Related answer: Is there any substance to the claim that Origen supported reincarnation?

The following quote is widely attributed to Origen in books and on the internet (e.g., here and here):

The soul has neither beginning nor end. [They] come into this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of their previous lives.

It's sometimes attributed to Origen's De Principiis, but a simple text search of that work does not reveal this quote.

From the answer linked above, it's pretty clear that Origen taught at least some doctrine of preexistence of souls, but this quote is often used to say that Origen believed in full-blown reincarnation.

Where does this quote come from? Is it actually in the writings of Origen? If not, when/where did it originate?

Note: Some might argue that the quote in this question is a fair summary of Origen's teaching. That's irrelevant. I'm interested in the origin of the quote itself, accounting for the possibility of minor differences due to translation into English from the original language. None of the "real" Origen quotes listed in the linked answer are anywhere close enough, in my opinion, to be considered the source of the quote in this question.

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    Another related questions was What is Origenism.
    – Peter Turner
    Jan 22, 2016 at 15:08
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    This is really an outstanding question. As you point out, this quote is cited throughout the Internet as support that "early Christians" believed in reincarnation ...
    – user22553
    Jul 15, 2016 at 14:46
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    I've read through Origen's First Principles and searched it any number of ways to find the phrase you indicate, and I can't find anything like it. I believe that the quote may not be a direct quote, but rather a quote of what Justinian I may have attributed to him in his letter to Patriarch Menas in 543. The entire text of the letter does not appear to be available online, but seems to be available in print in a book published in Italy. I'm trying to see if I can get a copy of the book. If my hypothesis is correct, I'll post an answer.
    – user22553
    Jul 15, 2016 at 14:50
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    @Dialogist Another possibility that I haven't chased down is that it originates in Reincarnation by Head and Cranston (1961). But where they get it from remains uncertain. Jul 15, 2016 at 14:53
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    There seems to be an answer here: john-uebersax.com/plato/origen1.htm that says it is a loose summary made by some modern author, and then blindly copied by others without qualification or explanation
    – depperm
    Sep 8, 2016 at 16:10

1 Answer 1


I believe the second part of this quote is original to Hatch, Edwin, and A M. Fairbairn. The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages Upon the Christian Church. London: Williams and Norgate, 1891, as follows:

Every soul has existed from the beginning; it has therefore passed through some worlds already, and will pass through others before it reaches final consummation. It comes into this world strengthened by its victories or weakened by the defeats of its previous life. Its place in this world as a vessel appointed to honor or to dishonour is determined by its previous merits or demerits. Its work in this world determines its place in the world which is to follow. (page 235f)

Hatch and Fairbairn were presenting a summary and pastiche of various Origen texts in such a way that it was not apparent to readers that it was not entirely a direct quote. In this passage, I believe they refer at least to the following passages from Origen's own work, De Principiis:

there were certain causes of prior existence, in consequence of which the souls, before their birth in the body, contracted a certain amount of guilt in their sensitive nature, or in their movements, on account of which they have been judged worthy by Divine Providence of being placed in this condition. ... And it is probable that these movements furnish grounds for merit even before they do anything in this world. (De Principiis III.iii.5)

the cause of each one's actions is a pre-existing one; and then every one, according to his deserts, is made by God either a vessel unto honour or dishonour. (De Principiis III.i.20)

we are of opinion that, seeing the soul, as we have frequently said, is immortal and eternal, it is possible that, in the many and endless periods of duration in the immeasurable and different worlds, it may descend from the highest good to the lowest evil, or be restored from the lowest evil to the highest good. (De Principiis III.i.21)

I am, indeed, of opinion that, as the end and consummation of the saints will be in those (ages) which are not seen, and are eternal, we must conclude (as frequently pointed out in the preceding pages), from a contemplation of that very end, that rational creatures had also a similar beginning. And if they had a beginning such as the end for which they hope, they existed undoubtedly from the very beginning in those (ages) which are not seen, and are eternal. (De Principiis III.v.4)

we are to suppose that at the consummation and restoration of all things, those who make a gradual advance, and who ascend (in the scale of improvement), will arrive in due measure and order at that land. (De Principiis III.vi.9)

Regarding the editorial practices of Hatch and Fairbairn, Cruttwell writes regarding this section:

Dr. Hatch has ably pieced it together from several of Origen's works in his own words.

Cruttwell, Charles Thomas. The heretical sects: Volume 2 of A Literary History of Early Christianity. Scribner, 1893, p. 505

The first part of this quote ("The soul has neither beginning nor end.") is known from Eastern philosophy. (eg. The Brahmavâdin. Madras: Brahmavadin Press, 1895, page 8), but I don't know when or how it became attributed to Origen.

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    Thanks Sondra, this is great! It doesn't look like the first part of the quote ("the soul has neither beginning nor end") is in Hatch and Fairbairn, at least from what I can tell, but that's a great find for the second half of the quote at least. Dec 7, 2016 at 16:21
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    The first part of the quote is attributed to Origen at least as early as 1961: see this. Dec 7, 2016 at 17:27

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