Confusing ‘Beyond Nature’ with ‘Contrary to Nature’

In St. Gregory Palamas’s dialogue Theophanes, the learner Theotimos asks Theophanes (who represents Palamas) about the view of those who claim that, although the essence of God is incomprehensible and incommunicable, it still can be comprehended and communicated in a way beyond nature (Lt tr.: supernaturaliter, Gk: ὑπερφυῶς), because, after all, it is fitting for God to be beyond nature. To this view Theophanes responds (PG 150:944-945):

But this is not beyond nature, nor fitting God – away with it! But rather it is contrary to nature and entirely impossible. For the same thing, in the same respect, being communicable and incommunicable, comprehensible and incomprehensible, is certainly unsuitable, and incoherent, and furthest from the truth, and as it were contradictory in the highest degree, because according to divine Gregory of Nyssa, whatever is said about God, although they may differ in meaning, may have no contradiction at the same time with the name applied. He who speaks thus, affirming the same thing in the same respect, he himself by his own words is opposed to God, and confuses in Him what is beyond nature with what is contrary to nature.

Certainly a very important reminder even today.

St. Photius on Different Depictions of Christ in Different Cultures

In question 210 of his Amphilochia (PG 101:947-952), St. Photius takes on an objection from those opposed to icons:

Those who are most audacious and wicked among the iconoclasts, and who consider vain curiosity to be wisdom, ask what is the true image of Christ, whether it is that which the Romans draw, or that which the Indians, or the Greeks, or the Egyptians portray, since these do not agree among themselves in likeness … [Later on Photius repeats the objection:] They say that, seeing as the Greeks endeavor to have Christ similar to themselves, the Romans instead to themselves, the Indians to their own figure, and the Ethiopians to theirs … it is not apparent from these things who might be taken for the true Christ.

St. Photius gives six objections that can be used against this argument.

What is first to be said to them is: from that very assortment of images whence you propose to indicate a conflict, you unwillingly admit that, throughout the world wherever Christianity exists, the existence and cult of images is to be had. Thus in that which they desired to destroy, they confirm even more the images, and they are caught enmeshed by their own reasoning.

The second, third, and fourth objections are pretty similar. Essentially, Photius argues that this reasoning could equally be applied to the differences in the gospels and liturgies between different cultures, which would lead to the absurd result that these are not legitimate either. Furthermore, it even applies to the crosses which the iconoclasts set up, some of which have a title, others not. In the fifth objection he argues (I admittedly found it difficult to follow) that anyone who attacks an image necessarily is targeting the one depicted in the image. In the final thing which St. Photius adds, he writes:

The dissimilitude which is observed among images does not void the nature and truth of the image. For the thing depicted is not expressed only by the figure of the body and the form of the colors, but also by its disposition, its harmonious action, its emphasis of passions, its dedication in holy places, by the explanation of its inscriptions, and in other more prominent symbols which should not at all (or at least for the most part) be absent in the images of the faithful. Through these things, no less than if everything were present, we are lead to the memory and honor of the thing depicted, which is the purpose of iconography.

St. Photius’s list of the components of an image which give it meaning has its own interest (note that he remarks that the location of an image is part of what gives it its meaning). But what I find most remarkable about this is, first, the topic, which is still discussed today (e.g., whenever someone asks why Jesus is often depicted as white), and, second, St. Photius’s response. It is not triumphalist, i.e., dismissing the Indian, Egyptian, or Ethiopian depiction of Christ as erroneous. Indeed, he acknowledges that each culture depicts Christ in its own way. But he remarks that this is no less astonishing than each culture having gospels in its own tongue and modes of expression, or its own liturgies; for these things, each suited to a different culture, express their truths no less than if they were only expressed according to one way.

St. Photius on the Baptism of the Apostles

I have recently renewed my study of Latin from last summer and I am very pleased that this time I have been able to make progress understanding the Latin in Migne (though not without difficulty). It is early days still, but here is a taste of St. Photius’s Amphilochia, which is a work dedicated to answering numerous questions about the Scripture (and the faith and philosophy more generally). It is full of very interesting remarks. Here is one question, about the baptism of the apostles (PG 101:719).

