Origen on Speaking and Interpreting

Origen's head plugged into a smart phone and a note saying retrieving data

A journey that delves deeply into Greek grammar, etymology, and the politics behind the translation of Origen’s comments of I Corinthians 14:13–14.

This article covers the great third century Church Father, theologian and writer, Origen, regarding his commentary on the above passage in Greek. The coverage here is technical and produces by a step-by-step process in producing an English version. By doing so, the system reveals problems that plague the translation of ancient Christian texts.

A difficult task of any translator dealing with Origen’s writings is there are not enough resources with grammars and dictionaries focusing on the region of Alexandria around the third century. We can only approximate the meaning because of this. Even my translation submitted below is humbly presented with the knowledge that new information could come forward and improve the text.

One must be cautious about translating Origen—especially Western English Christians. We are so well versed in the English Bible and the interpretation traditions associated with it that we subconsciously use this as a framework for interpreting older Christian texts.

Origen along with his contemporaries had a mystical view of life, but this hardly applies to his coverage here which is a logical and rational analysis.

The Greek text attributed to Origen*1

Ἐὰν μὴ ἔχῃ τὸ χάρισμα τοῦ διερμηνεύειν ὁ γλώσσῃ λαλῶν, κἄν μὴ οἱ ἄλλοι ν<ῶ>σιν ἁλλ` αὺτὸς νοεῖ τὰ ἀπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος αὐτῷ ἐμβαλλόμενα εἰς τὸ κινεῖσθαι λαλεῖν. Ὃταν δὲ τὸ λαλούμενον νοηθείη παρ` ἄλλοις, τότε καρπὸς δοκεῖ οὖτος εἴναι τοῦ λαλοῦντος πρὸς τοὺς νοοῦντας.2

Two very different English translations of Origen

The first translation is provided by me and consults a wide variety of ancient Greek dictionaries.

If the person who is speaking in a language does not have the personal means for interpreting, and if others cannot understand, except this person who speaks understands the inspirations from the spirit within him are spoken for the purpose of being impressive. On the other hand, whenever the matter being spoken was intended to be understood by others, then fruit surely seems to yield during the process of speaking to those who understand.3

The second is provided by the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture:

If the one who speaks in tongues does not have the power to interpret them, others will not understand, but he will know what he was moved by the Spirit to say. When this is understood by others as well, there will be fruit from it. Here, as elsewhere, we are taught to seek the common good of the church.4

My translation has little or no reference to the Holy Spirit in this passage. The emphasis is on the person’s spiritual journey and wrongly attempting to impress others. The ACCS promotes a divine co-operation in this situation where it does not exist.

The significant differences in translation demonstrate internal problems happening within the contemporary Christian community on their utilization and familiarization with ancient Christian texts.

The problem of the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures quotation

The difference is in utilizing the ancient Greek dictionaries. ACCS likely sourced the ubiquitous ancient Greek dictionary, Liddell-Scott-Jones and did not go any further—a work that focuses on classical and not ecclesiastic Greek writings.

Furthermore, the last sentence, Here, as elsewhere, we are taught to seek the common good of the church is out of context. It follows I Corinthians 14:15–17 not 14:13–14 in the Origen text. The sentence should have been left out or at least appear as a new paragraph or mentioned that it is a comment following two later verses.

These interpretational flaws come as no surprise. Patristic Greek is a severely understudied subject. Our English Bible and religious framework trace through the Latin, not Greek. Although there are exceptions to this statement such as Erasmus, or the famed Greek to Latin translator Janus Cornarius, this generally holds. Sure, there are appeals to the Greek by personages such as Martin Luther, but these do not represent high competency. German Protestant scholars took up Greek in the late 1700s and 1800s, but the central focus was on classical texts, not ecclesiastical ones.

Another problem that curbed this genre was availability. There was no central repository of Patristic texts, and copies were scattered randomly throughout the European and Asian worlds. This concern was considerably improved in the 1800s by J. P. Migne when he published Migne Patrologia Graeca. Unfortunately, this series remains underutilized in the Catholic and primarily Protestant worlds.

An excellent and efficient toolkit for acquiring, reading, and translating Greek texts has recently arisen that overcomes these barriers. The main problem today is that there are too few Greek specialists, especially those belonging to Protestant sects such as Pentecostals or Charismatics, who can read these texts with any fluency.

These challenges are reflected in the ACCS translation where they did not go beyond Liddell-Scott-Jones and consult more ecclesiastical minded dictionaries such as Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary, or the legendary and cumbersome, Stephanus’ Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.

Furthermore, the ACCS only referenced a few authors on the subject of speaking in tongues in their coverage of the matter and omit many more important ones. Such omissions promote a Protestant and especially Renewalist myth about tongues in ecclesiastical literature; the ancient church had little or next to nothing to write about speaking in tongues and suppressed the topic for over 1200 years. A prerequisite in publishing any material on this subject must contain an awareness and avoidance of this myth. Neglect of this stereotype demonstrates the researcher or editor is not fully engaged in the in-depth realities of the subject matter.

