Origen of Alexandria

March 17, 2004 · updated December 14, 2023

Origen was a theologian, philosopher, and devoted Christian of the Alexandrian school. He famously castrated himself so he could tutor women without suspicion, and he risked his life countless times in encouraging martyrs. He himself was tortured under Decius as an old man and died a short time later. Origen's controversial views on the pre-existence of souls, the ultimate salvation of all beings and other topics eventually caused him to be labeled a heretic, yet his teachings were highly influential and today he is regarded as one of the most important early church fathers.

On Origen's life we have a wealth of information compared to other early Christian fathers. While Origen provides very few personal details in his own writings, he had an admiring biographer in the historian Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius, the church historian who lived a generation after Origen, devotes nearly all of Book VI of his Ecclesiastical History to the life of Origen. While some scholars have cast doubt on the reliability of this source due to the author's obvious admiration for his subject and the work's loving hagiographical tone, most do not believe these factors are reason for doubting Eusebius' reports.

Another valuable souce of historical information in St. Gregory Thaumaturgus' Farewell Address to Origen, which is extant in its entirety and in the original language. This loving letter from a departing pupil describes Origen's curriculum and his relationship with students at the school in Alexandria.

Biography of Origen of Alexandria

Alexandria (c. 185-233)

Origen was born in 184 or 185 in Alexandria, Egypt, a thriving city founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. Alexandria was a center of commerce and culture, the birthplace of Neoplatonism and the hometown of the Philo, the great Jewish philosopher. Christianity arrived as early as the close of the first century AD, in both its Catholic and Gnostic forms, and eagerly joined the rich atmosphere of philosophical discussion already present. In sharp contrast to Latin theologians such as Tertullian, Alexandrian Christians viewed Greek philosophy as a useful means for interpreting and sharing their faith.

According to Eusebius and most other sources, Origen's parents were Christians. Porphyry, a Neoplatonist, claims Origen's parents were pagans, but Eusebius' account is more authoritative. Origen's name ("son of Horus") could also be seen as indicating otherwise, but we know of other examples of Christian families continuing to use traditional pagan names. Origen was the eldest of seven children. His mother's name is unknown, but his father was Leonides, a Roman citizen of high standing {2} and probably a teacher of Greek literature. Leonides personally educated his brilliant son in both Hellenistic and Biblical studies, and often found himself unable to answer Origen's probing questions regarding the latter.

In 202, Leonides was taken prisoner and martyred under the persecution of Septimus Severus. Origen sought to share the fate of his father, and was only prevented by his mother's desperate act of hiding his clothes to prevent him going outside. {3} Origen satisfied himself with writing an earnest letter to his father exhorting him to face death if necessary and cautioning him "not to change your mind because of us." {4} Leonides was martyred by beheading (the means of death indicating his Roman citizenship) and his fortunes were confiscated by the empire.

Origen took shelter for a time in the household of a wealthy Christian lady while he continued his studies. Within a year or so, he had begun work as a teacher of Greek literature in order to support himself and his newly impoverished family. In the meantime, Origen continued his own education. Porphyry, a Neoplatonist, reports that Origen was a student of Ammonius Saccas, the famed founder of Neoplatonism. Indeed, Origen's thought is heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy, and in his writings he makes brief mention of his "teacher of philosophy."

Another report is less clearly verified. Eusebius tells us that Origen was a pupil of Clement at the catechetical school in Alexandria. Yet elsewhere the same author tells us that at the time of persecution under Septimus Severus, all the leaders of the school had been driven away. Origen would therefore have been learning from Clement when the former was no more than 17 years old, but this is certainly not impossible. Yet in Origen's writings there is a curious lack of significant influence by Clement. He never quotes him by name, and seems to reject some of his ideas. It is clear Origen was familiar with Clement's works, but beyond that we are not left well informed as to the true nature of the eminent Alexandrians' relationship.

Catechetical School

As mentioned above, persecution under Severus had left the catechetical school of Alexandria without leadership. To meet the needs of those who desired to learn about the Christian faith, Bishop Demetrius appointed Origen to take over the school. He continued his Hellenistic teaching as well, but when his brothers became old enough to support the family, he was able to focus his energies entirely on religious instruction.

