Alexandrians vs. Antiochenes on Mosaic Law (Part 1)

Note: this paper was previously written for a class on the History of Biblical Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Due to the paper’s original length, I will split it into two parts (Part 2 can be read here).


Ever since its inception, the church has struggled to understand the proper place of Mosaic Law in Christian ethics. The New Testament describes the early controversy over the question of whether to circumcise Gentile believers (Acts 15). By answering that question in the negative, the church acknowledged some degree of discontinuity with Mosaic Law. But the nature and extent of this discontinuity would continue to be debated. In the following centuries, the church faced opposition on two fronts. On the one hand, Jewish interpreters insisted on the total and literal application of Mosaic Law, compelling Christians to defend the supremacy of the revelation of Christ. On the other hand, Gnostic interpreters often denigrated Mosaic Law by ascribing it to an inferior deity, compelling Christians to defend the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament. This desire to avoid both the Scylla of Judaism and the Charybdis of Gnosticism (or better, Marcionism) set the stage for a multiplicity of Christian approaches to Mosaic Law.

Two interpretive traditions emerged: the Alexandrian and the Antiochene. These traditions were distinguished, not so much by neatly distinct exegetical practices (as a previous generation of scholars had thought), as by differing conceptions of history, and by the respective influences of contemporary philosophical and rhetorical schools.[1] The Alexandrian tradition thus placed a heavier emphasis on the trans-historical, spiritual meaning of Scripture, while the Antiochene tradition stressed the primacy of the literal, historically situated meaning of Scripture. As a result, the Alexandrians tended to see Mosaic Law in terms of continuity, and the Antiochenes tended to see it in terms of discontinuity.

The goal of this paper will be to evaluate the life and work of one representative of the Alexandrian tradition, Origen of Alexandria. In particular, I will focus on his Commentary on Romans and show how his hermeneutical distinction between “letter” and “spirit” favors the continuity of Mosaic Law in Christian ethics. Then, by way of comparison, I will examine in briefer compass the work of one representative of the Antiochene tradition, Theodore of Mopsuestia. I will show how the distinction between “law” and “gospel” in his Commentary on Galatians favors the discontinuity of Mosaic Law. Finally, I will conclude by arguing that the Reformed tradition’s approach to Mosaic Law contains both Alexandrian and Antiochene elements.

Origen’s Hermeneutic in Historical Context

Origen (ca. 185-254) was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Christian parents.[2] Even during his own lifetime, he would prove to be a controversial figure. He was endowed with a brilliant mind and a zeal for orthodoxy, but sometimes his efforts to combat heresies would cause him to over-correct in heterodox directions. For example, his refutation of Gnostic ideas like the permanent, intrinsic goodness or wickedness of souls led him to infer the possibility of final salvation for all people, even perhaps the devil. Such aberrations in theology persuaded his own bishop Demetrius to denounce him as a heretic, and many of Origen’s views would be condemned in AD 553 at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople.

In spite of some of his more idiosyncratic conclusions, Origen developed an exegetical method that would have a profound impact on subsequent theologians. This method is set forth most explicitly in his work De Principiis (On First Principles), and is also evident in his numerous commentaries. In these works, Origen describes a threefold distinction in the meanings of Scripture, which correspond to body, soul, and spirit. These are the somatic, the psychic, and the pneumatic senses.[3] According to Elizabeth Lauro, the somatic sense can be understood as literal, whereas the psychic and pneumatic senses are non-literal.[4] The difference between the two non-literal senses is that the psychic concerns day-to-day ethical living, while the pneumatic concerns higher theological and christological truths. More often, however, Origen makes use of a merely twofold distinction between the literal sense and the spiritual sense, in accordance with Paul’s terminology of “letter” and “spirit” (2 Cor. 3:6).

It would be a mistake to say that the literal sense of a text was irrelevant for Origen; rather, discerning the literal sense was the necessary means by which one could attain the spiritual sense. But the relationship between these two senses is like that between an earthenware vessel and a treasure hidden inside. The literal sense is thus reduced to a mere receptacle, playing only an instrumental or subordinate role. Further, Origen’s treatment of the literal sense of a given passage sometimes led him to reject its historicity. But rather than undermining the doctrine of biblical inspiration, Origen saw these inconsistencies as divinely intended pointers to the deeper, spiritual meaning.

In large measure, Origen inherited this de-historicizing and allegorizing approach to Scripture from two earlier Alexandrians: Philo and Clement. Philo, a wealthy first-century Jew, was well known for his efforts to integrate Greek philosophy and Jewish theology.[5] His anthropology followed the Greek notion of the inferiority of the physical to the rational, but he still affirmed the Jewish notion of God as Creator. Such blending of Greek and Jewish categories is also seen in his handling of Mosaic Law. Philo affirmed its authority, but unlike the rabbis of his day, he believed that this authority was found in the realm of ideas which transcended the wording of the text itself. Philo used this allegorical approach to Scripture to prove that Moses was superior to any pagan philosophers. In fact, Philo goes so far as to say that Greek philosophers must have appropriated their thought from Moses himself.

