Did Origen deny the idea that “there was a time when the Son was not”?

I came across an interesting claim on twitter here:

Origen anticipating & contradicting the Arian heresy 10yrs before Arius was born and 80yrs before Nicaea is Fire. “He who was a son according to the flesh came from the seed of David…According to the Spirit, however, he existed first & there was never a time when he was not.” …

It’s from Origen’s commentary on Romans 1, ch.5.

Pamphilus in his Apology (ch. 50) also quotes it in the Greek from Origen’s commentary on Hebrews. (tweet link)

It would be very interesting indeed if Origen explicitly rebutted one of the main claims of Arius a century later, that “there was a time when the Son was not.”  But did he?

There is an online copy of the Commentary on Romans, in preview here (Fathers of the Church 103, p.69, tr. Thomas P. Scheck), so let’s look at it.

5. Concerning his Son.83 He who was a son according to the flesh came indeed from the seed of David. Undoubtedly, he became that which previously was not, according to the flesh. According to the Spirit, however, he existed first, and there was never a time when he was not.84 It should be noted that [M849] he did not say, “who has been predestined Son of God…

83. Rom 1.3.
84. This formulation also occurs in Fr. in Heb 1.8 (= von Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire, p. 77). The Greek formula is attributed to Origen by Pamphilus, Apology 1.3. Arius, whose teaching was condemned by the Council of Nicaea, 325, became infamous for his slogan, ἦν ποτε ὄτε οὐκ ἦν, “There was a time when he was not,” referring to the time before the Son was created. Origen’s expression clearly anticipates the Nicene and Athanasian definitions. Cf. Bigg, Christian Platonists, p. 167, “There is no shadow of a doubt that for Origen the Son is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father.” Cf. 10.8.5; 1.1.2; 1.2.9; 4.4.1.
85. Rom 1.4.

This is indeed what the text says.  The problem is that this portion of Origen’s Commentary on Romans does not exist in the original Greek, written before 250 AD.  It has reached us in Rufinus’ Latin translation, written around 400.  Rufinus was accused of attempting to rehabilitate Origen by mistranslation.  It is entirely possible that Rufinus introduced this phrasing, therefore (although I believe that these days the accusations against Rufinus are generally discounted).

How can we tell?

Well, let’s look at some of the other references.

There appears to be an error in the footnote here: Pamphilus, Apology 1.3 does not refer to these matters.  See below for this work.  But there is a problem here anyway – Pamphilus’ Apology for Origen has not reached us in Greek, but in a Latin translation by … Rufinus!  We’re back to square one.


In Hans Urs von Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire. A thematic anthology of his writings, tr. R.J.Daly, 1984, we find this passage, attributed to Origen and supposedly from his lost commentaries on Hebrews:

123. If he is the invisible “image of the invisible God” (Coll: 15), I would like to venture the further affirmation that, as the likeness of the Father, there never was a time when he was not (cf. In 1:1-3). For when did God, who according to John is called “light” (1 In 1 :5), not have the “radiance of his own glory” (cf. Heb 1 :3), so that someone could dare to set the beginning of a Son who previously did not exist? When could the WORD whom “the Father knows” (cf. Mt 11:27; In 10:15), and who is the expression of the ineffable, unnamable and unutterable essence of the Father, not have existed? For they who dare to say that there was a time when the Son was not, should consider that they will also have to say that there was a time when there was no Wisdom, a time when there was no Life. But it is not right nor, because of our weakness, without danger to take it upon ourselves to separate God from his only-begotten Son, the WORD, who is with him eternally, the Wisdom in whom he takes delight (cf. Prov 8:30). For in this way God is not even considered to be eternally happy. 1

Daly adds, “1. This fragment probably comes, not from the lost commentary on Hebrews, but from the original Greek of PA 4, 1, 1. -R.J.D.”  (Pa = peri archon, On First Principles).

In the appendix, the source for section 123 is given as “Hebr. frag 1, 8 – Cramer VII, 361-362”.

But Cramer is a collection of materials from the Greek catenas in Paris.  Unfortunately the attributions of passages in the catenas are often wrong.  So this is not really evidence either!

None of this is very satisfactory, but I thought we might look at the French edition of the Commentary on Romans, as these often have good footnotes.  In the Sources Chrétiennes edition, SC 532, p.178-179, our passage is book 1, chapter 7, and it does indeed have an interesting footnote.

