Origen’s Revenge: A Review (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 3


Brian Patrick Mitchell, Origen’s Revenge: The Greek and Hebrew Roots of Christian Thinking on Male and Female (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021), pp. xxviii + 280. $34.00.


Origen's Revenge, Brian Patrick Mitchell, Review, Pappas Patristic Institute, Jordan Parro

The thesis of Brian Patrick Mitchell’s Origen’s Revenge is that the Christian tradition has inherited two opposed and ultimately irreconcilable traditions on the issue of human sexual difference: the first, an “anti-sexual” view of human nature that minimizes the reality of sexual difference and originates in Greek philosophy, and the second, the “pro-sexual” view of the Hebrew Bible that esteems the sexes and finds their origin in God as humanity’s proto-image.[1] The project seeks to trace the origins of these two contradictory traditions and then to evaluate them in order to excise the negative Hellenic influence in favor of what the author takes to be the far preferable Hebrew view.


In short, Mitchell has revived and reiterated the notorious “Hellenization of Christianity” construct most often associated with Adolph von Harnack, who saw the influence of Hellenistic thought as a threat to a pure and unadulterated (Semitic) Christian theological imaginary.[2] Mitchell’s thesis, pace Harnack, is not that there ever was a pure form of Christianity that was later polluted by Hellenism, but that Christianity was infected from the start by those more Hellenized texts of the Jewish scriptural tradition and the broader Hellenic philosophical culture in which it emerged. Certain speculative Christian intellectuals, most notably Origen of Alexandria and Maximus the Confessor, inherited a deeply negative view of the body from this Hellenic milieu and subsequently perpetuated it. Mitchell sees his work’s main contribution as one of the first attempts at a possible solution to this problem.



Mitchell’s Reading of Hebrew Christianity


Mitchell acknowledges that the textual and material record does not support the existence of a distinctly Hebrew tradition untouched by outside influence. Rather, he rightly claims that the Hebrew Bible, as Christians received it, is an edited text that lacks a uniform and systematic position on sexual difference (63). Mitchell’s response to this problem is to engage in a close literary reading of texts that do not “betray the influence of Hellenism” (63). After identifying distinctively Hebrew themes, he then proceeds to locate similar themes in patristic authors whom he takes to have preserved, perhaps unwittingly, this tradition. Mitchell contends that the creation narratives in Genesis stress the common human nature between men and women, the sexes’ mutual connection to the imago dei, and their likeness rather than their difference (65). All of this he contrasts over and against the Hellenistic tradition which, in his estimation, reduces sexual difference to accidental bodily differences aimed at procreation (64-70; 97).


One example of the limits of Mitchell’s literary reading however is that it is unable to fully account for variations in emphasis across texts. For example, Mitchell contends that the Genesis accounts arrive quite late at describing the actual difference between men and women especially as it regards reproduction (68). However, by the same literary criteria that Mitchell is using, the creation of male and female in Genesis 1 could directly and, perhaps primarily, be related to procreation. Genesis 1:26-27 appears as the culmination of a creation narrative that seems particularly interested in how creatures subsist through reproduction. The author of Genesis 1 seems to have gone out of his way to anticipate sexual difference by earlier recounting that God brought forth plants that reproduce by seed-bearing fruit (1:11-12). God blesses other land animals and birds in the same way as he blessed human beings, commanding them to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:22). The Hebrew terms for “male” and “female” (זכר and נקבח) in Genesis 1 derive from words that are clearly euphemistic for genital function. The literary theme of Genesis 1 appears to be deeply concerned with sexual difference as primarily related to procreation and bodily difference. While the above facts about Genesis do not negate other possible readings, such as those that Mitchell brings forward, his case for reading other themes as more central could have anticipated objections based on his own criteria.[3]



Mitchell’s Handling of the Greek Christian Sources


It is difficult to evaluate Mitchell’s genealogy of the Greek tradition. Mitchell’s assessment of the Greek tradition, at times reductive, relies quite heavily on its characterization of procreation as the only function of sexual difference. Mitchell is aware that the reception of Plato and Aristotle on the topic of sexual difference and marriage is diverse but never fully explores the ways in which that diversity might complicate his thesis. For example, the second century Stoic philosopher Musonius placed a great deal of emphasis on procreation but also considered the mutual love and companionship of a married couple to be indispensable elements of a virtuous marriage.[4] He further emphasized that the marriage relationship is a deep friendship that transcends even familial bonds,[5] and that its sacred status is confirmed in that great gods protect and keep it.[6] Likewise, the Middle Platonist Plutarch who, although his view of the marriage relationship is one that the modern reader may find problematically hierarchical, saw the relational harmony of that relationship within a household as fundamental to leading a virtuous life.[7] To Mitchell, these voices ultimately cannot characterize the Greek view, but the survival of these texts for centuries, through laborious scribal efforts, is already evidence of their lasting importance and, if nothing else, a witness to the diversity of Hellenic thinking on the topic.


