Did Origen know about fact-changing "compositional devices"?
There is some controversy about whether the ancient Christian writer Origen (c. 185-254) should be called a "church father" or not and about whether or not he should be regarded as a heretic. I don't intend to get into all of that, and I'll call him a church father for convenience. He was certainly a well-known ancient Christian author with some very controversial views. At times Origen does harmonize the Gospels (e.g., on the one vs. two angels in Contra Celsum 2.56) But in his Commentary on John, especially in Book X, Origen expresses some rather strident statements to the effect that we should not attempt to harmonize John with the Synoptic Gospels and rather that we should take a "spiritual" view of John, considering that the authors may have somehow spoken truly on a spiritual level even if they uttered "material falsehood."
Origen is the only early church father or early Christian writer of whom I am aware who ever says anything of this kind, a point I'll return to in the next section. T. Scott Manor in his fascinating book on the alleged Alogi sect suggests that it was strong disagreement with Origen on these points that caused both Epiphanius and Eusebius in the next century to write about the harmonization of John and the Synoptics in the very places that Origen says cannot be harmonized. Epiphanius, quoted below, is particularly scathing on these points. I am inclined not to go as far as Manor as to think that the Alogi didn't actually exist but were a kind of "composite sect" used as a foil by Epiphanius, but Epiphanius's lengthy and dismissive treatment of anti-harmonistic views does seem much more representative of the church fathers than Origen's views.
Here is an sample of Origen on this topic:
Michael Licona cites Origen's words in his video on my supposed "Methodological Missteps" and says that Origen's comments on "material falsehood" mean that Origen recognized and accepted the compositional devices at issue between him and me. Licona says,
I do not condemn them if they even sometimes dealt freely with things which to the eye of history happened differently, and changed them so as to subserve the mystical aims they had in view; so as to speak of a thing which happened in a certain place, as if it had happened in another, or of what took place at a certain time, as if it had taken place at another time, and to introduce into what was spoken in a certain way some changes of their own. They proposed to speak the truth where it was possible both materially and spiritually, and where this was not possible it was their intention to prefer the spiritual to the material. The spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in the material falsehood.
It’s obvious that at least Origen had no problem with the Gospel authors using compositional devices.Notice that Licona does not say that Origen would have had no problem with the compositional devices. We could say that someone "would have had" no problem with something that didn't exist at his time. For example, we might say that some ancient author would have had no problem with text messaging, even though obviously we aren't saying that text messaging existed at that time. That Licona means that Origen actually knew of and accepted the alleged compositional devices is even clearer as he continues:
Though I cannot affirm the totality of Origen’s hermeneutical approach to Scripture...I do think it’s important to note that there is a historical precedent in the early church, much earlier than Augustine, revealing that compositional devices are not a novel and new idea posited by classicists and New Testament scholars.This is a strong statement. We should ponder how strong it is. Licona takes Origen's comments to mean that these compositional devices are not a novel idea and that these devices were known in Origen's time. Really?
Actually, Origen doesn't cite compositional devices at all. Origen gives his somewhat postmodern-sounding ideas about material falsehood as his own ideas, but he does not say that these are known devices and that readers should know about them, that they were accepted at the time that the Gospels were written, that they were rhetorically taught, or anything of the kind. In fact, this is rather striking when one thinks of it. Origen suggests this idea about truth and falsehood as something he believes, not as something that corresponds to existing, known, literary devices. Of those, he expresses no knowledge.
If you think that this is a nit-picking distinction on my part and that it's obvious that Origen is alluding to existing, known, literary devices, think again. In a question and answer period in 2016 between New Testament scholar Rob Bowman and Michael Licona himself, these views of Origen were not taken to mean that at all! Both Bowman and Licona showed an awareness of Origen's views on the Gospel of John, and Licona even cited Origen's comments about the raised saints in Matthew 27 as entering into a "spiritual Jerusalem," and despite that, he told Bowman that he did not know whether Origen was aware of compositional devices.
