W ORKS on P SYCHOLOGY and R ELIGION
The myth has persisted and is now repeated on many websites, where I saw it recently. As I've learned a little more of early Church history, and, further, have more respect for the ancient mind, I now find the suggestion much less plausible, and decided to investigate the issue. The results lead me to conclude that the allegation is false and to suggest it can be disproven to anyone who cares to consider the evidence.
Both sides--i.e., the "pro-reincarnationists" and "non-reincarnationists"--have tended to oversimplify, and, when simple arguments are insufficient, to sometimes resort name-calling, ad hominem tactics (including, in the case of some reincarnationists, conspiracy theories), and other such fallacious reasoning. It is much better to rely on scholarship in a matter like this. Such analysis is not especially short or simple, however; therefore the prudent course is to divide the problem into parts, and to tackle these one at a time.
Here we address one component: the allegation, frequently made by proponents of the reincarnationist view, that, in the works of the influential Church Father and catechist, Origen of Alexandria (185-254?), there are many quotations that imply a belief in reincarnation. In this article we shall examine some of the main quotations (or misquotations) which have been presented. It will be seen that these by no means support the claims of modern reincarnationists. Further, we shall see that Origen did not hold beliefs consistent with the contemporary view of reincarnation.
I wish to emphasize one procedural point--a positive one. This might not need mention, except for the vitriolic nature that has frequently characterized this debate, as well as similar ones of a religious nature. It is my belief that a topic like this is best pursued in a spirit of complete intellectual charity. That is, one must not resort to cheap denigration or disparagement of ones opponents or their views. Even the word "opponent" requires qualification, as it tends to connote hostility and antagonism. Technically, an opponent is merely someone with an opposite point of view, and that is how I mean it. I'm not concerned with criticizing my "opponents" here, but rather with evaluating their statements. "Speak evil of no man." When one resorts to irrational, emotional or personal arguments, it's a often sign of defensiveness, misgivings about one's own position, or being too lazy or undisciplined to form a compelling reply. It in no way follows that because an opponent has said or written something hostile or disparaging, that one should respond in like kind.
A second prefacing issue concerns the definition of reincarnation. Much disagreement on this topic derives from failure to adequately define and clarify terms. We should accordingly distinguish between three different meanings of the word, "reincarnation." These might be called (1) the Pythagorean view; (2) the modern view; and (3) the multiple-Age or multi-Age view.
It will help to consider the modern view first. This is what most people are familiar with: the idea that the soul of a person can reincarnate on earth as another person. In short, it allows that you might have been Cleopatra or Julius Caesar in a previous lifetime; and, after this life, that you might come back as someone else.
What distinguishes this from the older, Pythagorean view is that the modern view usually assumes one can only incarnate as a human being. The view associated with Pythagoras (fl. 530 BC) and his school, however, allowed that incarnation as an animal was possible. This view became increasingly unfashionable, it appears, around 2000 years ago, or perhaps a little earlier.
Origen, as stated earlier, was an influential Church Father--the most influential, perhaps, up until St. Augustine. He began his career in Alexandria, Egypt which, at the time, was a cosmopolitan melting pot brewing with religious and philosophical ideas--Christian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Neoplatonist, Egyptian, even Buddhist and Brahmanist. Now it so happens that in one of Origen's extremely numerous works, First Principles (in Latin called de Principiis and in Greek, its original language, Peri Archon), he speculatively addressed the possibility of a certain kind of reincarnation. The view considered there, however, is much different than either the Pythagorean or modern views. Origen described a model--as a technical possibility, pure conjecture and identified as such--in which the present universe as we know it is but one of many successive universes that are created and uncreated in a series of Ages or eras (aeons). By this view, a person's soul may inhabit a different body (allowing for a broad definition of body) in successive Ages. Further, the circumstances of ones "incarnation" from one Age to the next depend on ones actions in the previous life--the principle of karma, if you will. Origen rejected, however, the idea that a person might be incarnated more than once in the present Age. In the other surviving works of Origen, the subject of multi-Age reincarnation is not mentioned. Nor is it mentioned by later writers in connection with his other works. We may well believe, then, that this was something unique to the extravagant and youthful, First Principles.
