Who Were the Early Church Fathers?

Christianity began as a cult in the Mediterranean region in c.30CE. Dr Richard Carrier (author of On the Historicity of Jesus) describes the movement as beginning as a breakaway Jewish sect that incorporated elements from the other cultures, namely, the Greeks. To most Christians, the founder of their religion was Jesus, a man from Nazareth, who preached to crowds and individuals. The evolution of Christian faith then continued via many others who shared Christianity with others. There were many people involved in this process, however, some key personalities who stand out. The following is a snapshot of some of the patriarchs who help mould the characteristics of the Christian Church.

Image by Karyna Mykytiuk, Licence – Creative Commons

Valentinus (c.100 – 160) was an Egyptian born philosopher who studied at Alexandria and is known for his gnostic approach to Christianity. He spent several years in Rome where he spread his ideas about Jesus and Mary being symbolic of spiritual forms, not literal people; his ideas were largely based upon Platonic thought. Valentinus was labeled a heretic, however, his gnostic teachings endured through his disciples who formed Christian groups.

Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) was born in Rome and raised by pagan parents; prior to converting to Christianity he received training in Stoicism, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophies. He rejected most Greek philosophy claiming them to be partial truths, whereas Christianity was the complete truth, which most closely aligned with some of Plato’s ideas. Dialogue with Trypho is Justin’s most renown work, in which he relies heavily upon Jewish scripture in an attempt to demonstrate Christianity is the truest philosophy. (More about Martyr’s explanations of Christianity can be found in: Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?)

Irenaeus (c.120/140 – 200/203) was born in Lyon, France. He went on to become the bishop of Lyon and his theological work focused on refuting gnosticism (i.e., that the story of Jesus was purely symbolic), notably in his work titled Adversus Haereses (Against heresies). His work went on to be highly influential at Nicene council discussions that rejected gnosticism.

Origen (c.184 – 253CE) was born into Christian family in Alexandria and his father was prosecuted for his faith which meant Origen was left to support his mother and younger siblings. He followed a Platonic view in which he perceived scripture to be founded upon a threefold nature of humans as body, soul, and spirit. In early Christianity Origen was a leading figure, however, his following the Platonic view of the pre-existence of souls later become a contributing factor to being labelled a heretic. Origen’s devotion to Christ was great, so much so he is believed to have self-castrated to avoid feelings of lust towards women. 

Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296/7/8 – 373CE) was an Egyptian priest who lived by ascetic values. He objected to Arianism, the belief that God existed before Jesus, which caused great tensions amongst other Christians. He attended the council of Niceane and played a prominent role in establishing what would become an orthodox attitude towards the trinity, the belief that God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus were one and always had been. Isaac Newton was highly of Athanasius and suspected he was responsible for forging scriptures to suit his personal beliefs (see: Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?))

Priscillian (c.335-385CE) was a Roman Christian with strong ascetic values. He became bishop of Ávila (Spain) in 380, however was accused of sorcery in 385 and was executed. Priscillian views were influenced by Gnosticism and Manicheans, and his support of Arianism was looked down upon. Jerome was a harsh critic of his followers, the Priscillianists.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430CE) was born in the Roman province of Thagaste, Africa. Prior to fully embracing Christianity, Augustine spent nine years in a cult known as the Manichees which was established by a (charismatic) leader called Mani who preached doctrines that were an amalgamation of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Manichees beliefs included the notion that if a fig-tree was plucked it would cry tears, but if a Manichee ate the fig then the true God’s essence that was bound within it would be free. Augustine mocks himself for believing such foolish things and his writings express a zealous devotion to Christianity once he converted, however, it is worthy to note that Manichaeism theology has strong views about the world being made up of good and evil; themes that were incorporated into mainstream Christianity.

Augustine was particularly influential in refining Christian theology, which is sometimes perceived as being due to adapting Greek thought to Christian teachings. Ironically, in Augustine’s writings titled The Confessions he reports not enjoying learning Greek writing, reading, arithmetic, and the stories of Homer, but he thoroughly embraced learning Latin. Hence, it may be a case that he harmonised Greek thought through the Latin version thereof.

Augustine is classified as Neoplatonic, being more impartial to Platonic thought, as reflected in his theological belief that men and women were created equal in the eyes of god, inclusive of rational soul qualities. Although, Augustine did not completely dismiss Aristotle, and his alliance with Aristotle on some matters was followed by medieval theologians like Aquinas.

Jerome (347 – 419/420) was born in a Roman province, which is now modern day Croatia. He is best known as the translator of the Bible into Latin. Additionally he translated 14 of Origen’s homilies, made pilgrimages through Palestine and Egypt, and he is credited, like Augustine, with transmuting Greek thought to the west.

