Our first contender for pre-existence must surely be Origen, (c.185 – c.254 A.D.) that much-maligned defender of the faith, who held a significant teaching position in the Church at Alexandria, and was considered to be the greatest theologian of the early Christian Church. The reason why he is castigated so much today, is based upon the Roman Catholic Church’s censure of his teaching on Universalism and Pre-existence. This came about by a Provincial Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D.. In the same year these teachings were condemned by Justinian. The old adage, “give a dog a bad name” has much truth in it. History has shown the degree to which the teachings of Origen have been side-lined, attacked, or eliminated from the Church. This is a shame. Anyone who has familiarised himself with Origen’s works will be amazed at his godliness, sincerity, and deep learning.
First of all I should like to quote a particular sequence from his writings relating to an ancient work entitled “The Prayer of Joseph”, which unfortunately is no longer extant, but was certainly known to Origen. It is found in his “Commentary on John chapter 2, verse 31.”
(He is speaking of John the Baptist,) “It will not be out of place to add a notion of our own about him. When we read the prophecy of him, ‘Behold, I send my angel before thy face,’ etc., we reflected if by chance one of the holy angels being upon service were not sent down as a forerunner of our Saviour. It would not, indeed, be surprising if, when the Firstborn of all Creation became incarnate, for love of man, some should have become emulators and imitators of Christ, and embraced the opportunity of ministering to His kindness to men by means of a like body. Now if anyone accepts among the Apocrypha current among the Hebrews, what is entitled The Prayer of Joseph, he will derive from it exactly this teaching, expressed in plain terms: that those who from the beginning possessed some special excellence beyond men, and were greatly superior to all other souls, have descended from the estate of angels into human nature. Jacob, at any rate, says: ‘For I Jacob that speak unto you, I am also Israel, an angel of God and a ruling spirit, and Abraham and Isaac were pre-created (proektisthesan, a word only found here) before any work. And I Jacob, that am called by men Jacob, yet my name is Israel, that am called by God Israel, a man seeing God, for I am the first begotten of every living thing that is quickened by God.’
And he continues: ‘And I, when I was coming from Mesopotamia of Syria, Uriel the Angel of God came forth and said that I had come down (came) to earth and tabernacled among men, and that I was called by name Jacob. He envied me and fought with me, and wrestled with me, saying that his name should have precedence of my name and of the Angel that is before all (or that his name and the name of the Angel that is before all should have precedence of my name). [All is singular, and should perhaps be rendered ‘before every (angel).’] And I told him his name, and in what order he is among the sons of God, saying: Art not thou Uriel the eighth from me, and I am Israel, an Archangel of the power of the Lord, and a captain of captains of thousands among the sons of God? Am I not Israel, the first minister before the face of God? And I called upon my God by the inextinguishable name!’ It is likely, (Origen goes on) that if these words were really spoken by Jacob, and therefore recorded, that the incident, ‘He supplanted his brother in the womb’ (Hos. xii. 3) happened intelligently. (He then speaks a little about Jacob and Esau, hinting at their possible pre-existence, andconcludes:) But we have made a considerable digression in taking up the matter of Jacob and calling in as evidence a writing not lightly to be despised, to make something more credible of the theory about John, which maintains that he, according to Isaiah’s word, being an Angel, took a body in order to bear witness to the Light.
(The second fragment is in the Philocalia, cap. xxiii. 15, taken from the Commentary on Genesis iii. It is partly to be found in Eusebius’ Praep. Evang., VI. II, and Procopius on Genesis quotes from it too. The topic is astrology.) For, as we showed before that the fact that God knows what every man will do is no obstacle to freewill, so neither do the signs which God has appointed for the giving of information impede freewill: but, like a book containing future events in prophecy, the whole heaven – the book of God, as it is – may contain the future. Wherefore in the Prayer of Joseph this word of Jacob may be thus understood: ‘For I have read in the tablets of heaven all that shall befall you and your sons.’ But if Jacob says he has read in the tablets of heaven what is to befall his sons, and upon this point some one objects to us that the opposite of what we have said is shown by the Scripture (for we were saying that man has no apprehension of the signs, whereas Jacob says he has read in the tablets of heaven), we shall say in defence that our wise men, aided by a spirit excelling human nature, are taught secret things not humanly but divinely, as Paul, who says, ‘I heard unspeakable words,’ etc. …And, besides, Jacob was greater than man, he who supplanted his brother, and who declares in that same book from which we quoted, ‘I read in the tablets of heaven’ that he was a captain of captains of thousands of the power (host) of the Lord, and had of old the name of Israel: which fact he recognises while doing service in a body, being reminded of it by the archangel Uriel.