By all accounts Origen lived an extremely ascetic life - he had changed little from the impulsive youth who was more than willing to suffer for the sake of Christ. Famously, his great zeal even caused him to castrate himself. It seems his primary motive was to avoid any possible scandal due to his private instruction of women. He also seems to have literally interpreted Matthew 19:12, "There are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." Eusebius comments that this drastic measure was "proof of an inexperienced and youthful heart but also of faith and self control." {5}

Origen appears to have thought better of this act later in life. In his Commentary on Matthew he writes disparagingly of those who take 19:12 literally, and calls such an action an "outrage." This and other factors have led some scholars to doubt the veracity of Eusebius' report of the matter (which is the only report available). But it is difficult to imagine what would prompt Eusebius to fabricate an event that does not reflect all that favorably on his hero, and Origen wrote of the physical problems resulting from castration in a way that suggests personal experience.

Much of Origen's career in Alexandria was spent supporting fellow believers in the midst of intermittent persecution. Several of his own students were martyred, most notably Plutarch. It is remarkable Origen was himself spared, being such a prominent figure and so often present at prisons and executions. His life was in danger more than once, but he managed to survive, in part by moving from house to house, to continue his instruction of pagans and new believers in the Christian faith.

The popularity of the Alexandrian school grew to the point that it was necessary to share the burden of teaching. Around the year 212, Origen chose his pupil Heraclas, the brother of Plutarch and future bishop of Alexandria, as his colleague. Heraclas took over the elementary teaching of catechumens, freeing Origen to focus on instruction of more advanced students. In the Alexandrian tradition, Origen's curriculum covered not only the Christian faith, but the ideas of several schools of Greek philosophy.

Around this time, Origen began to learn Hebrew to facilitate his study of the Old Testament and his conversations with Jews. Although he regarded the Greek Septuagint as the authoritative version, knowledge of the Hebrew text was necessary in conversations with Jews who considered only the latter to be inspired. Origen also began to compile the Hexapla (a six-columned Old Testament with one Hebrew and five Greek versions). In both projects he enlisted the help of several Jewish acquaintances. {6}


Origen's career in Alexandria was interrupted by five separate journeys. The first was a brief visit to Rome in 213 because, as Eusebius tells us, Origen "wished to see the ancient Church of the Romans." In 215, Origen traveled to the province of Arabia (today's Jordan) at the invitation of its governor, who wished to learn about Christianity from one of its finest teachers. The mission was carried out quickly and Origen returned to Alexandria.

However, the scholar arrived to find his city in chaos. In his absence there had been a uprising, causing the Emperor Caracalla to order the city plundered, the schools closed, and all faculty exiled. Origen therefore left his hometown once again, this time destined for Caesarea in Palestine. There Bishop Theoctistus took advantage of the presence of such a distinguished biblical scholar and invited Origen to preach to the congregation.

The eminent Alexandrian, however, had not been ordained, and Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria was angered when he heard that his catechist was being allowed to preach. He sent a letter of protest to the Palestinian bishops, complaining, "It has never been heard of and it never happens now that laymen preach homilies in the presence of bishops," and demanding Origen's return home.

Around 218, Origen received another invitation to teach Christianity to an interested pagan; this time from the Empress Julia Mammaea, the mother of Emperor Alexander Severus. Eusebius explains, "As Origen's renown spread everywhere and even came to her ears, she thought it very important to be favored with the sight of this man and to sample his understanding of divine matters which everyone was admiring." Origen stayed in Antioch for a short while, then returned again to Alexandria.

The "Great Crisis"

Origen's last journey was a fateful one. He set out for Greece with the apparent purpose of having discussions with a heretic. He took the long way there, through Palestine, presumably to visit his friends, the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea. While in Caesarea, he was ordained to the priesthood by the bishop of that city. His motive for doing so is not entirely known, but it is not unlikely it was based on a desire to give Origen the honor he deserved and to avoid further problems due to him preaching as a layman.

