In the Image of Origen

Eros, Virtue, and Constraint int he Early Christian Academy

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David Satran
Transformation of the Classical Heritage
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , May
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780520291232.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

David Satran’s In the Image of Origen: Eros, Virtue, and Constraint in the Early Christian Academy examines the structure and significance of Gregory of Thaumaturgus’ (the “Wonder-Worker”) Thanksgiving Address to Origen, which functions as “an appendix . . . to the corpus Origenianum” (3-4). In the introduction, the author situates his analysis within the nexus of critical questions that attend the ancient tribute: its authorship, cultural context, historical reliability, and rhetorical convention. As a corrective to the selective readings common in contemporary scholarship, Satran argues that the Address should be read as an “integral text” on its own terms, not as a repository of interesting historical, cultural, and philosophical details (3). Moreover, he argues that it should be read exclusively through the lens of the biographical details it discloses about its subject, Origen. Satran opts for the fulsome over the fragmentary, probing the panegyric for insight into Origen’s select Academy, and the type of pedagogical practices employed and enacted there. Satran’s guiding hermeneutical principle is that the Address should be read in its totality as a firsthand account of Origen’s dynamic, demanding, and interpersonal early Christian Academy.

The book unfolds in five chapters. Chapter 1 details the intimate relationship between student and master, particularly in its early stages, when Gregory was drawn into Origen’s circle by the strong hand of providence. Chapter 2 discusses Origen’s implementation of “persuasion and coercion” (20) in his rigorous training of Gregory in rhetoric and philosophy. Chapter 3 examines the ethical dimension of Gregory’s education, which posits a link between the moral and the philosophical. Origen’s heroic asceticism elevates him, in the eyes of his admiring student, to nearly divine status. Chapter 4 explores the ambiguous reasons for Gregory’s departure, his invocation of scriptural language to describe his “exile” or “banishment” from Origen, and its relationship to the Platonic imperative for “philosopher-rulers” to return to the world (26). Chapter 5, finally, assesses the broader significance of the Address for Christian education and literature.

In the Image of Origen situates the Address in Origen’s intellectual milieu, providing important contextualization for its salient portions. It clearly traces the potential sources of Gregory’s speech, which include Plato, Philo, scripture, and Origen himself. In the process, Satran illuminates the philosophically informed, theologically driven, and spiritually directed shape of Origen’s curriculum, which Gregory showcases throughout his encomium. Satran judiciously draws from the primary and secondary literature and, significantly, works from his own translation throughout, a hallmark of patristic scholarship at its best (28). While Satran helpfully links the legacy of Origen’s Academy to later Christian educational contexts (e.g., the medieval construal of philosophy as “handmaiden” of theology, 174) and literature (e.g., hagiography and pilgrim accounts, 173), he sometimes falls into redundancy and overreach, particularly the gratuitous analogy to 12th-century Czech political and philosophical history (160-165). Notwithstanding this critique, Satran’s analysis of the context and relevance of the Address hits the mark.

Missing the mark, however, is the overall argumentation of the book. While Satran has an interpretive or hermeneutical approach (viz., reading the Address as a whole for insight into the intimate master-pupil relationship in Origen’s Academy), he does not, strictly speaking, have a thesis. Satran believes he does: “Ultimately, the argument of the present study has been that Gregory’s Thanksgiving Address is not only a work of high rhetorical skill—for it is surely that, at times even to its own detriment—but also a vibrant portrait of the relationship between a teacher and pupil” (178). He continues to expand in a similar vein, but his declaration does not rise to the level of an argument. It is, rather, an assessment (“work of high rhetorical skill”) and an observation (“portrait of the relationship”). In the final analysis, Satran’s study functions more as an extensive commentary on the Address of Thanksgiving to Origen than a theological or philosophical analysis governed by an original thesis. That does not diminish its value, in my opinion. Instead it locates it in contemporary Origen literature as a helpful resource for those who want to delve deeper into a learned, loving ancient tribute to a brilliant, beloved master.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark S. M. Scott is Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Thorneloe University at Laurentian.

Date of Review: 
March 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Satran is Leeds Senior Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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