Question 124: When were the apostles baptized, and by whom?

We see that the apostles received the baptism of John before Christ’s passion. And the Savior did not bring out another baptism before his passion, so that He might not render the office of John void, or give an occasion of talk to the Jews opposed to him, because this would have put the baptism of John in disrepute. But whatever was lacking in it, He supplied, not baptizing in water, but in the Spirit. For so He himself says: “Before many days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5), indeed not before ten. Ten days is given for this work, so that the faith of the apostles might be proved. For it is by a quiescent grace, and not by what was promised appearing, that their faith is exercised, and their hope given an opportunity (to show), faith and not doubt of those things to be obtained. To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is the same thing as to receive the Holy Spirit. Therefore in the Spirit and in water the apostles were baptized before Christ’s suffering, and this washing yielded to them remission of sins, however not union with the Holy Spirit. Our Lord teaches that John baptized (all) the apostles when He tells Peter, who was denying that he should be washed: “He who has been bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet” (John 13:10). By this word it appears that not only Peter but also the other apostles, whose feet He also washed, were purified by the baptism of John. The Savior therefore did not abrogate the baptism of repentance which was administered by John for the remission of sins, but completed it with an added gift of the Holy Spirit.

Lonergan on Eschatology

I have transcribed some handwritten notes the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan SJ left on some New Testament verses generally considered eschatological. He is brilliant as usual. Square brackets are mine, round brackets are Lonergan’s.


Textes Eschatologiques

Matt 1023
NB. Discourse partly particular partly referring to general mission of disciples esp 1017 onwards.
cf. Dan 713f the 5th kingdom. not eschatological. Refers to “cette magnifique et soudaine extension du règne messianique que constitutera la conversion des gentiles” [“this magnificent and sudden extension of the messianic reign that the conversion of the gentiles will constitute”] cf. Dan 714

Matt 1627, 28 Mc 91 Lc 927       2 Pet 116
Eschatological Matt 1627 Mc 838 Lc 926
No separation in Matthew. In Mc, new chapter καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς [And he said to them]. In Lc, λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ἀληθῶς [But I tell you truly].
Mt.  donec videant Filium hominis venientem in regno suo
Mc.  donec videant regnum Dei veniens in virtute
Lc.   donec videant regnum Dei
Apparently cf. Dan 713, 14 Matt means no more than Mk + Lc.
virtute = spiritual power cf. St. Paul δύναμις (?)

Matt 2663f, Mc 1461f, Lc 2267f
Lc. No question of eschatology.
Are you Xt? Yes but my present appearance does not confirm it. I cannot convince you by argument. However you shall see the kingdom prophesied by Daniel. Moreover I am Son of God. “seated at right hand” which is not in Daniel cf. stoning of Stephen.
Mc. Mt. ὄψεσθε [you will see] Lc. ἔσται [will be] equivalent. Question is “who are you?” answer in apocalyptic style.

Matt 2338, Lc 1335 (Rom 1125)
Luke puts the λογιον before triumphal entry into Jerusalem
ἰδοὺ ἀφίεται ὑμῖν ὁ οἶκος ὑμῶν Jer 225 127.
οὐ μὴ ἴδητέ με ἕως ἥξει ὅτε εἴπητε·
Εὐλογημένος ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου. Ps 11726
1° Does not seem to refer to entry into Jerusalem. Context too general.
2° Addressed to “Jerusalem”
3° You would not receive me
  You will lose your inheritance of grace
You will not have another chance till your final conversion
4° The verse “Εὐλογημένος ὁ ἐρχόμενος” is a Messianic prophesy cf Ps 11722,23 “The stone which the builders rejected; the same has become the head of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing and it is wonderful in our eyes.”
5° Therefore οὐ μὴ ἴδητέ με ἕως κτλ simply means this is your last chance; you will not be asked again; the “Kingdom” will come but you will not be the Kingdom; you will say εὐλογημένος = you will have just grounds for saying ∵ the Kingdom is a fact, a fait accompli; the gentiles will receive of the inheritance