Questioner 3 (Rob Bowman): Mike. I do have a question. Looking at this from the other side of historical research on the Gospels, you compare the Gospel writers’ methods with that of Plutarch....Now look at this from the other side. You’ve got people like Origen and Augustine who are Christians and they are reading the Gospels. And I don’t know if you’ve addressed this in your book at all or if you have plans to address this...But I would be interested as looking at it from that perspective. Do they see these kinds of methods being used in the Gospel writers? Do they understand the apparent discrepancies as reflecting this kind of thing or do they not even have those in mind when they read the Gospels? It seems to me from what I’ve read in Origen, and again especially Augustine, when he treats apparent discrepancies in the Gospels he is very often forced either to a very laborious explanation to harmonize them or say they didn’t even really care about the details and we don’t need to care about it because it really doesn’t matter. But they don’t seem to be, as far as I can recall, and I may be wrong about this, they don’t seem to be aware of these kinds of conventions that you’re talking about being reflected in the Gospels.
Mike:...I think Augustine and Harold Lindsell would have gotten along
really well. (Laughter) Origen certainly noticed the differences. But, yeah, he took loose interpretations like, for example, Matthew’s raised saints for which, you know, I received a lot of flack over. Origen said, “Yeah. These saints were raised when Jesus died and after His resurrection they came out of their tombs and they went into the holy city.” But he says that’s not referring to Jerusalem here on Earth. This was an event that could not have been seen by the human eye. It was something that happened to the holy city Jerusalem in Heaven.” And Origen described John’s Gospel as a “spiritual Gospel.” So, we weren’t supposed to try to harmonize the differences. So, that’s the kind of approach he took. He took a different approach than say Augustine did and I think it’s a really legitimate question you ask: Did these guys recognize compositional devices? I haven’t read through all the early Church fathers. So, I can’t really answer that. (Emphasis added)
Licona and Bowman are clearly discussing here the very question of whether Origen knew about and recognized these compositional devices. Bowman says that as far as he knows Origen never mentions them. Licona indicates that he knows nothing to the contrary. Yet Licona expressly mentions Origen's "spiritual" view of John and his statement that we should not harmonize differences, which is the very thing he is now citing to mean that Origen specifically recognized compositional devices. Both Licona and Bowman appear to be acknowledging the distinction that I have just stated--between Origen’s own hermeneutical theories and his being aware of and accepting independently existing compositional devices. Neither of them thinks in that exchange that Origen’s hermeneutical practice and theory by themselves either were identical to or sufficient evidence for his recognizing the existence of such devices.
This is fairly astonishing, because now, without adducing new evidence that Origen was actually aware of known, accepted devices of the time, Licona has shifted to speaking as if Origen's hermeneutic all by itself “reveals” that such devices are not a modern invention.
In fact, as far as I know, we don’t know of any early church father, including Origen, who discussed the existence of the compositional devices that Licona and I differ on. This is a striking fact. If anything, Augustine, being extensively trained in the Greco-Roman schools of rhetoric for a career in that very field, would be expected at least to have heard of them, and the fact that he lived later than Origen (of which Licona makes much, see next section) does not change this point. Rhetorical training such as Augustine received was not narrowly time-bound by a long shot. If there is one person whom we can be pretty confident studied from rhetorical and writing exercise books such as Licona discusses, it would be Augustine. But he never shows the slightest awareness of the alleged fact-changing literary devices of time displacement, transferral, fabrication of a context, or compression, even in secular literature.
Augustine, Origen, and historical cherry-picking
When Licona sets up these matters rhetorically, he will sometimes refer in grand terms to the standards of truthfulness that I think the evangelists held themselves to as grossly anachronistic. In his introductory video, for example, he asked whether the Gospel authors would use literary conventions of their own time or “those that would not come into play until more than 1500 years later.” As an example of a loaded question, this would be hard to beat. Obviously, I'm not going to agree that simply telling the truth without changing the facts is a "literary convention," much less one that would not come into play for 1500 years after the Gospels.
Need I point out that Augustine lived considerably earlier than 1500 years after the time of Christ? Recalibrating to acknowledge that St. Augustine expected literal truthfulness in the Gospels is rather a major shift from saying that telling the truth without deliberate alteration was a mere literary convention that "would not come into play until more than 1500 years later" than the Gospels.
