A critical look at the references and controversies regarding Origen on the christian doctrine of tongues.
This work was produced because there is so much contradictory often even misleading statements concerning Origen’s position. It necessitated a closer look into all the available materials made by Origen on the subject in order to arrive at a definitive conclusion.
Table of Contents
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Methodology
- 3. The works of Origen as it relates to the doctrine of tongues:
- The Jeremiah Homily
- Selecta in Ezechielem
- Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles
- Commentary on the Book of Romans
- Commentary on Corinthians, Header 49
- Against Celsus
- 4. Conclusion
The divergent opinions about Origen can be found in the most dominant pieces of religious literature and these contradictory opinions create more problems than solutions. For instance Cleon Rogers Jr. stated in the well-known Bibliothecra Sacra that Origen wrote nothing on it, while C.M. Robeck Jr. believed Origen stated the gift to be for cross-cultural preaching. T.C. Edwards believed Origen along with other Church Fathers indicated that it was no longer in existence in the third century, to which R. Leonard Carrol wrote that Origen believed it did still occur.
Many modern writers have read Origen simply to find out if the gift had ceased or persisted like Richard Quibedeaux who concluded that Origen simply didn’t approve of the phenomenon,“Origen, in the third century, and Chrysostom, in the fourth, both disparaged the accounts of speaking in tongues, and rejected its continued validity.”
On the other hand a school of thought known as higher-criticism promoted tongues as an ecstatic utterance within the works of Origen. For example, Johannes Behm, author of the gift of tongues in the highly praised Theological Dictionary of the New Testament associated one of Origen’s sentences to mean that tongues was an ecstatic utterance. PKE Feine in the The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge also corroborates with a similar theme to Behm.
These differing conclusions demonstrate the need to examine Origen in a comprehensive and detailed way.
Origen lived around 185-254 AD and it is traditionally held that he lived in Alexandria, Egypt. His works are one of the few pre-300 AD Patristic publications available today. Because of this, his works hold special interest. Origen had a broad range of competencies: from the the use of the Hebrew language to Greek philosophy, and this was reflected in his writings. He used Neo-Platonist and Neo-Pythagorean frameworks to interpret Scripture. This has to be understood in approaching, translating and explaining the results of his writings concerning the doctrine of tongues.
The methodology used to discover Origen’s position was fourfold. First it was to collate a comprehensive corpus of materials by Origen on the subject from the available Greek and Latin texts, which was completed by visually scanning each page of the Origen writings found in Migne Patrologia Graeca and two different medieval copies of the Corinthian Catena originally attributed to Origen. Secondly it was to translate them into English with critical notes. Third, it was to compare any existing popular traditional English translations with my translations. This will answer two important questions: have the past translations and the lack of comprehensiveness misled readers in his intent? Does the translation clearly portray what Origen intended? Last of all this is a literary approach using historical-criticism. It is not to look for texts that validate modern-day conservative or pentecostal theologies. It is to pursue Origen speaking on his own terms which may or may not line-up with our present day theologies.
Translating Origen is not a simple task. The Greek that the manuscripts are supplied in has its own regional style, use and vocabulary which is consistent with other texts influenced by those who had a close connection to the Christian centre of Alexandria, Egypt.
Below is a list of the passages that are historically attributed to Origen related to the Christian doctrine of tongues, with a translation and brief commentary.
3. The Works of Origen as it relates to the doctrine of tongues:
The Jeremiah Homily
MPG. Vol. 13. Col. 384ff.
This text relates to the division of languages as described in the Book of Genesis. The Genesis account of language division was an important passage to many Church fathers who built a framework for defining the tongues phenomenon.
For that reason at a certain point in time, men were not moving from the east, nor had God scattered them. When the occasion came when they moved from the east and a man said to his neighbour, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven”. God speaks concerning these things. “Come and go down, let us confuse there their language.” And each one is confounded, scattered abroad upon a certain place of the earth. The people, the one before Israel who is in Judaea, on the other hand are not sinners. The one who had sinned is being confounded [and] then is scattered everywhere from the inhabited world. Understand such a thing about me and about all of us. Some in the Church of the first born ones having been registered their name in heaven, in which [is] mount Zion and the living city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem.■
This interpretation reflects an old Christian tradition. A number of other Church Fathers interpreted this passage to mean that all the people spoke one language at Babel, and due to their sin, many languages came into being so that mankind could not universally participate in evil.
It was hoped that such coverage would lead to some evidence on the christian doctrine of tongues, but once again this doesn’t happen. Origen doesn’t make any unusual claims here at the division of languages that leads to any alternate solution what Luke or Paul wrote about.
Selecta in Ezechielem
MPG. Vol. 13. Chapter 3. Col. 773
This piece is remotely related to his concept of tongues but does provide a little background.
“For [you are not being sent] to a people of unintelligible speech,” For if they were not holding their words superficially, yet their heart was [equal to] their mouth according to the depth of the thoughts and so by no means were you to have gone to the house of Israel. But neither were they a people who utter difficult speech. For their language, or rather the word, has neither something difficult and witty or stibos. These ones at any rate are of a vain language.
From whence the necessity that you go to those who are departing from your custom. It was said with praise, “unintelligible speech and difficult language,” [and] indeed these things have been spoken . And see that about those from the gentiles, these peoples who are foreigners from the house of Israel, it is being prophesied about these things, which the Hebrew prophet would have not been able to hear on account of their foreign language Moreover in profound lips these ones can speak because they are not in the habit of comprehending the divine books superficially but believe in respect to the knowledge of the law.■
The following was translated and collated because of its parallels with Isaiah 28:11 Indeed, He will speak to this people Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue (NASB) which Paul used in attempting to solve the tongues controversy found in I Corinthians 14. It is interesting the depth that Origen goes on to explain this passage but evermore remains oblivious to any reference to the christian doctrine of tongues. This would have been an ideal place to make a connection.
