Origen and “Buddhism in Britain”

An email has reached me, on an interesting topic:

I’m trying to establish the authenticity or inauthenticity of a purported quote attributed to Origen.  A brief English translation purportedly of Origen appears frequently in atheist polemic and on wikipedia. It reads as follows:

“The island (Britain) has long been predisposed to it (Christianity) through the doctrines of the Druids and Buddhists, who had already inculcated the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead”.

That’s it. Very short.  The underlying source of this purported quote is always the same, page 42 of ‘Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain’ by Donald A. Mackenzie, Blackie and Son Ltd, 1928. This page 42 can be viewed online here. MacKenzie provided no footnote. He said it was from Origen’s Commentary on Ezekiel, but did not cite a paragraph, nor even what edition he consulted.

The ‘quote’ doesn’t have the ring of truth to me, so I’ll be surprised if it is authentically Origen. Are you in a position to comment on the authenticity or otherwise of the purported quote?

I’d be suspicious too!  But the only way to find out is to go and look.

Origen did compose a Commentary on Ezechiel, in 25 books.  But it is lost, and only catena fragments survive.

What about the Homilies on Ezechiel?  I did a search for “Britain” on the English translation of these.  The word appears only in Homily 4, chapter 1:

For when, before the arrival of Christ, did the island of Britain agree together in the worship of the one God?  When did the land of the Moors [do so]?  When [did] the whole world at once [do so]?  Now, however, by virtue of the Churches that occupy the borders of the world, the whole earth shouts with joy to the God of Israel and is capable of [performing] good [actions] according to its boundaries.

So this actually states that the island of Britain was NOT worshipping a single God before the Christians.  So… back to the Commentary.  Is it in a catena fragment, I wonder?  In 1928, I would guess that the author could only be using Migne.

In PG13, there are 60 columns of Selecta in Ezechielem, col. 767 onwards.  These undoubtedly are catena fragments, from whatever works on Ezechiel the catenist used.  I intend to get these translated, but we’re not there yet.  So… a look through the Latin side for the word “Britannia”.  And… it doesn’t seem to be there.  If anyone else wants to look, the PG13 is online here.

In the same volume, fragments from the Commentary start at col. 663.  They are VERY brief.  They do not contain it either.

So … the “quote” and “reference” look like bunk.  The book is plainly not an educated one, so the author has copied from somewhere else.  But where?

There is a JSTOR article which mentions the subject, but I can’t access it.  Can anyone?  It’s here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/498371 

Searching for “Origen Britain”, I come across this 1662 text which refers to a remark in Origen about a passage in Luke 1, quoted in Homilies on Luke 6, III, 939. ed. Huet. Virtus domini salvatoris et cum his est, qui ab orbe nostro in Britannia dividuntur — The power of God our Saviour is also with those who in Britain are divided from our world.  Never trust a quote: a look at this text would be a good idea, I’m sure. These too are in PG13, col. 1801 for the homilies, and 1901 for the fragments.  Homily 6 starts in col. 1813.  And there is the quote, in col. 1816C; and the sentence continues, but no more mention of Britain.

Now into Google books.  And I come across a reference to the same idea, here (Lynn Bridgers, The American Religious Experience, 2006, p. 223).  It is that Origen tells of Buddhist missionaries in Britain.  No reference, of course!

The Dictionary of Christian Biography p.340 talks about references to Buddha in patristic texts; but no Origen on Britain.  Origen does talk about two types of Indian philosopher in Contra Celsum, somewhere.  I find this in book 1, chapter 16:

It seems, then, to be not from a love of truth, but from a spirit of hatred, that Celsus makes these statements, his object being to asperse the origin of Christianity, which is connected with Judaism. Nay, he styles the Galactophagi of Homer, and the Druids of the Gauls, and the Getae, most learned and ancient tribes, on account of the resemblance between their traditions and those of the Jews, although I know not whether any of their histories survive; but the Hebrews alone, as far as in him lies, he deprives of the honour both of antiquity and learning.

So he compares various people to the Jews; from this we presume monotheism?  Another source here says that Origen talks about Druids as monotheistic.  No reference again.

Ronald Hutton, Blood and Mistletoe: the history of the druids in Britain, p. 59 is revealing. 

