Ascetic Enthusiasm: Origen and the Early Church

Rowan Williams examines the career of the 2nd-century theologian whose powerful and idiosyncratic vision illuminates the tensions and development of the early Church.

In 199/200 AD, the Emperor Septimius Severus, visiting the eastern regions of the empire, found cause for alarm in the state of religion in these territories. It was a time of more than usually volatile relations with the Parthians, and a decline in public piety was politically dangerous – at the pragmatic level of morale, and at the remoter but more significant level of what could be expected of the gods by way of support. What is more, Severus had a perfectly genuine enthusiasm for the historic cults of Egypt in particular, and seems to have been shocked by the degree to which they were no longer taken very seriously. A law was passed enforcing the preservation of the traditional secrecies surrounding the rites of Egypt; and it looks as though some further action was taken to protect the decencies of public religion by prohibiting conversion to the two most resolutely un-public religious groups of the day – the Jewish synagogue and the Christian Church.

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