Licona's different implication in this video instead is that Augustine lived too late to be representative of early Christian thought and ways of reading the Gospels. He refers dismissively to Augustine's "obsession" with harmonizing and mentions repeatedly that Origen lived over a hundred years earlier, as if this is highly pertinent. Since Eusebius and Epiphanius of Salamis were similarly "obsessed" (see quotes below), perhaps we are to think that this "obsession" with literal Gospel accuracy and harmonization emerged rapidly some time between Origen and Eusebius? Wow, we're really whittling down that "1500 years"!
Licona is going to have a very hard row to hoe with patristic scholars if he means to imply that Origen’s anti-harmonistic approach was either more typical of the early church fathers than Augustine’s harmonizing or even equally typical or that Origen’s was the real ancient approach, or that Augustine’s harmonizing the Gospels was some sort of late development or part of a trend away from Origen’s truer, older understanding and toward harmonizing. And if he doesn’t mean to imply any of those things by his repeated mention of the fact that Origen lived earlier, why does he keep bringing it up? If Origen's refusal to harmonize John and the Synoptics was no more representative than Augustine's harmonistic efforts or even unrepresentative of the early church's way of approaching Gospel differences, the fact that he lived earlier is irrelevant.
Licona quotes me concerning Augustine and agrees with me that Augustine rejects dyschronological narration. Based on the segment in question in Augustine, that is beyond doubt. (See the discussion and citation in TMOM, pp. 234-236.) What Licona doesn't tell the viewer are the following two things about what I am discussing in that context: 1) Craig Keener treats Augustine as representative of how ancient readers would have read the Gospels and as giving us evidence on that point, without the slightest hesitation on the grounds of the century Augustine lived in (Commentary on John, p. 13, 518, Christobiography, pp. 141-142), but 2) Keener makes a rather significant mistake in missing the context of Augustine's statements, so that he treats him as if he is endorsing dyschronological narration, though Augustine makes it quite clear that he is talking only about achronological narration. I discuss all of this in TMOM, pp. 234-236, Chapter X, section 1.
It would be arbitrary to approach Augustine with the prior assumption (based on his position, his dating, etc.) that his views are a pretty good guide to how ancient people approached such matters just until one discovered that he actually expected literal truth in the Gospels and then abruptly to drop him as too late to be representative. Nor do I have reason to believe that Keener would engage in any such sleight of hand.
In point of fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that Origen's anti-harmonizing comments are either typical of patristic approaches or that they represent an earlier and more authentically ancient view than Augustine's. Very much to the contrary: Origen is the outlier.
Here are some examples of the literal-minded tendency of the ancient fathers: Clement of Alexandria, somewhat earlier and partly contemporary with Origen, on the days of the crucifixion in John and the Synoptics:
With this precise determination of the days both the whole Scriptures agree, and the Gospels harmonize.Tertullian (c. 155-240) on the graves opening, earthquake, etc., in Matthew 27, taking those events to be literal:
And the sun grew dark at mid-day; and when did it shudder exceedingly except at the passion of Christ, when the earth trembled to her centre, and the veil of the temple was rent, and the tombs burst asunder? (An Answer to the Jews, 13)See more quotes on this from Christopher Haun's interesting work here.
