The Transformation of the Reader in the Johannine Prefaces of Origen and Chrysostom


During the course of a colloquium last year on pre-critical commentators on the Gospel of John, Origen stood out to me for his combination of depth of insight, analytical precision and spiritual intensity. He began his great commentary on John in Alexandria (Books 1-5; cf. Eusebius, H.E. 6.24) and finished in Caesarea (and Antioch?). It was composed from c. 230-248(?). The last preserved book is Book 32 (which reaches John 13.33). Nine books are preserved in Greek (1, 2, 6, 10, 13, 19, 20, 28 and 32), together with over 100 fragments, many of dubious authenticity. Heine calls it “the greatest exegetical work of the early church” (1:3). Trigg deems it ‘a magnificent ruin’.

A certain Ambrose served as literary patron for the commentary, having converted from Valentinianism by Origen and perhaps wanting an anti-Heracleon reading of John (Comm. John 5.8; cf. Eusebius, H.E. 6.18, 23).

‘Origène ne cessera de proclamer, toutes les fois que le texte lui en fournira l’occasion, l’unité de Dieu, la personnalité distincte du Fils en même temps que sa divinité, l’unité de la revelation, car c’est le même Dieu qui se révèle à travers l’Ancien et le Nouveau Testament, l’unité de la nature humaine: c’est par sa libre volunté que l’homme devient spirituel, psychique ou hylique” (SC 1.10).

But Origen’s goals are merely polemical (otherwise – in certain respects at least – the Contra Celsum), but interpretative.

One of the most striking features of the Preface to the commentary is the way in which Origen assigns a hermeneutical function to the spiritual transformation of the reader:

No one can understand John “who has not leaned on Jesus’ breast nor received Mary from Jesus to be his mother also. But he who would be another John must also become such as John, to be shown to be Jesus, so to speak. For if Mary had no son except Jesus, in accordance with those who hold a sound opinion of her, and Jesus says to his mother, “Behold your son,” and not “Behold, this man also is your son,” he has said equally, “Behold, this is Jesus whom you bore.” For indeed, everyone who has been perfected “no longer lives, but Christ lives in him” and since “Christ lives” in him, it is said of him to Mary, “Behold your son,” the Christ (1.23 in Heine’s translation).

7 Last Words 3Here Origen suggests that the reader must become like the John who was given to Mary (the author of the Gospel in Origen’s view; cf. Eusebius, H.E. 6.25). To this point one could simply imagine a Schleiermachian hermeneutical point in metaphorical expression – to understand an author one must identify with him or her. But Origen intends something more searching. In becoming John one is ‘shown to be Jesus, so to speak’, by means of the transformative substitution of John as a son for Mary. This shift is facilitated and understood by means of Paul’s participationist logic in Gal. 2.20-21. The reader of John, Origen suggests, must become spiritually united with Jesus in order to ‘understand’ John – that is, that a spiritual transformation is the hermeneutical underpinning for a reader wishing to follow and emulate Origen in his understanding of John.

It is striking to note how far these self-involving comments in the introductory section of a commentary are from the preoccupation with Einleitungsfragen that occupy the front matter of today’s critical commentaries. This is not to say that the latter are unnecessary, but it does raise the question as to whether such introductory remarks have the same object in view. One could adapt David Kelsey’s famous thesis (in his Proving Doctrine) and suggest that there is a significant shift in the move from introducing John as divinely authorized witness to Jesus and introducing John as the composite literary product of an internally conflicted community also undergoing tensions with its non-Christian Jewish neighbours. That is, one is always introducing a text as something, in a way that entails a construal about its subject matter. Though I’ll hope to say more about this another time, there is arguably a major disconnect between the way in which most ‘Introductions to the New Testament’ construe the text and the expectations of those who first naively turn to seek an Einführung to the New Testament in the first place.

st-john-chrysostom-the-golden-mouthIn a different manner than Origen, John Chrysostom also argues that the reader must undergo a moral purification to grasp the message of the fourth gospel:

 Let then no desire of riches trouble us, no lust of glory, no tyranny of anger, nor the crowd of other passions besides these; for it is not possible for the ear, except it be cleansed, to perceive as it ought the sublimity of the things spoken; nor rightly to understand the awful and unutterable nature of these mysteries, and all other virtue which is in these divine oracles. If a man cannot learn well a melody on pipe or harp, unless he in every way strain his attention; how shall one, who sits as a listener to sounds mystical, be able to hear with a careless soul? (Hom. in Joh. 1).

Or again he urges:

 ‘Let us make ourselves fallow lands.’

And in Homily 2, John goes on to deny the relevance (or to transpose the relevance into a different key) of the very Einleitungsfragen that most occupy the concern of modern commentaries:

 Were John about to converse with us, and to say to us words of his own, we needs must describe his family, his country, and his education. But since it is not he, but God by him, that speaks to mankind, it seems to me superfluous and distracting to enquire into these matters. And yet even thus it is not superfluous, but even very necessary. For when you have learned who he was, and from whence, who his parents, and what his character, and then hear his voice and all his heavenly wisdom, then you shall know right well that these (doctrines) belong not to him, but to the Divine power stirring his soul.

One could therefore suggest that for Origen and John (and here they would arguably be representative of a broad stream of pre-critical commentators), the spiritual transformation of the reader is a significant factor in grasping the res of the text, its Sache. This is not at all to deny, as some have too hastily done, the utility and relevance of the critical concerns that fascinate modern exegetes, but we should be clear that those are our questions. We can well be instructed by listening to the questions of others as well, and as we do so we may find ourselves directly challenged in confronting, in Clement’s words, a πνευματικὸν εὐαγγέλιον. Indeed, that statement is usually taken, understandably, to concern the text’s presentation of Jesus, especially as it differs from the synoptics. But one might as easily understand that designation to refer to the challenge the gospel thrusts upon the reader.

For Origen on John, see:

Blanc, C. Origène, Commentaire sur Saint Jean. 5 vols. SC 120, 157, 222, 290, 385. Paris: Cerf, 1966-1992.

Heine, Ronald. OrigenCommentary on the Gospel According to John. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989-1993.

Available in older translation (books 1-10 only) here.

GCS (ed. E. Preuschen) volume with original text available here.

For Chrysostom’s commentary, see:

 Goggin, Sister Thomas Aquinas, trans. St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, Homilies 1-47, 48-88. Fathers of the Church 33, 41. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1957-1959.

Also available in an older translation: NPNF1 14.1-334 (homilies from c. 389).

Greek text available here.


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  1. #1 by Tyler on March 16, 2013 - 4:17 pm

    The emphasis on the divine mind behind the scriptures seems to fit in line with ancient reflection on the interpretation of texts, particularly oracles, in Plutarch. It might also be worth looking at the Latin rhetorical tradition of Quintilian and Cicero. I think you might find Kathy Eden’s book, “Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition” helpful in this regard. I’ve got a short review of it

    As someone who is still in the beginning stages of German, could you clarify for me the difference between: “Einleitungsfragen” and “Einführung”?

    • #2 by davidlincicum on March 17, 2013 - 7:36 pm

      Thanks Tyler. Eden’s book has been on my reading list since hearing Margaret Mitchell’s Speaker’s Lectures a few years ago, so perhaps I’ll bump it up to read it sooner.

      Einleitungsfragen = introductory questions
      Einführung = synonym for introduction (‘leading into’)

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