Pelagius (c.354 – 418CE) was born in the Roman British Isles and died in Palestine. He was educated in Greek and Latin. He was a theologian who advocated free will and asceticism. Pelagius is also reported to have challenged the idea that a man was to be held responsible for Adam’s sin. His beliefs were at odds with his contemporaries, Augustine and Jerome, both of whom criticised Pelagis. Pelagis gained a substantial following, especially in Carthage, however, he was also accused of heresy.


Looking at the above mentioned individuals, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no “pure” or “true” Christian tradition. The cultures, lived experiences, and educational backgrounds of the Church founders were often at odds with each other. Hence, it was through debates and accusations of heresy that characteristics of the Christian faith emerged. Further, Christianity spread via the assimilation of beliefs, rituals, customs, and symbols from various cultures, existing religions, and philosophies.


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Psychoanalysis and Castration

Castration of male genital has long a history in mythology, religious rites, and as a means of controlling slaves. In contrast, Freud believed castration anxiety was an experience all boys went through. Like most psychoanalytic babel, the so-called universal experiences of infantile sexuality have no scientific basis and when the “evidence” to support them, i.e., mythology and ancient rites, is examined, Freud’s interpretations are illogical. In sum, mythological and religious depictions of castration demonstrate that penis’ are a vulnerability that some men are better off without.

Freud’s castration anxiety theories centres around a mental process he called the Oedipus Complex. In the case of men, Freud asserted that all boys experience sexual desire for their mother but this is repressed and displays itself in adulthood as ‘a sense of guilt for which he can discern no foundation’*. Supposedly the sexual desire in boys is so strong that they want to possess their mothers and irrationally fear that if their father were to find out he would take away what they love most, their penis; hence, all young boys develop castration anxiety.

In girls, the Oedipus complex is considered to be a reversal of a boy’s experience. While a boy wants to do away with their father and have their mother to themselves, a girl wants to be rid of their mother so they can have all of their father’s attention. The situation becomes more complex when a girl realises that she does not have a penis like her father, so she therefore becomes envious and resents her mother for her castrated state. Her only hope for reducing the tension brought about by penis envy is to substitute her desire for a penis with a desire for a baby.


Two prominent castration myths stand out and are commonly referred to in psychoanalysis: The Egyptian story of Osiris and the Greek myth of Uranus and Aphrodite’s birth.

The basic outline of the Egyptian story is that a god named Seth was jealous of his brother Osiris being King so he kills him and takes the throne. When the Queen, Isis, finds out her husband is dead she is grieved and sets about finding Osiris’ body. Once located, she begins the process of bringing him back to life, however, she is interrupted. Seth steals Osiris’ body, cuts it up into fourteen pieces, then hurls the pieces throughout Egypt so Isis cannot bring him back to life. Isis transforms into a hawk kite and flies over Egypt collecting all the pieces but she could not find his penis because it was eaten by a fish. Therefore, Isis makes a substitute penis out of gold and uses her magic to become pregnant. Because Osiris is incomplete, he cannot stay alive and he descends to the underworld where he rules over the dead.

In the Greek myth, Uranus (the personification of heaven) is told of an oracle that predicts one of his children will overthrow him. Consequently, whenever his wife, Gaia (the personification of earth) has children he imprisons them. Gaia is not happy. A plan is set and put into action: Gaia’s youngest child, Cronus, castrates Uranus in an opportunistic moment and casts his genitals into the sea. Blood from the severed members become giants and Aphrodite rises out of the water from Uranus’ disembodied parts. Read on a symbolic level, Uranus’ castration gave birth to stupidity (giants are generally depicted as stupid) and the embodiment of beauty and sexual desire (Aphrodite’s characteristics). Alternately, the moral of the story could be interpreted as: “Don’t piss off your wife or she’ll chop your balls off”.

Cultic castration

Some devotees of Osiris cults castrated themselves in reverence for their deity, however, the Cybele cult is probably better known for this practice. The cult of Cybele focused around the Great Mother (Rhea in Greek). Priests of the order were eunuchs and some male followers also castrated themselves. The practice is speculated to be symbolic of a ‘Sacred Marriage’. There are differing accounts of how the festival-based ritual of removing male genitalia was performed. Sometimes the act was performed by the individual and other times it was done with assistance. While being a Roman cult, it has links to Greek mythology in which Cronus was instructed to castrate his father, Uranus (Heaven), by his mother, Gaia (Earth). In some instances Cybele cult clergy only removed their testicles and in others they completely removed all male genitalia.

