserts that the formation of the individual man, perceptible by the external senses is a composition of earthy substance, and divine spirit. For that the body was created by the Creator taking a lump of clay, and fashioning the human form out of it; but that the soul proceeds from no created thing at all, but from the Father and Ruler of all things. (Italics mine – VJT.)

The language Philo uses here is most emphatic: “Moses says,” “he shows most clearly,” “he asserts.” We are not dealing here with one commentator’s private opinions. Rather, Philo is claiming that the human author of Genesis (whom Philo identified with Moses) explicitly teaches that God formed the body of the first man, Adam, by fashioning it from a lump of clay; and that this lump of clay was endowed with a Divinely infused soul. For Philo, this is not an opinion, but a religious doctrine.

In a subsequent paragraph, Philo dismisses the notion that God might have used the body of an animal to make Adam, in a passage which suggests that he would have taken a dim view of theistic evolution, had it been proposed to him:

XLVIII. (139) And that he is superior to all these animals in regard of his soul, is plain. For God does not seem to have availed himself of any other animal existing in creation as his model in the formation of man; but to have been guided, as I have said before, by his own reason alone.(Italics mine – VJT.)

Philo goes on to describe Adam’s role as God’s vice-regent on Earth, having been bestowed by God with a power of dominion over all the animals:

XLIX. (140) The first man, therefore, appears to me to have been such both in his body and in his soul, being very far superior to all those who live in the present day, and to all those who have gone before us. For our generation has been from men: but he was created by God….

(142) And we shall be only saying what is the plain truth, if we call the original founder of our race not only the first man, but also the first citizen of the world. For the world was his house and his city, while he had as yet no structure made by hands and wrought out of the materials of wood and stone. And in this world he lived as in his own country, in all safety, removed from any fear, inasmuch as he had been thought worthy of the dominion over all earthly things; and had everything that was mortal crouching before him, and taught to obey him as their master, or else constrained to do so by superior force, and living himself surrounded by all the joys which peace can bestow without a struggle and without reproach….

LII. (148) And with great beauty Moses has attributed the giving of names to the different animals to the first created man, for it is a work of wisdom and indicative of royal authority, and man was full of intuitive wisdom and self-taught, having been created by the grace of God, and, moreover, was a king. And it is proper for a ruler to give names to each of his subjects. And, as was very natural, the power of domination was excessive in that first-created man, whom God formed with great care and thought worthy of the second rank in the creation, making him his own viceroy and the ruler of all other creatures. Since even those who have been born so many generations afterwards, when the race is becoming weakened by reason of the long intervals of time that have elapsed since the beginning of the world, do still exert the same power over the irrational beasts, preserving as it were a spark of the dominion and power which has been handed down to them by succession from their first ancestor.
(Italics mine – VJT.)

The reader will notice that in the above passage, Adam is referred to as “the first man,” “the first created man,” “the original founder of our race” and our “first ancestor.” Philo also declares that “Moses has attributed” the giving of names to the different animals to “the first created man.” It is hard to see how Philo could have been more explicit in affirming Adam’s existence as an historical individual, as a religious doctrine.

Philo now comes to the creation of Eve. The reader will recall that Philo declared himself unable to take literally the Biblical account of Eve’s formation from Adam’s side (or rib). In the account of Eve’s formation, Philo provides few details, except to say that woman “also was created” and that she had “a kindred formation to his own”. Unfortunately, Philo’s account of Eve’s creation is tinged with a sense of foreboding, coupled with a Hellenistic disdain for the desires of the flesh, which is completely absent from the joyful, earthy narrative of Genesis 2:

LIII. (151) But since nothing in creation lasts for ever, but all mortal things are liable to inevitable changes and alterations, it was unavoidable that the first man should also undergo some disaster. And the beginning of his life being liable to reproach, was his wife. For, as long as he was single, he resembled, as to his creation, both the world and God; and he represented in his soul the characteristics of the nature of each, I do not mean all of them, but such as a mortal constitution was capable of admitting. But when woman also was created, man perceiving a closely connected figure and a kindred formation to his own, rejoiced at the sight, and approached her and embraced her. (152) And she, in like manner, beholding a creature greatly resembling herself, rejoiced also, and addressed him in reply with due modesty. And love being engendered, and, as it were, uniting two separate portions of one animal into one body, adapted them to each other, implanting in each of them a desire of connection with the other with a view to the generation of a being similar to themselves. And this desire caused likewise pleasure to their bodies, which is the beginning of iniquities and transgressions, and it is owing to this that men have exchanged their previously immortal and happy existence for one which is mortal and full of misfortune. (Italics mine – VJT.)

