While the definitions we have that are closest at hand are stereotypes and mainstream understandings, we can often learn more by beginning our analysis at the margins. I could start by making sweeping statements about the meaning of masculinity or femininity. Perhaps I could begin from an overly personal perspective, but then I find myself mired in the quagmire of biography. Instead, I am going to offer a theological and historical look at Eunuchs. This was adapted from a sermon I delivered in June.
Who and what are eunuchs?
To begin understanding we have to transport ourselves across centuries and continents to another culture. We must place ourselves in the ancient empires of Egypt, Persia, Babylon, and Rome. Eunuchs served powerful men there. Though slaves, eunuchs frequently rose to positions of political power.
Sometimes eunuchs served a religious function such as in the worship of Cybele. To understand what Jesus meant when he used the term eunuchs, I read a number of articles. In particular I found “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus” by David Hester of the University of Tubingen enlightening. Hester lets us know that Jesus’ listeners would have been quite familiar with the first two categories of eunuchs that Jesus named: those who were born eunuchs and those who were made into eunuchs by others. The people who were made into eunuchs included both prepubescent boys and grown men.
The impact of eunuchs on Greek and Roman culture is evident in their language. Hester points out that the Greeks had seven names for eunuchs depending on the procedure used to castrate them. The Romans had at least 20 terms for castration.1
Eunuchs and Christianity
So was Jesus really talking about eunuchs in Matthew 19? There are a number of ways that you can and people have interpreted Jesus’ teaching over the years. Perhaps being a eunuch could mean committing oneself to chastity and even celibacy. This was a popular interpretation beginning sometime between the second and fourth centuries. This interpretation is problematic because it reinforces having an elite class of men and church control over sexuality.
Another allegorical explanation could be that Jesus meant people who do not have children when he said eunuch. This interpretation offers us some good news and fits well with Isaiah’s vision of eunuchs reconnected with God and the people of God. Jesus could be lifting up eunuchs for their undivided loyalty. Jesus does make a big deal out of having stronger loyalty to him and each other than to members of your biological family. This offers a challenge to the Church of the Brethren where we too easily collapse brothers and sisters in Christ to blood cousins with a shared Church of the Brethren ancestry. None of these three allegorical explanations on their own really explain why Jesus talked about eunuchs. We need to look deeper. Jesus is not just talking about people who cannot have children, and neither does Isaiah. They’re talking about eunuchs
The Tanakh on Eunuchs
Eunuchs were excluded from the priesthood by Leviticus 21:20. Eunuchs were excluded from the assembly of the LORD by Deuteronomy 23:1. Notice how quickly Isaiah 56 switches from talking about foreigners to eunuchs to foreigners. Eunuchs were not just a lowly class from within Jewish society. Making eunuchs was a foreign practice. There were Jews made into eunuchs by foreign empires, but typically eunuchs came from foreign nations.
The image of eunuchs in the Old Testament is not a positive one. They are an easy example of people not able to accomplish things.2 They fit in lists of broken, damaged people and they are connected with occupying powers. Isaiah’s call for the inclusion of eunuchs seems to be the only voice in favor of acceptance in the Old Testament. Isaiah’s call is grandiose, though. Isaiah foretells a time when God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Isaiah’s vision seems to be a far off future, but perhaps its fulfillment is at hand.
Moreover, eunuchs were despised by Romans and Greeks. Eunuchs were so frequently seen as evil that saying evil eunuch was as redundant as saying wicked witch is to many today.3 This is despite eunuchs being close to politically powerful men and even serving as priests for some of the gods. Eunuchs were held in contempt for crossing barriers between the sexes in their social interactions and their bodies. Even though eunuchs were born male, they were raised in the private courts of women rather than the public places of men.4
Eunuchs served as intermediaries, go-betweens. By accompanying women, eunuchs could enable them to enter men’s spaces. Eunuchs could also carry messages from private places reserved for women to public places reserved for men.5 This meant socially they did not behave as men nor women.
