Origen the "Eunuch"

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Ambrose Andreano

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Topic
Perspective
They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. (Matthew 19:9-12)

Before we venture into a discussion on Eusebius and what he says about Origen’s alleged castration, I wanted to begin with the biblical passage in question, as well as an exploration of Origen’s interpretation, which I find to be necessary to understand the way he thinks, but also that all may benefit from the interpretation itself (which is illuminating).

THE THREE EUNUCHS

Origen begins his commentary with a somewhat lengthy discussion on the three types of eunuchs that Christ mentions: (T1) eunuchs who are born this way, (T2) eunuchs who were made this way of men, (T3) eunuchs who have made themselves this way for the sake of the kingdom. His way of publicly reasoning is essentially a way for him to think out loud so the reader can follow his thought process and journey with him. He asks the reader to think about how we are to understand these three kinds of eunuchs. He then lists three groups of people each having a different possible interpretation to the three types of eunuchs. Either group (a) all three are meant to be understood literally, group (b) the first two examples are meant to be literal and the third concerning the kingdom is spiritual/mystical/allegorical, or group (c) all three are spiritual. Origen ultimately has his eyes set to land at (c), but he first journeys through (a) and (b) simply to reject them as sufficient landing zones, though he does admit, “The second group has given a healthy meaning to the third type,”[1] despite overlooking the spiritual meaning of the first two types of eunuchs.

Origen’s interpretation is as follows (all of which refer spiritually, in different ways, to celibacy): Origen’s spiritual understanding of (T1) is that some are by nature eunuchs: which is to say those who are born asexual. These are people who live in celibacy simply because they have no sexual desire rather than born without genitalia.[2] For (T2) Origen says there are others who live in celibacy for what are problematic human reasons that are not truly inspired by God, such as the belief that sex and marriage is inherently evil,[3] and for (T3) Origen says it is with regards to those who make themselves celibate and mortify the flesh because of their love for Christ and his commandments. In other words, a “eunuch” in this sense is generally anyone who cuts off the “flesh” of sexual passions and willingly chooses singleness in obedience to Christ.

Depending on the context of how one applies the spiritual word, it would relate to not only (T3(a)) all monastics (who called this the "angelic" life), or even (T3(b)) the widow who chooses to not remarry, but perhaps it stretches even to (T3(c)) those who remain in marital singleness, as opposed to indulging a fleshly desire for multiple spouses through divorce and remarriage (or polygamy).This seems to be the context of Matthew 19:9, where Christ cautions people away from getting divorced and remarrying, and explains how there are a variety of spiritual ways one can be a “eunuch.” In this sense, the husband “castrates his flesh” (that is, his passions) when he is satisfied with the marital singleness of being united to his wife alone: divorce never seriously being considered. It is in this sense that even a married person can be, in their own way, classified as a eunuch for the kingdom of God.

THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR

Eusebius records in his Ecclesiastical History that when Origen was a catechist he castrated himself in rashness because he took too literally Christ’s words “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of heaven,” and he wanted to be above reproach because he, a celibate man, had a substantial number of women under his tutelage. Scholars wishing to find ways to force Eusebius’ unworkable narrative to make sense, such as Barbara Bruce, posit the explanation that Origen must have had a “literal interpretation” of scripture when he was young, and then grew more mystical with age.[4] However, listen to what Eusebius himself already said beforehand about the youthful Origen:

"...he was not satisfied with learning what was simple and obvious in the sacred words, but sought for something more, and even at that age busied himself with deeper speculations. So that he puzzled his father with inquiries for the true meaning of the inspired scriptures. And his father rebuked him seemingly to his face, telling him not to search beyond his age, or further than the manifest meaning. But by himself he rejoiced greatly and thanked God, the author of all good, that he had deemed him worthy to be the father of such a child."[5]

Obviously this event took place prior to Leonides' death, which means Origen was somewhere prior to 16 years old when he was already grasping the mystical sense of the text, whereas Bruce asserts that 18 year old Origen was too literal. Because Origen did in fact understand spiritual interpretation long before the time he became the Alexandrian catechist, Bruce’s explanation (and Eusebius’ himself, for that matter) must certainly be rejected. For whatever reason, Eusebius did not notice this inconsistency in his own narrative, nor have scholars (from what I have seen) noticed how Eusebius refutes himself.

