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7. Origen |
A Christian giant arises in Egypt

Origen is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 194, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

His father martyred, the boy Origen, saved by his mother, becomes an evangelical powerhouse and a teacher whose students one by one perish

Origen - A Christian giant arises in Egypt

Origen – A Christian giant arises in Egypt
Origen was a good student. Quick at his studies, he memorized the lines of Scripture his father, Leonides, gave him every day, and raised penetrating questions about their meaning. But Leonides was not just a father and teacher to Origen. He was also his hero.

Young Origen of Alexandria could not remember a time when he had never heard of Jesus Christ. He was a product, that is, of a Christian family, a growing phenomenon in the second-century Roman Empire as couples were converted and raised their children in the new faith. It was also a phenomenon that many authorities would have liked to suppress and much of the populace would have liked to destroy. Christians were “atheists,” after all. They offended the gods and brought needless ruin on the world. Such was the popular view. As Origen had known since infancy, being a Christian was a very dangerous business.

Still, he and his six younger brothers felt a powerful security in the figure of their father, Leonides (pronounced Le-ON-i-dees), a loyal Roman and a prominent resident of the empire’s second most important city. In the past, few Christians had been arrested in Alexandria, though it was certainly happening elsewhere in the empire. Moreover, no official felt strong enough to take down Leonides, despite the fact that he made no secret of his faith and spoke boldly of it in public. His sons not only loved him, they lived in awe of him. He was their father and their hero.

He was tough, too, especially in his insistence that they use the minds God had given them to learn the faith they must live by. Origen (his name in English is pronounced like the word “origin”) was a particularly good student. Quick at his studies, he not only memorized the lines of Scripture his father gave him every day, he raised penetrating questions about their meaning. Don’t go prying into things too great for you, his father had admonished him. He was just a boy; he must be content with the simplest understanding of these passages.

Leonides was, of course, pleased. As his young son lay sleeping the father would quietly kiss his chest, dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.1 The flame of faith was burning bright and hungry in this lad. He was an unfolding treasure. What would he become when he grew up?

But Leonides did not live to see his son grow up. There came one day the dreaded knock on the door, or so at least one may suppose. A new governor named Laetus (pronounced as LAY-tus) had been appointed for Alexandria, a new regime was in office, and a crackdown on Christians was under way. A warrant had been issued for the arrest of Leonides. He was taken away, says the Christian historian Eusebius. The penalty was high. Not only would he face death, his property would be seized, his family made homeless and destitute, and his wife left solely responsible for raising the seven children. All this he could escape by simply denying Christ, swearing the oath or burning the incense.

His eldest son inscribed an urgent letter to him. “Be sure that you don’t change your mind because of us,” he wrote–don’t relent, but die as a martyr in the faith all the family holds dear. Origen need not have worried. Leonides knew what he had to do. How long the trial lasted, history does not record. There is no record of proceedings. But when the day came that the judge pronounced the death sentence, the teenaged Origen resolved to join his father and perish with him.

Frantically he searched for his clothes, but they were nowhere to be found. Die as a martyr, he was prepared to do. Run through the streets of Alexandria naked, he was not. St. Leonides died that day beneath a Roman executioner’s sword. The year was a.d. 202. Origen was sixteen. He lived because his mother had hidden his clothes–lived to become the man many regard as the greatest Christian writer, theologian, and evangelist of the postbiblical period. All Christendom for the next two thousand years would become the beneficiary of his mother’s action.

Origen was also an Egyptian and an Alexandrian, and that meant something. Alexandria was a fascinating, powerful, and volatile city. Rome was the capital of the empire, but Alexandria was wealthier and more cosmopolitan; the center of learning and the site of renowned landmarks. The port’s lighthouse rose four hundred feet into the air and was accounted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. There was a zoo, a museum, and an astonishing library comprising almost a million books, by far the greatest collection in antiquity.

Geography favored this queen of cities. Situated near the westernmost of the four mouths of the Nile River, it linked the worlds of Europe, Africa, and the Far East, and through it the grain of Egypt, breadbasket of the empire, poured across the Mediterranean to Italy and Rome. Alexandria was a crossroads for populations as well. In addition to the native Egyptians who spoke Coptic,2 the city was inhabited by Greeks and Jews. These bore a habitual grudge against each other, frequently resulting in massive bloodshed. The rest of the empire thought of Alexandrians as clever, boastful, sarcastic, and, finally, defiant of authority–a product of their imaginative ingenuity that was destined one day to cost them their language and national identity. A Roman admirer of the city wrote that if he were assigned the task of defending Alexandrians and proving that they were neither irresponsible nor treacherous, he would find the task hopeless. “I could make a long speech, but it would be a wasted effort,” he said.