There are a number of words Origen used in reference to language:
έτερόγλωσσον, heteroglôsson, when he described the Hebrew prophet not being able to hear because of “their different tongue,” which is simply referring to a foreign language.
Βαθύχειλος καὶ ὁ βαρύγλωσσος bathucheilos and baruglôssos, stammering lips and foreign tongue — he lifted these words from the Greek Septuagint of Ezekiel 3:5. These are once again references to foreign languages.
κουφόγλωσσοι kouphoglôssoi, vain languages. This is a unique term that I have not been able to find in any dictionary so far. The Latin parallel translation provides it as vain language, and if the greek noun is broken into two parts, κουφός, which means vain and γλωσσοι languages then one arrives at the same type of definition.
Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles
MPG. Vol. 14. Col. 829
Unfortunately there is only a small section of this ancient work available today–a fragment less than one page. It sheds a bit of light, though nothing conclusive. The history of this text is unknown, I am depending on Migne Patrologia’s ascribing it to Origen being legitimate which isn’t always the best procedure to follow, but for now it will temporarily be assumed as such. As more information comes to light on this text, this article will be updated.
It was necessary to fulfill the Scripture which the Holy Spirit foretold out of the mouth of David concerning Judah.” In which it was written in the Psalm concerning Judah. Someone might have perhaps asserted that the Holy Spirit did not speak. For the words clearly are of the Saviour speaking. “O God, pass not over my praise in silence; for the mouth of the sinner and the mouth of the crafty [man] have been opened against me: they have spoken against me with a crafty tongue.” And [proceeds] until the following; “and let another take his office of overseer.” How then, since the Saviour is the one saying these things, does Peter say, “It was necessary to fulfill the Scripture which the Holy Spirit foretold out of the mouth of David?” Perhaps then that we learn in this place such a thing. The Holy Spirit makes visitation in visible form in the prophets. And if he should personify God, God is not the one who is speaking but the Holy Spirit speaks from the character of God. If he should personify Christ, it is not Christ who is speaking but the Holy Spirit from the character of Christ speaking. Thus if even he should personify the prophet, or those people, or some one at some time he is personifying, the Holy Spirit is every character.■
This is the only existing fragment attributed* to Origen on the Book of Acts. The most important concept that can be taken from this passage is the yet undefined elements of the Trinity. The Trinity here is in an early form, almost as if Origen visualizes three gods. His concern was about choosing which one of the Trinity was being personified in speech through the prophets. There are no references to the christian doctrine of tongues here, yet, it would be a good place for it to exist.
Commentary in the Epistle to the Romans
Origen’s Commentary on the Book of Romans has its own interesting history. It was originally written in Greek but the most extant copy available today is a Latin translation provided by Rufinus of Aquileia around 405 AD — though the copy we are dealing with here seems to be much later and may include numerous interpolations and edits.
(a) Romans 1:13
Origen on the mission of Paul and his obligation to bring the Gospel to all the nations and how he accomplished it through the charism of languages.
MPG. Vol. 14. Book I:13. Col. 859ff
The following is a translation from the Latin:
It must be understood that as he who trades many pearls, comes upon a precious one, sold everything, and acquired that one, so that anyone who begins with many fruits, is destined to strive for the one perfect fruit. Now one must ask how the Apostle is under obligation to the Greeks and the non-Greeks, to the wise and the foolish ones — namely what did he learn from them that he was obligated to them? I certainly think that he had become indebted with the diverse nations because he was speaking in the languages of the nations which he received through the gift of the Holy Spirit, even as he himself said, “I speak in tongues more than you all.” Because then he did not acquire the knowledge of languages on his own account alone but for those he was about to preach, the debt is being accomplished to all these of whom he received the knowledge of many languages from God.■
Origen clearly believed that Paul was endowed of the Holy Spirit to speak in many languages so as to make the Good News an international one. However, he did not state how Paul arrived at such a blessed condition. It is not clarified whether the Holy Spirit empowered Paul learning a language by natural means through study, that he was being prepped since birth in such a vocation, or immediate revelation.
Since this is such an important point, the actual text is provided here in the original Latin:
Sciendum est quod sicut is qui margaritas negotiabatur plures, inveniens unam pretiosam, vendidit omnes, et emit illam unam ; ita quis a pluribus fructibus incipiens, ad unum perfectionis tendere debet fructum. Requirendum nunc est quomodo Apostolus Græcis et barbaris, sapientibus et insipientibus debitor est. Quid enim ab ipsis acceperat, unde eis debitor fieret ? Arbitror diversis quidem gentibus inde eum effectum esse debitorem, quod omnium gentium linquis eloqui accepit per gratiam Spiritus Sancti, sicut et ipse dicit : “Omnium vestrum magis linguis loquor. Quia ergo linguarum notitiam non pro se quis, sed pro his quibus prædicandum est accipit, debitor omnibus illis efficitur quorum accepit a Deo linguæ notitiam.
(b) Romans 6:13
This translation is based on two different editions. MPG. Vol. 14. Book VI. Col. 1100 And Origenous ta heuriskomena panta, edited by CHE Lommatzschen.
