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The Canon of Origen of Alexandria

Origen was the most brilliant, prolific, and influential author of the first three centuries of Christianity. Born in 185 ce, he was raised by Christian parents in Alexandria, Egypt. Already as a child, Origen was recognized as a prodigy. While still a teenager, according to the church historian Eusebius, he was appointed to be head of the famous Catechetical School in Alexan­ dria, a kind of institution of Christian higher learning. Origen soon became the leading proto-orthodox spokesperson of his day, with extensive writings that included detailed expositions of Scripture, sermons, theological trea­ tises, defenses of the faith against its cultured despisers, and refutations of heretics. His inventive theological explorations were seen as acceptable by the proto-orthodox of his day; but he was later condemned as a heretic, largely because of the ways his views were developed by his successors. As a result of this condemnation, many of his writings were destroyed. But a good many also survive, revealing the true brilliance of Origen’s mind. None of these surviving writings provides a full listing of the books that Origen considered to belong to the New Testament canon. He does make scattered references to the canon, however, and these can help show how the canon was taking shape in the early third century in proto-orthodox circles of Alexandria. The following partial lists are drawn from Origen’s Commentaries on Matthew and John and his Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews, as these are quoted in the writings of Eusebius (see below). As can be seen, Origen accepted the four Gospels that were eventually agreed upon: the Pauline epistles (which he does not enumerate in this fragment), one letter of Peter, allowing for the possibility of a second, one letter of John and possibly two more, and the Apocalypse of John. In the final fragment given here, he addresses the problem posed by the book of Hebrews, accepting it as canonical, but expressing his opinion that Paul was not its actual author.

Translation by Bart D. Ehrman, based on the Greek text in Gustave Bardy, Euse`be de Ce´saree´, Histoire Eccle´siastique (SC, 41; Paris: Cerf, 1951).

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