The other major publication of the period to mention Druids was conceived in the year in which the first edition of the Holinshed history was published; and represented another example of the influence of continental scholarship on British attitudes. In this case the scholarship concerned was embodied in the great Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius, who visited England in 1577. He stayed with a young Westminster schoolmaster, William Camden, who was acquiring a reputation for his study of the physical remains of the British past. Ortelius was already interested in Druids, having corresponded with the Welsh historian Humphrey Llwyd over the correct identification of the island of Mona. He persuaded Camden to write a book on British antiquities which would give European scholars an enhanced sense of his nation’s importance within the ancient and early medieval worlds.33 The result was published, in Latin, in 1586, under the title of Britannia. As a work produced as a contribution to international scholarship, according to the highest standards of research, it did not make any grand claims for the Druids, or associate them with rulers such as Druiyus, Bardus and Albion. Instead it alluded briefly to them as practitioners of a heathen religion, relying firmly on ancient Roman sources.34

As the years passed, and the book went through successive, and ever enlarged, editions, Camden’s attitude to them changed. He still confined his authorities to the classical sources that represented ‘genuine’ history, but quoted these at greater length and more favourably to the Druids. The process culminated in 1610, when the final and biggest version of the book was translated into English. It had turned, after all, into a patriotic work intended primarily for a domestic market. The ancient sources on which he relied for information on Druids, especially Caesar, were quoted at length and lightly trimmed to highlight the passages that dealt with the Druids’ learning and social importance. Most impressive, he quoted two early Christian writers, Tertullian and Origen, as saying that they had predisposed the British to receive the Christian faith, by acknowledging only one god.35 Here was the claim that German and French writers had been making for them over the past hundred years, apparently anchored in real ancient texts and contextualized specifically in the Druidic homeland of Britain.

Actually, Camden only had one witness, because Tertullian merely boasted that by his time, under the later Roman Empire, even some of the (remote) British had adopted Christianity. It was Origen who apparently provided the testimony, and he did not mention Druids as such; rather, as Camden read him, he stated that the British had believed in a single god before the coming of Christ, and it could be reasonably inferred from this that the Druids had been responsible for that belief. Camden had, however, made a classic mistranslation. He had not realized that Origen had been posing a rhetorical question: that of whether, before the coming of Christ, peoples as marginal as the British and the Berbers had believed in one deity. The implied answer was clearly negative, allowing Origen to proceed to his point, which was that, by his time in the third century, Christianity had carried that message even to these far-flung regions.36 Camden’s knowledge of Greek, or that of his informant, had not been up to the understanding of the passage. Later in the seventeenth century other scholars spotted the mistake,37 but it was embedded in a work of huge popularity and influence, justly respected for the generally high quality of its erudition and research.

The preview on Google books does not allow me to check the references; but here, clearly, is the source of the story; and it is a bad story.

Can anyone access Blood and Mistletoe?  And what an excellent source this book is!

24 Responses to “Origen and “Buddhism in Britain””


  1. Colin

    Perhaps those words given in brackets in the ‘quote’ (i.e. Britain and Christianity) are editorial intrusions which would not show up in a search of an actual text of Origen. Just a thought, but I doubt how much of the ‘quote’ is credible in the first place. I have to say you’ve given us a fantastic resource here, Roger, many thanks.

  2. Ryan

    The JSTOR article consists of a short dismissive review of similar skepticism:

    BUDDHISM IN PRE-CHRISTIAN BRITAIN, by Donald A. Mackenzie. Pp. xx + 178. Blackie & Son, Ltd., London and Glasgow, 1928. The book’s thesis is contained in its title. The evidence consists chiefly of a claim by the Buddhist king Asoka of religious conquests in Europe (Macedonia, Epirus); a statement by Origen that Britain of the third century was predisposed to Christianity through the earlier doctrines of the Druids and Buddhists; the squatting figure of the Celtic god Cernunnos on certain Gaulish stones and coins and on the Gundestrupsilver bowl, of uncertain date, perhaps 100 B.c., found in Jutland. [...] This is not all of the picture, but most of the rest is background. It includes general diffusionist argument, and what the author calls “a good deal of comparative evidence.” But there is no identification by word or name, and philologists, at least will hardly be ready as yet to accept a Celto-Buddhist culture and religion for pre-Christian Britain.