Origen's view requires several remarks. We again comment that First Principles was an extremely speculative work, something Origen repeatedly emphasized. There is even some indication that it was published without his permission, having been presented in the form of lectures. Further, we may observe that, in some fundamental sense, the basic idea of a soul having different forms in different "stages" in the history of Creation, and that ones condition in one stage depends on ones previous actions, is, in itself, nothing unusual. As much is assumed by the orthodox doctrines of the Last Judgment, the General Resurrection, and places of reward, punishment or purgation in the "next life."
Further--though the doctrinal aspects of this idea are complex and the position of Christianity on the matter not completely clear--to suggest that the soul had some form of existence, if only momentary, before it's incarnation in the present body, is not intrinsically unreasonable or unusual. Therefore what is really unique to the First Principles is the idea that there may be not just these three "stages" (some undefined "pre-existence", this present world, and the age to come) but a potentially infinite or near-infinite succession of Ages before and after this one.
We do not pursue the details of Origen's multi-Age reincarnation theory here. The very extravagance and tenuousness of the idea inherently limits its interest--at least as a matter of practical spirituality. Who would presume to know or hold strong beliefs about what happens beyond this Age. Any such conjecture is by its nature so remote that we cannot have any strong convictions, and it is hardly the kind thing that lends itself to doctrine of any kind. Further--and this may perhaps be the best response--beyond this present existence who can say which of even our most basic concepts or logical categories apply? Time itself may have no meaning. Origen's theory implies a kind of horizontal journey towards God through a succession of Ages, each fundamentally like this one. But many spiritual and metaphysical models suggest the important journey is more like a vertical one through different, subtler levels or dimensions of "reality"; or inward, as in the interior castle of St Teresa of Avila.
Another reason we need not pursue the details of Origen's multi-Age reincarnation theory is because there appears no dispute about this aspect of his ideas. Despite other controversies about Origen's works, nobody seems to deny that Origen presented this theory, or that he meant it as highly speculative. Therefore, if those who say "Origen believed and/or taught reincarnation" understand reincarnation here to be this multi-Age kind, there is no disagreement and matter is basically settled. We would be left only to quibble about the distinctions between writing a speculative work--something that amounts to philsophical "science fiction"-- and having or teaching a definite belief.
The problem, however, is that some modern reincarnationists do not present Origen's view in this way. Rather, they make blanket statements to the effect that "Origen set forth the theory of reincarnation," and allow readers to interpret reincarnation here to be the ordinary modern view.
One might ask how much the distinction between the modern and multi-Age reincarnation views matters for the essence of this debate. A big difference, in fact. First, multi-Age reincarnation is not consistent with the premise that people can recall memories of previous earthly lives. Such accounts, recorded in recent popular books, seem to hold a fascination for a certain segment of the American and European population, attract them to the idea of reincarnation, and distract or divert them from the important matters of Christianity and other traditional faiths. Therefore we would certainly like to refute, if possible, the suggestion that anything Origen wrote may support these modern reincarnation ideas.
Second, an observant person will not deny that the modern reincarnation view does, for some individuals at least, invite a kind of spiritual and psychological laziness. It can be an excuse to say, "well, I haven't accomplished much in this life, and probably won't, so I might as well just relax and wait for the next one. I'll just try to make a bit of progress, stay even, or not regress too far." This robs the current lifetime of an urgency, challenge and positive potential which is found in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Even with the multi-Age reincarnation of First Principles, there is a General Resurrection and a Last Judgment at the end of this Age. If there are Ages after this one, we cannot say even remotely what they might be like. Our thoughts and plans concern this one.
This, then, is sufficient by way of introduction. Let us now proceed to specific passages attributed to Origen which are the subject of dispute. I call these "mystery quotes" because that term seems to fit, either because their true source is a mystery (i.e., they are not actually found in Origen's works), or because one must question how or why so incorrect an interpretation as has been given to them could be formulated.
