Did Origen record the burning of Marcionite literature?

Academic books have many failings, but usually we can rely on them for certain things.  In particular, if an author says that an ancient source says X, and gives a footnote and a quote, then we can be pretty sure that it does indeed contain those words, or something very much like it.  The readers of academic publishing tend to make sure of this.  We may not always agree as to the author’s interpretation of the text.  But it is rare that we find statements which, regardless of interpretation are simply not correct.

This week I encountered a book where a reference failed that test, and did so on the second page of the introduction, no less.[1]

This is a pity; because the statement was a truly interesting one!  Here it is:

Commenting on the biblical Book of Numbers, Origen explains the role of heretics within God’s creation, suggesting, as other Christian authors do, that the fire of biblical truth is not only able to refute heretics, but does also shine brighter if elucidated by false, heretical interpretations. While this is a somewhat metaphorical picture, Origen does mention at least one heretical author (Marcion) whose works were actually ordered to be burnt.[3] This shows that the idea of true faith burning and purifying false interpretations was close to the actual act of refuting and literally destroying heretical works, while the act of refutation itself helped to shape orthodoxy. In other words, there is no need for the refuted material to survive.

[3] Orig. hom. 9 in Num. 1 (GCS 30, Orig. 7:54–5): Ubi enim vera fides est et integra verbi Dei praedicatio, aut argentea dicuntur aut aurea, ut fulgor auri declaret fidei puritatem et argentum igni probatum eloquia examinata significet. … ista ergo batilla aerea, id est haereticorum voces si adhibeamus ad altare Dei, ubi divinus ignis est, ubi vera fidei praedicatio, melius ipsa veritas ex falsorum comparatione fulgebit. Si enim, ut verbi gratia dicam, ponam dicta Marcionis aut Basilidis aut alterius cuiuslibet haeretici et haec sermonibus veritatis ac scripturarum divinarum testimoniis velut divini altaris igne confutem, nonne evidentior eorum ex ipsa comparatione apparebit impietas? (The use of u/v in the Latin and of upper/lower case in sentence openings and proper names has been adapted for consistency throughout).

That’s fascinating, if true.  In the days of Origen, a synod ordered that Marcionite books should be burned?  Well, this I had to look into!

But immediately I was perplexed, as soon as I read the footnote.  I could see no mention in the footnote of anyone ordering books to be burned; certainly not Origen.  It’s all about bringing the heretical literature to the altar, to be examined in the light of the “divine fire”, and compared to the scriptures.  Nothing is being burned.  It’s all about the light of God.  Breaking down the reference:

Si enim, ut verbi gratia dicam,

For if, in theory,

ponam dicta Marcionis aut Basilidis aut alterius cuiuslibet haeretici

I put the sayings of Marcion or Basilides or some other heretics

et sermonibus veritatis ac scripturarum divinarum testimoniis

and with the words of truth and with the testimonies of the divine scriptures

haec confutem

refute them

velut divini altaris igne,

as if with the fire of the divine altar

nonne evidentior eorum ex ipsa comparatione apparebit impietas?

won’t the impiety of them appear more evident from that comparison?

Well, I thought, perhaps I am misunderstanding the Latin.  Fortunately the homilies on Numbers have been translated by no less than Thomas P. Scheck, and a preview is visible online here.  This allows us to see the full context.  And … it too is interesting, as we shall see.

Homily 9 begins on p.35 as follows:

Homily 9.
Numbers 17:1-28 (Heb, LXX) = 16:36-17:13 (RSV) [1]

Concerning the censers[2] of Korah[3] and the sedition of the people against Moses, and concerning the rods among which the rod of Aaron sprouted.

