Origen on Adam and Eve

September 15, 2017

Origen, De Principiis, iv. 16 = Philocalia Origenis, p. 24. (Translation, with original text on facing side, in H. M. Gwatkin, Selections from Early Christian Writers, London 1897, pp. 136-139.)

What intelligent person would fancy, for instance, that a first, second, and third day, evening and morning, took place without sun, moon, and stars; and the first, as we call it, without even a heaven? Who would be so childish as to suppose that God after the manner of a human gardener planted a garden in Eden towards the east, and made therein a tree, visible and sensible, so that one could get the power of living by the bodily eating of its fruit with the teeth; or again, could partake of good and evil by feeding on what came from that other tree? If God is said to walk at eventide in the garden, and Adam to hide himself under the tree, I fancy that no one will question that these statements are figurative, declaring mysterious truths by the means of a seeming history, not one that took place in a bodily form. And Cain’s going forth from the presence of God, as is clear and plain to attentive minds, stirs the reader to look for the meaning of the presence of God, and of any one’s going forth from it. What need of more, when all but the dullest eyes can gather innumerable instances, in which things are recorded as having happened which did not take place in the literal sense? Nay, even the Gospels are full of sayings of the same class: as when the devil takes Jesus up into a high mountain, to show him from thence the kingdoms of the whole world and the glory of them. Who but a careless reader of such words would fail to condemn those who think that by the eye of flesh, which needed a height to bring into view what lay far down beneath, the kingdoms of Persians, and Scythians, and Indians, and Parthians, were seen, and the glory men give to their rulers? Countless cases such as this the accurate reader is able to observe, to make him agree that with the histories which literally took place other things are interwoven which did not actually happen.

Note that the above passage is cited in the Philocalia Origenis, an anthology of Origen’s writings made by Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian with the intention of defending Origen’s essential orthodoxy. Compare Gregory the Theologian, Poem 1.1.8 “On the Soul,” lines 97-111 (PG 37, 454-455):

But when the imperishable Son had formed for himself a man,
in order to have new glory, and so that, in the last days,
leaving the earth, man might journey from here to God, as god,
he neither left him at liberty, nor utterly
bound him. But he placed a law in his nature, and engraved good things
in his heart, and set him, thus, in the vales of an ever-verdant
paradise, evenly balanced, observing which direction he’d incline.
Naked he was, without the form of evil and duplicity.
And, as for paradise, it is the heavenly life, it seems to me.
So this is where he placed him, to be a farmer, cultivating his words.
He kept from him one plant, a most perfect one,
having within it a perfect discrimination between good
and evil. For what’s perfect is suited for grown-ups,
but not for beginners; since this would be as hard to take
as were some very powerful dish to infants.

When St. Gregory says here that, “as for paradise, it is the heavenly life, it seems to me” (Ζωὴ δ᾽ οὐρανίη πέλεται παράδεισος ἔμοιγε), and that Adam spent his time cultivating God’s λόγοι — i.e., contemplating the eternal forms of things (cf. orat. 38.12, PG 36.324 B: Adam was placed in paradise “to till the immortal plants, by which is meant perhaps the Divine Conceptions, both the simpler and the more perfect”) — it seems clear that the Theologian basically accepts Origen’s interpretation of Adam and the Garden, as a kind of parable and not as something to be read strictly literally.

One Response to “Origen on Adam and Eve”


  1. It might be interesting to note that St. Gregory also takes an allegorical interpretation of Jonah, in order to solve “what seems unreasonable in the story” (Orat. 2.107). I have read that St. Theophylact of Ohrid takes a similar view, but I haven’t looked at it myself and the book which said this gave no citation.

    On the other hand, St. Gregory Palamas says this (Triads, 2.3.22): “Gregory the Theologian likewise named the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ‘contemplation’. For he considered it – in his own contemplation – a symbol of that contemplation which is to raise us upward. But it does not follow that he conceives an illusion or a symbol without proper existence.” Of course, this is not Palamas’s main point in his argument, but if I recall correctly he does take the tree literally in the 150 Chapters. The patristic relationship to allegorical interpretation is varied, to say the least.


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