New Testament authors as well as later Christians echoed these deeply relational modes of thinking about marriage, a fact Mitchell tends to construe in Chapter 5 as fidelity to the Hebrew view.[8] Mitchell is aware of thinkers like Musonius and Plutarch but never considers the possibility that the proto-orthodox Christians deployed their polemics against Encratism (i.e., the radical renunciation of sexuality) from within a Greek philosophical thought world and not exclusively from a contradictory Hebrew inheritance. The enormous diversity within the Greek philosophical tradition and its reception and transformation within Christianity warrant at least a modest discussion as to how this diversity comes to bear on Mitchell’s perspective that Greek and Hebrew views are diametrically opposed.


Next, Mitchell outlines what he calls the “Greek Christian” view. “Greek Christian” is a misleading phrase here, but it is Mitchell’s. The phrase would normally imply the theological thought world of early Christians for whom Greek was the main language of theological discourse or the primary language in which their texts survive. For Mitchell, however, the phrase refers to Christian authors who have, in his estimation, imported the negative Hellenistic understanding of male/female as he understands it, whether or not those Christians knew, wrote, or spoke Greek. (For example, Mitchell thinks of Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo as “Greek” for their promotion of celibacy.) Mitchell considers several figures, but it is Maximus the Confessor and, to a lesser extent, Origen of Alexandria who are the primary loci. Origen’s Revenge does not feature Origen as strongly as its title suggests, which is a pity, because Mitchell’s handling of the secondary scholarship on Origen is perhaps the strongest aspect of the book.


For Mitchell, as for many of the late antique authors whom Mitchell surveys, Origen remains a specter that continues to haunt Christianity. From Mitchell’s point of view, the Cappadocians and, later, Maximus the Confessor, would preserve Origen’s denigration of human embodiment by applying his allegorical exegetical method especially with respect to Genesis. The culmination of Origen’s (and by extension, Hellenism’s) covert influence on Christianity reached its apogee in the works of Maximus who, rather than reading the Genesis creation accounts authentically as dignifying the sexes, claimed in Ambiguum 41 that the division between male and female must be “shaken off” in the eschaton. In part two of this review, I will deal separately with Mitchell’s reading of Maximus. Mitchell diverges from a number of Maximus scholars who preceded him, contending that they have not taken Maximus’ discussion of male and female seriously, nor considered the radical meaning of his words (9, 10, 12). There are good reasons to challenge Mitchell’s reading of the Confessor, but for now, we will forebear to leave the claim unproblematized. In the end, Mitchell concludes that the Greek view of male and female, as he understands it, has little left to offer contemporary Christians.



Conclusion


Mitchell is certainly entitled to draw whatever theological conclusions seem most reasonable to him, and Chapter 6 is where he more explicitly attempts to engage in a systematic and constructive project. Still, much of his central argument relies on the presumption that “Greek” Christians resisted clear scriptural teaching and were uncritically dependent on Hellenistic thinking. This presumption becomes clearer in light of small oversights the author makes, such as when he incorrectly suggests an etymological relationship between the Greek word for city (πόλις) and words related to war (πολεμίζω, πόλεμος),[9] a connection meant to support the claim that the Greek view of society and sex is predicated on an excess of violence and that, as a result, Greek Christians over-emphasized the difference between the sexes (22). Other curiosities remain in the book as well. A notable example is Mitchell’s rather editorializing criticism of Gregory of Nyssa’s theory that angels reproduce. Mitchell finds the view sophomoric, “as if God did not make enough angels in the beginning and cannot make more of them whenever he pleases” (128), without considering that this critique could likewise apply to human beings, who, he has argued, reproduce by divine design. It is not clear how his criticism, and others like it, functions for his argument except as a denigration of Gregory of Nyssa’s intelligence.


Mitchell’s attempt to extract an unadulterated Hebrew theology from the textual tradition is, on its own, ambitious. Making the case for the viability of such a project could have been a book-length project by itself, prior to any theologizing.[10] Mitchell anticipates the reader’s response to the book’s polemical tone in his Introduction. He emphasizes that Origen’s Revenge is not a “general indictment of the influence of Hellenism on Christianity or of Origen, Maximus the Confessor, or anyone else,” but rather the demonstration of an incommensurability between two received perspectives.[11] His solution however, is to “discard”[12] what he takes to be the Hellenistic influence within Christianity in favor of the more Hebrew, indeed, the “more reasonable, more equitable, and more humane … as well as more biblical, more traditional, and more natural”[13] understanding of male/female. This Hebrew tradition, he contends, continues to be a fecund source for understanding social relations and for learning how to love in a divine way. “The Greek Christian tradition does not,” regardless of how it has been understood, nuanced, or otherwise preserved by “some sainted Fathers” (221). It is not clear why this position falls short of an “indictment.” Mitchell’s call to action is to “dismiss the needlessly narrow Greek Christian view”[14] that he suggests is diametrically opposed to and irreconcilable with the Hebrew.