Within this ferment, many religions mixed. Judaism was flavored with Platonism, and Greek gods were grafted onto Egyptian deities. Jews had long maintained a strong and scholarly presence in Alexandria, and one of lasting historic significance, for it was here that the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, was created (see Chapter 3, The Veil Is Torn, p. 72). The indigenous Egyptian religion tended toward animal worship, and each town might have its own animal, bird, or fish as a deity, leading to rivalries that could turn bloody.3 Romans thought this Egyptian proclivity ridiculous. However, they learned that Egyptians took it very seriously when a Roman soldier accidentally killed a cat and was lynched by a mob.

The historian Eusebius describes Alexandria as a “large . . . company of believers, men and women alike . . . with an extremely severe rule of life.” Such “asceticism” as it is called, from the Greek word used to describe athletic training, went back to Paul’s observation that “I pommel my body and subdue it” (1 Cor. 9:27). It involved strict fasts, indifference to material possessions, a celibate life, contempt for the body and physical comfort, and removal of oneself from the security of even a home. This stern regimen would characterize Egyptian Christianity for centuries to come. But it probably originates in one of the two conflicting versions of Gnosticism (see sidebar, p. 218), both of which took deep root in Egypt and Alexandria during the first and early second centuries.

By then, Alexandria had surpassed both Rome and Athens as the empire’s liveliest center of intellectual inquiry. The church at Alexandria shared this robust mood. It was the most theologically active and the wealthiest Christian body in the empire. Five strong figures had dominated early Christian history in Alexandria. Origen was to become the sixth.

The first of those figures was that ubiquitous personage of the New Testament, John Mark. He is identified by Paul as the cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), who quit the Paul-Barnabas mission into Galatia, costing him Paul’s confidence (Acts 15:37—41). He later accompanied Barnabas on a mission to Cyprus (Acts 15:39), and still later, having reconciled with Paul, turned up in Rome (Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philem. 24). Mark is also associated with Peter (1 Pet. 5:13), whose memoirs Mark wrote, says the first-century Christian historian Papias. These became the Second Gospel of the New Testament.

Tradition, though not the Bible, also identifies Mark as the son of the Mary in whose house at Jerusalem the Last Supper took place, and where some seven weeks later the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles at Pentecost. Finally, it is reasonable to conclude that the young man who escaped naked after Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane is the same John Mark (Mark 14:51), since none of the other three Gospels mentions the incident. Eusebius adds to the story: From Rome, Mark traveled to Alexandria, he writes, and became the first bishop of the Egyptian or Coptic Church.

In the Coptic tradition, Mark had been born into a Jewish family in Libya, where Berber attacks on his village forced his parents to flee. They resettled in Cana of Galilee. Thereafter, Coptic accounts vary. In one version, Peter became a family friend, and, after the death of Mark’s father, took a hand in raising the boy. Peter refers to Mark in his first epistle as his son, using the Greek term indicating a familial rather than a merely spiritual relationship. By the time of the Resurrection, Mark’s widowed mother had moved to Jerusalem, where he, now a teenager, became part of the Christian community. The ancient tradition calls him “stumpy-fingered,” which may have meant that his hands were deformed or mutilated, but the mysterious disability did not prevent him from being Peter’s scribe.

The Copts record a miracle on Mark’s first arrival in Alexandria, around a.d. 45. The story goes that on disembarking from his ship, he went looking for a cobbler to repair a broken sandal strap. He found a workman named Anianus, who tackled the stubborn leather with too much zeal and drove the awl into his own left hand. As Anianus howled with pain, Mark made clay of spittle and dust, prayed, and anointed the wound, healing it instantly. Anianus, already a Christian, took Mark to his home. Another very early believer from Alexandria was the mysterious Apollos, who later moved to Ephesus and Corinth, and assisted Paul. However, there is no known connection between Apollos and Mark (see The Veil Is Torn, p. 144).