Many other scholars, including Fr John Behr and Fr John McGuckin agree with Henry Chadwick that this was probably the result of malicious gossip. McGuckin says the story “was lurid enough to ensure that it is the one thing most people remember about Origen,”[6] and that Origen’s own commentary on Matthew 19:12 (as we have explored above) should be prioritized over Eusebius. For those who want to know more check out my essay “Debunking Myths about Origen,” where I also talk about this topic. However, I have my own theory on this that I did not mention in that essay that some might find interesting:

THE "TONGUES" THEORY

We know for a fact from his commentary that Origen understood Christ’s words about eunuchs to be a mystical reference to celibacy. In other words, Christ is calling every willfully celibate person a “eunuch” because they have effectively castrated themselves with the decision to live in celibacy (the vow of singleness acting as a castration). Origen was himself a celibate man who, like Christ, spoke casually in mystical and shrouded metaphorical language. My theory is that Origen openly referred to himself as a eunuch, because it kills three birds with one stone:

  1. It would let those who are initiated in mystical language know of his celibacy.
  2. It would let the women under him know he is off the market whether they know what he is talking about or not.
  3. It would let those who are not initiated in mystical language know that he is above reproach concerning women, because they think he is a literal eunuch.

This theory answers far too many questions for it not to be true, which is why I think Origen openly referring to himself as a “eunuch” (understood in the mystical sense reflected in his own commentary) in connection with his massive increase in word-of-mouth popularity is where all of this originates, and not because Origen actually went through a literal surgery, which, as I mention in my other article: McGuckin says would have been massively debilitating in contradiction to Origen’s long and healthy life. McGuckin also refutes Henri Crouzel’s suspicion about Origen evidently having a deep understanding of castration by saying that Origen had simply read the medical treatise of Galen.[7] I find it highly unlikely that people actually demanded that Origen expose himself for confirmation (nor is there evidence of this happening) so this was most likely hearsay that came from literally taking Origen at his word.

It is also worth noting that many people back then did not view actual eunuchs the way we do today. Today we view castration as some kind of emasculating gnostic attack on the human body, but many of them saw it as the most masculine expression one could display of “mortifying the flesh” in zealous refusal to not allow sin to have any control over them. This is simply to remind ourselves that we cannot be anachronistic: presuming our modern negative perception of castration must have also been held by all those other patristic figures. Here is St. Jerome praising Origen for castrating himself, despite thinking that it was a misinterpretation of the text:

Does any one wish to praise Origen? Let him praise him as I do. From his childhood he was a great man, and truly a martyr's son. At Alexandria he presided over the school of the church, succeeding a man of great learning the presbyter Clement. So greatly did he abhor sensuality that, out of a zeal for God but yet one not according to knowledge, he castrated himself with a knife.[8]

Therefore, the fundamental question is: what exactly caused Demetrius to change his views about castration? Or did he?

A PASTORAL CONCERN

I have no reason to doubt that Demetrius was, at least in part, a possessive and rigid authoritarian who clearly prioritized the “letter of the law” over the spirit,[9] and who demanded to retake control over who he referred to as “his” theologian.[10] I do think Eusebius was right in thinking of Demetrius as the antagonist of the story based on all the consistent patterns of Demetrius’ actions, but I think Eusebius is missing a part of the story. I admit this will be conjecture on my part, however, I do think my hypothesis at least deserves some investigation, if not merely for the sake of proving it wrong. It is as follows:

When someone gets popular, their influence widens, as do their followers. With a widening of followers comes a widening of diversity. When diversity widens, the more likely one will encounter not only hostile followers who seek to silence you (think of Christ’s hostile relationship to the clerical authorities), but also the crazy fanboys who try to be them. The widening of diversity also makes one more susceptible to being misunderstood, because one is drawing in people who are so far removed from the inner circle and immediate context. For example, anyone with a lot of followers on Twitter will know exactly what I’m talking about by experience.

Therefore, considering all of this knowledge about the general tendencies of human nature, what likely could have happened was that there was an increase in castrations among certain admirers of Origen who, upon hearing he was a “eunuch,” wanted to be like Origen. It seems to me that the topic of Origen’s castration was not just theoretical and concerning one man, but rather it may have become an actual pastoral question that many had to deal with because Origen was (a) extremely popular, (b) beloved of many, and (c) said to be a eunuch, which probably caused some to say to themselves: “Hm, Origen is super smart and holy. And he’s a eunuch, so maybe I should do that too,” not realizing this “eunuch” moniker was really just means to say mystically that he took a vow of celibacy.

After coming up with this theory, I searched to see if this ever happened in history. And as it turns out, in 1828 there was a sect of about two hundred wealthy Origenist eunuchs in St. Petersburg, Russia who castrated themselves specifically in imitation of Origen.[11] Metropolitan Seraphim (Glagolevsky) of Novgorod and St. Petersburg also gives a separate account of seventeen soldiers who castrated themselves after taking Matthew 19:12 too literally, which shows how a variety of people have done this, and they were not limited to just Origenists. This interesting discovery confirmed my theory that it is indeed possible for regular people to have desired castration, and Origen’s popularity alongside the knowledge of his eunuch status could have been a catalyst for such actions. The implication is, of course, that it is also at least possible for this to have happened in the 3rd century, because it did happen in the 19th. I propose this as not only a way to nuance Origen, but also to nuance the perspective of Demetrius, who may have been more than simply villainous: having genuine and understandable concerns despite his other problems. This could also relate to why the very first canon of the Council of Nicaea is about how best to approach the various kinds of eunuchs in the church.