Although Philo was Jewish, his impact would prove to be far greater on later Christian interpreters, such as Clement. Clement (d. ca. 215 AD) was committed to the idea that all truth, whether in pagan or biblical sources, found its fulfillment in the reality of Christ.[6] But such truth was often expressed in the form of enigmas, symbols, and allegories. This led him to a rather syncretistic blend of Hellenistic cosmology and Logos christology, with the result that later interpreters would fault Clement for some of his Gnostic tendencies. This was seen in Clement’s belief in the eternity of matter and thought, and in cosmic cycles predating the creation of the world.[7]

Such was the heritage of Origen’s forbears. Against this backdrop, it would be tempting to claim that Origen himself must have imbibed too much of Platonic thought. This was the charge of the early church, and many modern scholars have followed suit. For instance, Wai-Shing Chau writes that Origen was operating on a “Middle-platonic scheme,” as is evident in his notions concerning the Father as the supreme mind, the existence of intermediaries between mind and the material world, and the pre-existence of the soul.[8] On the other hand, Mark Edwards has recently argued in his book Origen against Plato that Origen denies many of the fundamental tenets of Platonism.[9] These tenets include the participation of created objects in eternal, incorporeal Forms, the impossibility of predicating truth about God, and the transmigration of the soul. Edwards also questions the common assumption that Origen held to a doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul. According to Edwards, the most that can be inferred from Origen’s extant writings is that the human soul is created in the hand of God immediately before embodiment, but this does not entail any supposed punitive fall from heaven, as Platonists contend. Whether or not one is persuaded of Edwards’s argument here, it is true that Origen sees bodily existence as basically good. Rather than being a prison house, our bodies give us the opportunity to exercise virtue and grow into the likeness of God. At the same time, Origen’s eschatology suggests that the body is a mere stepping stone to a higher reality, one in which we enjoy immediate communion with God unencumbered by carnal habits like eating and drinking.[10]

Origen’s doctrine of the body seems to directly parallel his doctrine of biblical interpretation. As mentioned above, Origen does not dismiss the literal meaning of Scripture. It is indeed a good and necessary step in the hermeneutical process. However, it is not the final step. For Origen, fixation on the literal sense is precisely what led both Jews and Gnostics astray.[11] Jews insisted on the total application of Mosaic Law, while Gnostics repudiated Mosaic Law altogether, but both camps were guilty of “carnal” exegesis. The solution for Origen was to uphold the Mosaic Law’s spiritual meaning, as elucidated through the work of Christ.

Origen’s Commentary on Romans

One of Origen’s fullest treatments of the Mosaic Law is found in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.[12] This is the only commentary of Origen’s to have survived from beginning to end, even though it has been significantly truncated in the Latin translation of Rufinus of Aquileia (only a few scattered fragments of the original Greek still exist).[13] It is also Christianity’s oldest surviving commentary on Romans, predating by about 150 years the second oldest commentary, written by John Chrysostom. This makes it an invaluable resource on early Christian understanding of Mosaic Law.

Given the various theological controversies that existed in Origen’s day, it is no surprise that his commentary evinces a somewhat polemical character. Origen’s chief target was Marcion (ca. 85-160), whose name has become synonymous with an excessively low view of the Old Testament. According to Marcion, the material world was created by an inferior deity known as a Demiurge, who revealed himself to the Hebrews and gave them a law of strict retributive justice. This Demiurge was not inherently evil, but was nevertheless inferior to the God of love and compassion revealed by Jesus. In response to these teachings of Marcion, Origen defended the positive value and continuing relevance of Mosaic Law for Christians.

Origen’s defense of Mosaic Law in his Commentary on Romans is rather complex, and it may be helpful to analyze his argument topically, in terms of various distinctions that he makes. One important distinction is that between Mosaic Law and natural law.[14] Origen was persuaded that all rational creatures, excepting young children,[15] were accountable to some law or another. Angels were bound to natural law,[16] Gentiles to natural and civil laws, Jews to natural and ceremonial laws, and Christians to the law of Christ.[17] All of these laws, however, were in some sense an expression of God’s unchanging moral will. Thus, like his predecessors Philo and Clement, Origen believed that the essence of Mosaic Law is also found in natural law.[18] In fact, throughout his Romans commentary, Origen argues that Paul speaks more often of natural law than Mosaic Law.[19] This supports Origen’s insistence that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.