Coptic Christians believe that Mark served as Alexandria’s bishop until the year 62, when his labor for the Gospel began to attract hostile attention. Appointing Anianus as bishop, along with twelve priests and seven deacons, he fled the city–not an act of cowardice, say the Copts, since Jesus himself had said, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matt. 10:23). A few years later, Mark slipped back into Alexandria, and was greeted joyfully by his spiritual children. But this time he could not evade the Christians’ opponents. He was captured, tied to the tail of a horse, and dragged over the cobbled streets of Alexandria until his body was torn to pieces. The year, say the Copts, was a.d. 68.4

However historically substantial these Coptic traditions of Mark’s ministry in Alexandria, one thing seems very substantial indeed: the next sixty to one hundred years of Christian history in the empire’s second city are a blank. Eusebius, who composed the first comprehensive history of the church in the early fourth century, lists the names of the bishops who succeeded Mark–Anianus, Abilius, Cerdon, and so forth–but it is not until the tenth bishop, Julian, that he supplies more than a bare name, and by then, more than a hundred years have passed.

“If Christianity was taken to Egypt by the middle of the first century,” writes C. Wilfred Griggs in his authoritative Early Egyptian Christianity, “an inexplicable silence in Christian sources concerning the leaders of the movement and the development of the church over the next 125 to 150 years is probably unique in the history of Christianity.”

Oddly, it was not until the twentieth century that any real clue to the missing years of early Egyptian Christianity came to light. At Nag Hammadi, sixty miles downstream from modern Luxor on the Nile, a collection of thirteen papyrus codices was found in a jar buried in a pagan cemetery, eleven of them complete with their leather bindings. Written in Coptic and dated from the third to fifth centuries, they constituted a library of Gnostic texts, evidence of early Egyptian preoccupation with Gnosticism. Significantly, another discovery, made a half-century earlier at the Faiyum Oasis, 250 miles north of Nag Hammadi, included a fragment of John’s Gospel dated to the beginning of the second century, equally tangible evidence of very early Christian activity in Egypt (see p. 31).

So what happened? Were the Christians and Gnostics in keen dispute during these missing years? There is no evidence of it. One theory is that the story of Mark’s evangelism in Alexandria is a myth, and that Christianity came to the city later from an unknown source. But Alexandria was the second city of the empire, and it would not have been long neglected by Christian missionaries. Then there is the further evidence of the gospel fragment. So the mystery remains.

By the year 130, the fog suddenly lifts. The second great figure of Alexandrian Christianity appears in the person of a man who was later denounced as not Christian at all. His name was Basilides (Bas-i-LIE-dees). He began as a conventional Christian, but in his quest to enhance Christianity with elements drawn from Judaism, paganism, and Platonism, he developed in Alexandria a full-flowered Gnosticism. It was an immense project, his influence was enormous, and since it had no self-correcting boundaries, it rapidly grew into the bizarre.

Just how bizarre was explained in the Christians’ response to Basilides. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, in his Against Heresies written in 180, reports that Basilides taught that there is an ultimate God who existed before all things, and that he begot Thought, Logos, Prudence, and other powers. From these powers proceeded yet further powers, and by successive steps, there emerged 365 levels of “heavens” between this earth and the original or ultimate God. According to Basilides, this Earth is ruled by the God of the Jews, Yahweh, whom he saw as a minor and corrupt deity. When conflict arose among the spiritual powers of this earth, Yahweh appealed to the “unoriginate” God for help, and in response he sent his “first emanation.” This was Thought, who was to be born as Christ on earth. Since it is impossible for such a lofty entity to suffer, at the time of the Crucifixion, Jesus switched places with Simon of Cyrene. . . . On and on it goes, Basilides’ disciples adding their own further details, as did Valentinus, Heracleon, and other Gnostic teachers during the second century.

Alexandrians reveled in all this. Always creative and imaginative, they delighted in finding hidden mysteries behind ancient texts, in exploring ever-deepening levels of illumination through arduous stages of initiation, and finally, in joining the predestined few who had finally arrived at the doorstep of secret wisdom. The more preposterous it sounded, and the more complex the “truths,” the more likely its validity, they said, because it involved realities that ordinary, unenlightened people could never deduce for themselves.