The soul has neither beginning nor end. [They] come into this world
strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of their previous lives.
~falsely attributed to Origen [ Example ] [ Example ]
This quote is a good place to begin. In December, 2005, a web search showed this quote or some minor variation to be on over 200 websites in connection with early Christianity and reincarnation. I looked at scores of these, and in no case found a usable source for the quote. In some cases, the source given was De Principiis, but without the book number (the work has four books), much less the chapter and paragraph.
Since an English translation of First Principles and Origen's other major works are online, it's simple matter to search them for words or phrases contained in the quote above. I also read with special care all potentially relevant sections of First Principles and Origen's work, Against Celsus, which is the next most likely source, but could not find this passage or anything similar.
Based on this, I'm fairly confident in saying that this is not a direct quote of Origen. What it might be is a loose summary made by some modern author, and then blindly copied by others without qualification or explanation. Some evidence suggests to me that the quote might have first appeared in the book, Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology, by Head and Cranston (1968).
This kind of apparently incorrect, and, in any case, inadequately documented quote is bad for many reasons, including these:
As for the substance of the quote, it is compatible with either the modern reincarnation view or the multi-Age view. It could also be a simple statement of the view of pre-existing, bodiless souls which fall into bodies (once) in the present world. The plural "lives" in the quote is ambiguous, and, further, is given as the singular, "life" on some of the websites consulted.
Is it not rational that souls should be introduced into bodies, in
accordance with their merits and previous deeds, and that those
who have used their bodies in doing the utmost possible good should
have a right to bodies endowed with qualities superior to the bodies
~falsely attributed to Origen [ Example ]
Here is the actual passage as it appears in the works of Origen.
Or is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for
certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the
opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus
frequently names), is introduced into a body, and
introduced according to its deserts and former actions? It is probable,
therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit
by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid
prejudice, I do not say "all"), stood in need of a body not only
superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities.
~ Origen, Against Celsus 1.32 [ Source ] [ Alt. source ]
In the correct version above, underlining shows words absent from the version found on some reincarnation websites. Their removal, one sees, completely changes its meaning. Origen plainly states that he is talking about not his own opinion here, but that of Pythagoras, Plato and Empedocles.
Further, a reading of the passage in its surrounding context shows that this section of the work is not concerned with reincarnation at all, but with addressing the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. It's part of a complex counteragrument against Celsus, who had written a defamatory critique of Christianity some decades before Origen's time. Origen had been asked to refute the work, and this he did in the form of his book, Against Celsus (Latin: Contra Celsum ).
As a literary device, Celsus introduced a fictitious Jew who argued with Jesus. At one point, the Jew accuses Jesus of having fabricated the story of the Virgin Birth (Origen, Against Celsus, 1.28). The Jew then repeated a rumor being circulated in the early centuries, that Jesus was really the illegitimate child of Mary and a Roman soldier.
To this Origen suggests that human reason implies a certain justice, correspondence or appropriate matching of a person's nobility, as evidenced by their accomplishments, and the conditions of their birth. Jesus, Origen argues, taught many, courageously overturned the doctrines of his day, and eventually even died for the benefit of others (ibid., 1.30). Concerning the last point, Origen draws the analogy to Greek and barbarian beliefs that a just man may lay down his life to remove "plagues, or barrenness, or tempests, or similar calamities" (ibid. , 1.31).
Then Origen confronts Celsus with these words:
Origen, then, is trying establish a basic principle of justice or appropriateness. If the Pythagoreans have a concept of appropriateness implicit in their doctrine of transmigration, why shouldn't a similar principle apply here? That is, it is no more unusual that Jesus, because of his superior nature, evidenced in his works, should incarnate in a special body or under special conditions, than that, in the system of Pythagoreans, past deeds should determine future bodies. The point is not that the Pythagoreans are correct, but that if Celsus accepts this more general principle of appropriateness, then he should allow for the possibility of Jesus' miraculous birth.