Origen identifies the content of natural law with what is known as the second table of the law, encompassing such prohibitions as murder, adultery, and false testimony.[20] In this respect, one sees a clear overlap with the content of Mosaic Law, and especially the Ten Commandments. This sets up another important distinction in Origen’s conception of Mosaic Law—namely, that between the ceremonial law and the moral law. This distinction corresponds in some degree to his distinction between letter and spirit, and it is only the ceremonial law as letter that Origen rejects. He writes:

The works which Paul repudiates and frequently criticizes are not the works of righteousness which are commanded in the law, but those in which they boast, who keep the law according to the flesh; that is to say, the circumcision of the flesh, the sacrificial rituals, and the observance of Sabbaths and new moon festivals. These and works of a similar nature are the works by which he says no one can be saved…[21]

Three observations ought to be noted here. First, it is a mistake to simply say that for Origen, ceremonial laws are literal, and moral laws are spiritual. Such a categorization would overlook the dual aspect of every text of Scripture. Even the ceremonial laws have a spiritual sense, although it may be comparatively more obscure than for the moral laws. This is why Origen can speak of Christian baptism as the spiritual equivalent of circumcision (Calvinists were not the first to make this connection!).[22]

Second, Origen believes that the letter of the law is unattainable.[23] But the reason for this is historical rather than anthropological. That is, the impossibility to keep the letter of the law is not due to human sin, as later Protestant interpreters would argue. Rather, the destruction of the Jewish temple in AD 70 nullified literal observance of the law.[24] Without a temple, there no longer existed the possibility of a priesthood or a sacrificial system. For Origen, God ordained this historical event in order to guide his people from the letter to the spirit. This makes Origen unique among early Christian interpreters in ascribing such a pedagogical significance to the fall of Jerusalem.[25]

Third, Origen does not argue that the letter’s proper function is to kill. Quite the contrary, Origen believes that the letter of the Mosaic Law brought the beginnings of life to humanity. Thanks to Moses and the ceremonial laws, “a certain part of humankind began to be liberated from the kingdom of sin and death,” and “cleansing of sins began to be ushered in.”[26] Origen even goes so far as to say that the Mosaic Law is “a life-giving Spirit for those who understand it spiritually.”[27] He argues that it is precisely on this point that both Jews and Marcionites fall into error. The letter brings death when it is separated from the spirit, and when it is turned into an end in itself rather than a means to the end of spiritual obedience. Therefore, Origen understands the contrast between law and gospel not as one of judgment versus mercy, but rather imperfect religion versus perfect religion. Grace is the essence of Sinai, but it is veiled until Calvary. As Chau observes, “The New Testament differs from the Old only in being a clearer, but not a fuller, manifestation of the spirit.”[28]

(See the conclusion of the paper in Part 2.)


[1] Donald Fairbairn, “Patristic Exegesis and Theology: The Cart and the Horse,” Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007), 10-11; Brevard Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 132-33; Frances Young, “Alexandrian and Antiochene Exegesis,” in History of Biblical Interpretation, ed. Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 352.

[2] Henning Graf Reventlow, History of Biblical Interpretation, trans. James O. Duke (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 1:174-78.

[3] Origen, De Principiis, 4.2.5-6.

[4] Elizabeth Lauro, “Reconsidering Origen’s Two Higher Senses of Scriptural Meaning: Identifying the Psychic and Pneumatic Senses,” in Studia Patristica 34, ed. M. F. Wiles and E. J. Yarnold (Peeters: Leuven, 2001), 306.

[5] Reventlow, 1:40-45.

[6] Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 15-16.

[7] Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski, Clement of Alexandria on Trial: The Evidence of “Heresy” from Photius’ Bibliotheca (Boston: Brill, 2010), 40-43, 75.

[8] Wai-Shing Chau. The Letter and the Spirit: A History of Interpretation from Origen to Luther (New York: Peter Lang, 1995), 16.

[9] Mark Edwards, Origen against Plato (Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2002), 160-1.

[10] Origen, De Principiis 2.10-11.

[11] Ibid., 4.2.1; Reventlow, 1:180.

[12] The critical edition of Origen’s commentary in the original Latin can be found in Caroline P. Hammond Bammel,  Der Römerbriefkommentar des Origenes: kritische Ausgabe der Übersetzung Rufins, vols. 16 and 33, Vetus Latina: Aus der Geschichte der lateinischen Bibel (Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herder, 1990-1998).

[13] Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 1-5, trans. Thomas Scheck (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 1-2.

[14] Riemer Roukema, “Law of Nature,” in The Westminster Handbook of Origen, ed. John Anthony McGuckin (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 140-41.

[15] Origen, Romans, 3.6.3.

[16] Ibid., 3.6.4.

[17] Ibid., 2.8.3.

[18] Cf. Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.4-5; 5.37.

[19] Origen, Romans, 3.6.1; 5.1.24.

[20] Ibid., 2.9.1.

[21] Ibid., 8.7.6.

[22] Ibid., 2.13.2.

[23] Ibid., 2.9.1; 6.7.11.

[24] Ibid., 6.7.12.

[25] Thomas Scheck, “Law,” in The Westminster Handbook to Origen, ed. John Anthony McGuckin (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 139.

[26] Origen, Romans, 5.1.31-32.

[27] Ibid., 6.9.3.

[28] Chau, 22.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.


  1. Alexandrians vs. Antiochenes on Mosaic Law (Part 2) | Allkirk Network - May 31, 2018

    […] Note: this is the second part of a paper originally written for a class on the History of Biblical Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Part 1 can be read here. […]

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