Origen on Soul Kidneys (Pt. 2)

The second part in a series I originally posted in 2017.

Origen continues his discussion on the education of Jesus’ soul. He here explains how the kidneys mentioned in the passage refer not to bodily kidneys, but are an analogy for a part or faculty of the soul. “Soul kidneys” have ideas and concepts in potential or seed form, and these then rise to the “heart of the soul” where they are actualized.

Origen also has us consider at length Christ’s soul, both before and after the incarnation. He seems to think that Christ’s soul was instructed through its union with the divine Logos, and that it has arrived on earth with certain “instructing principles” or something of the sort within it. During the incarnation the “instructing principles” are activated (in Origen’s language, “rise to the heart of the soul”) and guide the human Jesus. This is how he was able to live completely sinlessly.

(I’ve made a few suggestions to the transmitted text, which I discuss below.)

English Translation

(3) This saying i.e. “I will praise the Lord who instructed me” and the saying that follow are spoken in the character of Jesus. We need God’s grace to explain this next one, which says, “Even in the night my kidneys taught me.” It is not easy to explain how Christ’s kidneys taught him. Let us even grant that his kidneys taught him— Why was this “in the night”? For it is not just that his kidneys taught him, but “his kidneys taught him in the night”. I do not know of places outside the scriptures where the kidneys are treated as having something to do with matters of understanding or aptitude like they are in the scriptures.1 For in the scriptures, when God searches the hidden things he searches hearts and kidneys (e.g. Ps. 7:10, 25:2, etc.). Perhaps he searches the kidneys when he searches and scrutinizes those things that are already present like seeds within the soul and have not yet risen up to the heart.

These kidneys then are not bodily ones, but invoked in a manner analogous to the heart. (After all, when the heart is said to be pure and the one who is pure in heart is said the be blessed, we must not perceive what is blessed as something in the body, which we see even in animals.) I am saying therefore that these kidneys, in a manner analogus to “purity of heart”, possess the roots and beginnings of thoughts and that these teach Jesus’ soul. The one who says, “you will not forsake my soul to Hades” came to earth with these roots and beginnings of thoughts. It is as if I were to say analogously about the human soul that in its’ kidneys it has thoughts and the seeds of ideas in potential before they rise to the heart. These are either for worse— for whoever sins has done evil from that point— or they are for better, since the good also seems to have come about somehow from that point in the past.

So then, if you understand what I have entrusted to you about the kidneys, look closely at the soul of Jesus as it descends from heaven. “For no one has ascended to heaven except he who has descended from heaven.” This is not the son of god, not the first born of all creation, but the son of man. After you have looked at that soul, which did not consider equality with God something to exploit, but emptied itself and took on the form of a servant, contemplate also with me this soul.2 Look at how it stores up within itself teachings and concepts, and puts them not in the heart, but in the kidneys so, that they can ascend from the kidneys to the heart. Look for me at how the soul of Jesus comes possessing corrective and instructive principles, not in his bodily kidneys, but in those of his soul. Because these principles came along with that soul, he knew no sin, nor committed sin, nor even spoke sinfully as a man.

Greek Text

(3) Τούτου δέ ἐστι φωνὴ καὶ ἡ ἑξῆς, δεομένη τῆς ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ χάριτος εἰς σαφήνειαν, ἡ λέγουσα· ἔτι δὲ καὶ ἕως νυκτὸς επαίδευσάν με οἱ νεφροί μου. Νεφροὶ Χριστοῦ πῶς παιδεύουσιν αὐτόν, οὐκ εὐχερὲς διηγήσασθαι. Καὶ ἔστω ὅτι οἱ νεφροὶ αὐτοῦ παιδεύουσιν αὐτόν· τί καὶ ἕως νυκτός; Οὐ γὰρ ἁπλῶς παιδεύουσιν αὐτὸν οἱ νεφροὶ αὐτοῦ, ἀλλὰ “ἕως νυκτὸς παιδεύουσιν αὐτὸν οἱ νεφροὶ αὐτοῦ”. Οὐκ οἶδα δὴ τοὺς νεφροὺς παραλαμβανομένους τοῖς ἔξω τοῦ λόγου εἰς τὰ περὶ συνέσεως ἢ ἐντρεχείας πράγματα ὡς ἐν τῇ γραφῇ· ἐν γὰρ τῇ γραφῇ ὁ θεὸς ἐτάζων τὰ κρυπτά, ἐτάζει καρδίας καὶ νεφρούς. Καὶ τάχα τοὺς νεφροὺς ἐτάζει, ὅτε τὰ ἔτι ἐναποκείμενα σπερματικῶς τῇ ψυχῇ καὶ οὐδὲ προαναβεβηκότα ἐπὶ τὴν καρδίαν ἐρευνᾷ καὶ ἐξετάζει.