As for the human body and how the individual should regard it, Gnosticism took two diametrically different paths. Some schools taught that the body was a “cage of mud,” in which an evil god (often the Jewish Yahweh) had imprisoned pure souls. The body must therefore be despised, they said, and extreme disciplines followed from this. Others, like the Gnostic and avowed Christian Carpocrates (pronounced Car-po-CRA-tees), considered the body irrelevant, and taught that therefore one could do with it whatever one pleased. All constraints could be ignored. The excesses that followed from this can be imagined.

To the Christians at Alexandria, it rapidly became clear that unless some means could be found to distinguish Christianity from Gnosticism, the former would disintegrate into a chaos of theological gibberish and moral squalor. The man who first realized this, and did something about it, became the third great figure of Alexandrian history, and the one about whom the least is known. His name was Pantaenus (Pan-TEE-nus), and the method he chose to correct the problem was to establish a school in about 190, known as the Catechetical School of Alexandria. In it, he began training Christian teachers, evangelists, and other leaders, carefully distinguishing what Christians believed from what Gnostics believed. Pantaenus was a Jew, probably from Sicily because he was known as “the Sicilian Bee,” a nickname conferred on him by one of his students who saw him as collecting nectar from “all the flowers of the prophetic and apostolic meadow.” Schooled in Hebrew, he studied Greek philosophy in Sicily and became a Stoic, employing elements of Pythagorean Platonism before converting to Christianity. He brought with him to Alexandria a global wealth of knowledge, and was the first head of the school, an institution without equal in the ancient Christian world, probably the first Christian seminary.

Little else is known about Pantaenus, except for one curious story. His work at the Catechetical School was interrupted one day by unexpected visitors. A delegation from India had become so impressed with reports of his teaching that they asked him to come with them to engage and challenge the Hindu teachers of their land. The bishop of Alexandria agreed that Pantaenus should go, and the amazing accuracy with which other Alexandrian Christians, one of them Origen, later described the culture of India, lends great credibility to the story. The information doubtless came from Pantaenus’s reports back to Alexandria, or from students he sent from India to the Catechetical School.

The fourth figure in Egyptian Christianity is the bishop credited with sending Pantaenus to India. This was Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, who presided over the city’s Christians from 190 to 233, a forty-three-year regime, during which he curbed the doctrinal and moral chaos wrought by Gnosticism and established Alexandrian Christianity as a major influence in Christian development for the next four centuries.

His own background was far from academic. In the Coptic tradition, he was an illiterate, married farmer, a Christian who became a bishop as the result of an odd occurrence. His predecessor, Bishop Julian, lay dying, and suddenly had a vision that the man who should be the next bishop would visit him the next day bearing a gift of fresh grapes. And on the following day, Demetrius, doubtless a faithful member of Julian’s flock, came to his bedside bearing clusters of grapes from his vineyard. The scene that followed can be reconstructed. Those attending the stricken man would have stared wide-eyed as the farmer bearing his grapes entered the room. There would have been a moment of unbelief. This? Muddy boots? Rustic, weathered face? This, the next bishop of Alexandria? A man who could neither read nor write was to become bishop of what was probably the most literate Christian community in all the empire?

Still, the vision was the vision. “You’re our next bishop,” someone would have declared. Apparently, Demetrius’s first reaction was to turn and run. He was seized by the others, says Eusebius. The farmer was plainly panic-stricken. Placed in fetters, he had to be “forcibly” persuaded to assume the office, but he became a tough administrator with a farmer’s sense of practical reality. When he died, the Gnostic influence in Alexandria had been significantly diminished.

Pantaenus’s successor as principal of the Catechetical School was the fifth of the five luminaries who preceded Origen. Given a proud Roman name, Titus Flavius Clemens (known as Clement) was born a pagan at Athens and became a convert to Christianity as a young man. He traveled widely in search of education, gaining instruction in the faith from teachers throughout the Mediterranean world, and enrolled as a pupil in Pantaenus’s school. When Pantaenus departed for India, around a.d. 190, Clement succeeded him as principal.

He arrived at Alexandria just as Pantaenus had begun seriously addressing the Gnostic problem. The Christians were divided, some deeply into Gnosticism, others so bitterly appalled at the proliferation of bizarre competing theories masquerading as advanced knowledge that they had become hostile to any intellectual endeavor at all. Clement plunged into the fray. With the generous and optimistic spirit that made his writings appealing as well as persuasive, he set out to forge a middle path between Gnostic speculation and the Christian anti-intellectuals. He wanted to show educated pagans that it was possible to become a Christian without sacrificing their intelligence, and to show wary believers that even Plato and the Greek philosophers had grasped some elements of Christian truth (thanks, Clement believed, to their study of the Hebrew Scriptures).