For if the Spirit of Christ lives in you, it appears necessary with the Spirit to restore his own dwelling place, and the temple being restored. Yet I wish this itself that what it is being said whether the Spirit of Christ, or the Spirit of God or Christ Himself dwelling in us, what kind should be considered: whether such Spirit is being given to everyone from the beginning, and afterwards is being put aside by the most wicked and hostile things to God, according to that which was written, “My Spirit will not remain as such in man because they are flesh” (Gen. 6:3). Cannot it be that it has been given afterwards: in life as a due reward and in faith as a grace, according to these things which are being pointed out in the Acts of the Apostles that the Holy Spirit came upon each one of them as it were as a fiery language. We certainly even teach in the Gospel when the Saviour Himself, after He resurrected from the dead before the disciples, said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, and He breathed on each one of them” (John 20:22). Whence it appears to me that this gift is collected by merit and by the upright life and being increased with each one according to the progress of faith and grace. And how much the pure soul is being rendered, the more abundantly the Spirit is going to be poured into it. He also said that, “My Spirit will not continue as such in man because they are flesh” (Gen. 6:3). One considers that point further as seeing that their soul has reneged to the singular servitude of the Spirit, [and] turned themselves backwards to the servitudes entirely of the flesh, furthermore the soul itself to which intimately joined itself to the flesh and after had become one, received the name [‘flesh’].
Now the Spirit is able to possess in diverse ways. Whether he is being possessed of the Spirit of Christ, according to that which we said above, by divine inspiration, whereby he says, “Receive the holy Spirit, and He breathed on each one of them” (John 20:22). And again in the same way which is being said carried out in the Acts of the Apostles that the apostles were speaking in diverse tongues. That way is also which is being referred in the book of Kings where the Scripture says, “And the Spirit came upon Saul and he began to prophecy”
This is yet another way that when the Savior, after the resurrection, [on] the journey spending time and explaining the Scriptures with Cleopha and another disciple, he blew into them by means of the breath of his mouth in order that they were to speak to those, “Was not our hearts burning within us when He opened to us the Scriptures?” Are you willing to know that not only while Jesus was in the process of speaking He delivered His Spirit to those ones listening, but also those who speak the word of God in His name, has he handed over the Spirit of God to those ones listening? See in the Acts of the Apostles as to how Peter is speaking to Cornelius. Cornelius himself is filled with the holy Spirit and those who were with him. From which point also if you should speak the word of God and speak faithfully from a pure conscience, nor should you be proven unworthy in your words, as if you were to teach one thing, and do another, it can happen that, by your speaking, the fire of the holy Spirit should inflame the hearts of those who have heard, that they consequently may warm up with enthusiasm and be on fire for for the purpose of entirely completing what you teach, that they may fulfill the deeds what things they have learned with words, and have sense to “seek the things above”, and “not the things upon the earth”.■
He thought the miraculous use of tongues of Pentecost to be speaking in foreign languages. He didn’t address the subject of cessation. This indicates that there was no cessationist movement or religious doctrine at that time that he needed to address. The passage shows that tongues would have been a tertiary issue to him far off his radar. Origen clearly demonstrates in the above text, and as well found in the Corinthians 49 one exhibited further down, that his main mission was the development of people with deep convictions who acted out on these beliefs. Origen wrote that as the faith of the Christian deepens, so does the manifest life, And how much the pure soul is being rendered, the more abundantly the Spirit is going to be poured into it — in other words he felt the problem of signs and wonders had more to do with the lack of pious individuals to complete the task than anything else during his time.
Origen made a parallel between tongues and prophecy. His quoting of I Samuel 10:10 “And the Spirit came upon Saul and he began to prophecy,” referred to prophecy and tongues having a similar function. This is not unique. Thomas Aquinas maintained a similar position in the 13th century. Aquinas believed tongues and interpretation to be inferior to prophecy because they were simplistic in nature — a mechanical process that had more to do with language and syntax and little to do with meaning. The office of prophecy meanwhile could do both. See Thomas Aquinas on the Doctrine of Tongues Intro for more information.
(c) Romans 7:6
The Latin can be found at: MPG. Vol. 14. Book VII:6. Col. 1119ff and Origenous ta heuriskomena panta, edited by CHE Lommatzschen Pg. 117ff.
The following translation is from: Fathers of the Church, Volume 104 : Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6-10, by Thomas P. Scheck
And he is like a teacher who accepts a student who is both a raw recruit and completely ignorant of the alphabet. In order to be able to teach and instruct him, he is forced to stoop down to the elementary attempts of the student and he himself first pronounces the name of each letter so the student learns by repeating. And in a way, the teacher himself becomes like the beginning student, saying and practicing the things that the beginner needs to say and practice. In this way as well then, when the Holy Spirit sees that our spirit is being harassed by the struggles of the flesh and does not know what or how it ought to pray, he, like the teacher, first says the prayer that our spirit, if it longs to be a pupil of the Holy Spirit, should imitate. He offers groanings by which our spirit may be taught to groan in order to re-propitiate God with itself. But if the Spirit indeed teaches, and our spirit, i.e., our mind, should by its own fault not follow, then the teacher’s lesson become unfruitful to it.