1. Qui filius secundum carnem quidem ex semine factus est David. Factus est autem sine dubio id quod prius non erat secundum carnem. Secundum spiritum vero erat prius et non erat quando non erat [1]. Observandum est enim quia non dixit: …

[1] Non erat quando non erat : Ce passage est cité et commenté par Pamphile dons son Apologie pour Origène, 52 (SC 464, p. 110) : « Il ‘fut fait’ ce qu’il n était pas précédemment, car il est evident que, selon la chair, il n’était pas antérieurement; selon l’esprit, en revanche, il était précédemment et il n’y avait pas de moment où il n’était pas. » Cetre formulation se trouve déjà dans le PArch I, 29 et IV 4, 1. C’est la première expression d’une formule qui sera utilisée lors de la controverse arienne, pour réfuter l’allégation que le Fils n’est pas consubstantiel au Père.

The SC confirms that we only have the Latin of Rufinus.  But it gives us a better reference for the Apology for Origen, section 52 of the SC edition (SC464).  In fact in section 51 Pamphilus tells us that what follows is from the Commentary on Romans.

Let’s take it from the FOC translation, also by Thomas P. Scheck:

46. PAMPHILUS. We have brought forth this single testimony concerning the deity of the Son of God from those books that his accusers especially rebuke. But doubtless in his other books as well he understands things in the same sense, nor does he contradict himself.

47. Concerning the fact that the Father is not prior to the Son, but the Son is co-eternal with the Father, he says the following in the first book of his Commentary on Genesis:

48. ORIGEN [12].156 For God did not begin to be the Father later, as though he were not the Father previously, as if he were impeded for certain reasons by which mortal men are usually impeded, so that they cannot immediately also be fathers from the time when they exist. For if God is always perfect, he does not lack the power by which he is a Father, and if it is good that he is the Father of such a Son, why does it matter or why would he deprive himself of this good and not become the Father immediately, if one can say it this way, from when he is able to be the Father? The same thing should likewise be said about the Holy Spirit.

49. PAMPHILUS. There is another testimony on the same subject in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews:

50. ORIGEN [13]. How else should one understand the “eternal light” except as referring to God the Father? But he, inasmuch as he is the light, never existed at a time when his radiance was not present with him—for a light without its radiance could never be conceived, which, if it is true, then there never was a time when the Son did not exist. But he was not unborn, as we have said of the eternal light. Otherwise, we would appear to be implying two principles of light. But, as the radiance of the unborn light, he was born of that light, having that same light as origin and source; yet there was not [a time] when he did not exist.

51. PAMPHILUS. There is another testimony on the same subject in the Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans:

52. ORIGEN [14]. “Which he promised,” he says, “through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures concerning his Son, who was made according to the flesh from the seed of David”: that which previously did not exist “was made”; for it is clear that, according to the flesh, he did not previously exist; but according to the Spirit he existed previously, and there was never [a time] when he did not exist.

53. PAMPHILUS. The same thing is found in the first book of Peri archon, that the generation of the Son of God transcends any commencement: …

It’s easy to see from this why this view is attributed to Origen.  We do have the Greek of the Peri Archon, although I’m not going to look at it now.  But it’s saying, more loosely, the same thing in Pamphilus as the other sections.

But, as I remarked earlier, this is all Rufinus.  We do not have the Greek of Pamphilus’ book.


Two ancient Latin versions of the letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia

Thanks to a kind correspondent here, I have become aware that the letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia is preserved in two Latin versions.  These are given in Hans-Georg Opitz, Urkunden zur Geschichte des arianischen Streites (Documents on the history of the Arian dispute), in Athanasius Werke, III, pt. 1, 1934.  He gives an edition of the letter as “Urk. 1” (Doc. 1).  The text can be found at Archive.org here.

On the first page he lists the two Latin versions, rather gnomically as “Cand. Migne L. 8, 1035.” and “Col. Rev. Ben. 26, 93”.  His needless brevity has cost me an hour of my life, and doubtless others the same, so I thought it worth indicating where these might be found.

“Cand.” is Candidus Arianus, whose letter to Marius Victorinus quotes the letter of Arius.  “Migne L” means the Patrologia Latina, vol. 8, col. 1035, and it may be found online here.