Philosophy was to the Greeks what the Law was to the Jews, he said. It was a schoolmaster preparing them to receive the coming of Christ. “One indeed is the way of Truth,” he writes, “but into it, as into an ever-flowing river, streams from everywhere are confluent.” And while philosophy might inform faith, it was Scripture that ultimately ruled. But in reading Scripture, Clement proposed a two-fold guide to prevent Gnostic excesses. First, that Christians never take literally any passages that seem to be fundamentally contrary to the nature of God (he thereby refuted the Gnostics who saw the God of the Old Testament as unreasonable and cruel). Second, they should consider each passage in the light of the Bible as a whole (a check on the Gnostics whose overactive imaginations could spin strange fantasies from a single verse).

Clement’s works abound in quotations from classical philosophy, designed to put the cultivated reader at ease while leading him past the objections that classical thought presented to Christianity. For example, Platonists asked, if God is by definition unchanging, how could he leave Heaven and become human? Clement answered that what was unchanging was God’s love for humankind. That love is manifested through his providence, which would necessarily adapt to changing human needs, and Jesus was a crowning example of God’s never-changing love, expressed in God’s breakthrough into the natural world, an act of rescue.

Clement also worked to resolve another conflict, that between the Gnostic libertines and the extreme ascetics.5 His treatise opposing the former was deemed so graphic in its descriptions that the editors of an 1885 English translation of Clement’s Miscellanies rendered the passages relating to Carpocrates in Latin so that “scholars only” might peruse it. Yet Clement was also skeptical of a trend among Christians to pursue excessive and demonstrative physical rigors.

The middle way was best, he taught. The rich man need not reduce himself to poverty, but should give generously to the poor and handle his wealth with detachment. Virginity was good, but marriage was better. Clement, in fact, wrote more positively of marital love than did any other Christian of his time. Death by martyrdom, he taught, was no more valuable than a daily martyrdom of the will in which the tumult of selfish desires is stilled and the heart turned toward God. The person is blessed who progresses on this path, immersed in the study of Scripture, ever growing in knowledge of God and tranquil self-control, and actively caring for others.

However, the phenomenon of martyrdom posed further problems for Clement, because Gnosticism made death for the faith unnecessary under any conditions. To the Gnostics, Jesus was often little more than a phantom, so why bother to suffer physically for something so unsubstantial? Second, if the whole of Christianity had to do with “secret” knowledge, how could you bear public “witness” to it (for “witness” is what the Greek word for “martyr” meant)? Finally, if a mystical inner transformation was the most important thing, why balk at doing something as trifling as to offer a pinch of incense to the emperor? After all, Basilides had taught, or so his critics said, that such capitulation was no crime, and that faith could be denied conveniently and “lightheartedly.”

While such a doctrine was poison to a people at the doorstep of suffering, a parallel danger lay on the opposite side. Panicked Christians, like the youthful Origen, might rush into martyrdom, courting it as a way to swiftly resolve the intolerable tension. Some believed that such a headlong action would erase any sins committed in this life and usher the martyr directly into paradise–an easier step, all told, than a life of patient, daily self-discipline. Once again, Clement pointed to the middle path. He opposed “impious and cowardly” Gnostics who mocked true martyrs as foolish, and he upheld martyrdom as an honor for those forced to endure it, a path of cleansing and glory. But those who purposely “rush to their death” are “not martyrs” at all, he said. They “give themselves up to a futile death like Indian fakirs in a senseless fire.”

Clement’s work was brilliant and effective, but it had a hidden flaw, one which did not become apparent for generations. In all his emphasis on using philosophy to inform Christianity, he failed to question the underlying premise that knowledge–gnosis–was the real key to enlightenment. He challenged the content of Gnosticism, but tried to recover the word “Gnostic” for Christian use. He believed that some people were “true Gnostics,” selected by God to receive advanced revelation and to teach it to others. In his Miscellanies, he scattered these revelations in a deliberately jumbled way, so that the illumined could perceive them and the less advanced, who might be harmed by what they could not handle, could not. In a recently discovered letter, Clement writes that Mark did, indeed, compose a secret Gospel which was given only to the inner circle of advanced believers. Thus elements of Gnosticism tarnished his monumental work.6

Consistent with his beliefs, when the persecution that claimed Origen’s father broke out, Clement fled to Cappadocia in Asia Minor. There he spent his last years with a student, Alexander, and died around 217. The circumstances of his death are not known.