Because he knows that this mystery is being accomplished within man, Paul was also saying, “For if I speak with tongues, my spirit prays, but my mind is without fruit.” There he calls his own spirit the Holy Spirit’s grace that is given by God to men. For this reason as well, when he encourages us not to possess this benefit of the Holy Spirit unfruitfully, he goes on and says, “What then? I shall pray with the Spirit and I shall sing a psalm with my mind.”Although Paul then has indicated that these things are unutterable and are accomplished by unutterable groanings, nevertheless we have set forth to the best of our ability a graphic representation, as it were, of the things that are accomplished spiritually, which [Paul] himself offers in a hidden manner. “He who is spiritual should test everything,” and if he is able to trace out something more lofty in these matters, he should keep it to himself; for a “trustworthy man conceals matters in his spirit.” Yet those who demand from God prosperity for themselves in the present life and health or riches or honors need to be admonished that they do not know what or how to pray. For it often happens that present gains and secular honor yield the loss of the soul and its eternal reproach. And for this reason we ought instead to keep to what the Lord has taught us to say in prayer, “Thy will be done.”■
This passage, along with Romans 1:13, was cited by C.M. Robeck Jr. in The New International Bible Encyclopedia as an affirmation that Origen “viewed it as a bridge to cross-cultural preaching.” Romans 1:13, is a good argument, but here in 7:6, it is difficult to find the connection.
Origen wrote here on reading and singing the Psalms. Origen’s citation of I Corinthians 14:15 here is unusual, “What is is this then? I will pray with the spirit, I will also pray with understanding. I will speak the psalm with the spirit, I will speak the psalm with understanding.” It is slightly different than the majority of manuscripts, especially those transmitted and used in English translation which generally read,“I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also” (NASB).
This textual variation does not exist in any other Greek or Latin manuscript. One may initially think this is simply a problem of a faulty Origen manuscript. However, this same verse does occur again in another of his writings, De Principiis. This makes a strong case that it was part of Origen’s Bible which then requires a closer look.
The Latin Vulgate reads, “psallam spiritu, psallam et mente.“ The keyword is Psallam, which is translated in the Latin to English Bible by Douay-Rheims, “I will sing” Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary defines psallam as, “to play upon a stringed instrument; esp., to play upon the cithara, to sing to the cithara. …In partic., in eccl. Lat., to sing the Psalms of David.” The English translation misses out on the liturgical aspect relating to the Book of Psalms.
This forces one to make a comparison to the Greek. The Greek text of I Corinthians 14:15 reads, “ ψαλῶ τῷ πνεύματι, ψαλῶ δὲ καὶ τῷ νοΐ.” The English Bibles are unanimous in it meaning some form of singing, such as the NIV Bible, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” The key-word here is ψαλλῶ used in the future tense form ψαλῶ, psalô, which Liddell and Scott’s, A Greek-English Lexicon defines as, “mostly of the strings of musical instruments, play a stringed instrument with the fingers, and not with the plectron. …later, sing to a harp.” It refers to people playing an instrument, not the vocal chords but singing appears to be the only way to translate it.
Ψαλλῶ also sounds very similar to the name of the Book of Psalms. Is this coincidence? Or could Origen be getting mixed up with this word himself?
Psalm 138:1 shows the difficulty of this word in translation. Most English Bibles have this translated similarly to the NIV “with all my heart; before the “gods” I will sing your praise,” which doesn’t capture the nuance of the word psalô at all, but it does force an English translator of the Septuagint, L.C.L. Brenton, into some problem-solving. He translated it as, “with my whole heart; and I will sing psalms to thee before the angels.” The Hebrew text offers no further clarification but later Hebrew tradition asserts that Psalm singing was an integral part of synagogue worship. It is my opinion that Origen simply refers here to I Corinthians 14:15 as the public reading or singing of the Book of Psalms.
Commentary on Corinthians, Header 49
Translated from the Greek as found in: Claude Jenkins, “Documents; Origen on I Corinthians,” Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909). Pg. 29ff and another version found in Catenae: Graecorum Patrum in Novum Testamentum. Tomus V. J.A. Cramer. ed. Oxonii.1844. Pg. 249
Any Bible reader would get excited to find a copy of Origen on Corinthians. However, Origen has a different idea on how to approach this book. In fact, he takes it into a different direction that is not experiential at all and more into what the western mind would designate as Greek philosophy.
The concept of tongues is not appreciably found here. It is about the role of the intellect and knowledge in the Christian life. But for the readers sake, who may think there is something here that I am overlooking, a passage is included. The selection is the one that most closely aligns with anything related to the mystery of the corinthian tongues.
This Corinthian Catena, found in the Jenkin’s version and the slightly different Cramer edition, is strange in the way that it was typographically set. It took some time to figure out the reasons for what appeared at first in the Cramer edition to be misprints, but a closer look showed it was just a clumsy way of doing Bible citations. Jenkins’ attributed the manuscript he worked from around the 16th century, though the word usage is primarily preserved from a much earlier era.
An initial translation was done by me about a decade ago before the explosion of digital texts and dictionaries. The first edition that was previously posted here was a labor intensive process to find problem or little used words. On many occasions I had to find the same word used in Chrysostom’s or other early church father texts. This meant to spend additional time to read, analyze, study the context, and see if the meaning applied to Origen’s instance. This occurred on so many occasions I started to feel unsure if this text was only Origen’s account or a compilation of a few different authors. Today, after reviewing all the texts again and with the assistance of a better set of resources, this is not the case. There is a unified consistency of style and word usage throughout the majority of these works that point to a single author which is Origen.