Dr. Alexander writes in his article for The Guardian that “Nowhere does the Bible teach that physical death originates with the sin of Adam, nor that sin is inherited from Adam, as Augustine maintained.” I have no intention of defending the Augustinian doctrine of the Fall in this post; and I am also well aware that Judaism does not have a doctrine of original sin. However, I would like to note that Philo clearly regards physical death as a consequence of sin. At the end of his work, The Third Book of the Treatise on The Allegories of the Sacred Laws, after the Work of the Six Days of Creation, Philo discusses the meaning of the verse of Genesis, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” This, according to Philo, means that the foolish man, who fails to live according to reason, always craves earthly things. It also means that in the end, the foolish man will perish, after a life filled with pain and injuries:

(251) … [T]he life of the foolish man is very full of distress and very burdensome, since he is always aiming at and greedily coveting the things which give pleasure, and all such things as wickedness is wont to do. (252) And how long shall this last? “Until,” says God, “you return to the dust form which you were taken.” For is he not now ranked among the things of the earth, and among things which have no consistency, ever since he deserted the wisdom which is from heaven? We must consider therefore to what point he is coming back; but may we not consider whether what he says has not some such meaning as this, that the foolish mind is at all times averted from right reason, and that it has been originally taken not from any sublime nature, but from some more earthly material, and whether it is stationary, or whether it is in motion, it is always the same, and desirous of the same objects. (253) On which account, God adds that, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” And this is equivalent to what has been said before. Moreover this sentence also signifies, the beginning and the end are one and the same thing. For there hadst thou beginning in the perishable bodies of the earth; and again, thou shalt end in them, during the interval of your life, between its beginning and its end, passing along a road which is not plain and easy, but rough, full of briars and thorns, the nature of which is to tear and wound thee. (Italics mine – VJT.)

In paragraph LX, section 167 of his work, A Treatise on the Account of the Creation of the World, as Given by Moses, Philo describes the other consequences of Adam’s Fall in fairly conventional terms: the woman is sentenced to receive “vehement pains, … especially with reference to the bringing forth and bringing up of her children, … to an extent that utterly deprives her of her freedom and subjects her to the dominion of the man who is her companion,” while the man in his turn “endures toils and labours, and continual sweats, in order to the providing of himself with necessaries, … and he is subjected to a state in which he lives in incessant labour, for the purpose of seeking for food and means of subsistence, in order to avoid perishing by hunger.”

Philo then goes much further. In his discussion of the consequences of the Adam’s Fall, Philo declares that by rights, the entire human race should have been wiped out on the spot, but that God mercifully spared it from this fate:

(169) Therefore, the race of mankind, if it had met with strict and befitting justice, must have been utterly destroyed, because of its ingratitude to God its benefactor and its Saviour. But God, being merciful by nature, took pity upon them, and moderated their punishment. And he permitted the race to continue to exist, but he no longer gave them food as he had done before from ready prepared stores, lest if they were under the dominion of his evils, satiety and idleness, they should become unruly and insolent. (Italics mine – VJT.)

There you have it: according to Philo, the entire human race deserved to be destroyed as a result of the Fall. I will leave it to my readers to decide whether the gulf between Philo’s account of the Fall and that of St. Augustine is as great as Dr. Alexander would have us believe. But of one thing we can be certain: Philo taught as a matter of doctrine that Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals, and that they were formed by God.

What about Dr. Alexander’s other authority, the Christian theologian Origen?

What did Origen (c. 185-254 A.D.) teach about Adam and Eve?