  3. mondain

    Hello Roger,

    The quote to Origen’s Commentary is much earlier than 1928. It is found in an article in New Monthly Magazine vol. 12 (1819) p. 385. It cited John Graves’ The History of Cleveland (1808) p. 4, but Graves did not provide any precise citation.

  4. Ryan

    Fortunately, my preview of Blood and Mistletoe has allowed me access to the references. They are:
    33. Stuart, Piggott, ‘William Camden and the “Britannia”‘, Proceedings of the British Academy 37 (1951), 199-217.
    34. William Camden, Britannia (London, 1586), 11.
    35. Camden, Britannia, trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1610), 4, 12-14, 68, 149.
    36. Origen, Homiliae in Ezechielem, ed. Marcel Borrett (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1989), No. IV, ch. 1, lines 154-6.

    So, exactly as you have dug up, Homily 4, chapter 1.

  5. Ryan

    Missed one:
    37. Such as Selden (for whom see below [omitted in my preview]) and Edward Stillingfleet, Originae britannicae (London, 1685), 5.

  6. Dioscorus Boles

    Roger,

    Excellent work, and assistance by your readers.

    It is amazing how Origen has been misquoted by so many people from the 4th century until the modern age, often in a detrimental way to his own reputation. He is perhaps the one saint who was rendered no-saint by adulteration, mutilation or misunderstanding of his writings.

    Dioscorus Boles

  7. Roger Pearse

    Ryan: Thank you so much for filling in the gaps like this! This is really helpful. Good to know that there isn’t another Origen reference hanging around somewhere. The JSTOR article is useful too.

    Mondain: I appreciate the references. The “Commentary” is clearly being parotted down the centuries, and that must be the fingerprint for the main source of diffusion. I wonder how far back it goes? Perhaps we need to look at Camden, Britannia, trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1610), 4, 12-14, 68, 149. This must be part of Early English Books Online, if anyone has access to it.

  8. Roger Pearse

    Here is an online version, scanned rather than a PDF:

    But to this purpose maketh especially that which erewhile I alleged out of Tertullian, as also that which Origen recordeth how the Britans with one consent embraced the Faith, and made way themselves unto God by meanes of the Druidae, who alwaies did beat upon this article of beleefe, that there was but one God. And verily of great moment and importance is that with me, that Gildas, after he had mentioned the rebellion of Boodicia and treated of the revenge thereof, Meane while, quoth he, Christ, that true Sun, shining with his most glittering brightnesse upon the universall world, not from the temporall skie and firmament, but even from the highest cope of heaven, exceeding all times, vouchsaved first His beames, that is to say His precepts and doctrine in the time, as we know, of Tiberius Caesar, unto this frozen Iland full of Ice, and lying out as it were in a long tract of earth remote from the visible sunne. Chrysostome likewise (to note so much by the way) writeth of the Christian religion in this Iland as followeth, The British Islands seated without this sea, and within the very Ocean, have felt the poure of the Word (for even there also be Churches founded and altars erected), of that Word, I say, which is planted in the soules, and now also in the lips of all people. And the same Chrysostome in another place, How often have folk in Britanny fed of mans flesh? But now with fasting they refresh the soule. Likewise S. Hierome, The Britan divided from our world, if he proceed in religion, leaving the western parts toward the Suns setting, will seek Hierusalem, a City known unto him by fame only, and relation of scriptures. But now passe we forward from the Church to the Empire.

    Note that none of this relates to Buddhists; the origin of that element of the fairy-tale we have yet to see.

  9. mondain

    The 1610 edition of Camden’s Britannia is available on EEBO (pp. 4, 12-13, 14, 68, 149). Origen was quoted on p. 68, with a note on the margin giving the reference “4. upon Ezechiel”.

  10. mondain

    The earliest mentioning of “Buddhists” as I can find on Google Books is Thomas Wise, History of paganism in Caledonia, p. 204, which cited History of Cornwall by Davis as the source. It’s a note in vol. 1, p. 193, no Buddhists mentioned. The source of Davis was New Monthly Magazine (1819).

  11. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much for these links! It looks as if Wise is responsible for the Buddhists himself. It’s probably sloppiness; I notice that he mis-spells “Davies” as “Davis”, gives the name wrongly, and the page number wrongly (well done for spotting the RIGHT page!).

    I think it would be useful if we quoted the texts verbatim here.