Here is the translation:
XLIX (49) xiii 1-2 “And I will show you a way beyond excess”. “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
We seek then if whoever can have prophecy and know all the mysteries outside of love, and if it be completely given to someone that every mystery is to be known. For Paul declares, “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.” And again, “in part” he says, “we know and we prophecy in part.” When the perfect shall come, the perfect will cease to be in parts. For it is clear to him about saying these things about himself and likewise the apostles that the ability to know all the mysteries or knowledge does not exist. Therefore how does he say these things which shows acquaintance about possessing the ability to know all knowledge and all mysteries? If we should see in this instance the introduction concerning the words in which he says, “And I show you still a way beyond excess,” and apprehend what is beyond excess it is to be for all things having been clearly explained. Therefore beyond excess is, as also the Greeks have concurred, a word of emphasis exaggerating for the sake of the truth, and these [following] are to furnish by example: that they speak about certain things being whiter than snow — not that anything possibly can be whiter than snow but was spoken beyond excess And more, certain horses run like the wind — not that there is the ability to do such as this, but because of emphasis, in order that it would demonstrate the swiftness of horses, this phrase has been mentioned such about them. For another [example] in the Scripture it is being read of the Psalms concerning the sea, “They rose up to the heavens, they went down to the depths”, This very thing is impossible but that it was being spoken for the sake of emphasis. For you will also find manner written in the Law about excess where it was written, we saw “great cities fortified to heaven”. So how can this be? But it is being spoken with exaggeration, not wholly resembling [what] the very word itself signifies but that it would show the greatness of the waves or the lowness, and the greatness of the walls or whatever resemblance of such things.
Thus also now the apostle takes a hypothesis over the result of having examined attributes of gifts over attributes of love. Not that it is capable for the gifts to do this, and those of such greatness without love. Or that it is possible in this life to factually know all knowledge without love, or to have so great a faith even as to remove mountains, but it is the one who wishes to show that love is supposed to be preferred more exceedingly in the yoke than one who had spoken the word. He then says it is necessary they eagerly seek after love.
If the angels who are speaking to one another in these languages by which mankind [does] also, inasmuch concerning angels that some on the one hand perhaps are Greeks and on the other Hebrews and others Egyptians? Or is this strange about naming the realm concerning the division of angels? Whether perhaps in fact as there are many dialects with mankind, so are they in the same way also with angels? If God should have granted to us from some point in time from the essence of humanity to have been arranged onto the angelic realm, the Gospel of my Lord Jesus Christ says, they will be “like an angel and sons of God, being sons of the resurrection,” will we no longer be in need with the language of man but with the language of the angelic? As for example one language of children and the other the voice of the ones with perfect clearness, thus every language within mankind is as if a language of children, but the angelic, is as if belonging to the perfect and clear ones of men? At any rate languages also are equally there corresponding to the conformance of equanimity, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal”. For example “sounding brass” gives an unintelligible sound, likewise “the tinkling cymbal” [gives] nothing clear. Furthermore, a language and also of angels beyond excess is to be it’s independent behavior outside of love, is not understood. For nothing is clearly or manifestly produced more than men or indeed angels like love. Indeed without the presence of love, the one who speaks is nothing.
What is the difference between knowledge and the comprehending of mysteries? The apostle speaks concerning the two matters. I indeed therefore consider the pursuit to figure-out about the apparent things to be knowledge, a more encompassing essence than that of mysteries. Since knowledge is in part, the expertise of mysteries exists. Meanwhile, when one is bound to try and figure-out about unspeakable mysteries and more divine things, which this is the ability to know the mystery, as, on the one hand, that is the general word of knowledge, while on the other hand no longer since all knowledge that the mind comprehends about the mysteries is that which has been spoken, “but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory”. Since I indeed know this, then I have the knowledge of mysteries. “And if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains.” It was written in the Gospel, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” The one having faith the size of a little mustard seed, has the whole faith.■
Origen did not think that it should be interpreted literally when Paul wrote about the tongues of men and angels. He believed it to simply be a literary device known as hyperbole to get across the idea of love.
Modern readers of Origen on I Corinthians may find his coverage to be too much in lofty philosophical terms. This was not Origen’s intention at all. He was being very pragmatic relative to his time. His concern in his coverage of I Corinthians was not in the literalness of the text but a personal application; how a person can be transformed and make positive decisions for daily living. The problem tongues of Corinth was not a core issue to the Christian life and therefore was not a priority for Origen to address.
Origen spends a considerable amount of time regarding knowledge. This is very interesting but outside the scope of this article. More on the relationship between Origen and knowledge can be found here: Origen on Knowledge.
The ancient Jews also taught about the language of love and directly connected this with the Hebrew language such as found in the Jewish writing, Genesis Rabba; “What is the difference between the prophets of Israel and the prophets of the Gentiles? …He communicated with the Gentile prophets only in half speech but with the prophets of Israel He communicated in full speech, in language of love, in language of holiness, in the language wherewith the ministering Angels praise Him.” Origen first began his treatise on Angels comparing their language with the language of mankind with no intention of entering the discussion of what linguistic style defines an angelic language.
The most controversial of Origen texts relating to the doctrine of tongues is the writings found in Against Celsus.
Origen wrote this piece as a rebuttal against a well-known anti-Christian literary work published 70-80 years previous called, The True Word by an author named Celsus. Not much is known about Celsus; his original writings lost to us today, except that which can be found in Origen’s work. Against Celsus. This is the most popular work of Origen known to the Western reader, and is cited relating to the christian doctrine of tongues.
The English translation here is one found ubiquitous on the internet and in scholarly citations. Frederick Crombie is the translator and his work can be found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which is the basis for the internet editions. The publication used here is from 1872, but I found no difference in later ones.