Mitchell is aware of the possibility that he has made too much of the Greek/Hebrew dichotomy. In his Introduction he writes:


Whenever comparing two complex phenomena, the finite human mind tends toward simplistically binary thinking … I can only hope that I have not missed any necessary qualifications and that the reader will not think I am making more of the differences of Greek and Hebrew and of male and female than I intend.”[15]


I offer this review of Origen’s Revenge in much the same spirit in which Mitchell wrote it. There is a great deal to value in the book and it demonstrates the enormous effort taken to collate and synthesize a large breadth of material. For anyone interested in late antique Christian thinking on male and female, this work will serve as a bibliographic treasure trove. Mitchell’s handling of contemporary Origen scholarship is particularly strong. By positing anew the mutual exclusivity of Hebrew and Greek, Mitchell has posed a challenge that deserves to be debated. What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not a revival of the Hellenization thesis will advance conversations in studies concerned with sex, gender, marriage, the Hebrew Bible, early Christianity, or late antiquity. As the work stands, the whole may be less than the sum of its parts.


In the second part of this review, I will focus on the author’s use of Maximus the Confessor. Because the Confessor’s theological anthropology is one of the more highly contested elements in Mitchell’s argument, it merits special attention and consideration.



Jordan Parro, Boston College


(Click here to read Part 2, on sexual difference in St Maximos the Confessor.)

 

[1] Brian Patrick Mitchell, Origen’s Revenge: The Greek and Hebrew Roots of Christian Thinking on Male and Female (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021), xvii-xix.

[2] Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. Neil Buchanan, 7 vols. (London: Williams & Norgate, 18963), 1:46-47, 1:49, 1:56-57, 2:333. Much has been written about this Hellenization thesis, and modern scholarship has largely abandoned it. See Carl Andresen, “Antike und Christentum,” in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, vol. 3, ed. Gerhard Müller et al. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1978), 50–73; Hans Dieter Betz, “Hellenism,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 127–35; Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, Vol. I: History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1952), 41–45; Erich S. Gruen, “Jews and Greeks,” in A Companion to the Hellenistic World, ed. Andrew Erskine (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World) (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 264–79; Hubertus R. Drobner, “Christian Philosophy,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, ed. Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 672–90; Christoph Markschies, “Does it Make Sense to Speak of a ‘Hellenization of Christianity’ in Antiquity?,” Church History and Religious Culture 92 (2012): 33–34. Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (Library of Religion and Culture) (London: Williams and Norgate, 1891; repr., New York: Harper & Row, 1957). For a further critique, see Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford Early Christian Studies) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).


[3] For a helpful summary of the almost boundless modern scholarship on Genesis 1 and of the potential pitfalls in exegetical theological approaches, see Phyllis A. Bird, “Male and Female He Created Them,” Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981): 129-59.

[4] Musonius Rufus, Discourse XIIIA (text and translation in Cora E. Lutz, “Musonius Rufus: The Roman Socrates,” Yale Classical Studies 10 [1947]: 89-90).

[5] Musonius, Disc. XIV (Lutz, 95).

[6] Musonius, Disc. XIV (Lutz, 95-96).

[7] Plutarch, Coniugalia Praecepta 144C (LCL 222:333).

[8] Cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.12.79-85; 1 Timothy 2-3; 1 Tim 5-6; 2 Tim 2; 1 Titus 1-3.


[9] S.v. πόλεμος, in Etymological Dictionary of Greek, vol. 2, ed Robert S. P. Beekes (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1219: “The alternation between initial πτ- and π- …, although echoed by πόλις < PIE * tpolh1-i-, must have been adopted from Pre-Greek…. Formally, the word has been linked with πελεμίζω 'to shake, tremble', and more distantly to πάλλω, but this is semantically unattractive.”

[10] The classic text which problematized the concept of a pure Hebraic Judaism is Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974). It is unfortunate that Mitchell appears to be unaware of this work.

[11] Mitchell, Origen’s Revenge, xxiv.

[12] Mitchell, Origen’s Revenge, xxviii.

[13] Mitchell, Origen’s Revenge, 153, 94.

[14] Mitchell, Origen’s Revenge, 219.

[15] Mitchell, Origen’s Revenge, xxvi.