    1. Thomas A. Wise, History of paganism in Caledonia: with an examination into the influence of Asiatic philosophy and the gradual development of Christianity in Pictavia, London (1884), p. 204:

    Origen, who wrote about A.d. 230, asks,—” When did Britain, previous to the coming of Christ, agree to worship the one God ? When did the Moors? When did the whole world?” And answers,—”Now, however, through the efforts of the Church, all men call upon the God of Israel.” (Fourth Hom, on Ezek.) From this it may be looked on as an established fact that Britain was a Christian country. In his Commentary on Ezekiel, when inquiring into the cause of the rapid progress of Christianity in Britain, he says, “The island has long been predisposed to it (i.e. to Christianity), through the doctrines of the Druids and Buddhists, who had already inculcated the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead.(2)”

    (2) Quoted by Davis, in his History of Cornwall, vol. i., p. 93.

    2. Davies Gilbert, The Parochial History of Cornwall: founded on the manuscript histories of Mr. Hals and Mr. Tonkin in four volumes. Vol. 1, London (1838), p.193 (there is no reference to Origen on p.93):

    The original manner of writing amongst the ancient Britons was by cutting the letters with a knife upon sticks, which were commonly squared, and sometimes formed with three sides. Their religious ceremonies were but few, and similar to those of the ancient Hebrews. The unity of the Supreme Being was the foundation of their religion ; and Origen, in his Commentaries of Ezekiel, inquiring into the reasons of the rapid progress of Christianity in Britain, says, “this island has long been predisposed to it by the doctrine of the Druids, which had ever taught the unity of God the Creator.” (Extracted from the Monthly Magazine and Literary Panorama for November 1819.)

  12. Roger Pearse

    Let’s also have that useful reference you found in the New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register, vol. 12, (1819) Part II, July-December, London, 12s. This from the November 1 issue (starts p.377):

    Their religious ceremonies were but few, and similar to thoseof the ancient Hebrews. The unity of the Supreme Being was the foundation of their religion ; and Origen, in his Commentaries of Ezekiel, enquiring into the reasons of the rapid progress of Christianity in Britain, says: “This island had long been predisposed to it by the doctrine of the Druids, which had ever taught the unity of God the Creator.”‡

    ‡ Grave’s History of Cleveland, p. 4. Carlisle. 1808.

    And Graves reads:

    The religious ceremonies of the druids were few, and greatly similar to those of the ancient Hebrews. The unity of the Supreme Being was the foundation of their belief; and Origen, in his Commentary upon Ezekiel, canvassing the reasons of the rapid progress of Christianity in Britain, says, that “this island had long been predisposed to it, by the doctrine of the druids, which had ever been, the unity of God the creator”.

    without reference.

    Unfortunately I have no access to the EEBO, so can’t follow the links to Camden. Can anyone do so and transcribe the sections?

  13. Roger Pearse

    One thought occurs to me; Jerome’s commentary on Ezechiel (PL 25) may draw upon the lost work of Origen (as it does for the homilies). I wonder if there is anything about Britain in that?

  14. Ryan

    Page 68 on EEBO corresponds to section 65-start of 66 on your Vision of Britain link with no or minor changes, however you can see which specific portion of text he is calling a quote from Origen: “How the Britans with one consent embraced the Faith, and made way themselves unto God by meanes of the Druidæ, who alwaies did bear upon this article of beleefe, That there was but one God” as “4. upon Ezechiel”.
    Page 4 on EEBO corresponds to sections 5-7 inclusive of “Britaine” at http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/text/chap_page.jsp?t_id=Camden&c_id=2&cpub_id=0
    Pages 12-14 correspond to sections 20-24 (though missing some Greek in the transcription).
    Page 149 corresponds to sections 10-11 of “The Normans” at http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/text/chap_page.jsp?t_id=Camden&c_id=6

  15. -kp-

    In PL 25, Jerome translates the homilies of Origen on Ezechiel and Jeremiah, yielding the following Latin citation.