1.1. With God, as it is granted that he is to be understood, there is nothing that is nor beneficial, there is nothing pointless, but even the things that seem alienating to people and worthy of rejection are found to play some necessary role. Now the present reading suggests this understanding to us, which speaks of the censers of Korah and of the rest who sinned with him. For God does not command even these censers to be rejected, but to make them into “beaten plates” and “to surround the altar with them.”[4] So Scripture relates that by the command of God, “Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest took the bronze censers,” it says, “which those who had been burned had offered, and they made disks of these, and they placed them on the altar as a commemoration to the sons of Israel, so that no foreigner who is not of Aaron’s seed would approach to put incense before the Lord, lest he become as Korah and his conspiracy, just as the Lord said by the hand of Moses.”[5]

1.2. Through the prophet the Lord says manifestly in a certain passage: “My counsels are not like your counsels, nor are my thoughts like your thoughts.” [6]

If this case were judged today among men and if an examination were held among the rulers of the churches concerning those who have endured the penalty of divine vengeance, because, for instance, they teach things that are different from the churches, would it not be judged that, whatever they have said, whatever they have taught, whatever they have left behind in writing, all of it should utterly perish equally with their own ashes?

But God’s judgments are not like our judgments. For listen to how he commands the censers of those who have risen up against God’s prophet to be made into beaten plates and to be affixed around the altar.[7] Korah contains a figure of those who rise up against ecclesiastical faith and the teaching of the truth. Thus it is written of Korah and his company that they offered the incense of “strange fire” in bronze censers.[8] God commands the strange fire to be dispersed and poured out, “but the censers,” it says, “since they have been sanctified, make them into beaten plates, and surround the altar with them, since they were offered before the Lord and have been sanctified.”[9]

Well, to me what seems to be shown through this figure is that these censers, which the Scripture calls “bronze,” contain a figure of the divine Scripture. On this Scripture, the heretics place a “strange fire” by introducing a meaning and an interpretation that is estranged from God and contrary to the truth. They do not offer a sweet incense to the Lord, but a detestable kind. And therefore this example [forma] is given to the priests of the churches, that if at some time some such thing should arise, those things that are indeed alien from the truth should be immediately expelled from the church of God.

But if some things from the meanings of the divine Scripture are found inserted into the words even of heretics, let these things not be rejected equally with those things that are contrary to the truth and to the faith. For the things that are brought forth from the divine Scripture have been sanctified and offered to the Lord.[10]

1.3. Yet the command to join and associate with the altar things that come from the censers of sinners can be understood in still another way. First of all, the fact that they are called “bronze” does not seem to be superfluous. For when the faith is true and the proclamation of the word of God is whole, they are called either silver or gold. Thus the gleam of the gold declares the purity of the faith, and the “silver tested by fire” signifies “utterances that have been examined.” [11] But those that are called “bronze” consist in the mere sound of the voice, nor in the power of the Spirit, and they are, as the apostle says, like “a sounding bronze or a clashing cymbal.”[12] So if we bring these “bronze censers,” that is, the words of the heretics, to the altar of God, where there is divine fire, where the true proclamation is, the truth itself will gleam more brightly in comparison with what is false.

Let me give an example. Suppose I take the statements of Marcion[13] or Basilides[14] or any other heretic and refute them using words of the truth and testimonies from the divine Scriptures, as if I were using the fire of the divine altar. Will not their impiety appear more clearly by the very comparison? For if the reaching of the church were simple and not surrounded from without by assertions from the teachings of the heretics, our faith would not be able to seem as clear and as examined. But the reason why catholic teaching undergoes attacks from those who contradict it is so that our Faith will not grow sluggish from inactivity, but will be refined by such exercises.

1.4. This, after all, is the reason that the apostle said: “Now there must be heresies among you, in order that those who are proven [14]. This, after all, is the reason that the apostle said: “Now there must be heresies among you, in order that those who are proven may be manifested among you.”[15] This means it is necessary to surround the altar with the censers of the heretics,[16] so that the distinction between believers and unbelievers may become certain and manifest to all. For when ecclesiastical faith begins to shine like gold and her proclamation gleams before those who behold it like silver that has been tested by fire, then the words of the heretics, obscured with baseness and disgrace, will appear dim …

(I place the portions from the footnote in bold).

