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Claire Hall on Prophecy in Origen
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Claire Hall did her PhD research on the idea of prophecy in Origen. We discuss her findings, exploring a fascinating intellectual terrain where the scriptural text becomes a world to be explored and lived through, one whose boundaries bleed into those of the non-textual world. We discuss the three levels of scriptural hermeneutic in Origen: somatic (‘bodily’, the surface meaning), psychic (‘of the soul’, ethical and moral instruction), and pneumatic (‘spiritual’, all the other, deeper stuff). Claire reads Origen as applying these to prophecy: there is prophecy which simply tells the future (the somatic level), there are prophets who serve as moral exemplars (the psychic level), and then there are prophecies which reveal the deepest wisdom about the fate of the world, the nature of Christ, and all that sort of ‘big stuff’ (the pneumatic level).
Origen is aware of the philosophical problems raised by prophecy, and does not shy away from them (although not everyone will be satisfied by the answers he gives to them). For example, what does it mean for humans as autonomous causes if god is doing things like ‘hardening Phaoroh’s heart’ and forcing Balaam to speak inspired words? Origen is aware of the problems inherent in the so-called Montanist heresy, an enthusiastic movement which, in the second century had put forward a living prophetic tradition; opposing this tendency, Origen draws a terminus to prophecy with John the Baptist. The gates of direct revelation have closed; now we need to rely on the scriptures. He also attacks the Marcionite position: a simplified, non-contradictory scriptural canon is anathema to him; he revels in the stumbling-blocks, difficulties, and seeming contradictions: thinking through these is the task of the great exegete.
Prophets, for Origen, are something quite like the later figure of the nabi‘ in Islam: one whose moral perfection makes them not only a receptacle for divine communicaitons, but a fitting receptacle. But not all those who prophesy are prophets; God can use even evil sorcerers to deliver his words, if he so chooses. And not all prophecy is what it seems – sometimes the prophet speaks his own words rather than god’s, a circumstance which allows us to explain away any prophecy about future events which ends up not coming to pass. Also discussed is the problem of ‘free will’ versus determinism, to which Origen is very much alive: if god does indeed know future events (he does) and causes humans to prophecy them – sometimes even human instruments who are themselves not necessarily willing tools in god’s hands (he does) – how do humans have the ability genuinely to make choices? Origen argues here for a kind of compatabilism, whereby god’s foreknowledge and omnipotence and the human ability to choose in a meaningful way are able to co-exist side by side.
Throughout this interview the depth and lived project of scriptural hermeneutics for Origen is highlighted in a number of ways, and our picture of the great third-century esotericist is deepened.
Claire Hall is a Fellow at All Souls’ College, Oxford. She works on the intersection of philosophical notions of prediction with real-world practice in the Græco-Roman and early Christian worlds (including a thesis on Origen’s notion of prophecy), the Eudoxan astronomical model, and event-based or katarchic astrology. She also runs an annual lecture course on Ancient Greek science.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Letter of the bishop Familian of Cæsarea to Cyprian discussing a visiting Montanist prophet: in Cyprian’s Epistles, 75.10.
- Origen on prophecies that don’t come true, and how the prophets sometimes speak in their own voices rather than the divine voice: Homilies on Numbers 16, particularly (in the case of Jonah) at 16.4.
- Attacks the Marcionites in a discussion of John the Baptist: Commentary on John 2.175-209.
- Boetheus on the eternality of the present for God: De cons. philos. 5.3-6.
- Aristotle on the sea-battle and the truth-value of future contingents: On Interpretation (Περὶ ἑρμηνείας) Chapter IX.
- Plato on divine mania: Phædrus 244a and following.
- Susanne Bobzien. Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998.