A Contemporary Reference in Origen’s Homilies on the Psalms

I stumbled upon an oblique historical reference in one of the homilies today.  I was reading the Sources Chrétiennes edition of Rufinus’ translation of Origen.  While Origen was discussing the fleeting nature of “fleshly glory,” he used this example:

“Audi quid etiam Isaias de omni gloria carnali pronuntiet: Omnis – inquit – caro fenum et omnis gloria eius ut flos feni.  Vis etiam per  singula videre quomodo flos feni sit carnis gloria? Vide quis imperavit ante hos triginta annos, quomodo imperium eius effloruit: continuo autem sicut flos feni emarcuit, tunc deinde alius post ipsum, deinde alius atque alius, qui deinde duces qui principes et omnis eorum gloria, honor non solum tamquam flos emarcuit, verum etiam tamquam pulvis aridus et a vento dispersus ne vestigium quidem sui reliquit.”

“For hear what Isaiah announced concerning all carnal glory, “All flesh,” he says, “is wheat, and all its glory is as a flower of wheat.”  Do you want also to see by each how the glory of flesh is a flower of wheat? Look at who has ruled over us these prior 30 years, how his reign blossoms.  Immediately, though, as if a flower of wheat, it withers and dies, and then another reigns after him, and then another and another, and then those who are leaders and those who are princes, and all their glory.  Their honor does not only whither like a flower, but it truly, like dry dust dispersed by the wind, leaves no mark.”  (Homily I on Ps. 36, 2) (pg. 62)

The rulers here are the Roman emperors of course.  Origen spells out a period of 30 years, within which emperors appear, blossom, and die, leaving no trace.  This certainly isn’t as precise as one might hope, but the editors leave the following note (my translation from the French):

“Without doubt, this is an allusion to the thirty years which followed the flourishing reign of Septimus Severus.  The emperors succeeded one another rapidly: Caracal, Macrinus, Elagabalus, Alexander Severus, Maximinus Thrax, and his son, then various competitors, then Gordian III, and Philip the Arab.  This text allows us to place these homilies at the end of Origen’s life.” (p 64n1)

Septimus Severus’ reign ended in 211, so 30 years later would put us at 241.  That means that at least this homily was delivered between 241 and 254/255 (when Origen died).  That would place them squarely in the Caesarean period.

I found the corresponding Greek text in the recently discovered codex.  It mentions the same period of thirty years, but diverges a bit after that. 

ἄκουε τοῦ Ησαΐου διδάσκοντος σε καταφρονεῖν τῆς δόξης τῆς κοσμικῆς, καὶ πάντων τῶν κατὰ σάρκα ἡδέων, φησί γάρ, πᾶσα σάρξ, ὡς χόρτος, καὶ πᾶσα δόξα αὐτῆς, ὡς ἄνθος χόρτου. ἴδε τὴν δόξαν τῆς σαρκός, ἐβασίλευσαν πρὸ ἡμῶν πρὸ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα. ἐδοξάσθησαν, οἱονεὶ ἄνθος ἡ δόξα αὐτῶν, ἀλλ’ἐσβέσθη, ἐμαράνθη. ἄλλοί τινες ἐπλούτησαν, ἐν ἀξιώμασι γεγένηνται. περιεπάτουν πεφυσιωμένοι ἐπὶ τῇ προαγωγῇ τῶν προαγόντων αὐτούς. παρῆλθεν ἐκεῖνα, ὅτι ὡσεὶ χόρτος ταχὺ ἀποξηρανθήσονται. πᾶσα γὰρ σάρξ, χόρτος. καὶ πᾶσα δόξα αὐτῆς, ὡς ἄνθος χόρτου. ἐξηράνθη ὁ χόρτος καὶ καὶ τὸ ἄνθος ἐξέπεσεν. (folio 35, starting at line 8)

Listen to Isaiah, as he teaches you to despise wordly glory, all the pleasures of the flesh, for his says, “All flesh, is as wheat, and all its glory, is like a flower of wheat.”  Looks at the glory of the flesh: they have ruled over us for these thirty years.  They have been glorified: their glory is like a flower; but this glory was dried up and withered.  Some others were wealthy, and came upon honors.  The walked as ones puffed up because of the honor of the things which promoted them. These things passed away, and so as a flower of wheat they will wither way, for “all flesh is wheat, and all of its glory is as a flower of wheat.”  The wheat is dried up and the flower has fallen. 

The divergences here between the Greek and the Latin are interesting, and deserve more attention.  I’ll look at those more in a future post.  For now, I’ll leave this small historical reference to ponder.