As Origen continued on to Athens from Caesarea, word of the ordination reached Bishop Demetrius. He was, of course, incensed by this breach of his jurisdiction over the Alexandrian. To add fuel to the fire, rumors began to swirl that Origen had been teaching that eventually the devil would be saved. From Athens, Origen protested that he had never said any such thing.

Upon Origen's return, two successive synods were held concerning Origen: the first banished him from Alexandria (presumably based on the fact that he was ordained for service elsewhere); the second stripped him of his priesthood. Apparently Demetrius also chose to make Origen's self-castration public at this time as well. Both Eusebius and the early Jerome attributed Demetrias' treatment of Origen to jealousy.

Importantly, the bishops of four provinces refused to accept the latter ruling: Palestine, Arabia (Jordan), Phoenicia and Achaia (Greece). It is in these regions that Origen would spent the remainder of his life, acting as a priest as well as a scholar. In 233, Origen left Alexandria to make his permanent home in Caesarea.

Caesarea (233-c. 254)

Origen was hurt by the conflict with Demetrias, and was not able to resume his work right away. In the sixth volume of the Commentary on John, his first work in Caesarea, Origen likens his ordeal to that of the Jews in Egypt and his removal to Caesarea to the Exodus. But he affirms that God has quenched the fiery arrows of his enemies and his soul had grown accustomed to trials.

In Casearea, Origen added preaching to his regular duties of teaching and writing. This put him in contact with ordinary church members as well as the scholarly elite, and there is corresponding evidence of pastoral concerns in his writings of this part of his career. Almost 300 homilies preached by Origin have survived, far more than what we have of any other teacher of that era. {7} There must have been hundreds more that have not survived, as he is reported to have eventually preached "every day."

Of Origen's teaching career in Caesarea we have valuable information thanks to the Farewell Address from Gregory Thaumaturgus, Origen's pupil of five years. Gregory's warm admiration for his teacher is clear: he writes, "In my estimation there arose but one object dear and worth desire - to wit philosophy, and that master of philosophy, that divine man." (VI, 83-84)

Gregory tells us that Origen taught the following subjects at Caesarea: logic by Socratic method; the natural sciences with a view to demonstrating divine providence; ethics, centered on the four cardinal virtues; theology, including the thought of all philosophical schools but the atheists; and the Scriptures. This was not exactly a catechetical school, nor a course in theology; it seems it primarily functioned as a missionary school for pagans interested in Christianity. {8}

During his career in Caesarea, Origen made several more journeys, all to assist in the correction of heresy. In the first, he succeeded in bringing Beryllus, Bishop of Bostra (Roman Arabia/modern Jordan) out of adoptionism and back to orthodoxy. The second journey was also to Arabia, and this time dealt with those who believed the soul dies with the body and is resurrected with the body. A council was convened with Origen present, and those holding this view were converted.

A third mission, the place and time of which is unclear, found Origen conducting a council and questioning Bishop Heraclides on several matters, including the diversity and unity of Father and the Son, the two natures of the Son, adoptionism and the the immorality of the soul.


We saw above that Origen managed to survive the persecutions of Septimus Severus and Maximin the Thracian. He did not, however, survive the persecution of Decius, one of the worst and most widespread of early persecution. Many Christians were imprisoned in Caesarea, including Alexander of Jerusalem, who died in prison. In part due to the large influx of nominal believers under the Christian Emperor Philip of Arabia, a great deal of apostasy resulted from the persecution.

Origen himself, in his late sixties, was put in prison and tortured. We are told his judges took care not to kill him, as the apostasy of such a great Christian leader would be very valuable in discouraging the masses. Eusebius tells us that Origen endured chains, darkness, threats of fire, and having his legs "pulled four paces apart in the torturer's stocks." {9} But the Alexandria, who had spent much of his life exhorting others to martyrdom if necessary and encouraging the persecuted, shown no signs of betraying the faith.

Reports of the exact circumstances of his death vary somewhat, but Eusebius tells us that he lived for sometime after the persecution, into the reign of the succeeding emperors, Gallus and Volusian. Both Eusebius and Photius affirm that this is proved by the existence of letters from Origen written during this period, containing "words of value for those who need to be strengthened." {10} Jerome reports that Origen was buried in Tyre, in Phoenicia, and several other historical records confirm the presence of his tomb there until the Middle Ages.