    Quid [Col.0723A] necesse est dicere de Apostolis, et prophetis, cum de Domini adventu scriptum sit: Omnis terra clamat cum laetitia? Confitentur et miserabiles Judaei haec de Christi praesentia praedicari, sed stulte ignorant personam cui videant impleta quae dicta sunt. Quando enim terra Britanniae ante adventum Christi unius Dei consensit religionem? Quando terra Maurorum, quando totus semel orbis? Nunc vero propter Ecclesias, quae mundi limites tenent, universa terra cum laetitia clamat ad Dominum Israel, et capax est bonorum secundum fines suos. Statuitque fines gentium juxta numerum filiorum Israel, et facta est pax Domini populus ejus Jacob, funiculus haereditatis ejus Israel (Deut. XXXII). Capax est, inquam, ut animal juxta partium qualitates, et bonorum actuum, et [Col.0723B] malorum in quibus 918 aut laudem mereatur, aut poenam. Cum igitur dicitur: Terra, quae peccaverit mihi, ut delinquant delictum, mysterium quoddam significatur. Aliter quippe de habitatoribus, aliter de ea dicitur, quae inhabitatur: Coelum et terra pertransibunt (Matt. XXIV). Cur coelum praetergreditur, cur terra pertransit, nisi quia transitus sui quaedam digna fecerunt?

  16. Roger Pearse

    Thank you so much for this!

    The sentence on Britain is a straight translation of Origen hom.4.1 on Ezechiel, I see! No Buddha, anyway.

    I suppose we must recall that our text of Origen is a Latin one, made by Jerome from the Greek, and that Jerome did his own commentaries at great speed.

  17. Pythagoras in India? at Roger Pearse

    [...] had an comment on Origen and Buddhism which I had to disallow as too far off-topic.  But it contained an interesting assertion, which I [...]

  18. Maureen

    Sort of the opposite of the “Cormac was a monotheist when monotheism wasn’t cool” story. (Which probably is just a story, and anyway, that’s Ireland….)

  19. Maureen

    Anyway, I thought the Important Patristic Fact about Britain was St. Jerome’s diagnosis that all that porridge went to Pelagius’ head. :)

  20. Roger Pearse

    Interesting quote! Any reference in Jerome’s works for that?

  21. MRS

    I would like to try to recapitulate this fascinating blog and make sure I have understood correctly:

    Thomas A. Wise added in his 1884 book the word “Buddhists” in the sentence “The island has long been predisposed to it (i.e. to Christianity), through the doctrines of the Druids and Buddhists, who had already inculcated the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead.”

    This with reference to Davies Gilbert’s book from 1838, but that one refers back (with an intermediate publication) to Grave’s History of Cleveland from 1808.

    The sentence on Britain would be a translation of Origen hom.4.1 on Ezechiel, a text that is available from Jerome, in his Latin translation of Origen’s Greek original (which is presumably lost).

    My Latin is not so good – could someone please translate to english that Latin text posted earlier by KP ?

    And a question that remains is: why did Thomas A. Wise add the word “Buddhists” in the sentence…?
    The simple explanation could be that it suited very well his discourse. Could there still be any other reason?

  22. Roger Pearse

    It’s hard to say why words creep in. Let’s be charitable and suppose that he was writing from memory.

  23. yo

    “Anyway, I thought the Important Patristic Fact about Britain was St. Jerome’s diagnosis that all that porridge went to Pelagius’ head.”

    I think the quotation goes something like, “Pelagius came, filled with the porridge of the Scotts.” Its an obvious (yet ridiculous) racial slur. That Jerome wasn’t the nicest guy.

  24. yo

    From http://www.cushnieent.force9.co.uk/CelticEra/Nature/nature_pelagius.htm:

    “St Jerome in the prologue to his Commentary of Jeremiah refers contemptuously to Pelagius as ‘pultibus Scottorum praegravatus’ (stuffed with the porridge of the Scots) has led some to suppose that he was an Irishman, but it is known that for Jerome the word ‘Scot’ was sometimes merely a term of abuse and that he thought of Britain and Ireland alike as remote and barbarous nations.”

    And the English translation from CCEL http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vii.iv.ix.html:

    “I pay little heed to the ravings of disparaging critics who revile not only my words, but the very syllables of my words, and suppose they give evidence of some little knowledge if they discredit another man’s work, as was exemplified in that ignorant traducer who lately broke out, and thought it worth his while to censure my commentaries on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. He does not understand the rules of commenting (for he is more asleep than awake and seems utterly dazed), and is not aware that in our books we give the opinions of many different writers……The stupid fool, labouring under his load of Scotch porridge, does not recollect that we said, in that very work………”

    What lovely man that Jerome.



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