It might surprise Dr. Alexander to learn that Origen also taught that Adam was a real, historical individual. In the Preface to his work, De Principiis, Origen summarizes the central points of Christian doctrine, as taught by the apostles:

4. The particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles are as follows:—

First, that there is one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being — God from the first creation and foundation of the world — the God of all just men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noe [Noah], Sere [Serug], Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets; and that this God in the last days, as He had announced beforehand by His prophets, sent our Lord Jesus Christ to call in the first place Israel to Himself, and in the second place the Gentiles, after the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. This just and good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself gave the law and the prophets, and the Gospels, being also the God of the apostles and of the Old and New Testaments.

Secondly, that Jesus Christ Himself, who came (into the world), was born of the Father before all creatures; that, after He had been the servant of the Father in the creation of all things — for by Him were all things made — He in the last times, divesting Himself (of His glory), became a man, and was incarnate although God, and while made a man remained the God which He was; that He assumed a body like to our own, differing in this respect only, that it was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit: that this Jesus Christ was truly born, and did truly suffer, and did not endure this death common (to man) in appearance only, but did truly die; that He did truly rise from the dead; and that after His resurrection He conversed with His disciples, and was taken up (into heaven).

Then, thirdly, the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son. But in His case it is not clearly distinguished whether He is to be regarded as born or innate, or also as a Son of God or not: for these are points which have to be inquired into out of sacred Scripture according to the best of our ability, and which demand careful investigation. And that this Spirit inspired each one of the saints, whether prophets or apostles; and that there was not one Spirit in the men of the old dispensation, and another in those who were inspired at the advent of Christ, is most clearly taught throughout the Churches. (Italics mine – VJT.)

Origen was writing before the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325 A.D.) and Constantinople (381 A.D.) had been held; hence his vagueness regarding the Holy Spirit.

Notice that in the passage above, Origen describes God as “the God of all just men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noe [Noah], Sere [Serug], Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets.” Since Origen is giving a summary here of the essentials of Christian teaching, and since he clearly regards the other individuals named as historical characters, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that for Origen, the historicity of Adam was an essential Christian teaching.

In Book II, Chapter 3 of his work, De Principiis, Origen discusses the beginning of the world, and attacks the view of those philosophers who hold that everything goes around again and again, in a never-ending cycle. Origen contends that such a view would make a mockery of free will:

4. And now I do not understand by what proofs they can maintain their position, who assert that worlds sometimes come into existence which are not dissimilar to each other, but in all respects equal. For if there is said to be a world similar in all respects (to the present), then it will come to pass that Adam and Eve will do the same things which they did before:there will be a second time the same deluge, and the same Moses will again lead a nation numbering nearly six hundred thousand out of Egypt; Judas will also a second time betray the Lord; Paul will a second time keep the garments of those who stoned Stephen; and everything which has been done in this life will be said to be repeated – a state of things which I think cannot be established by any reasoning, if souls are actuated by freedom of will, and maintain either their advance or retrogression according to the power of their will. For souls are not driven on in a cycle which returns after many ages to the same round, so as either to do or desire this or that; but at whatever point the freedom of their own will aims, there do they direct the course of their actions. (Italics mine – VJT.)

Once again, the reader will notice the reference to Adam and Eve. Since Origen is making a point about actual choices made by actual individuals in time past, he clearly intends to affirm the literal historicity of Adam and Eve. For if he did not, then what about Moses, Judas and Paul? Are they mythical too?

But wait, there’s more! In Book I, chapter 22 of his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Origen declares that Wisdom is Christ’s fundamental characteristic: Jesus is the Wisdom of God, who was sent into the world in order to redeem it. Origen writes that Jesus is called the light of the world, because men, who are spiritually darkened by wickedness, need the light. Likewise, Jesus is called the first-born from the dead, because He had to rescue those who had died. Origen explains that this was necessary only because Adam and Eve fell and failed to attain the goal of freedom from bodily death and corruption, that God had originally planned for them:

Now God is altogether one and simple; but our Saviour, for many reasons, since God set Him forth a propitiation and a first fruits of the whole creation, is made many things, or perhaps all these things; the whole creation, so far as capable of redemption, stands in need of Him. And, hence, He is made the light of men, because men, being darkened by wickedness, need the light that shines in darkness, and is not overtaken by the darkness; had not men been in darkness, He would not have become the light of men. The same thing may be observed in respect of His being the first-born of the dead. For supposing the woman had not been deceived, and Adam had not fallen, and man created for incorruption had obtained it, then He would not have descended into the grave, nor would He have died, there being no sin, nor would His love of men have required that He should die, and if He had not died, He could not have been the first-born of the dead. We may also ask whether He would ever have become a shepherd, had man not been thrown together with the beasts which are devoid of reason, and made like to them. (Italics mine – VJT.)