“Col.” is manuscript 54 of the cathedral of Cologne, of the end of the 8th century.  It was published by D. de Bruyne, “Une ancienne version latine inédite d’une lettre d’Arius“, in: Revue Bénédictine 26 (1909) 93-95.  This isn’t online, so I attach it at the end.

The Candidus text in the PL is of course a pre-critical text.  But there is no question as to what it says, on col. 1037: “ante tempora et aeones plenus deus, unigenitus, et immutabilis” – “before ages and ages fully God, only-begotten and immutable”.

The Cologne ms reads:

Here’s the edition of both in Optiz:

Both say plainly “plenus deus”, fully God.

Since the De Bruyne article is out of copyright but inaccessible, I’ve uploaded it here:

My thanks to the correspondent who sent it to me!

Updated July 1 2019 to add the De Bruyne article material.




Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia: the Son is “fully God”

The Da Vinci Code has spawned a host of people who believe that the First Council of Nicaea voted on whether Jesus was God.  I tend to correct such people by pointing out that Arius himself calls the Son, “fully God”, in his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia (321 AD).  I usually include a paragraph from the translation of Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 1947, p.55 (online here), as a particularly clear statement of this:

Eusebius, your brother, Bishop of Caesarea, Theodotus, Paulinus, Athanasius, Gregory, Aetius, and all the other bishops of the East, have been condemned for saying that God existed, without beginning, before the Son; except Philogonius, Hellanicus and Macarius, men who are heretics and unlearned in the faith; some of whom say that the Son is an effluence, others a projection, others that he is co-unbegotten.

To these impieties we cannot even listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths. But what we say and think we both have taught and continue to teach; that the Son is not unbegotten, nor part of the unbegotten in any way, nor is he derived from any substance; but that by his own will and counsel he existed before times and ages fully God, only-begotten, unchangeable.

This evening I noticed that not every translation of this letter reads this way.  So I wondered just what the Greek said.

The letter is transmitted to us by Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica, book 1, chapter 5 (although in the NPNF version it is mysteriously chapter 4).  The text is edited in the GCS series, and the key passage appears on p.26-27.  In fact the key words are the very first two words on p.27.  And there are no variants!  Here’s the text:

And there it is: πλήρης θεός – pleres theos, fully God.  Pleres indeed can mean complete as well as full, as we see in LSJ.  But the idea is pretty clear.

I did wonder if there was a variant.  After all, everybody knows that Arius did not think that the Son was God in the same way as the Father.  I fully expected to see someone “correct” the text to fix what it said, to  bring it into accordance with the known views of Arius.  But the GCS does not list one.

But Theodoret is not our only source for the letter of Arius.  It is also transmitted by Epiphanius in the Panarion, 69.6.  This also was edited in the GCS series, by Holl.  On p.157 (here) we find the text as follows:

with apparatus:

Here Holl is proposing an emendation.  But the text as transmitted is still πλήρης θεός – pleres theos, fully God.

There are also two ancient Latin versions of the letter of Arius.  The first is by Candidus Arianus, which appears among the works of Marius Victorinus.  The other is found in an 8th century manuscript from Cologne Cathedral.  Both of these say “plenus deus”, “fully God”.  (I have written a separate post on these  here).

The letter was also edited by H.-G. Optiz in the Athanasius Werke III/1, as “Urkunden zur Geschichte des arianischen Streites” (= “Documents for the history of the Arian dispute”) 1934, Urk. 1 (= Doc. 1) accessible online here.  Optiz did something a little odd: he simply inserted Holl’s conjecture into the text:

With apparatus:

This refers to Holl, and to John 1:14

14 Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας· (SBL)

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV)

But there seems no pressing reason to introduce this into the text as transmitted.

The NPNF translator rendered πλήρης θεός as “perfect God”, doubtless thinking of the Latin “perfectus”, completed.

However the translation at the excellent Fourth Century site here is different: it follows Optiz.

(4.) We are not able to listen to these kinds of impieties, even if the heretics threaten us with ten thousand deaths.  But what do we say and think and what have we previously taught and do we presently teach?  — that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of an unbegotten entity in any way, nor from anything in existence, but that he is subsisting in will and intention before time and before the ages, full <of grace and truth,> God, the only-begotten, unchangeable.

The translation is in fact that of R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 1988, as they make plain.  Hanson page 6:

Which is what Optiz give us.