Early Christianity

The practice of castration as a suitable means of avoiding unlawful sexual intercourse was expressed by many, including Philo of Alexandria (first century Jewish scholar) who said “it is better to make oneself a eunuch than to rage madly for unlawful sexual intercourse”#. Thus, cultural acceptance of castration combined with the following motivational verse from Saint Matthew’s gospel encouraged some early christians to perform the act:

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 19:12 (KJV)

In Christianity castration is mostly associated with religious asceticism. For instance, Origen (c.184 – 253CE) who was born into Christian family in Alexandria was zealously devoted to Christianity and is reported to have self castrated to avoid feelings of lust towards women. Presumably, he wasn’t the only one because when Christian leaders meet in the third century Catholic to discuss and establish standardised codes of conduct (the Council of Nicaea), self castration was one of the hot issues on the agenda. It was decided, moreover, it became cannon law, that self castration was to be prohibited. Prominent figures like Saint Augustine objected to the literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12, albeit, Augustine still popularised the notion that sexual intercourse was connected to sin.

A depiction of Origen’s self-castration
Source: Wikipedia commons

Intermingled with the long history of castration practices is the concept of circumcision, the removal of the foreskin from the penis, which is hypothesised to be a tradition that evolved from expressing religious devotion via castration. Circumcision has been part of Judaism ever since the time of Abraham, who was commanded by God to circumcise all male babies on their eight day as a sign of the covenant between Him and the Jewish people (Genesis 17:10–14). The tradition then extended into Christianity and Islam. The connection between circumcision and castration is complicated by Abrahamic religions supporting circumcision but having no tolerance for castration: ‘No man who has been castrated or whose penis has been cut off may be included among the LORD’s people’ (GNV; Deuteronomy 23:1).

In 530 Emperor Justinian declared orders of celibacy for Christian clergy, however, these were not consistently followed. Priests were not officially forbidden to marry till 1139. Catholic priests today still take vows of celibacy on the grounds of it symbolising a commitment to God, while other Christian denominations (e.g. Lutheran, Protestant, and Anglican) allow priests to marry.

The prohibition of self castration did not eliminate its practice. In Russia, in the eighteenth century, a sect known as “Skoptsy” revived the tradition. The initiation process involved the testis being removed first, or in the case of women, the nipples, then the next stage was complete removal of the phallus or breasts.


In Freudian psychoanalysis, castration anxiety is concerned with so-called instinctual impulses (the id) of an incestual nature, in which a boy must give up his sexual desire for his mother out of fear that an internalised Godly father figure (the superego) will castration him. The wanting to repress sexual desire out of Godly wrath may be viewed as having an alignment with the conscious decision making behind some religious attitudes and practices, (e.g., some Cybele, Osiris and early Christian devotees), however, this is not sufficient evidence to claim all young boys unconsciously experience castration anxiety. If myths, ancient texts, and religious practices are to be used as evidence (as psychoanalysis does) then it could be conjectured that all young boys experience unconscious castration desires because they want to demonstrate devotion to their internalised God figure and be more like their mothers.

In the case of girls, who Freud thought of as castrated beings with a weaker superego, rather than viewing myths as projecting connotations of inferiority, female deities could be viewed as powerful beings who are capable of restoring order when men act foolishly, as can be interpreted in the behaviour of Rhea (Cronus’ wife) and Isis. Subsequently, having a penis can be viewed as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. 

Overall, Freudian theories blur several factors such as mythological representation of castration and historical practices of castration, with young children’s curiosity about their own and other people’s bodies. The combining of these two factors is not conducive to understanding psychology. On one hand an appreciation can be given to the history of castration in mythology and ancient texts that express a broad range of attitudes, beliefs, and associated behaviours that are founded in cultural norms and customs. On the other hand, children, when learning about their bodily functions, require guidance to learn autonomy and social norms. 

After thoughts

From a contemporary perspective, the historical acts of castration as a religious practice may be viewed as having overlaps with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) proponents. However, this consideration can’t be taken too liberally. Actual acts of sexual promiscuity, rape, and other sexual violence that may have occurred within ancient cultures may have been an incentive for castration (religious or other), however, this is challenging to comment on due to the lack of reliable records.

*Quote taken from page 2: Freud, Sigmund, Lecture Twenty-One: development of the libido and sexual organization, https://azkurs.org/from-lecture-twenty-one-development-of-the-libido-and-sexual-o.html (accessed 27 November 2020).

# Quote taken from page 402: Caner DF. The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity. Vigiliae Christianae 1997; 51: 396–415.


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