The story that Origen, in a fit of piety, castrated himself, was well known during the Middle Ages. Carl Pyrdum on his (now defunct?) blog, Got Medieval, has a brief discussion of this which includes an image of Origen and his severed genitalia(I decided not to include an image here).
This account comes to us from Eusebius. In his Ecclesiastical History, VI.8 he relates how Origen decided to, er, separate himself from his sexual bits because he either misread scripture or because he was teaching female catechumens and wanted to either be free from temptation or let everyone know that it was impossible for any hanky-panky to be going on, or maybe a combination of the two. 1
So as sort of a warmup to discussing Origen’s theology I thought it would be interesting to explore this question; Did Origen castrate himself?
A fair amount of this will involve a discussion of Origen’s life so I guess I might as well include relevant parts of his biography. Origen was the son of a prominent Christian who was martyred around the start of the third century. His career began in Alexandria where he quickly became a favorite of the Bishop, Demetrius. As an educated layperson, Origen was qualified to give instruction to catechumens which he did, as well as write. At some point Origen’s teaching turned into actual preaching (I’m a bit fuzzy on the distinction myself) which Demetrius opposed.
As a result, around 230 Origen was driven out of Alexandria and moved to Caesarea. There he was ordained as a priest, which Demetrius opposed and wrote against, and stayed there for the rest of his life, preaching and writing.
In looking at Origen’s self-distesticulation, which was certainly a no-no for Christians, especially for priests who were expected to be free of blemishes, the discussion has to center upon the possibility that this was an invention of his critics, particularly Demetrius. Eusebius specifically attributes the story getting out to the Alexandrian Bishop who, as he was nearing death, seems to have developed a hatred of Origen.
So was this story invented? It’s a plausible theory. Religious conflict could be messy and Alexandria would later develop a reputation as a place where things could get particularly dirty. Someone could have spread this story around, once Origen was in Caesarea and not on hand to be examined, or engage in public flashing, to dispute it. The story would have had an added benefit of keeping Origen away because even if the story wasn’t true, it would be a pretty good indication of what he’d face if he returned.
To me the above is a wash. Demetrius could have made this up but we have no evidence of this other than the fact that Origen had enemies(this could have been invented by someone else and then used by Demetrius). So how do we resolve this?
Well, first of all, we don’t. There’s no “the answer” unless someone finds where Origen was buried, can definitively prove it was him, and finds testicles(and I suppose to really remove doubt DNA would have to show that the testicles belonged to the rest of the body). However I want to explain why I consider Origen’s self-castration to be unlikely. I’m going to do this by examining two areas; his role within the Church and his writings.
OK, Origen was a teacher in the Church, educating catechumens at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which he revived while a young man. This school was operated as a philosophical branch. One of the traditions of philosophy was that teachers should inspire students to want to emulate them. Would castrating oneself be something students would find desirable? Would this help attract students?
At that time a catechumen was a person who was interested in Christianity and was engaged in learning enough about it to make an informed decision before being baptized which would (at least in theory) result in a radical change in the catechumen’s lifestyle. Again, would the fact that one of the teachers and the head of the school had castrated himself out of religious piety encourage people to convert? I know I recently cautioned everyone not to make assumptions about folks from historical periods thinking like us but I’m going to take a leap here and say that having a teacher who cut his own junk off for religious reasons would not be a strong selling point when trying to attract new Christians.
So this is the first reason I consider this unlikely. A prominent teacher at a school designed to educate people about Christianity and convince them to convert would likely not have been someone who had engaged in self-mutilation. I don’t care if he was educating girls, boys, or snow leopards. I think it unlikely, though we have to give at least some credibility to the idea that he had done so, regretted it, and managed to conceal it.
However the real reason why I have serious questions about this is because of Origen’s writings. Eusebius relates that in addition to avoiding suspicion while teaching girls, Origen castrated himself because he misunderstood Matthew 19:12 where Jesus advocates people becoming Eunuchs for the Church.
The problem is, Origen constantly cautions people not to read scriptures literally. He states, many times, that the Bible (he’s also the first person I recall to say the Bible should be considered a single book, not a collection) includes figurative and spiritual, as well as literal, meanings. Now Eusebius says Origen did this while very young, however he also says one reason was to help him teach girls. Clearly we’re not talking about Origen the teenager. We’re likely discussing him while in his 20’s. Unless his thinking was very different from when he wrote On First Principles beginning from when he was about 30, he would have known not to take scripture literally. 2
Of course a counter to this is that cutting one’s own testicles off, then finding out this isn’t what the Bible meant, might cause someone to radically alter his opinion of how scripture should be read. I’d say that would rank pretty high on any list of OSM’s. 3
So I want to offer a specific quote which I consider the key piece of evidence, for my opinion anyway. In On Prayer, XX.1, Origen writes:
Let us suppose there is a difference between church and synagogue. In its proper sense the church has no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but is holy and blameless. Into it enters no bastard or eunuch or one castrated …
On prayer was written after Origen had moved to Caesarea. Unlike much of his material, the entire work survives in Greek, meaning it was not changed by Rufinus. Would Origen, by this time certainly aware of Demetrius’ accusation, have written about this and drawn attention to it if he himself had violated this prohibition on castrated people entering the Church?
Ultimately, there’s no way to know for sure if Origen castrated himself. However the above passage is the deal breaker for me. I think it unlikely.
In the end, is this important? Not terribly but a little. When folks talk about historical religious fanaticism, Origen’s self-mutilation comes up and makes a rather impressive factoid. The Church had its fanatics (or folks we’d consider fanatics today, back then those people were often considered to be doing their job). People left behind everything they had to live their life on top of a pole or in a cave. They engaged in self-flagellation and deliberately inflicted pain upon themselves in the name of religion. However after thinking this over, considering what he wrote, specifically the passage from On Prayer, I think Origen’s castration should not be included in this list of fanatical acts.
1 When you read Eusebius’ account, it comes across as contradictory. Eusebius says he did it partly to be free from slander and then says he couldn’t hide it, however hard he tried. If the reason for becoming a Eunuch was to avoid slander, wouldn’t you have to let folks know about it?
2 On First Principles(de principiis) IV.9. I’ll be talking about this in more detail when I discuss Origen’s theology. As evidence that this was Origen’s thought, not something added by Rufinus, this passage is one of those which Jerome did his own translation of. The idea is also included in the Philocalia, provided by Gregory Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, in Greek. This, along with considering how many times he returns to this theme, is very strong evidence that the concept is Origen’s own.
3 OSM stands for “Oh Shit Moment.” I try to avoid profanity here but occasionally its use does legitimately advance an argument.
Eusebius of Caesarea, C.F. Cruze, trans., Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.
Origen, George Lewis, trans., The Philocalia of Origen: A Compilation of Selected Passages from Origen’s Works Made by St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Caesarea. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark (1911).
Origen, Rowan A. Greer, trans., Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, First Principles: Book IV, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XXVII on Numbers. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press (1979). ISBN: 978-0-809102198-4.
Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.