All the same, we have to work with what Theodoret and Epiphanius and the Latin witnesses record, and what Arius wrote.  The old heretic definitely wrote “fully God”.  What he actually meant by this, of course, was the subject of the Arian disputes.  But he did not believe that the Son was not God.

Note: My sincere thanks to A. von Stockhausen for telling me about Epiphanius and the Optiz text in the comments below, with the very useful links.  I have revised this post to include this very valuable information.


Did St Nicholas of Myra / Santa Claus punch Arius at the Council of Nicaea?

In many places online we can find the statement that St Nicholas of Myra – the basis for Santa Claus – was present at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where he punched Arius in the mouth.  So … is it true?

Unfortunately we have almost no historical information at all about any St Nicholas of Myra – our information is entirely based on Saint’s Lives of him, of which the earliest are 9th century, and the latest are modern compilations based on medieval collections.  All these Lives are really closer to folk-tales than to history, and they reflect the accumulations of popular legends.  Some of them do have Nicholas attending the Council of Nicaea; but they do not contain the story of Nicholas punching Arius.

The main collection of source materials about Nicholas is by Gustav Anrich,[1] and in this I found what I suspect is the answer.

Before I look at the data, let’s summarise what it says.  Sometime in the middle ages, the story about his attendance at Nicaea was “improved” to show him slapping “an Arian”.  Over time, this turned into a story about him slapping Arius himself.  The story is now a standard item in Greek Orthodox tradition, and is embedded in their handbook of icon-painting.

On to the data.

In Anrich volume 1, p.459, in the section devoted to testimonia, there is an extract from a Latin text (!) by a certain Petrus de Natalibus, a Venetian.  Petrus in 1370 was bishop of Equilio (Jesolo) near Venice, and died around 1400.  The text of his work reads:

Fertur beatum Nicolaum jam senem Nicaeno concilio interfuisse et quemdam Arrianum zelo fidei in maxillam percussisse ob idque a concilio mitra et pallio privatum extitisse; propter quod ut plurimum sine mitra depingitur.  Sed dum aliquando missam beatae virginis, cujus erat devotus, in pontificalibus celebraret et privationem mitrae et pallii defleret quasi zelo nimio fidei ablata: ecce, cunctis videntibus, duo angeli eidem astiterunt, quorum unus mitram, alius pallium sibi divinitus restituerunt.   Et extunc insignia reassumpsit sibi caelitus restituta.[2]

It happened that saint Nicholas, now an old man, was present at the Council of Nicaea,  and out of jealousy of faith struck a certain Arian in the jaw, on account of which it is recorded that he was deprived of his mitre and pallium; on account of which he is often depicted without a mitre.  …[3]

This tells us that the story had arisen by whenever Petrus wrote these words – it is really difficult to find much about him! -, and was known in the West, or at least in Venice.  So it probably had existed for some time at that point.  But at this point it is not Arius himself – only “a certain Arian”.

The next piece of data is an extract from a biography by an obscure Damaskenos Monachus, written in the second half of the 16th century.  Apparently he lived in the second half of the 16th century, and may (or may not) be identical with the man of that name who was Bishop of Liti and Rendini in 1564; and Metropolitan of Naupaktos and Arta in 1570.  He composed a biography of St Nicholas of Myra, based on earlier accounts, which he included in his Thesaurus.  The oldest edition of his work was printed in Venice in 1570.  Anrich obtained this information from E. Legrand, Bibliographie hellenique II (1885), p.12 f., which contains little more than you have above.[4]

Anrich states that the Vita of Damaskenos is a vulgarisation of the Vita by Simon Metaphrastes, who created the standard Greek hagiographical texts in the 11th century.  I don’t know if any edition of Damaskinos can be found online?

Anrich gives the Greek of the extract.  Yesterday I posted this, and an appeal for a translation.  A kind corrrespondent obliged:

Damascenos the Monk:  Life of saint Nicholas the wonder-worker:  Large collection of lives of saints, or “Great Book of Saints” by Const. Chr. Doukakis.   Athens, 20 December, 1896, pages 171-190.