It is also fascinating to see what details are found about the observable effects of castration on the body. After saying how this Russian Origenist sect was (despite their apparent strangeness) “sound in essential points of doctrine, and versed in the scriptures,” it goes on to say the following:

In general it is easy to distinguish them from other men; they become sallow and sickly-looking, their beards and hair begin to fall off and look parched, and in all respects they resemble a drooping, withering plant.[12]

This is another clear example of why the popular castration tale must be false, as it validates what McGuckin said about castration being massively debilitating. If Origen did truly castrate himself, everyone around him would have not only known based on his appearance alone, but there would have been comments from all directions about his unusual appearance, which Eusebius would have recorded. Of course, we have no such comments anywhere, which is a significant detail by itself, let alone paired together with all the other data points.

Now, supposing my theory about Origen’s castration were true, two questions arise:

(Q1): Would Demetrius not have known Origen was just speaking in mystical terms concerning his “eunuch” status?
(Q2): Why didn’t Origen correct people who falsely believed he actually castrated himself?

___

(A1): To the first question there are at least four possibilities: (a) Demetrius, not being well-versed in mystical language, never investigated the claims thoroughly: presuming the assertions to be true in a literal sense without actually speaking with Origen, and he simply began to see Origen in a different light, (b) Demetrius did know Origen did not castrate himself but took a vow of celibacy, and that a young man deciding to live in celibacy is what Demetrius was actually impressed with, which would mean his views on eunuchs remain consistent but his later antagonism would be an intentional slander which he did knowing the truth, (c) Origen was completely unaware of what Demetrius actually thought, and clarified only after the damage was done, if at all (d) Origen intentionally did not clarify what he meant by becoming a eunuch and led Demetrius to falsely believe the lie that he did castrate himself, perhaps, through deception, seeking to make Demetrius feel completely at ease with allowing him to work closely with women.

(A2): It could be argued that he did exactly this in his commentary on Matthew 19:12, which was published long after the presumed time of castration, and it acts as an indirect way to break the fourth wall with any potential fan of his who might seriously be considering castrating themselves. Those people would presumably encounter Origen’s commentary on eunuchs the way one would drive into a brick wall.

CONCLUSION

As we have explored, Origen’s views on eunuchs reveal a thoroughly mystical insight into the text of Matthew 19:12, and this spiritual perception of scripture is, as Eusebius tells us (refuting his own account), one that he had even in youth. Therefore, the idea that Origen was too “rash,” and understood scripture too literally in youth, must be rejected. According to my analysis, one is not only hard-pressed to find a single persuasive argument in favor of the castration tale, but one also finds an excess of persuasive arguments against it. I have also offered a new perspective on the matter merely in the interest of exploration and to further the conversation, whether it is to be accepted or not. Perhaps one day we will discover the whole truth, but for now I must settle for what I can surmise according to, as Origen always said, “the best of my ability.” And if someone else comes along and offers something more persuasive, go with them.

__________

[1] Origen, Commentary on Matthew 15.1.
[2] Ibid., 15.4: “The first are so because of their nature; to them the word should be applicable”
[3] Ibid., “The others may well, for rational reasons, practice asceticism and have turned toward abstinence from the enjoyment of love and from any lack of restraint in these matters; but this intention and asceticism and (so to speak) good performance was not generated in them by the Word of God, but rather by human words, whether of those who practice philosophy among the Greeks, or of the heretics who "prohibit marriage and demand abstinence from certain foods."
[4] Origen, Homilies on Joshua (FOTC 105), trans. Barbara J. Bruce (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 4.
[5] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.2.9-10.
[6] John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity, 266.
[7] Ibid., 1289. McGuckin refutes Henri Crouzel in the 57th footnote of his third chapter, titled Coming of Age: Christianity in the Third Century: “Crouzel (Origen, 9n32), who says Origen writes with “apparent” firsthand knowledge about eunuchism, does not realize he is drawing this entirely from the medical treatise of Galen. Already in the nineteenth century, F. Boehringer (Kirkengeschichte [Zurich: 1869], 28) saw through the castration tale. It has become increasingly suspect in modern historiography and ought now to be laid aside. Post-infantile castration debilitates massively, and Origen was a very robust and energetic individual all his life until his final torture.”
[8] Jerome, Letters 84.8.
[9] cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6.
[10] McGuckin, Westminster Handbook to Origen (2004), p. 9: “To have invited Origen to discourse was a novel thing but not wholly unexpected, given his international stature. It infuriated Demetrios, however, and eventually he sent deacons from the Alexandrian church, carrying letters to the Palestinian hierarchs, demanding the immediate return of "his" theologian, or at least his catechist.”
[11] Robert Pinkerton, Russia: Or, Miscellaneous Observations on the Past and Present State of that Country and Its Inhabitants (1833), pp. 263-264.
[12] Ibid.


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