This confirms what I thought.  In fact it shows that Origen is taking a liberal view of the matter.

Origen is not saying that the books of the heretics have been ordered to be burned.  This is not present in the passage.

He says that if you assembled a synod, and asked if the words and writings of those like Korah who have been killed by divine vengeance should likewise be burned, then they would say “yes”.  But Origen says that God says “no”.  He says examine them by the light of the divine altar.  If you do this, and compare them to the genuine teaching, their shabbiness will become evident.  But whatever is true within them should not be rejected just because it is in bad company.

Let’s get rid of a possible canard here: that this is a matter of interpretation.

The author does not write that Origen’s words suggest that Marcionite works were burned.  That would be a possible, if dubious, interpretation of the text earlier in the homily.  But he does not say that.

The author writes simply that the works were actually ordered to be burnt.     But as we have seen, the reference definitely contains no such statement.

It’s very odd.  I think this is the first case that I have ever encountered where a book published by a highly reputable publisher contains a statement with a false footnote.  I wouldn’t blame the author, who perhaps simply had had a long day. But surely the publisher’s reader ought to have caught this?

Or … horrible thought … do the readers for academic publishers no longer understand Latin?

Whatever the reason, it is a valuable reminder that we need to verify references.

UPDATE: Dr Rohmann has kindly added a comment below to say that he did not believe that he said that the order to burn Marcionite books was contemporary with Origen.  The order he has in mind is the edict of Constantine referred to in Eusebius’ Vita Constantini III, chapter 56.

  1. [1]The work is the otherwise interesting D. Rohmann, Christianity, Book-burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, De Gruyter (2016).  I have not looked further into it at the moment.  The author is not writing in his native language, and something must be allowed for this.  I have no intention here to pillory the author, of course.  I am concerned that such a glitch was not picked up in proof.

9 thoughts on “Did Origen record the burning of Marcionite literature?

  1. As you correctly note, the sentence simply says that Origen mentions Marcion in that passage and also that the works of Marcion were ordered to be burnt, not that Origen attests that the books of Marcion were burnt. On the contrary, the context makes it very clear that Origen provides a metaphorical picture. There is also a full quote of the passage in case there is any doubt. The book has an index, which should allow to look up the reference for the statement that the works of Marcion were ordered to be burnt, without excessive cross-referencing in the footnotes.

  2. It is general practice to provide cross-references only in cases where the index might not give an easy answer, otherwise what is the point of a book index? Should I copy and paste the index or related passages over into the footnote?

    I can’t believe any reviewer would recommend that technique…

  3. Dear Dr. Rohmann,

    I see no place where Origen mentions that “the works of Marcion were ordered to be burnt.” Can you please quote the exact passage and give us your interpretation?

    I rather see Origen noting that the works of heretics (and any teaching whatsoever whether orthodox or unorthodox) must be examined under “the fire of the divine altar”, which he explicitly states as meaning an examination “using the words of truth and the testimonies from the divine Scriptures.” When this is done, true teaching will gleam like silver and gold, while false teaching will look like bronze.

    There is no statement that the works of the heretics were burned, there is no statement that the works were ordered to be burnt, and there is no statement that Origen wanted the works to be burnt or even that he wanted them to be ordered to be burnt.

    If we wrench his statements from its context, we could (incorrectly) say that Origen wanted heretical works to be burnt, but then we must also say he wanted Orthodox works to be burnt as well (for he calls both to be tested by divine fire). But even with this incorrect interpretation, there is no statement that the works of heretics were burnt and there is no statement that the works of heretics were ordered to be burnt — only that Origen wanted everything (both Orthodox and Orthodox works) to be burnt.