With this example we again have the problem of someone originally posting or publishing a quote without a citation. Then it's copied from website to website with nobody checking the source or reading the original material. Further, in this case, someone evidently originally edited the quote so as to completely change its meaning, without even including ellipses ( ) to alert readers to the fact. It would be unimaginable that this was intentional, but, at the least, it's careless and negligent to a degree one might consider irresponsible.
As a side note, in this same section of Against Celsus (1.32) Origen makes an interesting remark:
The soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no
material place without having a body suited to the nature of that place.
Accordingly, it at one time puts off one body, which was necessary before,
but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it
for a second
~ falsely attributed to Origen, Against Celsus [ Example ] [ Example ] [ Example ]
Our teaching on the subject of the resurrection is not, as Celsus
imagines, derived from anything that we have heard on the doctrine
of metempsychosis; but we know that the soul, which is immaterial
and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place, without having a body
suited to the nature of that place. Accordingly, it at one time
puts off one body which was necessary before, but which is no longer
adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second; and at
another time it assumes another in addition to the former, which is needed as
a better covering, suited to the purer ethereal regions of heaven. When it comes into
the world at birth, it casts off the integuments which it needed in the womb; and
before doing this, it puts on another body suited for its life upon earth.
~ Origen, Against Celsus, 7.32 [ Source ] [ Alt. source ]
As with the previous example, the omission of key phrases serves to completely change the meaning. From the actual quote we can see that Origen is distinguishing between what he is about to say concerning Christian beliefs, and the doctrine of reincarnation (metempsychosis).
Origen begins Chapter 32 of Book 7 with:
Origen's Positive Orthodoxy
Here is a good point to mention what can be thought of as Origen's positive orthodoxy. By that I mean that Origen never sought to dispute or contradict any doctrine that was plainly established by the four gospels or the letters of St. Paul. His speculations concern only matters that are not explicitly addressed by scripture. As it was a refutation of a popular attack by Celsus against Christian beliefs, Origen's work, written not by his own initiative, but by the request of his patron, Ambrosius, sought to explain the orthodox Christian beliefs of Origen's time. To the extent that the resurrection implies a view incompatible with Pythagorean or modern reincarnation, then Origen cannot accept, much less advocate (and especially not in an apologetic work) these latter views.
Every one, therefore, of the souls descending to the earth, is strictly
following his merits, or according to the position which he formerly
occupied, is destined to be returned to this world in a different country or
among a different nation, or in a different sphere of existence on earth, or
afflicted with infirmities of another kind, or mayhap to be the children of
religious parents or of parents who are not religious: so that of course it may
sometimes happen that a Hebrew will be born among the Syrians, or an
unfortunate Egyptian may be born in Judaea.
~ Origen (dubious translation), First Principles 4.1.23 [ Example ] [ Example ]
Every one, accordingly, of those who descend to the earth is, according to his
deserts, or agreeably to the position which he occupied there, ordained to be
born in this world, in a different country, or among a different nation, or in a
different mode of life, or surrounded by infirmities of a different kind, or to
be descended from religious parents, or parents who are not religious; so that
it may sometimes happen that an Israelite descends among the Scythians, and
a poor Egyptian is brought down to Judea.
~ Origen, First Principles 4.1.23 (from the Latin) [ Source ]
This example shows how easily the meaning can be distorted with a quote taken out of context. Even a casual reading of the paragraphs leading up to this passage make it plain that, despite appearances, the topic is not reincarnation at all. The first half of Book 4 of First Principles, from which this quote is taken, is concerned with developing a method for scriptural interpretation, not metaphysics. Origen begins Book 4 with this sentence:
He elaborates this view with many examples in paragraphs 7-19. Then, in paragraphs 20-22, he considers a particular example which sets the stage for our quote. He refers to St. Paul's statement in Romans 9:6: For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel. Here is the actual passage from Romans 9:
For St. Paul here, the believing Gentiles who have attained "the righteousness which is of faith" are the true children of God's promise to Abraham: that the children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea. The point is that a Gentile who hears and believes would be a spiritual Israelite; a disbelieving Jew would not.
