On Passion Sunday the Anglican Breviary has begun reading from the prophet Jeremiah. I will here look at what Origen had to say about the passage we read.
Jeremiah 1 1-10
In his homily on Jeremiah 1 Origen first notes that “God is ready to do good but hesitant to punish those who deserve punishment (Hom. 1, 1).” He derives this principle by looking at other passages of Scripture such as Jonah 3-4, and Wisdom 12, 10. It is in this light that Origen reads the first few sentences of Jeremiah 1:
1The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin:
2To whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.
3It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.
From which Origen derives the following:
God sentenced Jerusalem for her sins, and those condemned were to be delivered into captivity. Nevertheless, at the appointed time, the benevolent God sends his Prophet under the third king before the Captivity so that those who wish to consider it may repent by means of the words of the Prophet. He had charged the Prophet to prophecy under the second king also after the first king, and under the third king until the times of her captivity. For the patient God was offering a respite even, so to speak, down to the day before the Captivity, urging hearers to repent so that he may prevent the misfortune of the captivity. Hence it is written, Jeremiah prophesied until the captivity of Jerusalem, until the fifth month. The Captivity begins, and still he prophesied, saying something like this: “Become captives, provided in such circumstances you can repent! For when you repent, the misfortunes of the captivity will not transpire, but God’s mercy will be realized for you.” So from the record about the times of the prophecy we have gained what is useful, that God in his own love for man encourages hearers not to endure the misfortunes of the Captivity (Hom. 1, 3,3).
The reader/hearer of this homily is to understand that he or she is Jerusalem. Origen’s reading makes the Scripture speak to the one who hears it personally. As far as Origen is concerned the recording of the times that Jeremiah prophecied are not mere information about some historical event. They are – for Origen – such events, but the relating of these events are part of Scripture and therefore are God’s words addressed to us and must therefore be pregnant with more than just historical meaning. The author is not – for Origen – the human(s) who produced the physical text, the author of all Scripture is first of all God. The original intent is therefore the divine meaning and not a human one. Origen’s reading is a Christian reading and requires the eyes of faith.
The objection that this is allegory (and therefore bad) misses the point. A historical re-construction is equally allegorical but contructed on different principles. The author’s intent is not certainly known and depends on interpretation. Perhaps we cannot even get at the authorial intent if we are to take post-modern critique seriosuly! The historical-critical readers will assume that a human author is to be sought behind the text whose mind the historical method will probe to learn the meaning of the text. Of course no actual reading of the author’s mind takes place and the outcome of the process of discerning meaning will be entirely in line with the objective standards which determine the method. The historical meaning is as objective as are the standards defining its method. The same is true for Origen. His method is as objective as are the standards he has set that determine his method – at the centre of which is the assumption that GOD is the primary author of Scripture, using human means.
The text of Jeremiah can therefore be read as addressing you and me as Jerusalem under judgment. We hear the prophetic words addressed to us. We are about to go into Babylonian Captivity because God is about to judge our sins. But God is a merciful and benevolent God and does not wish our destruction or captivity and in the words of the prophet warns us to repent. Origen will develop this theme further of which I will say more later. For now I wish to assist the user of the Anglican Breviary to read Scripture the way the Breviary teaches it and to put the Breviary’s teaching in the broader context of the earliest Christian traditions of reading Scripture.
Fr. Gregory Wassen +