N.B. Mt 2335 quem occidistis inter templum et altare [whom you killed between the sanctuary and the altar]. solidarity of the present generation with the whole Jewish race.
cf. Dan 926,27 occidetur Xtus [the Antointed/Christ will be cut off/killed] etc. Lc 2123,24 separate destruction of Jerusalem + end of world
Mt. 2422-28 Prophetic confusion of destruction of Jerusalem + end of world.
II Pet. 116 on “Transfiguration”

Bingo

At the long term care facility at which I used to volunteer, bingo is played every other week or so. In the room in which it is held, there are six tables (numbered 1-6 in the sketch below), each holding about four players. There are also some individual seats for extra players. Each player receives two bingo cards, and bingo is usually played according to normal rules, with the exception that getting four corners on one of the bingo cards counts as a bingo as well.

Untitled

Among other things, I was often responsible for distributing bingo cards to the players. I noticed that the two bingo cards I gave to a player typically carried a very similar series of numbers. I began to wonder if I could increase a player’s chances of winning if I gave them two cards with as minimal overlap as possible (and perhaps by doing so, decrease the number of balls the caller has to draw in order to reach bingo). I figured wins would occur more quickly with a diverse pair of cards, for the same reason that you gain no advantage in the lotto when having two identical sets of numbers.

Running the numbers
I made a simulation using Java, which I checked by comparing the numbers it generated with the probabilities calculated on this site. After verifying, I set up a game with thirty players, each having two randomly generated cards. I then ran 10,000 games to determine the most likely ways to reach bingo. The 10,000 games resulted in 12,051 bingos (more than one bingo can occur per game if two or more players reach bingo at the same time). The data is as follows:
running the numbers

Note the following:

  • 59% of bingos used the free space. This is especially notable since there are more ways to get a bingo without a free space (9) than there are with a free space (4). If we exclude from the analysis the numbers from four corners bingo, the percentage of bingos that did not use the free space falls from 41% to 32.5%.
  • Approximately 25% of games resulted in multiple bingos.

Is a lack of card overlap advantageous?
Next I made sure one of the thirty players had no overlap whatsoever between his cards (call him player X). All the other members had randomly generated cards, which almost always contained some overlap, usually 4 or 5 numbers overlapping between cards on average. I ran one million games. The percentage of winning bingos belonging to player X was, on average, 3.37%. To be more specific about the method, I ran 100,000 games at a time, with player X having the same pair of cards for all 100,000 games, and all other players getting randomly generated cards each match. I ran this ten times for a total of 1,000,000 games. The upshot of all this is that there is no practical benefit for a player to have no overlap between his cards, as any given player has a 1/30 = 3.33% chance of winning a game of chance involving 30 players.

Does card overlap increase time needed to reach bingo?
The above results suggest that card overlap has little effect on time to reach bingo. To confirm, I ran 100,000 games where all players had a purely randomly generated set of cards and another 100,000 where each player had zero overlap between his cards (though this doesn’t rule out the inevitable overlap among different players’ cards). The results showed no difference in number of balls drawn to reach bingo (approximately 18.0 turns in either case).

Conclusion
The answer to all my initial questions was “no.” Practically speaking, overlap on the cards has no effect on the outcome of the game. One reason for this is that, unlike the example of the lotto numbers, the location of the number matters. Having the same number on both cards is not always a mere repetition because the ‘value’ of a bingo number depends on the numbers around it and, also, an overlapped number may fall on a different spot in the two cards.

I think the simulation is solid, given that I verified it independently. The only possible limitation I can think of is that, in the real life situation, there are only a limited set of cards, whereas the simulation randomly generates each pair – but I do not see how that would affect my results. Another possible issue is that player X’s cards were not randomized every game, but, again, I do not see how this would be a big issue, since the balls were randomly drawn each game and all the other players had cards randomly generated each game. It does raise an interesting question though: when we want a random simulation, should we make all parts random, or is it enough to have just one part random? I can share the source code for the simulation with anyone who wants it.

