- The Modern Editions of Peri Archon
Origen, when he was around forty-five years of age, interrupted his burgeoning program of scriptural exegesis to write Peri Archon( CPG1482). 1In this work he provided a unified discussion of Christian teachings so that his readers could probe more deeply into the church’s rule of faith [End Page 303]and discriminate among conflicting scriptural interpretations that were swirling through Alexandria in the late 220s ( Princ. praef.10; 4.4.5). After completing this treatise, Origen resumed his biblical scholarship, likely viewing Peri Archonas a detour, perhaps even a necessary one, but nevertheless still a detour from his larger project of scriptural interpretation.
This treatise became far more consequential than Origen likely ever imagined. Among its many late antique readers, some drew deep inspiration from the work, others were agitated and even scandalized by its claims, but most, I suspect, vacillated between admiration and suspicion as they negotiated this pioneering tome. Peri Archonis an abundantly paradoxical work. Anchored in the firm conviction of the truth of the church’s rule, it simultaneously explores tentative proposals and leaves important questions unanswered. The treatise is patterned by a two-part structure, but it is also an untidy work, full of excurses, parentheses, and digressions. Peri Archonis, as its title announces, about “principles” (whatever Origen might have meant by these). But it is also a work in which we find narratives, such as autobiographical hints, accounts of the life of Christ, and the rudiments of an epochal story of the soul’s journey through many worlds. In its four books readers encounter lofty philosophical ruminations about the nature of God; these are juxtaposed with sobering and down-to-earth reflections about children born blind. This treatise also has a recurring polemical orientation, aimed against the followers of Valentinus, Marcion, and Basilides. But it is simultaneously apologetic, a defense of its author against accusations of heresy—sometimes the very heresies he criticized.
Peri Archonis also bitterly ironic. While the third-century Origen vigilantly expressed his own orthodoxy through this treatise, this same work eventually became the petard on which he was hoisted by his sixth-century critics. It drew the ire of bishops and an emperor because it expressed views incompatible with their orthodoxies: the subordinationism of the Son to God the Father, the pre-existence of souls, and certain views on the resurrection of body and scope of salvation. Origen would eventually be condemned at a council convened in Constantinople (553) by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, for teachings ostensibly expressed in Peri Archon. Under gathering imperial and ecclesiastical gaze—this council would eventually achieve ecumenical status— Peri Archonslowly withered in the Greek east. But this would not mark the end of its story. Origen’s [End Page 304]opponents actively suppressed the work, ensuring its patchwork survival for future generations of readers. But his many admirers, both before and after this council, drew strength from it, excerpting, translating, commenting, and transmitting large blocks of this work to subsequent generations. Medieval scribes denied Justinian the last word, for which we are grateful. This treatise has attracted and repulsed readers over its nearly 1800-year history. Peri Archonis one of the most magnificent and ambiguous treatises of the Christian tradition.