In the above passage, there can be no doubt that Origen believed in a real Fall, in which one woman (Eve) was deceived, and one man (Adam) fell from grace. Had it not been for the Fall, man would have escaped the grim fate of bodily corruption, which is our lot. In other words, Origen taught that human beings would not have died had Adam and Eve not fallen. Contrary to Dr. Alexander, Origen clearly believed that the Bible teaches that physical death originates with the sin of Adam.

Origen, discusses some other consequences of the Fall in Contra Celsum, Book VII, chapter 28, where he writes that “the earth … was originally cursed for the transgression of Adam.” He goes on to explain:

For these words, Cursed shall the ground be for what you have done; with grief, that is, with labour, shall you eat of the fruit of it all the days of your life, were spoken of the whole earth, the fruit of which every man who died in Adam eats with sorrow or labour all the days of his life. And as all the earth has been cursed, it brings forth thorns and briers all the days of the life of those who in Adam were driven out of paradise; and in the sweat of his face every man eats bread until he returns to the ground from which he was taken.
(Emphases mine – VJT.)

In his article written for The Guardian, Dr. Alexander maintains that for Origen, Adam is Everyman. Alexander even contends that Scripture supports this view, since “the definite article in front of Adam in chapters 2 and 3 – ‘the man’ – suggests a representative man.” But we can see from the above passage that Origen’s point is quite a different one. Precisely because Adam is the original man, he is a type or symbol for the whole human race. Hence, in Adam, every man died. And in Adam, every man was driven out of Paradise. There is nothing in the above passage that Augustine would have disagreed with.

In Contra Celsum, Book VI, chapter 36, Origen criticizes the pagan philosopher Celsus for mocking a Christian doctrine which he does not understand: the doctrine of the resurrection. Origen affirms in passing that “death was in Adam”:

Celsus, moreover, has often mocked at the subject of a resurrection,— a doctrine which he did not comprehend; and on the present occasion, not satisfied with what he has formerly said, he adds, And there is said to be a resurrection of the flesh by means of the tree; not understanding, I think, the symbolic expression, that through the tree came death, and through the tree comes life, because death was in Adam, and life in Christ.(Italics mine – VJT.)

It would have been easy to overlook this passage if I had not previously highlighted other passages where Origen explicitly declares his belief in a literal Adam. But now we can see that Origen probably understood the saying, “death was in Adam, and life in Christ,” in a fully orthodox Christian sense.

Now we can address the celebrated passage in Contra Celsum, Book IV, chapter 40, where Origen seems to affirm that Adam is a purely symbolic figure. In this passage, Origen is replying to an objection made by the pagan philosopher Celsus, that if God were truly omnipotent, then surely one insignificant man, Adam, could not have thwarted his purposes by sinning at the very beginning of human history; for an omnipotent God could have simply prevented Adam from succumbing to temptation. Origen replies that the consequences of the sin of Adam apply not to one human being but to the entire human race:

For as those whose business it is to defend the doctrine of providence do so by means of arguments which are not to be despised, so also the subjects of Adam and his son will be philosophically dealt with by those who are aware that in the Hebrew language Adam signifies man; and that in those parts of the narrative which appear to refer to Adam as an individual, Moses is discoursing upon the nature of man in general. For in Adam (as the Scripture says) all die, and were condemned in the likeness of Adam’s transgression, the word of God asserting this not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race. For in the connected series of statements which appears to apply as to one particular individual, the curse pronounced upon Adam is regarded as common to all (the members of the race), and what was spoken with reference to the woman is spoken of every woman without exception. (Italics mine – VJT.)