ἐν αὐτῷ,


8 thoughts on “A Contemporary Reference in Origen’s Homilies on the Psalms

  1. the most interesting and important divergences appear immediately following the citation of Isaiah

    Do you want also to see by each how the glory of flesh is a flower of wheat? Look at who has ruled over us these prior 30 years, how his reign blossoms.


    Looks at the glory of the flesh: they have ruled over us for these thirty years. They have been glorified (ἐδοξάσθησαν): their glory is like a flower; but this glory was dried up and withered. Some others were wealthy, and came upon honors. The walked as ones puffed up because of the honor of the things which promoted them.

    I wonder if Origen is thinking Sirach 44:7 here:

    Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions: Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing: Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations: All these were honoured (ἐδοξάσθησαν) in their generations, and were the glory of their times.

  2. I am still stuck on the thirty year reference. I can’t help but think that Nautin is wrong here. The dates for Origen from Eusebius are problematic. Eusebius gives two different dates for the start of Demetrius’s reign as Patriarch. In my mind the most natural use of the ‘thirty year’ reference is if it applied to an individual or a dynasty. That’s why thirty used like this. It can’t be to collection of unrelated Emperors. Origen is treating either an individual or a related body of individuals as being in power thirty years. Why else mark off thirty years? Thirty years from what?

    As such the reference can only be to:

    (1) Demetrius and the bishops that supported him (see Origen’s Dialogue of Heraclides)
    (2) the Severan dynasty. The problem here is that the dates don’t easily add to thirty

    Perhaps the solution is that it marks the successors to Commodus to Elagabalus. Commodus died 192 and Elagabalus died 222. Maybe Origen didn’t know that Severus Alexander would succeed him. Otherwise the dates here are:

    Commodus end- 192
    Severus start – 193 (in Rome) 197 (Battle of Lugdunum)
    Severus end 211
    Caracalla start 211
    Caracalla end 217
    Elagabalus 218
    Elagabalus 222
    Alexander Severus 222
    Alexander Severus 235
    Maximinus Thrax 235
    Maximinus Thrax 238
    Year of Six Emperors
    Gordian III 238
    Gordian III 244

  3. another difference. the latin begins with a “he” who seems to have had progeny thus leading Nautin to suppose the he was Severus. the Greek just has “they” making his 211 + 30 supposition useless. There is no longer any firm dating possible other than the 30 years from the start of something

    1. Yeah, a succession of rulers is much more defensible in the Latin. The Greek is much more muddled (in terms historical reference anyway). Rufinus, just a bit later, departs quite a bit from Origen. He cites a different verse (both pertain to bread). But in the Greek, Paul is spiritual bread, while in the Latin Jesus is the bread. So too, Rufinus’ nice bit about the powerful leaving no mark is absent in the Greek.

      On the whole, the Latin follows the Greek. But I’ve seen some places where it departs: adding or changing what we before us in this codex.

  4. But it’s amazing to see how influential Nautin’s reconstruction of Origen’s life is based on a single tantalizing reference. Nautin turns out to be wrong or at least – there’s no reason to accept his dating any longer. We just don’t know any more. You could write a paper on this right now and it would be published in a flash. This is extremely important. Origen’s dates are as slippery as an eel. What this also shows is how all of our assumptions about second and third century Christianity are flimsy – based on one or two pieces of questionable evidence, usually second or third hand testimony. In this case just going from Greek to Latin morphed the text into something new. Imagine what happened with stuff that appears in Irenaeus and Hippolytus were they are clearly transcribing copies of copies of copies.

    For me the question of whether or God exists is far easier to answer whether or not most of our assumptions about the first three centuries of Christianity are true or not. That’s what makes it so interesting. You have to resist the temptation of believing that we ever really know anything about the disciples, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement, Origen or the rest of the ‘gang.’ They are just shadows or stars in the sky that ancients have connected into constellations by connecting the dots in a certain way. The reality is that for us at least their just stars. The same dots could be connected into a horse or ship or a flower. One piece of evidence like what you just discovered changes the whole picture.

    1. Possible, along with any other number of things I guess. I guess it could also point to client kings instead of Roman emperors, though I think the Roman princeps is the best option at this point. I frankly don’t know enough about the history of the period to judge accurately.The ἄλλοι τινες ἐπλούτησαν … πεφυσιομένοι ἐπὶ τῇ προσαγάγῃ τῶν προαγόντων αὐτούς (others became/were wealthy and walked about puffed up because of the things that promoted them) could very well point to a regime change: the new players were puffed up because of whatever it was that brought them to power, but they soon passed away too.

      The crisis of the 3rd century makes it difficult, of course, since there was plenty of unrest to deal with. Hopefully at other places in the codex we’ll find some more references to contemporary events.

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