Origen is simply alluding to this distinction of St. Paul, and further suggesting that ones being a "spiritual Israelite" (i.e., a believing Christian) or not may result from some choice of the soul in a hypothetical pre-existence. He likens this to how ones situation in the afterlife is a "consequence of the deeds done here."
From the context, then, it is completely clear that the topic of reincarnation is not addressed by the quote. Reincarnation is not mentioned at all in Book 4. It's almost astonishing that people could miss this point so badly. Any reading, however casual, of the immediately preceding chapters would make this abundantly clear. One can only assume that those who present this quote as evidence of Origen's reincarnation views did not bother to examine Book IV of First Principles.
By some inclination toward evil, certain spirit souls come into
bodies, first of men; then, due to their association with the
irrational passions after the allotted span of human life, they are
changed into beasts, from which they sink to the level of plants.
From this condition they rise again through the same stages and are
restored to their heavenly place.
~attributed by some to Origen [ Example ] [ Example ] [ Example ]
The actual passage comes not from Origen, but Gregory of Nyssa:
For I have heard persons who hold these opinions saying that whole nations of souls are hidden
away somewhere in a realm of their own, living a life analogous to that of the embodied soul; but
such is the fineness and buoyancy of their substance that they themselves' roll round along with
the revolution of the universe; and that these souls, having individually lost their wings
through some gravitation towards evil, become embodied; first this takes place in men; and after
that, passing from a human life, owing to brutish affinities of their passions, they are reduced to
the level of brutes; and, leaving that, drop down to this insensate life of pure nature which
you have been hearing so much of; so that that inherently fine and buoyant thing that the soul is
first becomes weighted and downward tending in consequence of some vice, and so migrates to
a human body; then its reasoning powers are extinguished, and it goes on living in some brute;
and then even this gift of sensation is withdrawn, and it changes into the insensate plant life;
but after that mounts up again by the same gradations until it is restored to its place in heaven.
~ Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, 113 [ Source ] [ Alt. source ]
This quote proved the most difficult to track down. It doesn't appear in the translation of First Principles by Crombie in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (1866-1872) series. It is found, though, in one popular English translation by Butterworth (1936/1966); this is a German-to-English translation of Koetschau's German translation. Koetschau attempted a magnum opus that would reconstruct the original First Principles as it existed before Rufinus' edited Latin translation, the form in which most of the work reached us. It has been suggested that Koetschau made too liberal use of secondary sources (i.e., quoted or paraphrased passages merely attributed to Origen by later writers), and this is a case in point.
Koetschau believed there was a lacuna in the Latin at the end of Book 1, and there he inserted the passage above from Gregory of Nyssa's On the Soul and the Resurrection. Koetschau's reasons for this included that Jerome and Justinian, at different times, accused Origen of believing in Pythagorean reincarnation. However, the objectivity of Jerome and Justinian, however, in this matter, strongly colored by personal and perhaps political issues (Clark, 1992), is usually questioned.
That particular issue aside, we must evaluate the relevance of the passage on its own merits--does it accurately reflect Origen's views? We can cite at least four reasons that suggest it does not.
First, Gregory neither states or hints that he refers to Origen here. He merely mentions "persons who hold these opinions." He also calls this something he heard, but writes at least 100 years after Origen. Moore and Wilson (1893) assumed Gregory refers here to Pythagoreans and later Platonists. Therefore, concerning this passage, one is not justified in saying, "Origen said " or even "Gregory of Nyssa reports Origen as saying ". We do not know to whom Gregory is referring.
Second, even if Gregory did mean to refer to Origen here, we cannot be sure he understood the latter completely, or that this passage is anything that appeared in Origen's works.
