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!
Update (7th May 2021): A kind reader has supplied me with the pages from Blood and Mistletoe, and I can now obtain the references. These are on p.431:
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.
37. Such as Selden (for whom see below) and Edward Stillingfleet, Originae britannicae (London, 1685), 5.
Camden’s 1610 English version appeared under the title of: Britain, or a Chorographicall Description of the most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Ilands adjoyning, out of the depth of Antiquitie. It is not that easy to find online. A transcription here gives us the following quote:
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,…
The Origen quote is in the Sources Chrétiennes 352, p.162-5. From this it can be found on p.130 f. of the excellent 2014 text and translation by Mischa Hooker of Origen: Homilies on Ezekiel, which is online at Archive.org here. From homily 4, chapter 6:
Confitentur et miserabiles Iudaei haec de Christi praesentia praedicari, sed stulte ignorant personam, cum videant impleta quae dicta sunt. Quando enim terra Britanniae ante adventum Christi in 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 Deum Istrahel et capax est bonorum secundum fines suos.
Even the miserable Jews admit that these things are proclaimed concerning the presence of the Christ, but they foolishly disregard his person, although they see that what was said has been fulfilled. For when, before the arrival of Christ, did the land 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.
And this, of course, is the same quotation that we started with, showing that Britain did NOT worship one god until the Christians came.