Sunday, March 17, 2013

Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom: A Scriptural Manual for How to Be Killed

The most striking thing about Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom is not its otherworldliness, its openness to or even zest for dying, its idiosyncratic interpretation of Scripture, or its full-throated subordination of the body to the spirit (what a drag for souls to be saddled with bodies!). It is, rather, the dawning realization of what Origen is attempting to accomplish as the work slowly unfolds. Because Origen's Exhortation is nothing less than a biblical script for dying: a practical manual for Christians to be trained how to be murdered in public—and, moreover, how to do so in a way that is not shameful to Christ but faithful to his way. Origen views Scripture as typological all the way down; consequently, the words of the heroes, fathers, and forebears in the faith are there for the express purpose of contemporary appropriation. The Spirit has provides these for our use, so that we will know what to say when the time comes to die.

He therefore writes: "I pray that when you are at the gates of death, or rather of freedom, especially if tortures are brought . . ., you will use such words as these . . . [2 Macc. 6:30]" (Exhortation, XXII). Regarding the Maccabees, he says that "it would be appropriate for us, as well, in such circumstances to use their words . . . [2 Macc. 7:6]" (XXIII). Or when worries for one's family or children arise, with immediacy he urges: "Now have the words ready . . . [Matt. 10:37, 39]" (XXXVIII). Or perhaps one knows oneself to be "hated and abominated and considered impious"; in the event, "take up the saying . . . [John 15:19]" (XXXIX). Not only evil men but evil spirits may threaten, and in that case "let each one of you say when you smite [them] . . . [1 Cor. 9:26]" (XLVIII).

Scripture, in Origen's use, is a collection of various scenes and acts in the drama of God's victory over death through Christ. His advice to those who would be faithful μάρτυρες is simple: Know in your bones, through diligent and disciplined study, the trustworthy sayings of those who have come before; for when you, too, find yourself in similar dire straits, just the right words will come to you, and they will not fail.

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