  4. Thank you for introducing me to this passage of Origen – and to an interesting-looking book by Dr. Rohmann!

    A thought that occurred to me in my vast ignorance, was to compare a quotation I encountered (in translation) from St. Cyril of Alexandria: “it is not necessary to flee and avoid everything which heretics say, for they confess many of the things which we confess.” (To Eulogius the Priest, Letter 44). And to wonder, is there a distinct ‘Alexandrian’ (traditional) approach manifested by both?

    An interesting question which seems to me left unresolved by Origen (as far as this passage goes) is, as to the practical dangers of things heretical insofar as they might not be promptly corrected by comparison. And that (in my vast ignorance) prompts me to a question as to methodology – who, when, and where, quoted, how extensively, from heretical works in order to refute them lucidly and thoroughly?

    Dr. Rohmann’s conclusion at the end of your quotation – “In other words, there is no need for the refuted material to survive” – is thought-provoking. As much as you later quote form Origen does not obviously tend to this, yet this need not be incompatible with it, either. Did Origen – did others – think some written heretical matter was best preserved in order clearly to refute it in accompanying writing?

  5. Thank you for the Cyril quote, which was unfamiliar to me. But of course the risk in any over-enthusiastic rebuttal is always to end up denying things which your opponent asserts purely because he asserts them.

    My mind is a blank right now after a long day but detailed anti-heretical texts exist.

    When we talk about stuff surviving, I wonder whether anybody copying thought about this. Did anyone think “If I copy this then this book will be available in the remote future”? Or “I won’t copy this so that humans in the year 2000 will not be misled”? Not copying can never have been an effective method of censorship, when any reader could be a writer, and only a single copy was needed to make more. That might work in the age of printing; not so in the manuscript age.

  6. There are a fair number of heretical texts which only survive as quotes in refutations, or which were only identified from previously known quotes that appeared in their texts.

    Tyconius’ Book of Rules and his Book of Revelation commentary are the classic example of books which survived by being extensively and approvingly quoted by orthodox writers, even if they then added some stuff about “but he’s a Donatist, and we don’t approve of that bit.” But then, Tyconius’ Biblical scholarship is not particularly Donatist — or at least, not in the works that survive.

  7. “When we talk about stuff surviving, I wonder whether anybody copying thought about this.” Horace, Odes III.30 springs to mind, but I’m not sure in how far he entertains the survival of texts, and how much the survival as a famous name.

  8. @T

    I didn’t see your comment earlier in this post because it only appeared several days later, and I only just now saw it.

    Of course, Origen does not say that the works of Marcion were ordered to be burnt.

    My paragraph in full is:

    “The assumption that book-burning was seen as a means of purification needs some clarification. Christianity had its own concepts of purification. The Bible, particularly the New Testament, is full of images emphasising the purifying force of fire; God and the faith are portrayed as fire, destroying the enemies of faith and testing the true faith as if fire tests gold and silver, and the fear of hellfire justifies any loss or drastic measure in this world.¹ The Christian author Origen gives a very interesting testimonial on the Christian idea of faith as a fire
    verifying any human interpretation on the true understanding of faith. Commenting on the biblical Book of Numbers, Origen explains the role of heretics² within God’s creation, suggesting, as other Christian authors do, that the fire of biblical truth is not only able to refute heretics, but does also shine brighter if elucidated by false, heretical interpretations. While this is a somewhat metaphorical picture, Origen does mention at least one heretical author (Marcion) whose works were actually ordered to be burnt.”

    So, I’m discussing here the metaphorical idea of fire as a means of purification. In this context, I mention Origen. I make it very clear that Origen is one of the authors whose discourses on fire are purely metaphorical. I also observe that Origen mentions Marcion and that the books of Marcion were actually ordered to be burnt. I I thought about providing a whole lot of cross-references to do with that statement, but in the end didn’t include these because the book has an index entry (Marcion) and I did not want to reproduce that index entry in full. Instead, I gave a full quotation of the passage by Origen in the footnotes. So, any reader who is in doubt about what Origen really says can just have a very quick look at the footnote (it’s not an endnote, so you don’t have to turn pages).

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