Leonides had been killed, Clement had fled, and the city’s Christian community was in disarray. Young Origen struggled to feed his family. But to do so, he must first complete his education. God, as he no doubt saw it, helped him. A wealthy woman, otherwise unidentified, generously provided him with room and board while he finished his studies. He rapidly progressed from student to teacher and was able to contribute to the support of his mother and brothers.

But his father’s martyrdom still weighed heavily on him. Should he somehow have persisted in joining his father in death? Was he really as committed to Christ as his father had been? Or was he in reality just a coward? Finally, he resolved on an act which, he decided, would make his own commitment unmistakable. In the ancient pagan religion of Egypt, there had been a means by which young men proved their loyalty to their gods. Why not emulate it as a Christian? Did not the Scripture say that some men “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake?” (Matt. 19:12). Suppose he in fact had this done? Would this not once and for all give the lie to all the gossip that Christians were sexually promiscuous? The expedient finally seemed obvious to him. He had himself castrated.

He determined to keep it a secret. But, says the historian Eusebius, this proved impossible. “However much he might wish it, he could not possibly conceal such a thing.” When the incident came to the attention of Bishop Demetrius, he was “amazed at Origen’s headstrong act.” He perceived it as evidencing “great courage and devotion, but also reckless immaturity.” He nevertheless told the young man to put it in his past, a mistake to be repented and forgotten.

Origen himself realized it had been an act of folly. As an old man, crippled by torture and near death, he wrote a commentary on Matthew’s Gospel. When he came to the twelfth verse of the nineteenth chapter, he wrote that those who practice self-mutilation “subject themselves to reviling” from people both inside and outside the faith. They may be motivated by “an imagined fear of God and an intemperate love of sobriety,” but they only bring on themselves “troubles and bodily amputation and whatever else the one who gives himself over to such deeds may suffer.” He concluded: “True purity does not consist in doing violence to the body, but in mortifying the senses for the kingdom of God.”7

The Christian community in Alexandria, meanwhile, seemed to be disintegrating. After Clement’s departure, there was no one of adequate age and experience to run the Catechetical School. Yet Origen, himself a former student of the school under Clement, was winning an ever-widening reputation as both a teacher of secular philosophy and a Christian evangelist. He was only eighteen, but he had all the other qualifications. Was not a school with an underaged principal better than no school at all? Bishop Demetrius thought so, and invited Origen to take on the job.

It would be no sinecure. Laetus’s persecution had only begun, and one of its chief aims was to put a stop to Alexandria’s religious ventures, in particular Christianity. To become a Christian was therefore a perilous step to take, and to register in the Catechetical School was to invite immediate arrest. To actually operate the Catechetical School would seem an act of almost deliberate defiance. Origen certainly knew all this, but he accepted the post anyway. Here perhaps was a far better way of following in his father’s footsteps.

But would the students come? Come they did, one by one, all the dangers notwithstanding–young men like Plutarch and his brother, Heraclas, who would one day become bishop of Alexandria, Severus, Hero, and Serenus; and young women like Herias and Potamiaena (pronounced as Po-ta-mee-AY-na–see sidebar)–names that would be recorded for perpetuity in Eusebius’s history, as all but Heraclas went to their deaths over the next three years, each steadfastly refusing to deny belief in Jesus Christ. Origen himself accompanied each to prison, visited them all there, and accompanied them to the arena itself to bestow on them the final kiss of peace.

Some came to the school as students, some just to hear him teach and preach, their numbers all the while growing. The abiding mystery of those three years is why the authorities never arrested Origen himself. The Alexandrian mob detested him, on one occasion tried to stone him, and threatened his home so frequently that soldiers had to be stationed around it to prevent riots. Someone high in the Roman administration, probably a Christian, must have been protecting him. It was God who protects him, the Christians would have said.

If so, Origen kept God busy. One day the mob grabbed him, dragged him to the steps of the Temple of Serapis, cut his hair in a pagan rite, dressed him up as a pagan priest, and ordered him to perform the office of priest by distributing palm branches to the worshipers. Origen complied, put the palms in the people’s hands, blessed them, and shouted: “Come and receive the palms, not of idols, but of Jesus Christ.” Amazingly, they let him go.