Third, the idea that a person's soul could incarnate as an animal or plant would violate fundamental ideas of Origen about the nature of rational souls. Throughout First Principles Origen seems to suggest that the correct or incorrect use of free will determines reward or punishment in future Ages, and that this free will is exercised by a rational soul only. A soul's descent into an irrational organism would prevent it from earning the merit, through proper use of its free will, by which it might rise again. Since, in First Principles, Origen held out the technical possibility that even devil might ultimately be saved, one does not see how he could then allow that other souls to reach such an impasse.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Origen rejects the theory of reincarnation in other works. He rejects the doctrine in at least five different sections of Agains Celsus (Sections 1.20, 3.75, 4.83, 5.49, 8.30 )
These leave little room for doubt about his views. For example, in 8.30 he states, "we do not believe that souls pass from one body to another, and that they may descend so low as to enter the bodies of the brutes." If any were to suggest that all Origen meant here is to reject the Pythagorean view of reincarnation, we can find clear evidence in other works of his rejection of the modern view as well. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John (Section 6.7), Origen rejects the theory of reincarnation, giving as a specific example the alleged reincarnation of Elijah as John the Baptist:
Note how, in this second passage, Origen suggests that reincarnation is incompatible with biblical teaching concerning end times--recalling to mind our earlier comments about his positive orthodoxy and the inherent difficulties posed by any attempt to reconcile either Pythagorean or modern reincarnation theories with the resurrection of the body.
The preponderance of evidence, then, suggests that Koetschau went too far in presenting these words as Origen's. The same conclusion is reached by later scholars, notably Crouzel and Simonetti(1978) and Görgemanns and Karpp (1992).
The same websites also supply quotes from other Church Fathers to support their claims that early Christianity taught reincarnation. It's probably unnecessary to examine these others in detail, since it's really the case of Origen that makes or breaks the entire "early Christian reincarnationism" theory. Examing these other quotes one finds the same things we've seen here--edited quotations, passages taken out of context, and copying from site to site without verifying sources.
We might debate whether some Christian gnostics in the early centuries believed in reincarnation. We might further debate whether these should accurately be termed "Christian," or whether they are better described as synchrenistic religions that included some nominally Christian beliefs. Here is not the place to do so. But in no case does one find any early writer customarily associated with orthodox views arguing for reincarnation.
Based on the material presented here, perhaps some of authors who have posted the mistakenly interpreted quotes on their websites will consider removing them.
Gregory of Nyssa. On the Making of Man. Tr. William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series Two, Vol. V. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Eds. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1893.
Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection. Tr. William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series Two, Vol. V. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Eds. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1893.
Origen. On First Principles. Tr. George. W. Butterworth (English); Paul Koetschau (German). New York: Harper & Row, 1936; Harper Torchbacks, 1966. ISBN: 0844626856.
Origen, St Gregory Nazianus, St Basil of Caesarea. The Philocalia of Origen. Tr. George Lewis. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1911.
Origenes. De Principiis. Tr. Paul Koetschau. In Origenes Werke Vol. 5, Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte (GCS). Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1913.
Origenes. Vier Bücher von den Prinzipien. Tr. Herwig Görgemanns and Heinrich Karpp. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992. ISBN: 3534005937.
Prat, F. "Origen and Origenism". The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI, pp. 306 ff. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.
Online Translations of First Principles and Contra Celsus
Pro-Early Christian Reincarnation Theory Sources
de Purucker, Gottfried and Tingley, Katherine. Reincarnation. (First published in the series "H. P. Blavatsky: The Mystery" in The Theosophical Path in 1930.)
Head, Joseph & Cranston, Sylvia L. Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 1968.
MacGregor, Geddes. Reincarnation in Christianity: A New Vision of the Role of Rebirth in Christian Thought. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 1978. ISBN: 0835605019.
Oderberg, I. M. "Reincarnation as Taught by Early Christians". Sunrise Magazine: Theosophic Perspectives, Vol. 22, May 1973, p. 227.
Uebersax, John S. (2006). "Early Christianity and Reincarnation: Modern Misrepresentation of Quotes by Origen". Online article. Retrieved from http://john-uebersax.com/plato/origen1.htm on mmm dd, yyyy.