(a) Against Celsus 3:46
And if you come to the books written after the time of Jesus, you will find that those multitudes of believers who hear the parables are, as it were, “without,” and worthy only of exoteric doctrines, while the disciples learn in private the explanation of the parables. For, privately, to His own disciples did Jesus open up all things, esteeming above the multitudes those who desired to know His wisdom. And He promises to those who believe upon Him to send them wise men and scribes, saying, “Behold, I will send unto you wise men and scribes, and some of them they shall kill and crucify.” And Paul also, in the catalogue of “charismata” bestowed by God, placed first “the word of wisdom,” and second, as being inferior to it, “the word of knowledge,” but third, and lower down, “faith.” And because he regarded “the word” as higher than miraculous powers, he for that reason places “workings of miracles” and “gifts of healings” in a lower place than the gifts of the word. And in the Acts of the Apostles Stephen bears witness to the great learning of Moses, which he had obtained wholly from ancient writings not accessible to the multitude. For he says: “And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” And therefore, with respect to his miracles, it was suspected that he wrought them perhaps, not in virtue of his professing to come from God, but by means of his Egyptian knowledge, in which he was well versed. For the king, entertaining such a suspicion, summoned the Egyptian magicians, and wise men, and enchanters, who were found to be of no avail as against the wisdom of Moses, which proved superior to all the wisdom of the Egyptians.
This passage makes it very clear where Origen’s priority was in Biblical exegesis. Wisdom and knowledge were key and provides the framework for interpretation. This was why he emphasized so much the knowledge words in Corinthians at the expense of a literal interpretation. His ranking of wisdom first in the order of importance, with faith being the third, and tongues being off the list, demonstrates again that the concept of tongues was not high on his priority list.
(b) Against Celsus 7:3
Celsus goes on to say of us: “They set no value on the oracles of the Pythian priestess, of the priests of Dodona, of Clarus, of Branchidæ, of Jupiter Ammon, and of a multitude of others; although under their guidance we may say that colonies were sent forth, and the whole world peopled. But those sayings which were uttered or not uttered in Judea, after the manner of that country, as indeed they are still delivered among the people of Phœnicia and Palestine—these they look upon as marvellous sayings, and unchangeably true.” In regard to the oracles here enumerated, we reply that it would be possible for us to gather from the writings of Aristotle and the Peripatetic school not a few things to overthrow the authority of the Pythian and the other oracles. From Epicurus also, and his followers, we could quote passages to show that even among the Greeks themselves there were some who utterly discredited the oracles which were recognised and admired throughout the whole of Greece. But let it be granted that the responses delivered by the Pythian and other oracles were not the utterances of false men who pretended to a divine inspiration; and let us see if, after all, we cannot convince any sincere inquirers that there is no necessity to attribute these oracular responses to any divinities, but that, on the other hand, they may be traced to wicked demons—to spirits which are at enmity with the human race, and which in this way wish to hinder the soul from rising upwards, from following the path of virtue, and from returning to God in sincere piety. It is said of the Pythian priestess, whose oracle seems to have been the most celebrated, that when she sat down at the mouth of the Castalian cave, the prophetic Spirit of Apollo entered her private parts; and when she was filled with it, she gave utterance to responses which are regarded with awe as divine truths. Judge by this whether that spirit does not show its profane and impure nature, by choosing to enter the soul of the prophetess not through the more becoming medium of the bodily pores which are both open and invisible, but by means of what no modest man would ever see or speak of. And this occurs not once or twice, which would be more permissible, but as often as she was believed to receive inspiration from Apollo. Moreover, it is not the part of a divine spirit to drive the prophetess into such a state of ecstasy and madness that she loses control of herself. For he who is under the influence of the Divine Spirit ought to be the first to receive the beneficial effects; and these ought not to be first enjoyed by the persons who consult the oracle about the concerns of natural or civil life, or for purposes of temporal gain or interest; and, moreover, that should be the time of clearest perception, when a person is in close intercourse with the Deity.”
The comments on this section above are combined with (c) below.
(c) Against Celsus 7:8-9
 “I do not know what led Celsus, when saying, “But what things were spoken or not spoken in the land of Judea, according to the custom of the country,” to use the words “or not spoken,” as though implying that he was incredulous, and that he suspected that those things which were written were never spoken. In fact, he is unacquainted with these times; and he does not know that those prophets who foretold the coming of Christ, predicted a multitude of other events many years beforehand. He adds, with the view of casting a slight upon the ancient prophets, that “they prophesied in the same way as we find them still doing among the inhabitants of Phœnicia and Palestine.” But he does not tell us whether he refers to persons who are of different principles from those of the Jews and Christians, or to persons whose prophecies are of the same character as those of the Jewish prophets. However it be, his statement is false, taken in either way. For never have any of those who have not embraced our faith done any thing approaching to what was done by the ancient prophets; and in more recent times, since the coming of Christ, no prophets have arisen among the Jews, who have confessedly been abandoned by the Holy Spirit on account of their impiety towards God, and towards Him of whom their prophets spoke. Moreover, the Holy Spirit gave signs of His presence at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, and after His ascension He gave still more; but since that time these signs have diminished, although there are still traces of His presence in a few who have had their souls purified by the Gospel, and their actions regulated by its influence. “For the holy Spirit of discipline will flee deceit, and remove from thoughts that are without understanding.” But as Celsus promises to give an account of the manner in which prophecies are delivered in Phœnicia and Palestine, speaking as though it were a matter with which he had a full and personal acquaintance, let us see what he has to say on the subject. First he lays it down that there are several kinds of prophecies, but he does not specify what they are; indeed, he could not do so, and the statement is a piece of pure ostentation. However, let us see what he considers the most perfect kind of prophecy among these nations. “There are many,” he says, “who, although of no name, with the greatest facility and on the slightest occasion, whether within or without temples, assume the motions and gestures of inspired persons; while others do it in cities or among armies, for the purpose of attracting attention and exciting surprise. These are accustomed to say, each for himself, ‘I am God; I am the Son of God; or, I am the Divine Spirit; I have come because the world is perishing, and you, O men, are perishing for your iniquities. But I wish to save you, and you shall see me returning again with heavenly power. Blessed is he who now does me homage. On all the rest I will send down eternal fire, both on cities and on countries. And those who know not the punishments which await them shall repent and grieve in vain; while those who are faithful to me I will preserve eternally.’” Then he goes on to say: “To these promises are added strange, fanatical, and quite unintelligible words, of which no rational person can find the meaning: for so dark are they, as to have no meaning at all; but they give occasion to every fool or impostor to apply them to suit his own purposes.”