His school in those years was not really a preparation for a Christian life, says one historian, but a preparation for martyrdom. Yet Origen did not preach martyrdom. “If you want to receive baptism,” he would say to his converts, “you must first learn about God’s Word, cut away the roots of your vices, correct your barbarous wild lives, and practice meekness and humility. Then you will be fit to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

His own life mirrored his preaching. When he accepted the principalship of the school, he vowed to live in poverty, sold all the manuscripts that in earlier years he had carefully copied from the great philosophical works, and adopted what Eusebius calls an “extremely severe rule of life.” He spent his days in strenuous labor and most of his nights in Scripture study. He alternated other forms of discipline, sometimes going without food, sometimes going without sleep, and always making his bed on the floor. He accepted as a stipend four obols a day, considerably less than a day’s pay for a common laborer. He was said to “cultivate” poverty, going without shoes or warm clothing and eating only the minimum necessary to sustain life. His health soon suffered, and his behavior distressed his friends, who begged him to share their resources. He refused, and he became known to Christians as “Adamantius,” the man of steel.

In 207, five years after it had begun, the persecution of Christians in Alexandria was suddenly stopped on imperial authority. Immediately, registration in the school soared. Heraclas, brother of the martyr Plutarch, became the assistant principal, teaching preliminary Christian doctrine. Origen’s reputation and writings spread among Christian communities all over the empire. In 212, he was invited to Rome to give a lecture. Three years later, a soldier brought letters to Bishop Demetrius and the Roman prefect of Egypt. They came from the Roman governor of Arabia who sought Origen’s advice on “a matter of doctrine.”

What doctrine that was has never been discovered. In any event, Origen was dispatched forthwith, stopping along the way to preach in the church in Caesarea at the invitation of Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, and Theoctistus, Caesarea’s bishop. He returned in 216 to find chaos both in the Christian community and around it. Bishop Demetrius was furious with him. Did he not know that a layman must never preach before clergymen, especially before bishops? But he had been invited by the bishops to preach, Origen said. Those bishops, responded Demetrius, had committed a major ecclesiastical offense, and Demetrius would certainly let them know.

But none of this meant anything to the citizens of Alexandria. They had far more to think about. One of the worst slaughters in the city’s history had just occurred, and the instigator was the emperor himself. He was Caracalla, and his name would live in the city’s annals as synonymous with monstrous depravity. He had planned a state visit to the city that year and his reputation had preceded him, a reputation for fratricide for he was known to have murdered his own brother, Geta, by treachery. The youth of Alexandria rather specialized in lampoonery, particularly of officialdom. “The witticisms that really irritate,” said the historian Herodian, “are those that expose the truth of one’s shortcomings.” Caracalla had a great many shortcomings that could be exposed. He was a brother-killer, yet also a mother-lover, a pint-sized buffoon with the crazed idea that he was following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great–all fodder for great satire.

Of this frivolity, Caracalla had been fully informed. Approaching the city, he ordered a large public gathering for a gigantic spectacle, a mass slaughter of cattle as an offering to the dead. The citizens swarmed into the street to welcome him, showering him with flowers and accompanying him with music. He visited the tomb of Alexander the Great and set up his headquarters in the Temple of Serapis. From there, he announced plans for a special unit of his army to be recruited entirely from the young men of Alexandria, who should, he said, seat themselves in the front rows for the great festival.

As Caracalla addressed his new recruits, units of his German guard stole quietly behind the crowd, surrounding it. Others hurriedly dug pits on the outskirts of the assembly. At a signal, the heavily armed troops broke into the crowd, murdering all the young men, none of whom was armed. Their bodies were dragged from the field and dumped into the pits. Days of further carnage followed; hundreds of citizens were murdered in their homes; the city was looted as though conquered by a foreign army.

All the schools were closed, including Origen’s. He escaped and made his way back to Palestine, with one thought no doubt pressing on his mind. The earthly fate of the Christians was entirely in the hands of the empire. Many of his pupils had been put to death under an imperial edict issued by Caracalla’s father, Severus. So, too, had his own father, Leonides. Now the youth of Alexandria had been butchered through imperial whim. If conditions were to change, then the empire must change. And the center of the empire’s power was not Alexandria.

This is the end of the Origen category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 194, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Origen from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at