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September 10, 2011

Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven?

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Matthew attributes a rather strange saying to Jesus of Nazareth. It is the only occurrence of the saying in the entire database of Jesus sayings:

There are castrated men who were born that way, and there are castrated men who were castrated by others, and there are castrated men who castrated themselves because of Heaven’s imperial rule. (Matt 19:12, Scholars Version)

Here is a less interpretive translation of the saying:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 19:12, Revised Standard Version)

Eunuchs are castrated males.

     This saying is included by the Jesus Seminar among those few sayings in the early Christian gospels that most probably originated with Jesus. Out of a total of 100 Fellows casting votes on this saying only 23, with some hesitation, did not regard it as a saying of Jesus.

     In form, the saying is simply an assertion—a bit of information seen through the eyes of the speaker. To put the statement precisely, if somewhat crudely: some men are born without testicles, some have their testicles cut off by others, and some cut off their own testicles for the sake of God’s imperial rule (i.e., the kingdom of God). It is this last phrase that shocks and perplexes, for how could self emasculation have anything to do with the imperial rule of God? Apparently, however, there were men in Jesus day who thought it did and sought to prove their devotion to God’s rule by emasculating themselves. No other information about these “eunuchs for the kingdom” exists.

     It is surprising that Jesus takes no position regarding the practice. He lets the statement hang there in the air and neither commends nor condemns the practice. Auditors, and now readers, are left scratching their heads pondering the statement and wondering what could possibly be the motivation for such an act and how to locate themselves on the landscape of the saying. According to the Jesus Seminar, Matthew also wondered at the statement and adds a cautious phrase: “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (RSV) or “if you are able to accept this (advice), do so.” (SV).

     Because Jesus does not condemn the practice, it remains an open question whether or not “self emasculation for the sake of God’s imperial rule” is a legitimate, if radical, way of demonstrating devotion to God. Because Jesus neither approves nor criticizes the practice, readers are left to make what sense they can of the saying. His apparent irresolution is dangerous since it may encourage self emasculation through a warped sense of piety. It is in fact reported that Origen, a 2nd/3rd century biblical scholar and theologian of the Christian church, actually did castrate himself because of this saying.

     The non-committal character of the saying ignores one of the prime injunctions of the creator to Noah and his sons after the flood: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 9:1)—an emasculated male cannot “be fruitful and multiply.” By withholding judgment on the practice of self emasculation for the kingdom of God and leaving open self emasculation as a legitimate way of realizing God’s rule (cf. Matthew 11:12), Jesus also ignores Scripture (Lev 21:16-21; 22:17-25; Deut 23:1): Animals with crushed testicles are unworthy of being sacrificed; humans with crushed testicles may not offer sacrifices, and Israelite males with crushed testicles cannot “present themselves before the Lord.” Hence eunuchs in ancient Israel were blemished and were thought to profane the sanctuary of the Lord.

     Commentaries on Matthew usually understand the saying in its literary context in Matthew, where Matthew incorporates the traditional saying into a discussion of marriage. In such a context the last phrase (“made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom”) is understood as voluntarily renouncing marriage for the sake of the imperial rule of God—and hence such men are “spiritual eunuchs.” The difficulty with such a reading is that the literary context is Matthew’s and not the earlier social context in which Jesus made the statement.

     The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar did not think that Jesus was endorsing an ascetic lifestyle with this statement, since “his behavior suggests that he celebrated life by eating, drinking, and fraternizing freely with both women and men” (Five Gospels, 221). In other words they seemed to think that such a non-committal matter-of-fact statement was out of character for Jesus. Some Fellows thought it possible that Jesus was “undermining the depreciation of yet another marginal group” (Five Gospels, 220). In other words Jesus was taking up the plight of the eunuch who was marginalized from polite society, and this statement was a way of calling attention to his plight.

     The problem in the saying itself, however, lies in the way he takes up their plight—if indeed he does so in this saying. He simply did not have to leave the impression that a positive relationship existed between self emasculation and the imperial rule of God. Modern readers are therefore left pondering a serious question—the suggestion that a positive relationship may exist between self emasculation and God’s imperial rule.

     An interesting passage in Isaiah, however, may suggest a social context for the practice. This passage does indicate a positive connection between castrated men and God’s approval:

For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name, which shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5)

     In short, God promises to honor the eunuch who is faithful to his will.