Works and Thought of Origen of Alexandria

Despite his brilliant mind, earnest spirituality, and important contributions to the development of Christian thought, Origen has received mixed reviews in Christian history. He had no lack of admirers in the first centuries after his death, most notably among them the church historian Eusebius and St. Jerome the scholar. But several regional synods of Catholic church (Alexandria in 399, Jerusalem, Cyprus) and perhaps one general council (Constantinople in 553) labeled him a heretic due to both his teachings and some wrongly attributed to him.

Thanks in part to his wealthy patron, Origen produced an enormous literary output over the course of his life. His major scholarly work is the Hexapla, an edition of the Old Testament in six columns (Hebrew, a Greek transliteration, and four Greek translations). He also wrote commentaries on many books of the Bible.

One of the primary distinguishing characteristics of Alexandrian thought is the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Origen was not the first to employ this method, but he was the most influential. A prolific writer of commentaries, Origen held the Scriptures in the highest esteem. As the Word of God, he believed them to be perfect and incapable of error. Yet he also fully acknowledged the numerous problems and contradictions that can be found within its pages. He asked, for example, "What man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without the sun and moon and stars?" (De Princ. 4.3.1)

To resolve the problem of an inerrant book that contained errors, Origen taught that there were layers within Scripture:

... And when God is said to "walk in the paradise in the cool of the day"... I don't think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblence of history and not through actual events. (De Princ. 4.3.1) Origen found three levels of meaning in the Scriptures: the common or historical sense, for the simple-minded or beginning reader, the "Soul" of the Scriptures which edifies those who perceive it, and a meaning hidden under those passages that are repugnant to the intellect by means of allegory. Origen's major apologetic work, Against Celsus, was the ablest defense of Christianity that had appeared thus far. Perhaps Origen's greatest work is his great systematic theology: De principiis (On First Principles). Similar to the writings of Clement, it is an attempt to relate Christian faith to the philosophy of Alexandria - Neoplatonism. But his guiding principle was "nothing which is at variance with the tradition of the apostles and of the church is to be accepted as true."

Much of On First Principles is orthodox and mainstream Christian theology - he affirms one God, creator and ruler of universe, Jesus Christ begotten before creation who was divine in His incarnation, and the Holy Spirit's glory as no less than the Father and the Son. He explained that humans derive their existence from the Father, their rational nature from the Son, and their holiness from the Holy Spirit. But Origen also enters into some great speculative flights in On First Principles, which would lead some church leaders to question his orthodoxy.

First, he proposed that there were two creations, which are narrated in the two accounts in Genesis. The first creation was of spirits without bodies. These spirits had free will, and some strayed from the purpose for which they were created - contemplation of the divine - and fell. This led to the second creation, the material creation. Those who fell farthest were made demons, while others became human. By extension, then, the reason we have human bodies and experience suffering is because of our sin in preexistence. Origen claims this notion is based in the Bible, but it is clearly influenced by Platonic tradition.

Another controversial topic in De principiis is universalism. Origen suggested that since God is love, everyone, even Satan, will be saved in the end (by endless opportunities for repentance, through learning and growth, even after death), and the entire creation will return to its original state where all was pure spirit.


    - Henri Crouzel, trans. A.S. Worrall, Origen (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 5.

    • Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.2.5.
    • Eusebius, 6.2.6.
    • Eusebius, 6.9.1-5.
    • Crouzel, 13.
    • Crouzel, 29.
    • Crouzel 29.
    • Eusebius, 6.39.4.
    • Crouzel, 35.
Related Articles - Clement of Alexandria
  • History of the Development of Doctrine
  • The Church Fathers
  • External Links on Clement of Alexandria - Origen and Origenism - Catholic Encyclopedia A thorough, scholarly treatment of Origen's life, works, and thought.

    • Origen - Handbook of Patrology Overview of Origen's life, character, works and thought.
    • Introductory Note to the Works of Origen - Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 Online text of the life of Origen by Dr. Crombie, professor at St. Andrews, for a set published in 1885.