The portion about signs becoming less used, “and after His ascension He gave still more; but since that time these signs have diminished, although there are still traces of His presence in a few who have had their souls purified by the Gospel, and their actions regulated by its influence,” indicates that he still believed in miracles, but acknowledged a decline in their occurrences. As previously stated, he posits the problem on the availability of qualified persons to do such a thing as opposed to the Holy Spirit no longer operating in this fashion anymore.
Origen felt that Celsus’ argument on the definition of prophecy, or how it was delivered, was too ambiguous. This was why he wrote: “First he lays it down that there are several kinds of prophecies, but he does not specify what they are; indeed, he could not do so, and the statement is a piece of pure ostentation.”
Against Celsus is a key-text for many scholars tracing the Christian tongues as a form of ecstatic utterance. This school of thought has established a parallel between the gift of tongues and historic Greek practices. The popular dictionary in the early 20th century, The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, wrote;
Origen, Contra Celsum vii., ix “quotes Celsus to the effect that both in and outside the sanctuaries people exhibited ecstatic phenomena and uttered unknown, unintelligible speech.”
And then concluded;
But in the passages in the New Testament under discussion it is best to take glossa in the metaphorical sense as a technical term denoting a strange and unwonted form of words. With the meaning it occurs not only in the literary moments but as employed by the common people especially in referring to phenomena which seemed supernatural or unordinary, like the utterances of the pythia, of poets, or of the muses. This could then easily be taken over by Christianity…”
Johannes Behm pointed this out as well in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament:
“Nor is there lacking a connection between Hellenistic prophecy… or Celsus description of the impulse of Christian ecstatics (Orig. Cels., 7, 8 f.), namely, after prophetic utterances, which are intelligible even though uttered with the claim to be spoken by a divine Ego.”
The ubiquitous Greek dictionary, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, also used these two chapters to make the correlation, “There is no doubt about the thing referred to, namely the broken speech of persons in religious ecstasy. The phenomenon, as found in Hellenistic religion, is described esp. by ERhode (Psyche’ 03, Eng. trans. ‘25, 289-293) and Reitzenstein; sf. Celsus 7, 8;9.”
An important omission exists in their argument — the keyword, γλωσσα-glôssa tongue, does not exist in the texts they refer to. This is an integral word in the christian doctrine of tongues and is extremely hard to make a complete argument without this.
They could argue inference or plausibility. After reviewing the quoted sections, the following snippets are what could be deduced as their evidence.
1) 7:3 “The prophetic Spirit of Apollo entered her private parts; and when she was filled with it, she gave utterance to responses which are regarded with awe as divine truths.” Utterance (ἀποφθἐγγεται) here is the same root as used in Acts 2:3.
It is not known from the text what is being uttered. Whether a foreign language, muttering, or some exalted spiritual language, is not defined.
2) 7:3 “Moreover, it is not the part of a divine spirit to drive the prophetess into such a state of ecstasy and madness.” Ecstasy (ἔκστασιν) is not found in the important Biblical tongues passages. It is used in Genesis 2:21, Numbers 13:32, Mark 5:32, Luke 5:26 (which have no correlation) and Acts 3:10. The closest reference is in Acts 3:10, the ecstasy is concerned about the response of the people to the miracles, and is typically translated as amazed or astonished. It doesn’t refer to the state of the person filled with the tongues of fire. Neither does madness (μανικην), manikên, appear in any of the Biblical texts or ecclesiastical works discussing the doctrine of tongues.
It is incorrect to assume that the word utterance or religious ecstasy automatically produces forms of unintelligible speech. For example, the eleventh century writer Michael Psellos characterized the speech of the pagan Greek prophets in ecstasy as speaking in foreign languages. Even with that knowledge Psellos strongly felt that there was no correlation with the christian doctrine of tongues.
3) The last verse of Origen’s Against Celsus 7:9 initially appears to strengthen the concept of the pythian priestess speaking in unintelligible words. This is not in the Greek. It is a problem only present in the English translation. Here is Crombie’s translation:
“Then he goes on to say: “To these promises are added strange, fanatical, and quite unintelligible words, of which no rational person can find the meaning: for so dark are they, as to have no meaning at all; but they give occasion to every fool or impostor to apply them to suit his own purposes.”