Authenticity of ‘De anathemate’

Upon further investigation into the beautiful homily attributed to St. John Chrysostom that I translated a while back (the one against anathematizing others), I have discovered that its authorship has been more contested by current scholars than I had thought. I was content with the fact that a Chrysostom translator for the CUA Fathers of the Church series had accepted it as genuine. But, I’ve just discovered, other authorities hesitate. According to Wendy Mayer in her book The Homilies of St John Chrysostom (at least what I could glean from Google Books’ snippet view), the homily is “now no longer assigned to Chrysostom” (p. 75). It is listed in the Repertorium pseudochrysostomicum (no. 448), and Lampe attributes it to St. Flavian I of Antioch. Perhaps Lampe is following the argument of Cavallera, who attributes it to Flavian based on two passages that imply it was preached by a bishop of Antioch. Firstly, in the second section of the homily: “Do you know what a holy man once said, who, before us received the διαδοχῆς of the apostles and was judged worthy of martyrdom?” The man referred to is St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was a bishop of that city, with διαδοχῆς meaning something like ‘heritage’ or ‘inheritance’ or perhaps ‘succession.’ Secondly, in the fourth section:

Do we not make public supplications for the ignorance of the people? Are we not obliged to pray for our enemies, for those who hurt us and persecute us? Right now I am fulfilling a duty of my ministry in exhorting you; χειροτονία is not a source of pride, it gives no right to despotism: we have all received the same Spirit, we who are called to the title of adopted sons: those to whom the Father has given power, have it only to serve their brothers according to their power.

On this Cavallera comments:

This allusion to the liturgy that he celebrates and to the χειροτονία which he received is clear after the preceding passage. We are not dealing with the ordination of a mere priest but rather of a bishop, to which the word χειροτονία especially applies in Christian usage. Priestly ordination is more commonly designated by the term προχειρίζω (cf. S. Jo. Chrys. Sermo cum presbyter ordinatus, PG 47, 693).

After concluding his argument that a bishop of Antioch had written the homily, Cavallera adds arguments for why the date of the homily must be such that it falls under the episcopate of Flavian. Earlier authors offered stylistic arguments for why the work could not belong to John Chrysostom. All of these arguments I am unable to evaluate, due to my very poor knowledge of Greek and the works of St. John Chrysostom.

If anyone has access to the whole Wendy Mayer book, I would enjoy seeing her full evaluation of the homily’s authorship. Also I would enjoy seeing anything on it from Sever J. Voicu, who seems to be the expert on pseudo-Chrysostom. In any case, even if the sermon is not by St. John Chrysostom, this is certainly no reason to doubt the truth of its message, especially given that, granting the wrong attribution, there is good reason to suspect it is actually by another saint, namely Flavian of Antioch.

St. Jerome and the Jews

Recently anti-Semitism has become revitalized, and it is sad to see some Orthodox Christians on board, using the Fathers of the Church as support (despite condemnations by the Serbian bishops, former Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow, and Patriarch Bartholomew). A thorough and honest study of the Fathers will, I hope, show that, no matter how one-sided their views on Judaism may have been, they cannot be used to such an end.

St. Jerome is often cited as an anti-Jewish Church Father. In his fight with St. Augustine over the interpretation of Galatians 2:14, he comes across as far more hostile to Judaism. Furthermore, in Letter 84.3, he – defending himself from the accusation he had studied too much under Jews – says: “If it is expedient to hate any men and to loath any race, I have a strange dislike to those of the circumcision. For up to the present day they persecute our Lord Jesus Christ in the synagogues of Satan. Yet can anyone find fault with me for having had a Jew as a teacher?”