Origen is not arguing here that Adam is Everyman, as Dr. Alexander thinks. Instead, he is arguing that precisely because the name “Adam” means “man in general,” the consequences of the historical Adam’s Fall must affect the whole human race. Origen is employing typological reasoning here: he is arguing that because Adam’s name has a certain significance (“man in general”), his actions have a mystical (one is tempted to say, magical) significance for the whole of humanity. The same goes for Eve.

Origen was surprisingly literal in his interpretation of Genesis

In the very next chapter, Origen goes on to interpret Genesis in a way that should make Dr. Alexander blush with embarrassment. Yes, Dr. Alexander’s theological hero believed in a literal global flood and an Ark! In Contra Celsum, Book IV, chapter 41, Origen addresses head-on the objections of the pagan philosopher Celsus, who scoffed at the notion of a Deluge covering the entire earth, and of an Ark that carried the surviving humans and animals. Origen argued that the Ark was the product of one hundred years of careful construction by Noah, who was also assisted by God, according to the book of Genesis. Moreover, Origen maintained that the Ark would have been quite big enough to hold all the animals, if the Biblical cubits were Egyptian cubits, which were several times longer than standard cubits. Finally, Origen reasoned that the animals would have been perfectly secure inside the Ark, as it was specially designed by God:

After this he [Celsus] continues as follows: They [Jews and Christians] speak, in the next place, of a deluge, and of a monstrous ark, having within it all things, and of a dove and a crow as messengers, falsifying and recklessly altering the story of Deucalion; not expecting, I suppose, that these things would come to light, but imagining that they were inventing stories merely for young children. Now in these remarks observe the hostility — so unbecoming a philosopher — displayed by this man towards this very ancient Jewish narrative. For, not being able to say anything against the history of the deluge, and not perceiving what he might have urged against the ark and its dimensions — viz., that, according to the general opinion, which accepted the statements that it was three hundred cubits in length, and fifty in breadth, and thirty in height, it was impossible to maintain that it contained (all) the animals that were upon the earth, fourteen specimens of every clean and four of every unclean beast — he merely termed it monstrous, containing all things within it. Now wherein was its monstrous character, seeing it is related to have been a hundred years in building, and to have had the three hundred cubits of its length and the fifty of its breadth contracted, until the thirty cubits of its height terminated in a top one cubit long and one cubit broad? Why should we not rather admire a structure which resembled an extensive city, if its measurements be taken to mean what they are capable of meaning, so that it was nine myriads of cubits long in the base, and two thousand five hundred in breadth? And why should we not admire the design evinced in having it so compactly built, and rendered capable of sustaining a tempest which caused a deluge? For it was not daubed with pitch, or any material of that kind, but was securely coated with bitumen. And is it not a subject of admiration, that by the providential arrangement of God, the elements of all the races were brought into it, that the earth might receive again the seeds of all living things, while God made use of a most righteous man to be the progenitor of those who were to be born after the deluge?

That’s how Origen defended the Biblical account of the Flood. This is the Christian theologian whom Dr. Alexander lauds for “interpreting the early chapters of Genesis figuratively – as a theological essay, not as science”? Surely you jest, Dr. Alexander.

But I haven’t finished yet. In Contra Celsum, Book I, chapter 19, Origen declares himself to be a young-earth creationist:

After these statements [assailing the Mosaic narrative - VJT], Celsus, from a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation,which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that, while concealing his wish, intimates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated.

There you have it. According to Origen, Genesis actually teaches that the world is less than 10,000 years old!

Let me hasten to add that I believe, with Dr. Alexander, that the world is much, much older than 10,000 years. I see no reason to doubt the evidence of science, which suggests that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, and I’ve read so many different interpretations of the “days” in Genesis that I think it would be foolish to insist that the human author of Genesis intended to declare that the world was only a few thousand years old – especially as some Church Fathers interpreted the “days” in a non-literal manner. But on the subject of Adam and Eve, there is a theological unanimity among both Jewish and Christian teachers and religious authorities from antiquity: all of them insisted that Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals. Yes, even Philo and Origen. We cannot rewrite the past to suit our whims. Facts must be faced.

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