Οὗτοι δὴ οἱ νεφροί, οὐχ οἱ σωματικοί, οἱ ἀναλόγως ὀνομαζόμενοι καρδίᾳ (οὐδὲ γὰρ ὅτε καρδία λέγεται καθαρὰ καὶ μακάριος ὁ καθαρὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ, σώματι δεῖ νοῆσαι τὸ μακαριζόμενον, ὃ καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἀλόγοις ζῴοις βλέπομεν), οὗτοι οὖν οἱ νεφροί φημι, οἱ ἀναλόγους τῇ καθαρότητι τῆς καρδίας ἔχοντες τὰς ῥίζας καὶ τὰς ἀρχὰς τῶν νοημάτων, μεθ’ ὧν ἐπιδεδήμηκεν ὁ λέγων οὐκ ἐγκαταλείψεις τὴν ψυχήν μου εἰς τὸν ᾅδην, παιδεύουσι τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ Ἰησοῦ. Ὡς εἰ ἔλεγον καὶ περὶ ἀνθρωπίνης ψυχῆς τὸ ἀνάλογον, ἐχούσης ἐν τοῖς νεφροῖς τὰ πρὸ τοῦ ἀνατεῖλαι ἐπὶ τὴν καρδίαν νοήματα καὶ διαλογισμῶν σπέρματα, ἔνδον προόντα δυνάμει, εἴτε τὰ χείρονα— ὃς γὰρ ἥμαρτεν, ἐποίησεν τὸ πονηρὸν ἀπὸ τότε—, εἴτε τὰ βελτίονα, ἐπεὶ καὶ τὸ ἀγαθὸν ἔοικεν ἀπὸ τότε γεγονέναι τισίν.

Εἰ οὖν νοεῖς τὰ παρειλημμένα μοι περὶ τῶν νεφρῶν, ὅρα τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ Ἰησοῦ καταβαίνουσαν ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ· οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν, εἰ μὴ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς· οὐχ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, οὐχ ὁ πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, ἀλλ’ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. Καὶ ἰδών μοι ἐκείνην τὴν ψυχήν, ἥτις οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, ἀλλ’ ἑαυτὴν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβοῦσα, νοῶν μοι ταύτην τὴν ψυχήν, ὅρα αὐτὴν ἐναποθησαυρίζουσαν δόγματα καὶ νοήματα, καὶ ἐναποτιθεῖσαν οὐ τῇ καρδίᾳ ἀλλὰ τοῖς νεφροῖς, ἵνα ἀπὸ τῶν νεφρῶν ἀναβῇ ἐπὶ τὴν καρδίαν· ὅρα μοι τὴν ψυχὴν Ἰησοῦ ἐρχομένην, ἐπὶ τῶν οὐ σωματικῶν <ἀλλὰ ψυχικῶν> νεφρῶν ἔχουσαν τὰ παιδεύοντα καὶ τὰ ἐπιστρέφοντα, δι’ ἃ συνεπιδημήσαντα ἐκείνῃ τῇ ψυχῇ οὐκ ἔγνω ἁμαρτίαν καὶ οὐχ ἥμαρτεν καὶ οὐκ ἐλάλησεν ἁμαρτίαν ἄνθρωπος ὤν.

Text Critical Issues

The edition and ms carry:

ὅρα μοι τὴν ψυχὴν Ἰησοῦ ἐρχομένην, ἐπὶ τῶν οὐ σωματικῶν νεφρῶν ἔχουσαν τὰ παιδεύοντα καὶ τὰ ἐπιστρέφοντα

This would translate to something like, “Look for me at the soul of Jesus coming with principles not in the bodily kidneys that teach and direct.”

I’d suggest inserting ἀλλὰ ψυχικῶν after σωματικῶν so that we have:

ὅρα μοι τὴν ψυχὴν Ἰησοῦ ἐρχομένην, ἐπὶ τῶν οὐ σωματικῶν <ἀλλὰ ψυχικῶν> νεφρῶν ἔχουσαν τὰ παιδεύοντα καὶ τὰ ἐπιστρέφοντα

The two words in question would have fallen out by homoeoteleuton. The addition better brings out the distinction between the two kinds of kidneys.

  1. In Plato’s Timaeus, the lowest part of the soul, the “desiring” (τὸ ἐπιθυμητικόν) part is placed between the navel and the kidneys, around or in the liver. Yet what Origen describes here does not seem to correspond perfectly to this portion of the soul as described in Platonic philosophy. That faculty is responsible for desires for food and sex, and has little positive role vis-à-vis the higher faculties. Indeed, the job of the rest of the soul (i.e. the “spirited” part and the “rational” part) is to keep it in check.
  2. The language is rather confusing. Origen apparently means by “that soul” (ἐκείνην ψύχην) Jesus’ soul as depicted in Phil 2:6ff. and Eph. 4:10. By “this soul” he means Jesus’ soul as depicted in passage here in Ps. 15. So he is not actually referring to two souls, though that’s certainly the most natural reading of the Greek.

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