Samuel Krauss has an almost comprehensive study of Jerome’s references to Judaism in The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 6, no. 2, January 1894, pp. 225-261. Most of the references that he documents are negative, including complaints about Palestinian Jews’ wealth, and that they charged Christians more for lessons (though, this should not be understood as a specifically Jewish thing: from personal experience, I can attest that to this day it is still common for Christian and Muslim Levantine Arabs to charge foreigners higher prices). It should not be forgotten that Jerome was friendly with his Jewish tutors, some of whom even were educated in the New Testament and explained it to Christians (Commentary on Isaiah 11:1).

On p. 229 of the Jewish Quarterly Review article, Krauss mentions a couple more positive remarks. The most remarkable comes from Jerome’s commentary on Hosea 3:1 (“And the Lord said to me: Go yet again, and love a woman beloved of her friend, and an adulteress: as the Lord loves the children of Israel, and they look to strange gods, and love the husks of grapes”):

Let it be noted that the adulterous woman signifies the Jews of the present time, who, far from God, from knowledge of the Scriptures, and from the grace of the Holy Spirit, are loved by the Lord, Who expectat (waits for/expects) the salvation of all, and opens the doors to the penitent, and nonetheless these people love useless things, the traditions of men, and their ‘deuterosis’ fantasies [i.e., their Torah traditions], having no longer grapes, nor wine, nor a press full of must, but old husks which have been discarded (PL 25:842).

Overall it is a negative comment, but still noteworthy that he says God still loves the Jews, and waits for the salvation of all. I am not sure if he means all the Jews, or all of humankind. I figure it is the former, and perhaps he is referring to Romans 11:26, which was commonly interpreted by the Fathers as referring to the salvation of the Jews (at least in the last days). The takeaway is that one of the most anti-Jewish fathers, Jerome, while never letting Jews ‘off the hook’ for sticking to the Old Covenant, nevertheless states that God stills love them.

St. John Chrysostom, 1st Homily after His Return from Exile

Below is St. John Chrysostom’s first homily after his return from exile (Sermo post reditum ab exsilio 1). I have roughly translated it from two French sources: this one, and this one. The original French translators in fact used two difference sources for the homily: the first one translated this version of the homily, and the second translated this version. There are quite a few differences in phrasing, and some differences which are somewhat more substantial; notably, in the first version, Galatians 3:28 is cited after Chrysostom says “men and women rivaled one another,” whereas in the second, the citation is preceded by “I address myself to both men and women.” Additionally, the first version ends with the doxology given below, whereas the second uses a Trinitarian doxology. I have followed the first version except where the French gave me trouble. Emilio Bonfiglio has examined Chrysostom’s homilies on his exile (both before the exile and after his return) and decided that only this homily, and part of his first homily before the exile, are genuine. He also examines the two versions of this homily, but I do not have access to his works, so I have not read what he says about them.

1. What to say and and where to begin? Blessed be God! It is what I told you when I left, it is what I say to return on my return; but I had not stopped repeating it in exile. You recall that I cited the example of Job and I cried with him: “Blessed be the name of the Lord unto ages of ages!” (Job 1:21). This is the token I left with you, and this is my hymn of gratitude: “Blessed be the name of the Lord unto ages of ages!” The events changed, the cry of soul glorifying God remains always the same. I gave thanks when I was exiled, and on return I give thanks still. Yes, the events are quite different; but the winter and the summer have one goal, the fecundity of the earth. Blessed be God who permitted my removal; blessed be God who returned me to you; blessed be God who unleashes the storm; blessed be God who dissipates it and gives us back serenity! If I speak thus, it is to teach you to bless the Lord ceaselessly. If you are happy, bless Him, and you will keep your happiness. If you are in misfortune, bless Him, and your misfortune will end. In the midst of prosperity, Job thanked Him; but he praised Him no less when he fell into poverty. He was not greedy before, he was not a blasphemer after: everything changed, except his soul. The calm does not dull the vigor of the pilot, nor does the storm overcome it. Blessed, then, is God, both when I was separated from you and when I return to you. It is His providence with disposes all things. Moreover, one may separate me from you in body, but never in thought.