10.  p.179-180.  After the king seated himself on the throne, one hundred and fifty nine fathers seated themselves at either side of him, both they and Arius arguing with much unease.  Saint Nicholas, noticing that Arius was about to quash all the archpriests and moved by divine zeal, rose up and gave him a slap that shook all his members. Complaining, Arius says to the king: “O most just king, is it fair, before your royal highness, for one to strike another?  If he has something to say, let him speak as the other fathers do; if he is ignorant, let him remain silent as his like are. For what reason does he slap me in the presence of your highness?”  Hearing this, the king was greatly disappointed and said to the archpriests: “Holy archpriests, it is the law, that whosoever raises his hand before the king to strike someone, that it should be cut off. I leave this to you, so that your holiness(es) might be the judge.”  The archpriests replied, saying: “Your majesty, that the archpriest has acted wrongly all of us confess it; except that we beseech you, let us unstate him now and imprison him, and after the dissolution of the council, we shall then convict him.”

Having unstated and imprisoned him, that night Christ and the Holy Mother Theotokos appeared in prison and said: “Nicholas, why are you imprisoned?”  And the saint replied: “For loving You”. Christ then said to him: “Take this,” and gave him the holy gospel; the Holy Mother Theotokos gave him the archpriestly omophorion (scapular).  The next day some acquaintances of his brought him bread and they saw that he was freed of his fetters and on his shoulder he was wearing the omophorion, while reading the holy gospel he was holding in his hands. Having asked him where he found them, he told them the whole truth.  Having learnt of this, the king took him out of the prison and asked for forgiveness, as did all the others.  After the dissolution of the council, all the archpriests returned home, as did saint Nicholas, to his province.

This is the earliest text known to me, and evidently to Anrich, which records Nicholas punching Arius.

Anrich adds:

Die Darstellung der Nicaea-Episode stimmt mit den Angaben des Malbuches (unten S. 463,15 ff u. 33 ff); die nur in den Hauptzügen mit diesen beiden stimmende Dartellung von Petrus de Natalibus beweist, daß der Grundstock der Legende mindestens ins 14. Jh. zurückgeht.

The presentation of the Nicaea episode is consistent with the information provided by the Painting book (below, p 463, 15 et seq u 33 et seq.); since only the more significant features of these two versions agree with the story as given by Petrus de Natalibus, this shows that the foundation of the legend goes back at least to the 14th century.

The “Painting book” (I don’t know the English name of this work: in German it is the Malbuch) is the 18th century manual of iconography from Mount Athos, produced by Dionysius of Foura.  This gives the legends to be attached to icons.  The first reads as follows:

“The holy and ecumenical 1st Synod in Nicaea….
And Arius, standing, also in hieratic vestment, and standing before him, Saint Nicholas with arm outstretched to slap him.”

The second one says:

“The saint in prison, receiving the gospel from Christ and the omophorion from the Holy Mother. – Prison, and at the centre is the saint and Christ at his right holding a gospel; at his left the Theotokos holding an omphorion: they are giving these to him.”

The presence of the item in the Handbook shows that the topic is a standard one for icons.  So we may presume that the story reaches us today from Greek Orthodox sources, for whom it is a traditional motif, depicted in their churches.

Here is an example of the scene in a fresco from the Soumela monastery (via Livius.org):

St Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea.  Fresco at Soumela.  By Marco Prins. Via Livius.org.
St Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Icon at Soumela. Via Livius.org.

To summarise again: there is no ancient evidence whatever that St Nicholas punched or slapped Arius at the First Council of Nicaea.  The story is not found in any text before the late 14th century, and even that one mentions only “a certain Arian”.  In the next two centuries the legend mutates into Nicholas slapping Arius; and is then disseminated in works of popular fiction, and by the paintings of icons.  It has no historical basis whatever.

UPDATE: I am advised that ράπισμα means slap, not punch.  My correspondent adds: ” it was a slap intended to shock Arius back to his senses”.

  1. [1]G. Anrich, Hagios Nikolaos: Der Heilige Nikolaos in der Griechischen Kirche, 2 vols, 1913.  Accessible to Americans at Hathi Trust.
  2. [2]Anrich gives a reference: Petrus de Natalibus, Catalogus sanctorum et gestorum eorum ex diversis voluminibus collectus, Lugduni 1508, Fol. VII.  The English title appears to be Legends of the Saints.  Various editions are present on Google Books.  In the 1543 edition, the text is on folio Vb, at the top of the right-hand column.
  3. [3]Translation is mine.
  4. [4]This volume can be found online at Google Books, but not without considerable effort.  It is here (US only).