Translation notes

The notes here relate to words and grammar and substantiate the above translation. Greek is an old language whose international dominance spans almost a thousand years. There are different types of Greek, such as Attic, Aeolic, Doric, and Ionic. Then there are regional dialects such as Alexandrian, Cappodocian, and more. The Greek of the New Testament is a unique mixture of Alexandrian, Hellenistic Judaism, and Semitic influences. Each epoch has different rules for Greek and what one word or piece of grammar meant in 100 BC may not be the same in 200 AD.

The text is written in Alexandrian Greek.

This is a poorly and inconsistently written document—an opinion not only held by me but furthered by Claude Jenkins.5 Jenkin’s work is the Greek basis for the English translation.

Jenkin’s has pieced together Catenas on I Corinthians that related to Origen’s comments. A Catena is a series of quotes from different authors on a given subject collated together and written down. This system of study goes far back in the annals of the ancient world and also common within the ancient Greek and Eastern Christian communities. Many of Jenkin’s collations come from an earlier historian’s work, John Anthony Cramer and his series, Catenae Graecorum patrum in Novum Testamentum, but the citations of Origen on I Corinthians 14:13–14 is not one of them. It is from another source. Where I do not know as the documents in my possession do not give out that information.

Origen’s emphasis on understanding

Origen is playing on the word, understand in Greek, (νοέω) which occurs three times and in both negative and positive contexts. His use of νοέω is consistent with the rest of his Corinthian commentary where his central axiom is the pursuit of knowledge. He is constantly interpreting the Corinthian text to enable the reader to be transformed in their thinking and change their worldview.6

I am not sure if understand is the best English equivalent but there is no better alternative. The use of this word three times in a row also feels redundant, but if replaced with at least one synonym, then Origen’s emphatic use is lost.

Here are three dictionary resources for the use of νοέω; as found as ν<ῶ>σιν, νοεῖ, νοηθείν, νοοῦντας in the text:

  • Perseus’ online dictionary: Perceive by the eyes, observe, perceive by the mind, apprehend, think, consider, reflect, of words, bear a certain sense, mean, the sense, meaning.
  • Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon, Pg. 916: Think about, have in mind, apprehend spiritually, esp. apprehension of spiritual sense of scripture or allegories in gen. apprehension of spiritual reality made intelligible or represented on earth by an earthly being.
  • Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary, Pg. 877: To see, to perceive, to remark, to observe, to understand, to consider, to revolve in the mind, to think, to purpose doing.

Additionally for ν<ῶ>σιν: I can’t find verification but assuming this is a present subjective, 3rd plural; νοεῖ : 3rd sg pres ind act OR 3rd sg imperf ind act OR 2nd sg pres ind mp OR 2nd sg pres imperat act; νοηθείη: aor opt pass 3rd sg; νοοῦντας: pres act masc acc part pl.

The Cramer Catena includes quotes from Theodotian, Chrysostom, and likely a few more that I am overlooking. They also used this verb in explaining the text. It is not unique to Origen.


English translation tradition dictates that charisma (χάρισμα) is translated as gift. The word gift in the context of the English text of Corinthians infers an exclusive supernatural ability given a person. However, after a brief look at the instances of the word χάρισμα in the texts of Athanasius*, Eusebius, and Gregory of Nazianzus, the sense from these authors is that χάρισμα means this: the giving of your talents and service as an expression of thanks for what He has done in your life and reflecting God’s image in all that you do. I think endowment, expression or manifestation may be better English choices depending on the circumstance. These words do not completely match the Greek either and appear too simplistic, but comes closer in many instances.

The person who speaks in a language

The translation of the keytext ὁ γλώσσῃ λαλῶν the person who speaks in a language, instead of the one who speaks in a tongue, is deliberately chosen. Tongue has an English translation tradition that has its own unique history that starts around the 1500s.

See The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible for more information.

Our English semantic range of tongues allows one to read the text as a supernatural or mystical one, whereas, if one translates γλώσσα with the word, language it significantly changes the meaning. Origen and the early writers did not write the text with tongues in mind. The use of language is more faithful to the text. This conclusion is elaborated in an earlier article; The difference between Language and Tongues.

Inspirations–τὰ. . . ἐμβαλλόμενα

If one solely uses the Perseus online dictionary, it renders a puzzling definition for ἐμβάλλω: throw in, pay, contribute. This dictionary does not give confidence that this was Origen’s intention. Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary is more comprehensive; to put anything into the mind; to introduce, bring in a subject; to place between, insert, and inspire. The Lexicon Graeco-Latinum adds that it can mean to inspire or instill feeling. Inspirations appears as the best fit for this context.

Ἐμβαλλόμενα is a present middle/passive neuter accusative or nominative participle plural. Judging from the relationship with the articular infinitive, τὸ κινεῖσθαι, it is accusative.

Impressive–τὸ κινεῖσθαι

Of all the words looked at so far, κινέω was initially the most elusive.

