“The most unkindest cut of all.” Even Shakespeare, who penned these words, would have winced at what was happening in this darkened room in the City of Alexandria in Egypt, early in the 3rd Century AD. Origen, perhaps the most famous Christian philosopher of his day, was both offender and victim in this act and, as he sliced away, this troubled man was consoled by the thought that at least he wouldn’t be a danger to the women that he was instructing in the faith.
There’s a huge irony in this act. You see, Origen had castrated himself as a literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12: “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven“. He believed that he was serving God in this painful and needless sacrifice. Yet this was the same Origen who was bringing into the early Church a whole new way of reading the Bible, techniques gleaned from Greek philosophy that frowned very much on literal interpretations of Scripture.
There’s a huge leap there from the gentle self-control advocated by the apostle Paul to this brutal self-castration. Yet Origen, who knew his Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, had made an informed decision that was utterly wrong. How could this be? How could a man with responsibilities as a teacher, in his role as principal of the School of Alexandria, read Holy Scripture in such an extreme way? To help us here we need to follow the movements and growth of the early Church, once it had left the pages of the Book of Acts.
A Church Father of note was Ignatius, a friend of Polycarp and, with all probability, another disciple of the apostle John. One Catholic “holy legend” claims that he was the child who Jesus took into his arms with the words, “whoever welcomes one of these little children …“. Ignatius became the Bishop of Antioch, the place where, in the Book of Acts, the name Christian first started to be used for followers of Jesus. Ignatius was eventually martyred in Rome early in the 2nd Century AD, writing a series of letters at the end of his life that addressed matters of doctrine and practice.
Another figure from the early days with a link to Biblical history was Clement of Rome, one of the early popes. His claim to fame was supposedly as the “Clement” mentioned by Paul in Philippians.
Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3)
Clement wrote a letter to Corinth, known as the First Epistle of Clement, considered the oldest Christian letter outside the pages of the New Testament. A letter full of knowledge and understanding, filled with the deeds of characters from both Old and New Testaments. Here was a man who’d evidently been to countless Bible studies, rather than philosophy classes.
And so we come to the end of what is known as the Apostolic period. Now all who had known Jesus had died, as had those who had known those who had known Jesus. The Church was now on its own, but how was it going to cope? Was it going to move forwards guided by direct instructions from the letters and gospels of the original apostles and by the oral traditions preserved by those, such as Polycarp, with direct links with the original Church? Or was it going to look around at the World, at deceivers like Marcion, and allow other ideas to get into the mix?
We will find the answer to this next week …
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again)