Eunuchs for the Kingdom?

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Eunuchs for the Kingdom?

Dr Robert Myles | Senior Lecturer in New Testament at Wollaston Theological College & the University of Divinity

“For 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. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Matthew 19:12

I think Matthew was being literal when he portrayed Jesus as praising those who become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. I am not alone in this view. Eusebius, the first church historian, claimed the famous scholar Origen of Alexandria castrated himself after reading this verse to prove his devotion to God (Hist. 6.8). In the second century, Justin Martyr also revealed some Christians had sought permission to be made literal eunuchs (1 Apol. 29).

The conventional view is that the saying is figurative: a metaphorical option for remaining celibate to serve God without the supposed distractions of marriage. Some early Christian writers were concerned to interpret the saying in a way that supported chastity, but prevented that commitment from going too far. While this is (perhaps?) more appealing for men (and the text applies only to men) who wish not to physically part with their reproductive organs, it is not actually what the text says. If the author wanted to refer to celibates or those practicing chastity in singleness there was a perfectly suitable Greek word to do so (parthenos). Paul uses this word in 1 Cor 7:25-38 to make this kind of claim, but it is not what is going on here. In antiquity, eunuch meant eunuch, and to be made a eunuch, or to make oneself a eunuch, entailed castration.

No wonder this verse has perplexed commentators. Some think that Matt 19:12 is best interpreted as part of the conclusion to the dialogue over divorce in 19:3-11. However, other commentators caution rushing to this conclusion. 19:12 does not fit well with 19:3-9, and it is Matthew’s redaction which combined these two sayings.

Whatever the case, to properly understand this text, we need to situate it within its first-century context. Historians have long observed the Roman world was obsessed with masculinity and gender. No matter where one lived in the empire, the protocols of masculinity were displayed (think Roman statues) and portrayed (think gladiatorial battles) in ways that were intended to evoke admiration and honour. True manliness was associated with power and greatness. To be servile or defeated was regarded as effeminate and unmanly.

No surprise then, this world was also heavily patriarchal. It assumed a hierarchy of gender with powerful men at its apex, and others, including women and slaves, ranked well below. Eunuchs were understood ambiguously in this world. Although often serving important religious and royal duties, they were sometimes construed as “womanly,” “half-men,” or “effeminate,” and ridiculed accordingly.

What, then, would it mean for followers of Jesus to become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom”? These men were so devoted to the ideals of the kingdom, in which the first would be last and the last would be first, that they literally underwent castration.

They were men who, according to the cultural assumptions of their day, had emasculated themselves in the most graphic and demonstrative way imaginable.

By doing so, they were attempting to reverse, or at least confuse, male patterns of dominance in antiquity. This is not to suggest that these especially devoted followers of Jesus intended to radically shatter all gendered expectations. While promising an enticing vision of a world turned on its head, the kingdom of heaven would come with its own inherited hierarchies and dynamics. But verses like Matt 19:12 do nonetheless negotiate this vision through existing social concepts and their contradictions, such as with ambiguous figures like eunuchs. Real men, the toughest of men, chopped them off.

Despite my thoughts about the literalness of Matt 19:12, I take comfort in the final sentence which clarifies it applies only to those who can accept it. And while a literal reading certainly gives the saying extra punch, perhaps we can invite the best of both worlds by reviving something of its original meaning in a more figurative way: as a metaphorical orchiectomy, so to speak, in which men refuse to participate in the hyper-masculine cultures that surround them. What would the world or the church look like if, by becoming castrati for Christ, we who identify as men modelled more servile expressions of masculinity? Apparently, this suggestion is controversial. But that’s kind of the point. Jesus’ praise for eunuchs was provocative to its original hearers, just as it should be today.

Published in Messenger May 2022

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