     It is completely unreasonable to think that self emasculation has anything to do with encouraging God’s imperial reign, but it is easy to see why some misguided souls might think so. If God promises a special blessing for eunuchs (“an everlasting name”) because of their status and faithfulness, it is a short leap to thinking of self emasculation as a legitimate way to bring in God’s imperial rule.

     As is the case with most of his sayings, Jesus unfortunately leaves it up to individuals as to how such a concept can be incorporated into their understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It is always possible, of course, that the concept is simply antique superstition. I wonder how do you, gentle reader, incorporate this saying of Jesus into your understanding “following Jesus”?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 11:36am

Hi Charlie:

Assuming the castration saying actually came from Jesus (and not Matthew himself or even, for example, a group of eunuch followers of Jesus), I think it's important to remember that we rarely agree with everything any one particular person says. Also, since other cultural practices that differ from ours (e.g., slavery and treating women as property) existed at the time and Jesus apparently did not have much to say about them, it may not be unfair to conclude that he had a different view of things than we do today.

Posted by Lee Penya on 10/6/2011 at 10:16am

It has been suggested that the self-castration saying, which is no more extreme than self-blinding (Mt 5:9-10), was spoken in the context of Jesus' expectation of an imminent apocalypse. Mothers and pregnant women were also warned against the extremities that would be suffered at the end (Mk 13:17). Alternatively, the saying has been proposed as a riposte as Meier (A Marginal Jew, I, 344) suggests: "the logion echoes slurs and jibes aimed at the celibate he hobnobbed with the religious low life of Palestine" who had abandoned wives and children to follow him (Lk 14:26). The absence of such 'mutilation sayings' from John may reflect a church that had moved on from the failed apocalyptic predictions toward a more 'gnostic' Jesus. On the other hand, it is not impossible that it reflects tangentially on Jesus' (perceived?) sexuality.

Posted by Robert Conner on 9/19/2011 at 12:43am

Hey, Dr. Hedrick,

Interesting take Matthew 19:12. A part of me still takes "eununchs" in a symbolic meaning for those who decide to give up marriage. Granted it is true that, that was not exactly a proper way of thinking in much of the Jewish culture, but at the same time it is also true that Jesus' ministry challenged what was the "established quo" of the Jewish culture, so I can't totally rule out that interpretation.

Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 9/12/2011 at 1:59pm

Hi Cody,

How are your classes at OTC moving along? You may be correct that “eunuch” is a symbolic code word for a man that has “renounced marriage.” But how do you know? We simply have nothing else in the data base of Jesus sayings that would lead you to that conclusion—at least from my perspective. But of course you have Matthew on your side. That is the way Matthew read the saying. So my question for you is: what makes you think “eunuch” is symbolical?

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 10/5/2011 at 5:42am

Hi Charlie,

Jesus' dialog in Matt. Ch. 19 has always interested me. I've wondered if Jesus may have used eunuch as a "code word" for gay; and the message may also imply that we have gay people among us and we are to accept that (and consider them as neighbors as in his story of the good Samaritan.). I am not aware of Jesus talking about homosexuality anywhere; but Paul sure does. I would like to hear your comments on these issues.

I really enjoy and look forward to your articles and replies on your blog, and really have wanted to stick my "two cents (before taxes) in."

Regards, Jack
Posted by Jack Kaiser on 9/11/2011 at 4:50pm

Hi Jack,

I am now back from wandering around the globe. As I turned my mind to your question I discover that I published a piece on homosexuality and the bible in the Springfield News-Leader and on the blog in 2009. Go back in the archive noted on the blog and you will find it. I have nothing at this point to add to what I wrote there. (There are several worthwhile comments to the blog that are also very much worth reading—one by Roger Ray.) I do take up the passage on Eunuchs in that connection, as well. In a specific response to your question. I did not think then nor do I think now that the statement on Eunuchs had anything to do with homosexuality. For me the reason is simple: the statement of Jesus in Matthew is very much “male specific.” There are of course female homosexuals, and if the statement is a “metaphor” for homosexuality then Jesus has completely forgotten to address female homosexuality. It seems far better to take the statement at face value as a statement about eunuchs, who were quite prevalent in antiquity.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 10/6/2011 at 4:13pm