Eunuchs also underwent a physical transformation. In fact, medical theory from Aristotle to Galen saw the creation of a eunuch as the transformation from man to woman.6 Eunuchs lost the maleness that was seen as the embodiment of virtue.7 Eunuchs were derided as soft, effeminate, sexually passive, immodest, weak, impotent, deceitful, cowardly and incapable of virtue.8 These accusations are awfully familiar to 21st Century ears. People accuse gay men of these things. Beyond that, all men get these things thrown at them as insults.
Insights from a Transsexual Woman Scholar
In her book, Whipping Girl: a Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity Julia Serano offers a trenchant critique of our society’s approach to gender. There is a culture, especially among men in the US of what Julia Serano calls effemimania.9 People seek out any effeminacy in men and boys. Sometimes effeminacy is seen as curious or peculiar rather than outright bad, but males exhibiting feminine traits are seen as fascinating far more than females exhibiting masculine traits.
People push back against any glimmer of the feminine in men and boys with informal, even unconscious gender policing. Males that have feminine evident in them are called sissies and other names to shame them into traditionally masculine ways of being. Julia Serano also points to what she calls trans-misogyny, a special sort of hatred in our culture reserved for trans women (those who were assigned the gender of male at birth, but become aware of their subconscious female sex). Part of this comes from oppositional sexism, a sort of sexism that is rooted in the belief that male and female are two rigid, mutually exclusive “opposite sexes.” When oppositional sexism combines with traditional sexism there is a demonic mix that creates the hatred that is trans-misogyny.
Trans women are ridiculed and derided. Attacks against trans women seem to offer a more culturally acceptable way of attacking femininity. And trans women know, as all who face ridicule, slander, and derision do, that verbal attacks are not guaranteed to remain verbal.
Eunuchs and Sexuality
We have already seen that eunuchs in ancient Rome faced a lot of the same slander and derision that gays and trans people face today. There is another commonality that you might not expect, though. It’s easy for us to assume that eunuchs were celibate. The notion of celibate eunuchs fits perfectly for our first allegorical interpretation of Jesus’ statement about eunuchs. The problem this time is not only that eunuchs were not always celibate, but they were publicly criticized for their sexuality.
According to David Hester, eunuchs were “both passive receivers of male sexual activity, and active performers of giving pleasure.”10 Eunuchs had a reputation for sexual promiscuity that included bringing sexual pleasure to women too.11 It was the eunuchs and not the people they had sex with that were derided. The repeated condemnation of eunuchs as overly sexual and having a problematic sexuality mirrors all too well the slander against gays lesbians, and trans people and the sexualization of these same groups by our culture today.
Jesus and 3 Types of Eunuchs
Jesus tells us, “there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” What is he talking about? This does not sound as simple as Isaiah’s vision of welcome and restoration for foreigners and eunuchs. Jesus is not just welcoming eunuchs, but raising up this despised and persecuted group as an example of good. This goes hand in hand with “Blessed are the persecuted” and blessed are those who have evil things spoken against them. Finally, we’re finding the good news of this message. When Jesus brought up eunuchs, he was not merely talking about stronger self-control nor greater loyalty. There were far less inflammatory ways of doing that.
The radicalness of Jesus’ teaching on eunuchs is made even more obvious by the warnings that Matthew places both before and after it. Presumably the first warning refers back to Jesus’ teaching about divorce. Still, the teaching about eunuchs seems to be surrounded by signs saying caution, danger. Surely this was not in reaction to embracing the childless! The eunuchs that seem to get the most attention is the third group that Jesus introduces for the first time. They are validated. They have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” What made this so worrying?
One key answer that we have been missing so far seems to come from the first few centuries of the church. So far we missed the most obvious interpretation. In the early church, thousands of men took what you might call a plain, literal reading of Jesus’ teaching. They castrated themselves. This teaching was considered authoritative and unassailable. Why it was from Jesus!
Well-known Christians became castrated for this reason including Valentinus, Leontios of Antiochia who was a Bishop of Jerusalem, Hilarion, and Origen despite his arguments against this interpretation. Many of these men were later declared heretical, but their existence is undeniable. They are but the most famous among thousands that chose ritual castration.
