The Commentary of Origen on the Gospel of St Matthew.
By Ronald E. Heine
First edition. 2 vols. Oxford Early Christian Texts.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. ix + 773, $270.
Review by Paul D. Wheatley
Origen of Alexandria was unarguably the greatest Christian mind of the third century. His exegetical and theological works remain a fountainhead of much fruitful (and, at times, controversial) thought for Christians in the present day. The 2018 translation of Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew by Ronald E. Heine makes available for the first time in English a treasure trove of Origen’s exegetical insight, among the last of Origen’s many commentaries and homilies. Heine is also responsible for the English translation of Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of St. John in 1989 and 1993 for Catholic University of America Press’s Fathers of the Church series.
Books 10-14 of this commentary (Matt. 13:36-19:11) were last published in English for the Ante-Nicene Fathers series by John Patrick in 1896. Heine’s translation makes available Books 10-17, covering Matthew 13:36-22:33, from Greek. To this, Heine adds an additional volume translating an early Latin translation of Books 12-17, known as the Vetus Interpretatio, as well as the Latin Series Commentariorum, covering Matthew 22:34-ch. 27. Heine also includes an appendix with references to fragments Origen’s commentary from ancient catena commentaries. This makes available all known remaining texts and witnesses to Origen’s Commentary on Matthew for an English readership. This alone is a great service to scholars of early Christianity and the history of exegesis.
Beyond this, Heine also includes a brief, but helpful, introduction that situates Origen’s Commentary on Matthew in the context of his life and work, marking the importance of this work for pastors, lay people, and all who would desire to encounter Christ in the scriptures. In this introduction, Heine dates the commentary among Origen’s last works, and he offers an account of Origen’s exegetical style in the commentary that bridges Origen’s pastoral concerns with his interpretive methods. Origen began his career as a lay catechist in Alexandria, Heine reminds the reader, and Origen’s concern for the many people in his church to deepen their union with Christ through understanding Jesus’s teaching lends a pastoral tone to a commentary that also engages in challenging figurative readings of the Gospel text.
Heine draws attention to this concern in the commentary by showing Origen’s treatment of Jesus teaching crowds in parables but inviting the disciples into the house to explain all things in Matt 13:36-43. Origen notes the “kindness” of the Lord for the crowds outside (Comm. Matt. 10:1) and how Jesus permits the disciples to inquire after deeper meanings in his house. Origen’s emphasis on both the distinction between the crowds and the disciples and the possibility for any who would follow Jesus and seek to hear and “understand something more distinctive than the crowds do” makes clear that Jesus’ invitation is open to all. Those who learn his teachings and follow “may be made friends of Jesus and may approach him as his disciples when he enters the house… [and] may be thought worthy of an explanation of a parable” (Comm. Matt. 10.1).
By singling this passage out as an entry point into the commentary and into Origen’s more difficult figurative readings (Heine finds this term more accurate than the often-dismissive term “allegorical”), Heine offers an invitation to the reader to move beyond academic study of Origen’s commentary or of the gospels to a transformative encounter with Christ in the gospel: “Christ is at the centre of Origen’s hermeneutic,” Heine explains, “To know the meaning of Scripture, one has to turn to Jesus, like the disciples in the house, and ask for his help” (p. 12).
The price tag of this monumentally important translation will put it out of reach for the “crowds outside,” unable or unwilling to “go into the house” of a nearby theological library. However, Oxford University Press occasionally reproduces paperback editions of widely-read texts in their Oxford Early Christian Texts series. For this, scholars, pastors, and interested lay students of the scriptures can hope. For all clergy and scholars with generous friends or significant remainders in their annual book budgets, these two volumes would provide a wealth of resources for study, as well as preaching and teaching. While one may lament the absence of the Greek and Latin texts on facing pages, as is common in other volumes in Oxford’s Early Christian Texts series, Heine’s faithful translations will provide accurate guides to the meaning of Origen’s commentary, which those wishing may compare the Greek and Latin of Klostermann and Benz’s volumes in the GCS series. In translating this important text for an English readership, Ronald Heine has offered a great gift and service to the academy and the Church alike. It will prove an invaluable resource for all who desire to enter into the Lord’s house and discover “a hidden treasure of wisdom, either in Christ or in the Scriptures” (Comm. Matt. 10.6).
The Rev. Paul D. Wheatley is instructor of New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.