See the magnificent results of the intrigues of our enemies. They have given new life to your zeal, inflamed your love, they have given me countless friends; before, I was loved only by my own, but today I have the sympathy of the Jews themselves. My enemies thought to tear me from my spiritual family, but they have joined me to strangers. But we owe them no thanks; thanks is due to God alone, who used their malice to our glory. The Jews crucified our Lord, and the world was saved by this sacrifice; but it is not to the Jews, but to the Crucified I give thanks. May they thus open their eyes to the divine light, and see the peace and the honor that their intrigues have given us. Before all this, the church alone was full; now the public square has become the church. From over there to here is but one soul. With no one to impose silence on your gathering, all saw your profound silence, all were plunged in compunction. Some sang psalms, other encouraged them. Today the circus is open, yet no one is found there. The whole city came in torrents to the church. Your voice is like a river spurting up to the heavens, a testimony to the love you have for your father. Your prayers are more radiant to me than a diadem. The men and the women rivaled one another: “In Christ Jesus, there is no male or female” (Galatians 3:28). How can I tell you the power of the Lord? You know well the truth of what I am saying: when one bears temptations, one draws great fruit.

2. This is why I have brought you in the temple of the Apostles; exiled, we have drawn near to those who were exiled. We have been encompassed by intrigues, they too were victims of them. We have come near to Timothy, that new Paul. We have drawn near to those holy bodies, which bear the marks of Christ. Never fear trials if you have a generous heart; such is how the saints have been crowned. A great tribulation outside, a far greater peace inside. May you not be spared by trials! The pastor rejoices in the work that he bears for his sheep. What shall I say? Where shall I throw the divine seed? I see no free place. Where shall I carry out my work? The vineyard is full. Where to build? The temple is completed; the nave is full, my nets are tearing because of the abundance of fish. What shall I do? But it is not the time for work. I exhort you, not because you need it, but to testify to the profound love I have for you. There is every where the crops in all their richness. So many sheep, and not a single wolf; such a harvest and nowhere a thorn; such a flourishing vineyard, and not a fox. These pernicious beasts have been overcome, the wolves have disappeared. And who put them to flight? It was not the shepherd, not me; it was you, the sheep.

O generosity of my flock! In the absence of your shepherd, it has put the wolves to flight! O beauty, or rather, O chastity of the wife! In the absence of the husband, she kept adulterers at bay. This is how she has let shine her true beauty; this is how she has let her wisdom shine. And how have you chased away adulterers? Without doubt because you love your husband. But how? By the greatness of your chastity. I took up no arms, I seized neither sword nor dagger, I only showed them my beauty, and their eyes could not bear the brilliance. Where are they now? In disarray. Where are we? In joy. The emperors are with us; with us are the men invested with power. What more can I say? What else can I add? “May the Lord add blessings upon you: upon you, and upon your children” (Ps. 115:14); may the heart of His love open up to your trust. I will stop here, giving thanks again, for all things, to the goodness of God, to Whom be glory unto ages of ages. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom, That We Must Not Anathematize Either the Living or the Dead

UPDATE 9/5/2017: The attribution of this homily to St. John Chrysostom is more questioned by scholars than I initially thought. If it is indeed not by Chrysostom, a good guess for author is St. Flavian I of Antioch. I have written about this here.

St. John Chrysostom preached the following little-known homily in Antioch, when there was a schism between Nicene Christians, some supporting the bishop Meletius, others supporting Paulinus. Both St. Athanasius and St. Basil worked to reconcile the two groups, but to little avail, as the split outlived both. Two of Meletius’s priests, who supported Apollinaris (of heresy fame), broke off in the 360s. In the following homily St. John attempts to suppress the heated rivalry between the partisans of the two groups. I have translated it (roughly) from the French translation here. A phrase here and there may be mistranslated, but overall it is certainly correct. It can be found in PG 48:943. Enjoy his words and, if need be, take them to heart.