There were also several early Christian “self-controlled” or ascetic movements, centered mainly in Egypt, that are known to have members that included eunuchs.12 Ritual castration was seen as sufficiently important and widespread of an issue to be brought up at the Council of Nicaea. The Council of Nicaea enacted a canon criminalizing ritual castration. The existence of this canon shows that ritual castration in the church was widespread enough to be legislated upon.
Was Jesus really calling on men to castrate themselves? Even if Jesus did not mean for men to literally become eunuchs, why was Jesus suggesting we become part of such a despised group? It seems unlikely that Jesus was calling for us to become outcast and despised for the purpose of being despised and outcast. This alone is not good news.
There is another piece to the puzzle. Jesus’ disciples seem awfully upset about Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Maybe what Jesus said in that teaching was not about or not merely about banning divorce. Maybe that’s not why it was such a hard teaching. Rick Talbott, in his article “Imagining the Matthean Eunuch Community: Kyriarchy on the Chopping Block,” notes that the disciples are literally complaining that they will no longer gain an advantage through marriage.13 This meaning is lost in many translations. Talbott says that Jesus’ response to this protest was the teaching on eunuchs.
Jesus was neither creating a new honored class of celibate men nor agreeing with his disciples that marriage should be abandoned because it eviscerates male privilege.14 Jesus was offering a vision of a world where men lost their elevated status over women. Jesus held up the ideal of equality as what the Creator had in mind from the beginning.
Eunuchs in the Ancient Near East lost their status as “superior” to women. Eunuchs disturbingly broke down barriers between men and women. People becoming eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven today would mean no more sisters on one side and brothers on the other. The distinction between men’s and women’s spaces dissolves. The early baptismal formula from Galatians 3:28 becomes shockingly real: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Could there be no distinction between men and women in this life?
Looking at the World Through Gendering Glasses
According to Julia Serano, people want to believe that the act of distinguishing between men and women is a passive task on our part.15 We want to believe that we’re just recognizing what’s already there: two mutually exclusive, natural states. But, Serano says, distinguishing between men and women is an active process. Serano calls this process gendering. We gender people despite little evidence, regardless of how hard it is to see them or how far away they are. We apply our assumptions to them. We all do it and it’s quite hard to stop. Don’t believe me? Try going a day without deciding whether people you see are male or female. This gendering process is a basic part of how we interact.
The problem comes when we place our rules and expectations upon people. We don’t let them operate out of their own self-understanding. We push them into one of two categories and judge them based on how well they fit. Worse still, as a society we see men and women as “opposite” sexes. We miss that individuals exist along a continuum.
Male and female are general categories associated with general tendencies toward the masculine and feminine. We exaggerate those differences in our definitions of men and women. If men and women really were as opposite as our culture says, then we would not spend so much time punishing people who break these rules. We would not focus on chastising people who don’t fit.
Fear of the Feminine
Like the people of the Ancient Near East, we are particularly afraid of the feminine. Like them we are most upset when we see the feminine in males. Still, Jesus offers us a vision of a world beyond these separations. By grace we grow and heal. God calls us to live lives dedicated to service. God offers us acceptance whether we have children or not. Jesus calls us to a loyalty beyond the ties of blood and a new community. Jesus calls us to let the feminine in and embrace the feminine in others.
We can live now in the Kingdom of Heaven by breaking down the barriers between men and women. Embrace a rainbow of people from feminine men and masculine women to feminine women and masculine men. Accept transgender and transsexual people. Embrace those of minority sexualities like the eunuchs of old and LGBT people today. Embrace a kingdom vision of unity and equality for native-born and foreign-born, for men and women and all those in between, for straight and gay and lesbian and bisexual and queer. Reject privilege and choose justice.
- When have you felt outcast or despised?
- Do you feel pressure for not having the “ideal” family?
- When have you glimpsed moments of the Kingdom of Heaven breaking through?
Hester , J. David. “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19:12 and Transgressive Sexualities .” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 28 no 1 S 2005, p 10
“Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus”, p 11-12
Talbott, Rick. “Imagining the Matthean Eunuch Community: Kyriarchy on the Chopping Block,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 22 no 1 Spr 2006, p 39