One of the first clues about its meaning is the location of the particle δὲ. Δὲ gives a solid clue that Origen is pitting the first option of the person speaking without interpretation against the second one, which he thinks is better. This particle is a grammatical construct with no direct grammatical reference to the English language. It is an important part about how every Greek writer structures their text. , along with, μέν, are one of the first things I look for when translating a Greek text. Some writers are rigorous about their use, while others are more loose with them. There is no μέν to begin Origen’s thought. Perhaps, ἁλλ` has a particle sense here. This Origen text is loose.

Still, the δὲ empowers a better second alternative. Τὸ κινεῖσθαι must be understood as something negative or not a good option.

A first look at Perseus’ online dictionary indicates that this verb, κινέω, with definitions of to set in motion, to move, disturb, call forth, cause, call-forth7 does not fit into this paradigm. If one depended exclusively on Perseus for the definition of κινέω then the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures is a logical translation. However, this verb has a much larger semantic range. Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon has the same definition above as Perseus but adds to set in motion, move, raise or discuss a subject, move, impel (deliberate action), hold, converse, speak; Pass: activated (of man and his faculties)B. disturb, distress, adduce in objection. Intrans. leave (like move camp from), take or bring legal action against.8 The idea of discuss a subject brings it closer to Origen’s purpose. However, one cannot depend solely on three words from an eclectic dictionary to make a case. Another good dictionary to look at is Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary which strengthens the idea of discussing a subject; to put in motion; to move; to stir. met. to rouse; to urge; to incite–to shake; to shake, something that had been fixed, and hence, to change–to commence; to cause to begin; to be the cause, or author of–to move, or affect; to excite emotion–to put in commotion, confusion, or uproar–to examine, or try.9 The concept is much closer, but the definitions still do not completely align with Origen’s thought, especially in light of the particle δὲ.

More information is needed. At this point, the choice was either to delve into the gargantuan Stephanus dictionary, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, or Google the verb. The original TLG was a nine-volume set first published in the 1500s and reached its zenith in the 1800s. It has never been digitally searchable and only available as pdf images from Google Books. It’s level of detail has not been surpassed within the realm of Patristic translation aides—except that it is in Latin and full of very technical details. Many modern dictionaries such as Donnegan, and to a lesser degree, Lampe, borrow from it. Due to time constraints, I try to avoid TLG unless it is necessary. So I tried Google first, and it produced a positive result.

Google search sometimes surprises in the ancient Greek realm. Their search engine can read ancient Greek. It is not always consistent, but when it works, it is a great benefit. In this case, Google did find a result that not only was consistent with Lampe and Donnegan but also fits nicely with the particle δὲ. It is found in a Greek-French Parallel text of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History where the French translation renders κινέω as impression.10 The evidence of all the information points to impression as the best English equivalent of Origen’s intention.

The infinitive

It is not necessary to write about the articular infinitive here, as εἰς τὸ κινεῖσθαι is fairly obvious as a construct. The text contains εἰς as an intensifier. One could think that the article τὸ is relating to λαλεῖν instead, but this is highly doubtful. Λαλεῖν by its position at the end of the sentence is typical of the Greek inclination to constructing sentences with a critical verb at the end. This situation is no different. Λαλεῖν is relating to the subject at the start of the clause.

Infinitives and especially the articular infinitive have a special place in Alexandrian Greek and other pieces of Greek literature during the third century. It has a variety of uses; even replaces the subjunctive in some circumstances. Mastery of this grammatical construct is essential in translating this genre.11

Final Notes

This article is an addendum to Origen on the Doctrine of Tongues. Special thanks to Michael B. who pointed out this portion of the Origen text that I previously overlooked.

  1. The entire Corinthian text is in dispute as to whether it is Origen or Chrysostom. Origen is used here loosely as the author. However, the text can be traced to the third or fourth century and reflects beliefs on the subject in this period.
  2. Claude Jenkins. Origen on I Corinthians IV. Journal of Theological Studies. NP. 1909. 10 Number 37. October. Pg. 37–38
  3. My translation
  4. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament: I and II Corinthians. Gerald Bray ed. Vol. VII. Illinois: InterVarsity Press. 1999. Pg. 140
  5. Claude Jenkins. The Origen-Citations in Cramer’s Catena On I Corinthians. As found in The Journal of Theological Studies. Henry Frowde ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1905. Vol. 6. Pg. 113. “it has long been recognized that the text of many portions of Cramer’s Catenae Graecorum Patrum in Novum Testamentum leaves much to be desired.”
  6. See a previous article Origen on Knowledge that delves on this topic in more detail.
  7. My amplification of the Perseus definition. This reference is not a direct quote
  8. Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon. Pg. 753. My amplification of the Lampe definition. This is not a direct quote
  9. Donnegan’s Greek Dictionary. Pg. 758. My amplification of the Donnegan definition. This reference is not a direct quote
  10. Cinquième Livre de l’Histoire Ecclésiastique de Eusèbe 79:13, 6
  11. See my introductory article on infinitives:The Various Uses of the Infinitive in Ancient Greek I don’t have examples of the articular infinitive replacing the subjunctive. I found this aspect after publishing this article and did not note the occasions.

Leave a Comment