A further analysis is required. It will take a number of steps to decipher the text. The first priority is to look at the Greek text:
Ταῦτ᾽ἐπανατεινάμενοι προστιθέασιν ἐφεξῆς ἄγνωστα καὶ πάροιστρα καὶ πάντῃ ἄδηλα, ὧν τὸ μὲν γνώμα οὐδεὶς ἄν νοῦν ἔχων εὑρεῖν δύναιτο· ἀσαφῆ γὰρ καὶ τὸ μηδέν, ἀνοήτῳ δὲ ἤ γόητι παντὶ περὶ παντὸς ἀφορμὴν ἐνδίδωσιν, ὅπῃ Βούλεται, τὸ λεχθὲν σφετερίζεσθαι.
The second step is to look at the Latin translation. It is surmised that some earlier English translators depended on whatever previous Latin translation existed in order to figure out problem passages in any Greek translation. So the Latin here is offered too to see if there are any clues:
Quibus addit : magnificis promissis adjiciunt ignota, fanatica, prorsus tenebricosa, e quibus ne sapiens quidem eruere sensum possit, adeo obscura sunt et nullius sententiæ. At stupido cuique aut impostori locum dant illa ad quamcunque rem pro libitu accommodandi.
Crombie did reference the Latin for his translation and used the words promises, fanatical and impostor, and the sentence structure directly from it.
There was another influence too. One of the other features of many English translators from the 1800s was to transpose their initial translations into well-written free flowing versed English. They sometimes sacrificed literal adherence for this effect. Crombie appears to have done this as well.
With all this information at hand, a fresh translation and analysis is required based on the original Greek. Here is a new translation in contemporary English:
These, who are speaking long and wordy, continuously add unknown, crazy, and obscure things in every way, of which on the one hand, no one who has a mind possesses the ability to make sense [out of it]. For the content is enigmatic and good-for-nothing. On another note, it grants to every fool or charlatan the opportunity in the act of speaking to make it up in whatever way he pleases about anything.
The are a number of important points here;
Unintelligible words used for ἄδηλα is presumptive. Although unintelligible is part of its semantic range, it is not common. Stephanus’ Lexicon does not include unintelligible as part of its definition. I Corinthians 14:8 has ἄδηλον φωνὴν adêlon phônên, uncertain sound in reference to the sound of a trumpet. The person in the Against Celsus text is speaking obscurely to conceal the true facts. Ἄδηλος is commonly used to mean obscure, hide or be uncertain. If Origen meant unintelligible words, he would have perhaps used ἄσημον φωνήν as found in the I Corinthians Header 49 catena or ἀγνωστστατοι γλῶσσαν More evidence would be required to use unintelligible and especially unintelligible words here.
If the persons described as raving mad are in a prophetic state, it should not be assumed they spoke in undefined ecstatic utterances. It could be high priestly speech, an old dialect reserved for only the religious faithful, exalted regular language, or a foreign language. It is not described in any detail what the prophetess spoke. The immediate correlation between Christian prophecy and tongues is not demonstrated. Such an assumption from this passage cannot be made.
If anything, Origen is describing people as lunatics in their behaviour, not specifically in the speech they employ.
Origen’s central theme in most of his writings is on knowledge. The emphasis in this section are about those lacking knowledge and the consequence of it. Little else can be derived from this.
The collective information gathered so far demonstrates the references to Origen on the gift of tongues in the sourcebooks has been highly selective. The choosing of Against Celsus 7:8-9 promotes a view that parallels ancient Greek phenomena, but it neglects far weightier passages in reaching this conclusion found in his Commentary on the Book of Romans. The references from Against Celsus are not a description of Christian practice within the Christian Church. This is an elaborate assumption that cannot be substantiated.
The following which has rarely been quoted but needs coverage:
(d) Against Celsus 8:37
“In the next place, Celsus forgets that he is addressing Christians, who pray to God alone through Jesus; and mixing up other notions with theirs, he absurdly attributes them all to Christians. “If,” says he, “they who are addressed are called upon by barbarous names, they will have power, but no longer will they have any if they are addressed in Greek or Latin.” Let him, then, state plainly whom we call upon for help by barbarous names. Any one will be convinced that this is a false charge which Celsus brings against us, when he considers that Christians in prayer do not even use the precise names which divine Scripture applies to God; but the Greeks use Greek names, the Romans Latin names, and every one prays and sings praises to God as he best can, in his mother tongue. For the Lord of all the languages of the earth hears those who pray to Him in each different tongue, hearing, if I may so say, but one voice, expressing itself in different dialects. For the Most High is not as one of those who select one language, Barbarian or Greek, knowing nothing of any other, and caring nothing for those who speak in other tongues.”
It further strengthens the idea of Origen supporting the christian doctrine of tongues as speaking in foreign languages.
The above translations and commentaries provide a deep insight into Origen’s world. Origen wasn’t concerned with the doctrine of tongues and didn’t specifically teach on the subject. We find evidences of the doctrine as happenstance while he pursued building frameworks on the importance of knowledge and wisdom in the Christian daily life. When he does briefly write on the topic, he expressed it as the miraculous endowment of a foreign language. This definition explains his stance on the miracle at Pentecost, but nowhere in any presently available manuscript does he describe the problem at Corinth. There is not enough information from him to state that this practice had ceased or propagated — though it would appear Origen would attribute the problem to the lack of religious devout persons in his generation to carry on the task. Scholars that have quoted from his works to defend their positions have been too vague, especially the ones promoting the idea of tongues as a syncretism with Greek ecstatic utterances. The passages, when looked into more detail, do not support such presuppositions.■