Julius Africanus (c. 160-240) harmonizing the genealogies of Jesus and emphatically rejecting the notion that the evangelists made up names and inserted them ahistorically:
Some indeed incorrectly allege that this discrepant enumeration and mixing of the names both of priestly men, as they think, and royal, was made properly, in order that Christ might be shown rightfully to be both Priest and King; as if any one disbelieved this, or had any other hope than this, that Christ is the High Priest of His Father, who presents our prayers to Him, and a supramundane King, who rules by the Spirit those whom He has delivered, a cooperator in the government of all things. And this is announced to us not by the catalogue of the tribes, nor by the mixing of the registered generations, but by the patriarchs and prophets. Let us not therefore descend to such religious trifling as to establish the kingship and priesthood of Christ by the interchanges of the names....The evangelists, therefore, would thus have spoken falsely, affirming what was not truth, but a fictitious commendation. And for this reason the one traced the pedigree of Jacob the father of Joseph from David through Solomon; the other traced that of Heli also, though in a different way, the father of Joseph, from Nathan the son of David....To no purpose, then, is this fabrication of theirs. Nor shall an assertion of this kind prevail in the Church of Christ against the exact truth, so as that a lie should be contrived for the praise and glory of Christ. For who does not know that most holy word of the apostle also, who, when he was preaching and proclaiming the resurrection of our Saviour, and confidently affirming the truth, said with great fear, If any say that Christ is not risen, and we assert and have believed this, and both hope for and preach that very thing, we are false witnesses of God, in alleging that He raised up Christ, whom He raised not up? And if he who glorifies God the Father is thus afraid lest he should seem a false witness in narrating a marvelous fact, how should not he be justly afraid, who tries to establish the truth by a false statement, preparing an untrue opinion? For if the generations are different, and trace down no genuine seed to Joseph, and if all has been stated only with the view of establishing the position of Him who was to be born—to confirm the truth, namely, that He who was to be would be king and priest, there being at the same time no proof given, but the dignity of the words being brought down to a feeble hymn,—it is evident that no praise accrues to God from that, since it is a falsehood, but rather judgment returns on him who asserts it, because he vaunts an unreality as though it were reality. (Letter to Aristides)Africanus, in other words, is very strongly opposed to any idea that historical facts do not matter. Interesting then, that he is earlier than Origen and undeniably an "ancient man." It looks like that notion of the importance of literal truth is not a mere convention that came into play only 1500 years after the Gospels were written.
Claudius Apollinaris, as part of the Quartodeciman controversy about the date of Easter, harmonizes the Gospel accounts on the date of Jesus' crucifixion, appearing to argue that Jesus died on Nisan 14 and that the Synoptics agree with John in this conclusion. (See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 443) (Bauckham, p. 158, also claims that some of the textual variations we find in the Gospels indicate the tendency of the scribes themselves to try to harmonize the wording of the Synoptic Gospels. This is a rather interesting sidelight on the importance of literal, historical truth to "ancient men.")
The apocryphal Gospel of the Ebionites, probably from the mid-second century, awkwardly (but literalistically) harmonizes the words from heaven at Jesus' baptism thus:
And as he came out of the water the heavens opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit descending under the form of a dove, and entering into him. And a voice was heard from heaven: "Thou art my beloved Son, and in thee am I well pleased." And again: "This day have I begotten thee." And suddenly shone a great light in that place. And John seeing him, said, "Who art thou, Lord"? Then a voice was heard from heaven: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."Again, the very woodenness of this combination is a testimony to the literal-mindedness of the time.
Tatian's Diatesseron, also from the second century, combines all four Gospels into a single narrative and of course is therefore called a harmony of the Gospels. Though indirect evidence, this does illustrate in its own way the harmonistic tendency of the early church. In TMOM I also have quotations from Papias on the importance of truth in the Gospel of Mark and generally in Papias's desire to make contact with eyewitnesses. (Chapter VII, section 7, pp. 128ff, Chapter VIII, section 5, pp. 147ff. See in general Chapter VI on ancient views of truth.)