Continue reading

Origen and St. Jerome on the Historicity of Scripture

This is sort of a preparation for my proposed post about my understanding of scriptural infallibility from the Fathers. It would be too long to include in that post, but it gives support to what I will say therein.

Now, St. Jerome is often given as an example of a Father who was rather fundamentalist about the historicity of scriptural narratives. As such, he is occasionally contrasted with the ‘allegorizing’ Origen. Jerome has been given this reputation in part due to a passage in his Commentary on Philemon 5:

Someone believes in the Creator God. He is not able to believe unless he first believes that the things written about his saints are true: that Adam was formed by God; that Noah alone was saved from the shipwrecked world; that Abraham, when first commanded to depart from his land and kinsmen, left to his descendants circumcision…

St. Jerome goes on to list other things which the faithful must believe: the binding of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, the sun standing still in Joshua, Elijah ascending in a fiery chariot, and so on. But ironically, Jerome essentially is lifting this passage from none other than Origen, who wrote on Philemon v. 5 (cited in Pamphilus, Apology for Origen, 125):

He who believes in God and accepts that his teachings are true also believes that Adam was formed as the first man. He believes that God fashioned Eve to be Adam’s wife by taking one of his ribs. He also believes that Enosh truly “hoped to call upon the name of the Lord God”; and that Enoch was translated, because he had pleased God for two hundred years after he became the father of Methusaleh. He believes that Noah received an oracle to build an ark and that he alone, together with only those who had entered with him into the ark, was saved from the flood. Likewise, he believes that Abraham merited God’s approval and showed hospitality to three men, one of whom was the Lord, when he was under the oak of Mamre. He also believes the things concerning Isaac, both the manner of his birth, that he was offered by his father, and that he merited to hear oracles from God […] And he believes that Jesus son of Nun, having been heard by God, made the sun stand still over Gibeon and the moon over the valley of Helon.

Origen continues in this way, mentioning other facts from the Old Testament. If all of Origen’s works were lost save this fragment, doubtless we would have scholars claiming him as a clear example of a “fundamentalist”. But since more of his works have survived, we should compare this with what he says elsewhere, as quoted in the Philocalia of Origen (commonly attributed to Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian), 17f.:

Anyway, will any man of sense suppose that there was a first day, and a second, and a third, evening and morning, without sun and moon and stars? And the first, as it were, even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to imagine God, like a husbandman, planted a garden eastward, and put in it a tree of life, which could be seen and felt, so that whoever tasted of the fruit with his bodily teeth received the gift of life, and further that anyone as he masticated the fruit of this tree partook of good and evil? […] Why, even the Gospels abound in incidents of the same kind. We read of the Devil taking Jesus into a lofty mountain, that from thence he might show Him the kingdoms of the whole world and their glory. […] And, similarly, the careful student may observe countless other instances in the Gospels, and may thus be convinced that with the historical events, literally true, different ones are interwoven which never occurred.

Right after this passage, though, Origen defends himself from the charge that he believes none of the Bible is historically true. He gives a list of biblical events which he believes (not unlike the one quoted above) and concludes, “those things which are true historically are many more than those connected with them which contain merely a spiritual sense.”

We can summarize this by remarking that the Fathers can be quite stringent in holding to the historicity of what the Bible relates, including Origen. That said, they also all agree that sometimes Scripture should not be taken literally – John Chrysostom and Jerome included – although they usually only say this when a literal interpretation would mean saying something absurd about God (e.g., that He walked in the Garden of Eden). Origen also explicitly extends this to where interpreting Scripture literally would have us saying something absurd about nature or morals (but Gregory of Nyssa follows him here, e.g., Life of Moses, II.100).

P.S. Sometimes it is claimed that St. Jerome called Genesis a writing told in the manner of a popular poet (i.e., a folk-tale). This, however, does not come from St. Jerome and the misattribution ultimately stems from a mix-up that C. S. Lewis made between Jerome and something in Colet; for more details, see Arend Smilde’s excellent article.