I started above with Origen and moved backward in time. Moving the other direction, the famed church historian Eusebius (c. 260-349), in between Origen and Augustine, was very interested in harmonizing the early chapters of John with the Synoptics, which he did by postulating that the Synoptics omitted the earliest parts of Jesus' ministry and that John filled these in and was indeed motivated to write his Gospel partly by a desire to supplement the Synoptics. (Ecclesiastical History 3.24.7-13) Eusebius concludes:
One who understands this can no longer think that the Gospels are at variance with one another, inasmuch as the Gospel according to John contains the first acts of Christ, while the others give an account of the latter part of his life.Epiphanius of Salamis, an approximate contemporary of Augustine just a little older, spends many pages harmonizing the Gospels and speaks harshly of those who have alleged that the Gospels are in factual contradiction and cannot be harmonized:
And stupid as they [the Alogi, who challenged John’s Gospel] are, they don’t know that each evangelist was concerned to say what the others had said, in agreement with them, while at the same time revealing what they had not said, but had omitted...Because Matthew did not report the events which Luke related, can St. Matthew be at odds with the truth? Or is St. Luke not telling the truth, because he has said nothing about the first things Matthew dealt with? Didn’t God give each evangelist his own assignment, so that each of the four evangelists whose duty was to proclaim the Gospel could find what he was to do and proclaim some things in agreement and alike to show that they were the same source, but otherwise describe what another had omitted, as each received his proportionate share from the Spirit? [snip]
Again, they also accuse the holy evangelist--or rather, they accuse the Gospel itself--because, they say, “John said that the Savior kept two Passovers over a two-year period, but the other evangelists describe one Passover.” In their boorishness they fail to realize that the Gospels not only acknowledged that there are two Passovers as I have fully shown, but that they speak of two earlier Passovers, and of that other Passover on which the Savior suffered, so that there are three Passovers, over three years, from the time of Christ’s baptism and first preaching until the cross.[snip]
Sectarians like these are confounded by the truth and accuracy of the sacred scriptures, especially by the agreement of the four Gospels. No one in his right mind would reject the fully accurate account the Holy Spirit has given through the sacred Gospels. For even though they say that the evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke reported that the Savior was brought to the wilderness after his baptism, and that he spent forty days in temptation, and after the temptation heard of John’s imprisonment and went to live at Capernaum by the sea--but [then go on to say] that John is lying because he did not speak of this but straight off of the Savior’s visit to John [the Baptist]...their entire ignorance of the Gospels’ exact words will be evident. John the Evangelist indicates that, before the arrest of John the Baptist, the Lord went to him...after the days of the temptation. If John had been imprisoned, how could the Savior still return to him at the Jordan?...For John is plainly [following] the [other evangelists’] order when he says in turn that, after the Savior had performed the first miracle, gone to Capernaum and performed certain miracles there, and gone back to Nazareth and read the scroll, then finally, when John the Baptist was imprisoned, he went and lived at Capernaum for “not many days.” These are the “days” after the Epiphany, and after Christ’s journey to Capernaum and Nazareth, his pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, and his return to John...For the Gospel says, “After this he went down to Capernaum, he and his mother and his brethren, and they remained there not many days.” He was not yet referring to Jesus’ final residence [at Capernaum].... “And the Passover of the Jews was nigh,” as he says, “and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and found the sellers of oxen, sheep and doves in the temple, and the changers of money sitting.”And so forth. I note here that Epiphanius accepts the early Temple cleansing in John as utterly unproblematic, as did St. Augustine.
Again, if Licona wishes to imply that Origen's rejection of harmonization is more authentic because it is older, he will have to contend with the fact that Africanus and others who clearly take the Gospels literally and harmonize them are older still. He should also confront the fact that Origen, among the church fathers we possess, appears to be unusual (to put it mildly) among his own contemporaries in his rejection of harmonization. Whatever one may think of Epiphanius's "tone," his literal treatment of the Gospels in the fourth century seems to be solidly in line with the church's approach well before his time.
Craig Keener does often make unfortunate, broad statements to the effect that ancient people were comfortable with historical flexibility. I have argued that these are not supportable once they are made precise enough to evaluate. But he also admits that trying to harmonize was the common approach among the church fathers (Christobiography, pp. 30, 353).
All the available evidence indicates that Augustine's harmonistic approach to the Gospels is typical of that of the early church and by no means a late development. To emphasize that the outlier Origen (who also harmonized but sometimes wrote against harmonization) lived earlier than Augustine is to cherry-pick an irrelevant fact, insinuating a relevance that simply is not there, to try to make Origen's hermeneutical oddities look typical when they are anything but. It is even worse to take Origen to be alluding to independently existing literary devices, when Licona himself previously recognized that Origen's hermeneutical approach to John did not constitute a reference to such devices.
This is not good historical practice.